Yes, I just paraphrased Star Wars: A New Hope. So sue me. I love that movie. It inspires me.
In any event, I think that I am finally getting somewhere with Wyldling Snare!
As I mentioned in a previous post, this novel is to be the first installment of a five or six book series – all of which will have “Wyldling” in the title. I had a large part of this series already written in a ponderous tome entitled The Grand Illusion, but I felt that I needed to rework that behemoth into a series of separate books. This is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth century. No one wants to slog through my rendition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (no, I haven’t actually read it – although I have read Anna Karenina.)
Right now, I am still in this writing/reworking phase. My goal is to have the first draft completed by the New Year – and I believe that this is an attainable goal. There, I defined my goal. I set a deadline. I even wrote it down and shared it with other people…in this blog. Hooray! I made a few baby steps toward accomplishing something! Even if it turns out to be utter malarkey!
If I had to quantify my progress, I would have to venture a guess. Three-quarters done? Perhaps even more, since much of the book is already written. Five out of roughly twenty-five chapters left to rework, and one earlier chapter that requires additional prose.
I suppose I have to ask the question: technically speaking, is this a first draft or a second draft that I am currently working on? Part of me responds “who cares?” but another part of me likes to be accurate and precise. I could call the manuscript a second draft in the sense that much of it was already written. However, it is a first draft in the sense that other eyes have not yet critiqued it.
Mea culpa! I am guilty of trying to edit and revise simultaneously as I craft the story -which is a big no-no for a writer who actually wants to finish a novel.
My advice: write everything down – without judgment! – and then go back to revise it. You are your own worst critic. Stop listening to that nasty, paranoid voice and just WRITE.
You know…I could be wrong, but I think that she was trying to tell me something.
So here I am feeling kinda bad about how little I have accomplished on my novel thus far. I have been reworking the first installment of the Wyldling Series for the past several months, which translates into me rewriting everything to fit into the new paradigm. Every time I feel that I’ve made some progress, suddenly my brain vomits forth some new, cool idea about something I really should’ve included in a previous chapter. This is how the original version of my novel became so cumbersome and part of the reason why it is taking me so long to finish (that, and over-editing.)
I’ve found a way to discipline myself on this front – just a little bit.
In order to keep myself from sliding off the Cliffs of Insanity and into shrieking eel-infested waters, I simply make a note of every new idea in the book outline and then move on reworking each chapter, one at a time. I don’t lose those ideas and actual progress is made. And if it turns out that an outside editor thinks the current idea as written sucks, I can pull a second or third stringer off the bench to try out.
It’s slow going, but all is working out according to the plan.
I ask myself: So, you have an actual plan? That’s great! What is it?
Myself responds: Um…to finish writing my book and then try to get it published?
I: Yeah, but have you set some achievable goals?
Myself: Huh? Goals? What are those?
I: *sighs in exasperation* Then, how about at east setting a deadline for yourself?
Myself: Well, you know what they say about deadlines…
I: Now you’re just making excuses!
Myself: Yes. Yes, I am.
Me: Hey, guys! Feeling a mite peckish, here. Let’s get some Doritos!
Beware folks, for Perfectionism = Procrastination.
See, if I want to finish the book, there comes a point when I will have to say “good enough” and find an editor to help me get the manuscript ready to publish. It all comes down to fear, really. If I never finish it, then I don’t have to go through the agony of having my book rejected a gazillion times by literary agents and publishers. Yes, I am going to try traditional publishing first, even though I realize it will probably be a no-go all around. I’ve told myself that I want to start a huge collection of rejection letters. Keep a portfolio or a scrapbook of’em and everything.
But first, I have to stop procrastinating, tell the Internal Editor to SHUT UP and finish the *bleeping* book!
On that note, I’m off to take Tim Herrera’s advice.
A little nightmare nugget from my college daze – I mean, days – when I had an overweening sense of my own talent. Okay, and I was obsessed with assassins. Go ahead and laugh at the geeky gothness of it all.
I’m going insane.
The assassin gritted his teeth and kneaded his forehead, inwardly snarling at the headache forming behind his left eye. He counseled himself to patience. He must wait here in the darkness beneath the oak tree, and not think about the splash of arterial blood on the sidewalk, the hot, metallic spray against his face as Kyle jerked like a rag doll when the bullets hit him—three in the chest and one nicking the carotid artery—the rising shrieks of the children in the playground…
“Enough,” he whispered, raking his fingers through the unruly mop of dark auburn hair. He had not bothered to dye it black this time, because this was supposed to be a clean sweep, a strike out of the darkness and retreat sort of operation. No flourishes. Just a kill like so many before. the assassin took pride in his efficiency; Kyle had been the artist in NEMESIS.
Kyle had also been careless.
The target is on the move.
The cold little voice he always listened to drove away thoughts of his late partner and encroaching madness, and the wiry young man stirred, uncoiling from his hiding place like a panther in one fluid motion. He wrapped his black duster tighter around him, embracing the darkness of the early autumn night. He could hear the susurration of a light breeze in the foliage, and the faint ree—ree of persistent crickets. Cautiously, he crept around the bole of the tree; luckily, the leaves had not yet fallen from the trees, so he wasn’t worried about making too much noise. Neither was he afraid that he’d be seen—on this far side of the residence hall, the gloom was deepest. There was a hedgerow lining a small path leading up to a dimly lit doorway—it was from there his target would exit the building.
