a dark, dangerous despair

A quick excerpt from THE MAGI, the fifth book in The Martuk Series, Vol. 1, A Collection of Short Fiction (available now for pre-order):

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“In prisons made,” she said from the shadows. “Silence are screams.”

I heard the rustling of fabric.  It sounded rough and heavy.  As if many layers of coarse woolen and thick linen sat one on top of the other, the weight of them forcing steps that were small and taken with great effort.

“This waits in lands yet known,” the voice said. “When all is dust and sand.” A long moment of silence.

Then,

“You are much less than you believe.”

I wanted to respond but my voice felt weak. I swallowed, willing away the tremble of fear lurking beneath.

And, courage captured, realized I had no words to give.

Standing in the small door, I paused, not yet entering the room. My neck ducked, head bowed, all I saw was dark. And dust. The forgotten remnants of a tiny room forgotten by time and the Temple. Walls bare. A narrow slit of a window draped with a sagging square of timeworn cloth. The stone beneath our feet an uninterrupted sea of soot.

Earlier, I’d stalked the quiet halls of the Temple. Felt those frightened Bones in the Stones. Calling the gods, I’d swallowed the fragile bands of memory with their whispers, sighs and cries. Dragged them from their dark corners, their memories, their knowledge, their secrets a forever feast.

And sated, slipped into the starlit dark to climb the Temple in search of an impossible story. A legend, if true, who might hold an answer to all.

Far below, the busy maze of Uruk dreamt safe in sleep.

This journey into myth began days ago.

“Before we wake, she comes,” a Priest, an old man, said earlier, his voice shaking. The deep lines in his face spoke of many winters, his withered hands reminding me of claws. Small beads pooled on his thin upper lip. If I listened closely, I could hear his heart thumping.

I smiled.

“She steals into your dreams?” I took a step closer.

He shook his head. The scent of sweat rose from his shaven scalp. I stepped forward. He pressed closer to the wall, the red and gold of his robes gathered in white-knuckled fists.

The hall was empty, the moon high. No one would find the body until the sun rose, I told him without words.

He cleared his throat. “No, no, it’s not a dream, no.” He paused to catch his breath. The wet on his upper lip gleamed. “She parts your dreams like water and steps into your thoughts.”

“And then what?”

“She decides.” He cleared his throat. “Everything. Just everything. All we do. All we choose and advise.” A glance down the empty hall. “Without a word, sometimes with a small look, she’s the one who decides all.”

And then silence.

“Tell me more of this Ancient Queen,” I said to the young servant the next day.

His hair was thick and black, his feet bare. His tunic sat square on his slender shoulders, falling almost to his knees. Although his chin and cheeks were smooth, he’d be wielding the blade on a beard by summer’s end. His smile quick, his eyes wide, I trusted, like most servants, he’d be eager to share whatever he knew.

The sun was high though we stood in shade. Nearby, priests and guards and servants rushed by, the passing clouds of red dust hugging their legs like fragile linen. I’d called the boy close using silent words. And he’d come, his steps quick, the answers to my questions coming even quicker.

“She is very old and very powerful,” he’d said. “They say, the priests, they say she was the one who laid the first stone of this Temple, though I find that hard to believe.” He grinned, the white of his teeth shining bright.

“But there are stories.”

A nod. “Yes, that she sleeps a very deep sleep here in Uruk or in the mountains or toward sunset buried in rolling hills of sand. But it’s understood that only the most powerful priests in this land of powerful priests know where. And she can wake at will, they say. And a single word, or even just a look, or a small move of her hand, can stop the beating of a heart or drive a man – a priest, even, or maybe a king – away from the gods and into a dark, dangerous despair.”

“She has access to secrets,” I said.

He nodded. “One older and more powerful than the oldest and most powerful among them?” he said, nodding to a group of priests plodding through the dust in the distance, their hands shielding their eyes from the sun. “I would think she knows more than one should.”

“And do you know where she might sleep?” I said.

The servant shook his head.

No.

“Tell me where she sleeps.” I knelt in front of a tall priest the following night. The blood still seeping from where his tongue once was, he sat in an earthen cell, ankles and wrists shackled, the digging of desperate fingers having stolen his sight.

Outside, the stars shone. In the halls of the Temple above, shocked whispers still spoke of this great man’s betrayal. And of the mysterious Man from the Mountains. The death of the Wounded King. The Elder’s cruelty. The screams.

They spoke of a priest, a tall priest, being dragged away by the guards.

Steps away, spied through slats of wood lashed with crude rope, others in their last hours slept or wept or sighed.

