Book Tid-Bit: Hostile

I know there are some people who are eagerly waiting for the second part to my Barren Series, so I thought I might surprise you with a little teaser of what’s to come. This is first draft stuff, so go easy on me, but I do appreciate any feedback. 

The story picks up shortly after where Barren left off, with Mackenzie and the others trying to resume some sense of normality to their lives, but with many new dangers looming over them. And the consequences of Mackenzie’s past actions are beginning to take their toll.

Enjoy! 

Chapter 1 
When Mackenzie’s eyes shot wide open suddenly, she saw that cold steel walls towered above on all sides, stretching far above until they vanished into darkness. Mackenzie stared up at them from her back, confused about where she was, unable to remember how she got there. She tried to move, but found that she couldn’t. Her arms and legs were tied down with strong straps, which kept her on the narrow bed.

“Hey!” Mackenzie screamed, the echo of her voice dying instantly. “Hey!”

No reply came to her, so she began to struggle. She strained against the bindings that kept her on the bed, beginning to feel claustrophobic as the towering steel walls appeared to close in on her.

Suddenly, a figure loomed above her, appearing so quickly out of the shadows that she might as well have simply popped into existence. The woman leaned over Mackenzie, glaring down at her with sunken eyes and a curled lip. Mackenzie stared back up in horror, not believing what she was seeing, who she was seeing.

Ileana Rivera stood over Mackenzie, her eyes circled by the shadows of death. Mackenzie saw blood running down the side of Ileana’s face, mixed in with her hair, dripping off her ear and chin, spattering on the bed like rain on a rooftop. The blood flowed from a large wound in Ileana’s head, under her hair, where the bullet had entered. Mackenzie cringed as the smell invaded her nostrils. Ileana reeked of decay and rotten flesh.

“Murderer!” Ileana spat, her voice raspy and strained. “You killed me!”

“What? No, I…” Mackenzie stammered, her heart racing, shaking her head quickly from side to side, but unable to take her eyes away from Ileana’s.

“You killed us both!” a new voice hissed from the shadows.

A younger boy, named Vasilii, stood over Mackenzie opposite Ileana now, glaring down at her. His cheeks were gaunt and his eyes were nothing but black orbs. He, too, was sneering down at Mackenzie in disgust.

“Please,” Mackenzie begged. “Please, go away.”

“You killed us,” Ileana spat, more blood dripping onto the bed and onto Mackenzie’s face, making her gag.

“You didn’t have to,” Vasilii added. “You didn’t have to kill anyone.”

“Please, stop!” Mackenzie pleaded, but Ileana and Vasilii didn’t respond.

As Mackenzie struggled against her restraints, trying not to look at the rotten and decaying faces that spat abuse and hissed blame, a third figure began to approach from the foot of the bed. Mackenzie looked at the figure and she knew who it was before his face came into the dim light. She stared up at him in horror, scarcely able to believe he was standing there, wanting to look away, but unable to do so as her eyes bulged and her mouth fell open in horror.

The man named Mikhail Boroslav stood before her, sneering in contempt at her, his cleft lip revealing one sharp canine tooth. He looked exactly the same as Mackenzie remembered him, except for the fact that he was bleeding from his eyes. Twin rivers of blood ran over his cheeks and to his chin. In the center of his eyes, though, his pupils were gone, replaced by a fierce and glowing flame, like candles that burned far too brightly.

Mackenzie tried to think of something to say to the man who had tried so hard to kill her, but before she could think of what to say to this fearsome monster, Boroslav lifted his hand and aimed a gun directly at Mackenzie’s face.

“Wait!” Mackenzie cried.

Boroslav only sneered once, then pulled the trigger.

Mackenzie awoke with a start, jolting awake as though electrocuted, the sound of the gunshot still ringing in her ears. For a few seconds, she didn’t know where she was, but then everything came back to her.

She was flying in the VTOL, strapped into one of the chairs bolted to the walls in the cabin. She had been working all day with the others and her exhaustion had finally caught up with her, resulting in her falling asleep for the first time in days. And, as she had known they would be, her dreams were there to greet her.

Still shaken from the nightmare, Mackenzie held her hands out in front of her, watching her right hand tremble with nerves. Her left hand, however, was completely steady. Of course, that was her bionic hand. Nerves had no effect on the steely appendage and Mackenzie took some comfort in knowing that it was there. Like it somehow steadied her. That hand alone had saved her life on several occasions and she had come to see it as a source of calm.

Sighing, Mackenzie lowered her hands and placed them flat on her thighs, staring down at the floor. She felt as though she could still hear Ileana and Vasilii whispering to her. And Boroslav… his face never left her mind’s eye. Mackenzie felt the chill of a cold finger tracing down her spine and couldn’t help but shiver. Looking up from the floor, Mackenzie slowly looked around the inside of the aircraft to remind herself of where she was, as well as the fact that no dead people were coming to kill her.

Taking a nap in the seat opposite her was Jesse Greaves. His head had fallen sideways onto his shoulder, his black hair looking untidy and wild, stubble growing on his jawline, his strong arms crossed over his chest. He had pushed up the sleeves of his shirt and Mackenzie studied the contours of his arms for a moment, pausing as she laid eyes on a fraction of the giant burn scar that she knew covered Jesse’s upper left arm, shoulder, the left side of his torso, and some of his neck. Mackenzie remembered Jesse telling her once that he got the scars because of his father’s mental break from reality, starting a fire that claimed both his own life and Jesse’s mother’s. As Mackenzie watched him sleep, one corner of Jesse’s mouth twitched and Mackenzie wondered for a moment if he was dreaming, but then turned away, looking towards the cockpit.

Riding shotgun beside the pilot was Rebecca Bell, a petite Australian woman who rarely took anything seriously, the only exception being her job. She was looking out the windows of the VTOL as though trying to figure out where they were, searching for a landmark. Her dark brown ponytail swung from side to side with every turn of the head.

Bell suddenly pointed out the window towards her right and shouted, “That way! Over there!”

“Are you sure this time?” the pilot asked doubtfully.