The assassin cast a quick look behind him, then scanned the surrounding area. Good, still quiet as a tomb, he thought, sinking slowly into a crouch. He had grown familiar with the college campus, after all the time he spent here, watching her—seeing that bastard with her an arm slung around her like she’s his property she giggles nervously cringing away the diamond glinting on her finger—
Licking his lips, he thrust a gloved hand into a pocket in the lining of his coat and reverently withdrew his knife like a priest handling rosary beads. His eyes shone as if reflecting the starlight—in her deep blue eyes so far away I want to get closer—high above, and the blade glinted in sympathy. This was his special knife, a dagger forged by a blacksmith with revenge in mind. It was made for delivering swift justice, and if nothing else governed the assassin’s hardened heart, there would always be Justice
—and through the bedroom window the girl smiling smiling up at Neal always a ray of something pure like love splashed crimson blood on stained concrete the children screaming her eyes are the deep blue heavens—
The door swung open, creaking on old hinges, and the young man’s nostrils flared as he caught the odor of cigar smoke, sweet and musky. Peering through boughs of tight-cropped cedar, he saw the target step out on to the path, all alone this time. Last night and the night before the target had had at least one giggling girl draped over an arm, and never the same girl twice. The assassin’s hackles prickled with loathing; he knew what this target liked doing with—her no I won’t let him do that to her—young women friends.
It was one of the reasons he had looked forward to this assignment.
The target—bastard—strolled a few feet along the wall, kicked a stray stone, then leaned casually against the wall, puffing his fancy Cuban cigar with a smug look on his face. The target was a twenty-year-old man of average build, taller than the assassin by an inch or two, with dark hair and eyes, a tanned complexion, and moderately predictable habits. The assassin had catalogued this information religiously, as he always did, not allowing his emotions to drive away rationality. In his mind, he calculated the force he was going to need for the knife-thrust to penetrate the target’s skin.
Be cold…death has silent wings and arctic breath…Now was the time. the assassin scanned his surroundings once more, his ears opened for any stray sound of approach. There was nothing, only the heavy silence and the smell of his target’s cigar.
This is for her.
He parted sculpted cedar branches and flowed through the hedgerow, catlike in stealth and grace. His right hand gripped the knife–familiar in texture and weight as he closed in on his target—a blur of black motion against a starry sky and black bushes. The target’s mouth went slack with surprise, the cigar dangling, then falling, from limp fingers when he saw the assassin coming for him. Then the knife, a silver slash slitting the muscular neck from ear to ear—a bloody grin—and the assassin’s arctic blue eyes blank and glowing in the dim light as the head fell back and the body slumped to the ground.
A contemptuous snarl twisted the assassin’s thin lips as he glared down at his quarry, reduced to useless meat all too easily. Anger seized him then, and he slashed the target’s face, putting out his sightless, glazing eyes for good measure. “You can’t look at her with lust now,” he growled, wiping off his knife on the target’s sleeve. Replacing the dagger within his hidden pocket, the assassin melted back into the night, berating himself for succumbing to his rage. To emotion.
Once again, the thought crossed his mind: I’m going insane.
This begs the question: what professional hitman in his right mind creeps around at night wearing a great big bulky coat like a duster on a college campus? So yes, he’s clearly nuts!
Also, there will be no Part 2. If you though that this was bad, the rest of “The Assassin’s Tale” is even more maudlin garbage.
I apologize for the late blog post; yesterday I was attending the graduation party for a person very special to me.
The Holy Spirit descends
Thus begins the season of Pentecost, which is the non-festival half of the church year. The first Pentecost occurred 50 days (Pentecost comes from the Greek pentēkostē, meaning “fiftieth”) after Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter. Just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples to stay in Jerusalem because He would send the Holy Spirit to them. Sure enough, the Day of Pentecost arrived, and with it came the Holy Spirit in a sound like rushing wind and tongues of fire hovering over the apostles’ heads! In addition to the physical sign, He enabled the apostles to speak in many different languages so that they could proclaim the gospel message to Jews from different lands. And not only this, but thanks to the Holy Spirit, the apostles were able to fully understand everything that Jesus had taught them. If you are interested in learning about this miracle in more detail, the entire account is recorded in the first few chapters of the book of Acts.
The Holy Spirit is a heart transplant surgeon
Oddly enough, the sermon for today’s service was not on Acts 2. This morning, the pastor preached Psalm 51. Now, in order to understand the significance of this psalm, you first have to read 2 Samuel 11, which is the account of King David committing adultery with Bathsheba (who of course gets pregnant), and after all his finagling fails, the king then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in order to cover up his first crime. In the next chapter, the prophet Nathan rebukes the king with an allegory. The end result is that David repents of his sin and goes on to write a beautiful psalm.
Verses 10-12 and 17 are particularly of note:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Psalm 51:10-12 (NIV)
The sacrifices God wants are a broken spirit.
A broken and crushed heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:17 (Evangelical Heritage Version)
The NIV uses the word “contrite” instead of crushed in verse 17. I used a different translation for the last verse because even though the message is the same, the imagery of a broken and crushed heart is much more profound. King David had committed horrible sins and he was sick unto death because of the guilt crushing him. Now, not everyone is guilty of such serious crimes as adultery compounded by murder, but this is how we should feel about any kind of sin. Even those sins that the world claims are “not so bad” or denies are actually sins in this enlightened age of secularized society. After all, nowadays it is okay to live in ways that God frowns upon because nobody appears to get hurt.
