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Blood & Soul is Live and Lethal on Amazon for $0.99

(please come to my website and join the tribe there.)

Today is the day! Buy Blood & Soul for $0.99. Thank you! If you wanna know more…keep reading.

Last night, blurry-eyed and exhausted, I uploaded the final edits to the First Edition of Blood & Soul on Kindle Direct Publishing for e-readers and CreateSpace for print readers. Blood & Soul has been in a preparation mode since I uploaded it about a month ago, without counting the 7-year, million-word brainstorm.

As a writer I’m at a loss for words and deeply moved by all the sacrifices good friends and colleagues have made to go the extra 100 miles in the last moments.

  • To my dad, who handed me that green notebook so long ago and told me to “Write somethin'” in his thick East Texas accent.
  • Dale Young, for building my fully operational killer website, creating the Mail Chimp system, for kicking me in the rear, and contributing many fertile marketing plans – I’d be lost without you bro!
  • Andrew Doty at Editwright and I played tennis with Blood & Soul for 9 months. We modified and tweaked, sharpening this story to get it as close to perfection as humanly possible – I drove him crazy this week before going official on Amazon at 12AM this morning. Happy editing, Andrew!
  • Kevin Eagan for the big proofread that eliminated the lion’s share of typos and errors that Andrew and I missed. We confirmed that Kevin has no Backstreet Boys music and thus got the deal to proofread.
  • Then Jim Wyatt stepped up and threw a long bomb touchdown pass in the last seconds of the 4th quarter to secure victory with one last profound proofread out the goodness his heart – he found the excepting/accepting error on page 33 and really tightened things up throughout. Nobody’s perfect and Jim was merciful.
  • Mark Skinner and Mike Griswold for the book cover and epic imagery in the book trailer – Mark truly was an inspiration. His inquiry about the book cover led to the sharpening of the story’s theme.
  • Patrick Runblad composed an incredible score for the book trailer that is jaw-dropping awesome.
  • To ALL my pre-release readers who trusted me enough to delve into the PDF and read with their e-readers, even though that must have been challenging.
  • To Wyndi Veigel editor at Farmersville Times and the Princeton Herald for reaching out to me at Charlie’s. I know you wondered about that dude in the corner with the laptop and headphones.
  • Last but not least Heather Grupido, owner of Charlie’s Old Fashioned Burgers (it’s not just burgers!), for letting me hang out for hours and work on this book.

I hope I’ve done you proud by writing Blood & Soul.

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Writing Rules Redeem

A few writers are gifted like Stephen King. They seem to have the instincts from the get-go, like a person born gifted with seemingly embedded musical talent. So when gifted people like that say there are no rules to storytelling, it seems valid to them and the folks seeking wisdom on how to be as good as King go looking for inspiration rather than perspiration. When King sits down and just writes, it’s not, of course, me just sitting down to write. I was born with a desire to tell stories and play guitar but not the inborn talent. I had to work on it and that’s my lot in life, to perspire and agonize and strive for excellence. I accept it. For me rules are the way. And I cling to quotes like this one attributed to Mozart, “Genius is only a great aptitude for patience.” But, with that said, even Stephen King and Mozart adhere to rules, King to the plot point and Mozart to the beat. No matter who writes the book or composes a symphony there is certain criteria that must be met or most people won’t care about the disjointed story or discordant notes. Rules redeem.

What I’m After as a Writer

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment

No work again yesterday. So, I seized the moment.

I’m in the process of outlining my next book. The working title is “Out of Oblivion.” Themes, dialogue, clashes, escapes, love and betrayal is fragmented throughout a forest of notes that needs to be herded into my Scrivener – a word processing program for writers. The story is there and I know how it ends. Now begins the crafting of the physics of story structure, putting things in place that support reader interest.

As I gathered my copious notes scattered over different desktops my fidgety moves, scruffy face and worn jacket reminded me of Russell Crow’s depiction of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, but not the beautiful part, the foaming at the mouth bat crap crazy part. I grinned and thought, God what am I after? Am I simply crazy and that’s all there is to this? Is it obsession or mission? And then I took a deep breath.

Fact is I know what I’m after. All that was settled but sometimes the contemplation of what I’m attempting is scary. It could be a colossal waste of precious time at fifty years old. That is why I need to know what my goal is. And, I think every writer should know exactly what he’s goal in life and story ending. If not logically—as in the book’s exact narrative and dialogue when the story ends—but at least a writer needs to sense the emotional payoff, the feelings of epic awesomeness born from that great moment when the One Ring melts in the lava of Mount Doom, or when the Death Star blows. When evil is turned back in the physical and spiritual world and hope does not feel like wishful thinking.

Chart the Course to the End

I will never write another book…that I don’t thoroughly outline first! The yet-to-be-fully-edited book I “finished” two years ago was my first venture into epic fantasy. I did everything wrong. I started out trying to write pretty sentences on the first page and had no idea where I was going.

