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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 5: Your First Talents Quest

You came from here
Beginning here

Image courtesy of emaze.com

You're not sure where the hole in the earth came from, but suddenly the air's cool, then cold, then damp and freezing as you plummet. You look up--Melly's face disappears, the hole closes, and darkness closes over you.

You land in warm, bouncy jello before you have a chance to scream. Good thing, too--it splashes all over your face as you sink a good meter or two into it, and who wants mystery jello in their mouth? You flail, and find it's not sticky, and with some climbing and some splashing you wade or waddle your way to the top and flounder out onto a cool dirt floor.

It's cool because of its low temperature, but also, you notice, cool in that social sense because of elaborate arabesques tracing it in thin ditches. A squelch sounds behind you, and you see the jello melt in its crater, and trickle into the arabesques, lighting up the floor with neon-green designs. 

The designs glow as the jello flows towards a center, a bubbling pool in the distance. A smell like lime wafts into the air from the pool's steam. You step forward, following the designs--

When you look back, the swirls behind you have dried, empty of their shimmering liquid. Thick darkness hugs your back. Oof, that's ominous. You scurry forward to stay in the light, following the designs as their pouring glow leads you toward the pool.

"Am I alone?" you ask the cave.

No one answers. You take that as a yes. You take a moment to remind yourself why you're standing here in sticky lime-scented steam: you'll discover your talents, use them to unravel the mystery of the black goo disease, and in the process discover who your mystery lover is. You're a little iffy on that last part, but hey, you clicked this link because deep down, you know you need to be loved.

You don't want to admit that to yourself, because that sounds wimpy. 

Does it? Has Melly rubbed off on you?

Anyway, you're now standing in front of the bubbling green pool. You walk around it--

And the floor tilts with your weight. "Whoa!" You stumble backwards as a whole plate of ground shifts. You fall--you tumble as liquid splashes out of the green pool towards you, into another series of designs under your feet, all arrows, pointing to three dirt mounds in the distance. 

You stop rolling at the three dirt mounds. The light flows around them, as if someone literally drew a circle in the floor for you to say, "Here." 

Oh, look, it even says "here" on the ground. Kind of a tacky touch.

So...you're supposed to do something with these dirt mounds.

You step on one. Nothing happens. You sit on another. Well, these aren't buttons.

Gosh, are you supposed to dig into them? What could be in there? Bones? Rotten stuff? Mmm, you'd rather not. You stand, looking around, but now everything's dark except the ring around the mounds. This is where you're supposed to be, alright.

The longer you stare at these lumps of earth, the more certain you become that you'll have to dig them up with your bare hands. You check in your pockets--nope, you've got folded dinosaurs in there. Nothing else. No shovel or anything. Oh man! You don't want to do this! Who would bring you here? What a gross and silly story! This is boring and dumb anyway!

Well, the longer you stand here, the more boring it's going to get.

Ugh, alright, you think. You begin to paw through the center mound--and suddenly your chest hurts.

You stop pawing. Your chest stops hurting.


Now you definitely don't want to do this. That's uncomfortable! It's like you're digging into yourself! Who wants to--

Oh, you get it. It's a metaphor. You have to sit, alone, and really dig into yourself sometimes, to find out what your talents are.

"Hey, that's total cheeseballs," you say into the darkness. "Cheesy!"

No one answers you, because you're alone. With a grumbling murmuring like a wimpy little baby, you--


Okay, fine, I'll stop calling you a baby if you stop calling me cheesy.


Before you can reprimand yourself for talking to the narrator, which is a crazy-person thing to do, you dive back into the task ahead and dig through the center mound. The tenseness in your chest aches, but the dirt's cool, and soft, moist, and soothing in your fingers, and for a moment you remember why grubby two-year-old you liked to make a mess. Fingertips in your cheerios and milk, the cold and the mush and the hard textures all swishing together over your tiny palms...smearing pudding on your high chair, the smoothness, the frictionless rub...why don't you touch more things anymore? You rub your forefingers together, and dirt granulates between them, falling softly. Gritty, not sticky but mushy. Dirt is pretty great. And you know, ever since you were little, people said you were good at...remember? Remember what you were good at?

