The Reckoning: Prologue

Jamison, West Virginia
2014

“Police in Charleston have confirmed the identity of a thirty-one-year-old woman found bludgeoned and dismembered in a hotel dumpster earlier this week, but will not release the name until the victim’s family has been notified. Captain Curtis Abbott declined to speak to the media about the specifics of the investigation, but confirmed that the department is following up on several promising leads.

“When asked if this grisly murder could possibly be linked to a similar murder committed last month, Captain Abbott again declined to comment. He advised the people of Kanawha County to remain calm, but stay vigilant. More on this macabre story as it develops.”

Natalie switched off the television and shuddered. Jeez, she was only a couple years younger than me. She set the remote down on her coffee table and walked into the kitchen. An overflow of garbage was preventing the trash bin lid from closing. Yes, that’s what I need right now, she thought. Some household chores to take my mind off the Charleston slayings.

Natalie tied the bag’s plastic drawstrings into a bow and lifted it out of the bin, then leaned the bag against the wall while she took a buffalo plaid flannel from the back of a dining chair and put it on. She opened the sliding glass door to the backyard and stuck her hand out. A solid gray canopy of angry clouds stretched across the sky, but they had yet to produce any rain. Natalie expected it wouldn’t be long.

She lived in the small suburban town of Jamison, not far from Charleston. Her house was nestled in the heart of Settlers Grove: a quiet, secluded neighborhood at a higher elevation that the locals referred to as ‘the hilltop of doom.’ The nickname stemmed from a geographical phenomenon specific to the area; ‘the calm’ was a weather anomaly prevalent in the early weeks of spring.

During the calm, a silence fell upon Settlers Grove. No wind, no birds chirping, no dogs barking. A heavy rainfall followed, lasting for hours, but when it was over, the sun came out and the sounds of everyday life returned.

The calm has definitely started, she thought. Hope I don’t get soaked.

Natalie grabbed the garbage bag and hurried to the receptacle at the side of the house. She threw the lid open and dropped the bottom-heavy sack inside. As she dragged the receptacle toward the curb, two young men approached. Both were dressed in hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans, with backpacks slung over their shoulders. She recognized one of them as Jay, a twenty-five-year-old living in a run-down rental property down the street. She’d recently had trouble with him.

One afternoon last week, she had come home from work to find Jay and a couple of his friends snooping around the front of her house. They’d scattered as soon as she pulled into the driveway. Although their behavior was suspicious, they didn’t seem to have disturbed anything on her property.

Days later, however, Natalie received an electronic delivery confirmation from UPS while she was at work, only to discover that the packages were missing from her porch when she got home. With all the houses in the neighborhood spaced a fair distance apart, no one saw anything. The police investigated, questioning Jay at Natalie’s recommendation, but they didn’t find enough evidence to arrest him.

Natalie slowed her pace and waited for the men to pass before continuing to the street. On the way, one of the receptacle’s wheels locked up and scraped along the ground. She knelt down for a closer look—there was something jammed inside the wheel well. With her petite fingers stretched, she reached behind the wheel and dislodged a bulbous rock.

The first drop of rain splashed on top of Natalie’s head. She tossed the stone aside and wiped her hands on her jeans. When she got up, a young man in a white hoodie stood in her periphery.

Natalie gasped.

“Ah, my bad.” The man put a hand on his chest. “I didn’t mean to scare ya. The name’s Thilo. Got a sec?”

Natalie rolled the receptacle into place at the curb. “I’m sorry, I really need to get back inside before the downpour.”

“Yeah, totally, but real quick, though,” he said, stepping toward her. “What’s the deal with calling the police on my boy Jay?”

Natalie moved to the opposite side of the bin. “I think maybe there’s been a misunderstanding.”

Thilo smacked his lips and took another step. “Kind of a bitchy thing to do, don’t you think?”

Natalie glanced toward the front door. Shit. I came out through the back and my keys are inside. “If you’ll excuse me, the rain will be here any minute now, so—”

“You know what I think?” Thilo rolled up his sleeves, revealing a tattoo on his forearm: a snake tangled in the eye sockets of a human skull. “I think maybe you haven’t gotten any in a while, and you were looking for a way to get his attention.”

“Well, don’t worry, girl,” another voice said from behind her. “You’ve got it.”

Natalie spun around to face Jay, standing there with his burgundy hoodie pulled up over his head. A numbing twinge of electricity shot down her spine. Her heart raced. They’ve got me boxed in.

A light, misty rain sprinkled down from the sky as Thilo inched closer. Natalie patted her pockets in search of her cell phone. Dammit, she thought, visualizing it on the kitchen counter. “Look, the calm is starting, and I need to get indoors.”

“Good idea,” Jay said. “Why don’t you invite us in and we can keep this party going.”

Natalie gulped. “Sorry, my husband’s on his way home, and I should get started on dinner, so…”

“Husband, huh?” Jay scratched his patchy goatee. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen a man around your house before.”

“Is that right?” Thilo folded his arms. “Aww, and here I thought we were becoming good friends. Why would you go and ruin it by lying?”

Jay put his hand on her shoulder. Natalie shrugged it off and backed into the garbage receptacle. The rounded plastic edge pressed against her back. “Guys, please. I just want to go back inside.” A silent tear streamed down her face. “I’m sorry about the misunderstanding with the police. It won’t ever happen again.”

Jay placed his hands on either side of the receptacle, pinning Natalie against it. He looked her up and down. “You’re right about that.”

The skies opened up. As a hard rain fell, Natalie screamed for help, but Thilo quickly reached around and covered her mouth from behind. Her eyes widened. Jay shushed her and grabbed her hand, forcing it down toward his beltline. Her fingertips found the cold metal of his belt buckle.

“You see, there’s consequences for calling the police on an innocent man,” Jay said. “But don’t you worry. I’m sure we can work something out.” He opened his zipper.

Natalie closed her eyes. Someone, please help me!