With Blood & Soul (the first in what will be a series of standalone books called The Creed of Kings Saga) I settled down a lot and worked on the story first by outlining, but things still got way way too complicated as my imagination chased rabbits way off the trail. I did an outline. I kind of knew where I was going but not completely. Things cannot be fuzzy when I start off. As Stephen Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind[!]” Have a vision and gather all your strengths and resources around a mission to get there–that goes for business and books.

Thus, I will never write another book…without doing an outline and knowing the ending. I nailed the ending on the 5th Revision. If I had it sooner, I might be done now! As it stands now I have a lot of false trails to sever as I approach the end of Blood & Soul.

Trim cheesy fat. Build emotional muscle.

Past The Midpoint of Blood & Soul

Creed of Kings Saga BannerBandSsmallBroke through the midpoint of Blood & Soul today, the first book in the epic Creed of Kings Saga! The inevitable showdown between the hero and the villain is heating up.
This is the 7th revision. The goal is to trim fat and build muscle i.e…. cut hoakiness, and add emotional impact. It’s going great and fast!
Trying to get it “in the can” so I can focus on setting the stage for publishing by networking, promoting, and building a thematic look across them there interwebs.
The artwork I have attached here is NOT the finished book cover product. It’s just me having fun with some brainstormings Mark Skinner worked on for me.

The Twist #writers

April 27, 2013 2 comments

I proofread and edited to page 331 of a 530 page manuscript today.

According to Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering, there needs to be a twist/context shift at the midpoint of a good story. My story is much more than a revenge story, but that is a major motivation of my main character – similar to Maximus in Gladiator.

Today I finished the section with the major twist. My hero’s goal has not changed but if he can’t modify his approach he will lose everything. But, now there is more purpose to his cause, a purpose he must bring into his motivation. He commits to a new way of getting it done and begins to take the path that will lead to the inevitable show down with the bad guys.

The Big Picture

It’s cliché but it fits. It’s a forest shrouded in mist when you set out to discover the story hidden in the fog. A year later you find your forehead buried in your palms as you hack at vines of story line tangled up in your imagination. “How’s the book going?” they ask. You dread telling them the truth, that you can’t see the forest for the trees and then you cringe at the overused phrase the masters warn you about. But, then, months later, you crawl out in the daylight and look back. You’ve produced a manuscript. You followed the outline, the North Star. It’s still full of worries and wonders. But, it’s there in all its glorious embarrassing contradictions and silly dialog. You want to lock it up and never show a soul.

I read somewhere in one of my many books about writing that I should wait a month before revising. I don’t have that much time. I have a real job. Two weeks later I had walked around the forest and found the trail into the manuscript I had taken before. I was worried the frist plot point was coming too late, that the reader would get frustrated. I knew it had to come quicker. I scanned for a groove, a thread, a snag, anything to bring it closer. I found it! When I did it shifted the whole story into better balance, which felt like catching my breath.

I’ve still got a long way to go, but, because I had made it through the forest already I had the power of perspective, the big picture. I could not obtain that until I had traveled the distance. I improved the story because I knew the ending. In my limited experience and study of the art of story telling, I cannot stress this enough. Finish! Get to the end. Even if you are exhausted and your writing suffers. This is a fundamental truth in creating a story worth sharing and the biggest dragon I had to slay. Stephen R. Covey‘s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says habit two is begin with the end in mind. Have a goal in life as well as in the book you’re writing. Find the bullseye and aim and pull the trigger.

The Holy Chore

It’s driving me crazy, but like a functional alcoholic, I’m a functional nut. I wish! oh I wish I wish I wish time was something I could manage. God gave me slightly more than half a brain. And you, reader, can vouch for how stupid this world is. Even highly educated people these days are often full of flapdoodle. I’m only slightly smarter than average stupid, which often makes me look like a genius but it bugs me more than blesses me. Do you think it’s more painful to wander through the world stupid or smart? I’m just a little itsy bit better than average in most things…a Jack of all mediocrity and a master of reaching the wilted flower beyond the world’s craphill. I can kinda play guitar. I can fool around on a piano. I can carry a tune. I can throw a tight spiral. Flag football quarterback. I can kinda sorta sketch. I’m funny, sometimes on purpose. I’m refreshingly weird (in a pleasant way…I think). I can be witty. A good conversationalist. I know plaids don’t go with prints. I can say cool stuff once in a while at dinner with friends. I’m housebroke…I won’t go on the floor. I can do accents. Kids like me. Old people like me. I can get a bit unhinged sometimes doing personas I make up off the top of my head when a little group of old ladies is watching me perform. I’m thinking in my mind, no one will ever take me serious now! They say I’m crazy. But I have not one ounce of discipline to sustain writing. Zero! I’m either a blob of complacency or a burst of last-minute touchdowns. The only thing I can do consistently is show up on time to work. During the short breaks I read one of the 29 books I’ve started. This scatter brained life pisses me off! That’s why I had to get away from this blog and the internet for a while. I don’t have the discipline to achieve the holy chore of writing an epic book if I spend significant time here. I’m feeding the narcissism we are all cursed with.
I have always written. When I was kid, I wrote stupid lyrics and poems of teenage angst. I wanted to be in a rock and roll band and write lyrics like Neil Peartspeare (That’s RUSH for those poor ignorant young-uns)…something profound like “The Trees” in that last video I made. (A friend wants me to write some song lyrics for his daughter’s singing career. ) Then I wrote letters. Then I became a gut-spiller in my journals. And, then more poems…some pretty good ones. I wrote and write philosophical and theological entries in my journals and here. Why me? Well, where did Socrates go to college? Sometimes there’s a diamond but mostly drivel. I jostle between formal and slang here. It shows my moodiness. I’m black and white and multicolored and trans-dimensional. EMAIL came along in the ’90s. Everyone I sent. War and Peace. I could type something here and someone else could see it there? Amazing! He’s long-winded they’d say.
But guess what. Due to lack of paying attention in HS, my grammar was/is horrific. One merely has to read this blog to find mountains of evidence. It gives me fits. Discipline! Discipline! However, to the shock and awe of many, I did learn to type with all my fingers. I fold my arms and give a highly sophisticated

