Web Serial: Echoes of Shadow Chapter 3: The Waterfall

The rays from the afternoon sun blanketed the vast fields of wheat and barley as Dobrius passed by on the road. He whistled the tune of “Old Man Henry” as he walked, twirling a twig of wheat between his teeth.

The Van’dar farm, his destination, came up on his left. It was one of the largest farms in Jabar Valley, covering most of the northern region and butting up against the Wall of the Ancients. Dobrius looked longingly at the Wall in the distance. Oh, how I would love to go beyond it, he thought. But that was impossible, of course. Or so his mother told him. “I forbid you to leave,” she would always say. He would counter by telling her how unfair it was, then stalk off to shoot pumpkins.

Dobrius turned down the dirt path leading to the main farmhouse. He was halfway down the path when a screech caused him to turn around in surprise.

A figure, covered in tan clothing with a cloth mask and dark-colored goggles shielding his face, rode a reptilian creature with green and brown scales down the highway. His cloak whipped in the wind behind him as the creature waddled at a surprising pace. The reptile made a hissing sound as it leapt over a boulder. Old man Poepa and his trusty “steed”.

Poepa turned his head and took a long look at Dobrius. Then he raised a hand and gave the lad a two-finger salute.

Dobrius nodded in return and followed Poepa and Rose, Poepa’s lizard, with his eyes until a cloud of dust concealed them. Oh to be free like him, Dobrius thought. The stories Poepa told of the outside world always packed the Torgath Inn as he sat in front of the fireplace rocking in an old, creaky chair. He didn’t come often, about as frequently as the merchants from Arks Portas or Durango, and he didn’t bring physical wares to trade or sell, but he brought an invaluable currency – stories. I best be hurrying. I don’t want to miss any of Poepa’s stories. He turned his attention back to the matter at hand.

He approached the door to the large farmhouse at the center of the Van’dar farm and knocked. No one came to the door. He knocked again, louder this time.

“I’m coming!” a voice shouted from within. A moment later the door swung open and there stood Elise, the angelic-like girl he dreamed about. Her dark brown hair was tied back and flowed behind her shoulders. Her bosom heaved in the dark blue dress she wore. She put her hands on her hips and gave him a distinctly non-angelical stern look, green eyes boring holes into him. “Dobrius al’Kar, what are you doing making such a racket at this time of day?”

Dobrius snapped his gaping mouth shut. Maintain eye contact, he thought. No need to make her angrier. “But…but,” he stammered, “it’s afternoon.” He pointed to the sun in the western sky.

“Exactly. I was enjoying a nice cup of tea until you started banging on the door.”

“Who is it, Elise?” a female voice came from further within the house.

Elise turned her head. “Just Dobrius, mother. I’ll be back in a minute.” She turned back to Dobrius, stepped outside, barefoot, and shut the door behind her. “Thanks for playing along,” she said.

Dobrius gaped at her. “Oh…I…you’re welcome,” he said. I thought she was serious, he thought. One could never tell with women.

“What do you say we get out of here?” she asked, winking at him before breezing by.

“Well, um, I have work to do.” Dobrius touched his tool belt and turned to face her. “One of your father’s golems needs repairing.”

Elise continued on her path down the steps of her home. She twirled her dress and gave him a sly look. “I’ll come with you.”

“Uh…” He looked, hurriedly, down her body and stared at her feet. “You’re not wearing shoes.” He met her eyes.

She cocked her head to one side and gave him a no-nonsense look. “I grew up on this farm, Dobrius, I can walk barefoot around it if I want. You can protect your city-slicker feet if you want. I’m not as delicate as you believe.”

Oh, don’t worry, I don’t think that, he thought. But all he said was “I know.”

“Well what are you waiting for? Let’s go. Which one is it?”

“Bronson, over in quadrant three.”

“Old Bron, eh? What’s this, the tenth time you’ve fixed him?”

“At least.”

Elise shook her head. “I keep telling father to get rid of the old hunk of rust, but he doesn’t listen to me. ‘You’ll understand one day, Elise, when you grow up, that you don’t just throw things out when they stop working,’” she said in a deep voice, mocking her father.

Dobrius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…fixing your father’s golems helps keep a roof over my head, so I really don’t mind.”

Elise blinked. “Oh, I forgot about that.” It was her turn to study Dobrius’ feet.

“Poepa just passed by,” Dobrius blurted, hoping to change the subject away from finances.

“Oh?” Elise asked, perking up.

Dobrius puffed up his chest. “Yep, he was heading toward town. Want to come with me, after I fix Bron?”

“Of course!” Elise said, twirling again in her blue dress and ending facing the direction of the third quadrant. “Let’s hurry or we’ll miss half his stories.”

“You’re talking to the best mechanic in the valley,” Dobrius boasted. “We’ll be done in flash.”

The two trudged through the field of knee-high wheat toward the barley fields. That was where the golems would be working at this time of year. Indeed, they exited the wheat and beheld the mechanical work-men.

The golems towered over men, standing ten feet tall. Their ancient gears ground, groaned and whirred as they wielded massive rakes to hoe and churn the soil in preparation for planting. Their blue eyes glowed in their metal skulls as they focused on their task. They did not pay the newcomers any mind.

“There’s Bron,” Elise said, pointing toward an immobile golem near the center of the work crew.

Dobrius nodded. “Thanks.” Sure, he would’ve figured that out himself – Bron was the only golem not moving – but he appreciated her trying to help. She would make a good wife in a couple years when she turned eighteen. She’ll probably marry some rich merchant’s son, he thought. That would be fitting for the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in the river valley. She was practically royalty, or at least what Dobrius assumed royalty was like – the river folk didn’t have kings or queens. He knew only what he’d heard in Poepa’s stories.

They approached Bron, and Dobrius circled him once while Elise looked on. “What’s the problem this time, big guy?” He made note of the hanging head and the limp arms. He froze when he looked in the eye sockets. They no longer glowed. “That can’t be,” he said.

“What is it?” Elise said.

“His eyes. They aren’t glowing.”