Min-Hee, the only one present who wasn’t a part of the original Diviner crew as it was when Mackenzie joined. A slim woman of Korean descent and jet black hair that reached her shoulders, though she kept it tied up in a tight bun. She didn’t speak much and mostly kept to herself, but she had saved their lives several months ago, so Mackenzie trusted her completely, despite what some other people might say.

“Of course I’m sure,” Bell frowned. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because,” Min-Hee began calmly, “the last time you were sure, we wasted half an hour looking for a water source that was 30 miles in the other direction.”

Bell heavily sighed in annoyance. “I told you, that was the navigational system. It was faulty.”

“Of course it was,” Min-Hee said, not bothering to hide her disbelief.

“Look, I’m a driver, not a navigator!” Bell said defensively. “Maybe if you let me take the stick for a while…”

“This aircraft is a highly complicated piece of machinery,” Min-Hee interrupted, sounding aghast that Bell would suggest such a thing. “It requires months of training to master just the basics of flying! Not just anyone can take the stick and pilot her, unlike your truck that you so fondly talk about.”

“Her name was Rhiannon,” Bell gasped, sounding offended. “And she was a lot more complicated than you think. So how about you go take a break, and I’ll just-”

“Not a chance,” Min-Hee replied, Mackenzie spotting a rare smirk tugging at the corners of her lips.

The desert passed by below in a blur as Min-Hee flew them in the direction Bell had indicated, sand dunes and rocks flashing by in an instant before being left behind. Spectre trees, tall and dead-looking trunks that were as white as ghosts, marked the landscape like ominous tombstones, while the rest of the terrain was uneven and hazardous to traverse. Mackenzie was quietly grateful they now had the VTOL. Flying for a few hours was so much better than driving for a week.

Feeling as though she needed to walk off the dream, Mackenzie unstrapped her restraints and pushed herself to her feet. She walked towards the cockpit, stretching her stiff back, and placed her hands on the pilot and co-pilot chairs to steady herself.

“Where are we headed?” she asked.

Min-Hee replied without turning her head. “Bell identified a small water source several miles from here. If we can fill the VTOL, we will have reached our daily quota.”

“We’ll have to land, though,” Bell added, turning in her seat to look up at Mackenzie. “The data you swiped from Scylla says it’s too small for us to pull off a low-fly scoop, so we’ll have to go on foot with the vacuum pumps.”

Mackenzie felt a chill when Bell mentioned Scylla, but didn’t say anything about her. Scylla had plagued Mackenzie’s thoughts for too long already in the few short weeks since she, Jesse, Bell and Min-Hee had escaped her merciless compound of slave labor and torture.

“We should do a fly-over first,” said the only male voice on the aircraft. Jesse had woken up and silently appeared at Mackenzie’s side to listen in on the situation. “We scout it from the air, make sure there’s nothing nasty down there waiting for us, then we can land.”

“Roger that,” Min-Hee nodded.

Jesse had taken command of the Diviners after they suffered so many losses. Vasseur, Lowe, Abbas… all gone, leaving only Jesse, Mackenzie and Bell. Bell had been a Diviner longer than Jesse, but allowed him to take command because she knew he was better suited to the position. She also told Mackenzie once that she didn’t want that kind of responsibility, anyway.

As they continued flying towards their heading, Jesse placed a hand on Mackenzie’s shoulder and led her away from the others. Speaking quietly, so as not to be overheard, he asked, “Are you feeling okay? You look beat.”

“I’m fine,” Mackenzie replied automatically. She realized she’d been saying those words a lot lately, so much so they were beginning to lose their meaning.

“Are you sure?” Jesse pressed, sounding as though he didn’t remotely believe her. “Because you look like you haven’t slept in days.”

“I’m fine,” Mackenzie insisted, not quite meeting Jesse’s eye.

“Your eyes are all puffy,” Jesse pointed out. “And you look pale.”

“And you look like you should mind your own business!” Mackenzie snapped. “I’m fine, okay?”

Jesse took his hand off of Mackenzie’s shoulder, still regarding her with a look of worried skepticism. He nodded slowly and said, “Okay. If you say so.”

Mackenzie knew she’d feel bad later for snapping when Jesse was only trying to look out for her, but for now, she was too tired and short-tempered to care.

“We’re approaching the water source,” Bell reported from the cockpit. “We’ll be flying over in just a few seconds.”

“Slow it down,” Jesse ordered Min-Hee. “Let’s get a good look out there.”

Min-Hee adjusted the speed of the VTOL until it hovered slowly over a cluster of cliffs and enormous rocks. Leaning forward with her hands on Bell’s seat, Mackenzie could see a semicircular shape in the landscape, formed by the cliffs and rocks. Inside the semicircle was a relatively small pool of water. It was probably as long as a football field, but narrow and winding, like a section of river that had somehow become detached and lost.

Ordinarily, Min-Hee would fly the VTOL low over the water, open the underbelly of the ship, and scoop water up until she was full. Then the ship would close its giant scoops and they would fly away. Mackenzie could immediately see that Bell was right in saying that maneuver was out of the question, though. The water source was far too short and winding to manage that.

Min-Hee piloted the VTOL so that it hovered directly over the water, slowly turning in the air so they could all examine the environment. Mackenzie couldn’t immediately see any threats, but she knew firsthand that just because you couldn’t see danger, that didn’t mean danger wasn’t there.

“See anything?” Jesse asked, peering out the windows over Min-Hee’s shoulder.

“It looks clear,” Min-Hee replied, eyeing the ground scrupulously.

“Doesn’t look like there are many places to hide down there,” Mackenzie pointed out, examining the wide expanse of flat ground that surrounded the water. “Except for those cliffs, it’s all clear.”

“On the surface, anyway,” Bell muttered. “There could be ubergrades down there, for all we know.”

Mackenzie shuddered at the mention of ubergrades and Jesse’s jaw clenched tightly. Unlike Jesse, Mackenzie had yet to come across an ubergrade personally, but based on what she had heard about the horrific beasts, she prayed she never would.

“I hate flying blind like this,” Bell said, sounding exasperated as she continued to stare down at the ground below. “At least Rhiannon had thermal imagery. This bird just has radar, which doesn’t help us a bloody bit if there’s something down there. I wish we could just scoop and fly.”