Thick raindrops hammered down on the lid of the receptacle. Without warning, Thilo removed his hand from Natalie’s mouth and screamed out in pain. She opened her eyes. Jay was staring over her shoulder, his jaw quivering. His grip on her wrist loosened.

Natalie shoved Jay backward and ran toward the house. She slipped in the mud in the soaked front yard and fell hard to the ground, the wind knocked out of her. As she struggled to get up and catch her breath, a hulking figure came into view behind Thilo, appearing to hover in midair.

A gloved hand jutted out from its midnight-blue cloak. Its fingers punctured the skin of Thilo’s shoulder, sinking deep into the trapezius muscle. The white cotton fibers of Thilo’s hoodie darkened with the blood gushing from the wound.

Thilo cried out in agony as Jay looked on, frozen in place. A dark trail soiled his jeans from crotch to ankle. The cloaked figure tightened its grip, ripping and pulling until Thilo’s trapezius muscle detached from the bone. Thilo wailed and dropped to the ground, clutching the gaping abyss beside his neck. He writhed around on the asphalt and vomited.

Natalie slid backward on her rear, unable to tear her gaze away from the figure’s hypnotic, pennant-shaped blue eyes. What is that thing?

Jay looked down at Thilo’s bloody shoulder, then turned and ran in the opposite direction. The cloaked figure melted into the ground and popped back up in front of him. Jay smashed into the figure’s broad chest like a cement wall, knocking himself down. He pinched his nostrils and examined the blood on his fingers.

The cloaked figure drifted toward him. It raised its hands and pressed them together in front of its chest, fingers extended and pointed up toward its chin.

“What are you doing?” Jay asked. “Leave me alone!”

Waves of purple lightning coursed down the figure’s arms and formed an undulating ball of energy around its hands. Billowing smoke rose from the tips of its fingers.

“Get the fuck away from me!” Jay scooted backward on his hands and feet. “You hear me?”

In one swift motion, the cloaked figure spread its arms out at its sides. Jay’s body disappeared into a cloud of smoke, leaving behind a mound of pink and white sand in the street.

Natalie screamed.

The cloaked figure turned its head and glided toward her. She covered her eyes and cowered as the rain soaked through her clothes to her skin. “Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered.

“You have no reason to fear him,” a soft, kind voice said. “You’re safe now.”

Natalie opened her eyes with reluctance. Above her stood a fair-skinned woman with long ginger curls, dressed in an olive-green hooded scarf and a lilac gown, sullied with dark stains.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked.

“I… I’m, uh, Natalie.”

“Hello, Natalie. My name’s Lissette, and this is Kelasis.” She swatted the cloaked figure’s arm. “Where are your manners, Kelly? Help her up.”

Kelasis offered his hand to Natalie, but she shook her head and got to her feet. She looked at the pile of sand in the street where Jay’s body had been. “Did you kill him?”

Lissette brushed Natalie’s wet hair off her face. “We sent him somewhere he can never harm anyone again.”

“To a realm where he will most likely be violently killed,” Kelasis added.

Holding Natalie’s gaze, Lissette grinned and jabbed Kelasis with a blind elbow. “Are you okay now, dear?”

“Yes… I think so.”

Kelasis wrapped his cloak around Lissette, shielding her from the rain. “Then we should be going.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Lissette said. “I don’t want to be in this area any longer than necessary.” She shivered. “Too many bad memories.”

~ * * * ~

Natalie slammed the sliding glass door behind her and locked it. She tugged on the handle several times until she was satisfied that it was secured. Water dripped off her body and pooled on the engineered hardwood floor. What the hell just happened?

She swiped her cell phone off the counter and dialed 9-1-1. The rain pounded against the siding of the house, making it difficult to hear the faint ring as she waited for an answer on the other end. Outside the kitchen window, the overflowing gutters spewed like a busted dam.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” a bored voice answered.

“My name is Natalie Clausson. I live at 521 Maple Street, and there’s been an… an altercation outside my house.”

“Did you witness the altercation?”

Natalie ran her hand through her hair. “Yes.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“Yes. Two men.”

“Are they still there now?”

Natalie walked across the living room to the front door and peered out through a half-moon window. Thilo was slithering away on his stomach, leaving a trail of red smear across the pavement behind him. “One of them is, but he’s badly injured and moving slow.”

“Okay, thank you, Miss Clausson,” the dispatch operator said, typing. “I’m sending someone to your location now. Can you give me any additional details about the altercation before the police arrive?”

“Yeah, it was a…” Natalie looked toward the clumpy pile of wet sand that had formerly been Jay. A slender young man dressed in crimson robes stood in the middle of the street. He turned his head toward her house and locked eyes with her through a pair of black leather goggles with clear lenses.

“Ma’am? Are you still there?”

The young man smiled at Natalie and put a finger to his lips. He raised his hood and walked away.

“Ma’am? Are you all right? Do you need help?”

Natalie ran back into the kitchen, leaned against the pantry door, and slid down to the floor. Rainwater dripped from the ends of her hair and plopped against the tile. She dropped the phone at her side and brought her knees up to her chest.

“Ma’am?”

Preorder The Reckoning on Amazon today!

New to the Noble Trilogy? Start the adventure here!

 

Icarus Reaches a Milestone

I’m so excited to announce that Icarus reached a milestone over this past weekend: 1,000 downloads! I can’t thank you enough for your time and support. It means more to me than you could possibly imagine.

Miller Brinkman’s story began back in 2010. I woke from a bizarre dream in the middle of the night, and I knew I had to get it down on paper before it faded away forever. I’d never written a book before, and had no idea how to even go about it, but I worked on it little by little every night for several months until the story was complete.

However, it took another six long years of edits and rewrites to shape the manuscript into something I could be proud of, and in January of 2017, Icarus was finally done. I hoped that Miller would find an audience, but I had realistic expectations.