“But they always glow, don’t they? Even if the golem is broken?”

Dobrius could only nod.

“Then what does that mean?”

Dobrius didn’t answer. He removed a tool from his belt, a long, thin rod of metal shaped like a crowbar but with a special cross-shaped head on one end. He fit the head into a matching design on the back of Bron and turned the rod several times. A screw slowly retracted from Bron’s back and fell into Dobrius’ hand. He repeated the measure four times, then he dropped the screws to the ground and removed the back plate. Dread gripped his heart at the thought of what he suspected he would find.

“His core is gone,” Dobrius said, his voice deadpan.

“Gone?” Elise repeated. “But how?”

“I…I…” Dobrius had never been trained for this eventuality. The core of a golem couldn’t be removed, every mechanic worth his salt knew that. To even try to remove the core from a golem would result in the person being killed by a jolt of massive energy. He’d seen it happen to another boy during his apprenticeship. “I don’t know,” he admitted, backing away from the golem.

“You can’t just leave him here like this, his back exposed,” Elise reminded him.

Dobrius shook his head.

Elise came and stood in front of him. She put her hands on his shoulders and shook him. “Snap out of it, Dobrius. You’re the mechanic here. Now is not the time to panic.”

He looked down to where one of her dainty hands gripped his shoulder. I wish she would keep her hand there forever, he thought fleetingly. But, she was right. Deep down he knew she was right. But still…who could have removed the core without dying? “We have to go town. Tell Master Martin.”

Elise nodded. “Now you’re thinking.” She smiled, clearly trying to reassure him. “I’ll go with you.”

Dobrius nodded but something caught his attention before he turned around. Footprints. Big footprints. He pointed. “There.” He didn’t wait for Elise and went toward the footprints. He knelt and ran his hand around the edge of the first print. Something had walked up to this point, stopped, and then turned and walked back the way it had come. “These are golem footprints,” Dobrius said. “But they came from…” he lifted his eyes. “The forest.”

“Could it be a lumber golem?” Elise asked.

Dobrius shook his head. “A lumber golem would have no business leaving the forest.”

“Then what kind do you think it was?”

Dobrius met her eyes. “I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” He rose and headed toward the forest.

“Dobrius, wait!” she called. “What about going back to town?”

“No time,” he called back. “These footsteps are fresh. I don’t want to lose the trail.”

“What are you going to do if you find it?” she asked.

“Find some answers, hopefully,” Dobrius said. “One way or another,” he muttered to himself. He fingered the hilt of one of his pistols, safely holstered and hanging from his belt.

He passed the forest’s edge. A rustling from behind caused him to turn. Elise had hiked up her dress and was following him, barefoot. Fool girl, he thought, not daring to share the thought aloud. “Go back home,” he said, half plea, half order.

“I’m not letting you go off alone to get your fool self killed by some rogue golem. I’m coming and that’s final.” She reached where he stood and let go of her dress, then put her hands on her hips. Already her feet were covered in dirt. She paid them no mind but instead glared at him, as if daring him to tell her again to turn back.

Dobrius sighed and turned back to the tracks. “Okay, you can come with me.”

“How nice of you to allow me to accompany you,” she said sardonically.

He bit his tongue. Fool, he thought again, this time, referring to himself.

“Give me your knife,” she said.

He quirked an eyebrow at her.

She widened her eyes and motioned to his belt. “Give me your knife. Please.”

He sighed and withdrew his skinning knife from its sheath. He flipped it and caught it by the blade. He extended it toward her hilt first.

She snatched it from his hand with delicate precision and proceeded to grab the bottom of her dress and slice through the fabric.

He gaped. That dress was worth a month’s rent for his mother and him. “What…” was all he could blurt out.

She paid him no mind, but continued slicing. Ribbons of blue fabric fell around her like a wreath. When she was finished, she handed the knife back to him, hilt first. “I can’t exactly go tromping through the woods in a dress now, can I? The last thing I need is to be getting snagged on tree branches and end up tripping. Or do you want me to get hurt?”

He swallowed, shook his head and took the knife from her, re-sheathing. Women, he thought. He turned back toward the trail.

They walked through the woods in silence. Dobrius kept his eyes on the giant tracks that he felt sure could only be created by a golem. As they went, he could hear a water fall. “We’re near Glistening Falls,” he said quietly, looking back at Elise.

She merely nodded impatiently, legs covered in dirt and…was that blood?

“You’re bleeding,” he observed.

She looked down and gave her leg a dismissive glance. “It’s nothing. I’ve had worse climbing trees behind the house. Keep moving.”

Several minutes later the tracks led them to Silver Lake, the destination for the water that flowed down the Glistening Falls from lakes high in the Barrier Mountains. Dobrius halted. The tracks disappeared behind the waterfall. “Stay here,” he hissed.

She stepped forward, as if to follow him.

He pointed at her and then the ground and put on his sternest expression. “I mean it, Elise. Stay here until I can be sure it’s safe.” He softened his expression. “I just don’t want you getting hurt.”

“How chivalrous,” she said before rolling her eyes. “Fine, if it will assuage your concerns and help you better focus, I’ll stay here.”

I wish she would have decided to do that before we entered the forest, he thought.

Dobrius withdrew his pistol, checking to make sure all three barrels were loaded. Then sliding his short sword from its sheath, he crept toward the waterfall. There must be a cave back there, he thought.

Indeed, when he reached the damp stone next to the waterfall he found a pathway leading to a cave hidden behind it. He had never ventured to this part of the woods, so he was unfamiliar with this particular cave, though he knew they were a common feature among waterfalls throughout the river valley. He followed the path into the cave.

It was gloomy, as expected, but as his eyes adjusted to the darker conditions he noticed a blue glow coming from further in the cave. Could that be the missing core? he wondered. He crept down the damp stone corridor toward the source of the light. He came to a corner moments later and peeked around.

A golem stood over a body, its blue eyes gleaming in the darkness. It appeared to be looking down at the body.

