Tule and Lakeside provide food to Vhelen and the Kingdom in exchange for protection. The road to Khalen-Dun has long since grown over, though travelers along the main road say they hear strange noises coming from the nearby forest.
The Kingdom of Vhelen sits nestled in the Stonespire Mountains next to Hornspike Bay. To the east was once the prosperous Kingdom of Ghund; however, just 50 years ago the lich, Roger the Undying Coney rose to power and his forces, led by the Death Priest, Oatha the Destructor have taken control of the lands. They encroach closer and closer to Vhelen. In response, King Thorn sent his forces to establish Fort Hambey.
Tule and Lakeside provide food to Vhelen and the Kingdom in exchange for protection. The road to Khalen-Dun has long since grown over, though travelers along the main road say they hear strange noises coming from the nearby forest.
732 Years Ago
Kelvin Stonetapper ran his hand across the rough-hewn rock of the lower tunnel. His father and his father’s father had helped cut the tunnel long before Kelvin had even grown his first chin whiskers. Kelvin was more than happy to continue the family legacy.
The Mining Council of Khalen-Dun had given up on the lower tunnels, said there wasn’t anything down that low worth mining. The Stonetapper Clan thought differently. Kelvin remembered his father talking about smelling gold down there.
Kelvin sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. It didn’t smell like gold. The air was heavy with the stink of mold, and something else he couldn’t quite identify. However, he wasn’t going to let that stop him. If he could just open a new tunnel, he’d find that gold his father obsessed about before he had died of the fuzzy lung. Then the Stonetappers would have their day.
Kelvin came to the final turn in the tunnel system. At this point, he was quite a ways from the main mining system and the clink and clank of picks on stone had faded away. He expected to find a wall. What he found stopped him in his tracks.
A large crack ran up the length of the tunnel’s wall. It was big enough that he could fit through. The ground was wet as if a giant snail or something had crawled out.
Kelvin put his pick down and drew a hand axe from his belt. He took a few steps forward and then gagged as an acrid stench hit his nose. “Dumathoin’s beard!”
He covered his mouth and nose with his arm and moved closer to the crack. As he neared, he stepped into the liquid. It was viscous and stuck to the bottom of his boots. It made his movements sluggish.
Kelvin had to inform the Mining Council. This wasn’t natural and they would want to investigate, perhaps even send a small contingent of the elite Ironbeards to clear out the dangers. Kelvin was about to run back to the main levels when the slightest whisper tickled his ears.
He stopped and listened. It had to have been the wind, or a trick of the tunnels.
Kelvin’s heart dropped to his shins. “Father?”
There knock of stone against stone echoed from the other side of the crack. Then, a rush of wind blew past him, carrying with it the stench of death.
The smell changed, and there it was! Gold!
His ancestors be praised, they were right! There was gold down there.
Without proof, the Mining Council would never approve official exploration. Kelvin pushed his fears aside and climbed through the crack.
Grunin Copperside leaned against the wall. His shift was almost over and the replacement guard should be arriving at any moment. He stroked his beard and dreamed about the mug of ale and turkey leg he was going to eat at the Pick and Hammer Tavern.
The sound of footsteps echoed up the tunnel. At first, he thought it was his replacement, but they were coming from the other direction. It was probably one of the miners coming back early. Perhaps they had found a new vein.
“Ho there! Who ye be?”
Grunin’s voice bounced off the walls, but the newcomer didn’t reply. Grunin grabbed his great axe and stood straight. It was only a few breaths later that the dwarf in question came into view.
“Oy, Kelvin! Did ye find that gold yet?”
Grunin chuckled and resumed holding the wall up with his body. Kelvin had gone out into his family’s tunnel in search of lost gold for years now.
Kelvin continued to come closer, but there was something about the way he walked, an almost stumbling shuffle, that didn’t sit right with Grunin.
“Are ye okay, m’boy?”
Kelvin didn’t answer. As he neared, Grunin saw the boy was soaking wet, his boots sloshing with each step.
“What’s wrong with ye? Did an umber hulk take a piss on ye?”
Grunin chuckled again, but this time it was more out of nervousness than joviality. Grunin wanted to run. Something wasn’t right and the small primal part of his brain screamed at him to get far away from the boy. Yet, he couldn’t do that. If the Captain found out he had high-tailed it because the Stonetapper boy scared him, they’d make Grunin shave his beard.
Grunin grabbed his axe and took a step back.
“How about ye stop right there then?”
Kelvin shambled forward, his head hung low. The way the boy smelled made Grunin think his joke about the umber hulk probably wasn’t too far off.
“I’m serious, now ye better stop or else!”
Kelvin stopped and looked up. The boy’s eyes were the color of dirty aventurine gems. Kelvin opened his mouth and a gooey liquid oozed out and covered the boy’s small beard. Grunin turned to run, but it was too late.
“The Four Fans of Freedom come stock with a bucket to poop in. Don’t break the seal or else…”
-Special Agent Doyle L. Johnson, ID: Hamburger-Papa-Lima, 3-15-3
The drone of the four engines in the C-130J was enough to put Thuli to sleep. She’d never had trouble sleeping on planes unlike some of her counterparts; the enclosed space, darkened windows, and vibrations from the four Rolls-Royce AE 2100 D3 turboprops was just as good, if not better than Ambien. What wasn’t good was when her teammates decided to wake her up.
All it took was a slight nudge on the shoulder, and she was wide awake. The cabin lights were turned to tactical red, covering everything with a dark glow, giving off enough to see and navigate the interior of the plane, but not enough to destroy night vision or give away position. Sergeant Fergus crouched next to her. He was in his standard Bureau urban tactical uniform, which was a digitized camouflaged pattern of grays, blacks, and blues. The uniform sported hardened knee and elbow pads made from black carbon fiber and a ballistic helmet in the same color. It also came standard with a black tactical vest with a variety of pockets able to hold a sidearm, extra magazines, and other deadly accessories deemed necessary by the wearer. His red beard stuck out like a sore thumb but pity to the person who decided to broach the subject.
Fergus pointed to his green, Dave Clark headsets. Thuli grabbed hers and put them on.
“We’re getting close,” he said, his voice modulating through the aircraft’s interphone system.
“Copy. Get everyone ready.”
Fergus nodded and walked off as she rolled out of hammock she had tethered near the rear of the aircraft by the cargo ramp. The spot in the back was perfect for such a set-up, although a little cold at times, it was nothing a heavy blanket couldn’t fix.
Kenshin sat in the corner near the fuselage, resting his head on his knees. He stood up before Fergus even got close. That man was always ready, regardless of the situation. His voice boomed over the interphone system.
“All right you dogs, let’s get ready to rock and roll. We’re getting close to the target area. Move like you got a pair!”
“A pair of what, exactly?” Cheryl asked, stretching her arms as Fergus walked by. “Because last time I checked, balls are pretty sensitive, one kick and most men take a dive. Vaginas on the other hand…”
Hannah laughed and gave Cheryl a high five. Fergus stared at them for a moment before letting out a deep chuckle.
“Aye, tis true. Regardless of all that bullshit, get your things ready.”
Thuli walked through the aircraft and up a small set of steps leading to the flight deck. The avionics in the new J models of the C-130 meant a navigator wasn’t needed. However, the Bureau was a sucker for redundancy, so they provided a traditional compliment of flight crew. Besides, given the things they were up against, sometimes traditional was the best way to go.
Outside the aircraft, it was dark. The sun had set but still cast a soft glow in the west, just enough to let someone know it was about to call it a night. Storm clouds roiled like boiling water in the distance, painting the horizon in a series of blacks, grays and blues.
