Friday, June 1, 2018

BIRTH OF A LEGEND

Congratulations to Jenny Martin, the winner of the Castle Prize pack. It's on its way. I hope you enjoy it.

This month's fiction is a bit of a prequel for my current work in progress, a meta fantasy western that turns the traditional epic story arc on its head. Let me know what you think in the comments section. In addition, it's my birthday so follow, like or share my social media pages for a chance to win an Audible version of my award winning novel Terra Soul.




The Boy watched the murders with keen interest. He observed the grizzled old sheriff square off in the sweltering street with the coarse, angry young man the posters throughout Texas named Thomas Bartlett aka Black Bart. The four roughians with him were equally scruffy, equally cross. Cowards. Villains. So the Boy saw the sheriff die, out drawn before his big Navy revolver had cleared the holster. His two deputies died moments later.

The Boy looked up at the woman beside him who stood in frozen horror, gloved hand over her mouth.

“I shall fetch the lawman’s gun,” he said solemnly. “It is still fully loaded. But first you must scream,
miss.”

She looked down at him in surprise, for the Boy did not seem much older than ten--surely not more than twelve--all tan and gangly and cherub-faced as boys of that age often are. She made to protest, but stopped short for something in the Boy’s cold blue eyes made her trust him instantly.

She nodded.

Black Bart laughed, levering the cylinder of his pistol open and shaking out the shells.

“Hoo-we! Nuthin’ like smell of slaughtered pigs.”

“Now?” the woman whispered.

“When he has loaded,” he said, slipping away to skirt the scene.

The bright cartridges slipped home one at a time as Black Bart loaded. The cylinder clicked as he turned it. Once. Twice. Four times.

The woman screamed. All eyes turned on her, the gang’s included. She stood frozen like a startled hare for a moment, eyes wide, ringed with white. She clamped her mouth shut, and promptly fainted.

“Judas! She’s a might late to the party,” the Tom Bartlett said with a sneer. The Boy slipped unseen from the crowd to approach the fallen sheriff. The man lay where he’d fallen, a look of surprise frozen on his weathered face. Had he really thought this was a fight he could win? Some minor character against a villain? The Boy eased the Navy pistol from the man’s lifeless fingers. The gun felt large and familiar in his hand.

“Well what have we here?” Tom Bartlett bellowed.

The Boy turned to regard his opponents and smiled. The pistol, he let hang easilly at his side.
Tom squinted at him. “What you think you’re doing there, boy? Speak up now.”

“You wish to banter then? So be it,” answered the Boy in a steady. His voice sounded unnaturally high and his hand trembled slightly in excitement or fear he did not know. “It seems, Mister Bartlett, that you have a problem.”

“Oh-ho! Mister Bartlett is it? How proper,” Tom said turning to his gang. He laughed and they smiled, though tensely. The Boy could see a glimmer of fear in their eyes. “How you figure I got a problem?”

“You're a villain,” the Boy said. “Author says we're to put ‘em down.”

“True and sure that is what the Good Book says, but you forget, it’s heroes who put down villains,” Black Bart growled. All the mirth had gone from his sun baked features. He clicked the cylinder of his pistol closed, but he did not move to holster it. “You figure you're a hero, boy?” Bart snarled the last word, tossing it out like a challenger’s hat.

“I am the hero,” the Boy said.

The gang blinked at him in surprise. He started walking toward Tom Bartlett and his gang, pistol still low at his side. The dirt road crunched beneath his shoes. He watched them keenly, the way their bodies and hands shifted, their placement scattered around the street. “I was born in blood and fire on Saint Crispin’s day. My family was slaughtered that day. I was taken in by the People who made me one of their own and returned me to the East to find my way.” Though he spoke the words softly, the Boy could feel their power spread through the sweltering air, thick as smoke, intoxicating as whiskey. The Boy stopped just a pace or two from Black Bart. A stillness now filled the muggy Texan street. Tom’s four allies glanced at each other, while Tom himself stood frozen in place, a mouse caught in the gaze of a rattler.

The Boy gripped the Navy pistol tight. A line of sweat slid down between the his shoulder blades making him shiver. He leaned forward slightly. “Want to know something else?”

“Wh--wh--” Tom Bartletts’ adamsapple bobbed as he swallowed. “What?”

“I was taught to shoot afore I could walk.”

Like magic the words transformed the gang from statues to gunslingers. Pistols rose. Hammers fell. Shots barked, sharp and loud. The boy responded in like, the big Navy pistol bucking in his hand as he fanned the hammer.

Smoke choked the air.

The last shot faded away, leaving behind only the moans of Tom Bartlett. He lay clutching the cavernous wound the Navy pistol had opened in his belly. The rest of his gang lay still in the street. The Boy squatted at Black Bart’s side.

