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Greetings to everyone out there. It is time to sweep the dust off the stage and present a new story. Today I would like to welcome back Micheal Burnside. After writing the vampire horror story 'Prey for the Vampire', he has moved over to a different genre,  which was inspired by the legend of the Mary Celeste, found footage films and the video game series Resident Evil. The resulting combination has led to the The Martian Journal. A science fiction, conspiracy mystery.
The story is set in the year 2178 tells the story (by a series of journal entries written by the captain) of the fate of the crew of the space ship Hercules XXI, who were on a delivery mission to a science research station orbiting Mars. This is not written into chapters and is instead in the journal entry format. Below are a few entries for you to enjoy. Thank you checking out the stage, hope you have a great time reading.


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On the 31st January 2178, a life pod from the Hercules XXI, which was on a delivery mission to the Clarke station orbiting Mars, was picked up by a rescue ship. The location of the pod was in the vicinity of a recent explosion, the source of which has not been identified or revealed.

Onboard the pod was one survivor in a serious but stable condition. A deceased crew member was found in a body bag. The cause of death is currently unknown.

A journal of the last few weeks has been found and is currently being inspected.





David Harrison Log 0001
17:34 Monday 5th January 2178

I’ve been staring out the window of my cabin for what must be an hour now. I’ve been to the Aldrin station several times but this is the first time I’ve spent longer than a day here. Normally after the five month journey from Earth, it’s just a case of unloading the cargo, filling in the paperwork and heading straight back to the big blue ball. If the company purse men weren’t on my back so much I’d probably arrange for the crew and myself to spend a few days just relaxing. As much as I love the old Hercules XIX, sometimes five floors just isn’t enough when you’re cooped up with a dozen other souls.
After nearly half a year living like that, the Aldrin is a buzzing metropolis, no pun intended. I never really got a chance to see much of it on the other visits but this time is slightly different. The Aldrin is merely a stop off for the next part of my journey. In three days time I’ll be heading out on the two and a half month voyage to the Clarke outpost science station orbiting Mars. All with a brand new ship and a brand new crew.
I’m pretty excited but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous. The Clarke is one of the most infamous and, ironically, secretive research centers. And aside from the twenty or so scientists based there, few people have ever gone that far into space. An honour indeed and of course the triple rate pay will be more than welcome.
I feel maybe this should be my last deep space job. When I get back to Earth, I’ll see if I can get a cushy route from the Mir III to the Armstrong Moon base. I’ve talked about it with Karen before I left for the Aldrin. It’ll be a smaller payslip at the end of the month but her research job at the Armstrong is more than enough. And she will get to see a lot more of me. Wonder if she sees that as a plus or a drawback?

Log 0002
16:28 Tuesday 6th January 2178

The Aldrin just seems to get more and more impressive. I always thought it was amazing from my fleeting visits but now that I’ve had time to really explore it, it really is a wonder.
Hard to believe over two and a half thousand people are living and working here so far from Earth. It’s totally self-reliant for food and energy, thanks to the farming dome on the lowest level. I tried to get down there to get a closer look as I heard it was like an indoor rainforest, but I was shooed away by some jobs worth in a white lab coat. I imagine if I did that aboard the Clarke I’d be thrown in shackles, tried on the spot and then ejected out of the airlock before I could explain I was lost.
There really is a sense of tranquility and peace here. The air feels so much fresher and the people here are genuinely happy and friendly. Well, except the guy in the white coat.
I’m sitting here in the central dome looking up at the huge glass ceiling and wishing that I had a few extra days to relax here. Unfortunately, tomorrow morning I have my meeting with the government official who will give me the usually standard run down before we shoot out on Thursday. I’ll meet the crew there as well and with a bit of luck they’ll be a solid bunch. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a tin can in space for months on end with a bunch of jerks. 

Log 0003
16:55 Wednesday 7th January 2178

Unfortunately my meeting with the official has been moved to Thursday with the launch now on the Friday. A report came through of a bomb that went off in Florida at one of the launch sites. They’re still waiting for the so called Earthbinders to admit responsibility, along with their usual message of how mankind should not attempt to pollute the universe like they have done to the Earth. I never understood why whenever incidents like this happen on Earth, it puts a slight hold to the space stations. If they’re that so against space travel then they’re hardly likely to be able to come up to space to cause trouble. 
Needless to say, the official, whose name I’m told is Sarah Connelly, is busy today with double checks, emergency protocols and other red tape nonsense. On the upside, I still get to meet my new crew later on tonight. They’ve reserved a room for dinner and drinks for us in one of the special VIP guest lounges. I could get used to this special treatment. 

Log 0004
22:51 Wednesday 7th January 2178

An interesting bunch to say the least. Initially it started off bad when the first person to arrive was the white coat who chased me away from the farming deck the day before. He looked equally pleased to see me. Introduced himself as Dr Leonard Lloyd, emphasising the doctor part, before examining the cutlery at the table. I thought best to leave him as there would be plenty of time to get acquainted during the journey to Clarke. I’m hoping he’s one of the scientists who we’ll be leaving on Clarke along with the cargo as I’m sure he may not survive the return trip back.
The next one to come through was the complete opposite, although I’m not sure if that’s much better. He was a bear of a man who loudly introduced himself as Hutchie and told me he was the ships engineer. I prayed nothing would break down. The smell from him told me that he must have had a few drinks already. Although I did warm to him slightly after he walked over to Lloyd, gave him a slap on the back and asked for a beer for him and his new ‘bud’. The look I got from Lloyd was priceless and I did my best to stifle a smirk.
The next two came in together. They were brothers, twins in fact. Frank and Aaron Harris, both navigators and will be the ones who keep us on course. Totally identical except that Aaron has a slight limp. Hutchie made a joke that he must have drunk too much already and was seeing double. The Harris brothers seemed to take to him better than Lloyd did and accepted his offer of a beer for each hand.
Finally an elderly gentleman entered the room. He quietly introduced himself to me as Malcolm Callaghan and he would be a passenger on the voyage rather than a crew member. I actually had to strain to hear what he said, although the noise Hutchie was making didn’t help. Having said that, once Hutchie noticed Malcolm, he immediately fell silent, almost embarrassed by his loud behaviour in front of such a senior citizen. Malcolm simply smiled and told him not to let an old man like him ruin the party. This started Hutchie up again and called for another beer for Malcolm.
The meal was one of the finest I have ever had. Steak cooked to perfection and the potato wedges were the best I've tasted. The new crew all seemed to blend well with the exception of Lloyd who remained silent. He seemed to obsessively inspect each piece of his food before eating it while Hutchie on the other hand, shoveled it in while joking and telling some inappropriate stories. The Harris brothers seem to have taken to him. While I can see that part of them would share Hutchie’s enthusiasm for a good time, I sense a strong sense of duty and pride from them both. Even Malcolm, so much senior seems to have gelled well, even if he is just merely smiling and nodding at the jokes.
I tried engaging Lloyd in conversation but I just received short, sharp answers so I thought best to leave him in peace. I did find out that much to my pleasure, he will be remaining on Clarke when we return back. I asked Malcolm why he was travelling with us and he replied softly that he had business there. He didn't say anymore about it and I didn't want to push it. Clarke is after all full of top secrets and people have probably been ordered not to talk about it. Perhaps Lloyd has good reason to be the way he is.
Lloyd and Malcolm both excused themselves after the meal to return to their quarters. Malcolm stating he's not the young man that he once was while Lloyd gave a quick 'evening gentlemen'. Hutchie and the Harris brothers had no intention of turning in just yet. As much as it would be a good opportunity to get to know them, I thought it best to keep the distance between captain and crew for now. I bid them good evening and told them not to over do it. Hutchie stood up straight and gave a mock salute, which made the brothers and I laugh. A likeable guy, although I wonder if I'll still be saying that at the end of the journey.

Log 0005
19:48 Thursday 8th January 2178    

More information came through about the bomb in Florida this morning. Seems it was a lot larger than they first reported. Seventeen dead and scores more seriously injured. Still no statement from the Earthbinders but every world leader has come out of the woodwork to condemn it all. As usual the Children of Earth party spokesman released his statement saying that while they share the basic beliefs as the Earthbinders, they do not agree with their methods. I can almost recite it word for word I’ve heard it that much. Still, that’s the advantage of being in deep space; you don’t have to worry about these nut cases running at you with a bomb strapped to them.
I met Malcolm in the central dome later on in the morning. Seems like myself he enjoys staring at the stars above. He asked if I’d heard the news of the bomb back on Earth. I told him I could hardly get away from it, even up here. We both wondered if the Children of Earth and these Earthbinders could just come up here for five minutes, would they change their beliefs.
I asked if he was coming along to the briefing meeting at noon but he said it wasn’t necessary for him to be there. He said he would be happy spending the day in the central dome. Just as I was leaving him, I spied one of the Harris brothers jogging through and called over to him. Since he was walking without a limp I safely assumed it was Frank. I asked him how the rest of the evening went. He smiled and said it was an enjoyable one but him and Aaron left shortly after I did. Hutchie apparently stayed on much longer and was informed he was getting quite friendly with one of the older waitresses. He told me he and Aaron would be there at the briefing but he didn’t know if Hutchie would be in much of a healthy state. He carried on jogging, leaving me to wonder how our engineer is going to work out.
I arrived at the briefing and was pleased to see that everyone had made it well in time. Hutchie sat in the corner, quiet with his head in his hands. Obviously paying for the night before. Lloyd sat on the opposite side of the room, looking at Hutchie with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust. The Harris twins were sitting chatting amongst themselves and I was just about to take a seat beside them when I heard a woman’s voice call my name.
She introduced herself as Sarah Connelly and shook my hand. At first I was amazed at how young she was, barely in her twenties and then I was amazed at how hard she shook my hand. I noticed from the corner of my eye that Hutchie had perked up when the attractive but rather straight edged woman was introducing herself. Unfortunately for him the feeling was far from mutual judging by the appalled look she gave him.
Lloyd also introduced himself, emphasising once again the doctor part, but with a slightly better tone than he gave me. The Harris brothers just gave polite nods and when she looked down to check her notes, they gave each other a knowing smile.
When she began the briefing I hardly took anything in. I’ve been to so many of them and there’s never anything different said at any of them. The destination, the time frame, health and safety procedures, confidentiality and all the usual legal stuff were all read out to us. I could have sworn Hutchie fell asleep at one point. I might have fallen sleep myself if I didn’t catch her mentioning that they were seven people travelling to Clarke. I counted six and when asked who they were she named us all, revealing Hutchies real name is Lindsey Othello Hutchinson, and then added her own name.
I sensed the others perking up, knowing they would have female company for the trip, but I wasn’t too thrilled the idea of a government official watching over us. I asked what the need was for her to come along. Before she could answer, another female official knocked the door, and told Sarah she was needed. She excused herself, concluding that she had covered everything and told us she would meet us at the launch. She left the room before I had a chance to hit her with a barrage of questions. Hutchie waited until she was safely out of hearing distance, before turning to the twins and giving a loud, filthy laugh. The twins themselves reciprocated polite chuckles, while Lloyd quickly exited the room without saying a word.
I’m really not sure what to make of this voyage now. I suppose I’ll find out soon.


Log 0006
12:17 Friday 9th January 2178 

It is approximately three hours before we leave. Didn't sleep too well last night which isn't like me at all. Once we get out in the new ship and start making some miles to Clarke then I'm sure everything will settle down. I took a stroll to the docking port earlier this morning and had a good look at the new ship from the viewing window. The originally named, Hercules XXI. It looks exactly like the Hercules XIX except it has larger thrusters and from what I can see, it's slightly longer by about twenty meters or so.
I saw Lloyd down there having an argument with one of the docking officials. He wasn't happy that he wasn't allowed on the ship to inspect his living quarters or his on-ship laboratory. The docker just kept telling him it was all security reasons and he had his orders. Lloyd became more frustrated and animated and I felt I had to intervene before he got himself into any trouble. Luckily he stormed off when the docker told him he could file a complaint with his supervisor, who wouldn't be available until tomorrow.
I apologised to the docker for Lloyd's outburst and asked him how the last minute preparations are going. He told me the main cargo for the Clarke was loaded the previous night. Or at least that's what the report log said. It seemed the normal docking staff weren't involved with loading of the classified cargo but he assures me the relevant checks of food, water, medical supplies and the other essentials were completed the day before. I apologised once again for Lloyd's behaviour before heading back to my quarters.  
On route, I ran into Aaron Harris who walked back with me. It was a good opportunity to speak to him and get to know him a bit better. I asked him how he hurt his leg. He told me him and his brother were sparing together during their kickboxing training last week, and Frank accidentally hit him with a low kick. I jokingly asked if they would keep the kickboxing training on hold while on the ship, not wishing to have fighting siblings cooped up for several months. He laughed and told me that he and Frank get on perfectly now. He also said that Frank had been off the rails for quite many years with the heavy drinking and mixing with the wrong crowd. It’s only been relatively recently that Aaron has been able to get Frank to better himself and follow his example. Aaron seems pretty sure that if he hadn't gotten his brother to study and train then he'd probably be in prison or dead. I was quite shocked to hear that, but Aaron convinced me there's nothing to worry about anymore.
It's nearly time to go. 

Log 0007
01:17 Saturday 10th January 2178

We’ve finally left Aldrin and are now heading on our seventy-five day journey to the Clarke. I feel it’s going to be a long seventy five days.
When we all boarded, Lloyd nearly knocked us all down, as he raced to his designated quarters. I shouted at him that we were departing immediately and to get to the bridge. He completely ignored what I said and disappeared down the corridor. I haven’t actually heard from him since we've sent off so hopefully he hasn't hurt himself. No doubt he's checking every nook and cranny of the ship to see if it's up to his high standard. Hutchie is currently down in the bowels of the ship, getting himself acquainted with the new ship. Despite the way he gets on with his flamboyant behaviour, he really has his head screwed on when it comes down to his work. Which is good because if things start to break down, it's him who has our lives in his hands.
The Harris brothers are currently in the bridge, monitoring our flight path for the first twenty four hours. After we get our course stabilised then we can all relax a little better. I really should be there to help them but they assure me they both know what they're doing and that I should just relax. It's strange. After what Aaron told me before the launch, I can see a difference between them. Aaron personality wise is the more dominant of the brothers, making the decisions and suggestions, while Frank will agree as if he thought of it as well. They do get on well with each other and I see no trace of sibling rivalry.
Malcolm headed straight to his quarters after we departed from Aldrin and like Lloyd hasn't really come out since. I assume being an elderly man then he must find this quite tiring. I do wonder why he's on this journey. Surely a man of his age should enjoy retirement.
And then there's Sarah. She’s pencilled in a meeting later on for any questions or points that need to be addressed. It’s probably a bit late for objections now that we’ve set off, but we never did get a chance at the other meeting on Aldrin. I do have a few questions, such as why we have a government official with us, and why we have such a skeleton crew. It does worry me somewhat that including myself, there’s only four real crew members. Considering none of us has traveled this far out in the system before it does appear slightly risky. Although I have seen the crew report files and fortunately they’ve picked guys who seem to be cross-trained. I’m impressed by Aaron, who has accumulated quite a few skills and could probably get a post anywhere on a ship. Frank seems fully trained up on communication although Sarah has told me she will be handling all the comms for the journey there and back. Also hard to believe Hutchie has foundation medic training. No doubt Lloyd will have a set of useful skills, if he ever shows his face. 

Log 0008
14:38 Sunday 11 January 2178

Well, we just had our meeting. Sarah sat at the top end of the table, acting if she was the captain. The Harris brothers, Hutchie and Malcolm sat round the table, hardly paying much attention to her as she simply repeated what was said on the Aldrin. Lloyd strangely didn’t sit at the table but over at the window, looking out. I don’t know if he listened to what Sarah was saying but he looked slightly agitated. I figure his obsessive compulsive behaviour hasn’t coped too well with the crew. I imagine Malcolm would be the closest to a confidante he would have. Hutchie probably would be his worst nightmare.
She concluded her speech, stood back with her arms folded and asked if there was anything anyone wanted to ask. Her look and demeanour gave the impression that she really didn’t want any questions asked but I think that may have encouraged Hutchie.
He put up his hand, and with a cheeky smile on his face, asked what was in the huge container down in the cargo bay. Sarah looked at him in absolute shock, and I noticed Lloyd was no longer staring out the window but at her. She blurted that it was classified government equipment and it was nothing that concerned him. I thought Hutchie would have left it at that but he put his hand up again and asked Sarah if she had any plans for tonight. The brothers burst out laughing and even Malcolm couldn’t resist a chuckle. I must admit, I had to turn my head to avoid a smirk on my face being seen.
I’m sure she would have torn him to pieces if Lloyd hadn’t stepped up to the table and asked angrily, ‘are we in danger?’
The room fell silent and Lloyd repeated his question. Sarah looked dumbfounded and it was Malcolm who turned to Lloyd and asked him what he meant. Lloyd asked about the Earthbinders and if they were interested in what we are carrying to Clarke. It was obvious then that something had spooked Lloyd but refused to really expand on what. Sarah told us that all everything was under high security and double checked before we left. Lloyd left without saying a word, leaving us all looking at each bewildered.
I asked if there had been any reports of anymore bombs or attacks on Earth since the one in Florida. Sarah told me that she hadn't heard of anything yet but if there was any kind of threat she would be informed right away. She packed up her files and walked away. As she passed, she whispered to me to keep an eye on Lloyd.
I'll have to get to speak to him at some point without the others around. I know he was annoyed at not getting to check the ship before we left, but something else has gotten to him.

Log 0009
23:35 Sunday 11 January 2178

Something has definitely gotten to Lloyd. I don't know what, but I think he's going to tell me. He came to my quarters about an hour ago. He seemed slightly less agitated than at the meeting but he was far from relaxed. I invited him in and asked if he wanted one of the beers I had brought up from supplies. He declined and asked me what I knew about the Clarke and the cargo. I told him I knew as much as he did, in fact, probably less. He then asked if I knew much about the Earthbinders and the Children of Earth and if they could ever attack outside Earth. I said I didn't think so and told him that the Children of Earth weren't the real problem as they were the non violent, respectable version of the Earthbinders. Lloyd told me he wasn't so sure. He heard of people belonging to both groups. Usually when the Earthbinders get old and disillusioned with violent ways, they settle for the Children of Earth, while some of the younger members of the Children of Earth get fed up with their party’s compromises and politics and opt for a darker path.
I wanted to know what exactly was bothering Lloyd but there was a knock at my door. It was Sarah. Lloyd excused himself immediately and said he would speak later. Sarah just wanted to know if there was anything that should be brought to her attention. I told her if there was anything she needed to know then I'll let her know right away. Not satisfied with my answer, she asked what Lloyd was talking to me about. I let her know in perhaps not quite a friendly manner that if she hadn't stuck her nose in, he might have told me. I think she took the hint, and bid me a good night in a sharp tone.
I'll have to speak to Lloyd soon.

Log 0010
16:55 Monday 12 January 2178

I decided not to pursue Lloyd but rather let him come to me with what’s bothering him. He hasn’t left the ship’s onboard laboratory all day, not even to join us in the dinning area.
I spoke to Hutchie down in the cargo deck and asked him if he knew what had gotten into Lloyd. He hadn’t a clue but he did show me the container that he asked Sarah about at the meeting. It was placed right at the back of the cargo hold, almost hidden behind all the regular supply containers. It was a characterless metal box, about fifteen feet square. I asked Hutchie if he had any idea what could be inside. He told me he couldn’t even open the box as there was a panel at the back with a keypad that required both a retina scan and pass code. Whatever it was, it was not your usual crate with food and clothing supplies. Hutchie pointed out that the container was also bolted to the floor. Whatever's in it, it's important to someone.
Sarah also spoke to me later on when I was checking a few readings on the bridge. She apologised for last night but insisted that she was concerned for the welfare of everyone of the ship. I was tempted to ask if she was more concerned about the cargo but thought best not to antagonise the situation. She then asked about Lloyd. I just told her to leave it with me and he'll tell me in his own time. I then asked her if she knew what's the story with the container, which caused her to roll her eyes and sigh in frustration. Sarah admitted that the actual contents of the container were never divulged to her but she knows it’s a vital piece of equipment that's being assembled on Clarke. I came close to telling her I could have worked that out myself but I bit my tongue and left it at that. It's only a few days into the journey and already tensions between us are not good.
It occurred to me that since Lloyd is being transferred to work on the Clarke station, then maybe he knows what we're carrying. I'll have to get him to open up.