Dobrius could not tell whether the person was alive or dead. Nor did he care. This monstrosity needed to be stopped. He stepped out from around the corner and pointed his tri-shooter at the golem. “Stop right there,” he ordered.

The golem’s head jerked up. “Oh, hello,” he said in a mechanical voice.

Dobrius stared in shock. Golems weren’t supposed to speak. Yes, they possessed the capability to speak, but they never did. He cleared his throat. “Is that…are they…dead?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from cracking. A shiver ran up his spine as he tried to remain steadfast and brave.

The golem looked down again. “Yes, I am afraid all life signs have ceased from this man.”

“Did you kill him?” His finger rested against the trigger.

“Of course not,” the golem actually sounded surprised. “I was following some persons of interest when I happened upon this body hidden behind the waterfall.”

“A likely story. How do I know you aren’t lying to me?”

“I swear on my maker,” the golem said, putting a fist to its chest.

Dobrius snorted. “I don’t know who your maker is, so that does me a fat lot of good.” He paused. “What’s your name?”

“Stormhammer.”

“I haven’t seen you around here, Stormhammer, and I’ve seen all the golems in the river valley at least once. Where are you from?”

“Oh, I’m not from here, sir. I journeyed from Arks Portas. I’m a constable there.”

“A constable? Like upholding the law and stuff?”

“Of course. You don’t have constables here?”

“We do, but they’re human, not…mechanical.”

“I did think it odd the golems here served in the fields.”

“One of the golems had its core removed. Do you know anything about that?”

Stormhammer’s eyes narrowed, the light diminishing. “No, but I suspect it to be the work of the criminals I am following.”

“Who are these criminals?”

“They are murderers and thieves down from the Dark Shale. They serve…well…I don’t know who they serve. But I tracked them here.”

Dobrius removed his finger from the trigger of his pistol and holstered it. He slid his sword back in its sheath. He tipped his head up. “Mind if I look at the body?”

Stormhammer took a step back and gestured. “Be my guest. What is your name?”

“Dobrius.”

“It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dobrius.”

“Yeah, sure,” Dobrius said dismissively as he approached the body. Who knew golems would speak so properly? He and Elise would get on swell. Dobrius knelt down. “Can you shed any more light? Or light a torch or something?”

“One moment.” Stormhammer’s chest plate slid aside with a whir, revealing his blue core which was protected by a clear glass-like material.

Dobrius shielded his eyes for a moment, then studied the corpse. “A huntsman,” he said. He touched the broach on the man’s vest indicating he belonged to the Order of the Stag, the woodsmen and hunters that protected the forests from poachers, hunted for food and kept the river valley safe from dangerous predators. “How did you die?” he asked the corpse, knowing he would receive no reply.

“He received multiple wounds to the back. They appear to be caused by arrowheads, though I could find no evidence of arrows within the cave. He bled to death.”

Dobrius took Stormhammer’s word for it, judging by the drying pool of blood beneath the body. He didn’t recognize the man, but then there were dozens of huntsmen and he didn’t often venture far into the woods to meet them. He stood up. “We have to head back to town and tell the constable what we found.” He hesitated. “Can you carry the body?”

“Certainly,” Stormhammer said. “Though we would be contaminating the crime scene.”

“Well, by the time we got back, coyotes or wolves could have gotten to him, so we either need to bring him or one of us needs to stay and stand guard.”

“I believe it would indeed be prudent to bring him.” Stormhammer bent down and lifted the huntsman. “Lead the way, Dobrius.”

Dobrius and Stormhammer exited the cave.

Elise, still in the spot where Dobrius had left her, laid eyes on Stormhammer and screamed louder than the waterfall from behind which the duo had emerged.

Dobrius held up a hand to assuage her fears. “It’s okay!” he shouted over the din. “He’s friendly.”

“He’s carrying a body!” Elise shouted back. She took a step back.

Dobrius sighed. It wasn’t what it looked like. “He’s on our side!” He continued walking toward her.

She didn’t back up any further, but she didn’t take her eyes off Stormhammer either.

For his part, Stormhammer had stopped several feet away. “I do believe I have scared the young lady.”

Dobrius rolled his eyes and looked over his shoulder. “What gave it away? Let me handle this.” He continued walking until he was a foot away from Elise. “Listen,” he whispered, “he’s a constable from up north and he’s investigating a murder. He didn’t kill that man.”

“A constable? A golem as a constable?” Elise said, doubt heavy in her voice.

“I wondered the same thing. But, oddly, I believe him.”

“He didn’t show you a badge?”

“I didn’t ask,” Dobrius said, feeling a bit foolish.

Elise glared at him for a few moments, then peered around him and directed her fiery gaze at Stormhammer. “I don’t trust him.”

“He’s done nothing to hurt us,” Dobrius argued. “He could have killed me in that cave, but he didn’t. Let’s at least see him to town and let him talk with the authorities there.”

She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine. But if we end up dead, Dobrius, so help me I’ll make the underworld even worse for you.”

“Yes, dear,” he said without thinking. Why did I say that? I’m not courting her. He wondered if his face was as red as it felt.

Elise gave him an odd look, but said nothing, only turned around toward the way they’d come.

Dobrius faced Stormhammer and beckoned to him. “Let’s go,” he said. He then walked ahead of Elise.

“Oh no you don’t,” Elise said, laying a hand on Dobrius’ shoulder and spinning him around. “I don’t want to be the first victim of the monster. You stay behind me.”

He refrained from sighing. He felt as if that was all he’d spent that day doing. He gave a slight nod. “Of course.” M’lady, he thought.

Elise led the way through the woods. Several minutes later the trio exited near the same field Dobrius and Elise had been at earlier.

Something seemed off. Dobrius took a mental count of the golems. “Bron is missing,” he said.

“He was broken,” Elise observed. “Where would he have gone?”

“Who is this Bron?” Stormhammer inquired.

“A broken harvester golem,” Dobrius replied absentmindedly. “Elise, I guess your father must have come along and carted him back.” He left out the fact there were no cart tracks, but there were footprints leading toward the road.

