Exile

Licensed by Shutterstock.

The road Jeremy traveled crested a steep, sandy hill, and he stopped for a moment to look around. Not that there was anything to see. The landscape had remained unchanged since his arrival some five hundred years ago.

He didn’t know where the road began, only that it was long, that as far as he knew, it had no end. It stretched toward a horizon that never got any closer, surrounded by dry, desolate desert.

A hot convection oven breeze kicked sand into his blistered, sunburned face, and he slitted his eyes, praying it wasn’t the start of yet another sandstorm, from which he’d never enjoyed any protection.

He was immortal now. He hadn’t always been, but his captors had made him so before exiling him. An unexpected gift, he’d thought at the time, a miscalculation on the part of his enemies. Now, centuries later, he knew better.

The wind died down, and with it the momentary blast of sand. The world came gradually into focus.

Jeremy recoiled.

In the distance, perhaps a thousand feet ahead, perhaps two, a lone figure stood, feet planted in the middle of the road. This far away, he couldn’t make out much, only a dark speck against the blinding backdrop of the desert.

Hadn’t they said the never-ending journey was his alone? Then why would they come to him now, after so many years? It had to be one of them. Nobody else could have found him.

Cautiously he continued, a thousand possible scenarios streaming through his head like film. An assassin? A messenger? Maybe they just wanted to taunt him. He wouldn’t have thought them capable of such cruelty, but he didn’t put it past them either.

Each step forward, each rise and fall of the sandy terrain, brought the two closer to whatever inevitable interaction awaited. Jeremy could make out more details now, the ink black robes that covered the figure from head to toe, the canteen that hung from a strap at the figure’s side.

A canteen. That meant water.

If Jeremy had been allowed a drink, his mouth would have watered. But there was no water in this place, nor had there ever been, as far as he could tell. With a single spell, they’d given his body all it needed to survive the unrelenting heat, but not an iota more. Part of his punishment, they’d said. It was a wonder he hadn’t gone mad.

If they’d decided to kill him, it would be a mercy. Clinging to sanity was a daily struggle, and with each passing year he could feel himself slip a little further, feel himself succumb to despair a little more completely.

Another step. Then another. The figure was close now, but whether they were a man or a woman it was impossible for Jeremy to say, the black robes obscuring their face and hair.

A second blast of wind took him by surprise, and a spray of sand zapped him in the eyes before he could turn away. The burning was enough to make him stagger.

“What do you want?” he growled. “Have you come to delight in my suffering?”

No reply.

Slowly he opened his eyes. Tears welled at the corners, blurring his vision.

They stood face to face now. The figure, untouched by the sand, stared at him with bright electric blue eyes.

Didn’t he know those eyes from someplace? The ghost of a memory danced at the periphery of his mind’s vision, but he couldn’t bring it into focus.

“Hello.”

At last, the figure spoke. Their voice was deep, husky, like gravel sliding across the sand, but the sound was unmistakably female. More memories, sharp now, but disjointed and inconsistent, like shards of glass, sparkling haphazardly beneath the sun.

“You’ll remember.”

And sure enough, the pieces realigned, fused, formed a cohesive whole. At last, he saw the vision his mind had tried so hard to reveal.

Six robed figures, silent, still as marble statues. Three men, three women, representatives of humanity, as they called themselves, though their function was judicial rather than diplomatic.

“How do you plead?” they asked in unison, breaking the silence. The sound rolled through the vast underground court, and the torches in the stone walls wavered, as if their words had the power to summon wind.

Jeremy looked up, beaten, broken, feeling as if the wind had been knocked from his lungs.

The six nodded, as if they hadn’t expected him to say anything else.

“You condemned millions to a life without hope. We sentence you to the same.”

And they had exiled him, sent him to this hell of endless sun and sand. The woman with the electric blue eyes, she’d been there too, hadn’t she? Looking him up and down, appraising him, sizing him up.

“You will wander alone,” she’d said in the same gravely voice. “On and on, without respite or reprieve. The horizon’s end will be forever out of reach. You will know despair, as your victims knew despair.”

She and two others carried him, kicking and screaming, through a gate, depositing him in the world he cursed today with every exhalation of breath.

Only here she was again.

“You,” Jeremy croaked, rubbing red, swollen eyes. “You were the one who sent me here. Is this part of my punishment, to taunt me at my lowest point? Then do it, and be on your way!”