“My guess is that’s our storm?” Thuli asked.
The co-pilot, Major Magnusson nodded.
“Yeah, generally we’d avoid such a storm, but we’ve got no choice. There’s no going around it. Best have your people strap in, it’s going to get bumpy,” Magnusson said.
Thuli’s pouch vibrated as if on cue, indicating the storm wasn’t normal, that there were forces, dark forces at work—forces that called to her on a primal level. This wasn’t good.
She returned to the back of the aircraft where her team was assembled with their gear. The plan was to get as close to Salt Lake City as possible before finding a strip to land on. They were flying blind since all communications from inside the storm had gone silent hours ago. The last transmission from anything resembling authority came from the Air Traffic Control at Hill Air Force Base launching F-16 Fighters to deal with an unknown threat. The pilots reported engaging a hostile target, and that was the last anyone heard of them.
They had strapped into their seats when the aircraft went through the first bit of turbulence. However, to call it a bit of turbulence was an understatement; it was if they had just driven over a series of massive potholes. The aircraft shook and bounced in the sky, bouncing the plane around as if it were on the rails of some hellish rollercoaster.
Static popped through the aircraft intercom accompanied by what sounded like voices. They weren’t the voices of the flight crew, but from someone else—correction, something else. Thuli turned up the volume on her headset to try and hear the voice clearly, but there was too much static.
“Sergeant Fergus, are you hearing this?”
If Fergus heard her, he didn’t give any indication. He sat on the cargo net seating with his arms folded across his chest. Sweat poured down the big man’s face in rivers. Nestled in his lap was a barf bag. It was one of the few times that the big man wasn’t eating something.
“Cheryl, Hannah? Can you hear me?”
No answers yet the voice continued to flit through the headset, barely above a whisper. There was something familiar about it. Not the language, but the cadence. She’d heard it before, but couldn’t place it.
“Pilot, are you hearing this?”
No answer from the flight deck. Thuli took her headsets off, but the whispering voice continued to roll through her head. She grasped the pouch at her neck. It was warm and vibrating in tune with the storm. Something was attacking them. Something that didn’t want them to get any closer.
The plane lurched violently and dropped, creating a sensation of weightlessness before gravity took the reins again. Fergus grabbed the bag on his lap and brought it up to his face, his eyes closed tightly.
Something buffeted against the fuselage of the aircraft, sending a loud thwap through the interior. This wasn’t just turbulence. This was something else.
Thuli unbuckled her straps and stood. Her team followed her movements, all eyes on her. She pointed to her headsets and then made a cutting motion across her neck, indicating they were dead. Everyone nodded.
She needed to inform the flight crew that they were comms sour in the back, and also let them know to be on the lookout for anything strange. Thuli made her way back up to the flight deck and placed a hand on the navigator’s shoulder, indicating to him that the comms weren’t working. He nodded and freed one of his ears from his headsets.
“What’s going on? We’re comms sour back there.” She had to almost yell to be heard over the drone of the aircraft.
“Things are getting really hairy up here. You need to strap in.”
“I’m going back there to check the cargo,” the loadmaster said, walking past Thuli. “I’ll let your people know to strap in.”
Thuli nodded in thanks, then strapped in on the flight deck. She wanted to stay there for a minute and see what was happening. There was more at work than just nature here, and it made her skin crawl.
“I’m getting some odd terrain readings on the instruments here. Something that shouldn’t be there,” the navigator said.
“Keep an eye on it, we don’t want to run nose first into a mountain,” the pilot said.
The storm outside was worse than she imagined. Lightning arced in all directions around them, and rain pelted the windshields of the aircraft as if they were flying through a wall of water making it difficult to see. However, through the storm, something moved through the clouds, something big—something with many tentacles.
Its form was indiscernible save for the briefest flashes of lightning silhouetting the creature behind the clouds in a hellish display of shadow-puppetry. Whatever it was, it was massive, bigger than a football stadium, and writhing in all directions.
The flight crew was silent as the pilot put the C-130 into a hard turn. Thuli grabbed on to a nearby rail to keep from knocking her head against the wall. The aircraft started to shudder as the pilot put everything into the turn.
“What is that, Captain?” the Navigator asked.
“I don’t know.”
She wished she did know, wished she knew so they could combat whatever monstrosity had crawled from the depths of nightmare and became real. But she didn’t know. The only thing that was certain was that they needed to get away from it, and fast.
The aircraft leveled out and the pilot punched the throttle. They had executed an 180-degree turn and were headed away from the creature. Thuli unbuckled her straps and ran to the back of the aircraft to peer out the rear porthole, hoping to get a glimpse of it one last time.
Cheryl was already there, crouched next to the window.
“This isn’t good, boss. Do you feel it?”
She did, not just by the vibration of her pouch, but deep in the marrow of her bones. Something had awakened in the storm and it called to her, drawing her closer like a magnet.
“Can you see it?”
Cheryl shook her head. “Too dark now.”
For a moment, the drone of the aircraft’s engine went silent, and the only thing Thuli could hear was her own breathing. Then, the plane bucked as if they had hit a speed bump, sending both Cheryl and Thuli into the air. They crashed onto the ramp with a dull thud, jarring Thuli’s shoulder with a flash of burning pain.
She was about to ask what had happened when a flash of orange, followed by several pops occurred on the port side of the C-130. An engine fire.
She rushed to the port window and looked out. Flames were spitting out of engine one, but only for a moment before they disappeared. The flight crew was on top of it and had run through the emergency procedures in their checklist, shutting the engine down and isolating it before the fire could spread. However, there wasn’t a checklist for what happened next.
A glistening tentacle, blacker than onyx and just as shiny burst through the clouds, whipping into the wing. It shredded through the damaged engine as if it were rice paper, sending debris flying in all directions. Shrapnel peppered the fuselage, hitting the aircraft like a machine gun and punching holes in several places. A loud pop rattled through the C-130 and all the air rushed from Thuli’s lungs. The cargo area filled with a smoky mist as the plane rapidly depressurized due to the breach in the hull. The wind rushed into the aircraft, roaring like some sort of leviathan.
Training kicked in and Thuli grabbed a walk-around oxygen bottle and put on the mask, gritting her teeth as she rotated her injured shoulder. The movements were mechanical, trained and ingrained into her from the early days of her training. Her team followed procedures to the letter as well. Shortly after, six loud rings of the alarm bell sounded—it was time to prepare for crash landing.
Three in the tree, six in the ditch was the adage. It was a mantra Thuli would never forget. They ran the checklist, getting all their gear strapped on, and securing themselves to their seat. Thuli hoped it was just a precaution, but the rumble coming from the wing spoke otherwise.
Hannah lowered her head and made the sign of the cross. Fergus sat upright, both hands on his knees. He was breathing hard, trying to control the sickness. Cheryl sat in her seat, motionless, eyes cast to the floor.
She looked to Kenshin. Rumor had it he knew the exact moment of his death. He caught her gaze and understood what she was asking. Kenshin smiled and pointed to his chest, shaking his head. He waved his hand out in a wide semi-circle pointing to the rest of the team and shrugged his shoulders.
“Thanks, you’re instilling a lot of confidence,” Thuli said.
The Loadmaster made his way over to Thuli, grabbing onto whatever he could to keep himself steady. He crouched next to her and yelled so his voice could be heard over the din.
“We’ve lost engine one, and three. Engine two is on its last leg. We’re going to make an emergency landing in a large open area below us.”
Straight facts, nothing more. That was one of the many reasons she liked this particular flight crew. The strain in the Load’s eyes was enough to tell her it was bad, though, and the vibration in the wing, which was getting worse by the second, was enough to tell her it could get even shittier at any moment.