I drew close to this tall priest. He lifted his head as if sensing me. His thoughts, tenuous but easy to catch, an endless musing on death, betrayal, love.

Yes,

I said without words, drawing closer still.

His thoughts still mine, I felt his fear, his pain. The endless breaking of his loving heart. Saw glimmers of a son stolen and a seer weeping. Of a cave hidden in the mountains and a three-day journey on a winding path.

Of Those Beyond the Veil in a mumbling chaos.

Yes,

I said again, urging him to continue, our noses almost touching. I smelled the metallic tang of blood. The acrid sheen of sweat. Breathed deep the scent of the forest on his flesh and in his robes. The warmth of remembered sun on his skin.

Confused thoughts, then. His mind a churning of addled fantasies. Release and relief. Freedom. The end of pain. Of what waited for him Beyond the Veil.

Yes,

I said as I pressed my lips to his.

In his mind, in his breath, the tumult stilled and settled. The thoughts became clear.

I saw her.

Tall. Hair dark. Her skeletal form burdened by layers of woolen and linen. Heavy golden chains wound ‘round her waist and falling from her neck. Years of dust and the thick webs of spinning spiders shrouding her like a veil from crown to foot.

And there, the Temple. A staircase cleaved into the side. Different from the grand stairs used by priest and peasant, this was tucked away. Hidden. A small door, then, within reach. The sun setting behind me. The lock opening from within. The way clear, open. Darkness waiting.

And then, inhaling his last breath, I saw muted grey, then black, his memories hushed, as the tall priest became prisoner no more.

But I knew where to find her.

More rustling from the corner as she took another step.

“You are but a blade.” Another step, the movement slow, from the shadows. “Not sword, but blade.” Her voice was deep with age and the remains of slumber. And though halting, the words carried on a whisper, it still commanded authority. Still insisted one listen. Demanded to be heard.

She stepped into the shaft of light sneaking through the window. “A mere blade.” A hand, bone-white with age and years of cloistered dark, lifted, slow, to beckon me

Enter.

She was tall, yes. And her hair was dark, falling past her waist to kiss the tattered hem of her faded woolen. Her small steps were hidden under layers of fabric and heavy chains weighted with even heavier amulets and charms circled her slender waist and rested against her chest.

All this I’d seen in the final breath of the tall priest.

What I could not have imagined was her impossible age. Or how bone-white her flesh was. What I could not have expected was how she stood, awkward and stiff, like a stone statue. Or how thick and complete her veil of dust and spider webs. A gossamer tapestry that had knitted together to become one great hooded cloak dragging behind as she moved, careful and slow.

Her face was hidden by this veil. Her hands could lift, but not break, the webs. Not even her nails, though they seemed long, could rip the prison created by tireless armies of countless spiders, year after year.

Having entered, I stood, chin still tucked to chest. “You say—”

She silenced me with a lifting of her head and a single, long breath. The face, beneath the web, jutted forward.

I thought I saw two lips part before she spoke but decided it was a trick of what little light crept into the room.

“You are not a soldier, Magi.” She cocked her head as if listening to my most silent of secrets. “You are not the one who wields the weapon.” Her head turned to the window. “Your shadow is weapon and soldier.” The movement much too slow and thick, she continued pivoting away from me. “Without your shadow, you are dull and without use.”

Facing the window now, the light catching her, I could see beyond the web. Her eyes narrow with sleep. The brows above dark and flaking, their arch smeared with the tip of a finger as though traced generations ago.

Her lips, thin and pale, parted. She inhaled, deep and long.

“Are you more than mere blade?” Her body followed her head. Her feet beneath the layers shuffled. The shoulders turned to where the light shone in, everything sluggish and leaden.

“I am more than a mere blade, Queen.”

A sigh. A pause. “Impossible things await,” she said, her voice deepening, the words slowing. “Disappointment in the end, soon.” A long sigh. A hand rose to caress the sun, the fingers beneath the web shining in the weakening light. “Silence stolen.”

“To be more than a blade, my queen.” I took a step forward. “This can be done.”

“The Temple is fallen.” Her body stopped. She faced the window, her hand still out, the fingers spread as if reaching, the sun fading. “Buried by winters without count, all is dust.” Beneath her veil, her brow furrowed. “Yet, though all is ended, you walk, still, in lands not yet known.” Another sigh.

“As soldier, not blade—”

“Your answer, your burden,” she said. Her eyes closed. “The end, blade, is—”

Another pause.

She stood, hand raised, face to the window. A quiet settled over the room.

“My queen,” I said. I took a step, and then a second, drawing near.