“H-how?” Tom gasped. “Ain’t no child can shoot like that.”

“I am no child. I am the hero,” the Boy said. He looked across the carnage in the street and sighed. He turned back to Black Bart, gently prodding the man’s belly with the hot barrel of his pistol. The villain moaned. “You're gutshot, Mister Bartlett, bad way to go, or so I've heard. I reckon this here pistol still has one shot left. I could ease your passing though it's a mercy you hardly deserve.”

A spasm of pain jerked Tom into a miserable ball. He nodded sharply. “Please.”

The Boy stood, cocking the pistol a final time.

“It didn't have to be this way,” he said.

Tom looked up. “Didn't it though? Cain’t have a hero without a villain. Cain't see a light but fer the dark. Cain’t--”

The Navy pistol cracked.

by Ella McPherson
The Boy walked slowly up the street. He paused to gather the sheriff’s gun belt before continuing. As he passed the woman who had screamed for him, and was now recovering from her faint, reached out a shaking hand. “Wait. Where are you going?”

“Onward.”

“But…”

The boy frowned at her, puzzled. “Mister Bartlett was right. A hero needs a villain. So I must go and seek the enemies the Author sees fit to put in my story.”

With that, the Boy passed quietly from town, out into the wild of Texas and the destiny chosen for him long ago.

~SJA






































Tuesday, April 24, 2018

THE DECTECTIVE

In honor of this week's theme (Detective) I'm going to be raffling off a Nathan Fillion Castle prize pack. Enter by signing up for my mailing list using the contact field to the right. Already on my list? Share the social media post for this story and you're in. Use a valid email because that's how I'll be getting hold of the winner.

Art provided by the talented Ella McPherson.

You ever have one of those days where you’re working what should be a simple missing persons case and instead you wind up stabbed in the middle of the forest surrounded by statues and your steakout snack scattered all over?

No?

Well crap. I guess it’s just me. I suppose it comes with the territory. I’m a detective.

I lay bleeding and staring up at the silhouetted branches and statuary that hung dark against the sparkling night sky. I shook my head and tried to roll over.

I knew this case was going to be trouble when she walked in, dark hair down to her waist, pale skin, eyes like sapphires and a missing persons case. Missing husband. Very concerned. Rash of strange disappearances. Blah blah blah. I’d read the script before but I just couldn’t bring myself to turn it down.

Call me a sucker. Better yet, call me an ambulance.

I know. Puns. I’m sorry.

For those not familiar with my line of work a missing persons case is never actually a missing person. Oh no! It’s never as simple as an unfaithful husband who’s run off with the barmaid. It’s never a kid who just got lost in the woods or a business partner who ran off with the money. Sure, it always starts that way but that’s never how it ends. No, it’s always got to be some epic scale fiasco involving a lot of blood on my face. Some of it my own. Or in this case, a lot of it.

Truth be told, it’s actually best that most of my cases end with a grand melee. Honestly, I’m not that good of a detective. I just kinda stumble from clue to clue until someone attacks me. Much like tonight.

“Must be getting close to the end,” I groaned. I dug my the flask out of my pocket. I always kept a little something-something in reserve for occasions such as this. A few swigs and I’d be on my feet again. I took a long pull that ended before I would have liked. Still, it revived me enough to get on my feet and recover the mace I’d planted in the face of the fella who’d stabbed me (with a pitchfork no less! Yeah. Not living that down anytime soon). I pulled a handful of my crunchy corn steakout snack out of my coat pocket, and popped a few kernels into my mouth.

“Alright,” I said chewing slowly. I leaned against a statue of a startled looking elf. “Now who exactly are you?”

I bent down to examine the body. I recognized the clothes and the parts of the face that were still intact. Farmer Giles. The old coot who had been in and out at my office going on about some rooster keeping him up. Why would he attack me? Why try to lure me out into the woods. Unless ….

I straightened, turning to the extremely life-like statue I leaned against. A startled elf, hands fumbling with his slender bow, a curious expression on his face. I turned towards another statue, a surprised looking dwarf, war hammer in hand, eyes wide, beard bristling. Behind him was a beef cake in furry underwear, each rippling muscle of his torso and limbs perfectly defined. The hairs on my arms stood to rigid attention. These weren’t statues. They were other adventurers! Adventurers turned to stone. Top notch detecting if I do say so myself.

“A medusa? Did the old coot summon a medusa?” I said to the closest statue. It didn’t answer. Behind me I heard something moving slowly through the brush. I strained, listening. I didn’t dare look, not with the chance a medusa was around. Then I heard the soft Cluck. Cluck. Cluck.