Lightning flashed again, illuminating the nearby mountains. They were at a lower altitude than she had thought, low enough they could breathe on their own. The Pilot had decent enough control of the aircraft, and they were descending gently.
The Load was standing near the paratroop door at the rear of the aircraft looking out the window when he let out a scream. A portion of the tail of the C-130 disintegrated into a thousand pieces as a tentacle ripped through the sheet metal. The sound of twisting metal filled the plane, along with the sound of something screeching, something alive. The Load fell to the floor, scrambling to get back to his feet, but before he could, another tentacle grabbed him by the leg and pulled him away.
Through the hole of the plane, Thuli could see the terrain getting more and more detailed. They were headed down fast. She grabbed on to the pouch which was so hot it almost burned her skin, and mumbled words under her breath, words that came naturally even though she loathed even thinking about them. Moments later, the plane hit the ground.
Road of Lost Souls Episode I: “Uninvited Guests”
Halwyn stared in silence at the shroud-covered corpse of his mentor, Father Granger. He had taken care to cleanse Father Granger’s body before wrapping him in linens and digging the grave. Like most other things in this world, the soil was blasted, dead, and fought against his efforts with each scoop of the shovel.
Sweat poured down his face, stinging his eyes, yet the pain didn’t bother him. It was a distraction from the rest of the world. The warrior in him welcomed the physical labor. Muscles awakened that hadn’t seen use for a long time. The effort and burn took him back to his days as a mercenary, digging trenches and preparing a defensible position. It was straightforward work in those days. The cleric in him was another story, that aspect of him floundered with questions and doubt.
As gently as he could, he lowered his Father Granger’s body into the ground. Halwyn scratched at his long beard. It was beginning to gray like what was left of the hair on his head. After another moment of rest, he began the arduous task of filling the grave with soil. It wasn’t long before his friend was completely covered. Gone, like everything else that was good in the world.
While Granger’s body belonged to the earth, his soul was a mystery. With the death of their deity, Earung, and the sundering of the heavens, Halwyn no longer knew where the dead could go. He had an idea and it wasn’t comforting in the least. There was a reason why he secured Father Granger’s arms and legs with a heavy rope before burying him.
Thunder boomed in the distance, rolling through the sky and echoing across the valley. The sudden chill in the air told him it wouldn’t be long before the storm was upon him. It didn’t rain much anymore, but when it did, it came down with a fury.
Halwyn shoveled the last patch of earth over Father Granger and started to chant the traditional death prayer that would help usher Granger’s spirit to Earung and Her golden lodge. However, the words were empty, lacking the divine connection he had grown used to.
Halwyn shuffled back to the church, entering the small building just as the first drops of rain began to fall. He closed the door behind him and made his way to the hearth. The fire had died down to embers.
He grabbed the heavy war hammer that hung above the mantle. It used to be Father Granger’s, now it was his. The weapon had been forged by Earung’s chosen smiths from a black metal mined from the Bleak Caverns in the south. Silver filigree decorated the handle as well as the sharp point opposite the hammer end. Before the sundering, the hammer had sung with Earung’s blessing. Now, its silence was much louder.
Halwyn turned and swung the weapon, smashing into the side of an elaborately carved pew. The wood cracked and splintered into several pieces. He tossed the hammer to the floor and used the broken chunks of the pew to stoke the fire back to life. Once the fire was going again, he rechecked his wards. They were intact, the clean lines carved into the mantle of the fireplace, creating a row of swirling symbols and esoteric designs were perfect—no demons would find their way into his hall tonight, at least not through the fire.
Halwyn thought about warming up a pot of stew, but he wasn’t hungry. He couldn’t quite remember when he had last eaten. Perhaps it was yesterday afternoon before he had found Father Granger hanging from the rafters.
He glanced up to the ceiling. A length of frayed rope still hung from the rough-hewn wood as if inviting him to join his mentor.
The wind outside worked in concert with the rain, trying to batter its way into the church with relentless fervor. Halwyn huddled next to the fire, staring at the flames. He lost himself in their chaotic dance. Soon, he began to listen to their infernal whispers.
The whispers told him things. Nasty things that crept into the dark corners of his soul. When Halwyn came to, he had a coil of rope in his hands, the end of which was fashioned into a noose.
He dropped it to the ground as a quiet laugh echoed through the room. Halwyn stood and scanned the darkness. There was nobody else there. He triple-checked the wards. They were still there, but something was with him. The tingle on the back of his neck was more than enough indication.
He held his breath and listened, hoping to catch the noise of movement. The old building creaked in the wind, but there wasn’t anything else. Halwyn was about to return to the debate of dinner when a noise came with the breeze. Quiet at first, then rising to something unmistakable—a child’s scream.
He ran to the door and peered into the darkness. At first, he wasn’t able to see anything through the rain, but then movement caught his eye. Two cloaked figures raced toward the church. They looked behind them, searching for something, or someone.
Out of instinct, Halwyn spoke the divine words, pleading with Earung to grant him the blessing of light. The plea fell on deaf ears and instead of a ball of white brilliance, there was nothing. He cursed, spitting onto the floor.
As they neared, a third figure appeared, a child ran between the two. One of the adults stumbled, falling to the ground.
Halwyn scanned the tree line trying to see what was giving chase. For a heartbeat, he thought he spied a dark shadow slipping through the timber, something with eyes that glimmered a ruby red, but it was gone as fast as it had appeared. He’d seen too much in his time to count it off as a trick of the forest. Something was out there.
The trio was moving again, albeit a little slower as the one who fell was limping. Halwyn opened the door wide and waved them over.
“Hurry,” he said.
As they neared the church’s fence, the trio stopped. One of the adults hunched near the gate. Halwyn was about to go help them, as he knew the latch could stick, but they started to run once again.
They were almost to the door when he saw they were elves, with their pointed ears and angular features giving away their heritage. He almost slammed the door shut out of instinct. His lips curled into a sneer. The two adult elves stopped. The child took a couple more steps, but stopped when she noticed her parents were no longer moving. She cast a curious look toward Halwyn. Tears cut through the grime on the child’s cheeks and she stared at Halwyn with wide eyes. She couldn’t be more than 10 winters.
Halwyn was at a loss. His mind told him to close the door and send them away. For all he knew, they would try and kill him, perhaps even make a meal out of him. There were rumors of wild elves roaming the countryside that enjoyed the taste of man-flesh.
Father Granger would have let them in. He was always better at being a servant of Earung. Besides, the way the child looked at him, her sky-blue eyes a mixture of curiosity, fear, and hope. He’d seen that look before, in his own daughter.
“Come on,” Halwyn said through his teeth and opened the door wider.
The two adults dashed inside, but the child stood at the doorway. Her hair matched the metal of the war hammer and was plastered to her forehead by the rain. She stared past Halwyn, her gaze locked onto the rafters where the frayed rope swayed. The rope moved as it had when Granger was tied to the end of it. Halwyn blinked hard a few times, hoping it would stop, but the rope continued to move. It had to be the wind.
The woman grabbed the child and pulled her in. “Thank the gods,” the woman said.
“The gods are dead,” Halwyn said as he secured the door.
She was about to say something when the man hobbled in front of her. “Well then, thank you, sir,” he said.
They had thick accents. Halwyn had heard that accent before during the Battle of Glyntwood Hollow. The memories made Halwyn’s blood boil. He was regretting not sending them away even more.
The wood elves had killed many of his companions during that battle. However, that was a long time ago, and Earung did not discriminate. Halwyn would try and emulate that. Father Granger would always say, help those in need for we are extensions of Earung’s hope. We are Her will. We are Her hammer.