Log 0011
02:04 Tuesday 13 January 2178

I couldn't sleep so I headed to the recreational room and sat down with a beer. At first, I didn't notice Malcolm was already sitting there and I jumped when he said hello. He laughed and asked if I minded him sitting with me. I told him I would be glad of the company and I asked if he wanted me to get him a beer. He laughed again and said he was fine. He put on some music. Beethoven, I think it was. Karen would know. She's always trying to get me into that stuff to relax.
Malcolm had heard earlier from Sarah that three men had been arrested back on Earth for the bomb attack in Florida. Seems they had a huge campaign of attacks planned for several other launch sites as well. We talked again at length about the terrorists attacks and Malcolm told me his brother and his sister-in-law were both killed in the Florida bomb of ‘55. He himself had very nearly been killed on several occasions but fortunately was still alive to tell the tale. He holds no ill will against the Children of Earth and feels perhaps they are too easily confused with the Earthbinders, which he says unless they give up the violence, will never get anywhere.
Despite what has happened, there’s no trace of bitterness or anger with him. Maybe that kind of peace comes with age. I finished my drink and thanked Malcolm for the company. 

Log 0012
11:25 Tuesday 13 January 2178

I met Lloyd in the canteen when picking up some breakfast. He was drinking his coffee, starring blindly out the window. He seemed less agitated but rather more tired than anything else. I commented to him that he must have been busy as nobody had seen him yesterday. He told me he had been busy with something very important and if I could call round to the lab later on. I asked him if there was anything I need to be worried about and Lloyd just said he’ll explain at the lab. He finished his coffee and before he left, he told me not to say anything to anyone.
Hutchie came through the door just as Lloyd was leaving. He opened the cupboard and began lifting out several bread rolls. I asked if he was planning to eat that all himself, but he assured me some of it was for the Harris brothers who were waiting for him in the recreational room. I asked him how he was getting on with the new ship. He seemed impressed with it and didn’t expect to have any issues with it. He told me he’d been on some freighters where he’d have to spend nearly twenty hours a day down below, just to make sure the power supply didn’t cut out.
I have to agree with Hutchie. They certainly provided us with a first class ship. At least breaking down in the middle of space isn’t something we need to be worried about. I’m going to the lab now.

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Hello to all readers out there. Thank you for visiting ChristopherHunterFiction and welcome to or welcome back to Guest Fiction Stage. I know it has been a very long time since I posted a feature, and thanks to the wonderful Landon Porter, the drought is over.  Thank you for your patience, thank you for coming back to find your next read here, and let's rekindle the fire.

Today's author, Mr. Porter, is a tutor and computer repairman by day, geek by night, and writer in every spare moment in between. He lives in Virginia atop a huge pipe of RPG source books, comics and speculative fiction
novels. Below is the first chapter of his title, Rune Breaker: A Girl and Her Monster. Truly hope you enjoy and that you show Landon some love.


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There is a legend in the world that tells of a weapon sought after by only the most wicked of souls. Passed down through the years since before the coming of the gods, it grants its master the power to conquer and rule. The Rune Breaker.

After decades of dormancy, it just found a new master in Taylin, an escaped slave, who stumbled upon its resting place and found it bound to her will. But as it happens, the Rune Breaker is really a person: the shapeshifting master and dark mage, Ru Brakar, who has been cursed to serve whoever finds him since prehistory.

Taylin refuses to keep a slave, but an accidental order to Ru lands them both flung far into the future, where they must rely on one another and their new allies to brave a world alien to both of them and the attentions of a foe who stalks them in hopes of gaining access to a power beyond the gods.


Rune Breaker

Chapter 1 – Pursued

    Loose stones skittered under her feet, the sound amplified by the closeness of the cave. Though it was pitch black, she had no trouble seeing. Her kind wouldn't; they had been bred to march through day and night if necessary with no need of fires or torches.

    Her lineage gave her height nearing seven feet without her boots, and a robust, hinged ribcage that let her breathe deeper than any other race of demi-humans. She shared that birthright with the masters: the hailene. But her red hair, cut savagely close to her skull, marked her as ang'hailene. The very word meant 'not people', and to the hailene, they were nothing at all unless they were first molded to the wishes of their hailene masters.

    That wasn't all they had been created for, and part of that breeding suddenly informed her that this was no cave she had found herself in. It was a mine. Or at least some sort of hand-made tunnel. An adolescence spent hewing iron ore from the earth was the preferred method of strengthening her kind for military training.

    In the darkness behind her, there were other noises: claws on stone, growling, and snarling breaths of canine effort. The guard hounds of the masters were no more mere dogs than she was a human. They did not bark or yap or whine, and they were cunning and vicious in a way most thought only demi-humans were capable of.

    A frontrunner of the pack took the bend in the tunnel at speed by running up the wall, then leapt toward her. She was only warned by the sound, whirled and met paws half the size of her head with the flat of her sword. With all her strength, she pushed it away and brought the sword up ready to strike when it came again.

    The hound's lips curled back in a snarl, revealing its sharp snout to be full of metallic teeth. Like all of its breed, it didn't even know that retreat was an option. She had seen the training: pups with an instinct to flee were killed instantly and those without were bred continuously.

    It leapt at her and her sword came down precisely on its skull. Hot fluid and brain matter spilled as the sharp iron clove deep into the hound's head. It drove right through to the spinal column and there, it stuck in bone. By the time she realized there was a problem, it was too late. The dying animal's weight and her own bulwark-solid stance conspired against the sword, and it snapped.

    As it came free of the newly made corpse, she heard more on the way. Still gripping the broken blade, she turned and bolted further down the tunnel.

    That had been the third hound she'd killed and it never stopped being satisfying. After years of bites and watching her brothers and sisters being mauled for punishment or base entertainment, she could live a happy life if she were only allowed to spend it killing their entire species, one beast at a time.

    But she was no fool. The masters had loosed a pack of a dozen to hunt her down after her 'sin'. Fighting on open ground would have been suicide, even if she used all of her potential. Falling back to the cave reduced the number that could come at her at once and removed flanking from the equation, at least for a while.

    That had been a good plan, back before the shield had been torn off her arm, or when she didn't have claw marks oozing blood along her back or a chunk nipped out of her calf. In retrospect, she should have waited until she was in full armor before making good her escape.

    Fortunately, she was built and bred to fight until torn into pieces. She would run until she was cornered and then, even with only a broken sword, she would bring as many as she could with her into death's arms. Fighting like an animal if necessary. Like a demon. Tooth and claw.

    That last thought settled in on her like a mantle of ice. Self consciously, she checked her hand. Still nails. No thicker. Good.

    The cave floor began to slope sharply, and she found herself skidding down it instead of running. Suddenly, there was light up ahead. Lines of white radiance.

    They were leaking out from around an iron door. It was half again her height with no visible hinges. The only feature was a wheel set into its face, like that found on the vaults where the masters performed their works.

    She managed to stop before slamming into it, and blinked in surprise. Why was this here? Had she really just fled directly to the home of her hated enemy?

    More growling breaths. The hounds were coming. If this was some secret abode or laboratory of some other hailene, she stood a much better chance of killing him and possibly taking weapons or defenses from the corpse than she did making a stand at the door.

    She tucked the broken sword into her belt (the scabbard was lost at the cave's mouth) and seized the wheel.

    It was rusted hard, but still moved grudgingly. Muscles knotted along her arms and back as, inch by inch, she forced it to move. The growls and snarls were closer. This was taking too long. She couldn't do this, and if she kept at it, she would die with her back to the enemy.

    Heat filled her belly. No, she would not fail. There was strength; a great, deep well of it. All it took was not fearing or resenting it. It was hers to use after all, not the masters'.

    An itching sensation crept over her arms. Her gorge rose as she saw the tiny scales, shaped like rounded kite-shields, sprouting like a fungus. Thickening, hardened nails bit into the metal of the wheel and suddenly, the rust wasn't groaning and resisting, it was screaming as the wheel turned freely.

    In an instant, the door swung open and the first hound arrived. She stepped into the sudden brightness beyond the door and then with all the strength pressed into her flesh and bones by the masters, she slammed the door and turned the wheel on the inside face of it until the bolt slid home once again.

    The hound slammed into the iron, making it rattle in the stone around it. But it could not get inside.
Seconds passed and she stood there, pressing the door closed as if to supplement the bolt, staring at the gleaming red scales. Despite the sickness rolling in her stomach, she forced herself to be calm. And with that act of will, the scales wilted, receding into her flesh.

    I smell hot blood.

  The voice was rough and deep, like some primordial reptile trying the words on for size.

  She turned, the sword coming up into her hands in a smooth motion. Before it was broken, it had been larger than that which any normal demi-human could carry in one hand, not even a hailene. But she was special, even by the standards of muddled ang'hailene genetics. Even in its current state, the sword made for a reasonably long blade.

  There was no one to threaten with it.

  She was standing alone in a domed chamber, roughly hewn from the rock and girded with iron buttresses that met in the shadowed ceiling above. The floor had been ground smooth and in the center of it stood a thicket of stone pillars, each marked with carved maze patterns and topped by a globe of cold, white magical flame.

  There was no logic or aesthetic to the placement of the pillars except the fact that they vaguely surrounded a central point. Thick chains of iron, copper, and silver were strung from them to loop around the thing in the center.

  She had only ever seen iron maidens in the captured dungeons of some of the folk the hailene made war with. This was something of a kind. Made of dull stone, it looked like a huge sarcophagus stood upright. There was the likeness of a stoic man with a short beard and a scythe held across his chest carved into it, and there were spikes of black metal driven into it like nails into soft wood. The chains wrapped around and looped over these.

  Suspended in the chains, over the carved figure's chest, was a stone tablet with faded writing etched on it.

  She wondered at just what she was looking at as the hound slammed into the door behind her again.

  But your soul is strong. The voice came again, still with no origin.

  She presented the sword forcefully to the room. “Who are you?” She demanded.

  Read the tablet.

  There wasn't anywhere else to go  And arguing with a disembodied voice held no appeal, so she carefully strode into the thicket of pillars and approached the sarcophagus.

  Though the writing was of a type she had never seen before, she felt some magic at work that allowed her to understand it:

  'Here lies the great weapon, Rune Breaker. When blood is paid and the bargain struck, a strong soul will command the mightiest of weapons.'

  The symbols that evidently stood for 'Rune Breaker' were carved differently than the others, in such a way that made them stand out in a series of sharp points.

  There were multiple thumps against the door. The pack had arrived and once they coordinated, they would have the strength to break in.

  Someone is here to end your life.

  She turned to face the door, readying her sword. “I know this.”

  Do you want to die, deep inside the earth, alone and unmourned?

  “Of course not.” She said without emotion. “But it's happening anyway.”

  It doesn't have to. Spill your blood on the tablet. Strike the bargain. Swear to use me as you will.

  “What insanity are you speaking? Who are you?”

  You read the tablet. You know.

  More impacts on the door. Tiny avalanches of dust and pebbles shook loose from the cave wall surrounding it.

  “You want me to believe that I've stumbled across some sort of hidden weapon? You're some demon looking to trick and use me.” She insisted, never shifting her ready stance.

 
Worse than a demon. But in a few moments, you will be torn to pieces. What are you really risking? I ask again: do you want to die here?

  She chewed her lip. If she fought, it was in her nature, she would fight with everything she had. She would give in and she would die... like that. There was no fear of death, but she wanted to die as a person instead of a weapon.

  “No. I don't want to die here.”

  Then do it now. Spill your blood on the tablet.

  She turned to face the tablet. The dangers were obvious; she was no fool and knew that there were ways to control or harm or entrap a person with their blood, the worst of them needing it to be freely given. She might gain this 'mighty weapon', or she might become blood-bound to a demon. But then how much worse could service to a demon be than serving the vile hailene, who had mistreated, enslaved and disfigured her so?

  Left hand steady, she placed it on the raised, sharpened letters and pressed. The stone bit her skin and then her crimson life was pooling and dribbling across the stone. The chains, to a one, quivered and rattled.

  Now swear.  Said the voice. Swear to use me as you will. To work your will through me. Accept the bond.

  “I do.” She said with all the false confidence she could muster.

  The magical flames guttered out. The chains went taunt, straining with metallic groans.

  “The bargain has been struck. The bond is formed.” Only now did she realize that she hadn't actually been hearing the voice before. It had been in her head. Now it was a sound and a foreboding and terrible one at that. It continued to grow in intensity and volume as it spoke. “Dissolving containment protocols.”

  Once more, the chains strained and flexed. They crumbled the pillars in their coils and leapt at the sarcophagus, wrapping tightly around it until cracks began to appear.

  “Aligning spell structures for core array. Slaving to arcane command link and aligning command array...” Chunks of stone exploded off the sarcophagus, revealing hollows within. Within seconds, it was destroyed and the chains wrapped themselves around a man-sized shape within the resultant dust cloud.

  Foreign emotions invaded her head as she watched: a cruel form of manic glee, contained brooding anger, and smug satisfaction. Then it struck her almost like a physical blow: they weren't her thoughts, but the Rune Breaker's.

  The surrounding dust thinned and he stood before her, bound in ever-constricting chains. Tall and thin, but nowhere near her height. He looked like a human, dressed in some sort of thick, black canvas in a rough approximation of a great coat and breeches that left his emaciated chest bare. Wild, midnight hair as long as he was tall whipped around him, writhing like tentacles.

  “Retracting tertiary containment spells.” He said, more quietly and slightly less brusquely than before. The chains around him began to melt into his body. Soon his arms were free to hang at his sides. He stood up straight and hovered a few feet up into the air.

  Her nose tingled with the sheer amount of ambient magic around him.

  The hounds had been forgotten, but they now made themselves known with a collective effort against the door. It held, but barely; fist sized chunks of stone crumbled around it.

  The Rune Breaker stared at her with an inscrutable expression. Anticipation grew in the back of her head. He was waiting for something – but what?

  Another slam against the door. More stone fell. His gaze flicked over to it.

  “Do you wish for me to kill them, Mistress?”

  She reeled. Not at the question, but at the appellation. And when his expression changed to confusion, followed instantly by that same feeling in her head, it became all too clear that the emotional exchange worked both ways. This did nothing to help the paralysis induced by his statement.

  The next hit tore the door free of its frame, causing it to fall into the room with a ringing din that echoed again and again within the chamber.

  Terrible excitement spread out like an oily film in her head and she looked at him, taken aback. It wasn't showing on his face, but he was giddy with blood-lust.

  “It has been decided without you.” He informed her. “The first priority is preventing my master from coming to harm.” His right arm came up and swept her aside as the first hounds to recover came bounding in. It shouldn't have been possible, he was probably only three quarters her weight and not even planted on the ground on top of that.

  She forced the shock and confusion down and slid into a sword stance so she could meet the hounds.

  That proved unnecessary as the same arm that swept her aside suddenly twisted and the canvas covering it deformed. A trio of black thorns, each some eight inches long, formed on the side facing away from her. With astonishing speed, it reversed direction and, still twisting and growing, slammed into the first hound. Two thorns tore into the animal's throat, the last punched up through its jaw, through the palate and into the brain. It would have been dead even if the surging strength behind the arm hadn't launched it into the far wall hard enough to shatter its ribs.

  Even less lucky was the next hound to leap at them, for the Rune Breaker still had a free hand. This one had become some sort of colossal, black cleaver while she wasn't looking and it fell from overhead like a meteor strike, severing the animal's front leg, two ribs, and any number of organs while at the same time hammering it to the stone floor.

  All the while, the blood-lust built and rattled around gleefully in her skull. There had been berserkers of a sort in the hailene army. But never something like this. It wasn't so much a rage that drove one to kill, as the joy of an artist whose medium was warfare.

  Another beast leapt at him and he brought his arms back across his body as twin war hammers that crushed its shoulders. This time, it wasn't enough and the hound used its hind legs to power through, catching his shoulder with its teeth.

  That lasted for the space of a breath before the strange man seemed to melt and flow until a huge, black anaconda was wrapped around the hapless animal, crushing the life from it. A brutal attack, but a wasteful one; in doing so, he left an opening for two more hounds to rush toward his apparent charge.

  She met the first as it leapt at her, working her forearm up under its jaw to hold it away from her by the throat. Huge paws tore at her shoulders, but she ignored them, thrusting her broken blade into its belly and emptying its guts onto the floor.

  By that time, the second had come around to flank her. It wasn't fast enough. She turned and used the body of the first as a shield, pushing it back while swiping for the newcomer's eyes. The beast evaded losing its eyes, but couldn't save itself when a massive, black dire-wolf hit it from the side, snapping huge jaws at its neck.

  The hound's luck held and it scudded sideways from the initial blow, avoiding the lethal follow-through. Two more packmates came to its rescue by leaping onto the great wolf's back.

  Dropping her corpse-shield, she darted in, driving her sword into one of the hound's haunches and using it as leverage to pull it off her new ally. Even as she did, the nearby dire wolf was transforming, fur and lean muscle giving way to leathery skin and heavy carapace.

 
It was a creature she'd never seen before. It had a heavy knob-and-spike covered shell, and a face combining lizard and bovine features. Most striking was a long, muscular tail ending in a two-knotted club of bone.

  The remaining hound couldn't keep a hold on the hard carapace and when it slipped off, it paid by way of being crushed into a smear on the near wall by that same club.

  Showing their intelligence, the remaining three hounds broke off their attack, regrouping across the chamber. Out of range of that killing club.

  The new, strange animal ambled into position between she and them, waving the club menacingly to show its weight.

  Wary, the hounds started to fan out. He could only kill one at a time, the swordswoman one more. She could see the logic working in their heads. This was what they were created for: intelligent attrition.

  Unfortunately for them, their logic was missing several key facts. And the Rune Breaker was proud to show them their error. Once more, his form shifted, expanding and growing as the carapace split into a pair of massive, leathery wings.

  Not for the first time in the battle, she was stunned beyond thought.

  There in the chamber, standing between her and the murderous hounds, stood a black dragon, wings unfurled to fill a full quarter of the room.

  The itching started again on her arms and down her back. Heat filled her belly; that hateful, hateful heat.

  “No!” She shouted, not realizing it was out loud. Her voice bounced around the room like an entity of its own. Nightmares of scales and wings; a throat full of liquid fire, all tore through her mind. Her grip on the broken sword became painful.

  And somehow because of this, the dragon before her shivered and its body dissolved into dark mist that sank and spread to cover the ground.

  The sight was more than enough to jar her back to reality. What just happened? Was that her doing?

  My apologies, Mistress.

  “Stop calling me that.” She snarled.

  There wasn't any time to argue. All three hounds saw that the way to their target was open and they rushed for her as a single being.

  Without warning, the mist erupted. A slick, black stalagmite stabbed up from the floor and impaled one, hoisting it into the air as a grizzly monument. A man-sized talon, like that of a roc, emerged, grabbing the second and hurling it into the chamber ceiling. The third was simply enveloped in the cloying darkness and was gone.

  Silence suddenly returned to the chamber.

  Slowly, the mist began to rotate around a central point, which began to rise up into human shape.

  “My master is no longer in danger of harm. Spell limitations have been reset to safe levels.” The Rune Breaker said as the last wisps of his person  returned to his body. This time, he was clothed in dark gray robes and a cloak of the same color. His hair was cropped close.

  Grip still tight enough to deform the metal in her hand, she all but growled at him. “I'm no one's master. Don't call me that.”

  “The bond requires I speak respectfully to you.” He said, his voice now even, the blood-lust gone. But an underlying anger still in her head and growing at his mention of the bond.