Her eyes were open. Her lips held still, parted as if readying to speak. But she was no more.

“My queen,” I said again, louder.

She stood, like stone, turned to where the sun once shone.

A blade, she’d called me. A useless weapon without a soldier to wield it. And that soldier?

The darkness.

I stood, not yet ready to relinquish the journey. Believing, perhaps, that she would wake and, seeing me, have more to tell.

For I am more than a simple blade.

I have lived endless days. I am spoken of with hushed voices. Walking through flame, I am feared and revered. Draped in a cloak clattering with the clank of bone, all bow as I pass. Able to call the Olden Gods, those before the Time of the Moon, I have seen untold suns rise and set. Watched great kings weep and empires fall. I can strike terror without words.

I can swallow your soul.

And yet, without the darkness, I would be dust.

Yes.

I looked to her again.

Still, she stood, trapped in mid-sentence, her hand raised.

There was truth to her words. Without the darkness, I would bleed and fall and slip Beyond the Veil. Without the darkness, my magic would impress but not terrify.

Without my darkness, I would be the mere blade I am.

I am less than I believe.

But with my darkness? Equal and true?

Beginning the climb downward, the torches of Uruk aglow, I felt the stirrings of improbable hope. Of a battle to be won. A powerful prize to be claimed.

And, driven by this new dream, I ignored her ominous

Silence are screams

even as the words echoed in my head, confusing and haunting,

In lands yet known.

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Available June 20th

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wounding the tender skin

A quick excerpt from RED AND GOLD, the third book in The Martuk Series, Vol. 1, A Collection of Short Fiction (available now for pre-order):

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Do not lose your soul …

In the quiet of my mind, the whisper came.

I held my breath, silencing my thoughts.

He waited, the young man, kneeling before the fire, his head bowed, his shoulders wrapped in the coveted red and gold robes of a Priest.

We waited, kneeling, priests, acolytes, initiates, all of us knowing what was to come.

He stood, the older man. Somber, focused, perhaps even sad as he gripped the blade in his hand, the light of the flame dancing in the polished metal.

Wordlessly, he stepped forward, his small eyes lost in the shade of his heavy brow.

Wordlessly, the young man tensed, his slender hands tightening into fists.

Wordlessly, we held our collective breath.

The blade met flesh.

The whisper quiet, I looked at the stone floor beneath my knees. Focused on my hands, my long fingers. The glow of the flames warming the flesh of my knuckles. How even though I kneeled some distance from the fire, I could feel the heat, watch the heat, allow myself to be distracted by the heat, my heart refusing to acknowledge the sacrifice before me.

A moment later, the blade moved again, slicing, cutting, sawing, the blade wounding the tender skin.

A moment after that, the whisper returned.

The weeping …

Again, it was ignored.

The man kneeling next to me, an older man, an elder, the two of us shoulder to shoulder, sighed, his breath heavy.

My eyes glanced up.

It was not he, the old man, who spoke, who whispered. And the young man who kneeled remained still, the old man above him working in silence.

And the blade still cut and scraped and sawed, the dark locks falling free from the shocking pale scalp of his bowed head.

These silent whispers could not distract me, my feelings more focused on my jealousy, my impatience, my long simmering rage.

Soon that would be me, I promised myself, my eyes now refusing the kneeling acolyte who was almost a priest.

Soon I would kneel, feel the cold metal as it chopped from me my own thick hair. My innocence, my youth, my powerlessness falling away with my own dark curls.

Soon I would move beyond being a mere initiate. A lowly servant. A someone Those in Power never saw.

Soon I would move from here, where I kneeled in subjugation, to there, where I would kneel at the altar and then rise to take the next step into power.

Soon.

The air shifted. I could sense it, the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. From somewhere in these dark, secret rooms beneath the Temple, something had changed. Something I could feel. A knowing not driven by whispers only I could hear.

This was a gift given to me by the gods. Or at least that’s what I’d decided. It was a silent knowing. An understanding of words not spoken, of thoughts unsaid. A look, sometimes brief, sometimes not, into the hearts of those who stood before me, their words landing in my ears, their truth singing to my heart.

There were even times, like now, when this truth spoke actual words. Words I would hear in my head, like secrets whispered in the darkest dark from the farthest corner of the world. Like the whispers surrounding me now.

This is what I felt when I speak now of the shift, of this change, in the air.

This is what I felt before we smelled the acrid scent of thick, black smoke.

Yes, smoke.