But David knew better. He knew the agony and torture of his guilty conscience. He knew that even above and beyond what he had done to harm Bathsheba and Uriah, that his sins hurt God.
Well, now that our hearts are pulverized beyond all recognition due to guilt and grief, how do we continue to survive? Even the most ignorant person knows that you can’t live without a heart! But who will give us a new heart? When one receives a new kidney, there is a chance that the donor is still alive. However, whenever a patient has a heart transplant, you know that the donor gave up their life in order that another should live.
This is what Jesus Christ did for us. He died that we might live. And this is where God the Holy Spirit comes in. He is the heart transplant surgeon. He replaces our broken and crushed heart with a newly created one…from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who died that we might live forever with Him in heaven.
On a more “earthly” note, my toilet gardens are blooming! Go ahead and laugh. If you have any comments, please post them.
“The innocent must be protected,” Sir Frederick said.
5 Turnings prior to the events in Wyldling Snare…
Night had fallen like a black curtain over the tall copse of ancient lilac bushes behind him. Although their branches were almost barren, the silent watcher could easily envision the gnarled and twisted boughs of ancient bushes – many grown as tall as trees over many Cycles – verdant with foliage and laden with purple blossoms as they were in the late springtime. Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could imagine that he smelled their sharp fragrance in the autumn air. Unconsciously, his gloved fingers stroked the lilacs embroidered on his tabard.
Lilacs – the symbol of his order.
From his perch on his mount, the armored man gazed down into the rocky defile as if he was capable of seeing into its depths. His breath steamed in the chill autumn moonlight, but he was otherwise perfectly still – an equestrian statue.
The spell was shattered a moment later when his destrier snorted and backed away from the brink at a twitch of the reigns in the man’s hands. Chain mail jingled softly as he returned to the copse of ancient lilac bushes. Dead and dry leaves rattled as a breeze plucked them away from nearly denuded branches.
“What did you see, down there?” another man spoke from beneath the spreading limbs of a nearby oak, where he stood holding the bridle of his own horse. He had been the first to arrive at the copse over an hour ago. For the past ten minutes he had been watching the mounted man in perfect silence, expressionless as a toy soldier clad in lacquered scale armor over his silk garments. He wore a strangely shaped helm with a wide neck guard and a crest on the forehead piece that resembled moth antennae.
The mounted man showed no surprise; despite his preoccupation he had been aware of the other man’s presence for some time. He merely turned in the saddle to address his comrade. “Only darkness.” And then he spat on the ground in punctuation. “Wondered if you were ever going to speak up. How’s the bride, Nicolas?”
“She is well, I thank you.” Sir Nicolas inclined his head politely. “We are expecting a child during the Wolf Moon.”
“Congratulations!” The mounted man said. “May the Threefold One bless your growing family.” He grinned. “Didn’t waste any time, did you?”
“I thank you, Frederick.” Sir Nicolas bowed to his colleague. His wry smile was evident in his tone. “We saw no reason to wait.”
Hoofbeats interrupted their conversation. “Ah,” the mounted man said. “I reckon that’s Mordegaard.”
“The approach is from the South,” came his companion’s mild reply.
“Aye.” Sir Frederick chuckled as he removed his plain round helmet. “Commander Storm will not be coming, for he had more pressing concerns in the County of Mirrors. I will tell you more once the others arrive. And I suppose Clint will be late, as usual.”
“He does have the farthest to come, Frederick,” Sir Nicolas gently rebuked him. He took off his heavy helm and glanced up, past the branches of the ancient lilacs bushes clawing at the sky. “And the moon is not yet above us.”
Sir Frederick’s bearded face split into a grin. “At least we can be assured of a good smoke when he comes.”
Several more minutes brought with them the appearance of a tall, dark-skinned man astride a white stallion from around the bend. He wore lamellar leather armor reinforced with steel scales and a helm with a long feathery crest. A hooded raptor perched on the pommel of his saddle.
“Praise the Threefold One!” Sir Frederick dismounted to approach the new arrival. “Good to see you’re still among the living, Mordegaard.”
Sir Nicolas emerged from the gloom under the oak into the moonlight and bowed to the dark-skinned man. “Lord Yshua be with you, Mordegaard,” he said.
“Frederick. Nicolas.” Sir Mordegaard removed his crested helm and nodded to both of his comrades. “Salutations, my friends, and rich blessings from the Almighty Yshua. It is good to see you both, as well.”
His stallion was a young, spirited animal, and danced a few steps, whickering, as he pulled up on the reins. The hooded falcon shifted its talons but showed no signs of distress. The dark-skinned man patted the horse’s neck and then dismounted. He stroked the wing feathers of his bird, murmuring reassurances. It was then that they all detected the hoof-beats of a horse approaching from the west at a brisk trot.
Sir Mordegaard led his mount over to another tree on the edge of the lilac copse and loosely looped the reins around a branch. “Do not stray, Zebulun,” he murmured, placing a sword-callused hand upon its nose.
