I’m back! Well sort of. Actually I’m a figment of your imagination. Guess I should have mentioned I was taking a holiday! For those of you who have stuck around – thank you! You guys (and gals) rock!
It’s Monday, which means it’s Virtual Blog Tour Day! My guest is Bruce Blake. I’m just going to hand things over to Bruce from here. Bruce?
Many thanks to Ellie Mack for hosting me this week on the blog tour. My favourite part of the whole thing is getting to meet writers from different genres that I might not otherwise get the opportunity to meet.
This week is an excerpt from my latest book, All Who Wander Are Lost. Icarus is feeling remorseful and more than a little guilty about a number of souls ending up in Hell because he’s not very good at his job, so he determiens he must go there and bring them back. Here’s chapter 6, Icarus’ first visit to Hell.
I opened my eyes, half-expecting everything to be ablaze. It didn’t disappoint me to find it wasn’t the case. The gray sky looked like an average overcast day threatening rain, though I couldn’t discern any clouds, just gray. I breathed deep through my nose but didn’t smell brimstone or sulfur, only the earthy smell of the first rain after a lengthy dry spell.
“About time, sleeping beauty.”
My neck creaked as I turned my head and gazed into the eerily blue eyes of Piper kneeling beside me. She smiled.
If this is Hell, count me in.
“A minute or two. Not long enough for brain damage.”
“I’ll have to come up with another excuse.”
She stood and offered her hand, but I struggled to my feet on my own rather than risk the visions her touch was sure to insert in my mind. They weren’t unpleasant, but I’d rather have my wits about me in Hell than walk around with an erection. As I gained my feet I surveyed the area around us: a medium-sized stream burbled on our left, stretching to the horizon; a forest of twisted trees clogged our right. We stood on a swath of earth which accounted for all else.
“Where are we?”
“Hell,” she said as casually as if she’d told me ‘the grocery store.’
“You sure? Doesn’t look like Hell.”
“You were expecting a lake of fire, something like that?”
“No, actually. Last time I visited, it was a deserted apartment building.”
She shrugged. “To each his own.”
She looked away and took a few paces toward the stream, leaving me to feel as though I’d lost a friend. My eyes followed her, and when I managed to tear them away, I noticed a small city perched on the far bank.
That wasn’t there before.
“Is that where we’re going?”
“I think so.”
“You don’t know?”
She looked back over her shoulder with an expression of mock disdain.
“I’m an angel, Icarus. Why should I know anything about Hell?”
“Right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”
“You’ve been here more times than I have.”
That shut me up. Still, I didn’t know anything about the place, my exposure being limited to a fiery hallway in an abandoned apartment building and a few rooms which didn’t look like they belonged in Hell. Hardly detailed knowledge.
I walked toward the edge of the stream, fully intending to step in and make my way across. I enjoyed Piper’s company, but the sooner this expedition got underway, the sooner we’d get the Hell out of here, pardon the pun. My right foot was hovering over the water when her hand on my shoulder sent a shock through my spine.
“Don’t go in the water.”
I returned my foot to dry land and shook my head as I dragged myself from her touch before all the blood left my brain. I blinked a few times to clear the mud from my thoughts.
“Why not? I thought you said to go to the city.”
“We do, but you can’t touch the water of the River Styx.”
I stared at her for a moment, looked at the stream, then back at her, trying not to laugh—I didn’t know if doing so would hurt her feelings—but couldn’t stop myself.
“The River Styx. Really? Disappointing.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“I expected something bigger, a bit more…torrential.”
I gazed back at the over-sized creek, searching the flowing water for signs of damned souls sliding by under its surface, eyes blank, mouths open in eternal screams. Think I saw one of those ornamental Japanese goldfish—koi. Big, but I didn’t notice any teeth.
“How do we get to the other side?”
She looked left, then right. “I suppose we have to find the ferryman.”
The second the word cleared her lips, a solitary puff of fog appeared on the far bank. It roiled and moved in place for a minute, then struck out across the creek, misty tendrils trailing behind. A minute and a half later, it reached us. The fog cleared to reveal a flat-bottomed raft bearing a stooped old man with long pole in hand. A black patch covered one of his eyes, the other bulged and stared beside his hook nose; long, stringy hair hung past his shoulders. He looked enough like Marty Feldman’s rendition of Igor in Young Frankenstein that I expected Mel Brooks to shout: ‘Action!’.