when I see the Neanderthal hunter-pecker desperate with his two fingers concentrating heavily ..shift, bink, bonk, curplunk, oopsy. So beneath me! I, who types with ten twitching at 35wpm about the universe!
Writing an epic fantasy fiction: something that requires discipline. Why did the muse strike me dumbfounded and say, “Here It’ll take more brains than you have, more talent than you have and more discipline …oh wait a second…you don’t have any discipline. Do you have any songs to be sung in my great halls? 35wpm? Get busy! Oh, by the way, have you met Goliath?”
Um…I have a sling shot…

With that echoing…
During my hiatus, I lit the candles at night. I didn’t shave much. I drank coffee and green tea. I got up early. I read huge chunks of the Bible. I watched an epic Russian made movie based in 1610. I walked. I jotted down notes. I pounded the keys. I tinkered and tinkered and then tweaked and tweaked what I’ve already written in Part II (I’ve left Part I alone but have some wrinkles to put in and others to smooth out) I had/have lots of problems with Part II of the book, good problems. A traffic jam of ideas. Now, I have them in a semblance of order like a buffet line. I have a track/outline to follow. But, it’s like following a road on a foggy night. The headlights are dim, Hans Zimmer is in my mp3 player and I’m checking the map. That’s one thing that describes writing my book. There’s a myriad of wisdom I’ve read about writing. I used to think it was like trudging up a hill or mountain and I’d be finished at the top. Nope. Not really. What I’m doing is more like crossing the Serengeti and Himalayas…on foot…with a flint rock…dried meat, and a spear. Checking now for sabre tooth wolf-lions and lurkadons. My characters are with me in this darkness, searching for the light just like you are: The oracle, the temple whore, the weapons master, the old sage (master of the creed), the lion killer etc. and so is every lily pad of the influence in my mind like the lily pads floating on the Mississippi. I cannot for the life of me tell which influence has the most control but that mystery is what writes the story. My job is to sell it. Not to make you adore it, but believe it. It’s all there floating on the dip and swell of the flow in my undisciplined bewildered mind. It’s the reason you roam the bookstore. It’s the reason you go to the movies. Escape and find truth.
Tis why I must stay away from here and get this Ring at least halfway to Mount Doom.

Tis my holy chore to make that escape and that truth worth your time.

Before Spring Break

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m in the final stages of the first book. Around 85% done with the 6th draft. A lot of things must happen quickly and I’m struggling to place them all in the most timely and dramatic sequence for maximum emotional pay off. I hope to be done with the this draft before Spring Break …it’s going to be a challenge.

Creed of Kings Saga: An unpublished sample of my style.

January 20, 2013 1 comment

Funny thing is, all this is going to change after the tons of the restructure and revision that I’m currently working. What the heck. I’ll leave it up for now.

***

There is resonance here that won’t be felt due to the reader being unaware of the larger scope. There is also foreshadowing for things that happen one hundred pages later. However, this is one scene where there’s a tad bit of resolution, one of the few scenes that does not end with a cliff hanger. That’s kind of why I chose it. I probably made some typos, It’s nearly impossible not to make mistakes.

* * *

CREED OF KINGS

Book One

Chapter 5

Markin

Markin?”

“Father?” It felt as if he was lying on a sack of potatoes, riding in the back of a cart on his father’s estate. Father’s voice echoed as if he was in the hallway down from Markin’s room. He rubbed his head. It felt as if a woodpile had landed on it.

“The sun rises. Fill your heart with its hope. You have much to do.” His father appeared in the doorway.

   Mother must be overseeing breakfast, he thought. The scent was not the aroma to which he was accustomed.