As an independent author, I’m well-aware of the challenges that come with self-publishing, but I put my blood, sweat, and tears into it, and would’ve been happy even if only ten people ever read it. In passing the thousand-download milestone, Icarus has exceeded my wildest expectations, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has taken a chance on it. Sincerely, thank you.

So, what’s next? Hmm… you know, two thousand downloads has a real nice ring to it. 🙂

Hulegaard Books Podcast – Episode 05: Simon John Cox

In episode 05, I’m joined by English writing talent Simon John Cox. In addition to discussing his short story Still from the Edge of Oblivion anthology, Simon speaks candidly about his goal to become traditionally published, his thoughts on the value of reader reviews, and his poignant take on the challenges self-published authors currently face.

Check it out, and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments!

Edge of Oblivion Available Now on Kindle

Over the past few weeks, you’ve likely seen me posting several updates about the Edge of Oblivion anthology. I’ve been enjoying chatting with other authors about their stories featured in the collection, but I haven’t really done much speaking about my own; and I work in marketing for a living, folks. 🙂

EdgeEbook

Edge of Oblivion

First let me say this about the anthology: I love it! It’s chock-full of engaging, twisted and sometimes creepy tales by some of the most creative writers I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. Whether you enjoy Twilight Zone-caliber mysteries, time-bending head scratchers, post-apocalyptic tales of futures to come, traditional ghost stories or pornographic sci-fi (yes, I’m looking at you, Tony), there is a little something for everyone.

On a personal note, I read Keri Knutson’s “Jingle, Jingle” right before bedtime. I would strongly advise against doing that. 🙂

The Tunnel

So, that brings us to my contribution: “The Tunnel.” Tony Healey, the man behind the Edge of Oblivion anthology, was one of the biggest supporters of my short story compilation Strangers. He contacted me last year and told me about his vision for a speculative fiction anthology. He’d been kicking around the idea as a fundraiser opportunity for The Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

I was beyond flattered when Tony said that “The Tunnel” fit perfectly within his vision and asked for permission to include it. Naturally, I jumped at the chance, especially since all proceeds were being donated to charity. I’ve heard from readers that “The Tunnel” was their favorite Strangers story, so I welcomed the opportunity to get it out in front of a new audience.

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Strangers on a Train

The concept behind “The Tunnel” was pretty basic. From my own travels, I have heard a plethora of local legends and myths about particular towns and buildings. One that really stood out for me was the tale of the Moonville Tunnel in Ohio.

It’s a great story in its own right, but being a writer, the gears started spinning. Using the real world history of Moonville as inspiration, I wrote “The Tunnel,” which explored the dark side of a seemingly innocuous train ride from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

A young artist named Colin swaps stories with Herbert, an old-timer with a love of the rails, to entertain themselves over the long trip. However, a series of strange events occur as the train nears a tunnel known to locals as the Starlight Mile.

Show & Tell

The Edge of Oblivion anthology is a steal at $2.99, but don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a quick taste of what you can expect!

 

An excerpt from “The Tunnel”

“Well then, what about you, Mr. Herbert?” Colin shut his notebook and set it down beside him. “I imagine you’ve heard some great stories in your day. Do you have a favorite?”

“I’ve traveled far and wide for many years. I have heard thousands of different tales, but if I did have a favorite, I think yours may have just topped it.” Herbert removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his nose. “However, now that you mention it, I think I do have one that’s appropriate. Let me ask you, do you like scary stories?”

Colin reigned in his jubilant expression and looked at the old man cockeyed. “Um, I guess so.”

“Splendid! Then I think you’re really going to love this one. It’s a story that originated in Ohio. Come to think of it, it happened on this very train route.”

Colin rolled his eyes and said, “Please don’t tell me this is going to end with a train car full of blonde bimbos and a hook stuck to the outside door handle.”

“Of course not,” Herbert said. “This is a story about the tunnel.”

“What tunnel? We’ve already passed through several.”

“Indeed, young Colin, there are many tunnels on the path ahead, but nothing like the Starlight Mile.”

“I’ve never heard of that and I’ve lived in Ohio for years.” Colin folded his arms across his chest.

“Well, no, Colin. I wouldn’t figure that you had. The story reveals a time in history that Ohio would rather forget, but us old timers? We know the truth.”

“Are you sure?”

“Ah, I always appreciate a good skeptic. You want proof, and I will oblige. I want you to count to thirty and then look out the window. If I’m telling you the truth, you will see a hill lined with old stone markers.”

Colin humored the old man and counted off to thirty out loud as Herbert looked on. When Colin reached the number thirty, he turned to the side and looked outside. “All I see are a bunch of trees, Herbert. I’ll give you credit, though. You had me going for a—”

Colin stopped short after a break in the trees gave way to large mound of earth. Stone markers littered the path up to the top of the hill, just as Herbert had said.

 

Buy Now

Get Edge of Oblivion for your Kindle today!

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Happy reading!

Hulegaard Books Podcast – Episode 04: Courtney Cantrell

How is writing short stories like foreplay?

Courtney Cantrell joins me as my special guest in Episode 04 of the Hulegaard Books podcast! We talk about the just-released Edge of Oblivion anthology, being a full-time mom and writer, the challenges of writing a first draft, and getting inside the mind of a deranged character. Very enlightening discussion!

Speaking of the Edge of Oblivion anthology… did I mention that it’s available now on Kindle?

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UK

Be sure to comment and give me your feedback on this week’s episode!

Hulegaard Books Podcast – Episode 03: William Vitka

Put the kids to bed and cover any sensitive ears, because journalist and author William Vitka joins me as my special guest on episode 03 of the Hulegaard Books podcast!

We talk about his short story Angel Eyes from the upcoming Edge of Oblivion anthology, as well as tackle some of the toughest questions in literature today, such as, is Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” the key to intergalactic peace?

Explore these topics and a whole lot more!

