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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a pale skull shadowed in starlight

An excerpt from THE ELDER, the second book in The Martuk Series, Vol. 1, A Collection of Short Fiction (available June 20th; pre-order now):

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It sat behind tattered woolen.

The body bent and broken, silhouetted and silent, the orange and yellow and white of the small fire crackling and snapping at its feet.

Pulling the red and gold of my robes against the chill in the air, I paused.

It lifted its head, The Seer, listened, the unusually large skull turning on a neck too slender, too thin. The shoulders tilted as it sensed me near.

The Child waiting before me, her delicate limbs held to the ground of the cave with crude, braided rope, snapped her head up with a small cry.

The Seer’s mouth opened slowly, the silhouette of its large teeth pointed and sharp.

The Child’s mouth opened slowly, bloody gaps where tender teeth had once been.

The Seer lifted and straightened its back.

The Child lifted and straightened her back.

The Seer’s fingers flexed, stretching open like the branches of a great tree.

The bones popped and snapped as The Child’s fingers stretched wide.

She wept, the little girl, the sobs caught in her throat as tears stained her cheeks, the ground below her knees soaked in a rush of urine.

The Seer sighed.

The Child gasped.

I knelt.

The Seer craned its neck, the pointed chin lifting in the air.

It paused.

The Child spoke.

Her mouth opened wide. The jaw popped and cracked. The soft skin of her cheek stretched.

The word wouldn’t come, the sound lost in a strangled sob.

She fought, then, The Child. Pushed it away. Forced this power, this strength, out of her, the tiny fists clenched as her eyes squeezed shut.

And then they opened, these eyes, and found mine. Trapped, afraid, powerless, she silently implored me to help.

I waited, on my knees, my long legs tucked beneath me, eager for her to speak.

Her fists unclenched, her shoulders dropped, the tears came again.

The Seer arched its back. The thin legs stretched and then curled back, folding in on themselves. Like an insect this infamous Seer was, all limbs and head and neck.

Shoulder blades pointed like wings. Thin, matted hair which fell to the ground. The pale skin leathery and rough and stained with a thick film of rancid sweat.

I had walked for two moons, leaving Uruk and the Temple under the cover of night.

Traveled without guards, without my brethren, without the company of the Tall Priest. Left the security of power and the comfort of my position. Left behind the death of the King and the rise of his brother, the Wounded King.

And then the death of their Mother, the Queen, a woman who gave herself to the Darkness only to fall in the heat of flames called by the power of a silver-haired Ancient.

I traveled to escape, my mind unable to comprehend what I’d seen as the Gods ate our sun and the Wounded King ascended the throne and Dark Gods rose to smite powerful Queens. All of this led to questions. Many questions. Questions without answers. Questions only one could answer.

So I left everything to search for this cave unlike any other. The one rising higher than most. Round and smooth unlike its neighbors, the great stone a pale skull shadowed in starlight, its dark entrance guarded by thick trees with branches that bent low when strangers approached.

And up the winding trail I had climbed, into the night, into the cold air of the mountains, to find a creature so old it was now neither man nor woman.

“It is wise,” the Tall Priest had said days ago as the sun warmed our skin. “Able to see the truth in the lie.”

“It is more ancient than those Ancients who linger here among us,” insisted another Priest, this one short and fat, the bread all but falling from his slobbering lips.

“If you seek answers,” another Elder, a man older than I, whispered in the dark of a massive hall of polished stone, “then you must go.”

“You will have to give much to gain what you seek,” warned the Ancient, a man older still, as he nodded and closed his eyes, the turning of his back an end to our brief conversation.

Yes, there were many questions for this beast that lurked behind tattered woolen.

Would the Wounded King step Beyond the Veil? Would his death be the final gift for the Darkness? And with this, would I be given Life Everlasting? Would I rule for countless generations and be revered as a God?

I came to the cave, the entrance hidden behind a thicket of heavy branches.

The trail beneath my feet scarred red with symbols and signs and pleas from those who had come before, I paused and readied myself to open the way.

With my blood.

The blade sliced my wrist and I knelt, my finger dipped into the warm liquid.