Piper took a step toward the boat but I caught her by the sleeve of her shirt, stopping her.
“Whatever you do, don’t pay him ’til we get to the other side.”
She looked at me like she thought she’d been wrong about the brain damage.
“Come on…Chris de Burgh. ‘Don’t pay the Ferryman’. You must know it.”
She shook her head.
“‘The Lady in Red’? ‘Spanish Train’? ‘Patricia the Stripper’?”
A blank stare.
“You guys need better tunes up in Heaven.”
Nothing worse than funny references your audience doesn’t understand. It felt like I was talking to my ex-wife—she never appreciated classic rock humor, either.
“Are you done?”
I paused a second before nodding. She stepped onto the raft, making it rock gently; I hesitated but followed. The bent ferryman stared at us with his one eye but didn’t push off. I looked at him expectantly—this was his job, he should know what to do—then turned my gaze on Piper, who was staring across the stream toward the city. I sidled up beside her.
“What are we supposed to do now?” I asked out of the corner of my mouth, one eye on the ferryman.
“You can’t wait until the other side to pay him, no matter what this de Burgh fellow told you.”
Her mouth crinkled up in a smirk and I almost laughed aloud, but the urge dissipated quickly as the man’s unblinking eye bore into me. He extended his hand. I patted my pockets and found them as empty as when I’d set out to feed the ducks.
Shouldn’t have left all my change to tip the barkeep.
“Pay him what?”
“I don’t know, I’m an angel. Ask him.”
I took a hesitant step toward him. The wrinkles in his cheeks and forehead were deep enough to be crags; I thought, if I looked close enough, I’d find tiny mountaineers scaling them. I didn’t want to look that close.
“Excuse me, sir. We need to reach the other bank.”
He stared at me, mouth pulled down in a scowl. I swallowed the lump forming in my throat and rephrased the question, not liking how this was proceeding. I gestured across the stream.
“What will it cost to get there?”
His palm up, expectant hand turned, the exaggerated knuckles folding all but one of his twig-like fingers back until his hand quaked in my direction. The lump returned to my throat.
He nodded. I backed away a step and whispered to Piper.
“Ah, a little help here?”
I didn’t look at her—didn’t want to take my eye off the wizened man—but felt her gaze. Its effect didn’t match her touch, but it brought goose bumps to my neck and courage I wouldn’t have found on my own.
“Give him what he wants.”
I didn’t want to look away from the ferryman for fear it would be the last thing I ever did, so I clenched my teeth instead of giving her the disbelieving look her statement deserved.
I raised my hand tentatively toward him. Our hands drew closer and I felt an uncomfortable warmth radiating from his flesh. Then, with enough speed to make a mongoose jealous, his fingers encircled my wrist.
As soon as his flesh touched mine, I saw it wasn’t really a man stooped in front of me, but a wolf-shaped beast—the huge, misshapen werewolf from ‘An American Werewolf in London’ come to life. Terror froze me. The wolf-beast jerked me toward him and lurched forward; its jaws found my shoulder, fangs dug into muscle. I screamed.
The thing shook its head once, rending my flesh. It reared back, a chunk of me in its teeth, my blood running between its jaws. A wave of nausea overtook me, spinning my head, dizzying me. I stumbled away and the beast released its hold on my wrist. My feet tangled and my tail bone struck the raft’s deck hard enough to click my teeth together. A second later, Piper knelt beside me.
“Are you alright?”
My lips moved but no sound emerged. I registered the concern in her eyes, then returned my gaze to the man-wolf.
The stooped ferryman stood at the back of the raft working his pole as he guided us across the stream. I jerked my head around expecting to find the beast behind me, but the raft held only the three of us.
“Did you see what happened?” I asked, breathless.
“Yes. You asked him what it would cost to cross, shook his hand, then you stumbled. Did you hurt yourself?”
I shook my head and brought my hand up to the shoulder where the beast took a chunk out of me. No pain. When I looked at my fingers, they were free of blood.
What the fuck?
“You didn’t see it?”
Piper shrugged. “See what?”
I opened my mouth to tell her about the wolf-thing, its bite, but the instant my lips moved, my cheeks burned with embarrassment.
I must have imagined it.
I couldn’t admit to this beautiful woman—angel—that a mirage made me panic.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
She offered her hand to help me up off my ass but I chose again to do it without the aid of her skin against mine. I climbed to my feet, head feeling like the Hindenburg—lighter than air but about to explode.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
I nodded, then promptly vomited over the side of the raft. A group of huge goldfish like the one I’d seen earlier gathered and made a meal of my spew. The sight made me gag again but I retained the rest of the contents of my stomach and stood on unsteady legs.