“I see no evidence of a cart in the vicinity,” Stormhammer said, poking a cart-sized hole in Dobrius’ speculation. “There are, however, footprints consistent with a golem’s heading toward the road.”

“Thanks for pointing that out,” Dobrius said dryly. “Come on, let’s see where he went.”

They followed the footprints of the broken-not-broken golem to the road. There they merged with the tracks from regular foot traffic and were lost. Dobrius checked the other side of the road but the tracks did not continue. “North or south,” he said. “Take your pick.”

“I would say considering the fact we must take this body to your village, and your village is to the south, we should go south,” Stormhammer said.

“That’s logical, I guess,” Dobrius said. Where the heck is that golem going,, and how is it moving without a core?

***

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Stormguard: The Invisible War – Part I

Hello and welcome. As one of the authors featured in SciFan Magazine, I’m pleased to be able to present to you my ongoing serial, Stormguard: The Invisible War. I ‘ll be posting it here, from the beginning. A new episode each month. So, I hope you stick around and read my story. Just as a note, this is not your typical guardian angel story. These special, elite agents have high-tech assistance and I think you will find it quite different than some might imagine. Give it a try.


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Stormguard: The Invisible War

Part I

Copyright © 2016, 2017 by Tom Fallwell

The first thing I remembered was the pain. Nothing but intense pain that seemed to encompass my entire being. It was intense and sharp, yet I couldn’t voice a scream. I wanted to scream, as if that simple act might lessen the agony, reduce the torture.

As the excruciating seconds passed, I became aware of more. I could feel my hands and feet, arms and legs, surprisingly free of any discomfort. Breath moved in and out of my lungs, also without anguish. I felt the soft touch of grass on my back. I finally realized, the pain was not a physical pain, but a torment only in my mind. It felt like part of my soul had been ripped away from me and I ached for its return.

With laborious effort, I opened my eyes. I was immediately blinded by the brightness of the sunlight piercing my vision, but gradually I focused on the sky above me. Wispy clouds drifted high above, barely moving. The blue above the clouds was inviting, comforting, and I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin.

My first attempt at movement was to turn my head and look around me. The grass around me was blackened and burnt. I seemed to be lying in a shallow hole or depression.

Testing my arms and legs, I found movement stiff, but possible. Slowly I raised myself up and stood on wobbly legs, but my balance and strength returned swiftly.

I was in what looked to be a small blast crater, in the center of a flat area surrounded by large hills. The landscape was covered with high grass and wildflowers, with a few maples scattered in the distance, near the foot of the hills. There were no signs of civilization.

Flexing my arms and back muscles, I turned back to stare in shock at where I’d lain. It looked like a bomb had exploded, burning everything except the patch of grass that had apparently been protected by my body. A pile of red dirt ringed the hole. It was as if I had hit the ground like a meteor, creating this odd crater in the earth.

Then it hit me.

Who am I?

I couldn’t remember my name. In fact, I couldn’t remember anything. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. I knew language. I had educated knowledge, but no memory at all of anything that included me. I felt my pockets. No wallet. Nothing that might tell me who I am.

I felt my face and head, checking myself for any injuries or anything unusual, but all seemed to be in order, which struck me as strange. There were no scars, no cuts, no bruises. In fact, I didn’t seem to have any injuries whatsoever. My heartbeat, my breathing felt relaxed and normal. I seemed to be a picture of health. I felt strong and agile, but couldn’t remember exercising or getting in shape.

Who was I? How did I get here? What had happened to me?

Those thoughts pushed at my mind, demanding answers, but none were forthcoming. I was lost in the middle of nowhere. Yet somehow, I knew I was in the United States of America. If I was going to find answers, I had to start moving.

The sun was just above the horizon, but was it rising or setting? Without that knowledge, I had no sense of direction.

Or did I? A strange sensation came over me, like invisible forces pulling at me from a multitude of directions. I couldn’t explain it, but immediately I knew which way was north. How could I know that? It was as if I could feel the magnetic fields of the earth around me. So, if that was north, then the sun was rising. It was morning.

A roaring sound from overhead caused me to look upward. A plane high in the sky, heading east.

Another odd sensation came over me. It was as if my sight zoomed in on the plane and I was viewing it up close. I could see the markings, the faces in the windows, and I immediately knew the plane was a Boeing 747, carrying eighty-four passengers and crew, and heading for the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. How could I know that? It was as if my mind was processing minute information and calculating possibilities. What a strange feeling.

I knew these abilities, these sensations, were not normal. This was something that went beyond normal, and it made me wonder not only who I was, but perhaps what I was.

I had flesh. To confirm that for myself, I picked up a rock and scratched the flesh of my forearm. Blood oozed from the wound. That was normal, at least.

Yet, my mind seemed far more calculating and faster than should be humanly possible. I had no idea how I knew that, but I knew.

Looking at the scratch on my arm, I was shocked to see the wound closing itself, healing at a rapid pace. Within mere seconds, there was no wound at all, only a small amount of blood drying on the surface.

“I guess I better get moving,” I said to myself. Hearing my own voice reassured me that I was alive. My voice was deep and natural, and nothing seemed odd about it. I began a strong and fast-paced stride to the east, easily making my way over the uneven terrain.

A thousand-yard jog brought me to the edge of a field of wheat, the first sign of civilization I’d seen. An asphalt road lay on the other side.

The field was large, the wheat still young and growing. A rolling center-pivot sprinkler system watered the growing crop automatically. I had to dodge the sprinkler to keep from getting soaked, but I eventually made it to the road, a rural two-lane blacktop running north and south.

Not sure which direction to go, I headed north. It wasn’t long before I heard a vehicle approaching from behind me, and turned to see a late model, black Ford truck coming up the road. I stuck out my thumb, hoping to hitch a ride, and the truck graciously pulled over to the side.

“What’n tarnation are ya doin’ out here on foot?” said the elderly gentlemen behind the wheel. His face was worn and rugged from outdoor labor, with bright gray eyes and a concerned smile on his thin-lipped mouth. He wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans, with dirt-caked, brown boots. A wide-brimmed straw hat sat upon his head, shading his face from the bright, summer sun.