And as I guided the crimson, the tip of my finger stained red, the dirt drawing deep as it drank the words from The Time Before the Moon, the trees shifted their roots and lifted their branches, the blanket of leaves rustled and snapped, and the vines slithered back into the earth, the path clear.

A gift had been given.

The way was opened.

They came, the Whispers. Restless ones who spoke and clawed and scratched from their prison Beyond the Veil.

Priest …

Elder …

King …

I ignored them as I navigated down the steep stairs which hugged the slippery stone of the damp wall. Useless, powerless, they could bring me no harm, even here in a black darker than the darkest night.

The stairs gave way to solid ground, a wide circular space opening before me.

Smooth rock on all sides, blackness above. The smell of a water that drip, drip, dripped mingled with the scent of earth and stone and age and death, the glow of the small fire as it flickered behind woolen to the side, away, out of reach.

The Seer hidden behind the crumbling fabric.

And The Child who sat before me. A girl having seen only six or seven summers, her head low, her hair the color of a bright sun. Everything about her so delicate. Her arms slight, her wrists thin, her slender legs and feet bare. The torn sheath of soiled linen which hung from her slender shoulders and fell to her scraped and dirty knees.

Sweet, innocent, powerless.

Trapped.

Surrounded by bones.

Small skulls. Slender ribs. Tiny fingers and toes and the short thickness of undersized thighs.

Children. All children.

Scattered, the skeletons leaned against the large rocks or lay nestled in the crevices between, the shadow near the walls littered with shards of white.

Yes, here I stood two moons from Uruk in the dark of a cave surrounded by skulls waiting for The Seer to speak.

It would not.

But The Child would.

The word came again, lost in the earth as she lay on the ground. Fistfuls of dirt clutched in her tiny fists, her neck rolled, tender bones popping while The Seer nodded its head and the mouth open and closed, open and closed.

The Child stopped and rose, crouched on hands and knees.

“Man … ” She fell to the ground. Her back arched, then released only to snap back into another arch, the head once again low.

“From the …” the words came, her face hidden behind her golden hair.

She collapsed.

The Seer ducked its chin to its flat chest, its large, long hands dropping to its side.

The tears came then as she wept, The Child. Her body convulsed with sobs, with hiccups. She tried to crawl away, slipped on the urine soaked ground, trapped by the rope around her wrists.

I leaned forward and reached my hand out. But not close enough to touch, to intrude.

“Man from the …?” I asked. “From the mountains?”

Whispers.

No …

Speak …

Silence …

The Seer raised its head, the long fingers splayed wide as they stretched and reached and grabbed the air, pushing away the Voices.

The tears stopped as The Child moaned and then grew quiet.

She abruptly rose to her knees, her back straight, arms to her side and her chin to her chest, the mouth now open as drool leaked from her lips.

“From the mountains?” I asked.

It gasped, The Seer, its head back, the fingers quiet and still, the ribs rising and falling as it fought for breath.

The Child lifted into the air.

Her knees left the ground, her shins dropping to hang as she rose. The tiny feet dangled as she lifted higher and higher, her chin in her chest, her face still buried under a sheath of shining hair.

She stopped, waiting, suspended.

I paused, waiting.

“Elder … Priest … King,” she said, the voice low as it echoed the Whispers.

“Yes.” My voice sounded weak. “Yes,” I said again, stronger.

The head rose and the hair fell away from the sweet face. Her mouth stretched wide as she tried to speak, the jaw again a series of pops and cracks as it opened and closed, opened and closed.

“Yes,” I repeated.

She stopped, trapped in midair, the jaw frozen in a silent scream as The Seer attempted to speak through her.

And then she began to bleed.

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Available June 20th

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a horror reader’s nightmare come true

“Equal parts deceptive beauty, haunting darkness and shocking brutality. Jonathan Winn’s prose drags you, the reader, through a gauntlet of experiences. It’s a horror reader’s nightmare come true.” – Zakk, The Eyes of Madness

The Martuk Series, Vol. 1,  A Collection of Short Fiction

Available June 20th. Pre-order now. 

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