Markin wanted to see the family estate of his childhood. He removed the warm covers, flung his legs over the edge, but dropped feet first into a deep hole and landed on pile of stiff, rotting bodies. He tried to stand, but his head was spinning. He collapsed backward.

“Father?” He shaded his eyes from the sun. The smell of the pit made his mouth erupt vomit. Everything blackened. Father’s voice called out again. “I am here, father…with the dead.”

“Why?” asked father.

Markin felt an ocean of thoughts he couldn’t understand. I don’t know. He rubbed his head again.

“I hoped if you ended up somewhere, you would know why. Leave the dead behind son.”

Markin pried his eyes open. Through the blurred slits, he saw an arm throw an object into the pit. Then he felt a jolt and something hot. His eyes cleared and he saw a dead man’s face frozen in terror looking at him. He pushed him away.

He tried to stand again on the shifting dead. Smoke billowed up from a crevice in the heap of bodies. Still wobbling, he looked up. Another torch fluttered in igniting grimy clothing behind a cluster of lifeless limbs. Another wave of nausea churned. He bent over but only heaved to discover his feet were bare. With each stumbling step, he felt rigid limbs and bloated bellies against his feet as he groped for the wall of the pit. He dug his fingers into the dirt and climbed up the steep slant.

He slid back several times into the pit before hoisting himself out. The cart had topped the hill and was heading down the other side. Markin crawled toward the hill, reached out a hand, tried to yell, but fell over dizzy and exhausted.

“Never give up, son,” His father’s voice retreated into his memory.

He woke up coughing. Smoke, flame, and choking stench belched from the hole. He struggled to his feet and stumbled away. The smoke engulfed him. He swept his hair back to look around and shuddered when he felt the painful lump. He turned and walked out of the stream of smoke. The scene from the pub, the gang of fools, and the old man came flooding back. He pieced the broken memories together.

   Where is Mott? How did I…?

He pushed the scene out of his mind and tried to determine his position. Hunched over, he staggered to the edge of a precipice. The Rift Sea cut into the land below. In the valley, retreating shadows uncovered the city Bixle; beyond sprawled the Midvast westward into the horizon.

His throbbing head interrupted concentration, but he found a path eventually. Barefoot and shirtless he began walking. The forest thickened, the branches joined overhead, and the path took on the feel of a corridor in King Honsa’s palace.

   Never give up? he questioned. He laughed without humor and trudged onward thinking of the sequence of misfortune and his stupidity. He had been the guardian of the king. Now, mere weeks later, he traipsed shamed and shirtless on a back road in a nameless wilderness.

His mind wandered back into the king’s kitchen the day he found Mott slicing air with a meat cleaver. Markin propped his shoulder against the entrance, folded his arms, and watched Mott battle some imagined foe.

“Gathishians?” inquired Markin, interrupting the hero.

Startled, Mott turned and carefully placed the cleaver on a table littered with various chunks of meat. He stood stiff, smoothed his stained apron, and pretended to be on the lookout. “Flies.” He averted his eyes and then snickered as he shook his head. “Thought you were the Master of Chefs.” Mott pulled out a chair and placed it before Markin. “You have that look. What’s on your mind?”

Markin sat in the chair and rubbed his face in his hands, then leaned back and shrugged. “I’m going to settle down.”

“And break the hearts of all the ladies of the court?” Mott grinned. “Who will go with me to the house of the goddess?”

Markin smirked, “It’s a whorehouse.”

Mott shrugged and leaned against the table. “Go with me one more time before you go off on this assignment to Roxin.”

“I will, but when I return from the mission, no more.” Markin looked back at the door and leaned closer, “I will find a girl, fall in love, marry, and raise a tribe of offspring.” He smiled and opened his arms wide.

Mott looked at him as if he had dropped rotten egg in an omelet. He turned to the table of meat and resumed chopping. “If that’s what you want…” he shrugged.

“That’s what I want.”

“Then you’re crazy.” He waved at the palace with his meat cleaver with a piece of fat dangling from it. “Give up this?” he shook his head, smacked his lips and frowned. “People would die for what you have.” He went back to chopping harder than usual.

   My parents died, thought Markin as reality regained its hold. He looked down the trail while he carried futility’s weight and remembered his long-dead father’s words and repeated them aloud. “Never give up, son. You never know unless you keep going, son. What if you stop here but the answer is around the corner, son? What if the answer is not even there but beyond the next hill, son? Will you stay there, son? Never give up, son. It is not a waste, even if you find the truth at your last breath beyond many hills, son. Son, son, son! Never give up!” Only the trees listened. Markin was not sure if this was mocking his father as he questioned the wisdom of those words.

The bottoms of his trousers were damp from dew and picking up dirt. He bent down to roll them up, then heard the scrape of a sword drawn from a scabbard.

“Turn around slowly,” said a shaky voice.

   Only one? Markin’s eyes sought other movement. A Gathishian soldier in light armor, barely more than a boy, fidgeted on his feet, his sword periodically thrusting in Markin’s direction.