“A chicken? Why would a chicken …?” I looked at the face of the elf recognizing the expression: a mirror of my own bemusement. It wasn’t the terror a medusa would induce. It was the pure befuddlement of hearing that soft clucking. It was the look of a person about to say, “What the heck? Is that a chicken?”

Suddenly everything made a sort of sense. The missing persons case. The rash of disappearances. The statues. The old man complaining about a rooster. There was one answer. One thing that made a lick of sense. Cockatrice. That blasted magic chicken whose crow could turn just about anything to stone.

“Time to go.” I glanced around. The thing had to be close if I could hear it walking. I tore bits of cloth from my ripped and bloodstained tunic, jamming it deep into my ears to muffle it’s crow. I eased my way towards town, past more statues. A deer. A racoon. A barmaid. Each perfectly rendered, each with the same stupid look on their face. The sky was lightening. Any second now the thing would crow and I was fairly certain that despite my makeshift-earplugs I’d be stone.

“Ok, why …” I whispered to myself. “Why turn people to stone? I mean, obviously to get them out of the way but it’s a really random way to kill people.”

by Ella McPherson
A flurry of iridescent blue and green slashed through the air and suddenly the cockatrice stood in front of me, three feet of mean enchanted rooster with a high arching tail and wicked golden spurs. It jerked it’s head to the side to regard me with one black eye. Sure it was barely half my size but it still scared the dickens out of me.

“Nice chicken. Nice quiet cockatrice,” I said. My hands crept over my coat searching for something, anything that might give me a chance. I still had my mace, but the thing was too far away. It would crow before I could close the distance and maces aren’t known for their thrown accuracy. My hand closed on the fistful of loose crunchy corn snack still rattling around in my pocket.

Corn.

Chicken.

Mace.

Maybe. Just maybe, I did have a chance.

~SJA

Monday, March 19, 2018

THE DARK FIGHT


As is the case with many writers (and others) I suffer from depression, a fact that I’ve only recently been able to voice. Admitting to it seemed like a failure of character, a mental and physical weakness I’ve been ashamed of, so I’ve hidden it for years. Now I’m learning to admit it, and I’m seeking help. If you are anything like me, I hope that you too will speak to a doctor or councilor and try to find what help is out there. 

One of the hardest things about depression is that those who do not suffer from it have no frame of reference for what it’s like. They simply don’t understand what you have to feel bad about. I’ve written this bit of fantasy to try to illustrate what it’s like, at least for me. 



I live chained to a demon.

It follows me down the street, into the shops and churches and wild empty places. I cannot leave it behind no matter where I go or how fast I travel. The others in my world do not see the thing but it is there, the cold steel of our chain scraping against the ground with a clattering jangle, a constant reminder. 

Original art by Ella McPherson
“You won’t get me. Not today.”

It gives me nothing but a thin smile.

I should resume my search for salvation, for some enchanted dagger of elfin silver that might slay the beast or some  magic hammer that might shatter the chain. I have gone from one place to another searching for freedom, but I have begun to think it does not exist.  

I don’t have strength for another day of searching. Instead I do what I can to distance myself from my demon. I walk in the light, in the warm sunshine that seeps into my very bones and drives the chill of the chain away. I stretch. I work. I try not to think about the thing at the end of the chain. I move quickly, keeping the chain from growing slack. But it always follows, a darkness dwelling in dark shadows. 

I breathe a sigh of relief because I know I will not have to fight just then. “You can’t reach me! Not today.”

Again it gives only a smile.

I am afraid. Afraid of my own weakness and frailty and the fact that I know I cannot stand against the savage strength of the demon. And I am afraid because I know I must sleep soon. Oh God above, I hate sleep! Not because of the sleeping, but rather the waking. Sometimes when I wake, I am safe. The creature at the end of the chain has remained crouching in the shadows where I left it. Those days I wonder if it might stay there this time, stay in the darkness and leave me in the light. But I know it will not. 

I move on. I push myself until I can go no farther and grudgingly I sink down to rest, certain I am as far as I can be from the demon as our tether allows.

“Didn’t get me today.”

“Not today,” it whispers back. 

I shiver and turn my back upon the dark creature.

"This time will be different. This time I'll be vigilant, even while I sleep," I resolve. The slightest sound of movement, the barest jingle of chain and I will be awake and running. Tonight will be different.

I sleep.

“Today,” it whispers.

I open my eyes. Somehow the demon perches over me, twisted features just inches from mine. I've not heard a thing.

“Today!”

“No! NO!” I try to scramble to my feet, try to run, to pull the chain taught but cold hands, strong as stone slam into me with the force of falling meteors. The demon batters my head, making my ears ring, my vision sway. 

“Today, weakling! Today!” it snarls. With a flick of its sinewy arm, it throws a loop of the chain around me. 

I am caught. I cannot move. 