Halwyn motioned for them toward the fire. The woman ushered the child toward the hearth and removed her cloak. She was tall, taller than most elves he had seen with hair the color of midnight. She had it braided and wrapped up in a tight bun, held together with colorful ribbon and carved sticks. The elf woman had a nasty cut on her hand that was bleeding all over the floor.
“You can find some clean bandages in a box over there,” Halwyn said pointing to some crates. The woman nodded then proceeded to the crate of supplies. The man stayed behind. He was shorter than the woman, though not by much. His hair was cut short, indicating he was a warrior of the Glyntwood. He crossed his arms in front of him in the traditional elven greeting.
“I am Taylik alth Wuld.”
Halwyn bowed his head slightly and cast his gaze at the woman and child.
“She is my wife, Yonwyl alth Indal and our child, Wyla alth Taylik.”
The words came out almost as a grunt, but Taylik didn’t seem to mind. He crossed his arms once again, keeping them pinned to his chest until Halwyn acknowledged the greeting. Taylik then joined his family by the fire.
Halwyn watched them for a moment before moving to the window. Nobody had come out of the timber yet. Whoever it was, they would come later when Halwyn and the others were resting. When their guard was down. It’s what he would do. Whoever, or whatever was out there was probably assessing the situation, trying to figure out how many were in the church. Was it just Halwyn? He was sure once they figured out he was the only one in the place and not much help, they would make their move. He was sure of it.
Halwyn joined the others.
“What brings you so far from the Glyntwood?” Halwyn asked.
Taylik looked to Yonwyl but before either of them could say anything the child spoke up.
“The monsters came and burned it.”
“Burned your home?” Halwyn asked.
“The Glyntwood,” Yonwyl said. “It is no more than ash and cinder.”
Despite the horrible circumstances of his visit to the Glyntwood, Halwyn had always found the towering trees quite beautiful. He understood why the elves had called it home. Before his time as a mercenary, he had built his own home near a similar forest. Towering trees that stretched to the heavens as far as the eyes could see. Before he had become a disciple of Earung, he was not a religious man, but the forest was his church, where he felt most at peace. The news of the burned forest was heavy on his heart.
Burned in the fire. Scorched in ember.
The voice, slippery and soft, slithered into his ears, invading everything. Halwyn looked to the flames at the hearth. They burned strong. Strong enough to bring this building down and consume everything, living and dead with it.
Yes. Burn it. Let the skin blister and the marrow boil. Bring the timber down.
The timber. Halwyn looked up once again to the rafter with the broken length of rope. He rubbed his temples and the voice faded.
“Where are the rest of your people?” Halwyn asked.
Taylik stood and leaned against the wall. An expression of pain rippled across the elf’s face and he let out a sigh. “What few remain are scattered to the four winds. Once demons came, we took flight.”
“And what do the demons want with your small wood?”
Taylik cast a glance to Yonwyl, whose eyes flickered to Wyla. Yonwyl pulled the child close.
“Nothing. They sought to destroy it, like everything else,” Yonwyl said.
Halwyn made a mental note. They were hiding something, and the girl was key, but he couldn’t figure out how. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the child. She was lithe, as was characteristic of her race, with sharp eyes. Nothing out of place, yet, the more he stared at her, the more everything seemed out of place with her. He couldn’t figure it out.
“Do you live here by yourself?” Wyla asked.
Halwyn stared at the girl. Yonwyl pulled Wyla aside, speaking to the girl in elvish. Halwyn knew enough to pick out a few words, understanding that she was telling her not to bother the big man.
“It’s okay,” Halwyn said. “I used to live here with Father Granger and Earung’s blessing. I am alone now.”
“Well you’re not alone anymore, we are here,” Wyla said.
Halwyn couldn’t help but smile.
“Indeed,” he said.
Yes, more for the ropes. More for the fire.
Halwyn scratched at his head and willed the voice to disappear. Wyla’s brow scrunched up in confusion and she looked about the church.
Taylik walked over to Halwyn and pulled a small leather bag from his belt. He opened it up and offered the contents to him.
“Dried nevis seasoned with ulwa leaf,” Taylik said.
Nevis were kin to deer, but much larger and very difficult to hunt. The meat was naturally sweet, and the spicy ulwa leaf complimented the flavor well. Halwyn’s stomach grumbled and he started to salivate; however, he still didn’t trust these elves. For all he knew, it was drugged and he would be their next meal.
Halwyn shook his head and pushed the bag away from his face.
Taylik’s smile faltered for a moment. Halwyn had just made cultural mistake. Elves were very generous and sharing. To refuse an offering was considered rude in their culture. Taylik turned and offered the bag to Yonwyl and Wyla. They both took a piece and began to devour it. Taylik looked in the bag, reached for a piece, then pulled his hand away with a sigh. He secured the drawstring and put the bag back on his belt. After a moment he limped over to one of the pews and sat down with a grunt.
Yonwyl watched, then broke a piece of her meat in half. She walked over and gave it to Taylik. He smiled, nodded a thanks, and ate the meat. Halwyn’s stomach rumbled and he regretted not taking some of the nevis, so he decided to make the soup after all.
He gathered the ingredients from the back room and began to heat the water over the fire. As he was kneeling next to the pot, Wyla came and crouched next to him.
“You hear the scary voice too, don’t you?” she said, her voice no more than a whisper.
Halwyn’s mind raced to find a suitable answer. Finally, he decided simple was best. “Yes.”
Halwyn stared at the child. How could she hear the voice?
“Have you always been able to hear things like that?” Halwyn asked.
The girl shrugged. “As long as I can remember.”
“Wyla, go help your father check our supplies,” Yonwyl said.
The woman had shown up out of nowhere. Halwyn berated himself for letting his guard down. Either he had been too distracted with the child, or she was that stealthy. He decided it was a little of both. He needed to keep an eye on her.
“She is…special,” Yonwyl said, crouching low as Wyla had.
Halwyn nodded, but stayed silent. If the woman wanted to talk, he was going to let her.
“My life matters little. Taylik’s life matters little. But Wyla’s…her life is everything. She is the key that will unlock hope for this world.”
“What are you raving about?” Halwyn asked. “There is no more hope for this world, especially not hiding within a child!”
The woman was about to say something, but stopped. She cast her eyes down to the floor and turned away.
“As I said, she is special, and we must keep her safe,” Yonwyl said.
Halwyn was about to pry, but the elf’s face scrunched up, as if she were in pain. Her head whipped toward the door and she stood.
“Cleric, open the door!” a raspy voice from outside said.
The child ran to her mother and hid beneath her cloak. Taylik stood, but his face contorted in pain and he slunk back to the pew clutching his leg.
“Stay by the fire’s light,” Halwyn said. “It will keep you safe.” Empty words.
Yonwyl stood, positioning herself between the door and Wyla. She clutched a slender dagger in one hand. Halwyn had seen her type before. Wood elves were fierce, their women faster and deadlier than the men most of the time.
Halwyn walked to the door, each step diminishing the fire’s warmth. By the time he arrived at the threshold, his breath was forming small clouds. It was an unnatural cold.
Halwyn opened the door, determined to let whoever was out there know that he wouldn’t scare easily in his own home. He berated himself for not grabbing the war hammer though. Especially after he saw what awaited outside.
There were three of them mounted on emaciated horses that had to have died months ago. The shadowy steeds had eyes that glowed an unearthly green. The skin pulled tight across their skeletal bodies with patches of bone exposed to the night air. Emerald fire encased their hooves, burning fiery hoof prints into the earth with each step. The riders were even more terrifying.