The woman’s eyes sparkled. Stunned, Jeremy realized after a moment she was crying.

“Your sentence,” she said, voice lowered almost to a whisper, “has been commuted. You’re free to go.”

Free to go. He knew the meaning of the words, could understand how they fit together in a sentence. But he couldn’t understand what they meant in relation to himself.

“What do you mean, free to go?”

“I mean, your exile is over and I’ve come to take you home.”

“But—” He sunk to his knees, salty, bitter tears cascading down cracked, sun baked cheeks.

“Your punishment was to taste the despair of your victims, to understand on a visceral level what you did to them. But it was never truly a life sentence. Our function is to rehabilitate, not to destroy.”

She said this with such unexpected care, like a mother opening her arms to a wayward child.

“You had to know what your victims went through in order to understand the gravity of your crime. Now that you’ve been broken, we can make you into something new.”

Anger. Incredulity. Absurdity. These emotions and more flashed through his heart, one after the other, chasing each other around in his head until all he could feel was numb.

The woman stepped forward, took him by the shoulder.

“Come,” she said, and at her touch, the desert around them faded to black.

Labyrinth

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

A thick fog surrounded Gerald, billowing like smoke. The world beyond the Labyrinth lay bare before him, pale and insubstantial, faded like an old photograph. He’d navigated the Labyrinth’s perilous depths for centuries, a towering ancient structure of stone, iron, and magic. All the while he’d labored under the promise that someday, when he’d reached the end, he would be released.

Now he knew the truth.

He could see the world outside, only it was a mute shadow of the place he’d known before he was captured. It would be forever out of reach.

His conquerors had said the Labyrinth was a Purgatory, that at the end he would find pardon and peace. But the Labyrinth was not a Purgatory, it was a Hell. Its purpose had not been to redeem him but to break him.

Head hung low, shoulders hunched in defeat, he turned to go back the way he’d come.

His Domain

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

A gust of frigid night air blew past James as he wound through the park, making him shiver. Like a dream, only he knew he wasn’t asleep. The world was unnaturally quiet and still. There was only the wind, sighing like a mournful spirit.

Orange lamps lit the edges of an asphalt path, but the dim illumination only seemed to hint at all the things it refused to reveal. So many dark corners and hidden shadows. Anything could be out there, watching, waiting, hunting.

The most distressing thing was that he couldn’t remember why he was here. Memory was a vague thing, a thin mist that parted and evaporated whenever he reached for it.

James’s eyes flitted from one shadow to the next. He licked his lips. They felt cold and dry. The wind was blowing harder now, trees swaying back and forth in a harsh rhythm. Leaves and branches played a haunting tune, a dry rasping sound.

James caught movement on his right. He whirled, strained to hear. But there was nothing. More movement to his left, the slightest flicker on the edge of vision. Again he whirled, and again there was nothing.

James ran. Lamps and trees streaked by in a blur until his side ached and his breath started to come in ragged puffs. He had no idea where he was going, no idea what he was running from, only that he couldn’t stop, that stopping meant dying.

It seemed the trees and asphalt went on forever. He could make out buildings on the horizon, a smattering of yellow-orange windows like distant stars, but running never seemed to bring him any closer.

James’s heart pounded, until it had become a high frequency beat that made him feel lightheaded. Eventually he stopped, and when he couldn’t catch his breath he fell to his knees, gulping for air. He wanted to keep running, but when he tried to scramble to his feet he only succeeded in falling to his hands and knees once again.

“Why do you run from me?”

James froze. He tried to discern the source of the voice, but it moaned and whistled with the wind so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“They all do, you know. They all believe they can escape. They think that if they run fast enough, that if they run long enough, they can get away, that they can cheat me out of what’s always been mine.”

The wind was now whipping at James’s hair and clothes in a violent gale.

A figure emerged from the shadows, not from a place of hiding but from the shadows themselves. It loomed over him, wearing the blackness like a cloak.

James wanted to scream, to summon anyone who might be close enough to help. But whatever sound he’d wanted to make had gotten caught in his throat. Finally, in a hoarse whisper, he croaked, “Who are you?”

“Yes,” the figure mused in that same elemental voice, “and they always ask me the same thing. Who am I? Why have I come? And you know, they all know the answer before they even ask. Deep down, they’ve always known the answer.”