“Divisius is scouting already.” Markin read bit of respect on the soldier’s face.

“Who were you talking to?” The soldier’s eyes darted about.

“Trees,” Markin smirked.

The soldier eyed the tattoo. “You’re one of Honsa’s elite?”

   He must have been at Honsa’s death. Blood is on his hands. “No it’s fake. I’m an actor.” Markin turned his shoulder. “Come look. You can rub it off.”

The fool took a breath. His sword bounced between alert and curious while he inched toward Markin.

Markin’s stomach churned and his mouth was dry. Closer.

“Step away, soldier!” Patrolling Gathishians came from a trail in the woods behind Markin. The tattoo’s spell lifted from the youth’s eyes and Markin hung his head. The leader ordered spears and arrows trained on Markin. They bound his wrists and led him into the forest.

The Gathishian camp consisted of several tents in a clearing beyond a sparse tree line under a ridge. A man on his knees, bound by the wrists was stretched between two trees and hung there with lifeless rigidity. The torso under his ribcage had been scooped out. Flies swarmed in the maw and on the pile entrials a few feet away. The patrol escorted Markin passsed the butchery and uphill into the camp directly to the largest tent. Markin gulped down the fear. Is this the end? The patrol leader marched inside and returned with a stiff-lipped short man. He folded his arms behind his back, looked at Markin head to toe, walked around him, and stood looking up into Markin’s face. “General,” he spoke loudly at the tent. “I think you will find this interesting.”

Another man snapped the tent cover aside and emerged, taller, bull-necked, and muscled. A jagged scar went from brow ridge to cheek leaving the left eye undamaged.

The patrol snapped to attention. “This had better be import—” Markin’s tattoos froze him. He ordered the patrol away and strode back into the darkness of the tent. The short man held the tent flap open and motioned Markin inside.

He saw a table when his eyes adjusted to the shade inside. On the table sat the sturdy ornate canister containing the message from Honsa to Ledarrin. The seam had pry marks but the lock remained intact. Markin tried not to exaggerate the appearance of calm when he saw it. Things of the king didn’t belong among these barbarians.

“What a surprise.” said the man with the scar, grinning while he circled, hands behind his back clutching one wrist. “You will join us?”

“You will kill me if I don’t.” Markin sensed the man’s heart was a sinkhole.

“Of course.” The short commander smiled.

Markin glanced at the commander. “That limits my options.”

Scar pressed closer. He clenched his jaw so hard, Markin thought the man’s teeth would break. “Divisius will crush Bixle and all the cities along the border. A man like you should not be wasted on the hordes.” Markin felt the man’s breath ruffle his hair.

“Divisius killed my father and my king. I won’t betray them.”

The short commander’s eyes widened. “You have seen the emperor?”

Scar retreated a bit and appeared amused by the commander’s reverence for the Gathishian Emperor.

“I was a boy then. He shames his ancestors. I spit on him.”

The commander drew a knife and pressed the blade to Markin’s throat. “What do you know of my ancestors?”

Markin tightened his lips as he felt the commander’s blade and said, “That you worship their rotting carcasses.”

He felt the commander’s hot breath on his cheek. “We will have fun with you for this blasphemy.”

Scar put a hand on the short man’s shoulder. “Away with your knife.” The commander stepped back. Scar glared at him and tilted his head indicating the exit. The commander pressed his lips, bowed, and left.

Scar glanced at Markin’s tattoos. “Why aren’t you dead? You have already betrayed your king.” His lips snarled into a smile.

Markin hung his head. “It’s over now.” His stomach churned.

“Indeed.” Scar chuckled. “Honsa’s head is an ornament now, along with his sworn protectors, as yours should’ve been.” The man lifted Markin’s chin. Markin got a good look at the uneven scar. “We planted many of them on pikes around the city.” He paused. “I might not want an oathbreaker like you?” He removed his hand, turned away, and looked at corner of the tent. “Fortunately, you have stumbled into our possession. I can make arrangements for you, give you back your honor, and redeem you.”

“Or kill me.”

The words gave Scar pause. He turned and squinted at Markin. “Trust me. I’m not a man of mercy—don’t think I didn’t see you look at it.”

Markin glanced the canister. “Only the receiver can unlock it.”

Scar ignored the words. “We just acquired it.” He spoke while toying with the lock. “Our patrol found it on a beggar.” He paused, looking at Markin. He smiled and continued, “After a bit of sport with him, he led us to it in hopes of mercy.” Scar chuckled. “The warlocks read his entrails. It’s fascinating what they try to learn from the disemboweled.” He sighed with contempt. “It is the Gathishian way.” He moved closer. “I would have used other means.” He stopped close to Markin’s face, “More time consuming, more effective. But, it doesn’t matter. The gods or the ancestors, I care not, have led you to us.”

“You will learn nothing from me.”