Aha! The dirt comes away to reveal five gold coins. They're old, and heavy, with faces on them that make you think of museums, archeologists, and Zeus. You brush away the dirt on the other two mounds, and find one coin, and ten coins. 

As the last bit of dirt is displaced the room jerks--the liquid light splashes out of the circle around you into a trough on the wall, and when everything stops shaking you see three switches. The first switch, in front of the mound with one coin, has one slot in it. The second, in front of you and the center mound, has five slots, and the third switch, to your right, in front of the ten-coin mound, has ten slots in it.

It's like a little kid's math book or something when the words "how much" light up on the trough.

It's clear the talents from each mound go into the slots from each switch. Well, which one will you flip? Will you get a chance to flip a second one after a first one? Should you go with one, or ten? Are these ten horrors you're picking, or ten rewards?

You play it safe, right in between, and pick the five-token game. Clink--clunk--drrrrr--cleenk--dunk--each coin falls into its slot with a different noise, and then you pull the switch.

All three switches recede into the wall with a great rumbling noise, and then a stone door pops open before you. You step into the next room with the flow of green light; the door screeches and then thuds shut behind you. Your five coins tinkle and clink through the door to spin on the floor.

As you bend to pick them up, you find yourself kneeling before a pair of sandals.

Sandals with a guy in them. You look up, and he disappears.

He was beautiful.

(Wait, what?)

You stand as the room lights up. It's enormous--so cavernous you can't see where it ends, and filled with golden boxes! Two huge craters of shining jello dissolve next to you as you rise; shining liquid rushes along the room, filling jade curlicues and flowers and stars stretching off into infinity, and in the reflection of the shimmering, racing rivulets of light the golden boxes sparkle as if the room's on fire.

"Welcome," says a booming male voice. "To the Cave of Gifts."

Choose your gifts HERE next week! In the spirit of group participation, please @ me on twitter about your favorite abilities! Jumping high? Drawing beautiful art? A smooth tongue? Powerful axe-wielding? Gifted sword-swinging? Amazing dance moves? What are you good at, and what do you wish you were good at? What might come in handy questing? Feel free to post in the comments, too! Your answers will slightly affect the action in the next section.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 4

Previous part here

Beginning here

Melly's world could fit in your pocket.

It's true: you're carrying twenty dinosaurs, a tree, and a hair dryer in your pocket, all folded up tiny using Melly's pocket-liner and a pair of those weird fingerless gloves motorcyclists wear. You're walking, sore and sweaty, through a dry, rocky, cracked plain under a vicious sun, but at least you don't feel the weight.

"This used to be a riverbed," you say, to make conversation.

"You some kinda geologist?" Melly's walking, too, to save jetpack energy, and she doesn't seem happy that her stride's a bit slower than yours because of her height. She's marching like she's got something to prove. Sweat glimmers under the short hair on the shorn side of her head, like dew on a lawn. The long half of her hair's tangled in a ponytail reminiscent of an actual horse's tail at this point.

"I don't know if I'm a geologist," you say. "I don't know the background of this body I'm apparently forced to be in. I don't know who I used to be or who I am."

"Well, we gotta figure out your talents," Melly says. She wipes her forehead in her forearm, and looks at the sweat for a second before looking accusingly up at the sun. "We'll make a detour through Quest Valley to test you."

"Aren't we getting a little off track? We need to stop the disease destroying your world."

"No, you're here to find out if you're loved or not, and by what or who. Stoppin' the disease is a means ta that." Melly tosses a stone in the air, and it unfolds into an umbrella, floating over her, blocking out the sun.

"Wouldn't that be selfish of me?"

"Depends. Say your good takes you through a journey that helps tha world. That selfish?"

"So the ends from someone else's point of view, which are the means of my point of the view, determines whether my end's selfish or not?"

"Yer getting me lost in word salad. Get over here and shaddup." Melly sits under the stone umbrella and begins to cook a maiasaura steak over a fire you didn't see her start.

You hang back. "I don't want to sit next to the fire," you say.

"But I got shade."

"Shade over fire."

"Mebbe sometimes you gotta pay for shade."

"That's nice and all, but can't you just put the fire outside of the shade?"

Melly tilts her head. Without taking her glance off of you, she scoots back and pulls the umbrella back with her, leaving the fire exposed to the sun like you suggested.