They wore an obsidian colored mail that ate the moonlight. Halwyn couldn’t’ make out any facial features, as the creatures were shrouded in darkness but their eyes glowed like embers. They were revenants. Shades of warriors that had fallen in battle against demons, only to be raised from the dead to do their bidding like unholy lapdogs. He’d encountered one once, long ago. That encounter had cost the lives of three strong warriors.
They trotted forward until they hit the edge of the rickety wooden fence. The horses stamped their hooves and huffed.
“Give us the child and we’ll let you be,” one of the riders said. Its voice cracked and full of dust.
“Leave this place, you are not welcome here,” Halwyn said. More than ever he wished that he had Earung’s might to bear against these demons. Before the fall of the gods, he was a conduit to the heavens. He could have called down a mighty bolt of lightning and struck these puppets down with ease.
“Perhaps you don’t know who you are dealing with, cleric. I am called Ghor, favored knight of-”
Halwyn grunted and shut the door. The string of curses that came from outside filled the church, but Halwyn ignored them.
“Violence isn’t the answer, it’s the question. Got violence?”
-Special Agent Doyle L. Johnson, ID: Hotel-Plumber-Lima, 3-15-3
Captain Thulisile Mahlangu sat cross-legged on the dirt floor. She’d been there many times before. Everything was the same: the crack of the fire from the nearby pit, the way the embers rose into the air, dancing along the currents like tiny chaotic ballerinas, even how the smell of the smoke and cooking meat mixed into a succulent masterpiece—just like it always was in her dream.
In her dream, this particular dream, she wasn’t Captain Mahlangu. She wasn’t in charge of the Alpha Team serving the Bureau of Investigation, Observation and Defense of Extraordinary, Extraterrestrial, Demonic and Paranormal Activity. In her dream, she was a little girl, five years of age living in the Zulu Nation. In her dream, she was scared. She was always scared.
She stared at the fire, the warmth of the flames licking at her skin, pondering what could possibly make the noise coming from outside. It was a noise that sounded like a human screaming, but much, much worse.
The screams were primal, shrouded in hate and pain, coming from the depths of Hell. The kind of Hell the Bible thumpers always warned her and her family about; the kind with fire, brimstone, and red-skinned devils brandishing pitchforks ready to torment her soul for infinity. Especially her soul—she was her mother’s daughter.
The screams of her father burning alive were all of that and more.
“It will be okay, Thuli.”
It was her mother’s voice. In her dream, her mother tried to stay strong for her, but fear always cut through her tone. Her mother stood in the doorway of their small abode, clutching something at her chest. Thuli wanted to go over to her, cling to her body until the screaming stopped, but fear kept her planted on the floor. Fear of what was out there just beyond the threshold.
Her father finally stopped screaming, and it was in that moment, in that silence that Thuli wondered which was worse. He was gone.
“You got to be strong now, you hear me, Thuli? You be strong. Never let them see your fear. You bring the silence. Bring the fear,” her mother said.
She was about to say more when two men dressed in finely tailored suits came to the doorway. Their faces were wet with perspiration and they both had wide-eyed looks. Crazy looks. They grabbed her mother and dragged her outside.
Moments later, her mother started to laugh. It was a deep laugh that reverberated through the walls and into Thuli’s core. It was a haunting laugh that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
The laugh turned into a scream, much like her father’s. That’s when the tall shadow appeared in the doorway.
She woke covered in sweat, shivering underneath her covers. The room was dark, with the exception of a small strip of fluorescent light underneath the bathroom mirror. It provided enough illumination so she could navigate; however, she didn’t need it. She could move through the room with practiced ease in complete darkness. Thuli could get dressed and field-strip her carbine without needing to see a thing.
There wouldn’t be any more sleep that night, so she got up and padded across the floor without making a noise. The motion tracker caught her movement as she entered the bathroom causing the overhead lights to flicker into life. She squinted through the brightness and turned on the faucet.
Thuli ran her hands under the cool water and then splashed her head, running her fingers through her short, black hair. The brisk water was nice on her neck, and for a moment, she reveled in the sensation. If she could have found a mountain waterfall to stand under, she would have. Pure water, running free and wild did amazing things to cleanse the spirit. Yet she wasn’t in the mountains, nor was she anywhere near a stream, so she had to make do with what she was given. The water ran down her chest and seemed to avoid a leather pouch hanging around her neck as if it were made of oil. It diverted into two separate streams running along either side of the pouch before coming back together on the other side.
The pouch began to shake. It was a slight tremor, but enough to get her attention. She grabbed it. There were symbols carved into the leather, ancient symbols in a language long dead and forgotten in the modern world. She didn’t know what they meant, but she knew what they did. They kept her in check—kept her normal.
Thuli took a deep breath, focusing on her breathing. The bag stopped trembling.
The tremors were coming more and more frequently. Perhaps it was due to the increased mission-load she and her team had taken on as of late. Perhaps it was something else. Whatever it was, she’d have to figure out a way to keep it in check. She couldn’t afford to lose control. Not again.
She splashed more water on her head. Thuli was drying off when a loud buzz sounded off back in the bedroom.
Thuli dropped the towel and padded to the bed. A small black device buzzed on the nightstand. It was her personal communicator issued by the Bureau. The device was a cross between a radio and a cell phone but worked on a different spectrum. Thuli asked the technicians how it worked once and ended up getting a migraine from their explanations. All she knew was that it worked flawlessly no matter where she was on the planet, regardless of location or weather. It never needed to be charged. They also told her to never, under any circumstances, put the device in a microwave.
The audio fed directly into an implant in her ear. Mr. Oberon’s smooth voice entered her head. Even after many years, hearing his voice inside her head was still strange. She had enough demons inside her head already.
“Captain Mahlangu, we’ve received reports of an Alpha Protocol.”
“Sir, it’s very early in the morning and my humor doesn’t really kick in until after 0730.”
“This isn’t a joke. Get your team together and report to the Operations Room in one hour.”
The transmission went silent.
In her twenty years of service her and her team had responded to many other protocols and missions, but never an Alpha. Thuli radioed her next in command, Sergeant Fergus Galbraith.
The transmission picked up after a couple of rings.
It almost sounded like he said something that was a mix between hollow and holler. He had a heavy Scottish accent which had taken Thuli years to overcome. It still made her giggle a little. Now she could pick out every word he said with ease, at least until he got excited or angry. Then he switched to Gàidhlig, the Scottish version of Gaelic.
“Get everyone ready and to the Operations Room. Forty-five minutes. Tell them if any of those slack-asses are late, they’ve got tunnel duty for the next month.”
“Aye, Captain. But what’s the rush?”
He was still sleepy, but her tone must have put him on alert.
Thuli ended the transmission before he could ask any questions. She didn’t have any answers.
Thuli was dressed and ready in ten minutes. She wore black tactical trousers with a matching blouse. They were worn, faded, but comfortable, not to mention great in the field. She donned her tactical uniform because there was nothing casual about an Alpha Protocol. If an Alpha call was raised, then the shit had already hit the fan and fecal matter was spread to all four corners of the proverbial room. It would be her team’s job to go into said room and try and clean up. If she couldn’t clean up the mess, then the job would fall to an Omega Team. Nobody wanted the Omega Team to get involved because their clean-up method generally involved scorched-earth philosophies.
Thuli was the first of her team to arrive, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. She couldn’t expect people to fall in line if she didn’t show them where the line started. However, she wasn’t the first person there.
Mr. Oberon and his assistant, a woman known only as Sister, sat at the end of a large conference table. Mr. Oberon was tall, had chiseled features, and sported a cleanly shaven face. He had short, brown hair that was always immaculate and combed to side in a fashion that bespoke an earlier time. His dark eyes lit when Thuli entered the room.
