Surrender

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This post was originally published through Patreon on May 31, 2017.

“You found me.”

“You weren’t hard to find.”

Arcturial nodded. He hadn’t wanted to be caught exactly, but neither had he tried very hard to evade his captor.

“What happens next?” He looked toward the shadowy figure in the doorway.

The figure emerged into the soft, mystical glow of moonlight, resolving into a man of indeterminate features, skin tight and pallid, as if he donned a mask rather than a face.

“You come back with me,” the man said, “and we return together to the Council.”

Arcturial nodded again.

“Just as well. I’m tired. I don’t want to run anymore.”

“Five hundred years is a long time to be away from your kind.”

“It is.”

The man fell in beside him, and together they walked, boots clip-clopping through the darkened street. Arcturial flipped his gaze upward, finding the moon, white and luminescent. He drank in its otherworldly glow. He’d walked through hundreds of worlds, had existed long before the births of most, and still the vision was unlike anything else he’d seen before. He committed a snapshot to memory, for this would be the last time he saw it with his eyes.

“There will be punishment,” said the man.

“I understand.”

The echo of footfalls. Buildings rising before them, falling behind them.

“What was it like?”

Caught off-guard by the question, Arcturial stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“To live as a human. To feel, laugh, cry. What was it like?”

This was not a question he’d expected.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because,” said the man, features set in a perpetually emotionless state, “there are those of us who envy what you’ve taken, even if we will never partake of it ourselves.”

“I see.”

Now, it was the other man’s turn to nod.

How to sum up centuries of life in a human body that could never grow old or die? How to explain the desire and the need to feign mortality, to spend so many long years in the shadows, always on the outside looking in, knowing all you could ever do was pretend?

Arcturial thought before he spoke.

“Lonely.”

“Ah,” said the man.

Arcturial continued walking, and the man once more took up station beside him.

“I think we’ve gone far enough,” said Arcturial. “We should be hidden from any mortals who might have seen us in the alley.”

“Yes,” the man agreed, “I think it’s time to be on our way.”

The two turned a corner, taking a detour that was neither north nor south, neither east nor west. The blackness of night enveloped them like a cloak, and the physical world melted away.

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Human

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This post was originally published through Patreon on December 20, 2017.

Anita slipped, and her physical therapist had to catch her before she hit the ground.

“It’s okay,” the woman said, while Anita, her legs no longer able to support her weight, clutched hopelessly at the woman’s wrists for balance.

The hospital room where they held their daily sessions reeked of cleaning solutions and urine. It was the last place Anita would have expected to find herself when she was young.

She could have assumed one of a million other forms—could have experienced life as any species in the cosmos. But in her foolishness, she’d chosen to be human. She’d been quite taken with humanity at the time. The novelty of their paradoxical nature had delighted her: an odd combination of cool, dispassionate logic and fiery, unbridled passion.

Most fascinating of all had been the concept of mortality—the notion that life not only had a beginning but an end. As an immortal being herself, the idea had only been a theoretical complication that made little practical sense. She couldn’t have imagined what it would mean to age—to feel life, energy, and health drain from a body that withered further with each passing day. Only now, as a human herself, could she understand what it was to be bound by the irreversible machinations of time, and it was too late for her to change her mind.

“Follow me,” the PT said, and she led Anita around the perimeter of the room in a vain attempt to engage muscle groups that would never function again.

Didn’t the woman realize the horror, the utter futility of the human condition? Couldn’t she understand that it was only a matter of time before she herself would experience a similar degenerative illness? Or, if her muscles didn’t fail her, it would be her mind, or cancer, or a virus, or one of a thousand other afflictions. That, Anita thought with more than a twinge of bitterness, was the human race’s reward for a life well lived.

A tear fell, hot against Anita’s skin. It stung her eyes, and she blinked it away before her therapist could see that she’d been crying.

“There you go,” the PT said after Anita took a single shambling step forward. “You’re getting stronger.”

Would the woman ever stop patronizing her?

At last, after ages of endless, fruitless struggling, the hour lapsed, and the woman let her fall back into her wheelchair—a rickety metal cage as good as any prison—and rolled her outside for a stroll through the hospital’s grounds.

A galaxy’s worth of energy roiled just beneath her skin, the inner workings of an ancient soul that would have dwarfed the entire cosmos if not for the fact that it was locked inside this lumbering clod of cold and sallow matter.

They passed through a pair of broad double doors, and Anita squinted up at a sudden burst of bright and early sunlight that warmed her skin and made her drowsy.