“Hi,” I said with a wave of my hand. I figured it best not to have to answer too many questions until I knew more about what was what, so I made up a plausible story to explain my being alone on the highway. “I … uh … broke down and didn’t have my cell phone with me. Can you take me to the nearest town?”

“Well,” he said, “I jus’ left Hinton. I’m headin’ up to El Reno to get some parts for my sprinklers. I can take ya back to Hinton if ya need, or you can ride with me to El Reno.”

I smiled and nodded as I opened the passenger door. “El Reno will be just fine.” The name of the city tugged at my consciousness. Not a memory, exactly, but I felt as if something waited for me there.

He returned the smile and nodded pleasantly as I climbed into the cab. “Not a problem. Bill Hutchins is my name. Glad to give ya a hand.”

I would have loved to tell him my name, but I had no idea what it was. Thinking fast, I made one up on the spot. “Zak Storm. It’s a pleasure.”

We shook hands. He put the truck in gear and continued north along what I suddenly knew was Highway 8. I found that knowledge odd, as I couldn’t recall ever being out here before. I also knew Hinton was a small town in the western part of Oklahoma, and he was heading toward Interstate 40, which would take us east to El Reno.

“Storm, eh? I don’t recall any families around these parts named Storm. You look like ya had a rough time.” Bill nodded at my clothes.

For the first time, I realized my clothes where in shambles, as if I’d been wrestling with a mountain lion. My jeans were covered in dirt and huge rip ran up the lower left leg. My blue-cotton shirt was torn down one side and covered in dirt and black soot, no doubt from the burned-out crater I’d awakened in.

“Uh … I had a hard time under my car, trying to see what was wrong. It’s a ’96 Camaro, low to the ground.” It was amazing how quickly I seemed to be able to pull such plausible explanations out of my –

“You should get ya a truck. Much easier to work on than them sports cars.” He grinned, but kept his eyes on the road ahead. “Did ya lose your ring?”

I was caught off-guard by that question and looked to see a white circle around the middle finger of my right hand, indicating there had been a ring there. The skin around it was darker from sun exposure. These country farmers sure are observant.

“Yeah, not sure what happened to it. Must’ve come off while I was under the car, but it’s nothing special.”

I had no idea if it was special or not. The fact that it was on my middle finger told me it wasn’t a wedding ring. I hadn’t even thought about whether I was married or not. The width of the band on my finger indicated it was a large ring.

Is this something important? Was this a clue to my identity?

I should have searched the area around the crater. Maybe I can come back and search later.

“Zak!” said Bill for the second time, bringing my thoughts back to the present.

It took a second to realize he was calling me by the name I’d made up.

I looked at him apologetically. “Yeah, sorry. Was thinking about my car and how much it’s going to cost me to get a wrecker out there.”

“That’s ok,” he said. “Jus’ wanted to tell ya that there’s some jerky in the glove box if you’re hungry.”

“Thanks.” I opened the glove box to find a large bag of homemade jerky, about a pound or more. I opened the bag and took out a stick, biting into it and chewing. It wasn’t bad. In fact, the taste was very intense and appealing.

The drive didn’t take long, less than thirty minutes. El Reno was a busy if not overly large city. As he drove down a road near the Interstate we came across a donut shop. That same pulling sensation that had prompted me to go to El Reno, pulled at me when I saw the shop. I felt a strong desire to stop here.

“This’ll be fine, Bill,” I said. “Can you let me out here?” Bill pulled over and stopped, allowing me to exit the truck.

“Ya sure you’ll be alright?” he asked.

I nodded and smiled. “I’ll be fine. Thanks for the ride.”

“Anytime.” Bill nodded, gave a polite wave, then pulled away back onto the street.

I looked at the little store. The sign read Heavenly Donuts. It was a small establishment with a large front window and a few booths; a line of six stools sat along the main counter. I had no wallet, no identification, and no money. As I passed through the door, I expected to get some stares at my tattered clothing, but none of the four middle-aged patrons gave me a second glance as I walked to a booth and sat down. A young woman wearing a white apron, and holding a pen and pad, came up to me.

“What can I get ya?” she asked.

I felt really lost, but I was thirsty and didn’t want to come off as a bum.

“How about a coffee and a glass of ice water?” I wondered if I would go to jail if I couldn’t pay.

The woman brought my order within minutes. I drained the cool water, leaving only ice in the glass.

What am I going to do? Why am I here?

I didn’t understand why, but for some reason I felt drawn to this place. I felt as if this was where I was supposed to be, even though I couldn’t remember ever being here before. It was an odd feeling, like a sixth sense that I couldn’t fully comprehend, but I knew I was waiting for something to happen.

I took a sip of the coffee as thoughts raced through my mind. Then I heard a voice that seemed disturbingly familiar. “Geez, Zak, you’re a mess. What happened?”

As I tried to place the voice in my addled mind, a young woman in blue jeans and a white button-down blouse slid into the booth across from me.

The first thing I noticed was her short, dark, pixie cut. Below that was a heart-shaped face, beautiful despite the lack of make-up; full lips, a button nose and intense, sassy blue eyes that now peered at me with a look of utter confusion.

I took in all these details within mere seconds. What hit me like a hammer to the head was the large, golden band on the middle finger of her right hand, and especially the intricately carved symbols across the top. It, too, felt familiar, like it was I that should have been the one wearing that ring.

“Do I know you?” I asked, turning my eyes back to her face.

“What?” she asked with surprise. She noticed my right hand. “Zak? Where’s your ring?”

This woman knew me. My name really was Zak. My mind reeled. Did she have the answers to explain my bizarre situation?

Swallowing hard, I said, “I don’t know. I seem to have lost it.” I met her eyes, which bored straight into my own. “Please, listen. I can’t remember who I am. You know me, right? Can you tell me what’s going on?”