Just as the moon reached its zenith, the fourth man rode into the clearing ringed by lilac bushes on a coal-black destrier with a white blaze on his forehead. Although he was over average height and broad-shouldered, the man’s figure seemed slight when compared with his comrades, for he wore no armor other than a tough leather coat with fringes along the sleeves. His long dark hair was bound back in a queue – in the style of the Western Plains Skraeling folk – and he wore no helmet, only a wide-brimmed hat that would have concealed his face even in daylight. As it was, the moon revealed little of his features, but the three other men recognized him easily.
“What ho, Clint!” Sir Frederick raised a hand in greeting, chain mail jingling
“What ho, Rick!” Sir Clinton called back. His voice sounded eager. “I see the three of you have beat me, as usual.” He raised the brim of his hat to reveal the cocky grin on his handsome, high cheek-boned features and then slid off his horse with the grace of one practically born in the saddle.
“As an apology,” he said, dark eyes twinkling, “I have brought smokeleaf.”
“Good man,” Sir Nicolas murmured, bowing to him. “You have rkindled the spirit of forgiveness in my breast.”
Sir Clinton laughed as he withdrew an oilskin sack from a saddlebag. The four men brought out their pipes and filled them with crushed dry leaves that the young man offered them. For several moments, they puffed away in companionable silence. Fragrant smoke wreathed their heads and rose into the star-spangled blackness above them. They all waited, Sir Clinton fidgeting, the others more patiently, watching the moon slowly trace its silvery path across the heavens.
Finally, Sir Frederick tapped the dottle out of the bowl of his pipe and crushed out the embers beneath his booted heel. He tucked his pipe into a belt pouch. The others followed suit. The older man sighed. Moonlight shimmered like hoarfrost on the numerous gray hairs on his head and in his short beard. “I suppose you all have heard the rumors by now,” he said, “so what I have to say will be no mystery to any of you. A week following the Resurrection Festival, scouts reported activity along the walls of Gan’golorum. Commander Storm, himself, has gone to investigate.”
“Ah.” Sir Mordegaard nodded his head in understanding. “That explains the Commander’s absence tonight. As the Nehmwights muster for war in the North,” he said, “Banditry is on the rise in the Southern Marches. The southern caravan route has become even more perilous for honest folk to travel. I suspect that the Human League is behind all the trouble.” He turned to Sir Nicolas, his eyebrows raised inquisitively.
“Assuredly, something foul is afoot in Rang Shadah,” was all the taciturn Sir Nicolas would contribute, his dark eyes a mystery. He waved a hand to indicate that he would elaborate later, and then turned to the young Baron-Knight of the Western Marches, who looked as though he would fly apart at the seams if he did not speak soon.
“Someone’s buying up all the mining rights in the Spine,” said Sir Clinton in a rush. “And the Pacifica manufactories have increased their production sevenfold.” The young man, barely out of his teens, contained his excitement like a tightly-coiled spring. He lowered his voice. “And with my own eyes I saw Koshmar.”
The other three men exchanged uneasy glances. “Are you sure, lad?” Sir Frederick inquired, placing one large hand on Sir Clinton’s shoulder. “One Nehmwight pretty much looks like another.”
The youth stiffened and his eyes flashed. “I would not have mentioned it, otherwise.”
“Peace, Sir Clinton,” rumbled Sir Mordegaard. “Continue, my brother. The hour grows later than we hoped, and that which we swore to protect may soon be in peril.”
“Too right on that count,” muttered the youngest of their Order. Irritably, he rolled his shoulders, stretching them under the taut leather vest. “I only saw him at a distance, but I heard the Third Consul of the Western Pact – Reese Devonian, that is, a fellow I’ve been suspicious of for a while – address him by name.”
“A thousand curses upon the head of Devonian,” Sir Nicolas whispered, his dark eyes fierce.
“And a thousand more upon the Nehmwight who subverted him,” Sir Mordegaard added. “Almighty preserve us!”
Sir Frederick, the most senior among them, chuckled humorlessly. “Go ahead and curse the bastards all you want, but it’s cold steel, rather than words, that’ll be the undoing of them.”
“That, or an arrow from the shadows,” Sir Clinton said, glancing at the strung bow and quiver hanging from his saddle horn.
“I doubt the Council would countenance assassination,” said Sir Mordegaard.
Sir Frederick smiled grimly. “The Commander would,” he said. “And it is to him that we report, not the Council.”
“The night grows old,” said Sir Nicolas, who had been watching the moon.
Swiftly, the young man told the rest of his tale, and the others added details to flesh out their own findings. It was no difficulty to perceive that all these disparate activities were interconnected. Grimly, the four men concluded that that which they guarded was in danger and the time had come to prepare for war. They discussed the possibility that the stirring of the enemy in all Four Quarters was a ruse to flush out the remnants of their Order and thus determine the whereabouts of that which they safeguarded. The uneasy consensus was that they report their findings to their commander and remain vigilant of any traps as they mustered troops for the inevitable conflict.
Sir Nicolas, especially, was reluctant to commit to hostile actions. “It might be a ruse in a different manner,” he suggested, uncharacteristically verbose. “A means of utterly annihilating us and leaving our sacred charge naked to every threat.”
Sir Frederick clenched his bearded jaw. “Not on my watch.”
Sir Mordegaard’s dark eyes glittered. “It is clear, to me, what our next move must be to ensure the safety of our ward. We must each ensure that our successors are fully trained and prepared for investiture. We must await orders from Commander Storm to engage. Then, and only then, shall we carry the fight to our foes.”