The ferryman stared straight ahead, his one bulging eye fixed on his goal of the other shore. Over his shoulder I saw the bank we’d left receding.
I wanted to get off this raft as quickly as possible, leave the man with his craggy face and long pole behind. And whatever-the-hell-it-was that bit me. Pivoting on my heel, I faced Piper. An amused smirk had usurped her expression. I wanted to tell her how it’s not polite to laugh at the folly of others, but the far bank caught my eye.
It was no closer.
I spun back toward the spot we’d left, saw it was farther away, then looked back to our destination which looked the same distance as before.
“What’s going on, Piper?”
She shrugged. “It’s Hell,” she said, unconcerned. “We’ll get there eventually.”
I slouched down onto the deck of the raft, sitting cross-legged—what Trevor’s kindergarten teacher called criss-cross applesauce—and breathed deep, attempting to quell my shaking hands.
An hour later, I’d shifted position a few dozen times—criss-cross applesauce is fine for kids but gets uncomfortable quickly when you’re in your fourth decade. A warm wind rose from the direction of our goal, which was no closer; waves lapped the side of the raft. I peered into the water and saw the school of giant goldfish swimming alongside, their tails working but getting them no further ahead than us. Piper sat at the front like a monk deep in meditation. I stared a few seconds at her dark hair hanging to the middle of her back, at the smooth whiteness of the flesh of her arms, then finally at the distant city, still as far away as when we began the trip across the river Styx.
“Enough,” I said.
I climbed to my feet, knees aching, and approached the ferryman. He remained fixed on our destination, so I stepped into his line of sight but stayed far enough away he couldn’t reach me.
“What’s going on here? You got the payment you wanted, when will we get to the other side?”
I’m not sure what the payment had been—probably didn’t want to know—but felt he’d taken something from me. Behind him, the far bank had disappeared, leaving a stretch of churning water between us and our point of departure. How-the-hell a stream could grow into a small sea was beyond me, then I realized the answer to my query.
The ferryman’s eye shifted and he stared at me for a full minute before returning to his survey of the far shore. As much as I didn’t want to deal with this man—this thing—it was time for answers.
“Look at me.” I moved again to block his view. “When will we–”
The raft struck something solid spilling me onto my tail bone for a second time. Perhaps we’d hit one of the enormous koi. I righted myself and saw the ferryman pointing past me, gnarled finger extended toward the shore. Piper came to my side.
“We’re here,” she sing-songed.
The edge of the raft made contact with the rocky shore. A few hundred yards away, the city overtook the landscape, its buildings rising taller than I’d thought, many reaching hundreds of stories toward the ashen sky. Monolithic, ultra-modern slabs stood shoulder to shoulder with cathedrals which looked like they were erected a thousand years ago. The skyscrapers stretched the length of the shore as far as I could see.
I opened my mouth to ask ‘what-the-hell’ again but closed it without posing the question. This was Hell, after all: apparently I’d have to get used to a little strangeness.
Bruce Blake lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. When pressing issues like shovelling snow and building igloos don’t take up his spare time, Bruce can be found taking the dog sled to the nearest coffee shop to work on his short stories and novels.
Actually, Victoria, B.C. is only a couple hours north of Seattle, Wash., where more rain is seen than snow. Since snow isn’t really a pressing issue, Bruce spends more time trying to remember to leave the “u” out of words like “colour” and “neighbour” then he does shovelling. The father of two, Bruce is also the trophy husband of burlesque diva Miss Rosie Bitts.
Bruce has been writing since grade school but it wasn’t until five years ago he set his sights on becoming a full-time writer. Since then, his first short story, “Another Man’s Shoes” was published in the Winter 2008 edition of Cemetery Moon, another short, “Yardwork”, was made into a podcast in Oct., 2011 by Pseudopod and his first Icarus Fell novel, “On Unfaithful Wings”, was published to Kindle in Dec., 2011. The second Icarus Fell novel, “All Who Wander Are Lost”, is scheduled for release in July, 2012, with the first book in the four-part “Khirro’s Journey” epic fantasy coming soon after. He has plans for at least three more Icarus novels, several stand alones, and a possible YA fantasy co-written with his eleven-year-old daughter.