  She puzzled at this, but her mind was more on the issue of 'mistresses' and 'masters' at the moment. “You can speak respectfully without using those terms. Call me... “ She wracked her brain for something useful. The hailene liked being called 'master' and 'lord' and any of their military titles. Their enemies were less pompous though, and had milder honorifics. “'Miss' will do, I suppose.”

  “'Miss' what?” He asked. “I do not know the mis... your name.” He seemed vaguely troubled at this course of action, an emotion she could verify using the bond.

  “Taylin.” She said. “And I suppose I'm to call you Rune Breaker?”

  “If you wish. Your most recent predecessors did.”

  “But is that what you'd like to be called?” Her military training started to kick in and unconsciously, she started cleaning blood from her sword with the tattered hem of her shirt.

  This question called up even more uncertainty and unease in the bond. “It doesn't matter. The wielder names their weapon. And I am a weapon.”

  Phantoms of the itching in her arms and back haunted her mind for a moment and she abruptly stopped cleaning her sword. Her expression became adamant and angry. “So am I.” Her voice was firm and loud enough to fill the chamber. “And I am tired of it not mattering. Now tell me who you are.”

  “Is that an order?” He asked.

  “Yes.” And the moment she said that, she felt a very faint, cold chill in the back of her head. It wasn't an emotion, but something about the bond itself... moving or changing... maybe just operating.

  The Rune Breaker lowered his head and his voice became emotionless and subdued. “Yes, Miss Taylin. The name of Rune Breaker is a pun, in your modern language, on the ancient name I was born with and a reference to my abilities.”

  He straightened up, floating off the ground again until his head was of a height with hers. But his eyes were still downcast. “I am the shape-shifting master. The arcane terror of nations long dead. The weapon bound by the most complex spell structures ever devised in the history of two worlds to serve the strongest of souls.

  “I am kingmaker. Beast slayer. The foundation of tyranny. The destroyer of armies and the power of ancestral gods. Use me as you will and I will rain oblivion on your enemies. Work your will through me and all barriers before you will be utterly decimated. Direct me in the service of your greatest desires and you will rule nations.”

  Without warning, he dropped to a knee, supported by one fist on the smooth, stone floor. “My name is Ru Brakar. And until you breathe your last, I am your servant and weapon. Such was the bargain you struck and sealed in blood.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________

To continue reading this story, click the image below:


And if you would like to learn more about Landon Porter and his work, visit to following:

His Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Landon-Porter/e/B0088VIRSA/

His Website: http://www/descendantsserial.com

or

His Twitter Account: http://www.twitter.com/ParadoxOmni

Thank you and see you next time.

 
 
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Hello and welcome to the latest edition of GFS. Today we have another Science Fiction gem for you to enjoy. Today's author is William Sharp. He "is a life-long scifi fan. He has been writing for pleasure since writing his first "Star Trek" and "Lost in Space" fan-fiction as a child, right on through creative writing in high school and college, and lots of medical/technical/professional writing in his career as a litigation attorney.

William's stories are heavily influenced by the themes and style of Golden Age and some New Wave scifi. He believes the most memorable scifi stories explore the human condition, human interactions, and common human problems, against a backdrop containing futuristic scifi elements. The writings of Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Issac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein are the most influential to his work

Below is a sample of his novella titled, "The Chameleon Society". If you are into hard Science Fiction, then I believe you will find this to be a fascinating read worth your time. Thank you as always for checking out the Stage, and hope you enjoy:



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In a quiet little out-of-the-way motel in 1962 a small group of people gather for an annual meeting. This isn't any ordinary meeting, however, and these are not ordinary people. They are the crew of an Earth research vessel from the future, the victims of a temporal anomaly occurring during FTL travel, stranding them in the mid-20th century. They exist, in this relatively primitive time, waiting patiently – and desperately trying not to jeopardize their chance of rescue.

The strain of this lifestyle has taken its toll on the crew members. Their carefully planned gathering begins to spiral dangerously out of control when their secret is unwittingly revealed to a local high school boy. As their situation becomes more desperate, and their choices more horrific, both the crew and the boy who knows their secret are forced to make stark and potentially deadly decisions about their futures.



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The man in the alley moved quietly, cautiously, staying to the shadowed side, hugging the brick wall.  From his vantage point he could see the opposite street corner, from where he knew his quarry would emerge.  As expected, he saw the man he was to kill appear from the corner of a building across the way and stand with the crowd, waiting to cross the street.  The man in the alley waited patiently, knowing it was now just seconds away. When the traffic light changed, he faded back into the shadows and waited.

Dave,” he called out softly, just as his friend walked past.

Dave stopped and peered into the alley, hesitantly.  “Peter?”

“Yes.  We need to talk.”

Dave took a few steps into the alley, an exasperated look on his face.  “Dammit, Peter, we’ve been over and over this.” He took a few more steps, entering the shadowed portion.  “I’m done, finished. It’s over. They’re not coming for us, ever–we’re stuck here.  Nothing you can say–.”

The man in the alley stepped sideways, out of the shadow, enough to establish a clear line-of-sight between the  small metallic device he held in his right hand and Dave.

 Dave looked with disbelief at the object. “Oh, Peter–you wouldn’t...”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I really am.”

A short, pencil-thin line of white light blinked silently between the device and Dave’s chest.  Where the light hit his chest a gaping wound opened, bubbling, hissing, rapidly expanding throughout his entire chest cavity as it dissolved heart, lungs – everything in its way. Dave staggered a step forward, then another, his knees buckling and failing.  The vaporized flesh created an oily pink cloud that slowly settled over the bottles and cardboard littering the alley, as Dave crumpled to the ground.

 

***

 

The sun beamed splendidly just over the eastern horizon, as the heat and humidity of the new day began to build, rising in shimmering waves from the rural asphalt highway. The low buzz of the morning’s insects and the harsh caw of crows bickering among the pine trees heralded the arrival of another scorcher.

Peter Heller unfolded the Gulf gas station  road map, which wildly rose and flapped in fits and starts as he rolled the car window down a few more inches and pushed open the triangular window vent. A sorrowful country song whined and crackled on the only AM radio station within range; Peter turned the knob impatiently, clicking the radio off to stop that nerve-fraying aggravation. He glanced at the blur of the shallow ditch running along the road, the tall overgrown reeds casting long shadows on the occasional pools of stagnant, standing water. Just beyond the barbed-wire fence streaming by on his left he saw a small wooden shack, abandoned, gray, slowly falling to pieces in the vivid green soybean field.

Heller checked the map again; it should be just ahead. He had to hit his brakes hard as he glimpsed the nearly-hidden gravel driveway through a break in the overgrown grasses to his right.

Gravel crunched under Heller’s tires as he turned onto the shoulder of the highway and pulled into the driveway’s narrow opening. His tires drummed over the cattle guard, then crunched the gravel again as he rolled slowly under the shade of the magnificent oak trees lining the drive. Heller’s car entered a small parking lot and came slowly to a stop, facing a group of 28 adults, and one teenage girl, all standing near or leaning on their cars, waiting, staring uneasily at him.

Behind them, at the back of the parking lot, was a small motel. Its rusted marquis welcomed them in black wooden letters: “Chameleon Society.” 

Heller turned off his car and unfolded his lanky six feet-plus form from behind the wheel of the small sedan, running a hand self-consciously through his salt and pepper hair.  He stood silently, surveying the group. Only a few met his stare. Slowly he turned and appraised their surroundings, noting with satisfaction the rural solitude of the place. Since his arrival no other cars had come up or down Highway 71. Good, he thought; I hope every living soul within thirty miles has gone fishing this weekend.

Heller glanced quickly at the motel, recalling the descriptions of it he had studied carefully before choosing it for this meeting. There was nothing much to it; a small lobby area, near the front of a main  building, and a couple of long, narrow adjacent buildings which contained about forty guest rooms. Off the back of the main building he saw a higher roof line, which must be the location of the Veranda Meeting room, he surmised.

It was the girl who broke the silence. "Hello, Mr. Heller." She stepped forward then halted, suddenly aware of the others' intense stares.

The tall man's gaze softened when he bent slightly toward her. She was about 15, with straight dark brown hair; poised, with only a hint of hesitancy. He smiled, with a touch of sadness. "Hello, Ellen." Pausing, then, "You've grown quite a bit this last year."

The girl blushed and nodded, not knowing quite how to respond. Someone coughed.

Heller straightened and turned to the group. "Welcome to you all. Let's get started, shall we?" Squinting once more briefly at the roadside marquis, he gathered a worn overnight bag and a large document case with a heavy iron lock, and led the group into the motel entrance.

 

***

 

“Bobby! That yard ain’t gonna mow itself!”

On days like this, Bobby Johnson wished more than ever that his grandfather owned an icehouse instead of a motel. The heat of this early late spring morning had driven every living thing in search of some shady respite, except Bobby. He grumbled and swore at the old lawnmower as he pulled it out of the storage shed and pushed it toward the front of the motel, rounding the front corner of the motel just as the guests began entering the lobby. 

Bobby was the seventeen year-old caretaker of the Traveler's Haven Motel.  He was just finishing his junior year at Red Dirt High, and looking forward to the summer vacation which would begin in a couple of weeks.  He was wiry and lean, just under 6 feet tall, with a brown “flat-top” haircut and angular features.  His easy manner and outstanding academics made him popular with the teachers; being the anchor of the school’s 4x4 relay team hadn’t hurt his standing with the girls. 

Bobby’s parents had died in a automobile accident when he was only two; since then he’d been raised here at the motel, by his grandpa.  The neighbors and church ladies in this small north Louisiana community had looked in on Bobby and his grandpa often, and it was unspoken but understood that everyone in the community was very proud of having played a small role in helping raise such an outstanding young man.

Bobby’s eyes widened in mild surprise at the number of cars in the parking lot.  This was the largest group they’d had at the motel since Christmas.  He looked again more closely at the cars. They all appeared to be in decent shape, with good rubber, and clean; but they were uniformly dull.  He absentmindedly coiled a garden hose while noticing the license plates of the nearest cars. "Oklahoma," he read, looking at the next. "Nevada . . . Virginia. . . New York.”  

Bobby frowned.  These folks sure were scattered across the country for such a small group.  When they’d booked their meeting here under the name “Chameleon Society” the lady grandpa spoke with had been vague about their group. As best he understood they were a group of old friends who had a common interest in lizards and reptiles, kind of like bird watchers.  “Guess it takes all types,” Bobby muttered as he unscrewed the garden hose and hung it over the faucet sticking out of the side of the building. 

Glancing back at the group he also noticed their clothes. These people were as plain as church folk, he thought. Everyone wore plain black, blue or brown; nothing fancy, not even on the women. Hell, they weren’t even wearing any makeup, and most had cut their hair pretty short and straight. What a bunch of dullards.

Bobby’s roving gaze paused, noticing the girl leaning against the hood of one of the cars. She looked out of place to him as she glanced  at all the adults around her, seeming mildly apprehensive, like a cat trying to avoid having its tail stepped on.  No, he thought; she wasn’t exactly afraid of them; it was more like she was trying to read them. 

Suddenly she turned her head and looked directly at Bobby.  Startled, he looked away quickly, and then found he couldn’t help glancing at her one more time.  He was amazed to see that she was continuing to watch him, her stare steady and self-assured.  Bobby bent to study a non-existent problem with the hose, grinning with the realization that he was interested, a lot more interested than he had been in anything around this place in it seemed like forever.  Bobby brushed off his hands and walked back toward the storage shed, his step lighter than usual.

 

***

 

Peter Heller dropped the document case on the floor of his room and hung his bag over the back of a chair.  He loosened his tie, and arched his back in a slow, deliberate stretch. The sleepless night of driving had exacted its toll in muscle fatigue, particularly in his back and legs. He sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes.

"A little nap is what you need, Peter," he thought, looking at his tired expression in the dresser mirror across the room. He had the same thought each year, each time he sat in a small room at one of these out-of-the-way motels, but had been able to stave off the need for sleep until after the crucial First Session had been held and Annuals turned in. To break precedent and postpone the First Session to rest -- especially now, at this meeting -- might be perceived as a sign of weakness, or unfitness. Letting his shoes drop to the floor, Heller swung his legs up onto the bed, collapsed back into the soft pillow, and tried to relax.

Heller awoke suddenly to a knock at his door. He checked his watch, and was relieved to see that it was only 9:30.

"Just a minute," he called, woozing back to consciousness and rubbing his eyes with his palms. He took a quick glance in the dresser mirror, smoothing his hair and pants, and moved from the bed to open the door in two quick strides.

"Hi. I'm not disturbing you, I hope?" said the woman standing there. Her light brown hair was cut short and curled on the top of her head, in the style of the day.  She had a straight, slightly up-turned nose and delicate chin, pretty in an understated way.  She wore a simple white sleeveless cotton blouse, a full navy skirt extending to just below her knees, and black flats.  Her plain clothing couldn’t hide the fact that she was physically fit and toned; her bearing was one of quiet authority, of someone used to being in command of the people and situations she encountered.

"Hello, Margaret," he said. "No, you aren't disturbing me. Come in."  Margaret Taylor stepped quickly into the room.

"I was just coming to see how you are," she said, pausing, "and if you need -- wanted any help getting things started." Heller looked at the document case and seemed lost in thought. Margaret squared her shoulders and faced Heller directly.  Her clear blue eyes met his steadily.

"Everyone's registered and ready to begin. I checked at the front desk with the owner and confirmed our reservation of the Veranda Room. It's all the way down the main hallway. I looked in briefly, and it appears adequate – the doors have working locks, and the windows are covered by heavy drapes.  There are only two entrances–a door leading to the hallway, and an outside exit that opens to the back service driveway. Mr. Simms, the owner, gave me the keys, and told me there was to be 'no drinking in the room, and no loud music'. I told him we'd be so well behaved, he wouldn't know we were here," she said, holding up two brass keys dangling from worn wooden dowels.

"What did he say to that?"

Margaret smiled. "He just nodded, as if to say, 'Sure, little lady, I've heard that story before.'" Margaret crossed the room to the window, pulling the curtains slightly apart and looking up and down the deserted highway. "He also asked me if I was sure a group our size wouldn't feel more 'cozy' in the smaller Tupelo Room, just off the lobby area. I told him no, of course."

"Did he indicate there would be any problem with the Veranda Room?"

"No. I made sure of that. He said it's ours for the weekend."

"Security scan?"

"I had Paulsen and Barrett check it -- they found a two-way intercom device, fairly crude and simplistic, and disabled it. There's no video surveillance installed anywhere, although they did find and repair a couple of broken locks on the windows.  Our security monitors have been installed and activated.  I stationed Gerard and Barrett there to keep an eye on everything."

Heller nodded briefly to her and moved to the lone chair near a small writing desk and took a seat. He opened the document case, taking out a thin sheaf of papers. "I have copies of the agenda here for everyone," he said, handing her the sheaf. "Please distribute them and have everyone meet us," he glanced at his watch, "at 10:00 for the First Session."

"Certainly," she said, taking the copies of the agenda and heading toward the door. She turned to look at him.

“Have you thought about . . . what you’ll say?”

Heller looked up, mildly irritated. “Thought about it? It’s all I’ve thought about, for the last four months.” He clicked the ballpoint pen on the desk repeatedly, tossing it back into the drawer of the desk and slamming it shut. “Yeah. I’ve thought about it.” He looked up at Margaret. “How, exactly, does the captain explain killing his best friend and a senior crewman?”

“You explain the facts to them, from the start. Let them in on everything–what Dave was doing, how you talked with him, tried to get him to stop.” She clapped a hand firmly on his shoulder. “You were right! You did what had to be done.  Don’t go weak on us now.”

Heller considered her pep talk. She was probably right; the direct approach was the best. In fact, that was what he had planned to do. He had it all documented there, in his case; all the notes, papers, set out, orderly. Heller rubbed the stubble on his chin. There is nothing “orderly” about this, he thought. It’s a goddam disaster. It wouldn't cause a mutiny, he hoped; he wanted to believe that his crew was as loyal now as they had ever been. But Dave’s death was a hard pill to swallow. Sixteen years of living this type of life was getting even harder to swallow.

Margaret bent down and put her arms around his neck, her soft cheek pressing against his. She murmured: "You know, there's no harm in waiting a few more minutes, if you'd like to rest . . . "

"Thanks," Heller said, patting her arm appreciatively. He suppressed an urge to touch her shoulder, to turn around and hold her in his arms. "Thanks, but that's not necessary."

"Yes, sir,” said Margaret, straightening and stepping back, awaiting further word.

“Tell them we start the First Session in 20 minutes. I’ll see you all there.” Margaret nodded, and let herself out of the room.

Heller walked to the window and gazed out across the empty road.
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Hello to all, and welcome to Guest Fiction Stage for another fantastic showcase. This feature keeps growing and growing and I thank you for showing your support. Today I would like to introduce you to Indie author Candace Gylgayton. She "was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, but spent her earliest years in Tokyo, Japan, before relocating to the Bay Area of California where she has lived ever since.  Candace received her B.A. with departmental honours from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she wrote her thesis on the uses of iconographic images in Byzantine art.  A self-acknowledged history geek, many of her stories reflect her fascination with the never-ending story of human beings.  Along with a handful of short stories, she is the author of the fantasy duet The Pentacle War, which is comprised of Hearts in Cups (Vol. 1) and Swords and Wands (Vol. 2)."

Below is the the first chapter of "The Pentacle War: Hearts In Cups". So make yourself comfortable, take a quick read, and hope you enjoy.



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A quest to find a lost prince.

A duke goes to war to be made a king.

A young man and woman discover love in a season of strife.

A woman of arcane power exceeds her own expectations, to the damnation of them all.

Upheaval and change are in the wind. A throne sits empty as the stories of a prince, long deemed lost, are once more being told. The Pentachy, a vast kingdom ruled by the five Great Houses, finds itself on the sword’s edge of civil war.

Far from home, family or friends, Hollin, the Head of the Great House of Langstraad, a woman of charm with a will of adamant, rides forth to use her powers political and arcane to prevent the destruction of the Pentarchy.
“As a child, my father taught me to ride, to fly a hawk and to wield a sword. I have never climbed through unknown mountains, but I am not afraid to try."

Within the walls of Castle Lir, Hollin’s beloved cousin, Ian de Medicat, is forced to marry an unwilling bride in order to secure an alliance ensuring that Langstraad will not stand alone when tides of war wash against it.
"You have been born and raised in a Great House, my lady. Think of how alliances are truly cemented: either by mutual physical gains of property or by marriage; and those got through the familial alliances of marriage are the stronger and harder to dissolve. I need this alliance to keep Langstraad safe and, like it or not, you are the key that I have bargained for."

In Dacara, at the Scholastium Arcana, the Mage Masters turn deaf ears to the pleas of those asking them to come forth and help preserve the integrity of the Pentarchy.
“Neither we nor any under our rule will wage warfare of any kind within the Pentarchy."

The threat of war seems fated to become a reality. Soon men will be betrayed and murdered, armies will assemble and something not of this world shall find an entrance into it. As the bonds of temporal and magical forces that hold the Pentachy together begin to dissolve, both men and women will learn all too well where the lust for power can lead the unscrupulous – and the unwary.

“…once the game has been set in motion it will go on whether you will or no."

Evocative and atmospheric, The Pentacle War - Volume 1: Hearts in Cups is filled with the action of adventure, intrigue, deception and magic. It is a story of heroic deeds and romantic exploits. It is the story of one woman whose strength of character and clarity of vision propel her and the people who love and come to love her into a battle to save themselves and all they cherish.



Part One

Chapter 1

The sun had not yet risen above the surrounding mountains as the lone horseman began climbing the last stretch of the road leading up from the silver of the Tarn River to the gray battlements of Castle Lir. The road rose in long, serpentine loops up the shoulder of the mountain before breaking free of the forest and running straight towards the massive gates in the castle's outer wall. As he drew nearer, the rider looked up to see the towers, high above the great battlements, turn golden in the dawning light. Lir, older than remembrance, stood vast and quiet in the early morning; with the great peak known as Cloud's Rest brooding over it. Glad to have his goal in sight, the rider spurred his sweating horse forward.