“We’d have to land regardless,” Mackenzie pointed out. “We don’t know if this water is even drinkable. I have to test it first.”

“Which puts us on a potential dinner plate,” Bell said.

“We’ll just have to go on faith,” Jesse sighed. “I’d rather not take the chance and just find a different water source we know is clean and can pick up without landing, but we’re gonna lose the daylight soon. We need to get this done. Bring us down.”

Min-Hee nodded once and began the landing procedure, flipping switches and pressing buttons that Mackenzie had no idea the purpose of.

The VTOL slowly descended, the landing gear unfolding beneath it, and gently came to rest on the ground, the powerful plasma engines disturbing the sand and sending it swirling in all directions. The roaring of the engines began to die down and slowly become a gentle hum as Min-Hee powered down the aircraft and completed the landing procedure.

Mackenzie glanced out the window and found they had landed within just a few yards of the water’s edge.

“Okay,” Jesse began firmly, speaking to everyone. “I know this isn’t the first time we’ve had to do a foot-run before, but I want to run through the drill anyway. First of all, Mackenzie needs to check the water to make sure it’s still drinkable. Scylla’s data says it is, but like usual, I want to be one-hundred-percent sure. Once we know it’s all good, Mackenzie, Bell and I will position the vacuum pump to drain what we need into the VTOL. Min-Hee, you stay in the cockpit to keep an eye on the water intake and control the inflow. Everyone got it?”

Everyone nodded and affirmed their understanding. Jesse paused for a moment to look around at them all, then seemed to nod to himself.

“All right,” he said, looking as grim as usual. “Let’s do it.”

Min-Hee opened the doors as Mackenzie, Jesse and Bell gathered around the exit. As soon as the door opened just a crack, Mackenzie could feel the blasting heat from outside hit her in the face, so powerful that she couldn’t help but screw up her face and turn her head away. Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the glaring sunlight, the wind pushed its way inside the cabin and whirled around Mackenzie and the others, billowing their clothes and whipping Mackenzie’s ponytail about.

“Ugh!” Bell gasped in disgust as a potent smell suddenly struck them all. “What the hell is that smell?”

“It smells like something died out there,” Mackenzie choked.

“Focus,” Jesse growled at them both.

Once the door was open and the stairs had fully descended, Jesse led the way down to the desert floor, his rifle held in his hands as Mackenzie followed close behind, carrying a yellow case in her hand, with Bell bringing up the rear of the trio.

“Okay, Mackenzie,” Jesse said once they were all standing on the ground. “Do your thing.”

Nodding once, her eyes beginning to burn from the mysterious stench, Mackenzie hurried to the water’s edge and kneeled down on the rocky ground, setting the yellow case down in front of her and opening it. Jesse and Bell stood nearby, surveying the area with their guns at the ready, making sure nothing snuck up on them. Mackenzie was just reaching for the first device she would need to test the water when she glanced up and froze.

“Er, guys?” Mackenzie began nervously. “I don’t think I need to test this water.”

“Why not?” Jesse demanded, turning to look quizzically at Mackenzie.

Staring out across the water’s surface, Mackenzie pointed. Jesse and Bell both looked across the water where Mackenzie was pointing. At first, they didn’t see what Mackenzie was talking about, but after a moment Bell stifled a gasp and Jesse’s jaw clenched tightly as they both took in the sight before them.

Small, silver, creatures were floating on the water. Hundreds of them, roughly as long as a football, but narrow and covered in scales. Mackenzie could see they had tails and fins that allowed them to swim smoothly through the water, though they weren’t moving now. In addition to the small fins, the creatures also had skinny arms under their bodies, bending in two places and ending in sharp claws, reminding Mackenzie strongly of pictures she had seen of a tyrannosaurus rex. The creatures had large, wide, eyes that took up almost all of its head, but the eyes were glassy and vacant. None of the strange fish-like creatures moved. They all floated lifelessly on the surface, staring up at the sky with one oversized eye.

What made the sight so much worse though was not the simple fact that all of these creatures were dead in the water. There was the smell of rotten and decaying flesh in the air, an acrid stink that invaded Mackenzie’s nostrils and made her want to gag as she covered her nose with the back of her hand, her face screwed up from the smell.

“That explains the stink,” Bell said in awe.

“What the hell?” Jesse breathed in confusion at the sight. “What are they? What happened to them?”

“They’re some kind of aquatic animal,” Mackenzie said, rising to her feet. “They’re all dead.”

“How?” Bell asked, slowly gazing from one fish to the next, as though searching for one that was still alive.

“Something’s contaminated this water,” Mackenzie said, knowing that was the only thing that could have happened. “Maybe an underground pocket of methane leaked up into the water and poisoned them. Maybe a gas pocket broke through from an earthquake.”

“Earthquake?” Bell repeated, taking half a step backwards towards the VTOL.

“It’s possible,” Mackenzie said, “but there could be a hundred reasons why this happened. If it is a gas that did this, though, we shouldn’t stick around to breath the air for too long.”

“Could these animals have just died of natural causes?” Jesse asked. “Could the water still be fine?”

“Not likely,” Mackenzie said, shaking her head. “Maybe if there were just a few dead animals here I’d think that was possible, but not with this many. One way or another, something poisoned this water. It’s undrinkable.”

“Jesse,” Min-Hee’s voice suddenly said urgently through the radios they all wore in their ears. “There is something approaching our location from the west. It’s small, but moving fast, flying towards you. It was hiding in the cliffs, I think.”

“What is it?” Jesse demanded, automatically flipping the safety switch on his rifle to off.

“It’s too small to be another VTOL,” Min-Hee reported. “But if there is a manmade device out here that does not belong to us…”

“Then it’s Scylla’s,” Mackenzie finished the sentence.

“Should we get out of here?” Bell asked. “What if it’s a missile or something?”

“There was no point of launch,” Min-Hee advised. “I’m not reading any explosive material in the scan. I think it’s a drone.”

“Why the hell would Scylla leave a drone out here?” Jesse growled.