Sir Clinton grinned ironically. “This from the man who claims that time is so short. But hey,” he said, doffing his wide-brimmed hat. His dark eyes shone with excitement in the moonlight. “Since we’re talking war, I reckon it’s high time I found me an apprentice!”
“No girls, Clint.” Sir Nicolas smiled. “Remember what Commander Storm said about that at the last Convocation.”
Sir Clinton’s mouth snapped shut, and his dusky cheeks darkened in a blush.
“Never mind, lad,” laughed Sir Frederick, slapping him on the back. “No matter who you choose, you’ll do old Sir Ferdinand proud.” He sobered. “May he rest in peace.”
“May he rest in peace,” intoned the other three. The young man found that he had a lump in his throat as he recalled his master, and hastily popped his hat back on his head so that the others did not see the moisture in his eyes.
“Now then,” Sir Frederick said, and cleared his throat. “According to tradition, during the full moon at the birth of each season, we have convened here in the place where our Order was founded to share the news of our realms and to speak our oath anew.”
As the most senior knight of the Lilac Order, Sir Frederick knew his duty well. He stepped back and drew his broadsword, Borealis. Placing both hands upon the hilt, he held it with the blade pointing skyward, the flat of it touching his bowed head. His voice was calm and steady as he spoke, but his heart beat with paternal love behind his armored breastplate as he conjured the image of their ward into the view of his mind’s eye.
“I, Frederick jes Ursanovir, Baron of the Northern Marches and Knight of the Lilac Order, in the presence of my brothers, hereby reaffirm my vow to protect and serve the selDrayven clan with my every breath and beat of my heart until life has fled from me. Threefold One bear witness.”
One by one, the others mimicked him.
Sir Mordegaard LeMaurior was next, pressing the flat of his cutlass, Meridialis, against his bald pate. His voice shook with his fervent vow, but the hands of the finest swordsman in the Southern Marches were as steady as his devotion to their ward’s safety.
Sir Nicolas Terayama was calm, as usual, and his voice was firm as he spoke his dedication to the selDrayven family. The blade of Orientalis, his katana, flashed in the moonlight like quicksilver. Although he loved his young wife and their unborn child passionately, the Baron-Knight of the Eastern Marches knew that he was prepared to die in the defense of the one they all served.
Sir Clinton Rodriguez, the newly invested Baron-Knight of the Western Marches, removed his hat so that the narrow blade of his saber, Occidentalis, would not slice its brim as he solemnly swore his oath. Even though he had never personally met the one he was sworn to protect, the young Skraeling was no less dedicated to the cause than his elder companions.
After he fell silent, the four Baron-Knights, each standing at one of the cardinal arrows etched into the stones at their feet, raised their chosen blades until the points met at the center. They spoke in unison ancient words passed down from baron-knight to apprentice since the inception of the Lilac Order. Perhaps it was only the moonlight, flashing off of the metal of the blades as they flicked them up, but it seemed that sparks leaped from the tips of their weapons. There was no visual or audible signal, but after a moment, the four men simultaneously lowered their disparate blades, and then sheathed them in one fluid movement.
“Lord Yshua go with you, my brothers.” Sir Frederick locked eyes with each of his comrades in turn. “The innocent must be protected,” he said. Slamming their right fists against their chests, the others echoed his words.
Without speaking further, the grim-faced men turned away and retrieved their mounts. Within moments, they were riding off to opposite points of the compass. Although they were disparate in appearance and separated by vast distances, the four Baron-Knights were united by the same cold resolve burning within their hearts.
“How the crimson tide burned inside of him, wracking him! He must feed it, and soon.”
I removed the following excerpt from Wyldling Snare because I wanted to restrict the narrative to three points-of-view. However, I feel that it provides a taste of this novel without revealing too much of the plot. Enjoy, and feel free to comment.
The golden shafts of suns-light streaming through the interrupted canopy deep in the untamed depths of the Darkenwood Forest remained unappreciated by the panting, dark-featured figure that creeped across the drawbridge of the ancient fortress. Once inside the castle walls, a pair of sinewy arms applied themselves to the wheel that lowered the gate over the entrance. Wraithlike, the dark figure darted down a passageway when the fortress was barred against the outside world, relieved to be out of the daytime light and heat.
Although he detested the necessity to venture underground, the assassin was grateful to be deep in the hollow heart of the fortress where the shadows lay thickest, coiling sinuously like living things, so that he could finally remove the talisman that maintained his disguise. Torches seemed to march along with him in an eerie procession down the chilly, winding corridors, nearly stifled in the pulsing, oily blackness. And yet, life dwelled there within the stronghold, though a fusty odor of mildew and decay clung to its walls, its many chambers and its tunnels and dungeons. A colossal survivor of a long-forgotten age, the castle clung to its molding foundation, whereas its kin had long since declined into the ruined, crumbling corpses of an extinct race.