Heads turned. A wave of whispers, these spoken and calm and urgent, rippled through those of us who continued to kneel. And the old man with the blade paused, the supplicant’s head still bowed, a ring of dark hair remaining ’round the edge of his skull, the scalp bleeding delicate beads of red where the knife had gently nicked and cut and wounded.

The older ones rose and, their robes gathered from the floor, the red and gold held in their hands, rushed, calm and quick, to the door.

Those of us who were younger waited and then rose to follow.

Calm. Quick.

The initiate, now priest, waited, kneeling, his head still bowed low.

And there we stood, elders and initiates, priests and acolytes, in the low-ceilinged hall, noses in the smoke-filled air, calm and desperate to find the source and extinguish the flames.

From the hidden corner at the end of the dark, a door opened.

He stepped forward.

Older than most, more powerful than all, he was the beating heart of the mightiest Temple in Uruk, the most glorious city on earth.

The Elder.

One was to bow when The Elder passed. One was not to look at The Elder when he passed. To do so would incur the wrath of The Elder. A wrath both venomous and vengeful. An anger infamous in its volcanic cruelty.

It was best, when faced with the presence of The Elder, to avert one’s eyes and bow one’s head and even hold one’s breath.

He drew near, The Elder.

I held my breath, my eyes on my bare feet, my hands behind my back, the fingers laced, the knuckles white.

The Elder was not alone.

Young Priest …

This stranger walked behind him.

You can hear me …

He smelled of places foreign and strange.

You know me …

The robe around his shoulders was hemmed in bones. Delicate bones taken from tiny children. Slender toes and tiny fingers and small, square teeth that dragged along the ground behind him as he moved calm and slow down the hall.

Listen well, young priest …

I could hear him, yes. In my heart, my soul, he whispered.

And I will tell you all …

The Elder was now passing in front of me.

I exhaled, deep and slow, inhaled, deep and slow, and then held the breath. I felt I would weep, so great was my fear of this tall, skeletal Priest who had worn the red and gold long before I had taken my first breath as a new babe in the mountains.

That’s where I had been found, my life offered to the Temple when I was but a boy. But my memories of my father, my mother, whatever brothers and sisters I had left behind, they mattered little now.

Listen well …

The voice, the whisper, came again.

I listened.

The Elder was passing me. He moved by, calm and quick. I did not exist to him. I was no one. A stranger to ignore. An initiate who had yet to earn the priesthood, my thick hair damning me to ignominy on sight.

Ah, but this stranger, the one with the cloak ringed with the dull white of bone, he was not one to ignore. I could sense fear in the old man, The Elder. I could feel the air thick with secrets and shame and an utter sense of powerlessness.

The Elder stopped.

I glanced at his bare feet.

They were covered in blood. And bits of flesh?  Yes, that’s what it looked like, his long toes smeared in discarded shards of torn flesh. And the hem of his red and gold robe, it, too, was covered in blood. It was dripping, small drops of blood staining the stone beneath his feet.

Dripping.

The blood was fresh.

And they, the two of them, The Elder and this stranger who could whisper to the darkest depths of my soul, both smelled of smoke and raging fire and torn flesh.

But The Elder had stopped. Could he hear my thoughts? Could he read my soul? Did he know I had linked his name, his greatness, with words like shame and powerlessness?

If so, I would incur his wrath.

No …

The stranger grew close. Looked at me. He, too, was covered in blood. His robe dripping fresh blood. His feet stained red. More so than The Elder’s. As if this stranger, whose toes almost squished with fresh blood, had waded through an ocean of red to stand before me.

Yes …

I raised my eyes, slowly, so, so slowly.

His chest was bare. It was covered in blood.

His head was shaved smooth. It was covered in blood.

His eyes, peering from beneath a layer of red, were looking at mine.

A small smile grew on his thin lips.

Young priest …

came the whisper.

Listen well and I will give you the world.

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Available June 20th

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2B – The Second Feast

She wedged the knife deep, the blade angled just so.

– Apt. 2B, Eidolon Avenue: The Second Feast

COMING SOON (2019)

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Eidolon Two – Apt. 2E sneak peek

Though no longer a small girl, I am far from where I came but not far enough. Whatever devil lived in the dirt of that land can travel far and wide. And I trust it was in the dirt or the wood of the house for I cannot believe it was in Ma’s heart, though she could be cruel and unkind. Rough hands and a hungry mouth will do that to anyone.

– Apt 2E, Eidolon Avenue: The Second Feast

COMING SOON (2019)

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2D – The Second Feast

“No one tells you of the consequences of that spiral. Of what waits at that bottom. Of what waits for you in the years of guilt and regret and memory. In the eyes of others who can’t possibly know what you’ve done, what horrible things have occured by your hand, but somehow, in some way, they do.” Her chin trembled. She fought the urge to bite her lip. “No one tells you that no matter how much someone else suffers because of you, and how much they lose, in the end, you are destined to suffer more and lose more.”