“Any fool would know you were taking it to Ledarrin. We know of their friendship.” Scar’s eyes burned when he sliced the words out. “A royal message? A member of Honsa’s guard?” He waved his arm around towards Bixle and the forest. “In the same territory?” He grinned. “That is all I need to know,” he snorted. “Must have been embarrassing for a beggar to steal such a prize from you. You would forfeit you life for such a mistake in my ranks. Perhaps you don’t deserve these markings.” He shook his head at the tattoos of Honsa elite guard. “They will take strips of your skin with those tattoos, then your head. I will take this message to Divisius along with your parts when I return. We knew the count was off in Balazyne.” He paused and then snapped his fingers. “No, I will take you with me and have Divisius’ priests sever your head so it will be fresh. He would enjoy that.” He laughed. “A blacksmith can melt down the lock or one of their magicians can open it.”

Markin interrupted the monologue, “Did others survive?”

Scar seemed to come out of a trance. “By survive, do you mean, flee in fear like you?”

Markin did not answer.

Scar called out to the commander. The short man appeared with soldiers.

“Hold him. I have plans for him.”

Guards jerked Markin’s elbows and led him out of the tent. The soldiers led him out, but on the way they seemed preoccupied. They kept looking in the same direction. Markin followed their gazes, but saw nothing obvious.

“Here it is,” said one. They left the trail, pulling Markin with him. They’re going to beat me, he thought. He began bracing himself. As they wove through the forest, Markin began to discern what looked like a small building in the distance.

“Keep quiet,” ordered one of the soldiers.

Markin beheld something of which he had only seen drawings and statues in Balazyne. When he first saw it, it reminded him of a giant, furry archway. On one side of the arch sat a furry boulder and from that hung a huge snake-like trunk, the sniffing end hovered inches from the ground. At least that is how he drew a lurkadon as a child.

The guards shoved him to the ground. Lying sideways, he tried to make sense of the immensity of this creature. The small building turned out to be a large cart. The lurkadon was reined to it like a horse to a carriage. In the drawings he had seen, they had tusks. This one did not, it must have been a female. He heard what sounded like a little trumpet. A small lurkadon was winding in and around the larger one’s trunk-like legs.

The soldiers were not interested in the lurkadons and kept looking at a large gray boulder, flecked with green moss. Then the boulder moved, sending a sworm of flies up. The soldiers jolted, but did held their ground. The boulder came off the ground supported by thick bowed legs. It wore a torn, soiled loincloth. A yawn exposed canines the size of a man’s thumb. The yawn ended in a deep groan. It leaned forward exhausted and moped along dragging a chain attached to a collar as it walked on all fours. It was the first time Markin had seen an oggrin, a grey skinned humanoid of the forests. It was wide and half as tall as the lurkadon.

“You have it?” one soldier said to the other.

“Hold on.” The other pulled out a purple cloth and waved it at the oggrin. The oggrin hardly regarded them, but the big lurkadon reached out its trunk and pulled the little one close.

“Purple?”

“It’s the color they used.” The cloth flapped as the soldier waved it more vigorously.

A trunk-shuddering roar shook Markin’s ears. The oggrin charged, barreling down at them, but was jerked hard and slammed on its back. It squirmed while it tore at the collar. It sprang back up and pounded the ground with its palms, sending puffs of dust from the forest floor as it howled and roared. One hand had three fingers, making it resemble a claw. Two missing fingers were scabbed nubs. Ripples of dust vibrated off the chain while it sagged and tensed with the oggrin’s lunges. It reached out, swatting at the Gathisian soilders. The limbs of the tree chained to the oggrin shook.

A whip cracked. The oggrin cringed. A man emerged from behind the cart. Each time the whip snapped, the oggrin flinched and covered its hand. The man stomped out to the soldiers. The oggrin shied away behind the tree to which it was tethered. Its huge deep-set dark eyes peered out from under its shading palm. It curled an arm around the trunk.

“Will you not give the creature a rest?” yelled the man.

The soldiers were speechless. One had pissed his trousers, the other trembled and paled. They turned around. Markin saw their faces had lost color. As they pulled him up, he noticed the shoulders of the oggrin were heaving. Its head was hidden on the far side of the trunk.

The man pointed his whip at the oggrin. “I will use this whip on next soldier that harasses Lewtic.”

The soldiers scrambled up the incline.

“Don’t forget your weapons, fellas,” Markin said. I’ll need those, he thought.

The man with the whip shouted at the oggrin in guttural toned language. The oggrin could have thrown the man back to the camp, instead it hunkered down, crawled past him, hopped into the back of the cart, and crouched.

The soldiers seemed happy having found weapons, but they only had their swords.

“The bows and quivers, too,” Markin reminded. I’ll also need those, he thought.

The oggrin master released the chain from the tree trunk. The oggrin pull the loosed chain into the cart. The man leaned against the heavy door and, with the help of the oggrin pulling from the inside, the hinges squawked. The oggrin’s eyes stared at Markin until concealed by the swinging door which screeched and thumped closed. The man clamped it shut.