Free Dragon Age Fan-Fiction: “Schala”

Long before I came to work at BioWare, I was a hardcore fan of its Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. Like most people that play the games, I was drawn in by the rich storytelling and deep characters. Each universe provided a fertile playground with so many avenues of narrative possibility to explore. It continues to boggle my mind today.

As a writer, I had never attempted fan-fiction before. It felt somewhat disrespectful to undermine the creators and assume that I was worthy, or even capable, of taking the reins of the established canon. However, I couldn’t resist the urge to play in their sandbox. In particular, Dragon Age seemed to spark my imagination and call to me.

I set some ground rules: I could reference the lore, but under no circumstance could I touch known characters or storylines. If I was going to create Dragon Age fan-fic, it had to be completely from scratch.

From the depths of my brain emerged Schala, an impoverished young girl living in fear of her blossoming magic abilities. This short story follows her trials and tribulations, as well as her ties to the Grey Wardens.

DISCLAIMER: Before we continue, it must be noted that the Dragon Age franchise is owned entirely by EA/BioWare. This short story is a work of fan-fiction, and in no way represents the ideas or opinions of the creators. Additionally, I received no compensation for this work.

You can read the story in its entirety below, or you are more than welcomed to download a free copy to own here. I hope you will enjoy it. Thanks for reading!

 

Schala

Inspired by the best-selling BioWare video game series Dragon Age

 

Written by: David K. Hulegaard

Edited by: Karin Weekes

 

My mother used to tell us tales about the hooded man.  Whenever we misbehaved, she pinched our ears and made us sit down at her feet.  With a stern glare, she retold the same story.   Time and again, she warned us of what was to come if we didn’t behave.

She embellished certain aspects of the tale over the years—sometimes the children were ripped from their families, never to be heard from again, other times, the children’s heads were lopped off at the feet of a grieving mother—but the crux of the story remained the same: along came the righteous man in shiny plated armor, the banisher of evil.  We would know him by the crest he bore, which instilled fear into the hearts of the wicked.

I never believed her, of course, but my baby brother swallowed every word as though told by Andraste herself.  All mother ever need do was narrow her eyes in his direction, and he became mum’s perfect little angel.

I suppose I could have shown her more respect, but her childish ramblings of mythical punishment merely infuriated me.  I grew tired of mum’s inability to recognize that I was aging and becoming a woman.  She seemed keen to stunt my development into adulthood, and the anger I felt nestled in the pit of my belly.  It begged me to lash out at my mother for trying to control me with scare tactics and fairy tales.

The resentment I felt grew as years passed and I could not understand why.  Perhaps it was the price of growing up without a father, which was something that I had never entirely forgiven mother for.

I was not rebellious by nature, but as I matured, I felt the increasing need to assert my dominance.  I always believed that I was meant for something greater than the life I was given.  I wanted to open my cage and fly away and escape the horrendous world of poverty that surrounded us… but she would not have it.  My mother would have confined me to her side until she perished if it were up to her, and that truth only drove us farther apart.

The quarrels with my mother continued throughout my adolescence, but I believed that they were harmless.  And they were… at first.  I remember the terror in my baby brother’s eyes every time mum and I had a row.  He would cower in a corner, wrap his arms around his knees, and bury his face between them.

“She’ll bring the hooded man,” he would cry.  “You must stop this, Schala!”

My sweet, naïve baby brother’s concern was genuine.  I could see it in his bulging eyes and trembling bottom lip.  He fought valiantly to hold back his tears because mum had always told him that men do not weep.

 

I remember the year that winter had come early and without warning.  Cloudbursts of rain turned to shards of ice as they fell and shredded our modest crops within a mere day’s passing.  Without the spoils of our garden to sell at the markets, we had no coin to purchase food and I thought that we would surely starve.  Mother did not want to bear her worry in front of her children, but she could not hide it from me.

Our situation hit my baby brother the hardest because he was a growing lad in need of sustenance.  As a young man of fourteen years, he didn’t particularly care for being referred to as a “baby brother” anymore, but he’d let me get away with it provided no one else was around.  One evening, his stomach roared so loudly that even the hogs in the pen took notice.  His cheeks flushed and he apologized.  I asked him later why he would apologize for such a thing, and he told me that it had been an inappropriate and selfish expression of his hunger when we all suffered from the same affliction.

I could not take it anymore.  My brother’s arms were reduced to skin and bone, reminding me of the tree branches too weak to survive the winter that broke off as I passed through the woods.  Maker bless his heart, he never once complained, even in those abysmal conditions.  He had more right to call himself a man at fourteen than all the lousy drunks in our village combined.

I stared at my mother’s near empty coin pouch on the table.  I had begged her countless times to send me into town for bread, but she refused.  My mother did not intend to be cruel in calculating a budget that, with a little luck, might allow us all to survive until spring.  I only wish she had told us that at the time rather than allow our hunger to erode our relationship.

Mum was scared.  I know that now.  But, I was scared, too, and I could not rationalize her reluctance to purchase food.  All I could see was my dear brother starving to death and wasting away before me.  A confrontation between Mum and I was inevitable, and the moment had finally arrived.

My mother slapped me when I protested.  I will never forget the cold sting of her palm against my cheek.  She had never struck me before, no matter how little I heeded her instructions.  I reached for the coin pouch again, but my mother clung on to the leather strap like a wild Mabari to a fresh kill.  I had thought myself to be stronger than Mum, but I could not free the pouch from her grasp.  In retrospect, that very moment was when my life changed forever.  How different my life would be today had I simply let go.

A bright blue glow emitted from my arm and swirled from my elbow to the tips of my fingers.  An intense heat enveloped the side of my face, though it did not burn.  My mother’s eyes shot wide open as she let go of the pouch and recoiled.

She moved away from me until her backside met the edge of the counter.  She patted blindly against its surface until her grip found the cleaver.  Oh, her eyes.  I wish I could purge that image from my mind:  She looked upon me as an abomination and not her daughter.