The figure knelt before him, and as he leaned in with a face that was shrouded in darkness, the air grew colder. “Have you figured out who I am yet?”

James had lost most of his body’s warmth. He shuddered, hugged himself with shaking arms. “Death.”

“Yes.”

James’s vision blurred around the edges.

“You’ve come to take me,” said James. “Because I’m yours.”

“Yes, you are.”

The blackness enfolded him, blinded him.

A breeze grazed the surface of his left ear like a kiss. “Death is my domain.”

A flicker of consciousness, like a sputtering flame, and then James went to join Death in the dark.

The Faceless Man

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

He wanders the world, the Faceless Man, journeys from city to city, always in search of items to add to his collection. When you answer your door he won’t say a word; indeed he cannot, for he has no mouth with which to speak. Instead he’ll incline his head, ever so slightly, all the while clutching a black leather-bound book to his chest with reverence.

He’ll open to the first page, always blank, and bid you gaze upon its fallow surface. Then dutifully, curiously, you’ll look to see what all the fuss is about, and before you know what’s happened you’ll have been pulled inside, transformed from a creature of flesh and blood to an indeterminate being of pen and ink.

He will take you home and place you atop a dusty shelf. From time to time he’ll pull you back down, sit in his favorite armchair to read and drink your loneliness, your madness, your despair, savoring them like a rare vintage.

You’ll never die, but you’ll spend eternity wishing that you had.

Innocent Blood

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

The boy strolls through my alley alone, and I bare my gums behind the shadows.

I was like him once. Over a thousand years ago, I would lay beneath the stars and dream of far off places. I was a bundle of youthful optimism and endless possibilities.

That was before I changed.

I’d strayed from our clan’s caravan and was playing in the woods when I stumbled on an old woman, sitting atop a pile of gray stones. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she only answered that people were selfish, that there was no such thing as love. In my childish idealism, I proclaimed that she was wrong. She sneered, insisted I was a foolish boy, said that I knew nothing of the world and its ways.

I stood firm in my convictions.

She asked about my family, asked if they would still love me if I were different. I nodded vigorously, echoed what I had been taught by my mother and father, that blood and clan were everything.

“All right,” she said, “let’s see.”

She stood, gnarled and ancient. She was hunched at the back, yet she managed to tower over me. She held out her hands, closed her eyes, and in a language I did not know, she began to speak.

A breeze stirred, a rustling of dirt and leaves that seemed to rise up from the earth. It cut through me, spoke to the different parts of myself, commanding them to change. Skin became fur. Teeth became fangs. I fell to all fours in disbelief.

“See if your family will take you back now,” she said, and she laughed, a wild cackle that made my chest grow cold.

I loped back to my village, stumbling as I learned to control foreign limbs. I found my family’s tent among the caravan and called out to them. When they came outside, I tried to tell them what had happened. But only animal sounds escaped my muzzled throat, and at the sight of me they roused the clan and fetched their weapons. I was forced to flee into the night with stones and arrows at my back.

I had lost everything. My mother and father, my brothers and sisters. I kept trying to return, but every time they chased me away. I stalked the woods, searched for the old woman so she could change me back.

I never saw her again.

The years that followed hardened my heart. I prayed for death to take me, to put me out of my misery, but in her cruelty the old woman had made it so I couldn’t die. Instead I wandered the world, and all the while the world changed.

Now, I prey on innocent blood because I’m jealous of what can no longer be mine. I tear their throats out with powerful canine jaws, and I delight in their blood as it drains from their faces to spatter the ground beneath my paws.

The boy stops beside me and I grin, open my maw and prepare to pounce.

Nothing Lasts Forever

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

I thought it would last forever. I thought I could do no wrong, that no matter what I did it would always be with me. Then it up and went and I never saw it again.

I cry every night, pausing only to dab at red and swollen eyelids. I drop to my knees and pray, beg the creator of the cosmos to bring it back. I promise not to take it for granted, to give it the veneration it deserves. But my prayers always go unanswered.

I am only a shell of my former self, a hollowed out husk who’s lived for centuries in seclusion, too afraid and too ashamed to dwell among others.

The only time I speak is when I emerge naked from beneath my ancient stone bridge in the middle of the night to call out into the darkness, to speak its name, hoping it will hear my call. Hours pass before I go back inside, cold and damp, and only when I fall asleep does it come back to haunt me in my dreams.