“She’s looking for us,” Mackenzie realized aloud, feeling a cold sensation flow through her stomach. “We should go.”

Before anyone could say anything else, though, there was a loud buzzing sound in the air and Mackenzie saw something zip by overhead. Looking up, she saw a white disc, no bigger than a frisbee, shoot through the air, then begin to turn in a wide arc and bank back towards them.

“Crap,” Bell hissed. “It’s seen us.”

The drone, flying through the air like a tiny UFO, flew straight towards them now, but Mackenzie could see it was slowing down. Even though she knew a drone that size was too small to carry any kind of munitions, Mackenzie was nervous at the sight of it. She knew someone must be piloting it, and she knew who that person worked for.

Scylla.

The drone slowed its approach until it came to a full stop and simply hovered in the air. Mackenzie could see on the drone’s underside the tiny black lens that was the camera. Whoever was piloting the drone was looking right at them.

Suddenly, there was a loud, shrill, sound of feedback in everyone’s radios, causing them all to groan in discomfort and cringe as the high-pitched wailing drilled into their ears. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise died.

“What was that?” Mackenzie asked, still cringing from the ringing in her ear.

“Our radio frequency just got jacked,” Jesse scowled. “The drone is acting as a transmitter. Someone wants to talk to us.”

There was a long moment of silence as everyone waited for whatever was about to happen next, all eyes on the drone that hovered in the air before them. Even Min-Hee was leaning forward in her pilot’s chair to get a better view of what was going on outside. Then, after a long and tense few moments, in which Mackenzie held her breath, a voice crackled through their earpieces. The very voice Mackenzie knew they were going to hear, but the same she had prayed to never hear again.

“Hello, Diviners,” Scylla hissed in Mackenzie’s ear. Her voice was scathing and full of hatred, almost quivering with the effort it took to keep from losing her control and screaming abuse at them all. “It’s been a while.”

“Not long enough,” Jesse snapped back at the drone, glaring at the camera lens and tightening his grip on his rifle.

‘You have something that belongs to me,” Scylla said as though Jesse hadn’t spoken. “I want it back.”

Mackenzie knew what Scylla meant. When they had last met, Scylla had attempted to use Mackenzie to gain access to confidential material that had been locked away on the bridge of the wrecked deep space ship, the Panspermia. Mackenzie had tricked Scylla and kept certain parts of that information hidden from her. Mackenzie was now the only person alive who could access it.

“We’re not giving you the metric,” Mackenzie said forcefully, her heart pounding loudly in her ears.

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Scylla snarled. “Don’t you know a damn thing?”

“I know not to trust anything you say,” Mackenzie replied angrily. Then, as a suspicious thought struck her, she added, “And I know you poisoned this water hole!”

“Of course I didn’t, you stupid girl,” Scylla replied. “Do you really think I would risk killing you before I can get the information I need from you? But I can assure you, if you don’t give up that metric to me, then each and every one of your friends will die. One way or another.”

“Threaten us all you want,” Mackenzie snapped. “You’re all talk. We’re out of your reach.”

There was silence for a moment as the drone hovered ahead of them. Mackenzie stared defiantly at the camera lens, determined to show Scylla that she wasn’t afraid.

“Are you really?” Scylla finally replied, sounding as though she was mildly interested by what Mackenzie had said. “Are you really out of my reach? I don’t think you understand just how far I can reach, Miller.”

“How did you know to find us here?” Jesse demanded. “We never went to the same water source twice, just to make sure you couldn’t find us. How did you know we’d be here?”

A nasty laugh came through their radios at this question, the very sound of it nothing but mockery.

“How indeed?” Scylla replied cryptically.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Bell demanded.

“Never you mind,” Scylla said curtly. “I knew and that’s all that matters. Now, Miller… give me the metric.”

“I don’t think so,” Mackenzie replied with as much vehemence as she could. “Not after everything you’ve done.”

“Everything I’ve done?” Scylla repeated with false indignation. Then, more venomously, she asked, “What about what you’ve done, Miller? What about the pain you’ve caused?”

Mackenzie felt sweat beading on her forehead, but not due to the heat of the sun. She could feel Jesse and Bell glance sideways at each other in confusion, but no one said anything.

“You have caused a great deal of pain,” Scylla went on in the silence. “You have killed, so don’t think you’re any better than me. We’re remarkably similar.”

“I’m not like you!” Mackenzie shouted, taking a step closer to the drone and staring furiously into the camera.

“Really?” Scylla drawled, stretching the word out dubiously. “What about Vasilii? You murdered him in cold blood. Suffocated him, it would have been kinder to just shoot him. My men, who you gunned down in your escape. And then, of course… We can’t forget about what you did to poor Ileana Riv-”

Before Scylla could finish saying the name, Mackenzie had raised her gun without thinking and fired a shot directly into the drone, causing it to spark brightly and then fall to the ground, where it bounced and came to a stop just at the water’s edge.

Mackenzie stared at the destroyed drone, breathing heavily. She turned around to face Jesse and Bell and found them both staring at her with mixed looks of surprise and concern.

“What?” Mackenzie snapped at them both.

“Um…” Bell began hesitantly, glancing sideways at Jesse. “Nothing.”

“Good,” Mackenzie replied shortly. “Are getting out of here or what?”

Jesse narrowed his eyes at her, as though trying to read her mind, but Mackenzie just glared back at him, wondering if she should smack that look off his face. Before she could do or say anything else, though, Jesse turned around and started heading back towards the VTOL, saying as he went, “Let’s go.”

“Should we locate another water source?” Min-Hee asked through the radio as Jesse, Bell and Mackenzie started walking quickly back towards the stairs. “We haven’t reached our quota.”

“No,” Jesse replied. “We can dip into the reserves for one day. We should get home before we lose the light. Especially if Scylla knows we’re out here.”

Bell reached the stairs to the VTOL first and began climbing up, but Jesse stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stood aside, fixing Mackenzie with another look of scrupulous study.

“Mackenzie,” Jesse began as Mackenzie went to walk past him and straight up the stairs. “Hold on a sec.”