You sit beside her in the shade, and take the dripping strip of meat she offers you. It's hot, soft, stringy in your hands. You've become used to eating like this, without utensils, even though you'd never do that at home. You're much more civilized than that.

You turn to her and smile. She took your advice for once, moving the fire. "So you're not always right," you tease.

"Never said I was. I'm just s'posed to find the meanings in stuff for you." Melly stuffs her face, and talks while she chews. You take tiny bites that sit in your mouth for what seems like ages--the meat's stringy and tough, with a powerful flavor like chicken graduated to red meat and overcompensated.

"What did you do before escorting travelers on adventures?" You ask Melly. "Just chase dinosaurs all day?"

"Travelers? You mean traveler. I never met a soul-linker before."

"How do you know what to do with me, then?"

"He told me."


She tilts her head, as if listening to a voice in the windless heat, or as if adding up chess moves. "Someone who loves you."

"Oh great, this again. I'm still waiting for this to end on some kind of sermon," you smirk.

"Hon, everything in life's a sermon. Anyone who tells you somethin' else is just hiding the fact they're selling something because they know what they're sellin' ain't all that great."

"Sometimes the things you say don't make sense."

"Sometimes the things you say don't make sense," she mocks your tone.

"Excuse me?" You laugh.

"Mee Mur me?" She mocks you again.

"Are you, like, five?"

"Look, I'm hungry and tired, I can't be shoving wisdom down your throat 24-7. Imma open a door to Quest Valley for ya, and you'll Quest for your abilities, and then we'll head to the disease epicenter. That's what you want, right? Epicenters and stuff, to see where the goop's comin' from?"

"Is it that easy? We can just go there?"

"It's simple, not easy. We all know how the disease started. Problem's stoppin' its spread. But we gotta show you the beginning. Maybe see if you got any new ideas about taking it out." She shrugs. "Sound good?"

"We do a lot of planning and not a lot of doing," you observe.

"That's life sometimes. You'll be doing for the next five links. Questin' and such."



She opens a hole in the ground, and shoves you in.

Next link here. Sorry it's short this week. It'll be more worth it next time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Til Death Do Us Part--An Experimental Tryptich (Lit Flash Fic, G)

Inspired by a woman I met in medical school, and by the deaths on the wards. 
For more free fiction, click here.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 3: Dinosaur Hunting

You trot barefoot after Melly, who floats along on her jetpack through the shadows of the trees in the lengthening afternoon. After just a few yards she taps on another tree.

"Does everyone here live in trees?" you ask.

"T'ain't that we live in trees. We store stuff in 'em." She taps again, and twists a little knot in the bark. A slot opens, far, far up in the top of the tree--"go long," says Melly.

You're not sure what she means until clothing shoots out the top of the tree, rocketing off into the distance.

"Are you kidding me?" You mutter under your breath and take off.

When you find the clothes--a ragged, thick brown pants set and vest made of thick linen, and a lighter, white, baggy linen shirt--they've fallen into a stream. The light plays on the surface of the water as it bubbles and beats across the rocks in a merry way, but your clothes hang heavy, sopping and cold in your hands.

"Ah, sooorry about that," Melly says, emphasizing the "o" in her weird accent--is it Canadian?--as she pulls up beside you and draws a hair dryer from you don't know where. She blows off your clothes, you slip into them, grumbling a bit, and then without a word she leaves, and you follow.

The foliage begins to change as you walk. The leaves seem wider here, with more many-pronged star-shapes, and darker, long fronds, and ferns, and the whole underbrush becomes thicker and softer, and the trees shorter, and soon you break out over hilly plains…

Hilly plains covered with maiasaura! You recognize them by their wide, duck-shaped bills, and their hunched form and hooves. They stand on their back hooves to look around like meerkats, and then drop to trot on all fours, playing with each other and watching over each other, a huge family. Tiny craters dot the hillsides, each just a few feet wide and filled with eggs. Babies play among the hooves of their mothers.

You and Melly crouch in the shadows of the underbrush, just on the edge of the plains, speaking in low tones.

"I hate my job," Melly sighs.

"Wait, these are the dinosaurs you hunt? They're so peaceful!"