Running his tongue over his fangs, the assassin slunk along the narrow, dank hallway that led to a heavy oak door pitted with gouges and reinforced with steel bands. Hackles raised and pelt rippling with anxiety, he tried not to think about the foul denizens inhabiting the lower levels of the fortress, the ones who whispered and taunted and promised delights. He set his jaws into a terrifying rictus to scare off the shadows around him; however, they would approach, and test his control yet again. After what seemed an age to the assassin, he stood before the huge door, motionless, uncertain of his welcome. He had not yet succeeded in his primary objective. In the dimness behind him, he could hear the steady drip of water as it seeped through cracks in the superstructure. He twitched his whiskery mustache and raised a hand to scratch at the door.
“Well, enter, you idiot! You’ve been standing out there long enough.”
The assassin’s tail went rigid behind him, and his fur stood on end at the sound of the angry voice, loud and clear even behind the huge door. He snarled at himself, gathering his courage, and then shoved a shoulder against the door, pushing it open with enormous effort. He had been sent to gather intelligence and he would report the information he had gleaned – just as he had been instructed. It was good to serve a master; in addition to the talisman that allowed him to move unregarded amongst the Kadorei, Milord gave him potions that kept the crimson madness at bay.
At least, they had used to.
Slipping through the opening, he yanked his tail inside as the door slammed shut like the valve of a diseased heart. He wrinkled his snout at the mingled scent of burnt candle wicks, ancient mildew and rancid sweat laced with rotgut spirits as he blinked his dark eyes at the unaccustomed light, dim though it was. Guttering tapers held the deepest shadows at bay in the corners, held upright in pockets of their own melted wax.
A tall, dark-bearded man with a thin face and sharply pointed ears hunched over a huge, leather-bound tome that covered the entire surface of the wax-smeared worktable. Candles of varying thickness and heights surrounded him, the light they provided tumbling down and around the folds of his silky, blue-black robe like water off a waterfowl’s wings. Even in the dim, golden light it was easy to see that his skin was not simply corpse-pale, but as gray as old ashes. He smelled of persimmons and frustrated rage.
Off in a dark corner, the assassin perceived a figure in dirty gray robes sprawled out upon a shabby divan, drinking out of a bottle and swaying in time with the ribald ditty that he softly sung. He smelled sour, of rotgut whisky, festering secrets and bitterness. The assassin’s eyes passed over him; that one was no threat in his present condition and was easily dismissed.
Now that he was within the confines of the chamber and away from the whispering, beguiling shadows, the assassin could wait patiently, even if he was uncomfortable deep in the bowels of the moldering fortress. It had been almost a fortnight, and the crimson madness was stirring again. He could feel it burning like acid at the back of his throat and tickling at the base of his skull. And the shadows kept whispering…whispering…
His fingers twitched. Joints popped and crackled. He felt his claws lengthen.
The tall, dark-robed man continued to ignore him for a moment longer, obviously intent on his reading, seemingly a harmless scholar. Weak and vulnerable. Easy prey.
The assassin knew better. Oh yes, for his sins, he did know better.
Trembling, the assassin cleared his throat. “Milord?” he said.
Now the man turned from his volume and regarded him imperiously down his nose, one dark eyebrow raised. “You have news to report?” he replied in the assassin’s natal language.
The assassin hated that little tickle of dread at the base of his skull, but he would endure much worse in order maintain his tentative grasp on sanity. “Yes, milord,” he said. “As instructed, I have been watching and listening.” He avoided looking directly into the man’s eyes. To do so would be to challenge him. It was much the same amongst his own people.
“Good,” the man said without a trace of emotion in his voice. “Continue.”
“The boy is in the woods now,” he rasped. “He is on his way to that…that wall…but he is not alone this time.” Dare he trust that calm tone? The quiet mien?
“He returns to it,” the tall man said, one hand absently stroking his short, spade-shaped beard. His eyes glittered in the candlelight. “Yes. I can profit from this…”
Gathering courage, the assassin stepped closer. How the crimson tide burned inside of him, wracking him! He must feed it, and soon. “Milord…” he said. “Perhaps I overpower the companion, bring the boy to you…and when you are done with him, I devour him?”
“Silence!” With a casual wave of his hand, the tall man sent the assassin flying into the wall, knocking off his wide-brimmed hat. He had not physically touched him, but the tattoos on his hands were writhing like a tangle of black, spiny worms.
“Your orders,” he continued in his resonant voice, “are – as they have always been – to watch and listen. You have done well in eliminating the old man. When the time comes, I will give you further instructions regarding his ward.”
Suddenly the thin face – twisted with rage and black symbols crawling across ashen skin – and its fierce eyes filled the assassin’s entire field of vision. A visceral pain clawed through the assassin’s insides, and in spite of himself he doubled over, whimpering and groaning. After what seemed to be seasons passed, the agony disappeared as if it had never been. He straightened up again, his yellow eyes flashing with indignation and resentment.
“This is the order of the Dreadlord,” the man said, once he saw that he had the brute’s full attention. “You are not to molest the boy in any way. Do not disobey me in this. You have caused enough trouble already in sating your…hungers. If you compromise your mission, there will be a very object lesson in store for you. Do I make myself clear, eresh’gulkah?”
Eyes wide, the assassin choked down his terror and mortified anger at the Nehmwight appellation for slave. He managed a curt nod. “I am your eyes and ears, milord,” he choked out. “Your very obedient…slave.”
The tall man rewarded him with an enormous, shark-like grin. “Very good,” he purred, tossing a small metal flask to the assassin. “Here is your medicine. Now, leave us.” Seemingly of its own accord, the huge door creaked open behind the assassin.