Resisting the urge to sigh in annoyance, Mackenzie faced Jesse and waited.

“I know something’s going on with you,” Jesse said. “Something’s eating at you.”

“I’m-” Mackenzie began, but Jesse interrupted her.

“No, you’re not fine, don’t pretend that you are,” he snapped. “Whatever it is, sort it out. Talk to me, talk to Bell, I don’t care if you talk to a freaking gozard, just get that shit off your chest before you snap. Because trust me, if you don’t get your act together, you will snap.”

“You have no idea what I’m going through,” Mackenzie whispered through gritted teeth.

“Actually, I think I do,” Jesse replied darkly. “Ileana wouldn’t want you feeling like this. Not because of her. ”

Mackenzie was about to say something angrily back, but the words died in her throat. She stared at Jesse in wonder and a little fear.

Does he know? Mackenzie asked herself. He can’t know, I never said anything to anyone!

Jesse’s expression softened slightly as he took a deep breath. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

A New Chapter

Hi, everybody! (If you read that in the voice of Doctor Nick from The Simpson’s, you’re awesome)

As I announced earlier this week on my Facebook page, I’ve been in the middle of a hard edit on the Reaper Series to fix a few minor errors that made it through the initial editing stages. Like I said on my Facebook page, as an independent author, I don’t have the time, money, nor the team to publish a book the way that a professional publishing firm can. BUT the good thing about it is that if mistakes are made, I can fix them whenever I want. Publishing houses would have to recall thousands of book units if they wanted to fix a printing error in their publication, but not me! I can just click a button.

Anyway, while the hard editing I’m doing is just for those minor little grammatical errors that slipped through, and the story itself doesn’t change at all, I also wrote a new first chapter for Angel of Death. So I’m going to share that with everyone now, so that the people who have already bought and read Angel of Death can enjoy (hopefully) the extra chapter without having to mess around trying to either update their current ebook version or download a new one, and maybe it will even encourage those of you who haven’t read it to go and give it a try. Remember, Angel of Death is free forever, people!

So without any further ramblings, here it is. The brand new first chapter to Angel of Death. If you have feedback you’d like to share with me, please do, I love hearing what my readers have to say. 😀

 

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THE FINAL SUNRISE

The prisoner never raised his head all night, not until he felt the warmth of the sun on the back of his neck. As he sat on the edge of the bed and peered out the barred windows, he saw the sun beginning to rise, the light peeking back through the iron bars at him. He knew it was the last dawn he would ever see.

He never thought before that this was how his life would end. It was 1775, he was still a young man, and his life was to be suddenly cut short, just because of one foolish evening.

When the American colonies decided to go to war with England for independence, he had thought it was only a concern for those who called themselves his owners. But then those same people had “donated” him to the cause, making him a soldier, fighting to defeat the oppressors of his oppressors. So then he had thought his life would end with him lying facedown on some blood soaked battlefield, having died fighting for a cause that was never going to be extended to him.

Freedom.

Darius clenched his fists to stifle his fear as he felt it swelling inside once more. He stared at the irons they had locked around his wrists and slowly counted to ten to calm down. He remembered when they had put the irons on him. He remembered he had never struggled, never argued, just stood there and allowed himself to be imprisoned. As a slave in Boston, he was used to wearing chains. He had worn them his entire life, both literally and metaphorically.

Darius turned his ear to the door of his cell when he suddenly heard footsteps approaching and a tense conversation.

“Do we have to shoot him?” asked a soft, nervous, voice.

“What’s wrong, Thomas?” an older, gruffer, voice replied. “You never shot a colored boy before?”

“Darius took a deep intake of air and slowly exhaled. They were coming for him. It was almost time.

“I just mean,” Thomas began, “that wouldn’t it be better to hang him? Isn’t that more… traditional?”

The older one, who Darius could now identify by he gravelly voice as being named Raymond, snorted with derision.

“Hangings are for thieves and common crooks,” Raymond growled. “Traitors, though, you gotta shoot ‘em. Firing squad. No less than they deserve.”

At that moment, Darius saw Thomas and Raymond appear on the other side of the cell door. They were both dressed plainly, but Darius could see their muskets on their backs and their pistols at their hips. The two militia soldiers glared in at him, both judging him, both condemning him. Though Darius noted that Raymond looked at him with far more contempt than young Thomas did. Thomas had always been one of the nicer ones. Not exactly nice, but nicer, which was always the best Darius could ever hope for.

Raymond unlocked the heavy door and pushed it open, sill glaring at Darius with disdain.

“On your feet, boy,” Raymond barked. “It’s time.”

Without saying a word, Darius slowly rose from the side of the small bed he had been sitting on, his chains jangling at his wrists. Without argument, without struggle, he allowed the two militia soldiers to lead him out of the cell.

Once outside, with Raymond and Thomas standing on either side of him, Darius came face to face with the rest of the small militia squad, all staring at him furiously, looking as though they longed to draw their pistols and shoot him in the head right there and then. Darius almost wished that they would just get on with it already, but his fear of what was to come was close to overwhelming. It was a struggle just to keep his hands from shaking and he felt as though he might be sick. However, he kept himself composed. He didn’t want these men to know his fear. He wouldn’t give them that. They could take everything else, had taken everything else, but they couldn’t take his pride.

“Let’s go,” Raymond grunted to everyone.

They all then began marching out of the small town. Darius refused to look around, but he could feel the eyes of the locals on him. Watching him march away. No one spoke up for him; no one tried to defend him, which Darius had known from the beginning that they wouldn’t. It wasn’t the way the world worked. Not his world, anyway. But the stoic faces of the locals were soon left behind and Darius found himself, all too soon, standing before a small forest just on the outskirts of the town.

“This is it,” Raymond said.

He then grabbed Darius’ shoulders and forced him to turn around and face him, then shoving his back against the nearest tree.

“Any last words, boy?” Raymond growled.

Darius remained silent and looked past Raymond at a point far in the distance. He focused on the sunrise and swallowed his fear, taking in the glowing pink and gold of the sky.

“When you get to Hell,” Raymond sneered, “tell Myles we sent you. I’m sure he’ll be real glad to see you again.”