On the other hand, Sister always wore the same expression—pissed off. She was just as tall as Oberon, which meant she generally towered over most other women. She was athletic and liked to wear clothes that fit a little too well. In this case, she wore an off-white blouse that looked as if it were painted on. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a tight bun and not a single strand of hair was out of place. Rumor had it she doubled as Oberon’s personal bodyguard. Thuli was pretty good at reading people, and she didn’t doubt that Sister could hold her own in a tussle. The way she moved was predatory.
“Captain, thank you for coming early. I was hoping that you would be here so we could discuss the matter before your team arrived.”
Mr. Oberon’s voice was almost musical. Not like he was singing his words, but the tone and cadence had a certain magic to them. It was hard not to get lost in his voice.
Thuli didn’t like him.
There was something false about him. Something she couldn’t place, but it put her on edge. He was her boss, though, and he was her connection to the Bureau’s management, so she always played nice.
Oberon smiled and put his fingers together like a steeple. He nodded to the nearby chair.
“Please, sit. Coffee?”
Thuli moved into the chair while Sister kept her watchful gaze pinned on every movement Thuli made. Sister was a viper ready to strike, indiscriminate of allegiance, race, gender or age. A moment later a woman wearing an outfit matching Sister’s walked into the room holding a tray of coffee. She was one of Mr. Oberon’s lackeys. They were all the same. Thuli nodded thanks as she placed the coffee on the table.
“What do we know?” Thuli asked.
“We received a radio transmission of an Alpha Protocol early this morning. It came in broken and almost unreadable, but our techs were able to clean it up. I would have called you in sooner, but we had to verify the authenticity of the message.”
After he finished talking, Sister pulled out a keyboard and mouse from under the conference table. She hit a few buttons and a recording of the radio transmission started to play.
“Break! Break! Break! This is Special Agent Johnson, ID Hockeystick-Papa-Lemming-3-15-3. We have a situation. Alpha protocol. I repeat we have an Alpha protocol.”
Thuli’s breath caught in her throat. Could it really be Special Agent Johnson? Johnson was her personal trainer when she was recruited by the Bureau. He’d taken her under his wing, and while he was kind of crazy and didn’t follow the rules, she found his presence and kindness a comfort. He’d disappeared while on mission years ago and was presumed dead.
“Yes, Captain, we’ve run voice analysis and the technicians assure me it is him,” Oberon said, with a smile on his face.
“I thought he died while on mission.”
“MIA was the official report. The rest was rumor. It seems as if he is very much alive, and in Salt Lake City.”
What on earth could cause an Alpha Protocol in Salt Lake City? As if he read her mind, which he quite possibly could do (Mr. Oberon was still somewhat of an enigma), the large screen behind him powered on.
A satellite feed of the United States appeared with a live stream of meta-data scrolling across the bottom.
“If you could be so kind, please play the anomaly,” Oberon said.
Sister typed some commands on the keyboard and the map zoomed into the State of Utah. She overlaid meteorological data on the map and then hit play. Clear skies turned into a mass of red, yellow and black centered over Southern Utah and then the weather cell took a winding path up the state until crossing over Salt Lake City. After staying stationary over the capitol city for ten minutes, the storm grew, moving out from the area in a circle.
“What was that?” Thuli asked.
“It’s unlike any storm we’ve ever seen. Images show intense rain, wind, and electrical disturbances. Supernatural energy spikes off the chart in the regions it touched. Then there’s this.”
Sister zoomed in on a suburb situated in the foothills of the Salt Lake Valley and hit play. A small section of the neighborhood disappeared from view as it fell into a large sinkhole. The video fast-forwarded until orange lights appeared in the hole and shot out into the sky in a brilliant display.
“We have reason to believe that this was the cause of Special Agent Johnson’s Alpha call.”
“What am I looking at here?” Thuli asked.
She wasn’t sure what the orange ball of light was, but deep down, she knew it couldn’t be good.
The ball split into seven separate motes and sped off in different directions, with one ball falling back to the pit. Sister paused the recording and zoomed in again. The picture wasn’t very clear, but there was a faint outline of a winged, bipedal creature in the ball of energy.
“We’re not sure,” Oberon said.
His musical voice faltered ever so slightly. Sister remained deadpan but stopped typing. They knew something. The single drop of sweat rolling down Mr. Oberon’s forehead was enough to tell her that whatever they knew, it wasn’t good.
Chapter One: Terrence the Magical Teddy Bear
As far as magical teddy bears went, Terrence looked fairly amazing. He was small (although if you asked him, he would say he was just right), filled with the best, 100% cotton stuffing, and was even lucky enough to be double-stitched for durability. Terrence had chocolate brown fur and a tan belly that was soft to the touch, perfect for cuddling. He even had sky blue eyes that Liam said looked like jewels.
Terrence had a number of jobs. He was supposed to keep Liam company when the boy was sick; be there for cuddles when the boy felt sad or needed some reassurance; yet, most importantly, Terrence was supposed to protect Liam from nightmares when he slept. Unfortunately, even though this was his duty, he was very bad at it. You see, Terrence was afraid of goblins, and it was the goblins who snuck into children's rooms at night to spread nightmares.
The goblins came from the land of UnderBed and brought a nasty magical dust with them that smelled of dirty feet. It was the dust that caused the bad dreams. Terrence knew this, but every time they came, he would hide under the covers until they finished their horrible work.
Terrence hated that he couldn't stand up to the goblins. He bet that other magical teddy bears didn't have the same problem and their protected children could sleep in peace. Terrence would give anything to have the courage necessary to stand up and fight the goblins.
It was getting dark and as such, it was almost time to go to work. Liam ran into the bedroom and jumped into the covers. His mother walked in after him, smiling. Terrence watched from his perch on the dresser. He'd smile if he could, but the rules stated he couldn't move until the boy slept. Rules were rules.
"Mom, can you tell me a story?" Liam asked.
Liam's mother ruffled the boy's hair and sat next to him on the edge of the bed. Terrence hoped she would tell a story. Liam's mom told the best stories. Yet, it seemed that tonight wouldn't be one of those nights.
"Sorry, not tonight kiddo. It's a school night, and it's already late," she said.
"Don't aw mom, me, buster. If you're good, I'll tell you one tomorrow," she said.
"Cross my heart, and hope to die."
She tucked the boy in and turned on the night-light that sat on his dresser. Before she left, she grabbed Terrence and placed him next to Liam's chest.
"Here you go, Terrence will watch over you," she said.
"Sleep tight," she said.
"I love you too."
Before she left, Liam's mother flipped off the big light. The night-light cast a dull blue glow across the ceiling in a pattern of planets and stars. Terrence wished the light was brighter but was happy enough to have what he did. He'd heard stories of some children who slept in total darkness. The thought sent a shiver up his back.
It didn't take long before Liam's breathing fell into a rhythm that told Terrence he could move. He didn't want to move, he enjoyed cuddling up to Liam, but Terrence had a job to do. Terrence hopped off the bed and made the rounds. He marched to the closet ensuring it was closed and secure. Then he marched to the drawers on the dressers—also closed and secure. He got on his hands and knees and ensured any dust bunnies stayed corralled under the dresser; dust bunnies had a tendency to go nuts when exposed to the open. Last time it happened, Liam's mother grounded him until his room was spotless. If she only knew the truth.
Everything was in order, except the bed. Terrence hadn't checked the bed yet. He'd put it off until last. If he got it done quickly, he could hop back up next to Liam. Terrence took a deep breath and marched toward the bed. All he had to do was check underneath it and make sure there weren't any goblins hiding there.