I watched as her eyes reflected first confusion, then concern, and finally settling on pure amusement. This was followed by a sudden outburst of laughter.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding. This is truly priceless.”

Her mirth-filled eyes looked at me with delight, but also with a hint of concern. My mind wandered over the possibilities. Was she my sister? A girlfriend? Or just a companion?

She reached across the table and took my hands in hers, her gaze turning to one of compassion. A small and appealing smile remained on her lips.

“Zak? We must find your ring. Do you know where you lost it?”

“I know where I woke up, in a hole in the ground, if that’s what you mean.”

“Come on,” she said. “We have to find it.”

She took me by the hand and pulled me from the booth. She paid the waitress for my coffee and led me outside to a red ‘96 Camaro convertible. The top was down, revealing the white, leather interior. So much for my great imagination and original thinking. Seems what I thought I was making up for Bill was the truth.

“Get in,” she said as she hopped over the door into the driver’s seat.

I climbed into the passenger seat. “Who are you, exactly?” I asked, my mind whirling.

She looked at me and smiled, a warm and loving smile, as she started the engine. “I’m Uriel, your partner.”

“My partner?” More questions began to fill my mind. The confusion was maddening, especially with someone sitting next to me that seemed to know everything I didn’t.

“Look. I’m Uriel. You’re Zachariel. We must get your ring. Once you put your ring back on, all your questions will be answered.”

She peeled out of the lot in a hurry and sped off down the street, back towards I-40.

I turned to Uriel and opened my mouth to ask a question, but she held up a finger to silence me.

“No more questions,” she said, her face scowled with exasperation. “The ring will bring you all the answers. You must have lost it where you woke up. It probably came off during your descent.”

Descent? What in the world was she talking about?

“Just one question,” I said.

She put her hand back on the wheel and sighed. “Ok. One.”

“Am I human?”

Uriel’s eyes shown with delight as she gave a short bark of hilarity. “No.” She said no more.

The drive didn’t take long, and following my directions, we were soon on Highway 8 where I had hitched a ride with Bill.

“It’s just over a thousand yards west, on the other side of that wheat field,” I said. pointing.

Uriel pulled off to the side of the road and stopped the car. “Ok. Get out.”

I climbed out of the car and gazed across the field still being watered. I had a sudden feeling of going in circles, now back where I started, and still having no idea of who – or what – I was.

I suddenly felt Uriel’s arms around me from behind, holding me tightly against her with a strength I found surprising. Without warning, there was a sudden whooshing sound and we rose into the air. Turning my head, I saw a great pair of magnificent, white-feathered wings as she flew us across the field at a swift pace.

Moments later, I saw the crater below. We descended and landed next to the burned-out hole in the ground, where I had first roused from unconsciousness.

“Search the area,” she said. “It has to be here somewhere.”

As she started to look around, I saw those exquisite wings fold, then fade away into nothingness. It was hard to concentrate on searching for a ring with my mind so full of questions and possibilities. I couldn’t have been more confused if I’d fallen down a rabbit hole into the arms of a mad hatter at a tea party. She said we’re not human. What were we?

My head reeled with questions and speculative answers as we searched the crater. It didn’t take me long to find it under a patch of burned grass: a large, golden ring, identical to Uriel’s. I picked it up and it felt familiar. It felt cool to the touch and yet I could feel immense power emanating from the ring.

“I found it,” I said, holding it up and examining it.

“Well, don’t just stand there gawking at it,” she said, crossing her arms. “Put it on!”

As I slipped the ring onto the middle finger of my right hand, a furious rush of energy washed through my body. I felt my strength and stamina increase a hundred-fold, and all I had forgotten came pouring back into my mind. The sensation was one of intense, fantastic relief and comfort, mixed with a veritable surge of power throughout. I was whole again. I was Zachariel.

I was … an angel!

“Zak?” Uriel asked with a touch of concern.

I stuck my right thumb up in the air and nodded, chagrined by the fact I had lost my ring in the first place, not to mention my mind. My ring, my Halo, was what gave me the power and authority to do what angels must do, in service to the Almighty. Without it, my mind was a blank slate and I had no wings. Without it, I was barely more than a mortal.

“I can’t believe that happened,” I said with utter embarrassment, as the biological and electronic interfaces between my nervous system and the Halo integrated once more into a single, cohesive essence.

Uriel’s humorous amusement at what had happened to me, now that I was restored, finally overcame her concern and she burst into a tearful fit of laughter. “At least you got your wings back now, which is better than being one of the Fallen.”

I looked at her, realizing that for a short while, I was exactly that. One of the Fallen, one of the angels whose Halos had been neutralized. One who had permanently lost their wings. Then I realized the hilarity of the situation from her point of view and laughed as well. “Well, I’m not the first angel to have lost his wings. At least, I found mine again.”

“Well, now that the fun is over, what’s the assignment?” she asked, her laughter subsiding. Her eyes grew intense and the smile faded away to a sterner expression, her jaw set tight.

With my memories restored, I remembered why I was here and why I had planned to meet with Uriel at the donut shop in El Reno. I also remembered how I had lost my Halo in the first place. The humor of the entire situation gave way to more dire concerns.

“It was a shard of darkness that dislodged my ring as I descended,” I said. “The Fallen are up to something, and it’s now apparent they didn’t want me arriving on Earth. Or to meet with you.”

Uriel opened her mouth with unspoken shock. It was rare for the Fallen to attack an angel so blatantly. She understood the implications of such an act. The Fallen were well known for trying to cause trouble, but to attack a member of the Stormguard, directly, was an act of sheer desperation.

“What are they up to?” she wondered aloud.

“That’s what we need to find out. Our orders are to search for their coven somewhere near here.”

Uriel’s mirth had now fully given way to her staider nature, which I knew all too well. “Then let’s get started. I assume you have a lead?”

I nodded, ready to get on with our task. “There’s something unnatural going on at a place called Red Rock Canyon.”