Raymond stepped back and stood with the other men, spitting on the ground at Darius’ feet.

“Ready!” Raymond shouted.

The other soldiers all drew their muskets.

“Aim!” Raymond boomed.

The soldiers took aim and Darius offered a silent prayer to God, but didn’t hold much hope. He knew Hell awaited him for the things he had done. So instead of more prayer, Darius just set his eyes on the horizon, taking in the colors of the morning, and lifted his chin slightly, almost in defiance of the men about to end his life.

“Fire!”

The sunrise was the last thing Darius saw in his life.

For My Awesome Fans

The following is the first chapter (1st draft version) of my new book that I am writing, City Of Crows. It is a supernatural thriller, with maybe a little bit of horror thrown in to the mix. I’m sharing it now so that my readers, who are completely awesome and always give their support and encouragement and show so much enthusiasm for everything I do, can get an idea of what the book will be like, as it’s a little different from the last four books I’ve written. For those of you who read this, you are amazing! Enough talk, on to the story!

 

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CITY OF CROWS

Ana Velasco’s feet pounded hard against the earth as she sprinted through the woods. Her heart was pounding loudly in her ears, the only sounds she could hear now being the fearful thump-THUMP of her beating heart, and her own panting breath. She was struggling for air, struggling to keep breathing, she had been running as fast as she could for so long. She had to, though, if she stopped… she died.

Ana raised her arms and shielded her face as she ran though a low hanging thicket of tree branches, sending leaves flying everywhere as she ploughed through. She heard the branches snap under the force of her momentum, but she just kept running, too afraid to even slow down, too terrified to even look back. She knew they were back there. She knew they were following her. Chasing her. Pursuing her.

Hunting her.

Continuing to run as fast as she could, Ana felt her foot catch on something sticking up out of the ground. She cried out as she fell, throwing her hands forward to try and stop herself from falling. She hit the ground hard, her face crashing into the dirt and fallen leaves. Even though her arms and hands were now chafed and scratched and bloody, and her head throbbed painfully, Ana pushed herself up to her feet, sobbing gently as she gasped for air, twigs and dried leaves now caught in her long black hair, and kept running.

Finally, Ana saw up ahead the place she was heading. It was a small cabin, desolate and seemingly abandoned. The cabin looked ancient, like it had been built hundreds of years ago out of nothing but what the builder had found on the forest floor. Long lengths of wood packed in tightly together, the gaps sealed with mud. But there was safety in that cabin. Behind its rickety door and uneven windows, Ana knew there was her only hope.

Ana didn’t spare a glance upward as a shadow passed over her face. Instead, it seemed as though the passing shadow urged her to run faster.  Her long black hair trailed out behind her as she fled, like the tail of a comet, until Ana reached the door to her cabin and pushed her way inside. Panting and wheezing, Ana immediately turned and slammed the door shut. As she leaned against it and looked around the inside of the small, one room, cabin, Ana wished that the door had a lock. Although, she knew that a lock would serve her no purpose now. If they wanted to come in, they would. And she didn’t have much time.

Still panting, trying to ignore the excruciating stitch that was twisting like a hot knife in her side, Ana hurried around the cabin and began pulling open the cabinets and snatching out numerous objects, not caring when she knocked other items to the floor in her hurry.

“Quick, quick, quick!” Ana muttered to herself fearfully.

Ana swept numerous items out of her cabinets in a hurry, carelessly tossing them to the floor as she searched. Blue candles and bottles of incense all thumped against the wooden floor and rolled away, but Ana paid them no attention. She thrust her arms deep inside the cabinets above her head and finally found what she was looking for. Still panting in her exhaustion and fear, Ana retrieved a compact mirror and a tall, thick, white, candle. Clutching them both tightly in her hands, Ana turned around and hurried towards the corner of the large rug that covered the majority of the tiny cabin floor. Clutching the mirror and candle in one hand, Ana bent down and grasped the corner of the rug in her free hand and yanked it backwards, tossing the whole rug aside in one fling.

Beneath the rug was a symbol marked on the floor in white paint. It was large, taking up the entire space that the rug had covered. It was a wide circle, but within the circle was a five pointed star, painted as though in one continuous stroke, the line never breaking. One point of the star was pointing directly at the door through which Ana had rushed only moments ago.

This star was known as a pentagram.

Ana quickly set the compact mirror down on the floor above the point of the star that faced the door, opening the mirror and placing it carefully outside of the pentagram’s circle, the reflective glass facing the only way in or out. Ana then put the thick candle down on the floor, directly on top of the tip of the pentagram’s point closest to the door, right behind the compact mirror. Her hands shaking, Ana then took a book of matches from her pocket and tried to strike a match, but her hands were too unsteady.

“Dammit, come on,” Ana pleaded through gritted teeth, not sure if she wanted to yell in anger or sob in fear.

Finally she managed to strike a match and a small flame began to flicker at the end of the stick pinched in her fingers. Ana lit the candle and then blew out the match, falling to her knees in the center of the pentagram, facing the burning candle. Somewhere outside, she heard the distinct call of a crow, which was then answered by another crow.

Caw! Caw! Caw!

Forcing herself to ignore them, Ana focused on the burning fire of the candle, poured all of her attention into it, and stared at it without blinking. When she spoke, it was in a hurried whisper, as though in a single breath that she couldn’t wait to exhale, speaking words as fast and quietly as she could.

Craft the spell in the fire, 

Craft it well, weave it higher,

Weave it now of shining flame, 

None shall come to hurt or maim. 

None shall pass this fiery wall, 

None shall pass, no, none at all.

Having spent all of her breath, Ana puffed for a moment, then drew in another deep breath and repeated the chant, even faster than before.

Craft the spell in the fire, 

Craft it well, weave it higher, 

Weave it now of shining flame, 

None shall come to hurt or maim. 

None shall pass this fiery wall, 

None shall pass, no, none at all.

Ana jumped when she heard the scuttling noise on the roof of her cabin. She instinctively wanted to look up toward the noise, but knew that she needed to keep focus on the burning flame on the white candle. Ana then heard the call of a crow once more, this time from the roof of her cabin. It must have landed there. Ana swallowed hard, her throat dry and sore, but repeated the chant again, this time louder than a whisper.