I should have been afraid, but I was not.  I held my hand in front of my face and basked in the tranquility of its beautiful illumination.  I felt stronger, somehow, and yet not all that different from the girl I had always been.  Some part of me must have known of this power inside of me all along, but I knew not its full extent.  Could I even control it?  And why had it taken so long to manifest?

My mother lunged toward me, her fingers curled tight around the cleaver’s handle as she waved it over her head.  I raised my arms to block her strike and a burst of electricity shot forth from my hand.  My mother flew backward and landed hard on the stone floor with a sickening splat.  She writhed in pain on the ground as I stood over her.  My emotions were torn.  I had not wanted this, yet at the same time, I felt so liberated.

A stack of dishes rattled in the cupboard then shattered onto the floor.  The energy dissipated from my arm, and the sparks subsided.  I heard a crunching noise behind me.  I spun around and found my brother slinking away through a wasteland of ceramic shards.  Crimson gushed from his left foot.  Once our eyes met, he seemed unable to remove his gaze.

I took a step toward him and he backed up.  I took another step and he retreated once more.  He no longer saw his sister standing before him.  I had become a monster that donned his sister’s skin.  No torture could ever to compare with the pain of knowing that a momentary lapse in judgment had cost me my brother’s love.

I turned back to check on my mother.  Propped up on her elbows, she took in deep, rapid breaths.  Her jaw had dropped open like she wanted to scream but couldn’t, and fluids leaked from her eyes and nose.  What had I done?  I had only wanted to feed our family, but within moments, my world had been torn asunder.

I ran to my room through the crunchy plate fragments and slammed the door shut behind me.  I climbed into my bed and leaned against the wall, feeling the cool, bumpy texture against my cheek.  I began to cry, something I had not done in many years, but I could not refrain.  Had it all just been a bad dream?  I squeezed my arm, which was still warm to the touch.  No, it had not.

The sound of pounding against my bedroom door jolted me awake.  My heart thumped in my throat as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and attempted to collect my wits.  With each blast from the other side, the metal door handle bent forward until the lock could no longer withstand the force.  The wood splintered as the door ripped clean away from the frame.  At the opposite end of a grand mace, there he was: the hooded man.  The very man of legend described in my mother’s stories. And as I would soon discover… the man of nightmares.

 

He and his men bound me at the wrists and ankles like a common thief and marched me through the streets of Redcliffe as the townspeople looked on and jeered.  Some even threw rotted fruit.  The inhumane treatment moved him not at all.  I was his trophy on parade, serving as a warning to others like me that still roamed free.  My persecution delivered a message: Obey or be punished.

Flecks of dead skin lined the holes in my robes from his studded cudgel.  He’d shown no mercy, and I did not assume he would think twice about striking me again.  He demonstrated no remorse and clearly felt nothing about roughing up a woman.

Our journey was savage and cruel.  He and his men rode on horseback, whilst I was leashed and forced to travel on foot.  If I walked too fast, he’d yank the rope slack and choke me to the ground.  If I grew tired, he’d jab the butt of his cudgel into my back to keep me moving.  I understood our relationship perfectly and was not about to push its boundaries.  Should I display the first sign of resistance, my fate was clear.

He lit our path through the pitch-black forest with a flaming torch.  The thick tree canopy kept the moonlight and stars from finding a way in.  He thought it unsafe to continue and decided to camp for the evening.  He and his men rested within the comfort of tents while I was bound to the trunk of a mighty old tree with my arms cinched at my sides.  I labored for breath under the constricting rope and hoped that each gasp would be my last.

As I was about to lose consciousness, I heard a male voice say my name.  I had thought myself delirious at first, perhaps even slightly mad, but his words continued.

“You must be patient, girl,” he said.  “You may suffer now, but you will have your retribution soon.”

A shadow moved through the forest, darker than the blackness of night.  It sent a chill through my body even as it calmed me.  I knew, somehow, that the man’s words would come to fruition.  Everything would be all right.  I was going to be all right.  My survival depended on me believing that.

 

Several days passed before we reached the final destination of our voyage: A stone keep, abandoned for several generations and lost to time as nature threatened to reclaim it.  The cold winds bit at my exposed skin as my teeth chattered.  As raising my arms above my waist caused me great anguish, I could not shelter my body from the extreme temperature.  I did not require a healer to know that several of my ribs had been broken.

The hooded man led me down the stairs into a dungeon below, the path lined with empty suits of armor standing watch.  He uttered no words, merely affixing his torch to a cradle on the wall and pointing to an open cell.  I complied and sat down on the floor with my back pressed against the wall.

He entered the cell and secured my wrists with chains that hung from the walls.  He gripped my chin with his thumb and index finger and turned my head from side-to-side.  Satisfied with whatever inspection he had performed, he let go and backhanded me across the face.  I smiled.

“Your manners do not become a Templar,” I said.

He looked down and ran his hand over the deformed emblem on his armor.

“Oh, yes. I recognize it.”  I rattled my chains against the wall.  “Your attempt to camouflage your allegiance is rather poor.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, witch,” he said.  “But you are not as perceptive as you think.  We are not Templars… not anymore.”

“What?”

“This here?”  He thumped his chest plate.  “Painted over.  We have renounced our old ways and started something better outside the eye of the Chantry.”

“That’s preposterous!”  I said.  “If you’re not taking me to the Circle, then what are your intentions?”

“The Chantry allows your vile brand of filth to pollute the world. It believes that given the right training, you can still become productive members of society, but you and I know differently, don’t we?”  The hooded man knelt down beside me.  “The Maker did not bless you with these gifts.  You have chosen to become a practitioner of evil, and we will not allow it to continue.  You can either forfeit your powers and pray for forgiveness, or you can rot away here in this cell.  The choice is yours.”

“You’re mad!”  I yelled.  “I cannot forfeit my powers any more than you can forfeit the grotesque face under that hood!  I did not ask for this!”

“Then you shall die here.”