The demon howls in glee. It slithers onto my back and its steel limbs wind round my throat. Slowly, slowly it squeezes until it feels as if my head and heart will burst. 

I thrash in the dark, slowly strangling, slowly dying alone. I can see the sunlight. I can see the people walking, just feet away. I try to scream, try to summon aid, but the people passing do not see my struggle. No! Someone is coming. A man in a gray coat comes to the edge of the shadow. I silently beg for him to pounce on the demon, to drive it from me but instead he crouches at the twilight edge of the shadows so that I can see his solemn face. He takes his hat off and regards me sadly with watery eyes. 

“I fought a demon when my mother died. They are strong and terrible.” 

“Help me!” I gasp.

“I found it best to avoid the dark places. Just stay in the light,” the man says. “Think of it this way: things could be so much worse. Here you can be in the light. You don't have to go into the darkness. You could live in a place where there is no light, where demons run free and there is no escape. None whatsoever. Imagine how terrible that would be.”

“Please!”

“Don’t worry. I am here with you,” he says. A surge of hope blossoms in my chest but then it erodes into shock and despair as he stands and walks away, shaking his head. 

I know this time I will die alone. 

The demon and I lie entangled, I slowly dying for a day, or maybe it is month ... a year? I do not know. My thrashing grows weaker and weaker until my strength fails all together. I lie in the darkness, the crushing limbs fixed around my throat. I wait for the end. 

The limbs slack. Air rushes into my starved lungs. 

The demon crawls away, kicking me numb and trembling back into the light. I gasp. I choke. Shaking, I slowly stand and look back at my foul attacker. The creature hunches in the darkness and smiles. It’s black eyes glint at me and it whispers, “Not today, weakling. Not today.”

I run. I run until the chain jerks taught and the fear returns.

I live chained to a demon.

~SJA

Liked this story? Here are some others you might enjoy.

DREAM THIEF
OCTOPUS GIRL
SOUND OF THE SUN

Friday, January 12, 2018

LOST


His blue-bladed spear steaming and dripping, the Lord of Guards tore kicked the door to his wife’s chamber open, startling the cluster of women within.
“We’re out of time!”
They looked up, terrified of what his words meant. The enemy was coming to devour their bodies and drink their souls. They stood frozen in their actions, still bloody from the birth. The newborn mewled in his wife’s embrace. Zerah was pale, sweaty and clearly exhausted and in pain. He had not wanted her here, pregnant and vulnerable, but she was an Heir. She belonged at the battlefront where her kin fought. The Great Families still had their honor. Besides, she provided an advantageous route of retreat. She was an Folder.
“The lady can’t be moved,” the midwife said but Keleb brushed her aside.
“Zerah, they’re coming. We have to get everyone out now!”
“Take the girls.”
Keleb let go of the spear to take his unnamed daughter in one arm and two year old Ayla in the other. The instant the weapon left his hand it vanished in a bolt of light that shot up through the ceiling without a trace. Both his daughters in his arms, the Lord of Guards stepped away from his wife. She winced as she adjusted herself on the bed and summoned her black folder staff. Zerah closed her eyes, focused on the formulas, the mathematics and physics required to open a safe passage from the manor house to the Great House of Beyz some sixty miles away.
Outside the room, the last of his guardians screamed as their lives were torn from them.
Zerah’s eyes snapped open, her calculations complete. Lightning blazed from the black rod in her hand and tunneled through space pulling two points across the world together. The baby in Keleb’s arms began to scream. He turned to the women.
“Through the portal! Now!”
The servants hustled through. Zerah, crawled from the bed, her pain evident. Her bright blood glistened on her gown. The agony overwhelmed her and she stumbled, leaning heavily upon her staff. Keleb was already moving. He lunged through the opening as his wife’s concentration wavered. The portal seemed to warp as Zerah lost control of the portal’s end point. It jumped, just for an instant, to another world. She gasped through clenched teeth. “Keleb, no!”
Keleb hated portal travel. It was impossibly fast, but the sensation was unsettling. Fortunately, it passed in an instant. But instead of relief and a return to normalcy, Keleb emerged from the portal’s far end into a world of pain and noise. A searing gold light tore into his eyes, slashing into his retinas even through his eyelids. A weight seemed to slam down upon him, dragging him to his knees. He barely managed to keep his grip on his daughters. The baby screamed. A gale tore at them.
He forced his watering eyes open as a shadow fell across him. He looked up into a silhouette framed against a scorching wall of light.
“Where am I?” he groaned.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, young man, but I’ll take a guess,” the woman said, flinging her coat over his, and his daughter’s heads. “But if I’m not mistaken, you’re a long, long way from home.”

~SJA

This is a deleted scene from my award winning novel Terra Soul. Check out this and many other extras in the hard cover, special edition.