Craft the spell in the fire, 

Craft it well, weave it higher, 

Weave it now of shining flame, 

None shall come to hurt or maim. 

None shall pass this fiery wall, 

None shall pass, no, none at all.

Then the fire on the candle suddenly began to burn brighter. It seemed to intensify, growing taller as Ana spoke her words, staring unblinkingly into the center of the flame. Ana could hear the wind outside suddenly growing stronger, banging the shutters outside her windows. The wind now howled through the forest, wailing and moaning, while the sound of cawing crows could still be heard outside. Ana said the words again, louder still, almost shouting them. By the time Ana had finished the chant once more, the flame on the candle was now towering from the floor to Ana’s eye level, a good three feet as she kneeled before it. Ana began the chant once more, this time yelling the words at the candle.

“CRAFT THE SPELL IN THE FIRE,

CRAFT IT WELL, WEAVE IT HI-“

Suddenly, the door to the cabin burst open and a powerful gust of wind pushed its way inside, sending pages of books flipping rapidly and discarded candles rolling across the floor. The small mirror was knocked over in the wind and fell closed on itself, no longer reflecting the door. The sudden blast of wind surprised Ana and she turned her face away from the door, shielding her eyes with her arm, breaking eye contact with the candle flame for the first time since she lit it. The instant Ana looked away, the towering flame suddenly died.

“No!” Ana cried as she realized what she had done.

Before she was able to do anything about what had happened, Ana looked up and saw the shadowy shapes approaching through her door, descending upon her.

All she could do was scream.

Dealing With Pessimists

As an author, I often receive criticism about what I do. Not if I’m good or not, more like people simply doubting that anyone who wants to be an author could actually become that. Today I had an exchange with someone who called into question my ability to do what I do. This isn’t the first time that’s happened, and it sure as Hell won’t be the last. But when this sort of thing happens, I always think of an old story I heard years and years ago. I think it’s good for other aspiring artists, or anyone who wants to make their dream a reality, to read. And remember it when someone tries to tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams.

There was once a swamp full of frogs. These frogs all went about their day without trouble, no one doing anything to upset the daily routine. One day, however, a small group of young frogs came across a tree at the edge of the swamp. The tree was rather tall, but had a delicious looking fruit growing from the high branches. The frogs all wanted to eat the fruit, so tasty did they look, but they were afraid of climbing the tree, because it was far taller than anything else they had seen in the swamp, and they were only small frogs.

Finally, one frog worked up his courage and began to climb the tree. As he climbed, the other frogs gathered below and started to call out to the climbing frog, yelling, “Come down, you won’t make it! You’ll fall! Come back, you’ll fall!”

The first frog made it about a quarter of the way up the tree before he finally lost his grip and fell back down to the swamp.

Another frog suddenly decided to give it a try. He hopped forward and began to climb. As soon as he started to climb, the other frogs all began to shout again, “Don’t do it, you’ll fall! It’s too big, you won’t do it! You’ll fall!”

The second frog made it a third of the way up the tree, but then slipped and fell back into the swamp.

It continued that way all morning. A frog would attempt to climb the tree, and as the other frogs all shouted their doubt down below, the frog who was climbing would eventually slip and fall.

Finally, the smallest frog hopped forward. He said nothing to the other frogs, but just began to climb. The frogs down below all yelled out as they had with all the others, shouting, “You’re going to fall! Don’t do it, come back! You’ll fall!”

But the little frog just kept climbing. He made it a quarter of the way up, a third, then halfway. The frogs down below started to yell louder, insisting that he would fall, that he can’t make it, to just stop.

Still, the little frog climbed. He climbed all the way to the top of the tree, made his way out onto the branches and began picking the delicious fruit. He ate his fill, then dropped some down to the other frogs down below. He then easily climbed back down to meet up with the group of frogs who all stared at him in amazement.

“How did you do that?” they all asked the little frog.

But the little frog was deaf.

He never heard them shouting their doubt. And because their pessimism went unheard, there was nothing to stop the little frog from succeeding.

Best Apps For Writers

Notability – $4.99

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Notability was named the Mac App of the Year by Apple! Apple Editors’ Choice on iPad, iPhone, and Mac. Notability is the one place to create, share, and manage your notes. It combines handwriting, typing, audio recordings, and photos so you can create notes that fit your needs. And with iCloud support, your notes are always available on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Anytime. Anywhere.

Scrivener – $56.99

screen800x500Scrivener is the best app you could get as a writer and this is the main software that I personally use.

Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers designed for composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on getting you to the end of that awkward first draft.
Compose your text in any order and in pieces as large or small as you like. View the components of your draft individually or as a whole. Import and refer to research files such as images and PDFs alongside your writing.

Whether you prefer to outline first, hammer out your first draft and restructure later, or do a bit of both, Scrivener’s corkboard and outliner tools are completely integrated with the text, so working with an overview of your draft is just a click away.

iBooks Author – Free

mzl.jftlkfsn.800x500-75-100482906-primary-idgeNow anyone can create stunning iBooks textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books, and more for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Start with one of the Apple-designed templates that feature a wide variety of page layouts. Add your own text and images with drag-and-drop ease. Use Multi-Touch widgets to include interactive photo galleries, movies, Keynote presentations, 3D objects, and more. Preview your book on your iOS device or Mac at any time. Then submit your finished work to the iBooks Store in a few simple steps. And before you know it, you’re a published author.

The Brainstormer – $2.49

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The Brainstormer is kindling for creative minds. A tactile tool to randomly combine a plot, a subject and a setting or style, the Brainstormer provides a moment of inspiration for writers, painters, or any creative mind. Combat creative block, spark new ideas and summon up quick subjects for doodling, sketching or journaling.

The Brainstormer has three spinning wheels featuring plot/conflict, theme/setting and subject/location. By manipulating the wheels — or do a random spin — you generate combinations that make fantastic creative prompts for writing, sketching or any creative activity. Edit the wheels: tweak the built in lists or create entirely new scenarios from scratch.