The thick, outer wall of the castle was built in a semi-circle between two spurs of the mountain, and was pierced by three entrance tunnels with imposing gates and a portcullis at either end. The road from the river led to the largest of the entrances in the center of the great wall. Here the rider was halted by guards opening the gates for the daily activity that passed in and out of the castle. The silver and blue livery of the rider and his royal seal of passage forbade close interrogation; he was cursorily checked and passed through. The other end of the tunnel opened upon an immense field used as a military training ground or market place, depending on the day and the season. The castle stables were located at the western end of the field and a few stable boys, buckets in hand, regarded the unexpected rider with blatant interest. Crossing this field, the rider came to another wall and gateway, through which he could see the castle's central courtyard with its keep and the auxiliary buildings that made up the interior castle complex. Dismounting before this gate, he was approached by a man in green and gold livery who demanded his office.

"I am sent from Pentarin with a message to be delivered from my hand to Her Grace, the Duchess of Langstraad." Extending his badge of office, he stretched his cramped legs and stamped the ground several times to restore his circulation.

The courtier, a man of medium height with a dark, clever face, examined the badge carefully before returning it. He motioned for a stable boy to take the messenger’s horse. "Do you carry a weapon?"

"I have my sword and dagger."

"Please remove them and follow me." The messenger handed his weapons to yet another man and followed the green and gold back of his examiner across the width of the courtyard and up a flight of stone steps.

Once inside, the messenger took note of the swept floors and polished wood of the hallway, impressed that age had not decayed the castle. Ascending progressively steeper flights of stairs, the messenger was taken upwards into the heart of the castle. At one point he chanced to look out one of the windows of a long gallery he was passing through and saw the keep's main courtyard far below. The journey ended at a flight of five stairs leading to a carved wooden door. Bidding the messenger to wait at the foot of these stairs, the courtier advanced and knocked softly, announcing the arrival of the unexpected visitor. After listening to an all but inaudible reply, the messenger was ushered into the room.

Glancing around, he saw that the room was an L-shaped configuration, with mullioned windows all along the inner side of the angle, which faced north and east. The interior walls were faced with wooden panels, and several large rugs of intricate, multicolored patterns were strewn on the inlaid wood floor. A voluminous desk took up most of the far end of the room and books were abundant in the shelves under the window sills. Two comfortable looking chairs and a low table were set before the fireplace. The possessor of the room looked up serenely from the desk at which she sat.

With a low and practiced bow the messenger introduced himself. "I am Barth ap Evain, personal messenger for the regent, Percamber ap Morna. I am charged with a letter from my lord to deliver to the hand of Her Grace, the Duchess of Langstraad."

"You may give me the letter then, for I am she," the woman replied, with a trace of amusement in her low, clear voice.

A small multi-sealed packet was produced from a leather pouch attached to his belt and proffered to her with another deep bow. She received it with a nod and carefully examined the seals. "When did you leave with this?"

"Six days ago, your grace."

"You have ridden far and fast," she remarked. "Alaric, take him to the kitchens and see that he is fed. Then request my cousin to attend me here." Both men bowed and left the room.

In silence, Alaric led the young messenger down to the cavernous kitchens that serviced the entire castle. After informing one of the cooks to feed the man and find him a bed, he bid him good-day and went in search of Lord Ian.

By now the population of the castle had begun to fill the halls and yards, raising a din with their voices and activity. Alaric made his way quickly across the smaller of the two minor courtyards and into the eastern wing of the main castle, where Ian de Medicat, cousin to the duchess, had his permanent suite of rooms. He had to knock several times before the door was answered, not by his lordship's man-servant as usual, but by his lordship.

Alaric sketched a brief bow and delivered his message: "Her grace wishes your attendance immediately, my lord."

"Is that so?" was the drawled response. "All right, wait a moment and I'll be along." He closed the door but not before a female voice reached Alaric's ears. Alaric was not an overly inquisitive man, but his lordship did have something of a reputation and Alaric found himself wondering idly who was sharing his lordship's bed these days.

He did not have long to dwell on this subject before the door was pulled ajar and Lord Ian, tossing a fur-lined cloak over his shoulders to discourage the early morning chill, joined him in the hallway. The sound of another door closing within his lordship's rooms confirmed in Alaric's mind some of his suspicions, but he remained silent as he led the way back to her grace's solarium.

The morning sun was streaming through the windows when they arrived, giving play to a luminous cloud of dust motes. Ian was announced and he entered the room to find the duchess sitting in a chair before the fire, abstractedly fingering the broken seals of the royal missive.

"Sit down Ian," she said easily. "Have you breakfasted yet? Alaric, have the kitchen send us something to eat."

Ian sauntered to the empty chair and gracefully deposited himself in it. Young and possessed of a singularly charming visage, his face had been schooled to exhibit a bland disinterest to the world at large. There was a studied nonchalance in the dark hair that tumbled over his pale forehead and a casual elegance to his dress. His cousin, knowing him better, chose to ignore what was in fact merely a disguise.

"I'm surprised that you called for me at this early hour, cousin. Not that I'm not thoroughly charmed of course." He smiled engagingly and stretched his legs out in front of him.

"I have just received a letter from Lord Percamber. I'm afraid that I will be leaving for Pentarin the day after tomorrow instead of at the end of the week as planned. There are a few things I need to review with you before leaving, since you will be acting as steward while I am away."

"Hmmm... now, what can have arisen that you should need to go rushing off to the capital? The Pentacle Council doesn't convene for another fortnight yet." He looked at her over the steeple he had made with his fingers.

At this she began to chuckle and shake her head at him. "Ian, dear boy, I am thoroughly convinced that naught moves in this castle but you know of it. So, ferret, let me hear your guesses first."

"Holly, you credit me with far too much cunning," he protested. "I am, as grandfather has pointed out to me on several occasions, but a foppish young puppy whose poor mind is no match for the political machinations of my betters. But if you could contrive to put a tankard of mulled wine in my hand it might, perhaps, ease the functioning of this rusty organ of mine." He comically cradled the side of his head in his hand.

"Late hours?" she inquired unsympathetically.

"The late hours do not bother me; the early ones do," he replied with feigned hurt.

At this juncture Alaric, followed by a kitchen servant, entered with trays laden with fruit, fresh bread, butter and honey, and, a sign of his perspicacity, a steaming goblet of wine which he offered to Ian. After the servants had retired, the two cousins companionably began to appease their hunger. Soon Ian leaned back, having drunk the contents of his goblet, and eyed his cousin with a look that transformed his customarily casual mien to one of intense concern.

"Let me see now... the Pentacle Council is not due to meet for three weeks, yet you receive a message from the Regent, delivered by one of his personal messengers no less, and after reading it, you announce your intention for an early departure. I would hazard that all of this, coupled with the hints and rumors I have been listening to recently, suggest that the agenda for this year's council session will have to be the Crown Prince, or the lack of same. In other words: the pot is about to boil."

"Not badly reasoned at all." She rose and, handing him the letter, went to stand with her face towards the windows. Ian unfolded the heavy parchment and scanned the thick, slanted writing. When he had finished, he refolded the message with care and looked at his cousin. Tall for a woman, she stood gracefully in profile to him, the morning light turning her hair to flame: Hollin Morwen Medicat Lir, Duchess of Langstraad and head of one of the Great Houses of the Pentarchy. She glanced at him and he met her steel grey eyes.

"Well, Holly," he said using her childhood diminutive. "You've known this was coming for a long time. King Gwydian has been dead for over five years and Lord Percamber is quite long in the tooth. It's been ten years or so since Prince Brian went away. While there is a High King in Sandovar, the Houses are held together and the Pentarchy is strong and united. Without a High King there is bound to be discontent among the Houses, and subsequent concerns by everyone about possible invasions from enemies outside of our borders."

"I'm afraid that you are all too right." She sighed and came back to her chair.

"The ‘ambitious ones’ Percamber refers to are the Duke and Duchess of Mirvanovir, I presume?"

"Yes, I would suppose so; though there are more than enough malcontents about these days. Percamber seems quite certain this will be the council session that will decide the coming course of events."

Ian cleared his throat, looked down at his hands and then caught his cousin's eyes directly. "What I say may be no more than conjecture, but I am willing to bet those with great ambitions are hoping to use the Duchess of Langstraad as a stepping stone to the throne."

She regarded him incredulously. "On what do you base such speculation?"

"To start with, the handfasting ceremony that took place between you and Prince Brian."

"That's preposterous! The heirs of the Great Houses are never allowed to intermarry. The only reason I was allowed to be handfasted to him in the first place was because Gwyneira was the elder. It was always taken for granted that she would be Langstraad's next duchess." Hollin looked away, remembering the sister whose unexpected death had willed to her the duchy's coronet.

"Besides," she continued grimly. "I was seven years old at the time! Such a ceremony, especially with a child involved, cannot truly be considered binding. "

"But he was of age?"

"I believe that he was close to twenty at the time."

"Do you still have the ring that you were given as a troth-seal?"

"I suppose that it's with my other personal jewelry," she replied with unwonted impatience. "But I still don't see how a preliminary betrothal could be of use, or interest, to anyone. I doubt anyone else even remembers it."

"Don't you believe it! I've been doing a lot of listening in my recent travels, and that betrothal ceremony has not been forgotten. You had best arm yourself well before the Council convenes, or you will find yourself being auctioned off as crown-bearer to whoever is clever enough or strong enough to manage it!"

The look she shot him was not pleasant but she said nothing.

He continued in milder tones. "Let me tell you what it is I have been hearing on my journeys. The past two days I've had little chance to sit down and talk to you without interruption.

"As you are well aware, since Grandfather hatched his most recent program for my reform, matrimony, I have been trotted out rather extensively in the hope of baiting a good match, as he is so fond of saying." Ian pursed his mouth in distaste. "Outside of raising his hopes for naught, I was able to glean quite a tidy sum of information for you.

"First on the agenda was Branwilde of Creon's household. He has a daughter of marriageable age and, since the duke and Grandfather are such old friends, it was fervently hoped that I would be taken to their bosoms; hers at any rate. She's not a bad little piece, though my preferences lean to something a little fuller or, at least, older." He favoured his cousin with an impudent grin. "Anyway, her grace, Lady Dierdre, was less than ecstatic about having me as a son-in-law. I think she has higher hopes for the poor girl, and I soon found my way out of that house. After my dismal showing at the Duke of Creon's court, I was conducted on a leisurely tour of some of the lesser estates where a few of my prospective fathers-in-law examined damn near everything but my teeth! I'm afraid I didn't meet all of their specifications, much to Grandfather's chagrin. I can't say that I'm sorry. Anyway, we eventually reached Challis in Mirvanovir, where I spent an informative, though less than agreeable, few weeks as Lord Niall's guest."

"I should have thought you would enjoy his style of life," she interjected drily.

Ian wrinkled his nose in disdain. "I like creature comforts, and I even admit that I enjoy a certain amount of luxury, but I loathe decadence and there is a distinct odour of rottenness about the court of Mirvanovir. The duke is bad enough, but the duchess..." He paused to shudder violently.

"Come now Ian, aren't you are getting overly dramatic? I've known Rashara for quite a few years and, while I've never personally liked her, she is certainly no ghoul."

"Have you ever been to Challis? You only see her at council sessions and state occasions. I assure you, the goings on in their own palace are definitely of a sybaritic bent. One of the Duke of Tuenth's sons was there, and I would be much surprised if dinner was all that the duchess shared with him. Believe me, she is much the worst of that pair. Thankfully, the lack of profitable interest in my charms, along with your summons to return, cut short my sojourn there."

Hollin sighed. "I know Grandfather has been making a good deal of noise about marrying you off, but I didn't realize that he was launching a major campaign."

Ian smiled wryly. "Oh yes, I felt like a prize stud being brought out to tease. It was rather unbearable. I suspect that Grandfather still nurses hopes of foisting me off on Creon's House, but since he's not speaking with me at present, I think I shall remain with my bachelorhood intact."

"He is only doing it for what he sees as your own good. Beneath that crusty exterior he does love you. He simply has trouble expressing his emotions," she said gently.

"Oh yes, my mother taught me about his emotions," was the surprisingly bitter reply.

Hollin sat quietly waiting for several minutes after this uncharacteristic outburst. Her aunt, Lady Fiona de Medicat, Ian's mother, had disgraced herself in her family's eyes many years ago by eloping with a commoner. Hollin remembered her arrival at the gates of Castle Lir some years later, straight-backed and proud with a face betraying her imminent death and a young boy with defiant eyes at her side. Her husband had died in an accident and the grief of it had wasted her until she was forced to bestow her only child on her brother's doorstep before she herself died. Only after she was buried did her father relent, forgiving her and naming her son his heir. Ian had been raised between his grandfather's house and his uncle's at Castle Lir. Grandfather and grandson had been at loggerheads from the start and, Hollin reflected, similarities of temperament had as much to do with their problems as did exterior forces. Both had fierce loyalties and stubbornness of purpose.

"Aside from that old story," Ian went on, regaining his self-possession, "I have been to a great many banquets and heard much gossip these last few weeks. The general consensus in Creon is that the crown must be secured in order to keep the Pentarchy from dissolution. Branwilde has supported Lord Percamber's regency in the past but he is growing uneasy. He is a soldier and wants a commander to follow. Apparently forces outside the Pentarchy, meaning I suspect the Kassorian Empire, are beginning to show an interest in the current state of the Pentarchy. The duke is unreservedly loyal and won't move against Percamber, but he wants a permanent king on the throne and recognized heirs to it."

"You seem to know much of the duke's personal thoughts for someone who was only listening to idle gossip."

"I listened and did a lot of reading between the lines. Grandfather and the duke talked a good deal within my earshot. Now, as to the smaller lords and landholders in Creon, they will do whatever Branwilde commands. But, they are feeling insecure and insecure men look for simple solutions.

"Mirvanovir is a trickier kettle of fish. It is my opinion that Niall and Rashara want the throne with themselves on it. It's not said in the open of course, and neither of them is so stupid as to put on anything but a loyal face, but there were too many little things said and done that point to that conclusion. From his letter, I see that Percamber is also wary about them. Niall is good at choosing greedy men to do his bidding and he holds his duchy in a very tight fist.  And Rashara? Selfish men are bad, but an avaricious woman who wants power can be terrible."

"I should have thought Rashara was far too interested in herself and her pleasures to take much interest in the rest of the world."

"Don't underestimate her, Holly. She spent several years studying at the Scholastium in Dacara before marrying the duke. I think she could be a powerful and dangerous foe," Ian replied severely.

"I shall keep that in mind," Hollin replied with mock-contrition. "You have told me that there is unrest and speculation about the throne, but where do I come into this play? Why are you so certain that I am viewed as the stepping stone?"

"To begin with, your aunt was Lady Bronwyn, who was the late king's first cousin by blood."

"Gervase Iscoed and his sister Genvra are more closely related," she countered. "Lady Bronwyn was their mother."

"True, but nothing would ever induce Gervase to leave Iscoed and Genvra is married into House Pentarell. I've told you that there are a lot of ambitions involved. Gervase has no ambitions, at least none beyond his own comfort and seclusion. House Pentarell might think of using Genvra to make a claim of their own, but they are a Minor House and I doubt Roraic Danane would allow them to use his wife in that way.

"The second reason that you are at the top of a lot of lists, as I mentioned earlier, is this matter of your prior handfasting to the prince. This gives you two direct links to House Sandovar and the throne. Thirdly, you are as yet still unmarried. Need I remind you that all of the, shall we say ‘interested parties,’ have sons of marriageable age. To many, you are the logical solution to their problem."

Hollin rose with a frown and paced to the window. "This is completely absurd! That handfasting was not binding even at the time it was made. Besides, with Gwyneira dead, I am the Duchess of Langstraad, not some younger daughter who can be married off for political alliance. I am sole ruler of one of the five Great Houses and no one else outranks me in the Pentarchy." She returned to her seat, still frowning.

"True enough, but I doubt that those facts will change the minds of those who consider you a viable alternative to the inevitable anarchy that will ensue if Percamber dies without an acknowledged and agreed upon heir."

"I hate intrigue," she spat vehemently.

"I don't particularly," was his equable reply.

She laughed derisively.

"I like games-playing, which is all it is actually,” he said. “Plots within plots. You're a bit too honest, if you want my opinion. You'd hate the court at Challis."

"No doubt." She smiled and leaned back in her chair. "Any suggestions for the coming fray?"

He drew his brows together in thought. "First, you have to decide where your own feelings lie. How do you feel about the regency? About Lord Percamber? What are your feelings for, or about, the missing prince? Do you want the throne yourself? What can you do? And what will you do?"

She mulled this over. "I really haven't thought much about those things," she confessed. "Up until this point I was prepared to let events take their own course. Naturally, I accept and support Lord Percamber, both politically and personally. He has been an excellent Regent and I have always been most comfortable with him. I don't have any personal feelings for Prince Brian. The handfasting ceremony was so long ago that I hardly remember him." She paused, trying to recall the event. All that remained of the experience was the impression of very tall people in splendid dress milling about.

"And the throne?"

She shrugged. "You know that I don't want the throne for myself. I am quite content with running my own House."

"It's more complicated than that!" he protested.

"True. And if what you say is correct, then I cannot afford to wait until the initiative is taken away from me."

"No, you can't."

"Tell me Ian, are you ever ambitious in a grand way?" she asked with a sigh of frustration.

"Me?" He laughed quietly. "No, not really. I like my comforts and I like being on the fringe of power, but real ambition is entirely too tedious. I am content to advise you, as best I can, from behind the curtains."

"Sometimes I wish that you were not my cousin," Hollin said smiling down at her lap.

"Me too," he replied simply.

There was a stillness in the room. At last, Ian rose and bent to kiss the top of Hollin's head. "When you decide how you are going to deal with your fellow council-members, send for me. Remember, I'm always here for you, Holly."

She raised her smile to his face. "I know that. Let me brood by myself for a few hours, then come dine with me this evening if you're free." Ian sketched a brief bow and left her alone in the sunlit tower.

Three hours later Hollin was awakened from her ruminations by a quick knock on the door followed by the appearance of a stout, pink-cheeked woman. Dame Edwinna Heath had been principle lady-in-waiting to Lady Morwen ap Lir, Hollin's mother, and had risen to become chatelaine of Castle Lir upon Hollin's succession to her mother's coronet. Like a great mother-hen, she viewed the residents of the castle as her chicks, to be continually fussed over. At times Hollin, who cherished her privacy and solitude, found Edwinna's ministrations suffocating, but she recognized in the woman an excellent manager with a genuine desire to be helpful.

"Well, well, well, there you are my dear, your grace!" Dame Edwinna bustled in, speaking in her usual breathless fashion. "I was getting quite worried wondering where you had got to. Have you eaten? Good, good, yes Alaric said that food had been sent to you, though the silly man forgot to say where you were, and of course, when I went to ask him, he had disappeared too. Rumour is out that you are going to leave for the council session earlier than planned. Oh dear me, well don't you fret, I'll see that all the arrangements are made. Will you be having Benedict ride with you?" Sir Benedict Heath was Edwinna's husband and Castle Lir's seneschal.

"Yes, Edwinna, I will be leaving early, and yes, Benedict will be riding with me." Hollin was nonplussed by the woman's chatter. "Lord Ian will act in my stead while I am gone." Edwinna pursed her mouth into a small moue of resignation at this news. "You and Alaric will see to the daily running of the castle and Ian will act as my steward."

"Yes, your grace." Edwinna managed a short curtsey.

"Please go now and tell Benedict to join me in an hour to discuss the arrangements for the journey. Send a message to Griswold as well. Tell him to meet me in the training court later this afternoon. I want to get some practice in before I leave."

"Yes, your grace. Will you be having anything to eat?" Edwinna asked solicitously.