The Walking Dead

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

The magic is gone.

I’m not sure when I noticed. It didn’t go all at once. It lingered, even as it slowly leached away, until the universe had been sucked dry, a desiccated husk.

I wander a broken world denuded, a disinherited prince. There are no sorrows, no joys. Just a dull flat aching despair, my soul’s pleading cry, a desire to live once again. But the spark is gone now; there is no life within me.

I am the walking dead.

What do you do?

John Wilson (American, born 1922), Black Despair (Black Soldier). Signed and dated 1945.

What do you do when you’re feeling down, when despair grabs you by the throat and throttles you to the ground? Do you fight back, or do you lay down and let life have its way with you?

When I was a kid, my dad told me once that sometimes, it can be hard simply to exist. I didn’t understand him then, but I do now.

When Will I Learn?

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

My writing often follows a particular pattern. I start out eager and excited, charged up and ready to go. I have a ton of ideas, and I feel like nothing in the world can stop me. Then I sit down to write. At first, it’s great. I think that at long last, I’ve found peace and comfort in my craft, that at long last, I’ve conquered self-doubt and am no longer overly concerned about getting it one hundred percent correct the first time around.

Then a few weeks into the cycle, self-doubt returns, at first just a creeping vine that tickles the periphery of my mind, warning me to be more careful, that I don’t want to make too many mistakes, that if people are ever going to take me seriously as an author I have to be more conscious of what I’m doing. Caution soon gives way to concern, and before long concern gives way to self-criticism and despair. Before I know what’s happened, I find myself once more stuck in the mud, with a blog that hasn’t been updated for over a month and books and short stories that haven’t been touched for nearly as long.

When I finally find the courage to come back up for air and try again, I discover that some of those who were interested in what I was doing had left, not because they’d stopped supporting me but because I had given up, because I had shown them through my actions that I had nothing left to share. In giving in to my fear of failure, I had failed. I had prophesied my own doom, then unwittingly made it come true.

I’ve made this mistake countless times before. Each time, I promised myself that I would never make it again, that this time things would be different. And still, before long, I find myself here once more.

When will I ever learn?

It’s okay to make mistakes.

It really is. Everyone makes them. That’s part of what it is to be human. The only way not to make mistakes is to sit in a dark corner of your room alone and do nothing. If you want to put yourself out there, if you want to connect with other people, if you want to change the world, you’re going to have to fail. Failure is a precursor to success, and you must be willing to face it daily if you’re ever to have a serious hope of making a difference.

But what if I make a bad impression?

Every time I tell myself it’s okay to make mistakes, this is the next doubt that enters my mind. What if others witness my failure? What will they think? Will they ever take me seriously again? The answer, I’ve discovered through experience, is that some will, and some won’t.

And that’s okay.

You’re not going to please everybody. Some people will love what you do, and others will hate it. Some will notice your mistakes, and others won’t. Some will support you in spite of them, and others will walk away.

Let them.

If somebody walks away from you because you made a mistake, then either they had unrealistic expectations or they were never very interested in what you were doing from the start. So why spend so much energy worrying about their opinion? Focus instead on doing what you love, what brings you joy and passion, on what gives meaning to your existence.

Don’t worry about what other people think. Those who resonate with your message will hear your authentic passion-infused voice and support you, and those who don’t don’t matter.

It’s really that simple.

And yet, it’s not…

The concept itself is easy enough to grasp. Do what you love and don’t let others get in your way. Be bold. Make mistakes. But when it’s time to actually put this philosophy into practice, most of us, myself included, fall flat on our faces. Every. Single. Time.

Self-doubt is a powerful force. It’s the demon that whispers in your head whether you’re awake or you’re asleep, that assaults you with softly-spoken assurances of failure and condemnation, that promises you the everlasting Hell of ridicule and humiliation should you even think of trying.

You must not listen to it.

Shun this evil force with all your strength, lest it hold you back from what you love for the rest of your Earthly life. Whenever you hear its voice, you must drown it out, not with shallow and vainglorious self-assurances of success, but with a realistically optimistic outlook rooted not in the opinions of others but in the fulfillment of your life’s purpose.

Each and every one of us has one, a reason for being, a mission to accomplish, and we can only achieve what we were created to do when we let go of our incessant need for approval and boldly step forward into the unknown.