"Yeah. Without any predators we got plant-eatin' critters destroying all the forests. Local overpopulation." She unhooks a little box from her belt, and as with the mirror, begins unfolding it until it becomes a large metal claw. "The Forest Guardian before me f*ck'd up, and killed all the carnivores. Or he did what he had to ta protect the local villages without armin' them, I dunno how you wanna put it. But now I gotta clean up." She unhooks another little box, and unfolds a cattle prod. "It's a little like life, yaknow. Without struggle, without teeth, life gets overgrown."

"Overgrown with what?"

"Fat lazy stuff that eats your inner garden."

You're not quite sure what that means, but there isn't much time to think about it. She hands you the cattle prod and the claw. "Crush two eggs from each nest. No more, 'n no less," she says. "Based on my population studies."

"And what will you--"

Your stomach sinks as she re-folds her trident-sword into what looks suspiciously like a sniper rifle. "Imma take out adults."

You're going to vomit. No, this…this doesn't seem like something you want to do. "Isn't there some other way? Instead of killing them?"

Melly crosses her arms. "So you just got here, and you got a dinosaur population degree or somethin'."

"Well no but--couldn't you--relocate them or something?"

"To some place they're gonna mess with the ecosystem, 'cuz they don't belong there? Look, we already got some kinda magic disease spreading across the world, we don't need ta make it worse shipping animals all over the place. I love this herd. I love this world. I'm not too scared to show my love with a knife when it's needed." With that Melly bursts out of the woods, leaping into the air and firing up her jetpack again. She takes off into the blue sky over the herd, far enough away from the dinosaurs that they can neither see nor smell her. You watch her take aim…

There's a quiet zip, and with a mournful groan one of the graceful maiasaura tilts, and thumps to the ground, flesh bouncing like a sack of potatoes once before rest. There's no gunshot. The beasts near the victim dart away, surprised, but there's no stampede, either. 

Another zip. You cover your mouth with your hand as another giant pounds the dust with that same sad lowing. 

Melly flies over the herd like this, and you're counting in your head, unwilling to help her with her unnatural selection but unable to do anything else. Three…four…five…six…you don't want to be here counting, and you don't know where else to be! You're too old to cry over Bambi's parents--but are you, really?

Then, suddenly, one of the creatures breaks away from the pack. It looks to the falling beasts, and to you, you, huddling in the underbrush, doing nothing to help it at all, you, leering over its children like a pervert--

And it charges up the hill towards you.

It comes faster than you can think. You have no contingency plan for charging herbivore dinosaur. It's much larger, growing closer, and now you see muscled shoulders, and the sharp, heavy hooves, and and the sheer mass behind the lowered head, and the steam, almost, coming off the creature in its low, roaring, squealing, shimmering black-eyed rage, it all stuns you with terror no less beautiful than--

You need to run. Hello? Run, or something! 

There's a tree. A many-branched tree--low branches. Like the chestnut tree! You dodge to the side, and grab--and miss! You fall on your butt, and the dinosaur whirls to charge again--you grab again, your palm scrapes in the bark, your feet kick against the trunk, then step on a lower branch, then up, and up, and now you're climbing.

With a whump you almost fall out of the tree as it shakes under the impact of the maisaura's head smashing into it. You hold on. 

But then, the creature smashes again.

And its head splits open on the tree trunk like a rotten egg.

You shriek, more in surprise and disgust than out of fear, as brains and a black goo splatter over the base of the trunk, and the maisaura falls limp. It lies there, bleeding out, without even a twitch as your breathing returns to normal. All is calm. All is disgusting.

Your gasp is out of fear, though, when the black goo begins to ooze up the tree towards you. 


You're peering squinty-eyed down at it, curious, until it reaches the lowest limb--the branch cracks, and shakes, and with a creak like the Tin-Man relieved by oil the branch begins to move. It reaches for you like a scraping claw!

"Ohhhh no." You climb higher. 

The ooze follows! The branches come to life in your wake, until the whole tree below you begins to shudder, to writhe, with a creaking that sounds almost like a scream, as if the dead beast haunts it. You climb--but now you're standing on branches that bend under your weight, and clinging to a top that sways and sways and tilts further and further and--

Your breath comes in scattered pants, pants that want to become nothing but endless screams, as the wind picks up and you're clinging to soft green thin branches and oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh what even is that oh gosh oh--?