"Not now. That reminds me, I'm dining with Lord Ian tonight. Please have dinner served in my rooms. Tell the cooks to keep it simple." Hollin rose and went to her desk. "That is all, you may go," she said picking up the first page of a sheaf of documents.

"Very well, your ladyship." Edwinna curtsied for the last time and swept out of the room.

The sound of steel on steel echoed off the stone walls in the late afternoon. Lord Ian's hawk moved restively as Ian dismounted near the mews. The falconer moved forward and deftly removed the bird as a groom caught the horse's bridle and led him away. Pulling the heavy leather gloves off, Ian handed them to his personal attendant. As the clash of metal continued, Ian grew curious and moved into the archway leading to a small courtyard used for individual sword practice. Several men stood at the mouth of the archway peering in, but they moved aside with quick bows as Ian strolled over.

Standing in the shadow of the wall, Ian observed his cousin in tunic and breeches, her braided hair coiled around her head, engaged in a bout with Sir Griswold, Swordmaster of Castle Lir. Swordplay was not an activity that many women participated in, and her costume would have scandalized many outside her own castle, but she had shown an interest and an aptitude as a child, and her father had seen fit to indulge her by instructing her himself.

The swords clashed again and Ian marveled at the display. The man's weight, length of arm and experience were formidable and Hollin's skill was hard pressed; only her extraordinary reflexes and agility kept her out of her opponent's range. Back and forth they moved across the yard in a deadly dance of attack and retreat. Ian crossed his arms and quietly leaned against the wall. Finally, an excellently timed riposte slipped under her opponent's defense and lightly touched him on the chest.

"Well done!" he roared at her, raising his sword in salute.

"Luck," she gasped, returning the salute and removing her face shield.

"Never disparage luck, your grace," he replied as he doffed his own shield. "Sometimes luck does you better than skill, though to my mind 'tis best to have both." She laughed and, seeing Ian against the wall, waved her sword in greeting.

"You'll soon be besting Griswold two out of three matches," Ian chuckled as he pushed himself away from the wall.

She laughed again and Ian felt an odd pull in his chest. "I doubt it," she said, and wiped the stray hairs off of her face. "As I have just explained to Griswold, my skill is generally surpassed by my luck."

"Nay mistress," the older man admonished gravely. "Your father was a swordmaster and your grandfather, the baron, is still a good man with the blade. 'Tis in the blood I tell ye. Even young Ian here is a handy man with a sword when pushed to it."

Ian grinned. "Grandfather certainly has retained his strength to a remarkable degree. I watched him best six young knights-in-training the last time I was visiting Medicat Hall. Fought them first and then proceeded to drink them under the table."

"Aye, a wonderful man is Sir Alister," Griswold rejoined with a glint in his eye. He had served the de Medicat family all of his life. First as a page to Alister de Medicat and later as a knight. When Alister's son, Courant de Medicat, had married the heir to House Langstraad, Griswold had followed him to Castle Lir. He had trained Courant, and eventually taught Hollin and Ian. After the deaths of her parents, Hollin had made him Lir's Master of Sword.

Hollin grinned at Ian, then saluted both men and exited through one of the smaller archways connecting the practice yard with the rest of the castle complex. Ian exchanged a few words with Griswold and then made for his own quarters to change his clothing.

Ian's apartments had been given to him by Hollin when she became Duchess of Langstraad. He had been grateful, for it finally gave him a permanent and private place of his own and ensured that he would be able to avoid long stays on his grandfather's estate. The rooms were well-appointed and fastidiously clean, aside from a few books lying on or about a large chair beside a window. He entered his bedchamber and was undressing when he heard a sound from the adjacent room. The door was slyly pushed ajar and a young woman sidled through the doorway with her hands behind her back.

"Hello my lord." She swayed slightly as she advanced towards him.

"Well, well." He examined her with a slow smile. She had piled her tawny-coloured hair up onto her head exposing the nape of her neck as well as quite a lot of her bust and shoulders.  The impression that she initially made on men was one of wonderful softness and pliability coupled with a childish desire to please. It had not taken Ian long to discover that her ingenuousness was contrived and that she could be more than a little unscrupulous when she wanted something. She did however satisfy some rather basic needs in Ian, and he considered it a fair trade for the gifts and minor privileges that she demanded in return.

 "Was the hunting good?" she asked while running her fingertip over his bared chest.

"Could have been better," he replied cheerfully.

"Nasty hawks." She began to wrap her arms around him. "Shall we send for supper in bed then?"

"Sorry my girl, but I'm dining out tonight."

"Again! Who is it this time?" He read suspicion as well as disappointment in her voice.

"The lady of the castle, as a matter of fact." Ian was clearly amused and let her know it. "By the way, have you seen Evan skulking about? I need to wash up."

"No, I haven't," she relied with asperity. "How would I know where your manservant is? I'm not a serving wench!" This last remark was delivered with a flounce of her skirts as she sat down on the bed.

"No, just the delicious daughter of the head-cook." Ian pushed her gently onto her back and pinned her there.

Kathryn glared up at him. She was sensitive on the subject of her family origins. Using her own wits and feminine charms, she had found her way into the bed of the highest ranking lord of the castle, which in her eyes made her almost a lady; and she was determined to stay there.

 "It's been so long since we've had a whole night together," she implored, changing her tact. "You went off to visit your grandfather and left me alone for weeks and weeks... Can't you send word that you are ill or something?"

Ian looked thoughtfully into her very round, dark eyes and briefly speculated on just how alone she had been while he was away. And then he smiled. He was hardly in a position to feel offended. If his cousin indulged in abstinence, his was an equal indulgence. Rolling off the bed, he stood up and stretched his arms over his head. "I'm going to call for Evan now because I really do need a wash. I promise to try not to be too late returning tonight." He briskly pulled her to her feet and planted a kiss on her lips. "Be in my bed by the tenth bell, I should be back by then." He swatted her bottom agreeably as she rolled her eyes and headed for the door.

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To continue reading this story, click the link below:

And if you would like to learn more about Candace and her work, you can check out her website:

www.candacegylgayton.com

Thank you and see you next time.
 
 
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Hello my friends, and welcome to the Guest Fiction Stage. The pace has slowed down a little, but that's because I am really focusing on creating new material of my own. But this feature here has taken a life of its own, and I cannot stay away. As long as there are readers looking for new books, and as long as there are writers looking to reach them, GFS will have a place.

Today I would like to introduce you to Karen A. Wyle. She "was born a Connecticut Yankee, but moved every few years throughout her childhood and adolescence.  After college in California, law school in Massachusetts, and a mercifully short stint in a large San Francisco law firm, she moved to Los Angeles, where she met her now-husband, who hates L.A.  They eventually settled in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University.

Wyle has been a voracious and compulsive reader as long as she can remember.  Do not strand this woman on a plane without reading matter!  Wyle was an English and American Literature major at Stanford University, which suited her, although she has in recent years developed some doubts about whether studying literature is, for most people, a good preparation for enjoying it. 

Wyle's voice is the product of almost five decades of reading both literary and genre fiction.  It is no doubt also influenced, although she hopes not fatally tainted, by her years of practicing appellate law.  Her personal history has led her to focus on often-intertwined themes of family, communication, the impossibility of controlling events, and the persistence of unfinished business."

Below is the first chapter of her novel," Wander Home". So let me step aside and let Karen take it away...



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Death is what you make it. . . .

Eleanor never wanted to leave the daughter she loved so much. The overpowering urge to wander -- to search, without knowing what she sought -- drove her away. She left little Cassidy in her family's loving care. But Cassidy and the others died in an accident before Eleanor could find her way home.

Now, they are all reunited, in an afterlife where nothing is truly lost. Places once loved may be revisited, memories relived and even shared. One may be any age suitable to the mood and moment. Surely this is a place where Eleanor and her family can understand and heal. But some of the memories haunting Eleanor are of dreams she had tried to forget.

Somehow, she must solve the mystery of her life -- or none of them will be at peace.




PREFACE
 

This book is set in an afterlife: what sort of afterlife, the reader may decide.

 

Chapter One  

Cassidy stood tall and watched the wave approaching. Fifteen was a good age for confronting the ocean. That morning she had been five years old, playing happily in her sandbox; from sand to beach, from beach to ocean waves, seemed a natural progression.

The wave loomed above her, glowing turquoise and green. She dove under the crest, through the surging water, and popped up behind the swell, bobbing in the follower waves. The water held her and rocked her; over the hiss and roar of the waves, she could hear the distant squawk of seagulls. All around was the smell of seaweed and salt and sunshine.

Once, her mother had held her, carried her, rocked her, surrounded her with love and safety. She had no idea how long it had been, but she remembered. Remembering, she let herself slip younger as she floated on the swells. But larger waves were coming, so she grew again, six, ten, sixteen; then caught a wave and rode it into shore.

Her grandparents and her great-grandmother were waiting for her. Great-Grandma was young today, slim and blonde and straight, standing like a dancer just before the music starts. Grandma Sarah and Grandpa Jack had chosen to be older, gray-haired, with the comfortable look of a couple who for years have weathered each other’s moods and followed each other’s thoughts.

Cassidy ran up the beach toward them. She slipped to eight years old as she reached them, so Grandpa Jack could pick her up and toss her in the air. The sun flashed in her eyes as she flew up, and again as she fell back toward his hands. He set her down again and flopped onto the sand, patting the space next to him. She sat, folding her legs tailor fashion; Great-Grandma flowed gracefully down to sit on her other side. Only Grandma Sarah remained standing, younger now, her hair in a long red braid.

Grandpa Jack and Great-Grandma both put their arms around her. Cassidy looked at Grandpa Jack. He was blinking as if he had something in both his eyes. She swiveled around toward Great-Grandma; Great-Grandma nodded toward Grandma Sarah.

Cassidy threw her head back, looking up at Grandma Sarah and squinting in the sun. Grandma Sarah squatted down in front of her. "Cassie, love, we have some news for you. Good, important news."

The seabirds were calling as if they wanted to be first with the message, whatever it was. Grandma Sarah leaned forward to kneel in the sand, reached out and took Cassidy's hands.

"It's your mother, sweetheart. She's coming. She'll be here soon. We'll all be seeing her again."

Cassidy felt herself getting smaller, small. She was two years old. She scrambled to her feet. "Mommy!" Her own shrill voice frightened her, and she called even louder, twisting from side to side, searching the beach and the water. "Mommy! MOMMY!"

Great-Grandma had slipped old, white hair shining in the sunlight, her cheeks pink, soft wrinkles in her face, smelling of flour. She pulled Cassidy close, crooning, "Hush, hush. It's all right, baby. Shhhh." Cassidy burrowed against her and breathed the comforting scent. She thought she might feel better if she got big again, but nothing happened.

She heard Grandpa Jack speak. "Mama, Sarah, let's go somewhere cozier." Then the sun, the waves, the seabirds were all gone, and they were in Great-Grandma's living room. She was snuggled up next to Great-Grandma on the big shabby couch. There were shortbread cookies on the coffee table. Grandma Sarah sat on Grandpa Jack's lap in the big armchair, Grandpa Jack playing with Grandma Sarah's hair.

"Cassidy, honey, it's time to be a big girl. We have more to talk about." Great-Grandma stroked her cheek, then kissed it.

Cassidy squeezed her eyes tight. "I'm trying. It's hard. Why is it hard?"

Grandpa Jack spoke. "Well, baby, you were just this age when your mama left. You're remembering it so hard, right now, that you're maybe a little stuck. Relax, honey, and know that everything's all right. It'll come."

Cassidy took a deep breath, and another, and another. Great-Grandma skootched away to give her room. Cassidy opened her eyes. She was thirteen years old. She reached for a cookie.

"There, that's better, isn't it?" Great-Grandma picked out a cookie for herself and took a hearty bite.

"When will she be here? When can I see her?"

Grandma Sarah brought Cassidy a glass of milk, then sat back down on Grandpa Jack's lap. "Honey, those are two different questions. She'll be here very soon, and you can see her just a little while after that. It's going to be —"

"Why can't I see her right away?" She didn't want to yell at Grandma Sarah, but she felt like yelling. It was always harder to be patient at thirteen. She slipped to twenty, but it felt wrong, too big, too grown up for a little girl missing her mother. She slid back to ten.

 "Cassie, you were so young when you got here, only six years old. You weren't set in your ways yet — you expected to learn new things every day, to have adventures and surprises. Coming here was just another and bigger adventure. But it's different for older people. It's more of a shock. We think it'd be best if Great-Grandma welcomes her first, and explains things."

"How long will that take?" Cassidy swallowed tears and washed them away with a gulp of milk.

Great-Grandma moved back over and hugged her. "Not as long as it will feel to you. I'll bring her to see you as soon as I can."

 

 

Eleanor felt very strange. Where was she? The pain that had seized and crushed her heart had vanished. She had been in an ambulance; but wherever she was now, the space was not in motion, and everything was quiet. And she could breathe again, freely and easily — no longer gasping for air, but breathing in and out as she had done for twenty-nine years. And the room around her kept changing. One moment it looked like a Red Cross donor center, one of the many at which she had given blood from time to time. Then the cot became a bed in a motel room: a room with orange and brown plaid curtains, a tan shag carpet, a small television, a double bed and one hard chair. She had been in that room just once, years ago, and had never wanted to see it again. And now appeared a room from long ago, with pale blue walls and a white window shade, white wooden furniture, a small and overflowing bookshelf; and Eleanor found herself sitting up in a single bed with a wooden bedstead, feather pillows, and a lavender quilt.

Grandma's house! Whenever she spent the night at Grandma's, it had been in this room. A room in a house that someone had bought and torn down, years ago, to put up a big modern showpiece, a blue and copper box with patios instead of grass.

Something lay lightly on her shoulder. It was her hair, long again, its chestnut color restored. And her shoulder and arm were curved, cushioned — no longer gaunt from months of neglecting her needs.

Eleanor felt a sudden urgency to get out of bed, to get up and go downstairs while this was still Grandma's house, before she found herself back in the horrible motel room. She pushed back the quilt and stood up, looking around wildly; then ran to the door, threw it open and stood, breathing hard, in the hall near the worn wooden stairs. She waited to stop trembling before walking slowly to the stairs and down to the lower floor. She could hear someone moving around downstairs, in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards or drawers.

At the foot of the stairs, she stopped, clutching the banister. For four years she had stayed away, in hotel after friend's couch after cheap apartment, assuming that home and family would always be there waiting for her. And then, after the car crash, when it was too late and they were gone, she had longed so desperately and hopelessly to see them all again — Cassidy most of all, of course, but also Mom and Dad and Grandma. She had wanted so much to tell them how she loved them, to apologize, to try to explain. Now, in this impossible place, she might have that forfeited chance — and she had no more idea than ever what to say.

The stairs ended in the front hallway. The kitchen was toward the back, past the living room. Eleanor walked with small hesitant steps into the living room, stopping to touch the armchair, the couch, the coffee table. There was the framed poster from Grandma's ballet company, advertising one of their galas. Under the poster, on the mantelpiece, stood the row of photographs.

Dad and his brother, camping in their back yard, lying in the blue tent with their heads sticking out of the flap and grins on their grimy faces. Mom and Dad on their wedding day, with Mom in her gown and Dad in his tuxedo, both in climbing harnesses, hanging from a cliff wall somewhere in Argentina. Grandma and Grandpa on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Then a much older photo of a much younger couple: Amanda and Stan, no one's grandparents yet, in black and white, standing near an old-fashioned car.

And then the picture that made her turn away, turn back, and walk closer, reaching out: Eleanor, on the living room couch, holding tiny baby Cassidy, just two weeks old.

"Is that you, dear?"

Eleanor froze in place. She forced herself to speak. "G-Grandma?"

"In the kitchen, Nory. Come on. It's all right."

Eleanor headed on into the kitchen. There sat her grandmother, looking just the same — soft white hair, soft wrinkled face, flowered apron, thin rounded shoulders. Eleanor stumbled forward as Grandma got up from her chair. They stood for a moment, face to face, Eleanor speechless, Grandma seeming to feel no need for speech.

Eleanor found her voice. "Grandma. I'm so sorry. Oh, God, I'm sorry." She started to cry.

Grandma opened her arms. "Oh, Nory. We'll talk about that later. Come here and hug me just as hard as you can! and then sit down. I've made some good strong coffee. Pour yourself a cup. I've got things to tell you."
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If you would like to continue reading the story, click the link below:

And if you would like to connect with Karen and other works by her, you can visit the following:

www.KarenAWyle.net

www.facebook.com/KarenAWyle


Thank you as always, and see you next time.
 
 
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Hello and a warm welcome to Guest Fiction Stage. Today we have yet another treat for you. And look at the cover art on that thing. Isn't it a beauty? Our author today is Blake Patterson. "Blake has been many things during his life, but mostly hasn’t done anything exciting unless you count being homeless several times, visiting 45 of the 57 states, and living in many of them for short periods of time before he was located by the authorities. He strenuously denies any accusations that he has ever worked for the Government in any way, shape, or form; especially from 1986-1994 in South America. He is currently owned under joint custody by his two dogs, Max and Marly."

Below is the first chapter of his debut novel, The Spider Magnus and the The Bunny Lord. With an interesting title like that, I would say this is definitely worth taking a read to see what it's about. So without further ado, help yourself and truly hope you enjoy. 





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Joshua is invited to join The Guard...a group that protects all the human worlds they can find from the orcs, except he's not allowed to leave. Ever. And it wasn't exactly an invitation.


1

“What are you doing?”

“I'm making sure the door can't shut on us. Or open on us, either.”

“Why? And what do you mean, not open, or shut? Doesn't it have to be one thing or the other?”

“Because if it shuts on us, we won't be able to open it for a week. But if it's open, anyone can walk in here. These flanges, you see, go over the edges of the door, while the outside parts are in the hallway, just below the lower strips of the door. So no-one can open the door, which means to them, it has been used in the last week and they shouldn't bother trying to open it any more. Since part of it is also outside, the door thinks it's being held open, and we can go back whenever we want. The door is therefore open, and shut, at the same time. I invented this, I'm surprised no one has thought of it before, but it's pretty simple when you think about it.”

This was just after I'd watched her pull a three foot length of bent iron out of a two foot back-pack. I wasn't sure what to think, but after she had saved me in the hallway, and dragged me in here to a nice glade with a lake, I wasn't going to complain. I was pretty curious though. She wasn't the prettiest woman I had ever seen, but in her dark brown cloak, with leather beneath it that possibly concealed a rather nice figure, if a little too muscular, well yes, I was a little curious.

“So, the door thinks it's open?”

“Yes.”

“The door, thinks.”

“Yes.”

I was at sea.Or wandering around the desert. Where-ever you want to think of as being totally lost.

Moving over to a flat piece of ground, she said, “Look, I’ll explain a few things in a bit. Just help me put up the tent, and get everything organized, ok?”

I watched as she pulled a large package, about 6 feet long, from her back-pack, and dropped it on the ground.

“Stretch it out, the bottom part, while I get the rest of the stuff” she said. Not knowing what the hell was going on; I went ahead and did what she said. There were poles to hold up the center, and once we had those upright there was a divider to make a rather large two room space. She began lugging in furniture, a bed, a chest of drawers, a writing table, and a small cot. Guess who got the cot in his part of the tent.

Me sitting on my cot, her in a nice lounge chair, it started.

“So, let me guess. You don't have any family. You don't have any close friends. You are a loner. Someone who would not be missed if you dropped off the edge of the world, right?”

“Well no, I have lots of...”

“Save it for someone who might believe it. No one gets here without certain, well, qualifications. And those are the least of them. You're a loser. Face it.”

“That's kind of harsh, don't you think?”

“No, it's just reality. Whatever you might think about it doesn't matter. You are now, a member of the Guard. That's all there is to it.”

“What's the Guard? And why am I part of it, automatically? What if I don't like it?”

“Then you'll die. It happens.”

