Sunday 30 December 2018

Angouleme bound January 24th-28th

I'll be in Angouleme, France, Jan 24th to 28th for the comics convention, promoting the French translation of my graphic novel, Nil. If you happen to be in south central France, drop by and say high.

It's a beautiful edition.

Saturday 29 December 2018

Farewell 2018; you won't be missed

This has been one unpleasant year.

For the last ten years, I've always had a creative project on the go, something to feed the soul.

Not this year.

I had a sequel planned for Theo Paxstone, and I wrote an outline for it. That took several months to work out all the details, all the characters and arcs and subplots. It was epic!

But it got very divisive feedback from my readers, which derailed everything.

Why? I felt ambivalent about the outline to begin with, and the dose of negativity and alternate suggestions (including many valid ones) sent me back into The Possibility Zone. The story could go in a thousand different directions.

Usually it takes time for me to settle on one.

After all, the possibilities are all so intriguing, so interesting. Many of them could be fabulous. Look at how prominent franchises explore alternate, mutually incompatible storylines. Writers want to play with possibility and not be restricted by what others have written before. Movie franchises will ignore certain installments, just as comics do.

Once I settle on something, however, it's full speed ahead. Everything clicks into place, like into slots, and is then hard to dislodge. But if there's no grip, if my gut isn't settled, I slide around on memetic ice, trying to find elusive traction.

So I love when I finally feel certain.

Possibility is wonderful, especially in the initial exploration stage, but you can also be paralyzed by choice.

After the Theo Paxstone II outline got blown to possibilities, I decided to shelve it and let my subconscious digest it for a time. Instead, I focused on a steampunk art show, which sucked up far more of my time than I'd originally intended.

I tried to start another book, a screenplay, and then a graphic novel.

All derailed.

So frustrating.

I got slammed in my day job with more work and responsibility, along with blatantly unnecessarily batshit insane deadlines that I am still furious about.

It's a conundrum: day jobs want to suck the life out of you, but you need them to live. They want you thinking about work 24/7 and to never leave. In exchange, you get a life-giving salary; but what is the reason for living, then?

First world problems, I know.

There is so much I should be grateful for.

I am struggling now to find some small avenue for creativity, a tiny piece of intellectual real estate that I can still call my own.

I have a new graphic novel idea. I have the outline, the story, but not the particulars. I'm exploring visual possibilities, the look of it; I know what I want, but I'm not sure I can get there.

The key thing will be to make sure it fits within the time and energy constraints I am now under.

I am very much hoping for a better 2019.

Demons of El Dorado: Part 8


Booming waves drowned out the shouts of men. Luis was wedged between two soldiers, and rowed like mad against powerful cross currents that threatened to dash them into rocks. All pretense of status and rank had been cast aside in the struggle for survival. 

The fleet surged upward atop a bulging swell and began to shift sideways. 

The stern was partly obscured by mist and slashing water, but Luis could still make out Rodrigo and Angel, who held on to the rudder for all they were worth, their teeth grit, faces showing the strain of a three hour long ordeal. 

Luis struggled not to vomit. 

He wasn’t successful.


Luis blinked. Mud brown water. Lush green foliage filled with lurking fauna. 

The armed flotilla glided silently up river in glorious sunlight, carried forward by strong winds. Soldiers had removed their coarse shirts and slumped in their seats, exhausted. 

In this heat, there was little else one could do. 

Over the past few days they had passed rowed through milky white waters, as if doused in flour, fought dangerous currents, sudden storm squalls, and twice met curious Indians, who had come out to the flotilla in canoes bearing gifts of fruit and cassava bread. Luis had been impressed by their generosity, but his father had insisted on paying them. That was no surprise, and Luis knew why: Rodrigo believed that gifts made slaves. Yet the Indians had refused the offered trinkets, wanting nothing in return, which frustrated Rodrigo and made him suspicious. He would not eat the food until Bartome had, and only then the next day. In the evenings dense mist had engulfted them, followed by thunder and lightning and then a great downpour. 

Now there was not a cloud in the sky, just brilliant sun and punishing heat. Luis’ shirt was drenched in sweat and clung to his body. He noticed that even his father had unbuttoned his tunic.