You fall.

You scream.

Your body collides with a mass mid-air--it's like getting punched in the torso with a boulder--and as you're lifted over the treetops you find Melly straining to somehow keep you in her small arms. You cling to her shoulders, and the jet-pack putters under your combined weight.

"Come on," she grunts, and then swears.

The jet-pack roars to life, and you float over the plains to the opposite hill. The tree reaches for the sky with one last screech and then collapses over the forest with a thundering crash and a splattering wave of slick slime.

"What is that?!" you cry.

"That's the disease," Melly says. "That's what's ruining our world."


You're sitting on a hill overlooking the wasted plain. Melly's already sniped her adult quota, and her egg quota, too, apparently, and you've watched her zoom down to collect blood samples or to use her weird folding technology to wrap a dinosaur body up in her pocket, and she's taking notes and speaking into a recorder on her wrist over the blackened tree and maiasaura corpse, and in some ways it's fascinating work, but you're not helping. She's already killed most of the eggs she planned on killing, and their mothers and father roar at her, chasing under her, away from you, as she flies over their home.

The last nest lies at your feet. You hold the last dinosaur egg in your palms. You imagine smuggling it out, raising your own little baby dinosaur--why not? If it's a pet, it can't escape and mess up the ecosystem or whatever Melly said. You don't know how long this adventure will last, and every little girl's dreamt about riding a dinosaur! Why not?

It's human arrogance. You could spread the 'magical disease,' or something. You know about the zebra mussels, and the Japanese kudzu plant, and all the other invasive species that wiped out native populations because of humans who relocated wildlife without doing any research first. 

What did Melly say? Without struggle, without teeth, life gets overgrown. Maybe it means that other things, every day mundane nothings, and apathetic meaningless comforts, maybe cloud out your purpose, until you can't find it anymore, can't find what you're fighting for because there's nothing fighting back, until you're not doing anything that's even worth fighting you about. Then what? Muscle cells that aren't stimulated with work, with prodding from your nervous system, atrophy and die. On their own. Maybe that's happening to you. Maybe it's why you feel like…dying, sometimes. 

So you'll find something to struggle for. Conflict to drive your story. A goal to make it all worth it. For starters, you'll find out more about this magical disease Melly's on about, and you'll fight to end it. Until the planet can become a place where balance can be restored, and no one has to execute dinosaurs just for living. 

The soul-link begins to fade again, because you're only here to inspire your search for your fight in your real life, but before it fades, you lift the smooth, leathery weight in your palms, crouch over a sharp rock…and crush the egg.

You'll be back for the link next week.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tips On Small Presses and Punchy Writing From Mystery Author Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz (Alt Title: Inside The Mind of A Man Who Writes About Murder!)

Hey friends, I've got a treat for you today! Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz, a friend of mine and a multi-published mystery author, joins us to share some insight into his writing process and his experience with small presses. One of Dr. HIll's particular strengths is punchy, fast-paced writing, and I know a lot of you out there have questions about that, so I asked him for some tips to share with you all!

Ahem, is this mike working?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 2

(Part 1 here)
Beginning here

You awaken to the sound of wood chipping away, and the twittering of birds. A stream bubbles somewhere beyond the wood-chipping, and light begins to crack into the darkness.

Your chest aches, suddenly, and for a moment you can't breathe, and then the light bursts forth over you and the pressure's relieved. You squint; a short, stocky figure stands silhouette'd against the light, pulling open the crack in the darkness like Samson tearing down the temple.

It's a reference that enters your head that you're not sure you knew before.

You crawl out of the tree, dripping and sticky, and leaves stick to your hands and knees as the Space-Woman helps you to your feet.

"Hey!" she says. "Where's my jet-pack?"

You reach back into the infinite darkness inside the tree-trunk, pull out the silver vest with its glowing blue rockets, and hand it to her. "I didn't catch your name," you say, with a confidence that surprises you, in a voice not quite yours.

"I'm Melly. And you're Mara. They decided to go with matchin' letters for this one."

"I'm what?"

"You're Mara! That's your name. Remember, I told you, we needed to bake you into the Protagonist of this story? The Protagonist is a young woman, a little chubby, a little multi-colored, named Mara. See?"