She didn't seem very worried about whether I liked it or not, which was kind of irritating. No one wants to be told what to do, me less than anyone. But here I was, seeing things that couldn't possibly be right. No one gets that much furniture out of a back-pack. No-one gets any furniture out of a back-pack.

“So what the hell is really going on?

“The Labyrinth, the Hall, the World between Worlds, whatever you want to call it, has decided that you, for whatever ungodly reason, needs to be here. You are now part of the Guard. That's really about it.”

Let me explain for a bit. For the last few years, I had been doing nothing more exciting than working at my job. I worked in a package store, selling beer, liquor, and wine to people. No big deal, lots of people have that job and it paid the bills. Every day, I walked home the same way. I cut through an alley to save two blocks worth of walking, weaved through a chain link fence, and boom I was home. Every day, that's how I went home. This one time though, I heard a knock on a door. I thought it was strange, because people normally knock to get into a place, and I was outside, in the alley. Who knocks to go out? I ignored it and went on my way. During the next few days, every time I left my apartment, I would hear it again. I wasn't too worried, because strange things had happened to me in the city all the time. Not anything paranormal, just the ordinary strange things that happen in large cities.

Then, the door started to appear. In the mall, on the wall between stores, everywhere. The messed up thing was, no one else seemed to see it. I didn't understand how they didn't see it; it was a pretty impressive door. Seven feet tall, three feet wide, built out of what seemed to be aged wooden planks held together by two thick iron bands, one close to the top and the other close to the bottom. Where a doorknob would normally be, there was a large iron pull-ring. It was a door that commanded attention, except I was the only one who noticed it. I wasn't sure if I was completely sane, but I knew enough that if I tried to tell someone a door that they couldn't see kept appearing, I’d be locked up on general principles.

One day I went down the hallway of my store, to go to the bathroom. My nose was assaulted by the worst smell that has ever been smelled. I mean, take the worst, deadest body you have ever seen and smelled, combine it with one of those stink bombs they make from deer hormones, and then wrap it all up with some really bad milk and Indian food, after it's been inside a cabby for about three hours and is trying to escape as a gas. It was because of the smell making my eyes water that I didn't notice the door at first. When my eyes cleared, I saw that for the first time, the door was open. I looked between it, and the thankfully closed bathroom door. Strange noises were coming from in there, like a dinosaur was trying to shit out a slightly larger dinosaur. With each grunt and explosion came another wave of stink.

It was as I peered through the now open mysterious door, that I was attacked. Being shocked to see a wide hallway beyond the door, I wasn't paying attention. Or maybe it just hadn't flushed the toilet. Anything that could create that kind of smell certainly wouldn't be bothered with nice things like flushing. In any case, I was inspecting the cold stone floor, staring at the huge gray blocks that made up the walls inside the space where nothing should have been, when I was struck from behind and thrown into the hallway.

“GRAAAHHHHHH!” the huge creature shouted as I bounced across the floor. “You're just in time for dinner!” it said as it kicked me a little ways farther down the hall. When I say huge, I mean huge! 7 feet tall if it was an inch, and about 4 feet wide at the shoulders. And all the rest of the way down, too. This thing didn't seem to have any fat on it at all, with tree-trunk sized legs that ended in size 20 feet. The toenails were more like claws, and I was scrambling to avoid them as it aimed more kicks at me, laughing the whole time. Reaching down to pick me up with one hand, it held me at arm's length and drooled from tusks that might have been more at home on a tiger. Or lion. Pick any creature you don't want to see up close, really. Behind the tusks were rows of sharp, pointy teeth. They had bits of....stuff, yes, best to think of it as stuff, clinging to them. Not flesh of any kind. With every word, every grunt, a cloud of horrible breath washed over me. Whoever this was, it had never heard of a dentist, much less a toothbrush. Not with a smell that rotten coming out of its mouth.

“Nothing to say before dinner?”

“W-W-W-What are we having?”

“HAHAHAHAHAHA! NOT WE! ME! HAHAHARRRGG!”

The last word was cut off as it sprouted a horn from the center of its forehead. No not a horn, but a shiny large pointy...my inspection was cut off as the creature fell on top of me. It had to weigh 500 pounds; the damned thing was crushing me. To make it worse, it was also starting to drip on me. Thankfully, it didn't have acid drool or blood, but it did itch a bit, and of course smelled horribly. Hands grabbed my shoulders and pulled.

“You'll have to give me a little help here, wriggle around or something, ok?” a female voice said, just over my head. I couldn't see who said it, because the thing's head was still obscuring my view. I wriggled as much as I could, and finally broke free from the dead weight. And dead it certainly was, not many things can live with a three foot long arrow growing out the back of the skull. If they existed, I didn't want to know about them. I had the scary premonition that I might find out, given the way the day was progressing.

Pulling me a little farther down the hallway, my savior helped me up to lean against the wall. “Damned orcs. Can't trust them farther than you can throw them. Doesn't look like you pissed yourself, I guess that's as good a sign as any. Let's go.”

She led me to another door, placed her hand on it, palm facing the door and closed her eyes.

“Orc? I thought they were smaller, nasty creatures made out of elves or something.”

“Don't. Think. Right now, the important thing for you to do is to not think. You might want to thank me at some point, but you're probably in shock so I’ll let it slide this one time.” she opened the door, pulling hard on the large ring, and shoved me through it.

Now that you have some kind of background as to what was happening to me, I realize as I write this that, at this point, you know more than I do. It's a little unsettling, but I’ll get through it. In fact, according to logic, which I admit my grasp of is pretty shaky these days; I had to have gotten through it, to be writing this. But the fun's just beginning, so let me get back to my cot and ask a few questions.

“So what the hell was that thing? You called it an orc.”

“It was an orc. Now it's a dead orc, thanks to me. Not that you had much chance against it, even if you knew how to fight one, that is.” This woman got more irritating by the minute.

She took a deep breath, and started explaining in a little more detail. “What you think of as an orc, doesn't matter. It sounds like a common story that people tell in lots of the worlds. The problem is, those stories are just stories. The truth is, they are huge, nasty, mean things that we, as the Guard, try to keep contained in their own part of the Labyrinth. When they get out of their space, and go in numbers to other worlds, they kill everything they can and take it over, thus expanding the area they control. In some worlds, it doesn't work. In some, they don't kill everything, but keep people as slaves. Sometimes those slaves manage to rebel as the orcs grow fat and lazy. Over time people forget about them, and they become fairy tales. But that doesn't change what they really are. It just makes them less scary, so people can deal with the ancestral fears, and hope that they don't really exist.”

“So if they are just a fairy tale, what about all the other fairy tales? Are they real, too?”

“Yes, they are. To an extent. Most things are pretty much the same in most of the worlds, but you do get places where things are different. I told you not to think, and you're thinking. If you keep it up, you'll get killed. So just ignore what you think is right, or real, and accept what is going on as the truth. Because, like it or not, that's what it is. You can imagine it as living in the greater truth. Maybe there's a bigger truth out there than this one. Who knows? For now though, you're in this one, and you'd do well to get used to it.”

I laid back on the cot, trying to make sense of what she had said to me. A place that wasn't a place, which led to other places that were places, but not exactly. “So, why the hallway?”

“The hallway changes according to the majority of the people who live there. The closer you get to the orc's section, the more it looks like a cavern. The dwarves have places that look like mines, the elve's part looks like a forest, and ours looks like a hallway. There are smaller sections for other races, of course, but they don't really matter much because they don't have as many worlds to protect.”

“Why were you there to kill the orc that was trying to have me for dinner?”

“I don't know. I was inspecting another world, tracking a smuggler. Suddenly I saw a door, and went through it, and there he was with his back to me. Even if he hadn't been about to eat you, I would have killed him. He was a long ways away from his territory.”

“A smuggler?”

“Yes, some people find the hall and use it to go between worlds, to sell things they aren't supposed to, things the people in those worlds can't get easily. You know, sometimes its drugs, or rare jewels, sometimes its objects that aren't magical in their world but are in others. That's mostly what we do, aside from the occasional orc invasion, that is.”

“Magic, huh? Is that why you held your hand to the door before you opened it?”

“No, that doesn't really count as magic. That's just part of what we learn in training, how to see what's on the other side of the door.”

“And the back-pack? How in the hell did all this stuff come out of it?”

“Oh, that's just magic. It's pretty simple; it keeps everything you need in it. There's a trick to it, but you'll probably get the hang of it when you have your own.”

“When I have my own? When will that be?”

“Well, first, some poor bastard gives you a general orientation, which in case you haven't noticed, you are going through right now. Then you go to the headquarters for a little specialized training, and then you get thrown to the wolves with yet another poor bastard who has to wipe your ass until you have made enough mistakes to learn from them, or you die.”

“You don't seem to like me very much, I have noticed...”

“I don't like anyone very much. I don't get along with people in general, and having to baby-sit you and explain things to someone who obviously isn't prepared to survive in most of the worlds we go to isn't improving my attitude at all.”

“What do you mean by obviously not prepared?”

“Look, most of the worlds here are very rural. You are from one that's more evolved, with more technology and such. You rely on things, rather than yourself. You ask too many questions. A person from a normal world would say 'oh, it's magic' and get on with learning about it more. You question everything and want it to fit into your own little universe of logic. But that won't work here, and it'll probably get you killed, so I don't see why I should be happy about wasting my time on you. You have to get used to the fact that most of what you know isn't true. Your reality isn't the only one around, or even the most popular. Lots of things here in all the different worlds, will offend you, and you'll want to change them, but that won't happen. The only thing that will happen is that this place, and the Guard, will be here long after you are gone. I've seen people like you before that think there have to be rules for everyone, to make things fair. But that's not reality. Reality is unfair, and we aren't policemen or fairy godmothers trying to improve people's lives. We're just the Guard.”

Any shred of thoughts I might have had about thinking she was decent looking, swiftly disappeared after that. Man, what a bitch! She could have looked like a goddess, but with an attitude like that, who cared? I fell asleep.

The next day when I awoke, she wasn't there. I went outside, took care of a few bodily functions a ways away from our camp, and waited. An hour or so later, she came back with a two rabbits.

“Skin those, and get them ready to cook” she said, throwing them at my feet. Well, on my feet, really.

“How?”

“You don't even know how to do THAT? Oh angels save me!”

“Look, you said yourself, you knew I was from a world that didn't do stuff like this all the time, so quit bitching. Apparently it's your job to show me how to do it. So show!” I was really getting tired of this bitch's attitude.

After a short argument that left me with a black eye and a sore back, she showed me how to gut and skin the little bastards. I got through it without throwing up, which seemed to please her. I held back from saying that I was imagining her every time I made a cut into the rabbits. Discretion is, after all, the better part of valor.

I had read books about people sent to strange lands. I had read books about people who grow up not knowing what they really were, but became heroes. I had even read books about people who knew what they really were, but managed to become something else. I was really pissed off, that I wasn't in one of those books. This bitch, who refused to give me any kind of name to call her by, constantly brought up things I didn't know about, and then blamed me for not knowing about them. Like, what, living in the city, I was supposed to know how to make a fishing line out of a vine? Yeah, right.

In books, there's always a wise mentor that comes to the aid of the pupil in question, and teaches them wonderful things. No, not for me. I got a bitch that made me dig a latrine trench. Multiple times, since we moved our camp every week. I learned how to climb a tree, very fast, since a sword was poking me in the ass, and look at the landscape. This one, I got right off the bat, and was about the only thing she seemed to approve of. Before you set up a camp, it's smart to look for any cooking fires in the area, so you know if you have any neighbors. Between you and me, I just didn't want anyone to witness the afternoon ass-whuppings I got every day.

We hadn't even started to use weapons yet. Some training this was. She made me run for miles. And I do mean made, her damned sword always ready to poke me in the ass when I slowed down. And that was right after breakfast. For lunch, well, I’d have to catch it, or go hungry. She'd eat by herself if I hadn't caught anything. Then, after lunch, she'd beat the hell out of me, always over some perceived insult, but I knew what was going on. She was a bitch who had a thing against me, because I was me. Eventually, I got a little better at it, but I never really won. Unless you count winning as giving your opponent a black eye or two while she almost broke your leg, that is. Dinner we'd catch together, she would always trying to teach me a different way to do it.

The day after I actually got two good hits on her, things went pretty normal, up to a point. Breakfast; run while being poked with a sword, catch lunch (something that looked like a squirrel but tasted like steak) and the afternoon fight.

Man, she was out for blood. She beat seven kinds of shit out of me, without raising a sweat. After several blows to the kidneys and a good gut punch, I held up my hand. This was my usual way of saying, “If you hit me any more I’ll throw up on you and bleed”, but this time she didn't stop. After a few more hits on me, I held out my hand again and shouted “STOP”. And she did. Really. I mean, she stopped in place, right as she was about to hit me in the head again. She was frozen in place, but very, very pissed off.

I could tell by her eyes. That was the only part of her that could move, and from the look in them I was pretty lucky that her mouth was frozen, too. I was just as shocked, but with a lesser level of pissed-off-ness. I thought about it for a second, and then sat down on a log and tried not to think about it. That's what she was always telling me to do, to not think, at least in the ways that I was used to. What would happen when she unfroze? Could she unfreeze all by herself? What if I couldn't do it? Where would I hide the body, and where would I go?

I went and got her sword, which came out of its sheath fairly easily, although she couldn't move still. Her eyes tracked me as I did it, and I had the vague feeling that she thought I was going to kill her. I sat back down on my log, sword in front of me in one hand and addressed her.

“I don't know what just happened, but I didn't mean to do it. I'll try a few things to get you loose, but I don't know if they will work. I only took the sword so you wouldn't be able to hit me if any of it did work. I might not know how to use it very well, but I do know the pointy end goes into the person you don't like, so if you attack me once I get you free, just remember that.”

I tried all sorts of things. I waved my hands at her, shouted words like “unfreeze” and “move” at her. None of it worked. The sun was getting low, and I noticed that her eyes, instead of trying to kill me, were pointing down again and again. I got the idea, and asked her if she was trying to get me to look at the ground. Who knows, maybe it wasn't me, but a spot of magical ground she had stepped on. She rolled her eyes and looked down again, squinting at her left side. It was kind of funny, seeing her trying to look at herself, when she couldn't see herself, the way she was frozen.

She was wearing her usual outfit, dark leather trousers, lighter colored shirt, and a sort of cape thing. Boots, belt, money-pouch....well even if she was frozen, I wasn't going to go through her clothing. Who knew what she would do? From the way I’d been treated....I thought it just might be safe to look in the money-pouch.

A few coins, all nondescript, some gold, some silver, some copper, and some that looked like flakes of obsidian. From what she had said, I guess she had to be prepared for whatever world she happened to be in. At the bottom was a necklace. It tingled when I picked it up, but I laid them all out on the log in front of her, and her eyes kept going to the necklace and then the ground again.

“You want me to bury the necklace?”

She rolled her eyes again in utter disgust, and kept doing it. A few minutes later, inspiration struck. In her frozen pose, just like she couldn't look at herself, she couldn't exactly wave her hand and tell me to put it on her.

Picking up the necklace, I started to put it on her, and then remembered my previous speech to her. I pulled it back, and man did she look pissed off! When I hung it on the end of the sword, though, and moved it so it would drop over her head, she seemed to understand. Well, at least she didn't look like she was going to kill me in the near future.

Dropping it over her head, I stepped back and held out the sword so if she ran at me, she'd run right into it. I needn't have worried, because the instant it dropped on her neck, she collapsed in a ball of pain, howling and thrashing. I got a few more feet away and waited, sword at the ready.

After a few minutes, she calmed down. “You can put the sword down; I’m not going to attack you. Go into the tent and in the top drawer of my chest, you'll find a bag of herbs. Bring them here, please.”

“Ok” I said, stunned by her use of the word please. I didn't think she knew it. I went into the tent, and wonder of wonders, there in the chest was a bag of herbs. I brought them back out to her, and held them out. She looked through it, and selected a much smaller bag, and asked me to make a fire and boil some water, once again using the magic word please.

Later on, after her crawling to a stone beside the fire, which I kind of enjoyed since it seemed to hurt her quite a bit, she drew a cup of hot water from the cooking pot and dropped the leaves into it. Taking a sip, she asked me why I hadn't killed her.

“Well, I don't know...it's just not the sort of thing I usually do. Should I have?”

“No, but some would have. Even though you couldn't undo it, you did give me a bit of entertainment watching you try to. I knew it was a risk, but after these weeks you haven't shown an aptitude for anything other than skinning animals and cooking them, and I don't think the Labyrinth needs a butcher that much, that it would call one from your world. So I took off my necklace and pushed you until you did something.”

I bridled at the “entertainment” comment, but decided to leave that one on the shelf, so to speak. “So what did I do?”

“Have you ever spent five hours or so in the same position? This herb is a muscle relaxer....quite a good one. I'll need some help to bed, you cute bastard. Oops, did I say that, or did you? Wow this stuff works fast! Look at the fire!”

Not being un-acquainted with the effects of drugs, I understood she was seriously wasted on whatever is was she was drinking. I decided that, if I was going to get her to bed without dragging her, now was the time. I took her cup and poured what little was left in it into the fire, and grabbed her arm.

“Oh, let's dance!” she said, moving so fast she was standing next to me faster than I thought anyone could. Well, anyone who had been curled up in a ball of pain half an hour or so before, that is. “No, we're going to bed; you need to sleep this off.”

“Oh, you're going to try and take advantage of me now that I’m not feeling myself? I mean, I feel great, here feel this...”

She tried to grab my hand and move it to her chest, but due to her intoxication she missed totally and almost fell over. I grabbed her waist, put her arm around my shoulder, and walked her into the tent. Getting close to her bed, I let loose of her, and she fell like a rock onto it. “MMM big soft bed are you SNZZZZZZ” she said, the last part being a snore you might hear from a 40 year old dockworker. I went to my own cot and tried to sleep through it, and wondered what the hell had happened.

The next day dawned with the usual irritating birds waking me up at some ungodly hour, just before sunrise. I yawned, got out of bed, and went outside to take care of the morning duties, and almost did them in my pants when I saw her sitting beside the fire.

“Well you slept long enough, let's tear it down and get going.”

She seemed to not remember any of the previous day, and I for one wasn't going to argue with her. I went and did my business, grabbed a cup of coffee from the fire, and started taking things out of the tent and pushing them into her backpack. It had taken me a good day or two to get the hang of it, but by now I had learned that if you pushed a corner of something like a bed, or a chest-of-drawers, into it, the rest just slid into it in a mind boggling way. It made your eyes water if you looked at it too closely, but not thinking about it was the trick. It was just something that happened, whether I understood it or not. Think, if you were taken from the 14th century, and were put in another one much later, say the 20th century, and taught how to drive a car. Sure, you could drive it, but how did it work? Would you care? Could you understand any of the terms if it was explained to you, without all the little background details you learn as a child without knowing you're learning anything? It was that sort of thing. I know, I know, you're thinking that's impossible, but hey...once we thought the world was flat, and that not bathing kept bad spirits from entering you because of the smell. Just don't think, and accept what is, that's what she had been hammering into me for such a long time. I guess it took root, a little, in that one case of the backpack.

“What direction do we have to go now? Which tree should I climb?”

“Tree climbing time is over. We're going back. It's time for you to start your training, now.”

“Start? What the hell was all this?”

“I told you...this was orientation. Next is training. If you survive that...you'll be a Guard.”

“But what about...”

“Don't ever talk about that. Ever. It didn't happen. It can't happen. I don't know anything about magic, apart from the obvious stuff like the doors and the backpacks. So you're going to people who do know about it. In theory, at least. Just don't do it again, or talk about it to anyone.”

That seemed to settle the conversation, and now that she was wearing her necklace very prominently, I wasn't about to argue with her.

We walked for about a week, back to the same door. I realized, then, that she had been leading me around in a circle or arc, just to move the camp every few days. This didn't sit well with me, but there wasn't anything I could do about the past, and as I considered her side of the equation, I couldn't really blame her. I was kind of useless, at the start, anyway. Now...I could skin anything I could catch, and dig at least three different kinds of latrines. And soon, from what she said, I’d be free of her forever.