The hooded man walked away and left me in total silence.

 

I had no window to the world on the other side of those walls.  I did not see sunlight in what felt like an eternity.  Something festered inside me, boiling to the surface.  It grew hard to tame the rabid animal that thrashed against its cage—as time continued to pass, I found myself giving in to it more and more.

While imprisoned, I had contact with only the hooded man and the guard whose duty it was to bring me my meals.  During each visit, the hooded man forced me to look into his eyes, as though he were searching for something hidden behind them.  He never told me what it was.

“Are you ready to repent, witch?”

“No.”

If he was feeling charitable, he would hit me only once.

The guard fed me by wooden spoon once a day.  Much like his commander, he was neither kind nor gentle.  He pried my mouth open, shoved spoonfuls of hot stew into my mouth, and then covered my airways until I swallowed it down.  He refused to ever make eye contact with me or even speak.

“If you will not even address me, I shall relieve you of your tongue one day,” I warned.

Although the guard did not offer a verbal reply to my threat, he responded by relieving himself on my clothes.

 

I used to keep track of passing days by counting the number of times I’d been fed, but I lost track once I reached the thousands.  My guard, once chestnut-haired and muscular, had greyed around the temples and started to sag.  I knew the years were wasting away, and my hope of that promised retribution dwindled.

I wondered what was so special about me.  There must have been others, I thought, but every cell around me sat empty.  Perhaps others had met a different fate.  Perhaps others had not survived the journey at all.

How I craved the sound of another person’s voice, if only to block out the screaming that echoed inside my head.  I fought to ensure those sounds never passed through my lips.  I refused to give the hooded man the satisfaction of hearing my suffering.

He seemed to have lost interest in me.  I had not seen hide nor hair of him in quite some time.  I knew that even if I were to give in to his demands and “surrender my powers”, I would still never see the Circle.  No, whatever he had planned for me was far less than noble.  The life of an apostate was hard and full of never-ending danger, but I began to see the appeal.

Finally, after years in his dank dungeon being feasted upon by both rat and spider, I lost control.  The rabid animal within broke free from its cage.  Instead of “curing me”, the hooded man had instead given life to something else.  Something sinister.  Something that he and his band of ex-Templars all feared.

I closed my eyes and focused as much energy as I could summon into my right arm.  I trained my ear on the squeaks of a rat gnawing on my foot.  I visualized the rodent in my mind’s eye until I had a clear image of the little bugger.  I transferred the image of the rat to the palm of my hand and held it there.  Once I had achieved maximum focus, I squeezed my hand into a fist and popped the rat like a balloon.  The rat uttered one last squeak before its insides splattered against my skin.  If they wanted a monster, so be it.  A monster they would have.

 

The guard visited me a second time one day.  He stood over me and said no words before filling his mouth with saliva and spitting it in my face and hair.

“Urchin,” he growled under his breath.

As he turned to walk away, I began to sob.  He stopped and turned back to face me.

“Quit yer moaning,” he snarled.

“I’m sorry.”  I rattled my chains.  “It’s just that these shackles are chaffing my skin.  The bone must have poked through my flesh by now.  I beg you, show mercy.  Allow me a few seconds of respite to soothe my wrist.”

The guard scratched his head and took a few steps closer.

“I’m not supposed to,” he said.

“I know, but please, sir,” I told him.  “Have pity on a tired and weak woman.”

The guard pulled an iron ring of keys from his hip and knelt down beside me.  He inserted the key into the cuff and it fell open, freeing my right hand.

“Thank you.”  I brushed the side of his face with the tips of my fingers.  “How can I ever repay you for such kindness?”

My hand emitted a bright blue glow.  I thrust my fingers into the guard’s mouth and felt his moist, fleshy tongue beneath my grasp.  His eyes grew wide and watery, but I cinched down and ripped his tongue clean from his jaw.

The guard bellowed and covered his mouth, but the blood trickled through the cracks in his fingers like a failing dam.  I aimed an energy bolt at the cuff around my other wrist and freed my left hand.  I crawled over to the guard, looked him in the eyes and studied his face.  I wanted him to be sure he had met the “witch” that brought him to his end.

“Perhaps you wish that you had addressed me properly when I gave you the chance,” I said.

Malnourishment and expending my magical energy had left me in a weakened state.  Disoriented, I fumbled my way through the dungeon, made all the more difficult by the extinguished torch.  However, I would allow no amount of darkness to hinder my escape.  I would accept no other outcome than my prevailing.  I found the staircase that led from the dungeon of misery to freedom above and began my ascent.

My legs burned as I climbed the stairs.  I slid my hands along the stone walls to keep my balance.  I refused to let my body give out on me before I could reach the top.  Every muscle ached, every joint squealed, but I refused to die that day and there would be no surrender.

The hooded man waited for me at the top of the stairs.  Him and about a dozen of his men, all with the same red glow in their eyes, and each aiming the tip of his sword at my throat.  As two of the guards rushed towards me, I summoned a ball of lightning into my hand and unleashed it, sending the entire pack flying back.  The smell of charred flesh filled me with delight, but I had little time to savor it before I was overwhelmed and detained by the rest of the guards.

They wrapped heavy braided rope around me from my shoulders to my waist.  The hooded man sheathed his mace and walked toward me.  He tapped the repurposed insignia of the Templars engraved into his armor and then dragged his thumb across his throat.  I had been sentenced to death, and I welcomed it.

He barked orders, instructing his men to back away and let him handle me on his own.  He took the end of the rope, threw it over his shoulder, and pulled me behind him toward a clearing with practice dummies.  I did not resist him.  My heart felt no sadness.  Instead, I took comfort in seeing the outside world one last time and not perishing alone in a prison.

The snow crunched under my bare feet with each step.  Frostbite had long ago claimed my dry, cracked skin and I no longer experienced sensation below the ankles.  He took me to a spot between two tall trees and kicked me in the gut.  I dropped down to my knees and coughed, watching the steam billow from my exhaled breath.  My insides convulsed and my mouth filled with the salty taste of blood.