She didn’t try to stay awake. Sleep was one of the few blessings left to her. It was in sleep that the force which bound her to her body weakened, allowing her to shoot across space and time as she had once done before her human incarnation.

Eyes fluttered, consciousness guttered, and soon, her soul was soaring through the stars again.

Anita.

The voice was familiar to her.

“Father?” She hadn’t heard from him since she’d taken on flesh and blood. Could he rescue her from this awful life? “Father, please, release me from this prison.”

The universe rumbled with his reply.

You chose to be human. Would you turn your back on who you are now that life has become difficult?

“This body is worthless. It binds my soul like a ball and chain.”

Did you not enjoy your life when you were young?

“I did.”

Then what right do you have to complain now? You wanted to experience mortality, and that means accepting the feebleness of age along with the exuberance of youth. The two form an inseparable whole.

“But it hurts.”

Yes.

“Then what use is it? All the things I’ve accomplished as a human will amount to nothing.”

You’ve been human for so long that you’ve started to think like them. You see everything in terms of the past and the future. You forget that you are timeless, that your life on Earth is but a dream.

Everything you’ve accomplished in your mortal body will remain a part of you after you die. That’s what mortality is. It’s a transformation, one that most of your brothers and sisters, by their own choice, will never know. It will leave you forever changed, a new creation born of the intersection between two paradoxical natures. That is a miracle, and one for which you should be grateful.

“But I’m afraid.”

Then you understand what it is to be human.

Anita contemplated this in silence for some time.

Go. Her father’s voice was warm, compassionate. Live what life remains to you. Cherish the sorrows as well as the joys. They are the crucible in which you will become something greater.

“Yes,” she said. “I understand. Thank you, Father.”

I love you, Daughter.

“I love you too.”

Anita awoke a changed woman. All her former bitterness had melted away beneath the blinding light of the sun. There would be pain, there would be weakness, and there would be humiliation. But she would no longer complain. She would let each experience educate her, just as her youth had educated her, because what else was human frailty, she thought, but another lesson to be learned?

She would take the good with the bad, and when her time on Earth was finished, she would be reborn. Such was the life she had chosen, and she would no longer turn her back on it.

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Star Light, Star Bright

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Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight;
I wish I am, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

It was a nursery rhyme his grandmother had taught him when he was five, and he remembered it tonight, when the celestial canvas above spread itself before him like gold dust, when she, his beloved star, beamed down from the sky, a glistening pearl against a backdrop of jewel-encrusted black. So much larger than the other stars, she dominated the heavens, a goddess among angels.

“My love,” he called out after reciting his grandmother’s poem like an incantation, “come back for me.”

“Then you wish to return home?” came her reply.

Sam thought of where he’d come from; of the songs he and his siblings would sing, rippling through space and time without beginning or end; of the way the lights from colliding galaxies and stars would caper and dance against the looming silver spires and golden streets of his city in the sky; and, most importantly, of his queen, the star who addressed him now, garbed in shimmering robes so white, so bright that no earthly dye could reproduce them.

“Yes, I do.”

Long ago, he’d asked to become human. He’d wanted to be different, to experience the sort of corporeal life that was inaccessible to his kind. But as his earthly brethren were so fond of saying, the grass was always greener on the other side, and only after the ethereal wonders of his former life were far behind him had he realized his mistake.

“It’s lonely here,” he continued, choking back a sob. “Our minds are closed to each other. A person might say one thing and mean something else entirely. People are tiny islands of private thought surrounded by endless dark.”

“But do you not know,” said the star, “that what we are, so too shall they become? Were I not to bring you home now, you would still return to us at the end of your life, and by that time you would have learned much.”

“No,” he whispered, and he could hold back his tears no longer. “Please, don’t make me wait.”

Her light grew so intense, so bright that Sam had to squint his eyes to narrow slits. She was descending now, becoming part of his world.

“This is not a punishment,” she sang, and he could feel her inside of him now, warming his heart, imparting love and life and light. “It is a journey. Take the good with the bad. Savor your brokenness and your imperfections, your sadness and your despair, for they will teach you far more than we ever could. There’s a reason you longed to be human. Your nature demanded it, and I would not rob you of it now.”

Sam wept like a child, tears pattering the grass beneath his feet like rain.

“Live your life, and when your time on Earth is complete, you will take your place beside me once more.”

“Yes, my love. I understand.” It came out a hoarse whisper.

She shot out of him then, and as her light receded into the distance, as his beloved star faded until she was indistinguishable from the rest of his brothers and sisters, he pondered the mysteries of time and death and wondered when he would be whole once more.

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Branwin

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A bright rectangle of light fell on the cold stone floor, and Branwin blinked. How long had it been since he’d seen light? He squinted up at an iron door that hadn’t opened for centuries.