But there were sights to be enjoyed: pink river dolphins leapt playfully alongside the ship, teasing Spanish soldiers who reached out and tried to touch them for good luck. One swept by Luis so close he leaned out and brushed the back of one with an open palm. It felt cold and smooth and wet, like ceramic.

Ahead the river widened. Luis could see flocks of flamingos, the colour of fresh meat, balanced atop shallow sandbars, preening. 

Angel grunted. “This heat. My God. It’s such shit.” 

Rodrigo, beside him, mopped sweat from his brow, and turned to the First Captain. “Take us closer to the shore, in the shade of the trees. Out of the sun.”

After reading the diary, Luis was loathe to go anywhere near the jungle, however inevitable that would ultimately be. “Father, do you think…”

Rodrigo shot him a condescending look, and Luis fell silent.

Orders were given, and the men set back to their oars. The ships veered closer to the greenery. It looked knotted and impassable, but as they came under its shadow, Luis felt a wave of relief. It would have been wonderful if not for the swarming mosquitoes.

An hour later, the river bifurcated. Currents swirled and intertwined, mud into blue-green. 
Rodrigo ordered Abuljar brought forward. Bartome and two monks awkwardly guided the man to the prow.

The monks were named Cristobel and Diego. Diego appeared ill: pasty skin, red eyed, feverish. Rodrigo did not seem to notice; his attention was focused on Abuljar. “Time for our friend here to earn his keep, eh?” He slipped fingers beneath Abuljar’s jaw, and turned his face up. “Do you remember this river fork?” He waited impatiently for an answer. “Well? Which way? To El Dorado.”

Abuljar shivered and turned away, eyes darting this way and that, like a trapped animal. Bartome noticed the man’s distress. “Take your time, Abuljar. Have no fear. You are safe.” He patted the man on the arm. His voice was soothing.

Abuljar looked left with a blank expression, then right, and cringed. “No!” he whimpered. “I will not go back.”

The monks held him fast.

Angel seemed to enjoy the man’s discomfort. “Ha! He does not seem to like that way.”

It was enough to convince Rodrigo. “That way it is.” He smiled down at Abuljar. “There. You see? Not so hard after all.”

Abuljar continued to whimper and squirm.

“Don’t you worry,” said Rodrigo. “They’ll regret what they did to you. We’ll teach them a lesson they’ll not soon forget.”


THIP! Diego stiffened and slapped a hand on his neck, as if he’d been bitten by an insect. He gasps in pain and lowers his hand, but there are no insect guts smeared on it. 

Luis leaned in close. “Brother. What is–”

Sunlight glinted off something sticking out of his skin. It was a small sliver of wood, the section closest to the skin coated in a thin film of gleaming reddish goop.

It took a moment for Luis to process the implication. “Darts; poison darts!”

The befuddled Monk touched it with a finger, then collapsed.

All at once the air was filled with whistling death. Darts peppered the Brigantine like wooden rain drops. Men hit on exposed skin fell like rag dolls. 

“Savages!” snarled Rodrigo, pulling a pistol from his belt. To the First Captain, he yelled, “Take us to the centre of the river. Now!” There was a loud crack as the flint struck and then a bang of exploding gunpowder. A puff of smoke drifted back over the boat. He looked accusingly at Angel and Luis. “Well? Fire into the trees!”

Angel scrambled back for his weapons. Luis grabbed the caliver and aimed, but there was nothing he could see to shoot at.

“Turn!” shouted the First Captain to the man at the stern, behind the makeshift altar. “Take us into the centre of the river!” 

Bartome pushed Abuljar down and placed his body protectively over him, turning his back to the bank. Cristobel pulled Diego’s limp body over and huddled behind it.

Luis looked towards the stern. Soldiers on the bank side of the brigantine that had shields grabbed them and set them against the bulwark. The others scrambled for oars or crossbows. There was the sharp twang of bolts being released, then sporadic musket fire. 

But all anyone could see was faceless jungle green. 

The flood of darts thinned.

“Row, fools!” shouted Rodrigo, berating the men. “Leave your weapons until we’re out of range!”

Angel pulled two pistols out from his wool sleeping roll and brandished them menacingly. “Come out! Face us, cowards!”