Trembling, the assassin clutched the potion to his chest. Backing away, he snatched his hat off the floor and scuttled out of the room. The door slammed shut behind him and narrowly missed crushing his tail as he fled.
Originally, this was going to be a fantasy novel tentatively entitled Bride of Callahan, but then life happened.
The half moon glinted coldly down on the strange, shambling, three-fold figure dragging itself across the dormitory parking lot. Two young women walked stooped over with the weight of their drunken companion distributed between them, the toes of his sneakers scraping over the asphalt. Every so often, he would try to walk, throwing his friends off balance.
“Darn it!” Samantha hissed as she nearly fell. “This is the last time I help drag your boyfriend’s sorry butt home from a party.”
“Hey! Hey…it’sh not my fault…he drank so much.” The other girl giggled, staggering a little herself, her brown hair falling into her eyes. “Well, maybe it ishh…”
“We’re just lucky we got away before the cops came, Becca. Or have you forgotten that we’re underage?”
“Not like you drank nothin’ to get into trouble. Good old Sam, the deshignated driver!” Becca giggled again.
Breathing heavily, Samantha managed, with the fumbling aid of her inebriated friend, to muscle the young man up against the side of the building near the back entrance. Grinning inanely, he slid down until he plopped down on the lawn. “I’m a wee free balloony boy!” he crowed happily, and promptly keeled over on to his side and started snoring.
“Darn it, Joey!” Samantha restrained an urge to kick him.
Becca just laughed. “We can shtill take the elevator, right?”
Consternation writ large on her face, their sober companion looked around to make sure that no one was watching them, and then pulled out her key to their dorm building. “Not unless we want the RA at the desk to see how drunk you guys are.” She turned the key in the lock. “No sir. We’s gonna go up the backstairs m’dears.”
In spite of their predicament, Samantha couldn’t help but grin. Watching other people get drunk had been rather amusing, even though her efforts to restrain her friends had failed. She had wanted to leave long before they did, but she had felt honor-bound to make sure that Becca and Joey had gotten back safely.
It was with that thought in mind that Samantha and Becca doggedly dragged Joey up a flight of stairs to the dorm room he shared with a nice Irish Catholic boy named Eric Callahan, to whom they passed on their burden. He helped Samantha flop Joey down in his bed, and then dug the tarp and barf-basin out from underneath his own with an ease born of much practice.
“See if you can sober him up,” Samantha said, wearily rubbing her brow when they had finished. “Dunk his head in a toilet…or something.”
Becca laughed in delight.
“Oh, don’t worry.” Eric grinned with a mischievous glint in his eye. “I’ll make him regret he ever smelt alcohol.” He looked at Becca, appraising her condition. “Why’re you even dating him, Bex? He’s just turning you into what he is.”
“A leprechaun?” Becca snorted with laughter at her own joke.
“No, a freaking loser.” Shaking his head, Eric closed the door behind him.
“Whaaaat? Ish he saying I’m a freakin’ loosher?” The dark-haired young woman turned to her friend.
Sighing, Samantha grabbed her hand. “C’mon Bex,” she said. “It’s time for bed.” With an arm around her waist, she helped Becca up the stairs to the women’s floor. “Kim’s gonna be pissed at you, y’know,” she muttered. “I bet she’s sick of you coming home drunk every Friday night.”
“That’s what roomies are for. Getting pissed at. And with.” Becca groaned, clutching at her middle. “I think I’m gonna puke.”
There was one other student in the bathroom, brushing her teeth, when Samantha propelled her green-faced friend into a stall. She even held Becca’s hair back while she vomited; like Eric, she had gotten good at it due to the frequency of its occurrence.
“Bex drinking again?” called the other girl from her sink.
“Yeah,” Samantha called back.
“That makes four weeks in a row,” the other girl observed. “She ought to ditch that loser boyfriend. He’s going to get her into serious trouble.”
“Easier said than done,” Samantha grated out from between her teeth.
Why couldn’t she have dated Eric, instead? She wondered, and not for the first time. What does she see in Joey? And why am I still hanging around with them?
Disgusted with them and herself, Samantha helped her friend clean up and led her to her room. She knocked on the door. Fortunately, Kim wasn’t in. She had started playing it smart by going down to the community center—what students called “the Basement”—or watching movies with her friends on the weekend nights. Samantha envied her.
Becca managed to unlock her own door and trudged into her dark room. She collapsed onto her bed, burying her face in her pillow. “Dear God,” she groaned. She sounded almost sober. “What am I doing?” She rolled over on her side, gazing at her friend, limned in fluorescent light on the threshold. “Go ahead. I can feel you judging, Sam. Say your piece.”
“What good will it do?” Samantha replied softly. “You’ll just do it again tomorrow night, and next week, and the weekend after that.”
Becca tilted her face to the side, her dark hair falling in waves against her pillow. She’s so beautiful, Samantha mused, but her eyes are filled with sadness.
“It’s not much fun for you, is it?” Becca said, and sprawled out on her back. “But you’re still here.”
Knowing that was the closest thing to an apology that Becca would ever give to her, Samantha went over to her and hugged her, golden hair mingling with brown on the pillow.
“Yeah,” Samantha said. “I’m still here.”