“Branwin.” A hooded figure stepped over the threshold.

Branwin tried to use his lips, but they were like rusty hinges and he could only manage an inarticulate squeal.

“Not mad yet, I hope.” The figure chuckled, pulling back the hood to reveal the face of a man. Branwin scurried like a spider into a dark corner.

Branwin didn’t like him. There was something about the man that touched on uncomfortable memories. If only he’d go away and close the door behind him. But instead he came closer, until he loomed over Branwin, teeth gleaming like knives. Branwin’s inhuman eyes flitted back and forth between him and the walls.

“I need your help, Branwin.”

A flare of strange memories, bursting in Branwin’s head. Shards like stained glass. Memories of a life before the dark, before he’d been transformed into this creature of the shadows in exchange for immortality.

“I see I have your attention,” said the man, and he knelt beside Branwin, as if he were a dog who needed to be reminded that his master still loved him. “I know it’s difficult to talk, so just listen.”

Branwin’s eyes locked on the man’s, so human, so unlike his own. He squatted on all fours, braced to run.

“You made a foolish bargain,” the man continued, “The choice was yours, of course, and if I could have left you here alone I would have. But times have changed. The Republic is crumbling. Old barriers are failing, and people of your power and skill have become valuable.”

A spark in Branwin ignited, a furious hatred that erupted like an active volcano.

“This form you assumed shouldn’t have been possible. The most powerful mages of our time believe you are only a legend. You not only changed your shape, you changed your essence, your soul. Not a change for the better, I would say, but I digress.”

The man set a hand on Branwin’s disfigured shoulder, and an internal spring uncoiled. Branwin pounced, slamming him into the moldering wall.

“I could kill you,” Branwin hissed, the first words he’d uttered in over seven hundred years. It was all coming back to him now.

Surprisingly, the man laughed. “Yes, my old friend, I have no doubt you could. But don’t you wonder, dear Branwin, how it is that I still live?”

Branwin blinked. His humanity was coming back to him, and with it his curiosity.

“I’m not immortal, alas, but I’ve lived for centuries so far and will live for many more, all while retaining that which is essential to my humanity. I could teach you how. There are other ways to prolong life, most not nearly as…unfortunate as the path you chose.”

Something reminiscent of hope surged through Branwin. His inhuman state seemed on the verge of shattering, and he wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

“Come,” said the man, holding out his hand. “Let me fix you.”

Branwin gazed up at him with slitted eyes. He considered the possibilities, his forgotten humanity blossoming at long last, and after a timeless moment of silence in the dark, he took the man’s hand and let him pull him to his feet.

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All You Need is Love

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At the end of all things, when at last you gaze down from the precipice at what was once the vista of your life, you will come to understand that the value of your time here on Earth had nothing to do with material wealth or power, that it had nothing to do with good health, that it had nothing to do with whether or not you accomplished everything you wished to do when you were alive. Instead, you will find that the measure of your worthiness hinges solely on whether or not you loved. The pinnacle of existence, the highest pleasure, is to live a life in communion with others, to love and to be loved. Love is the fulfillment of the human experience.

There are different kinds of love. There’s the love we’re born into, that between a father and a son, a mother and a daughter, a brother and a sister. There’s the love between friends. There’s eros, the uniquely intimate love between two people that culminates in an even greater love, the conception of new life. There are so many ways to love, so many ways to express our need to be close to others.

All the money and health and power in the world can’t buy the simplest kind of happiness that can be purchased for as a little as a smile, a hug or a kiss. With enough money and power, you can move mountains. But what of that? With enough love, you can move souls.

Love can be experienced by the poor as well as the rich, by the sick as well as the healthy, by the foolish as well as the wise. It knows no boundaries. It’s an all-consuming fire that razes the world, burning down the material and ideological divides that separate us, reducing us to our purest essence.

Love has the power to shine into the darkest depths. It provides aid and comfort before the most fearsome powers of Hell, even as death and despair surround you from every side. As long as there’s love, there’s hope. Nothing is more precious.

To love is to be a part of something greater than yourself, to be one with a collective whole that feeds and nourishes the soul even as it sustains and uplifts the body. To be indifferent, to shut yourself away from this life-giving force, is to be cut off from this higher existence, to slowly wither and die, cold and alone, huddling in some obscure corner of the world even as those around you burn with the blinding radiance of a star, with the brilliance of hearts set ablaze by the most powerful force in the universe.

Reading fiction can teach you how to love. It affords you access to the hearts and minds of a variety of characters, and in so doing, helps you to understand others, since well-written characters always reflect real people.