The hooded man dropped the rope and pulled an ornate blade from his waistband.  Too long to be a knife, but too short to be proper a sword, the curved blade was unlike anything I had ever seen.  Engraved markings adorned the red and gold handle, and the blade appeared too clean to have ever tasted blood.

“With this ceremonial blade I shall collect the debt that you owe to the Maker, witch.”  He ran his finger from the hilt to the tip.  “You shall pay it with your head.”

“I accept this death, but know this… I will hold my gaze upon you from the Fade,” I said.  “You and I will see each other again.”

I closed my eyes as the hooded man raised his weapon overhead.  I visualized the last grains of sand spilling out from an hourglass.  My time had come to an end.  Then, my ears rang from the sound of metal colliding against metal.

“Enough.” a stranger’s voice said.

When I opened my eyes, a monstrous sword held the hooded man’s blade in check, mere inches from my head.  The former Templar grunted and applied more pressure, but the stranger fended off his attempt to strike me down with a single hand.  The hooded man gave up and stared at the stranger with contempt.

“What is the meaning of this?”  The hooded man roared.  “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“I offer my sincerest apologies, honorable warrior.”  The stranger sheathed his sword.  “I mean not to interfere, but I have come to collect the girl, and it is preferred that her head remain intact.”

“Wha–?  The girl?”  The hooded man spit out in disgust.  “And by whose authority do you lay claim to this witch?”

“Why, friend, now it appears as though you do not have any idea who I am,” the stranger replied.

I looked up and saw my rescuer in full view.  His long, raven hair curled and was pulled back into a ponytail that dropped between his shoulder blades.  His eyes, the deepest of greens, were hypnotic pools of full of confidence and vigor.  A more handsome man I had never before seen, yet, I recognized him instantly.

“Baby brother?” I whispered.

The stranger winked at me, then threw his shoulders back and invited the hooded man to study the griffon emblazoned on his chest.

“But…“  The hooded man lowered his blade.  “Then you’re—“

“Yes,” the stranger interrupted.  “I have come to conscript this young woman. As a Templar, I trust that you have seen to her fine treatment and that I will have no reason to return and investigate you further?”

“I have no quarrel with you, Warden.”  The hooded man backed away a few steps.  “Take her, but I hope you realize the magnitude of your decision.  I hope you can live with the malevolence that you are about to set free on the world.”

“Duly noted, friend.”  The stranger untied my bindings and let the rope fall at my feet.  “We should be going, Miss.  There is much for us to discuss.”

The stranger turned his back on the hooded man and walked away.  He moved toward a black steed tied to a post just outside the keep in the distance.

“Wait!”  I called out as I followed behind him.  “I must get something I left behind.”

“All right.”  The stranger mounted his horse.  “Fetch it quickly and let’s be on our way.”

I doubled back to my stone prison.  The guards allowed me to pass, and I made my way down the stairs and back into my former cell.  I knelt down over the expired guard and snatched his leather coin pouch from his waist.  I emptied out the gold coins and collected his severed tongue off the ground. I placed the tongue into the deep pouch, closed it up, and tied it around my neck.

“Thank you,” I whispered into the dead guard’s ear.  “I will gladly accept this generous donation toward a future potion.”

I reconvened with the stranger as the hooded man looked on from afar.  He wore his anger like a second suit of armor.  He still wanted to kill me, but had lost his chance.  The feeling was mutual.

“Did you get what you needed?”  The stranger asked.

Yes, I did.”  I patted the pouch around my neck with a gentle touch.  “A little going away present of sorts.”

“Oh?”  He said.  “And what little treasure was too tempting to resist?”

“Nothing special,” I said.  “Just an old conversation piece.”

The stranger reached into his pack and dropped a pair of boots onto the ground.

“These may not be the right size, but they will at least protect your feet until we reach Amaranthine.”  He scooted forward on the saddle to make room.  “The markets are bound to have more suitable attire for you, but we can’t very well have you freezing to death before we arrive.”

I slipped my feet into the boots.  They were large and fit comically, like a father’s shoes would fit a child, but I was grateful for the protection nonetheless.  I had always fancied something a bit more Orlesian in design, but was content to let fashion come at a later date.

The stranger extended his hand to help me climb up.  He clicked his heels against the muscular sides of the horse and we were off.  I wondered what the future would hold for an outcast like me, but in that moment, I felt something that I had not felt in years: happiness.

“Baby brother, is it really you?” I said.

“I suppose there’s no longer a need to keep up the charade.”  He cracked the reins to speed up the horse.  “It is good to see you, my dear sister.  I would much prefer to address you as ‘Schala’ than ‘witch’.”

“You’re all grown up, brother,” I said.  “How long has it been?”

“Well.”  He paused.  “It’s been seven years since you were taken.”

“Seven years?”  I brushed my hair off of my face.  “Can this be true?”

“I’m afraid it is, Schala.  I am sorry that it took me so long to find you.”  He reached back and took my hand.  “I never stopped trying to find you, sister, but I was just a boy then.  I know that you will probably never be able to forgive our mother, but… well, I’m not sure that I can either.”

For the first time in my life, I shed tears of joy.  I had assumed the incident from my youth had left me without a family.  But my baby brother had been out there all along.

“Seven years,” I whispered.  “That must make you a man of twenty years now.”

“Twenty-one, to be exact.”  He squeezed my hand once more, and then returned his grip to the reins.  “We will have many missed birthday celebrations to catch up on once we get to Amaranthine.”

“That sounds lovely.”  I leaned my head forward to rest against his back.  “So, why Amaranthine?”

“Because there is someone there that wants to meet you,” he said.  “Is very anxious to, in fact.”

“Meet me?” I said.  “I am but a peasant.  A farmhand.  A nobody.”