Without another word, we both spread our wings to fly back to the car. In this state, we were completely invisible to mortal eyes, but we generally traveled in the guise of mortals. Once at the car, our wings faded away, their substance being absorbed back into our Halos. We got into the Camaro and headed south towards Red Rock Canyon. As we drove, I explained the detected emanation of power that had been picked up in the vicinity, a clear indication of demonic activity.

We hadn’t been sure that this was any reason to worry at first, but with the attack during my descent, it was clear there was indeed a reason. As angels, it was our sworn duty to protect, to battle the forces of Lucifer and his Fallen. They were up to something, and it was our responsibility to find out just what it was. The Stormguard were on the case.


Read more from Tom Fallwell

If you enjoyed my writing, then why not check out what else I’ve written. My latest book is a fantasy adventure called Dragonblood Throne: Legacy, and is currently available at many online retail outlets.

 

DBTL_smOrphaned as a young child and growing up alone in the forest, Delina lives a life of isolation; her only companion a saber-toothed panther. Her strange eyes frighten those she occasionally encounters, so she keeps to herself, until a young, wounded warrior ends up at her doorstep. As she nurses him back to health, she discovers she is more than just a young woman with unusual eyes, she is a dragonblood, destined to become the ruler of Almar.

Now hunted by the dark sorcerer who murdered her father, usurped his throne, and killed all her kin, she must find out how she can release the essence of the dragon inside her to defeat him. Everything depends upon her willingness to embrace her legacy and reclaim the Dragon Throne.

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Web Serial: The Wielders of Arantha, Book One -Pawns

WOA coverAn excerpt from Pawns (The Wielders of Arantha, Book1) by Patrick Hodges

 

PROLOGUE

The old woman lay on her bed, motionless, staring up at the ceiling of the only home she’d ever known. She was born in this room. She would die there too.

She’d laid her withered hands upon the Stone one last time the day before, feeling the surge of warm, familiar energy as it coursed through her frail body. Her mind beheld an array of familiar images: the past, present and future of her people, a history she helped shape. As the feeling of unity with Arantha began to subside, she felt suffused with a tremendous sense of inner peace. Her work finished, she would soon be welcomed into Arantha’s waiting arms.

For her people, the road ahead would be difficult. Their isolated way of life, the path Arantha put them on centuries ago, would end. The chain of events she’d set in motion with her final order would see to that. And it would be up to her daughter Kelia, as her successor, to discover a new path for them. New enemies would arise, as would new allies. She saw them all, time and time again, in her mind’s eye: the dark twins, the northern mage, the painted woman from the Above.

One last, lingering doubt crept through the old woman’s mind. She’d prepared Kelia for her role as Protectress her entire life, and though Kelia didn’t possess her mother’s level of foresight, her elemental abilities were unequaled. She was a strong leader, well-respected, and wise beyond her years. But would it be enough?

It has to be, she thought with a regretful sigh. To fail would mean oblivion for my people, and for all of Elystra.

Her vision darkened, a curtain of blackness that stole her sight one inch at a time. Her breath became ragged, and she felt her heart beat for the final time.

As her spirit left her body, her final thought was a silent prayer:

Arantha, watch over them.


 CHAPTER ONE

 Richard’s dead.

Maeve blinked back tears as the Talon powered through Earth’s atmosphere. They’d evaded the Jegg’s ground-based weapons, but that was merely the first line of defense.

Once they hit open space, their problems increased exponentially. She didn’t have to look at the sensors to confirm the Jegg ships were following them. The Talon was the first Earth ship to be airborne in five years. Even though the hull was black and silver, it may as well have been pink and yellow with a huge bull’s-eye painted on it.

For eighteen months, they’d planned this mission. With the help of his contacts in the Underground, Richard not only restored a junked Space Corps cargo ship but somehow combined a Jegg quantigraphic rift drive with a Terran supralight engine. Two completely different technologies, and he miraculously got them to speak the same language. This brilliant engineer, the man she fell in love and had a son with, was the key factor in the Underground’s last-ditch effort to find a way to escape the alien conquerors who had subjugated the human race.

They’d celebrated last night, the ten of them: Maeve, Richard, their fourteen-year-old son Davin, Richard’s protégé Gaspar, and the entire team that toiled in utmost secrecy to get this bucket off the ground. The mood was ebullient, as it seemed their mission would finally commence.

Mission! Maeve snorted as the ship burst through the stratosphere and out into open space. A Hail Mary is what it is. We’re hanging our last hope on the word of a shimmering alien being and praying there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Brushing strands of her purple, shoulder-length hair away from her face, she cast a sidelong glance at the copilot’s chair. Seeing its emptiness, a tear escaped her violet eyes.

Richard’s dead.

My husband is dead.

So are Manny, Kacy, Calvin, Ji-Yan, Suri, and Mahesh.

She chided herself. Now was not the time for these thoughts. They threw her adrenaline rush out of whack and disrupted the concentration she badly needed right now. There were still three lives to save, including her own. Fighting down her emotions, she called upon the piloting skills she spent fifteen years in the Space Corps sharpening.

Jegg fighters were nearly impossible to detect unless they were right in front of you, one of the reasons the Terran Defense Forces had been so helpless against them. Gaspar increased the sensors’ capabilities just enough for them to know fighters were in pursuit. Judging from the number of explosions detonating near the ship, causing it to rock back and forth like a kayak on white-water rapids, there had to be at least three of them.

Regaining her focus, Maeve banked sharply to the right and fired the sublight thrusters, making a beeline for the Asteroid Belt. Once they cleared that, and the Jegg dampening field that effectively rendered supralight technology inoperable, they could engage their makeshift QRD and be out of the Terran system in the blink of an eye.

The pursuing Jegg fighters increased their speed. They were gaining.

Maeve flipped a switch on her panel. “Gaspar!” she shouted. “I don’t think they’re gonna let us go without a fight!”

“Oh, ya think?” came a frazzled voice from the other end of the intercom.

“Any ideas?” Maeve asked. She pushed the steering column forward a few inches, and the Talon increased its speed. The vibrations intensified, as if the ship was about to fly apart at the seams.