In fact, Research has shown that reading fosters empathy. And it’s precisely this emotional understanding that bursts through the walls that separate us, that bridges hearts so that all who know might come to love, and in so doing save themselves from the only kind of death that man should ever fear.

Has yours been a life worth living? For the answer, you must only ask yourself one question: “have I loved?”

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Am I The Hero or The Villain?

Hero and Villain
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In literature, there are two roles that manifest themselves over and over again: the hero and the villain.

The hero is the one who’s not only content with living a decent life, but goes above and beyond. The hero doesn’t just meet but exceeds expectations. The hero goes out of his way to save the day.

The villain is the one who not only does evil, but revels in it. The villain doesn’t simply do wrong out of weakness, but finds his purpose in the pain and suffering of others.

The friction between the hero and the villain is fierce, and it sparks the fire that fuels countless stories. Both the hero and the villain tell us something about the nature of humanity; they teach us about the internal forces that motivate our thoughts and actions.

Therefore, when considering who you relate to, you might ask yourself, “am I the hero or the villain?”

Evidence That You’re the Hero

Have you ever stood up for a just cause? It might have been a principle you believed in deeply. Or perhaps you defended a friend or loved one against bullying, gossip or slander. Maybe, in a remarkable feat of love and courage, you went so far as to stand up for a total stranger.

Have you ever loved at the expense of your personal needs and desires? You might have been a friend, a son, a daughter, a father, a mother or a spouse. Maybe you’ve dedicated your life to raising a family.

Have you ever given to someone in need? You might have provided for someone’s material necessities by donating money, food or clothing. Or perhaps you attended to someone’s emotional necessities by providing a shoulder to cry on. Maybe you were present in someone’s life when they were in need of comfort. You might have given something as simple as a smile.

Have you ever found something valuable, discovered who it belonged to and returned it instead of keeping it for yourself?

Have you ever expressed simple gratitude for what you have instead of taking it for granted? Even better, have you ever expressed your gratitude for someone else’s success, instead of envying them for it?

Have you ever been tempted by evil, but refused to act because you knew it was wrong?

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, if you answered yes to any of the questions above, then without a doubt you have played the part of the hero.

Evidence That You’re the Villain

Have you ever been a bully? Have you ever attacked and injured another, either with your thoughts or with your words?

Have you ever stood by and allowed something evil to take place when it was within your power to stop it? You might have refused to stand up for something you believe in, or you might have looked the other way while someone was under attack.

Have you ever stolen something that didn’t belong to you? It might have been worth as much as one thousand dollars or as little as one.

Have you ever lied to someone about something they had the right to know? Perhaps you were scared and wanted to avoid getting in trouble.

Have you ever spent an inordinate amount of time chasing after material wealth at the expense of family and friends?

Have you ever ignored a loved one, friend or stranger in need? Perhaps the need was material and you chose not to give food or money when you could have afforded to do so. Perhaps the need was emotional and you refused to acknowledge them or give them comfort.

Have you ever used someone as a tool for personal gain?

Have you ever harbored a grudge or sought vengeance against another?

Have you ever willfully desired that grave misfortune or harm befall another? Worse, have you ever acted on that desire?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, then you have certainly played the part of the villain.

“I’m Confused.”

If you were honest with yourself, you probably found evidence that you were both. So, which is it? Are you the hero or the villain?

In practice, the terms hero and villain are relative. The archetypes are two ends of a vast spectrum, with each of us residing somewhere in-between.

Showing off my mad graphic design skills!
Showing off my mad graphic design skills!

Becoming The Hero

While none of us will ever be the archetypal hero we desire to be, with hard work and dedication, we can come close. It’s a slow but fruitful journey from one end of the spectrum to the other, a road paved with self examination and good works.

Everyday, you must sit down with yourself and ask, “how have I been the villain?” You must be honest and you must be willing to face some ugly truths. When you have the answers you seek, you must actively work to purge those villainous desires from your heart so that the next day, you can be better than you were the day before. If you make this a frequent habit, you will find in the fullness of time that you have drifted remarkably close to the role of the hero.

What Exactly Is A Hero?

To be a hero, you need not fight crime or pull people from burning buildings. You must only be courageous enough to recognize and face the villain within yourself, to turn your back on him by doing good. Extraordinary feats of bravery are certainly heroic, but they are not the criteria by which heroism is defined.

There are silent heroes all around us. They are the ones who love. They are the ones who attend to others. They are the ones who do their part to make their small corner of the world a better place.

The archetypal hero is an ideal that we will never fully realize in this life. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come close.

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