She unfolds a sheet of paper from her pocket, and keeps unfolding it, and unfolding it, until it's a vellum blanket almost your height. She gives it a nice flick, and it snaps taught and straight into a mirror.

You're surprised, to say the very, very least.

"Hey! Hey, I didn't ask to be a girl! And who gets to name me, or decide my race? This is weird!"

Melly crosses her arms and puffs a strand of hair out of her face. She glares at you, and doesn't say anything. She's not very patient.

You keep talking: "This is--this is deterministic, or something! At least make it like a video game, like an Avatar, where I pick the things about me!"

"That ain't how real life works, and it ain't how stories work, either. The author chooses the paramaters, the protagonist acts, and the reader discovers new things 'bout themselves, and 'bout humanity, through that protagonist, acting through those parameters."

"But what if I don't identify as a girl?!"

Melly smirks as she folds the mirror back into a little pocket handkerchief. "What the blinkies does that mean?"

"Are you kidding me? It means, what if I don't feel like a girl?"

"And what's a girl feel like, exactly? Is there some special way a girl's gotta feel?"

"Like--like feminine, and stuff. With--interests in feminine things."

"Uh-huh." Suddenly Melly's 'masculine' musculature becomes very obvious to you, and the tough blaze shaved into her buzz-cut stands out. "And who," she asks, as she straps her silver vest around her small-breasted torso. "Gets to decide what's feminine? Who gets to decide what feels like a girl?"

"There are--there are cultural constructs of gender that people identify with."

"So some 'constuct,' some imaginary idea a buncha people have, gets to decide what it means to be a girl. Tell me, this construct, it's based on some kinda science?"

"Uh--I don't know."

"It's based on some kinda reality? Like the reality o' the breasts pokin' outta your chest right now?"

You look down and blush. "Look, there may be some kind of genetic alterations that make certain people more likely to identify as various genders. I don't know."

"You don't know. Well you know what I do know." Melly draws her trident-sword, and it glows blue as she floats up in the air and turns away from you towards the forest. "I do know that ain't nobody gonna tell me a girl has to feel a certain way to be a girl. I wear what I want. I do what I want. If I see something a guy has, or a guy can do, and I wanna do it, f***, I do it. Doesn't make me less of a girl."

"But not everyone feels like you do."

"Yeah, sure, I guess some people wanna let a bunch of fuzzy ideas from other people's heads tell 'em what it means to be a girl. Dresses and flowers or whatever. I'm not here to talk theory, woman, I'm here to take you dinosaur hunting. You comin' or not?"

"But--you are here to talk theory. You're--a--story character--" You pause as you say that, and look around at the maples and oaks towering above you, and the blue sky studded with wispy clouds, and you inhale that wet, moldy smell of earth and leaf decay, and there's no sign or a portal or a soul-link out anywhere, and Melly doesn't have to correct you.

She does anyway, in a low, muttering voice, with her chin ducked down to her chest as if ashamed. "Don't say things like that. You ruin it for the both o' us."

She turns, and you follow because she looked so cute in her forlornness. Strong people always look less prickly, less politically-incorrect, in those moments of doubt. But why would she doubt? What does this mean, for her, if she knows she's a story character, and you're--

"Stop thinkin' about it, will you?" she snaps.

Ah, there comes the brute back into her voice. What's her deal, you wonder? Maybe you're here to soften her up.

You consider going back to the tree. Mixed-race fattie female might not be your style. What kind of name is Mara, anyway? Melly might be kind of a jerk.

Dinosaur-hunting, though. What's that about? And wasn't there supposed to be some kind of secret something here, about how you're loved? That might be good for your self-esteem. You might need a pick-me-up like that, something to encourage you. Life's sh**ty sometimes. A little fantasizing, a little clicking around on a webpage, that might be nice...

Will you be back to click next Sunday?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Revisions are Killing You (But Some Things Are Worth Dying For)

Unfinished painting of King Arthur, still under revision (Ponce Museum of Art)

As an editor I respect used to say, "We're all very excited."

I am, in particular, incredibly excited about finally releasing bits and pieces of the meta-comic world where characters kill their authors, BUT--

There's a really huge but on this one--

I think they're literally killing me.