Finally, we arrived at her door. She took off the locks she had put on her door-braces, and entered the labyrinth again. The air was different, not cleaner, or better, or for that matter worse. Just different. She noticed me sniffing it and said “You'll get used to that. It's just one of those things. Some of us can even smell it when it's close, without a door.”

After that, we walked. And walked. And then, for a change, we walked some more. After hours of this, we camped in the hall. No tent, nothing special at all. We just went into doors, gathered fire-wood, hunted, and camped in the hall, sleeping on the floor, cooking whatever we caught right there.

“Why can't we use the tent here?”

“Why bother? It doesn't rain here, and it's never too cold or too hot.” was the only answer I ever got from her about that. I tried to think it wasn't another test.

Finally, we got to a place where we saw other people. Some nodded at her; some looked at my outfit, which had suffered horribly after the last few weeks. It had started out as jeans and a flannel shirt, but after a few weeks of “orientation” had turned into a patchwork of denim, flannel, and spots where I had had to replace parts of it with animal skins or fur. A few of them rolled their eyes and said things like “Another new one, huh?” while she nodded and grimaced at them. All in all, I was pretty happy when we came to another door and she said “go through there, it's been fun.”

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Hello and welcome to Guest Fiction Stage. Today we have us a murder mystery to dive into. I would like to introduce you to Walt Lamberg. He "is a writer, editor, songwriter, and veteran living near Baltimore, Maryland. He served a 13-month tour of duty with the 2nd Infantry Division, in South Korea. He has published a murder mystery novel set in Baltimore in the 1990s, a contemporary fiction short story collection with nine stories, a short story set in Vietnam, two short stories about musicians, and a work of literary analysis.  He is also publishing a series of single (rather long) short stories about life in the Army from 1968 to 1970. The stories take place in South Korea; Fort Holabird, Maryland; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Dix, New Jersey; and Ypsilanti, Michigan."

Below is the prologue and first chapter of his book titled, "Death and Downsizing". If you are into mysteries with an affordable price, then I invite you to take a quick read and see if you wish to find out "who dun it." Thank you as always for visiting the stage and hope you enjoy.




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Mid‑October 1995 in Baltimore City, the work week starts off pleasantly enough, as though mocking the mood of fear and anxiety over crime and the economy.  In spite of a national economic upturn, the city continues to hemorrhage jobs as corporations downsize or move to the suburbs.  Tuesday morning, Howard Carlton Nobel, Jr., president and chief executive officer of Baltech, Inc., is found dead in his office, his head cut off by his own samurai sword, a memento of his trip to Tokyo.

The homicide detectives assigned to the case make an odd, but effective team:  Joseph Isaacson is one part dedicated police officer, one part Jewish standup comedian (there is much humor in the novel), and one part scholar.  Unmarried, a bit of a swinger, he loves the old neighborhoods and institutions of Baltimore City.  His younger partner and friend, Daniel Burns, is a quiet family man, Roman Catholic, conservative, a black man who prefers suburbia.

The case starts off with the detectives confronted by too many possible suspects:  over one hundred laid off workers, current employees with grievances, the housekeeping crew, the CEO's wife, and a sword-wielding madman, who dumps a headless corpse at the Baltimore Zoo.  Isaacson's gut  instinct tells him to focus on the CEO's vice presidents.

The detectives find themselves wandering through a bureaucratic maze of corporate politics, greed, sex, lies, and one curious videotape.  The reality of the CEO's character remains elusive.  Was he a modern, pragmatic businessman; or a dreamer, obsessed with bushido, the medieval code of the samurai warrior?  How precisely did the CEO die?  And exactly what was his alluring female vice president up to? The detectives (and the reader) do not find answers to these questions until the very end of the novel.



PROLOGUE

Mid‑October 1995 in Baltimore City, the work week is off to a pleasant start, the days sunny, unseasonably warm, as though mocking the pervasive mood of fear and anxiety over crime and the economy.  Twenty-four minutes after seven, Tuesday morning, Jennifer Hill arrives at work and, as she has done every workday for the last year, turns on her computer and prepares the tea.  Of the two tasks, the preparation of the tea is the more important.  Her boss expects his tea a few minutes after his executive secretary’s arrival.  Japanese green tea.  Brewed and served in the Japanese manner.  For Hill, what had been an odd task is now almost second nature.

Starting her PC is something else again.  Six months earlier, the Computer Operations staff had installed a LAN, a local area network, in the executive offices.  Before that, the secretaries had to do nothing more than press the power-on buttons on their system units, monitors, and printers, and wait a few seconds for the Windows Program Manager menu to display and the cute little hourglass to disappear. Now, thanks to the new technology, turning on the computer is a pain.

The LAN start-up programs take minutes, not seconds, to execute.  Strings of words in incomprehensible computerese creep across the screen:  Selecting operating system.  Invoking profile. System processor:  32 MB.  Checking file system.  WARNING:  Your drive may be corrupt!  Running AUTOVERIFY.  File and directory verification complete.  Quite often there is a problem with the operating system or the file server.  An error message displays:  Connection to server failed. Logon aborted.

What a lovely choice of words--aborted.  The message always makes Hill feel she has done something wrong.  The computer guys told her to turn off the system unit, wait a few minutes, try again. On the very few occasions when she has been late for work, a dental appointment, a problem with her car, the ice storms the previous winter--whatever the reason, her boss was displeased--a different message displays.  This one in simple English:  Too many users on the LAN.  Try again later.

Hill has come up with a solution.  She turns on the equipment, doesn’t bother to wait for the messages, and goes right to the pantry to fix the tea and bring it to his desk.  If there is a problem with the LAN, she hits the power-on button twice, off, on, leaves the damned thing, and goes to the restroom to check her hair and makeup.  If the Windows menu is still not displayed when she returns the second time, she calls the Help Desk.  Let them worry about it.

On the counter in the pantry sits the tea set.  No one but Hill dares touch it.  Made, her boss explained, in Arita, Japan, of the finest porcelain with its signature delicate multi-color glaze.  Akae--that is the Japanese word for the glaze.  The porcelain is called Imari-ware for the port of Imari, from which it is shipped.  The five cups have a light-green and white floral design of irises around the top half; a solid dark green around the bottom half.  The floral design is repeated on the lid of the tea pot; the rest of the pot is dark green except for the white spout and the odd white handle extending from the side of the pot.

Hill reaches up to the cabinet for the package of Sencha green tea leaves.  She follows her boss’ instructions to the letter.  The two times she did not, he was quick to inform her that the tea was not right: flat tasting the one time, bitter the next.  Preparing tea, he said, was an art, simple to do, but always requiring great care.

First she heats the pot by filling it with hot water from the water purifier he had her purchase.  A pre-heated pot, he explained, is better able to maintain the temperature of the tea.  Then she measures three rounded teaspoons of the broken leaves for three cups, dropping the leaves into a small metal strainer, what he called a basket infuser.  She empties the water from the pot, places the infuser inside, and slowly pours three precisely measured cupfuls of hot water over the leaves.  With green tea, the water should be very hot but never boiling, he instructed her.  The 80 degrees Celsius produced by the water purifier is just right. Using a kitchen timer, she allows the tea exactly three minutes to brew before removing the infuser.  She gently swirls the tea  with the bamboo whisk he provided.  Then she places the lid on the pot.  No sugar, lemon, or milk.  He drinks his tea “pure.”

Carrying the pot and one cup on a small black-lacquered tray, Hill returns to her desk where she finds an error message displayed on the monitor.  Balancing the tray with her right hand, she pokes the button on the system unit off, then on.  She opens the door to his office.  The lights are off, which is unusual; he is normally at work by 7:00.  The spacious office is dim.  Still, there is enough light to see the legs sticking out from behind the desk.

This has happened once before; that is, he had passed out, fallen out of his chair.  That time she had gone right to the phone and called for an ambulance.  He had stayed in the hospital a day and a night for tests and observation.  Hypertension.  Working too hard.  Too much stress.  When he returned to work and she asked how he was, he merely said, “I’ll have my tea now and my phone messages.”  This time she doesn’t hesitate either.  Setting the tray down on the coffee table in front of the couch, she hurries to his desk where she pulls the phone toward her, punches 911.  Then she peers over the top of the desk and faints dead away.


CHAPTER ONE

“President?”

“President and chief executive officer. Baltech, Inc.  They do computer systems.  Office building on Calvert, about four blocks north of the Inner Harbor.  That ought to sound good on the evening news, won’t it?  Just what this city needs.  CEO murdered in his downtown office.”  Detective Joseph Isaacson filled his cup and carried it to one of the small tables in the coffee room.  His partner, Daniel Burns, joined him, setting his cup down on the scratched, chipped surface.

Isaacson grimaced at the taste of the coffee.  “I don’t know how you can stand to drink this crap black.”

“I don’t know how you can stand to use that artificial creamer crap.  Who found the body?”

“Secretary--CEO’s executive secretary.  Name’s Jennifer Hill.  She arrives at work.  Assumes the boss is already in his office.  He gets in early, stays late.”

“Dedicated company man,” said Burns.

“Well, I got the idea maybe there’s problems at home, but she didn’t want to talk about it.  Says, ‘I really wouldn’t know anything about that.’”

“Sure, like how many secretaries don’t know about their bosses’ personal lives?”

“Exactly.  But I didn’t pursue it; she was barely able to talk to me as it was.  We can bring it up when we talk to her again.  Anyway, she comes in, does whatever it is an executive secretary does first thing in the morning, turns on her computer, checks the fax machine, whatever.  Then she makes him tea. Tea.  Never drinks coffee.  Japanese green tea.  Has this expensive Japanese tea set.”

“What’s his name again?”

“Nobel.  Howard Carlton Nobel, Jr.  Caucasian, if that’s what you’re wondering.  Seems he’s very much into Japanese culture.  Before he took this job, he was CEO of another company, which was bought out by the Japanese.  You know, when the Japanese were buying up American companies, real estate, left and right.”

Burns said, “Rockefeller Center, I heard they bought that.”

“Oh yeah?  Well, they bought this company where he worked, Southwestern Investments, in Phoenix, and he really got into this Japanese thing.  I got a bunch of notes on that.  Tea, see it’s not just something to drink with the Japanese.  There’s a whole tradition, a whole ritual to it.” 

“Sure, I know that.”

Isaacson described in detail the tea set.  Described Hill in detail as well: petite, short blonde hair, blue eyes, terrific body shown off to great advantage by her short dark blue dress.  Described in detail the furnishings in the CEO’s office:  beaucoup bucks spent there.  Burns, impatient, started doing that thing he did, tilting his head from side to side, a habit left over from when he was a jock in school, baseball and track.  

Isaacson smiled.  He knew that Burns, who was all business on the job, got annoyed with his leisurely briefings.  Isaacson did it anyway, Burns thought, sometimes just to bug him.  After three years of being partners, Isaacson could still irritate Burns with his quirky personality traits, and Burns could still exasperate Isaacson with his conservative attitudes.

A noise caught Isaacson’s attention, a police helicopter taking off from the roof of the Baltimore City Police Headquarters building, twelve stories up.  He twisted around to look out the window.  Burns smiled.  You can take the boy out of the Nam, but you can’t take the Nam out of the boy.

Isaacson turned back to his coffee.  “So she goes into his office with his tea, sees his legs sticking out from behind his desk.  Says he had this medical condition.  High blood pressure.  Passed out once before.  Had to be hospitalized.  She goes right for the phone.  At this point she breaks down again, couldn’t talk to me anymore.”

“So I tried to imagine what happened.  See, she goes into that office every morning; it’s routine. Everything is familiar.  She could do it with her eyes closed.  What I’m saying is that thing’s there, but she hasn’t seen it yet.  I figure she must have called 911 before she saw it.  Then she leans over the desk, or maybe she walks around the desk.  Then she sees it.  It’s his head.  Her boss’ head lying next to his body. His eyes staring up at her.  His head sliced clean off his neck with a samurai sword.”

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Greetings to all, and welcome to another edition of Guest Fiction Stage. Today we are dipping into the genre of Gothic Horror. Hope you are not easily frightened. The author, Michael Burnside, "was born in Belfast Northern Ireland in 1978 and grew up in the town of Ballymena. Over the years, he developed a love of science fiction, horror, thrillers, comics and video games. He later wrote many short sketches that were filmed for various amateur projects, as well as working with the FLWA (a small time Irish wrestling promotion) creating characters and storylines.
Michael currently lives in Belfast, working as a clerical officer while continuing writing in  his spare time."


Below is not one, but two chapters of his novella, Prey For The Vampire. Check it out right here, and as of this typing it is only a buck and one cent to own. Thank you for your continued support of Indie authors and hope you enjoy.
 

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In the country town of Gowanshire during the later half of the 19th Century, Christopher Hoggons, a retired doctor from London, visits his nephew, Richard; the new police sergeant of the town. However, Richard has not been finding his new role quite as easy as he hoped.

Slaughtered farm animals, missing daughters and a horrific murder have all lead the town’s folk to doubt Richard’s ability as sergeant. Suspicious minds and town gossip also point to the Baron, recently returned from travels in Eastern Europe. Could it be a man, like a Baron is responsible for the torment of Gowanshire?

A Hammer inspired gothic horror novella from Michael Burnside



Chapter 1
The Blacken Farm

Arthur Blacken stirred from his sleep. It was not the rain or the wind that had disturbed him on the cold December night but rather the tortured howls from the barn outside. He got up from his chair by the fire and grabbed his coat off from the hook. His wife Catherine rushed in from the kitchen.

"What's happening out there?" she asked fearfully.

Arthur never replied. He picked up his shotgun that rested faithfully beside his chair and marched out of the farm house towards the barn. There were half a dozen cattle in the barn which Arthur had fed and watered earlier in the evening. As he approached the barn, he heard foot steps quickly approaching him from behind. He turned around to see a bright light shinning in his face.

It was his son, David, holding aloft a lantern.

"The cattle, father. What's wrong with them?" he asked.

"Bring that light with you, boy," he replied. "It might be a fox that has found its way in there."

Father and son made their way to the barn door. The wailing of the cattle unnerved David. There was no doubt that something had terrified the animals inside. David doubted that a fox could be the cause of it, a doubt shared by his father.

"How could a fox get in?" David asked his father.

Without answering Arthur opened the barn door. He quickly jumped to the side, pulling David by the arm, as several of the cows raced out of the barn into the night.

Arthur slowly walked into the barn. In the back he saw one of the cows lying down. It quietly groaned and as Arthur approached he could see it was lying in a pool of blood.

"Over here," he called to his son who stood nervously at the doorway. David came closer and shined the light of the lantern over the animal. Both of them gasped in shock as they saw a large tear by the cow's throat where the blood flowed out. The animal looked at Arthur pitifully.

Without saying a word, Arthur placed the barrel to the cow's head and pulled the trigger.

"Good God," muttered David. "A fox couldn't do this."

Arthur knelt down to study the wound of the cow. He knew his son was right. A fox couldn't cause an injury like this.

"Go back to the house," Arthur said as he walked towards the barn door. "Find your mother and sister and lock the door."

David was just about to protest his fathers request when an indistinguishable figure raced from behind them, knocking them both to the ground and leaving the barn. The lantern that David was holding fell to the ground and smashed, engulfing the barn in darkness.

"Father, what was that?" David asked in a panic.

Arthur quickly helped his son up.

"Go to the house now, David," he said as he motioned to his son to return back.

"But what about you? I won't leave you out here alone."

"Just do what I tell you, boy," said Arthur, as he pulled a shotgun shell from his pocket and reloaded. "Don't worry about me."

David made his way back to the house. Arthur circled round the barn, trying to see as much as he could using only the light of the moon. Looking over towards a stone wall he swore he could make out a horse on the road that ran along his farm. It wasn't one of his horses and he thought for a moment if it was worth approaching or to continue with his own hunt.
He looked over towards the farm house, and once seeing that David had safely entered the house, Arthur made his way over to the horse.

Once he was close to the horse he could see there was a small cart with a large wooden box loaded on it. Moving closer to examine the box, a heavy blow to the back of his head knocked him to the ground.

Struggling to bring himself back up to his feet, a sudden kick across his face knocked him over onto his back. He brought his hands to his face and yelled in pain. He felt blood flow from his freshly broken nose. The cold rain continued to beat down on him as lay soaking in the wet mud.

Arthur in his distressed condition could only just make out the sound of more than one person frantically climbing on top of the cart, slamming the lid of the box and leaving.


Chapter 2
Six Months Later

Christopher Hoggons sat in his coach and looked out the window as he passed through the English countryside. A recently retired Doctor from London, it was at his own brother's funeral that Christopher had promised his nephew Richard, he'd visit him and his wife. Things on the surface seemed to be going well for Richard in the small country town of Gowanshire. He had recently been promoted to police sergeant and Elizabeth was expecting their first child. Richard mentioned in his last letter that for the last few months, something was keeping him very occupied but fortunately Elizabeth was understanding. Christopher suspected something was troubling him by his letter but never gave details of what was happening.

Regardless, Christopher was looking forward to the visit. With retirement he had found that he wasn't good at filling his days. There was only so many times that you can walk along the streets of London and he felt he had already read enough to fill a library.

A tavern came into view along the road. Christopher opened the window to speak to the driver.

"We'll stop here. My stomach thinks my throat has been cut," he joked.

The driver nodded and steered the horses to the side of the building. Once they were brought to a halt the driver dismounted from the top of the cab. He turned to open the door of the carriage but found that the doctor had already opened it and was making his own way out.

"Now how about we both get something to eat?" he said with a smile. "Don't worry, I'll pay for us both."

"That's very kind, sir but I should tend to the horses now. I have my own lunch, thank you."

"Now, you wouldn't leave an old man to eat on his own?" he laughed, placing his hand on the driver's shoulder. "Come, at least have a jar with me."

"I'll be waiting for you out here, sir," the driver replied with his head down.

Christopher shrugged as the driver turned to check on the horses. The driver seemed politely determined not to join him and he thought best to leave it at that.

He entered the tavern. It was empty except for a pair of old men sitting in the corner and a barkeep who was wiping down the bar.

"Good afternoon, sir," he called from behind the bar. "What will it be?"

"Well, I could do with a bit of lunch to fill this hole." Christopher laughed. 

"Think I can manage that," said the barkeep. "If you just take a seat there I'll bring you some of my wife's vegetable soup.

Would you like a drink to go with it?"

"Yes, a strong ale would do me fine," replied Christopher as he strolled over to the nearest table and sat down. A few moments later the barkeep returned with a tankard of ale.

"There you are, sir," he said. "So what brings you to these parts, if you don’t mind me asking?"

"Just a family visit. I have nephew living in Gowanshire."

Christopher took a drink and noticed that the two men in the corner had stopped talking and were looking in his direction.

"Oh, you've heard of the place then?" he called over to them. "My nephew's Richard Hoggons, the police sergeant of..."

He trailed of as the two men turned back to their conversation. Christopher looked at the barkeep confused.

"Pay no attention to them, sir. You know how rumours and superstition are with some people."

"Really? What's being happening over there?"

The barkeep smiled. "Nothing your nephew can't deal with. I'll bring you your lunch now, sir."
Christopher ate his meal in silence. The two men giving him no more attention. He finished up and went to the bar to settle the bill.

"A fine meal," he told the barkeep. "Give my thanks to your wife."

"That I will, sir." he replied, as Christopher handed over the money. "You take care now in Gowanshire
Christopher left the tavern, feeling as if something was being kept from him. Maybe there was something going on just as Richard had hinted in his letters.

He walked round to the side of the tavern where the coach driver sat waiting for him.

"You missed a mighty fine meal," he said, as he climbed into the compartment of his coach. "Onward to Gowanshire, good sir."

"As you wish, sir," replied the driver.