Before the soldiers pointed Markin back up the path, he saw the lurkadon release its little one for play.

They threw him into a narrow fissure of the ridge wall. After he hit the ground, he heard a familiar cheerless chuckle.

“Humph. Life is strange.”

Markin looked up. “What are you doing here?”

“After you knocked yourself out, a fight started; men were yelling, whores screaming—not in a good way—but I got some good punches in. You’d be proud.” He smiled in reverie, then frowned and rubbed his chin. “Anyway, the bartender threatened to summon his bunch of hooligans to kill us all. Then he threw us out. Before he braced the door, he said he’d drag you out. He never did. I banged on the door. Gave up and slept in the street, thinking I would haul you out in the morning—I think he was uptight about the chair you broke. Morning came. I couldn’t get in, so I went around to the back alley. Somebody was hauling off a heap of what looked to be dead bodies in a cart. I had a hunch you was in or on the pile.”

“I was.”

“Figures.”

“Why didn’t you catch them?”

“I was on foot, remember? Our horses were at the hold. I tried to catch up.” Mott held his stomach and rolled his eyes. “Too much to drink.”

Markin affirmed and shivered remembering the death pit.

“I got the horses. A ways out of town I crossed trails with these Gathishians. They figured I was from Balazyne. Ended up here. ‘For questioning’ they said.” Mott grimaced and added, “They got the horses.”

Markin surveyed the cleft then looked at the entrance.

“Still guarded by two I take it.” Mott surmised.

“Yeah. The two that brought me relieved the others. That’ll change. They saw my tattoos.” Markin replied.

“Lost your shirt and sandals.”

“Sword and dagger, too.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t remember. I guess I was on that pile of bodies. Maybe something extra was in my ale.”

“Wouldn’t doubt it. You didn’t make any lifelong friends last night.”

“They threw me in a pit to burn me up with the dead. I was the only one alive. I crawled out. I was making my way back to Bixle when they found me.”

Mott tightened his lips and nodded. “Fires are burning everywhere outside of town. Looks to be a plague. There’s plenty of reasons to leave Bixle.”

“I have a better reason. They have the message.”

Mott’s eyes bulged. “You saw the canister?”

“In the big tent,” Markin nodded toward the camp.

Mott just stammered. “But…how…I…”

“From the thief who stole it from us. He was begging for food. They found it on him—that was him!” Markin recalled the scene coming into the camp.

“Between the trees?”

“We’re not going to end up like that!” Markin blinked his eyes to erase the memory.

“We got to get moving then,” said Mott.

“I almost gave up. My father spoke to me while I was wallowing in a stupor with those dead people. I’m going to get that message back,” Markin said abruptly. “I’m starting to feel better but my stomach’s empty. I’m hungry.”

Mott’s face creased, “Slow down. I’m the one that’s always hungry. You drank enough to float the emperor’s armada last night. Sounds like the something extra didn’t wear off—your father?”

“Don’t remind me.” Markin chinned toward the front of the cave. “We can take the guards easy. Clouds are rolling in, it will be dark soon enough. We’ve got to do this now before they add more guards and they might move the message. We’re leaving for Roxin tonight—with that message.”

Markin drew his legs up and moved his bound wrist forward under his feet. He brought them up and wiggled his fingers. They alternated between chewing the ropes and grinding them on rocks. Markin told Mott of the oggrin and the lurkadon. Mott, being superstitious, believed it was all an omen, whether for good or ill, he did not know; he said, “I’m just a cook after all, not a holy man.” Finally, the bindings came unraveled as they heard distant thunder.

Markin rose. “We’ve got to hurry.”

“Here we go again…” groaned Mott. “Don’t hit your head this time.”

   The guards were talking about sneaking into Bixle for some fun when Markin came out of the darkness of the cave and ripped the sword from the guard had urinated in his trousers. The one who had waved the purple cloth gripped the handle on his sword, but before he yanked it out, Markin swung his newly acquired sword side arm and sliced the guard’s throat with the tip. The one deprived of his sword froze, then reached for the missing hilt, but Mott sent him to an unhappy nap with a fist from his beef-chopping arm.

Markin removed the sleeping man’s sandals and tunic. The other guard squirmed. gasping and clutching his throat as life bubbled and wheezed out. He tossed a sword and dagger to Mott who stopped rubbing his knuckles to catch them. Markin collected the impressive bow with a quiver of arrows leaning against rock wall. He started into the forest but halted. Mott stepped over the sleeping guard to follow but bumped into Markin who had paused.

Markin whispered, “We have to kill him, too. He will wake up too soon.” He walked a few paces back, stooped down, and made the guard’s nap permanent with a quick dagger to the heart. He gently, almost reverently, put his palm on the dead man’s forehead. Markin implored under his breath, “It had to be.”

Mott nodded grimly.

They crept alongside the wall of rock and vanished into the forest that encircled the camp. He was sure guards would spot them soon, limiting the time needed to get to the message.