More Wheels! The Character Builder wheel combines of archetypes attributes and backgrounds, and the World Builder combines theme, mood and place to create one-of-a-kind settings. NEW! Sci-Fi Brainstormer generates ideas with a science fiction flavor.

Coffitivity – Free
screen568x568Research suggests that it may be more difficult to be productive in a totally noise-free space. This is why some people are in their creative element in the middle of a bustling, chatter-filled Starbucks. Coffitivity offers the soothing background noise of a coffee shop in the comfort of your own home. Plus, the coffee is free at your place.
With the app, you can:
• Choose from several Coffitivity audio tracks to create your ideal work environment
• Open your favorite music apps while Coffitivity continues to play
• Adjust volume of Coffitivity to create the perfect mix with your tunes
• Use Coffitivity on the go – even without access to the internet

iA Writer Pro – $24.99

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This app is perfect for those writers that may get distracted easily. The “sentence syntax control” feature sets Writer Pro apart from the rest of the content creation and organization apps. This feature highlights your adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions, or conjunctions, allowing you to control and streamline your writing style. Different views for the Write, Edit, and Read functions also help you focus on different aspects of your work during different phases of the writing process. Self-editing may be one of the hardest parts of the writing process but with this app it makes it a bit easier.

Social Media – Free

Social media is onsocial_media_strategye of your most valuable resources as a writer, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or even YouTube it’ll help you spread the word and hopefully get more sales. It is even more important for those indie authors out there like me. The truth of the matter is people will overlook your books if they don’t know who you are and that is why having social media accounts are so important. To become a success at the indie game you need to have an established fanbase that will continue to buy your books and spread the love.

Plagiarism and the Indie Opinion of the Indie Author

As some of you might know, I’m relatively new to the whole independent author world, and there have been a couple of things that I’ve learned. The first thing I learned was:

I freaking LOVE it!

The second thing, however, is that there seems to be a stigma attached to indie authors. Over the past couple of years, I’ve found that a lot of readers don’t trust that an independently published book can actually be good and entertaining. As well as a lot of “officially” published authors don’t think of indie authors in the highest regard. I read one interview with a particular, widely-known, author who referred to indies as “bottom feeders.” Only slightly insulting, but let’s move on.

The reason I began thinking about the opinion people have of indie authors lately is because it was brought to my attention on my Facebook page that there is another indie author out there who has written something I’m told is remarkably similar to my own Reaper Series. One of my readers picked up this ebook on Amazon as a recommended book, having just completed the Reaper Series. They told me they couldn’t even finish reading the sample chapter because they found it to be so similar to my own story.

So I went and checked out this book, which was written by another indie author. I initially imagined it to be a coincidence, but even the description of their book sounded a lot like the premise for the Reaper Series. This author had even titled their own series, Reaper Series! Still, I didn’t want to pass judgement until I read it. And I quickly learned one thing while reading the first book in their series.

No wonder indie authors have a bad name. Seriously, if people like this are the standard, it’s no surprise at all that indie authors are looked down on. I’m not saying at all that all indie authors are like this person, because I am an indie author, why would I insult myself? I seriously hope this type of author isn’t the standard of indie authors, but if this was the first book someone read from an indie, I couldn’t blame them if they were hesitant the next time they saw an independent book.

I was shocked at the similarities this story had to my own. Not to mention that it was released about six months after mine, giving the “author” plenty of time to read and rip-off my own story premise. I had a look at this author’s online presence, checked out their social media, their web page, their Amazon author page, all of it. And my immediate impression is that they have no original concepts, just stuff that they steal from successful books and movies and then jam them all together into one poorly written book. I started reading one book that, based on the description, sounded like a patchwork quilt of Armageddon, Cowboys VS Aliens, and The Terminator. The series that seems strangely similar to my own was mixed with Mortal Instruments, the Fallen Series, and maybe a little Twilight.

What I took to be particularly awful about this author wasn’t just how they took concepts from successful art forms and twisted them to use as their own stories, though. What really annoyed me was how blatantly obvious it was that they were only writing because they thought they could make money out of it. That’s all they cared about, the money and the attention. They would constantly blog about how quickly they wrote and published a book (less than a month), they would post screenshots of their Amazon sales charts, even post how much money they made in a month. It was like a child standing on top of a slide screaming at her parents, “LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME!”

I don’t want to just complain about this author, who I won’t name, but seriously, here’s a little advice about what to look out for in the indie world of books. Firstly, be wary of books that have lots of reviews, but only 4 and 5 stars. Even the greatest books of all time have negative reviews, just go and look up Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, I guarantee there’ll be a bunch of 1 star reviews of them. I don’t do this, because I refuse to sink to that level, but many indie authors will buy positive reviews. There are plenty of blogs and websites that will honestly review your book in exchange for a free copy or a small fee, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are just as many who will guarantee a positive review for some money. I view that as false advertising. With X amount of 5 star reviews, people who are looking for a good book would see that rating and think that it must be a good book, only to then part with their hard-earned money to buy a book they most likely won’t finish, because it’s just too God-awful! That’s clearly what this author has done, as all of the reviews on their Amazon page are about as long as this blog.

On the other hand, though, don’t assume that because someone is independently published, they’re a bad writer. Some big name authors actually started out as indie authors. Matthew Reilly self published in 1996. Mark Twain started his own publishing press because no one else would take his work.

Really, don’t just think because you had one bad experience with an indie author that all indie authors are the same. Because as authors, we’re all different, just like “officially” published authors. Some are great, others not so good, some have expensive marketing backing up their work, others rely solely on reviews and word of mouth.

Oh, and if you’re an indie author, DON’T plagiarise! Seriously, what the hell is that author thinking?

A Two-Sentence Horror Story

Who says a story needs to be long? Sometimes the best and most chilling ones are micro stories. Check out my two-sentence micro story below.

“I can’t sleep,” she whispered as she climbed into bed beside me. I awoke with a start, drenched in a cold sweat, clutching the dirt-covered dress she had been buried in.”

See what you can come up with and add it in the comments.

PEACE!