– Apt. 2D, Eidolon Avenue: The Second Feast

COMING SOON (2019)

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an easy lie

In the silence of the Temple, they spoke.

A murmur, a sigh, an awakening, a cry.

Mother …

Father …

King …

I moved my cheek from the stone, the pain of the whispers too great to bear.

Although night, the workers — slaves, prisoners of war, many of them mere boys — still pulled and pushed the immense blocks into place, the already overwhelming Temple forever expanding, a veritable mountain of stone at the edge of the city.

For many of them, this was all they knew, their lives after capture, after defeat, one of constant work, nonexistent sleep, and death, quick and inevitable.

Above them all, the Priests watched.

And here, under the light of an almost full moon, the pain, the rage, the powerless despair of all those trapped and troubled bones in the stone surrounded me like a fog.

In the quiet, safe in the dark, far from those who watched and those who worked, I pressed myself to the cool rock.

I would listen.

Cry …

Whimper …

Sob …

Yes, I feel you.

Wound …

Suffer …

Die …

I pulled away.

Die …

King …

Die …

“They know you.”

I turned.

A small woman stood behind me, her long hair as silver as the light bathing her, the years in her face softened by the glow of the moon.

I glanced around for my guards. But, no, I had left them hours ago, ordering them away before I climbed the hill to the Temple.

“Your guilt needed solitude,” she said. “Your shame too great to share, yes?”

She waited.

I nodded.

Yes.

“And this is why you, the Almost King, stand here now, at this hour, under the moon, listening.”

She stepped closer.

Though draped in woolen, the rough fabric scarred by clumsily mended rips and tears, her feet bare, her wiry frame alarmingly thin, she carried herself with an unapologetic sense of majesty and dignity and strength as she moved near.

“Is your power worth all that death?”

“No.” The answer came from me, quick and unthinking. “No.”

“And yet it is not something you can deny, this power. This crown. It will be yours regardless of what you want or what you do. Or what I do. Born into this, you are as trapped as those in the stone.”

The tears threatened to come. I blinked. And blinked again.

“The most powerful of men,” she said, her voice gentle and kind, “utterly powerless to change what must be changed.”

Watching me, she grew silent as if she, too, were listening.

She turned her head, her gaze on the workers in the distance, the sweat on their skin shining under the glow of torchlight.

“Your mother is one with the Dark Gods, yes?”

I hesitated.

“There’s no need to answer.” She continued to watch the nameless who toiled under the gaze of the constant moon. “It’s commonly known, understood. We barbarians, as she calls us, here in the city talk of her and the Priests and their ancient religion. Those beliefs from the Time of the Moon. Of their worshipping those who must be paid in blood, in flesh, in fear. In the tears and cries of those they slaughter.”

“This is known?”

Looking at me, she continued.

“It is also known, and spoken of, that once these souls are bled and lifeless and useless, they burn –”

“Stop. Please.”

She stopped.

It was my turn to watch the strangers pull and push, the thick, braided rope threatening to split and shred under the weight of the stone.

“The gift you must give,” she said, my mother’s words echoed in hers.

“Is something I regret.” I refused to look this stranger in the eye. “Something I wish I didn’t have to do. Something I wish I had never done.”

“But it’s done.”

I looked at her.

“She’s a very powerful woman, your mother. Not many can deny her. Not many dare. Those who do …. ”

She grew quiet, the thought unfinished.

“And the Priests?” I asked. “What of them? Do the people talk about the Priests?”

“Yes, they do. And they understand what you and your mother do not: these men, these Priests, are more powerful than you know.”

“She believes she’s a God.”

“An easy lie for them to feed her. And her mind …”

Hesitating, she looked for the words.

“Her mind is wounded and hungry. Desperate for comfort, the grief, the guilt, the horror of what she’s done still at war with the tender delusion of her immortality.”

“She struggles.”

“And eats.”

Confused, I watched her, her eyes almost silver under the light of the moon.

“The bones are in the stones, yes?” she asked.

I waited.

“And what of the flesh? The flesh you burn before they grind these bones?”

She stopped, watching me before asking again.

“What of the flesh?”

— an excerpt from The Martuk Series, A Collection of Short Fiction, Vol. 1

COMING SOON

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and I remember fear

Want a quick look at The Realtor: An Eidolon Avenue Short Story?

Of course you do.

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Available on Amazon today.