“You saw the horses, right?” Markin whispered.

“Yes.”

“If you can’t find ours, steal two of them, stampede the rest. Then ride into the middle of camp where that big tent is.” He pointed. “I will meet you there.”

“Sounds easy,” Mott whispered and then disappeared into the darkness. Markin shook his head at the sarcasm. He’s just a cook, Markin reminded himself.

In the darkness, he was just another figure going about the business of the camp; he walked as casually as possible. The audacity of his plan filled him with fear and elation, but his face remained expressionless. Only confidence remained as he approached the tent, as if in a dream, and methodically pulled the bolt from the quiver. Never give up. He paused for a moment to fire the arrow. Lightning flashed and as the thunder sounded, the arrow went straight into the throat of the lone guard in front of the big tent. The guard clutched the shaft, sunk to his knees, and then crumpled–his armor sounding a faint clunk against the ground. Markin dropped the bow and quiver, stooped and mercifully ended the guard’s struggle with a swift stroke of the dagger. Suspecting the tent’s occupants heard the commotion, Markin rolled through the entrance. As predicted, someone was there, when the flap fluttered. The short commander swung his sword high and as expected, embedded the blade into the post. The commander jerked once to free the sword but it was all the time Markin needed.

The man barely got out cry for help before Markin’s dagger went to hilt under the rib cage to the heart. He fell forward against Markin, staring up and hanging on as his life drained out. He weakened, let go, and dropped.

No need for caution anymore. Though the commander’s cry had been weak, Markin, certain someone heard it, turned to the table to secure the bow and dagger.

The message canister was gone.

He swatted blankets, armor, and maps aside looking desperately. The tent flap opened.

“What’s the—you!” Scar dropped the canister and drew his sword, a brilliant flash compared to bronze sword Markin wielded.

Scar was in the early autumn of his years, but that did not inhibit the fluidness of the movements that declared many had died on his blade. Scar lunged, but Markin dodged the arching strike. Scar’s skill was great, his rage greater. He kept his balance and roared, launching a backhanded swipe. Markin ducked under the taller man’s swipe. The sword swooshed over his head and nearly scalped him. Without the expected contact with Markin’s neck, the anger in Scar’s swing caused him to stumble and crash into a cot.

Markin glanced down. The canister rested at his feet. Scar recovered and began to turn; Markin seized the canister and scrambled out of the tent. You better be here Mott or we’re dead.

As he quickly picked up the bow and quiver, he thought he heard the rumble of thunder while he secured the weapons, but, it was horses running, many horses; stampeding through camp as lightning flashed, Markin grinned. Mott had done his work. Perfect. He glanced back just in time to see Scar winding up, raising his sword in the air.

Markin could only turn, but turning with a flash, he raised the only thing he had, the canister, to block Scar’s downward arc. He caught the full power of the strike directly on the lock. Sparks flew as the skies roared. The canister was shaken from his grip. Stunned, they both stared at it.

Markin jerked his sword out and struck out but Scar easily parried his attempt to end the fight. Their swords clanged over the message. The sword Markin took from the guard was no where near as stout as Scar’s. The weaker sword sheared off. Markin, backed away stumbling, but gained his balance. With a useless sword handle in his grip, he stared back at Scar. Scar kept his sword up while leaning to pick up the canister. It was damaged. Markin heard the cylinder squeak. For the time it takes for a grain of sand to fall in the hourglass, Scar glanced down to grip the canister. “No!” shouted Markin, flinging his stunted sword in desperation. The hilt smacked Scar above the ear with a thumping slice and glanced off.

Scar screamed, dropped his sword and the canister. He clutched his head and squirmed on the ground. Markin kicked him in the gut, sending him back a few feet, and grabbed the canister and the stout sword. When lightning flashed, he saw blood flowing from between Scar’s fingers. Kill him! Markin thought as he gritted his teeth. But he turned to see Mott towering over him on horseback. He handed the canister up. “Hold it tight. It’s broken.” Markin gripped the sword handle and looked at Scar.

“What are you doing!” shouted Mott. “We must ride, now!

Gathishians in various states of undress were running toward them. Markin tore himself away and leaped on the horse. He glanced back to see Scar holding his head looking for his sword.

“Let’s go!” shouted Mott. An arrow flew by his head as lightning lit up the sky.

Markin scrambled up the horse and he in Mott tore the camp like demons.

They escaped as big drops of rain splashed on their faces. By the time they reached the edge of the forest, a downpour had extinguished many of the campfires. He and Mott disappeared into the gloom of the trees as Gathishians shouted cries of vengeance. Mott was laughing. Markin was thrilled having seized the chance to fulfill his oath. He felt sticky blood on his hands but the rain was washing it away. He had fought many times as King Honsa’s bodyguard. In all that time, he had injured many but only killed two men. He had killed twice that many in this one night—and now he was also a horse thief but he would not be an oath-breaker. They were soon lost in the darkness, but the sun would rise again. He had the message.

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