“Hold on a sec,” Gaspar said, pausing briefly. “I’ve got four canisters of D34Z ready to jettison. Let me know when to detonate. Maybe we can take a few of ‘em out.”

She checked the sensors, which indicated five Jegg fighters in hot pursuit. “Stand by!”

The Belt loomed in front of them, millions of rocks that had floated in space between Mars and Jupiter for eons. A few more seconds, and they could lose themselves within it. Or die a fiery death.

Davin burst through the cockpit door, threw himself into the copilot’s chair, and fastened his safety belt. “Anytime you want to get us out of here, Mom . . .” Sweat and grime caked his freckled face and curly red hair, but his eyes shone with fierce determination.

She returned her gaze to the viewport, gripping her controls even tighter. “Don’t start, kiddo, we’re in some deep-level shite here. Where’ve you been?”

“Helping Gaspar load the canisters into the airlock. Let’s blow this pop stand and go, okay?”

“Roger that,” she said as another explosion rocked the ship. Into the intercom, she yelled, “G! Eject the first three canisters . . . now!”

The sound of a metal hatch clanging open echoed through the ship, followed by a whoosh of compressed air as three large, yellow containers shot from the airlock, one after the other. She followed their trajectories on the scanner, watching as the Jegg fighters pressed in.

“Detonate on my mark!”

Seconds ticked off as the enemy ships drew ever closer.

“Mark!”

A huge explosion violently rocked the Talon again. A control panel behind Davin sparked and began to smoke. He unhooked himself, leaped out of the chair, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and sprayed the panel with fire-suppressing foam.

Maeve checked her scanner again. Where before there were five faint blips following them, there were now only three, and one was falling behind, obviously crippled.

She allowed herself a smile. “Three down! Well done, G!”

“Major?” came Gaspar’s voice, laced with desperation. “We have a big problem!”

“What now?”

“The quantigraphic rift drive is offline! That last explosion blew the containment field!”

Oh, shite. Not good. “Can you restore it?”

“Assuming the manifold stabilizer isn’t fried, yes.”

Maeve gulped. “Be careful, G.”

“You got it. Give me two minutes.”

“No promises.” Maeve executed a barrel-roll, evading the maelstrom of rocks that seemed to fill nearly every square inch of the window. The two remaining Jegg fighters were still right behind them, firing in a continuous barrage.

Just then, a crazy idea came to her. “Dav, is that fourth canister ready to go?”

Davin, back in his chair, checked the panel in front of him. “Locked and loaded.”

“Perfect!” She pulled back on the controls, banking upward and narrowly missing a huge, jagged asteroid. It was impossible, but Maeve swore she felt the wind of it going by.

One of the pursuing fighters wasn’t so lucky. It tried to veer off at the last second, but it was too late. The asteroid clipped its starboard thruster, and it spun out of control until it crashed in a fiery conflagration on another enormous rock.

“One more down!” yelled Davin.

The last remaining fighter bore down on them, firing salvo after salvo. The Talon rocked again, and sparks poured from another control panel.

Maeve activated the intercom again. “G, we gotta go! Is the containment field back up?”

“Yeah!” came Gaspar’s voice. “Thirty seconds to power up the jump!”

“Okay, here’s what’s gonna happen,” Maeve instructed, banking hard left again. “We eject the final canister, and detonate it at point-blank range just as we make the jump.”

“Are you crazy?” Gaspar sounded frantic. “The hull’s already been weakened! You detonate that close, it’ll tear right through us!”

Maeve sighed. “The Jegg’s long-range scanners will think we were destroyed. It’s our only hope right now.”

“Major –”

“No time, G! Prepare to eject! Twenty-second countdown till jump, mark! Get yourself to safety!”

“On my way,” he said, and the intercom cut off.

Maeve and Davin both held their breath.

The Talon twirled around another flying asteroid. They’d cleared the Belt.

“Eject!”

Another clang, followed by another whoosh.

Maeve’s thumb hovered over a button that read ‘QRD – Engage’.

“Detonate!” she shouted.

The screen displaying the ship’s rear sensor array flashed fiery orange and red.

Half a second later, Maeve pressed the button. “Mark! Hang on, Dav!”

A whir of built-up energy filled their ears as the quantigraphic rift drive powered up. The control panel on Maeve’s left erupted in a shower of sparks, and she felt an intense burning sensation on her arm.

Her mouth opened in a silent scream as an energy field enveloped the Talon.

 

If you like the story, download the whole thing on Amazon for only $2.99!  

SciFan Author Angelique Anderson

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Angelique S. Anderson is an award-winning author, mom to four precocious littles, and adventurer at heart.

A fan of Chronicles of Narnia growing up, and an avid song and poem writer, she wrote her first novel in November of 2013. In it, her passion was born, and she went on to write the second and third to what would become a young adult fantasy series. Unable to quell the desire to write after the fantasy series, she went on to write a five-time award winning sci-fi novel, Eden’s Serum, with its sequel, Eden’s Demise, released in March of 2017. Always an advocate for foster children, she also wrote her personal story of abuse and neglect in Award winning Little Lost Girl: The Complete Series. Her hope is that through her writing, people will find help, encouragement, and great story telling. Her next novel; a steampunk science fantasy, The Dragon Lady is set to release May 1rt. It has been her most fun, and most challenging novel to date and she is excited to share it with her readers!

In The Dragon Lady, Wylie Petford discovers a magical device that with its moon and star face, and dragon hands, seems to be just an odd sort of pocket watch. She later learns from a visit with a prestigious scientist the true name for it is The Dragometer, a magical device with a key to her heritage.

Tragic loss, the ending of her closest friendship, and the taking over of her home and town by Villainous Lord Ukridge…. is there no good to come from her life?

With the help of a spitfire sidekick, a miniature brass and baubles dragon, named Quincy, her inventor of an employer, and steam-powered trinkets, Wylie is about to go on the adventure of a life time.

19th Century London has seen nothing like this – The Dragon Lady is ready to sweep you up in a steampunk world full of corsets, steam-powered gadgets, and dastardly villains.

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