“Aye, you may be a peasant and a farm hand, but you are far from a nobody.”  He grinned.  “You will see that for yourself in time.”

“It is so good to see you, baby brother.”  My eyelids drooped as the lull of the horse’s gallop filled my ears.  “I have so many questions to ask you.”

“I know, and I look forward to answering them,” he said.  “But for now, why don’t you try and get some rest?  We don’t have many days of peace left.  Best to savor them whilst we can.”

Noble Blog Series #5: What’s Taking So Long?

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I first began work on New World Order in September of 2012. Since that time, I have seen several self-imposed deadlines come and go. There have been periods of significant creative boost, and other periods where I wanted to throw it all in the trash and walk away. So, what exactly is going on and why is this book taking so long?

Truth be told, New World Order wasn’t my first choice when selecting my next project. The plan was to take a break after Bloodlines and channel my creativity into a new story. Believe it or not, I started writing two other books, but I didn’t get very far with either of them. I thought they were fun ideas—both of which I still intend to explore later—but in the back of my mind, ideas for the end of the Noble trilogy kept creeping toward the front of the line.

By September of 2012, Bloodlines was already five months old. Unlike the original Noble, it ended in traditional cliffhanger fashion, which I had hoped would entice readers to hang around for the finale. Little did I know that it was my own brain that couldn’t wait to see how the story would play out. This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.

With the social media shit storm I’d endured following the release of Mass Effect 3, I felt a lot of trepidation. My fan base is not even within a stone’s throw through a mass relay of Mass Effect’s, but the experience taught me a lot about passion and expectation.

Although I was pretty happy with the majority of new ideas I’d come up with for New World Order, I found myself overthinking it and even second-guessing a lot of them. Some ideas, once high on my list, didn’t even make it into the book.

I went through my outline and put each plot point under the microscope. I had to ask myself if these kernels had potential, if they were compelling, and if they were airtight enough to not poke holes in. I tested them personally, looking for deus ex machina, damsel in distress tropes, and missing logic. When I’d reach a point where I felt content, I’d write a little bit and then start the whole process over again.

As of this writing, I am down to the final chapter. On one hand I am very excited to complete the book and get it into the hands of readers, but on the other, I’m sad to see the trilogy come to an end. These characters have meant an awful lot to over the past four years and hopefully to the reader as well.

After the dust settles, I really only have one wish: That readers will feel satisfied, and that the series received the send-off that it deserved. Even though I am saying goodbye to a series that contains more blood, sweat and tears than I ever imagined, I am excited about what the future may bring. You never know, some of these characters might even live on…

Noble Blog Series #4: A New Challenger Has Entered the Ring!

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains references to previous events from the Noble series.

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Within the opening lines of Noble, we’re introduced to Jane Emmett: A troubled teenager from Ashley Falls. However, her story, like many others in the series, is connected to Alyssa Noble. The main story arc has centered on Alyssa because her existence in the world has driven the motivations of many other forces, both natural and supernatural. Miller, Puckett, the Rayburn family, Icarus, the Seda, the Civil Parrish—Alyssa played a hand in all of their fates.

As far as antagonists go, Alyssa Noble is a bit of an enigma to me, even though I created her. Sure, she’s diabolical, and has left a trail of carnage throughout the series, but at the end of the day, she’s fighting for the survival of her kind by any means necessary. Although she is incapable of expressing it through words, I imagine she is quite lonely. I don’t loathe her. In fact, I have empathy for her.

As crucial as Alyssa is to the plot, we find out in Bloodlines that there are other sinister players lurking in the shadows—watching… waiting. During the raid on a chemist’s lab in Savannah, the team uncovers first traces of a man named Gibbard through a series of old letters. This new lead, while intriguing, is separate from the case they’re investigating, so, Puckett decides to do some digging on his own. By the closing moments of Bloodlines, we have a connection: Rayburn and Gibbard.

As dangerous as Alyssa has been, her perilous ways take a backseat in New World Order, allowing an even deadlier foe to emerge: Father Gibbard. Operating under the radar of the FBI, Gibbard quietly served as architect to a master plan, devoting ninety years of his life to orchestrating the end of the world. The grand finale is set for September 30, 2014… all he needs now is the last piece of the puzzle.

What’s the deal with the name Gibbard?

Some readers may have noticed that this is not the first time Gibbard’s name has shown up in my books. It’s not laziness, I swear. 🙂 In truth, I’ve added a character named Gibbard to each of my books as an homage to Death Cab For Cutie’s front man, Ben Gibbard, who is something of an inspiration for me.

The first appearance of Gibbard’s name popped up in the original Noble. He was the harmless Smith family chauffeur that drove Miller to his meeting with Phillip’s father. And that was my plan, really: Find some innocuous character in the story and sneak the name in as an Easter egg, the same way as Final Fantasy had done with “Cid.” However, that plan backfired when I got to Bloodlines.

If I’m being honest, I had no idea where the story would go next after Bloodlines. It wasn’t until I neared the end that I came up with the idea for New World Order. I realized that with Alyssa dealt with, I needed a new enemy to replace her. Of course, Scythe fit that role handsomely, but I didn’t think that was enough for an entire book. That’s when I reviewed previous events in the story and started brainstorming.

The chemist in Savannah’s story made the most sense. He didn’t make a very compelling antagonist on his own, so I fleshed out a backstory for him. What was his motivation? Was he just following orders? If so, who was giving those orders, and what was their end game? Before I knew it, my imagination had been sparked, and I had enough to expand upon.

The only problem was that the chemist took his orders from Gibbard. I couldn’t go back, though. I was already too in love with the idea. By complete accident, I’d just given a starring role to my innocuous character used to sneak in my signature Easter egg. Whoops.

So, there you have it: The story behind the repeated presence of Gibbard, and his unplanned rise to power in New World Order. A valuable lesson has been learned, and we have likely seen the last of the Gibbard name in my books going forward. I’m sure Ben would prefer it that way as well. 🙂