Christopher sat back in his seat. He wondered what dark doings could be happening in this idyllic English countryside. Whatever it was, it had his nephew concerned. The two men in the tavern were bothered by it and Christopher suspected that his driver wasn't keen on taking him there either. No doubt, he thought, he'd find out soon enough.
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If you would like to continue reading Prey for the Vampire, click the link below:
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Hello and welcome to another edition of Guest Fiction Stage. We are quickly approaching 30 features so far, and many thanks to you for checking them out. I truly hope you are finding your next great author to follow right here. Without your support, us Indie authors cannot continue to do what we love: provide you with wonderful worlds and experiences to get lost in. Just wanted to make that acknowledgment. Today, I would like to introduce you to Mark Stephenson. He lives in Wellington New Zealand with his partner, his daughter and two dogs. He has written several short stories, a novel, and is in the process of writing two more novels.

Below is the first chapter of said novel, "No Second Chance." So let's give him a first chance right here. I invite you to take a read, and truly hope you enjoy.


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In 1947 Anna seeks refuge in New Zealand, bringing only a suitcase and a number tattooed on her arm. She begins a new life with Des, an easy-going waterside worker, but something holds her back. Haunted by her past, Anna has difficult choices to make. What price must she pay for her second chance?

Part  One
 

Chapter 1

Vienna, December 1937

During the winter, Anna noticed a change. It was not visible. No sound disclosed its presence. Nobody gave voice to it, not in Anna’s hearing, at least. But it was there, an infinitesimal movement, like the tightening of a ratchet one more notch, or the trip of the final tumbler as a key turns in a silent lock.

Anna had lived all ten years of her life in the apartment on Ottogasse. The building had stood for two centuries, crumbling a little, but essentially unmolested by the ravages of nature. That day, she thought she heard the windows rattle, as if a breeze had sprung up, whispered through the city and died away. The chess pieces, standing idle on the board, seemed to tremble. Perhaps it was only a vibration, a subterranean shudder of the municipal architecture, rocking the foundations of the apartment block.

Nobody else noticed anything amiss. Anna went to the window and looked down into the street. The plane trees stood stark and bare, arrested in their long wait for spring. Across the street, a woman had cleared her path of snow and was on her knees scrubbing her doorstep. Steam rose from the red tiles and the bucket of water. All was quiet and still; everything seemed placid and normal. Anna turned back to her family.

‘… well, sometimes the truth is painful to hear, Robby,’ Uncle Georg was saying.

‘That play was despicable!’ Anna’s father retorted, pointing at his brother, as though he was somehow liable for the outrage.

They were sitting in armchairs either side of the fireplace, their faces inflamed by the heat and the animated conversation. Anna’s mother sat aloof and upright on the brocaded Ottoman. She winked at Anna. Here they go again. Ferdy the dog lay on the sofa, snoring gently.

‘Anna’s little brothers, Oskar and Werner, beckoned her, speaking together in their excitement. ‘Come Anna,’ they said, ‘it’s your turn to spin the dreidel.’

‘Just a moment.’ She would make them wait, as older sisters will. Dawdling over to the menorah, she lit the eighth candle for the last day of Hanukkah. Then, scuffing over the burgundy carpet in her stockinged feet, she sat cross-legged, affecting disinterest in the game. With a languid movement she spun the four-sided dreidel. The boys leaned forward, their noses almost touching the spinning top, hardly able to contain themselves. The stock of chocolate ‘gelt’ they’d been given had dwindled with each round of the game, so now the ‘pot’ was full. The winner would have such a hoard.

The dreidel slowed down, toppled and rolled over. On the uppermost face was the letter Gim-el. Anna threw up her arms in delight. ‘Gants, Gants,’ she crowed, ignoring her mother’s warning look. Oskar rolled on the carpet with a groan, Werner shook his fists in frustration. ‘Oh, Gim-el for Gants,’ Anna persisted gratuitously. Though the letters were Hebrew and the words Yiddish, languages they could not speak, the meaning of the directive was well known: Take the Lot. And so she did.

‘Anna,’ her mother cautioned, ‘Hanukkah is about the right to celebrate our religion, it doesn’t mean you can take your brothers’ treats. You must share them.’

‘But Mama, I won the game correctly.’ Anna folded her arms and frowned at the pot of ‘gelt,’ her face dark with the injustice.

Inge came in with the tray. Arranged upon it were a coffee pot and cups for the three adults, three mugs of warm milk for Anna and her brothers, and a plate of exquisite cakes decorated with icing and marzipan. The game was forgotten.

‘Thank you, Inge.’ Anna’s mother smiled at the family servant, acknowledging her effort.

Inge stood back against the old wooden dresser. She had a stocky figure, her face was shining and pink from the warmth of the kitchen. Running a finger along the dark mahogany, she checked for dust but found none. Anna’s mother gave her husband a meaningful look. He observed the tray and beamed at Inge. ‘Ah, wunderschön! Thank you so much, Inge,’ he said. 

After the cakes were all eaten, Oskar and Werner began a game slapping each other’s hands to alleviate the boredom. While her mother played with her second cup of coffee, Anna listened to the men talk. The fire had burned down to embers in the iron grate but the room was warm and stuffy.

Anna’s father leaned forward in his armchair, blew a stream of smoke towards the fire and pointed his pipe at Georg. ‘The problem with Krause is that he thinks we should all go back to the past.’

‘And why not, Robby?’ Georg’s hand shot forward but stopped short of the pipe. ‘And anyway, it isn’t the past. The people in the East, in Hungary, in the ghettos and villages; they live like that even now.’

‘Like what, exactly?’

‘You know what I mean,’ said Georg, exasperated, ‘like… Jews.’

‘As God intended, is that what you’re saying?’

‘No, but…’

‘I don’t see you in your kaftan and yarmulke,’ Anna’s father interrupted, ‘twiddling your side-locks in the theatre.’ His eyes bulged. ‘And what? You want Lena to shave off her hair?’

He stretched out a broad hand in appeal to Anna’s mother, but she merely shook her head. It was always so – Anna’s father and his younger brother, they couldn’t agree on anything. Yesterday’s trip to the theatre had sparked it off again. Krause’s satire, ‘The Last Days of Mankind,’ had stung like a gadfly. The playwright’s view was that secular Jews belonged neither in their own culture nor in the countries where they lived. 

Her father jabbed his pipe stem at the floor, as if they were on the terra firma of the Austrian empire rather than planks of wood in a crumbly apartment building. His neck muscles strained. ‘We are firstly Austrian!’ he declared.

Ferdy, the little Pomeranian, woke up and jumped down from the sofa, yapping and capering around the sitting room, directing his high-pitched bark at them all in turn. Oskar and Werner leapt up and danced around, egging him on.

Georg relaxed back in his chair. ‘It seems the little emperor Ferdinand agrees with you, Robby,’ he laughed, smoothing his moustache.

Anna’s mother smiled, trying to contain her laughter. ‘Come now.’ She massaged her husband’s shoulders but he refused to be placated.

‘For goodness’ sake!’ He raised his voice above the cacophony. ‘Anna, take that animal out for a walk to the park.’

‘But Papa, it’s cold outside.’ In truth, she preferred to stay in and listen to the adults’ conversation.

‘And what are coats for, Liebschen?’ He inclined his head at her.  

It was useless to argue. She went to fetch coats and hats for herself and her brothers. Her mother joined her in the hallway. ‘I will come too, I think, Anna,’ she said, ‘I do not find their arguments so educational.’

Outside, fresh snow had fallen onto the packed ice of last week, muffling the street noise. Their boots scuffed through the powdery snow as they clumped along Barichgasse in the soft grey light. The air was completely still. Anna was fully wrapped up in her winter coat, scarf and woollen hat pulled down over her ears. Only her knees were cold, the skin exposed between her long socks and bloomers. Her breath condensed in front of her, warm on her nose and lips, though the icy air made her teeth chime.

It was four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Anna looked up at the dark houses, their tall windows blank like mouths stretched open in shock. She imagined there was no-one left, the streets deserted, all the houses empty, only a scurry of rats in the gloom, and the sky descending.

Her day-dream was interrupted by Oskar and Werner’s shouts as they ran ahead, sliding on the snow. ‘Boys, boys,’ said their mother, ‘you will get your socks wet.’ She did nothing to stop them, however. Every time they ran past, Ferdy strained on his lead, yapping madly.

By the time they reached their destination, the light was declining. The grey became a shade denser. Across the park, windows glowed yellow from the electric light, or flickered with fire or candlelight. Once inside the iron gates, Anna released Ferdy from his lead and he scampered off, panting. She wandered among the trees, glad to get away from her pesky brothers who were already making snowballs. 

Looking back down the hill, she could make out her mother and brothers in the gloom. The pond was like a slab of icing carved into the undulating park, a flat expanse of white. She walked on between the trees, where bare branches hung down, black silhouettes against the carpet of snow. The fading light seemed to emanate from the ground, not the sky.

A sudden burst of excited laughter made her turn. Oskar was pointing across the frozen pond. Anna’s mother was walking on the other side. In the middle was Ferdy. He tried to run but his legs scuttled on the spot, scrabbling away the snow. He slipped onto his bottom and her brothers shrieked with laughter again. They gesticulated across the pond but she could not hear what they said.

The lump on the ice that was Ferdy scrabbled some more and suddenly shrank. A panicked ‘yip!’ pierced the air. Only his head and front paws were visible. Oskar made to go after him but Werner grabbed his coat. Anna started to run.

When she arrived, the boys were just setting off across the pond. She caught them, one in each hand, by their collars, dragging them back to the path. ‘You must not go across the ice, do you hear me?’

‘But we have to rescue Ferdy,’ Oskar wailed.

Anna looked up. The surface of the pond was as flat and empty as a clean plate. For a moment she felt relief. But no, it couldn’t be. Ferdy was not anywhere to be seen, and it was so quiet. 

She had to do something immediately! Her mother had heard the commotion and was coming back around the pond. When she reached them she would certainly prevent any rescue attempt.

Anna stepped onto the ice. One pace at a time, she walked half way to where Ferdy had disappeared. She heard a crack, and stopped, listening. Surely, the sound had not been right underneath her. She would continue. Taking off her coat, she spread it across the ice, lay face down upon it and pushed herself forward like a frog, inching towards the hole. One knee slipped over the edge of the coat and slid directly on the ice. Oh, it was so cold! As she carried on, however, it just felt numb.  

When she was nearly there she lifted her head. There was no sign of Ferdy. The ice was thin and green at the jagged edge of the hole. Nothing disturbed the slimy water into which he had fallen.

She heard a muffled scraping beneath her and pushed herself backwards, drawing away the snow from the translucent ice. Something white was moving there, squirming and paddling frantically. It was not the Ferdy she knew; his fluffy playfulness was gone, he looked like a small otter, sleek and intent on survival.

Instinctively, she called him. ‘Ferdy, Ferdy,’ she sang out, as she retreated towards the shore. But he only followed her voice further under the ice, away from his only escape route. Her mother started to wail behind her. Anna halted. She could not go toward the shore because the dog would follow. Should she lead him back to the hole where the ice was brittle? In the space of a few seconds, she considered and made her decision.

No. She would not.

Through the hard lens of the ice, she watched Ferdy. His nostrils were pressed against the surface and his eyes stared up at her, uncomprehending. His movements slowed, he sank a little, letting go of the ice.

Something gripped both her ankles. Then she was sliding back across the surface of the pond. She gasped and snow choked her mouth. A long plank swished across the ice next to her. Clearing snow from her nose she looked up in time to see a young man in leather boots walking along the plank.

He was tall and poised, advancing slowly and steadily, balancing a pole in both hands. Reaching forward, he brought it straight down onto the ice next to the dog. With one fluid swoop, he snatched up the little animal, before stepping smartly back along the plank and across the thick ice to the shore.

Anna leaped up and ran to take Ferdy. She wrapped him in her coat, rubbing him vigorously till she felt his breath warm on her hand and he started to move again. Everyone was talking at once.

‘Ferdy, Ferdy!’ The boys jumped around. ‘He’s alive, he’s alive!’

The young man was smiling down at Anna. ‘I saw it all happening from my home.’ He gestured vaguely to a row of houses facing the park. ‘Lucky I could find a wooden plank.’ 

‘Oh thank you, young man, I can’t thank you enough…’ Anna’s mother said, coming forward. 

The man turned, surprised, he had not noticed her behind him. Now he stepped back and his face altered. Her mother had turned away again, gesturing across the frozen pond. ‘…oh, I was so, so worried, I heard the ice crack, I saw Anna, and oh, the relief!’

Anna stared at the young man’s face. The animation of a few moments before had stilled, like the surface of a pool, and now a drop of doubt fell, troubling his face.

‘And soon it will be night time,’ Anna’s mother carried on oblivious, ‘but now we have Anna and Ferdy back on safe ground, thanks to you.’

As the young man looked from her to the boys, his face slid from confusion to dismay. Finally, he returned Anna’s stare, absorbed into her eyes, or something he saw reflected there. His lip curled.

He turned his face away, and his body followed. Without a word he stamped away across the snow. Ferdy coughed and tried to bark.

‘See, he gets his voice back,’ piped Werner, pulling his mother’s coat.

‘Ah! Such a lucky dog,’ she replied.

Only Anna noticed the rescuer’s departure. She stood apart, watching the young man disappear into the gathering darkness.

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To continue reading this story, click the image below:

And if you would like to connect with Mark Stephenson, you can check out his website:

http://markstephensonbooks.com/

Thank you and see you next time.

 
 
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Hello and welcome to Guest Fiction Stage. Thank you for joining us as always. Today we are taking a trip back in time. Way back in time. The author of today's feature is a fellow Hunter, but we are not related. Patricia is from Lancashire, UK, and she has studied ancient Mediterranean history since she was in school. She has also been to Rome many times. Her novel, the same one of this feature, reached the semi-final of the Kindle Book Review's 2012 writing contest.

Below is the first chapter of "Our Master Caesar", and if you are an enthusiast of ancient Rome, this should certainly prove worth your time to take a quick read. Once again, thanks for being an audience and hope you enjoy.

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A fresh look at GAIUS JULIUS CAESAR, and the people who shared his extraordinary life - Cicero the orator; General Pompey, unwilling to tolerate a rival; crafty Cassius; Servilia, the mother of Brutus; and Cleopatra, prepared to barter her body for the throne of Egypt.


Chapter One

As Gaius Julius Caesar strolled round the Forum, he thought, I’m fed up being short of money.

He had never been far from Rome, but to him the world was here. Among the crowds were Jews, North Africans, Iberians, Greeks, and Cisalpine Gauls. Fortune-tellers, jugglers, acrobats, and sword-swallowers entertained them. Shops bulged with Phoenician glassware and dyed cloth, Celtic amber, Egyptian gems, and Syrian aphrodisiacs.

Reluctantly, Caesar looked at less expensive items. Spotting plaster busts of Dictator Sulla, he bought one, and let it shatter on the pavement. 

Sulla had won a civil war against Marius and Cinna, leaders of the Populist Party, and was now killing their followers. Every day, more heads were impaled on spikes. Several belonged to Caesar’s distant relatives, and he himself was in peril because Marius had been his uncle by marriage and Cinna his father-in-law.

At that moment, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. He wheeled to see a legate with shrewd, light-brown eyes.

‘Hail, Crassus! How was your tour of duty?’

‘Routine, and my last,’ Crassus replied, removing his crested helmet. ‘You should leave Rome. Sulla knows that you’re still married to Cinna’s daughter. Why keep her, when she’s no longer an asset?’ 

‘She bore me a girl.’

Anyone watching might have been puzzled to find Marius’ nephew on good terms with a general of Sulla’s, but they had been acquainted since Caesar’s childhood. Irrespective of their men’s politics, women liked visiting each other, and took their younger offspring with them.        

Thirty-four year old Marcus Licinius Crassus dealt in commodities. He owned warehouses, hundreds of slave artisans, and a cargo fleet. Marius had murdered his father and brother, which had made him join Sulla, although his principal motive in serving the Dictator was to snap up the property of citizens executed or banished.

‘Sulla is riddled with disease,’ he said. ‘Once he’s gone, his cronies should be easier to manipulate, particularly if I threaten to call in their debts.’

‘Pompey is an itch you’ll have trouble scratching. His legions contributed to Sulla’s success, so he may think that he’s heir apparent.’  

‘I’ll obstruct him in the Senate, but as I’m no orator, I’ll need your silver tongue.’

‘Ye gods!’ Caesar exclaimed, with mock surprise. ‘I won’t be eligible to join for another ten years, and even then, I might not possess the statutory funds.’

‘I’ll provide them. Here’s an advance.’  

Caesar relished the feel of gold in his palm. ‘Thank you. I’d better go before Sulla decides to display my head.’

‘Too late,’ Crassus whispered.

A man in Sulla’s livery said, ‘Lord Caesar, the Dictator summons you.’

He expected the servant to halt at a court where Sulla often presided, but soon realised that he was bound for the Dictator’s mansion on the Palatine Hill.

Sulla and Gnaeus Pompey sat, drinking.

Twenty-five year old Pompey was of average height, with a muscular frame and hyacinth-blue eyes. He grew his blond hair long to increase his imagined resemblance to Alexander the Great, and also dubbed himself ‘Magnus’.

Marius’ lieutenant during a war against the Numidians, Sulla had captured their king, but didn’t give his commander credit for the exploit, as protocol demanded that he should. He hated the man who had risen through the ranks, been consul seven times, and created Rome’s first professional army.

Sulla’s illness had left him skeletal and bald. A huge birthmark across his cheeks accentuated his piercing, ice-blue eyes. None of his five wives had curbed his enthusiasm for prostitutes and low-class actors. His favourite was a female impersonator named Metrobius.

Now, Metrobius faded into insignificance.    

Caesar’s black, wavy hair framed a face with an aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and eyes dark as polished jet. Tall, and of slim physique, he wore his toga in a loose style. A gold seal-ring shone on his left forefinger.    

‘Greetings,’ Sulla purred. ‘Have some wine.’ 

The youth’s tone was polite, but firm. ‘I rarely touch it.’

‘I’ve had you investigated. After your father keeled over at Pisa, your mother found rich husbands for your sisters, but these men won’t lend you money.’

‘Are they on your proscription lists?’  

‘No, and I can’t blame you for the fact that your aunt wed Marius.’

‘Then what’s the point of this interview?’

‘Be patient,’ said Sulla. ‘According to your ex-tutor, you learn at phenomenal speed.’

‘Which tutor? I exhausted several.’

‘Antonius Gnipho, the Cisalpine Gaul. He taught you Greek, geography, mathematics, and astronomy.’

‘Also to ride, and use weapons. Please stop me if this is in your file.’ 

Sulla switched his angle of attack. ‘Cato accuses you of plotting to revive Marius and Cinna’s Populist Party.’

‘I’m astonished that you heed a Stoic boy.’

‘He loathes you because you seduced his half-sister Servilia, wife of Junius Brutus.’ 

Caesar had a charming smile. ‘Lucius Cornelius, you’ve done me a good turn.’

‘How?’

‘By cancelling my appointment as Jupiter’s priest. Its rules would have banned me from a political or military career.’

‘The job suits an older man. Why did Marius select you?’

‘A hag foretold that one of his kin would eclipse him, and I seemed the most probable.’

‘My decision shall stand,’ said Sulla. ‘Are you grateful enough to swap your wife for an Optimate bride? Pompey and others have proved their allegiance in this way. Divorce Cornelia, and reap the benefits.’

‘Never!’

Sulla bared his claws. ‘I repay friendship or enmity in full. I’ll give you three days to reconsider.’  

‘If it were three months, I still wouldn’t change my mind,’ said Caesar, and strode out.      

‘An intriguing fellow,’ Sulla remarked.

‘A harmless fop,’ Pompey drawled.         

‘You’re a poor judge of character. He doesn’t fear me, and for that alone, he deserves to live.’

‘But will he?’

‘Not unless he can avoid bounty-hunters.’

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To continue reading Our Master, Caesar, please click the link below:
And if you would like to learn more about Patricia Hunter, check out her website:

www.romanwriter.plus.com

Thank you and see you next time.
 

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