“Row!” shouted the First Captain. A dart hit him in the cheek. He gasped, staggered, and fell onto the rowers.

“Darts,” breathed Luis, slipping back into a low crouch, only his eyes above the bulwark. He scanned the bank, but still could not find a target. A dart struck the top of the gunwale, sticking in it. He looked at it for a moment, fascinated. “Of course. No penetrating power.”

Luis set down the gun. He pushed his breastplate aside, grabbed his Morion helm and settled it on his head, then and dug under the thwart for the heavy leather tarp wedged beneath. 

“What are you doing?” demanded Rodrigo, kneeling down. Luis gaped. Three darts stuck out of his heavy tunic. “Eh?” Rodrigo grunted, then picked them out and sniffed them, before flicking them into the river. “Stink of Machineel fruit. Damn beach apples, there’s no antidote.”

“An idea,” said Luis. He awkwardly unfolded the tarp, trying to keep low. “Help me,” he asked Cristobel, but the petrified monk just shook his head and refused to move. Bartome, heavy black robe dotted with wood splinters, reached over and flipped over the last fold. Finally Luis was ready. “Lean over!” he ordered, then swept it up over the rowers, covering them. 

They were drawing away from the shore. 

Luis cocked his caliver.

“Shoot, you woman!” admonished Angel.

“I can’t see anything.”

“So? Keep their heads down!”

He fired a shot and started to reload. There were soft plinks in the water. Luis noted the darts were falling short. “Stop. You’re wasting ammunition. It’s futile. We’re out of range.”

Angel turned on Luis and glared, his eyes unblinking, demanding; after a pause, he fired a shot off towards shore, without even looking. 

“You’re an idiot,” said Luis.

“I must have killed a dozen,” replied Angel. “A dozen more than you.” Angel reloaded his pistol as the ships glided onward, upriver.

Monday 10 December 2018

Friday 7 December 2018

Demons of El Dorado: Part 7


Sails unfurled, the six heavily loaded Brigantines slipped along the lush green coast, towards South America and the Orinoco River. 

Luis sat on the bulwark and watched the soldiers. Their gear was rolled up beneath their seats. They sang martial songs as they rowed. 

They had thirty arquebusiers, thirty crossbowmen, and at least sixty trained pikemen. On top of that were five greyhound war dogs and six horses. Not a significant army by European standards, but then, Cortez had brought down the Aztec Empire with under a thousand men. 

The air, clear and fresh, rushed over them. Beneath the water’s sparkling surface, Luis watched schools of multi-coloured fish darted about like living rainbows. 

He ran his fingers over the leather cover of a book cradled in his lap. It was the diary of a priest, Philip de Riverra, who had accompanied the expedition of Hernan Perez de Quesada into the Orinoco river basin. Professor Martin de Apilcueta Navarro had let Luis purchase it for a few ducats back in Salamanca, from his personal library. Luis thought it might have been of interest to his father, but had forgotten to pass it on. Philip had died of malaria in 1543, and had been demoralized for some time. Much of his writing, according to Navarro, was unreliable, even fantastical, more a product of fever than real events. But it was the best source of first had information Luis currently had access to. Abuljar only spoke to Bartome, and even that he did rarely. 

Luis settled a broad brimmed leather hat on his head, then cracked open the book to a random page. 

He began to read:

“August 5th, 1542: We have been exploring inland, due South from the third major river fork. Always Quesada choses South. He believes there is yet a civilization to be found in this dark, oppressive jungle. It devours us without qualm, as it would any attempt at establishing order and sanity. The jungle is a beast, an entity, a living force, just one with a thousand thousand manifestations, all guided by an ill will. At first, I saw it as a bewildering, chaotic jumble of vines and trees and bugs and slithering reptiles. But it has personality. Will. And it is eating us up, one by one, felling us with sickness and madness. 

Jose died yesterday of a snakebite. He stepped in between a fallen tree and a rock, and it struck him in the ankle. I tried to suck out the poison to no avail. His death was merciful and quick. Those of us who continue on are wracked by dysentery, the more water we consume the more we expel. After three years, I am but a shadow of my former self. We have no mirrors. Only the rippling reflection in the river, and the man I see there is not one I recognize. 