He reached out to move the sheets away and noticed his paw was shaking. Terrence willed it to stop, but his body didn't listen. Terrence was about to move the sheets when something popped from the other side of the room stopping Terrence in his tracks. He turned to see what made the noise, but couldn't find anything. Then it dawned on him, the closet door was open.
It was possibly a boogeyman, but it wasn't the season. Goblins usually came from UnderBed, not ClosetVille. Terrence wasn't sure what it could be.
"He-hello?" he whispered.
Nothing answered him.
"Is there anybody there?"
Again nothing. Terrence decided he needed to shut the door. Then whatever it was wouldn't be able to come in. That was the rule, and rules were rules.
Terrence ran toward the door, but just before he could make it, the closet opened even wider. He stopped and dove for cover behind the hamper. For what seemed like hours, Terrence watched from his hiding spot. He was about to try and close the door again when a small pale hand with long fingers and claws reached out and felt across the floor. Terrence watched in terror as the hand made its search. After a few, agonizing seconds, it grabbed one of Liam's socks next to the hamper and started to pull it back into the dark.
"Oh no, you don't!" Terrence said and pounced on the sock. He clutched the other end and pulled. Terrence was in a tug-of-war and losing.
"Mine!" cried the thief.
Terrence planted his feet and pulled with all his might. He dragged the sock back from the closet, pulling the thief out as well. The thief rolled out and on top of Terrence. For a moment, they lay there on the floor staring at one another.
Then, at the same time, they both screamed. Terrence flung the thief away and hopped to his feet. The thief rolled to the dresser and hit his head. Terrence searched frantically, looking for anything he could use as a weapon, but before he could find anything, the thief stood.
The thief was small, smaller than Terrence. He had long gangly arms that reached the floor. Big, bugged-out eyes sat on a dirty face covered in a swath of brown fur that almost looked like a beard, but covered too much skin. A small pug nose twitched in rhythm with the thief's breathing. The thief wore dirty, blue coveralls and had pieces of cardboard strapped to oversized feet.
Between both Terrence and the thief sat the sock. The thief took a lumbering step toward the article of clothing, his hairy knuckles dragged across the carpet. Terrence matched the step. They both stopped and looked at one another.
"Mine?" the thief asked.
"No," Terrence answered.
"Please?" the thief asked.
"No," Terrence said, this time with more force.
Terrence put the sock back in the hamper. The thief kept his eyes locked on the prize the entire time. Terrence had no idea who or what this creature was, but he wasn't about to let the thing take off with one of Liam's socks.
"Who are you?" Terrence asked.
"Milton," the thief said, still staring at the sock.
Milton took a couple slow steps to the side. Terrence matched each movement.
"Why do you want to take the sock, Milton?"
"I have to take the socks for them," Milton said.
Terrence's heart skipped a beat. The Gobblenaughts were bad news. They were the UnderBed's toughest goblin clan. Rumor had it they would ride into bedrooms and battle astride their giant, wild turkeys.
"Wh-why do the Gobblenaughts want socks?" Terrence asked.
Milton took another step to the side, which Terrence mirrored. Milton growled in frustration.
"So they can cast their nightmare dust and not be affected," Milton said.
"Why would they-" Terrence started to say, but stopped when a bold green glow lit up the bedroom.
The glow came from under the bed. It meant only one thing. The goblins were coming.
Here's a preview of a fantasy adventure/romance I'm working on. It doesn't have a title yet...let me know what you think!
The gentle rocking of the wagon as it rolled across the grassy plains was almost enough to put Llewella to sleep. Almost. If it wasn’t for him, she would have let the Lord of Slumber take her beyond the wall of sleep hours ago. Yet, his mere presence was enough to stave off the onslaught of exhaustion.
He sat across from her and leaned against the wooden half-wall of the wagon. Why hadn’t he stayed away? It would have made things less… complicated. The Fates laughed at her, because there he sat, shackled, and looked as if he didn’t even care. The man’s clothes were dirty from the road and torn in certain places, which revealed hints of intricate tattoo work from beneath the ripped fabric. Those were new, for he hadn’t had them when he left.
His long, black hair fell in front of his eyes. Since his hands were shackled, connected to the wagon’s floor by a length of chain, he could do little to move the pesky strands. Part of her wanted to move the strands for him, another part of her wanted to slap him across the face with one of Madoc’s heavy gauntlets. However, if his current state of being affected his mood, it didn’t show.
“Why do you continue to smile, Roderick? Don’t you know you’ll be hanged from the tall oak when we return?” Llewella asked.
The thought didn’t bring her any amount of happiness though Roderick’s capture should have elated her. He was a sorcerer of some renown and his death would be a mighty blow for her enemies. Yet, things were never so simple.
He continued to smile. Blood rushed to her face. Damn the gods! She moved forward, raising her hand to strike him, yet he didn’t wince or flinch away. His eyes were intense, boring into hers, plunging past her skin and gripping her soul. The way he smiled and looked at her with his dark eyes sent her mind back to an earlier time. Before when things were less complicated. Before when she was happy and didn’t have to worry about protecting the realm. Before when they were both younger. It was too easy to get lost in that smile and let it take her away from the here and the now.
“I smile because I found you, Llew,” Roderick said.
Despite the heat of the summer day, she shivered. His voice was deep, but gentle. She used to listen to him ramble on about the inner workings of the natural forces of magick. The manipulation of energies and focus never made sense to her; she understood footwork, balance, and cold steel, but his voice was enough to warm her on a cold night.
“Let’s see how long that smile stays on your face,” she said and kicked him out the back of the wagon.
He hit the ground with a dull thud and was dragged a distance before he found his footing. To keep up with the trot of the horses, he had to jog. It was her turn to smile.
Llewella turned her gaze to the western mountain range. Mighty peaks of stone thrust into the sky forming a natural temple for the earthen gods. She didn’t like the way Roderick made her feel. She was a battle-hardened sword maiden and had faced countless foes on the battlefield. The past was the past, and she had obligations now.
“I thought you were dead,” Roderick said.
Llewella couldn’t help but look back him. The smile had disappeared and worry lines creased his forehead. For a moment, he looked just as he did that night, long ago. The night he left her.
“It doesn’t matter, you’re dead to me.”
She regretted it the moment the words left her mouth. His dark eyes lost their luster and the corner of his smile fell slightly.
“I am sorry it has come to this, Llew, I really am.”
Llewella wanted to believe him, but she couldn’t. She had heard the stories too often, of the sorcerer of the southern wood laying waste to supply trains. Of how he would enslave men, women and children with his dark magick, only to dispose of them when their work was done. Roderick was a tool of the Empire, a weapon fine-tuned and ready to kill. And for that, there was no other option, no matter their past.
“Save your apologies for the gods. Perhaps they’ll forgive you,” Llewella said.
The soft clop of horse hooves on solid dirt grabbed her attention. It was a distraction she welcomed. Llewella poked her head out the back of the wagon.
An older man with a bald head brought his horse near. He wore a large axe strapped across his back and she had seen him use it many times to bring down his foes. Steel gauntlets covered in sharpened spikes gloved his hands. Llewella smiled.
“Ho, Madoc,” she said.
“Ho, m’lady. We should be at the camp in a couple hours.”
She nodded. Madoc frowned and pulled the horse closer. His voice dropped to almost a whisper.
“Do you wish to ride and rid your presence of that foul sorcerer?”
“No, I must continue to interrogate the prisoner. If he has any information on the whereabouts of the missing scouts, I’ll get it from him. Even if I have to cut the secrets out with a blade,” she said.