Becca pulled Samantha down next to her, squeezing her tight. Her body shook, wracked with sobs. Samantha held her until she quieted into slumber, and then rose from the bed. She smoothed her friend’s hair back from her face with gentle fingers.
This has to stop, she decided. You should be with Eric. He’ll treat you rightand keep you on the right path. Resolved, Samantha left the room, closing the door softly behind her. She turned toward the stairwell, and saw Kim coming down the corridor.
“Is she out?”
Samantha nodded. “Yep. Like a light.”
“Thanks. G’night, then.” Kim smiled at her.
Feeling waves of depression welling up inside her, Samantha walked past her own room, two doors down from the back staircase, and down the stairs to the men’s floor.
Eric’s face registered a pleased sort of surprise when he opened the door. “I didn’t expect to see you back here tonight.” He peered down at her distraught expression. “Is Bex okay? Are you okay?”
“I…I think so.” Samantha peered past him into the dimly lit room. “Is Joey…still sleeping?”
“Out stone cold.” Eric grinned. “Come in. I’d offer to take you down to the Basement, but my cousin is coming over. We’ll go once he gets here.”
“Oh! I can go…”
“Nah, he won’t care.” Eric waved her in. “He likes meeting my friends.”
Samantha found herself sitting in an elderly orange bean-bag chair while Eric sorted through his manga collection for a volume he was dead certain that she’d find interesting. Behind her, Joey noisily sawed logs.
Samantha stared at the back of Eric’s head, the way his black hair tapered down neatly to the nape of his neck. “Eric,” she said. “You like Becca, right?”
He froze, a book in hand. He turned to face her, his blue eyes wary. “Yeah,” he replied slowly.
“I mean like like her,” continued Samantha, feeling lame.
“Yeah.” The young man glanced over at his roommate, as if to be sure he was still asleep. Snoring, Joey remained oblivious to their conversation. “What’s your point?”
Feeling her face heat up, Samantha looked down into her lap, confusion clouding her resolve. “You’re nice. I just wish…Becca was with you.”
“Well, she’s not.” Eric’s voice was brittle. “We could wish the stars from the sky, but it’s not gonna happen.”
“Sorry.” Samantha felt ashamed for hurting his feelings. Eric wasn’t a close friend, but she cared about him all the same. Tears burned in her eyes.
“Shoot.” He crouched down beside her, an awkward hand on her shoulder. “Please don’t cry, Sam. You can talk to me.”
Her heart in her throat, Samantha looked up at him, and was just opening her mouth to speak when the call buzzer went off by the door. Eric mouthed an obscenity and went to the speaking grill. Samantha wiped her eyes with the hem of her T-shirt.
“It’s me, Eric!” A distorted male voice spoke loudly through the grill, and Samantha started, her heart palpitating.
“Okay, I’ll be right down. With a surprise!” Eric shouted back into the grill. He turned to the despondent young woman in the bean-bag chair. “He’s here. Maybe you should come with me. I don’t want to leave you alone with my drunken roommate.”
“Are you sure? I could just go back to my room.”
“I already promised him a surprise. That’s you. C’mon.” Eric jerked his head toward the door. “We’ll cheer you up. And no booze, I promise.”
Samantha laughed and awkwardly lurched to her feet. Spontaneously, she hugged him. “Thanks, Eric.”
“No problem,” He said, blushing. “Hey! I’ll race you there.”
Suddenly feeling happier than she had for days, Samantha bounced down the stairs behind him, a strange giddiness bubbling within her breast. It was odd, the way her emotions were swinging around tonight. For a fleeting moment, she wished that Eric liked her the way he did her best friend, but she hastily banished that thought. She wasn’t even sure if she liked him in that way; the young man she was interested in was a fellow biology major with artistic aspirations. As far as she knew, Greg seemed like a nice enough guy. She grinned to herself as she rounded the last bend on Eric’s heels, and crashed into him when he stopped suddenly to avoid trampling a group of girls coming up the stairs.
“Whoa-ho, Callahan!” one of them yelled, leering at the two of them.
“Hey, it’s Samantha!” another girl exclaimed, reaching out to snag her arm and disentangle her from the embarrassed young man. It was Mary, one of her upperclassman friends. “You wanna watch a movie with us? Your cute friend is welcome, if he wants.”
“Uh, no thanks, ladies,” Eric responded, blushing furiously. “Sam and I are meeting my cousin…unless you’d rather go with them?” He glanced at Samantha.
“Maybe tomorrow, Mary,” Samantha told her friend. “I promised Eric I’d meet his cousin.”
“Have fun, Sam!” Mary winked at her. Continuing up the stairs, the other young women laughed amongst themselves, as if they knew a secret that Samantha did not.
“Sheesh,” she said. She felt her face heat up as her eyes met Eric’s.
Eric shrugged. “They’re just being girls. C’mon.”
With the echoes of the group’s laughter echo receding behind them, the two emerged into the lobby. As they passed the front desk, the RA on duty looked up from her paperback book—something by Stephen King, Samantha noted in passing—long enough to say “your cousin’s here again, Eric.”
“Thanks. And have a good night.”
“You too. Oh, hi Sam.”
Samantha smiled and murmured something polite before following Eric to the front door. Peering into the vestibule, she could see someone leaning up against the wall. Her heart froze in her chest.
It was a cop.
…And that’s all I have.So, what do you think? Does it have novel potential or is it crap?