There is no end to the wretched jungle. It lies over the earth like the rotting corpse of a pagan god. I fear eventually finding ourselves facing a solid wall of curling vegetation, vines so thick they throttle the trees and snuff out the light of the sun. 

August 10th, 1542: During the night there was a commotion.

We gathered wood before nightfall to make a camp fire, and to cook some of the small mammals our crossbows had felled for dinner. Overhead great shadows flew over us, one after another, but we could not get a good look at their source. The trees are at least eighty feet, and with the sky already dim, it all merged into a single mass of darkness, only with faint speckles of light seeping through gaps. Soon those too were gone, and we were left with the cluster of campfires. We keep them lit throughout the night now, to keep the beasts back. They fear the fire. But some of the men do not like being crowded in beside it, and lay further away, at the edge of its light. I was awoken by shouts of alarm. It was just as well, for I was having that dreadful nightmare again. What awaited me was little better. 

A great black beast had landed on Martin, one of the few of our number still healthy. We could hear it making wet, slurping sounds and grunting. It was a bat, so large and horrific we at first took it to be a demon in the flickering light of our torches. I cannot describe the feeling of horror that seized me. It was the size of a large dog, with thick, knotted black fur, and a flattened, pig like face, with fangs and great veined ears. Sanchez ran his saber through its back so far he nicked Martin. The beast squealed and thrashed about. Martin is lucky we did not set it alight with the torches. Sanchez hauled it off and jabbed it in the neck with a knife until it stopped moving. 

There was much shouting, but none of that woke Martin, who lay in a blissful slumber so deep we feared he would never awaken. There were bite marks on his throat, where the creature had affixed itself. We splashed water in his face and slapped him, until finally he was roused. He described a dream in which he was atop a great, gold pyramid, looking down at supplicating worshippers below. I did not tell him I have had the same dream. I had the men lay the beast out, stretching out its leathery wings, and stepped along the length. I counted twelve feet. We will make sacks out of the wings, or perhaps patches for our boots; when Sanchez cut it open its belly, black blood jetted out; not its own, but Martins. The body we cooked. The meat was tender and delicious. Better than the bugs we’d been eating: big iridescent green monsters, weighing almost two pounds each. Something unholy about how large and distorted God’s creation is here. I hesitate to imagine what form indigenous man would take, here in this hellish jungle.

August 15th, 1542: The bats left us alone for three days while we crossed a swamp, which was a wretched experience. The leeches concentrated upon my groin, and the filthy brine stank like an open sewer. There were mercifully none of those small predatory fish, and only a few curious crocodiles that our pikes turned easily away. We only lost one porter. I saw the our gold pursuers again, speckles sliding beneath black water, hinting at great hideous shapes. I’d say it was my mind playing tricks, paranoia, but the others saw it too, and fired crossbow bolts. Quesada put a stop to that, as ammunition is in short supply. No one yet has seen what is following us. It could be harmless.

We are but a faint echo of the men who entered this endless green waste. Covered in red welts, our clothes hanging like tents, full of lice, it is a wonder any of us still lives.

Pity the civilization that fears conquerors such as us. 

August 17th, 1542:There were two attacks last night. We are once again beneath the canopy, and here the bats seem to prefer to strike. The men nervous, and understandably so. There is talk that we are nearing the end of the world, perhaps the Gates of Hell. I know that Aguirre reached the coast, through this very jungle, so there must be an end to it. Quesada has given orders for halberds to be set in the ground, pointing up, over us while we sleep, and doubled the night watch. We’re too exhausted to create greater defenses, there’s simply no strength left for it. 

We proceed onward by will alone, the unknown pursuing us, death waiting ahead.

Luis shut the book and listened to the men, who were now chattering, exuberant, eager for the adventure that lay ahead. They joked and laughed in the breezy ocean air. 

He got up and made his way towards Rodrigo and Angel who were at the bow, basking in sea foam. Rodrigo nodded at Luis as he drew near. “Finally got your nose out of a book, eh? As I was saying: we’ll sail through the night.” He put a hand on Angel’s shoulder. “Have shifts set up. de Berrio will send ships after us, if he’s at all like his father.”

Angel grunted agreement. “Once the son of a bitch gets his pants on.”