“As you wish, m’lady. Beware the sorcerer’s tongue though. It wouldn’t do any good to fall under a spell.”
“Don’t worry, we have the dampening chains on him, I’ll be fine.”
Madoc nodded but cast a glare at Roderick that would make a gorgon cringe before urging his horse forward. When Llewella turned back, Roderick was smiling at her again. Darkness take that man.
“Interrogate me, eh?” he said.
“Silence, or I will.”
Roderick opened his mouth to say something, but a guttural whoop came from outside the wagon cutting him off. The single bellow was answered by dozens more. Llewella tensed at the sound. It was a noise that no man or woman wanted to hear—an Ocraat battle cry.
“Your friends coming to the rescue?” Llewella asked.
“The Ocraats are friends with no one,” he said. His gentle voice dissolving into tempered hate.
She peeked her head outside the wagon. Madoc steered his horse close once again. Two of his lieutenants flanked him with weapons at the ready. The trio scanned the distant hills.
“Raiding part, m’lady. They’re close,” Madoc said. “We haven’t the means to fight them. We’re going to have to outrun them.”
“Understood. Let’s leave the wagon and take the horses,” she said.
“Llewella, you must release me. They have a powerful shaman with them. I can feel him gathering power,” Roderick said and lifted his hands up as high the chain would allow.
“Silence,” she said.
“You must listen to me, this isn’t a trick, they are—”
An explosion ripped through the air and drowned out Roderick’s words. The wagon stopped as the horses reared in fright. Madoc struggled to keep astride his own horse while one of his lieutenants was bucked to the earth. Llewella scanned the hillside, searching for the source. Her heart skipped a beat as her gut dropped.
A ball of flame and ash arced from the hillside and streaked straight to the wagon.
“The restraints!” Roderick cried.
His voice anchored her. It always had. It gave her the strength of mind to act.
“Relacium,” she said.
The metal cuffs around Roderick’s wrists flashed blue and then fell to the floor of the wagon. Without hesitation Roderick grabbed her by the arm. She raised her free hand to strike him, but he was quicker.
He made a quick gesture with his fingers that she couldn’t follow. An intense pressure built around them. Madoc yelled something and raised his sword, and then the world went dark.
The air was blasted from her lungs and a wave of heat rolled over her. Someone said something, but it was as if she were underwater. The voice came through muffled and she only caught bits and pieces, something about fire. Then, she rolled, or rather, someone rolled her.
The darkness gave way to intense light, and all at once, the sound snapped back to normal. Moments later she could see. Roderick ripped what was left of her cloak off and threw it aside. It was half burned and smoldering.
Llewella looked around. They sat in some tall grass. Most of it was burning and sent miniature whirls of smoke drifting up into the air.
“We have to go,” Roderick said.
Things were still fuzzy. She tried to orient herself as to where they were, but the world swam with each movement.
“I phased us out of the way of the blast, but not very far. It was the best I could do on short notice,” he said.
“What?” she asked again.
Roderick pointed behind her. She turned to look and almost threw up. She hated magick. Yet, what she saw was even worse.
The wagon was obliterated. A crater replaced her transportation. Madoc and the others were nowhere to be seen, but given the state of the wagon, it would have been a miracle if they survived at all. She wanted to mourn them, they were good soldiers, and better friends, but the Ocraat battle cry thrummed through the air once again.
“Llew, come on, we have to go before they find us. The Ocraats don’t take kindly to sorcerers, or your people.”
She nodded and tried to stand but she fell to her knees. Roderick helped her, and hoisted her up. He used his shoulder to keep her upright. It was a nice feeling, his shoulder. Llewella was too disoriented to fight it, and she let him help her. Together they moved toward the tree line.
For being loyal subscribers to the newsletter, you get to see the cover before anyone else. I'm officially revealing the cover via social media on November 18th, you get to see it in all its glory right now! Here's the cover and below you can find the full wrap. Here's a nice little bit of information as well...the mountain range pictured is actually taken from a photo of Antelope Island. I was able to capture a nice sunset one day from my backyard and we were able to use it in this cover which I think is super cool.
The pre-sale of, Canyon Shadows: A Novel in the Dark Tyrant Series, has begun! It hasn't gone live on the big sites yet (Amazon or Barnes & Noble); however, I can take pre-sales via PayPal. If you buy from me, I'll give you a discount and on top of that, I'll sign/personalize the hard copies before mailing them out. I'm going to try and work a deal out with the publisher to get the copies early so that I can get them to you early (before the official December 13th 2016 release date). Not many folks are getting this pre-sale information, so jump on it while you can.
Retail Price: $14.99 print or $4.99 ebook
Special pre-sale price for the print version: $12.00
Here's how it will work:
1) Fill out the form below with your information (I'll only use the information for the sales transaction and to ship the book to you)
2) I'll contact you via email after you fill out the form with payment options
“The In-between. The dark realm that resides in between the cracks and crevices of the worlds. Kind of a double edged sword; a horrible, horrible place, but necessary.” –Special Agent Doyle L. Johnson, ID: Hotel-Plumber-Lima, 3-15-3
The In-between is the darkness between worlds and dimensions. It’s the amorphous glue that holds the chaos together, acting as a double-edged sword in that it’s a horrible place full of danger and madness, but it’s necessary. Without the In-between, the worlds and dimensions would pull away from one another and cease to exist.
No one has yet to discover how the In-between came to be; however, the Bureau of Investigation, Observation and Defense of Extraordinary, Extraterrestrial, Demonic and Paranormal Activity has spent oodles of taxpayer money on the subject. Some agents and other entities have even tried to utilize the In-between as a shortcut to for travel, for there are many doors and paths in the In-between and if one were to choose the right doors, one could jump worlds or locations in a very short amount of time. However, the prospect is very dangerous and the chances of success are very slim, for the In-between seems to be sentient and fickle with its desires, and could trap and trick an unwary traveler with ease. Some travelers who have made it through with their sanity intact reported doors appearing out of nowhere. The doors seem to be indicative of where it could lead as was the case with one agent who decided to go through a door that looked like the front of a safe. She was trapped in a local bank’s vault overnight until the staff opened it up the next morning.
Some agents have reported time working differently within the In-between, which also makes travel through the dimension sketchy at best. There are varying degrees of time-shifts that there isn’t any rhyme or reason to it. Some agents have reported coming out of the In-between days into the future from when they left, while some have come out in the past before they ever stepped foot into the dimension, to begin with.
The environment of the In-between is not suited for humans at all. The ground is squishy and made of an unknown substance that is sponge-like in nature. Any attempt to bring back a sample has failed as it disintegrates upon leaving the dimension. It’s a greyish-red color, reminiscent of raw meat that’s been left out too long, and smells about the same. The ground is also highly corrosive to any organic matter that touches it, burning through skin like acid, which makes travel precarious at best. The air is humid much like the jungles of South America; however, there isn’t any rain.
The native creatures of the In-between are a reflection of the dimension’s dark nature. Wild critters with scaled and leathery skin live within the shadowed recesses, waiting for anyone or anything foolish enough to enter. There are reports of small creatures with bat-like wings and sharp teeth, all the way to cyclopean behemoths that shake the very ground when they move. The only things the creatures have in common are their hate for the light (which can destroy the smaller creatures, and harm the larger ones) and their hunger for interlopers.
To date, nobody has stayed in the In-between for more than a few hours (Earth hours…) and lived to tell the tale. There are rumors that Mr. Oberon of the Bureau has spent a few days in the dimension, but those rumors are unfounded, and it’s still in question as to whether or not Mr. Oberon is actually human.