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Book Spotlight – Double Take

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About the Author

 Version 2

Abby Bardi is the author of three novels: Double Take, The Secret Letters, and The Book of Fred. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals, and she has written academic articles on Roma (Gypsies). She grew up on the South Side of Chicago and now lives in Ellicott City, MD, the oldest railroad town in America.

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About the Book

 Double Take

Title: Double Take
Author: Abby Bardi
Publisher: Harper Collins Impulse
Pages: 186
Genre: Mystery

Set in Chicago, 1975, Double Take is the story of artsy Rachel Cochrane, who returns from college with no job and confronts the recent death of Bando, one of her best friends. When she runs into Joey, a mutual friend, their conversations take them back into their shared past and to the revelation that Bando may have been murdered. To find out who murdered him, Rachel is forced to revisit her stormy 1960s adolescence, a journey that brings her into contact with her old friends, her old self, and danger.

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Book Excerpt

1975

I recognized his voice from across the room. When I handed him a menu, he looked up absent-mindedly and went on talking to some guys, then did a double take.

“Cookie?” he said.

I tried on the name like an old article of clothing to see if it still fit. It felt like a suede fringed jacket. “Yep,” I said.

“Wow. You look so different.”

“I cut my hair.”

“Everyone did.”

“I’m older,” I said. “Everyone’s older.”

“You look exactly the same,” I said. He was wearing a beat-up leather jacket over a green T-shirt, maybe the same jacket and T-shirt he had always worn. His thick black hair was shorter now and curly, skin still tan from summer, small mouth with perfect teeth. He still looked tough and handsome, but in a creepy way, like someone you couldn’t trust.

“Cookie, what the hell are you doing here?”

“I work here. I’d rather you didn’t call me that. My name is Rachel.”

“I thought your name was Cookie.”

“Nope. Do people still call you Rat?”
He laughed. “Nowadays I go by Joey.”

“Okay, Joey,” I said, since this was nowadays.

“Miss?” a voice called from a nearby table. The voice brought me back to where I was standing, in Diana’s Grotto, a Greek diner on 57th Street, with ten tables full of customers. For a moment, I had thought I was in Casa Sanchez.

It took me a while to make it back to Joey’s table. A divinity student had found a fly in his milkshake, and it wouldn’t have taken so long if I hadn’t made the mistake of saying, “So, how much can a fly drink?” Like most academics, this guy had no sense of humor and gave me a lecture on hygiene. It was amazing that knowing as much about hygiene as he seemed to, he would continue to eat at Diana’s Grotto. By the time I got back to Joey’s table, the men he had been sitting with were gone. Off-duty police, from the looks of them, I thought, or plain-clothes. We got a lot of cops in Diana’s; they slumped on stools at the counter with their guns hanging from their belts, sucking down free coffee. Back in the sixties, the sight of their blue leather jackets had always made me nervous, like I’d committed some crime I’d forgotten about.

“So why are you working here?” Joey asked. “I thought you were a college girl. A co-ed.” He flashed his white teeth. “I don’t mean to be nosy.”

“The problem with college is they make you leave when you finish.”

“And here I thought it was a permanent gig.”

“Nope.”

“But why aren’t you doing something a little more—”

“Collegiate? Don’t ask.” I slid into the booth next to him. From across the room, Nicky, the maître d’, shot me a poisonous glance. I ignored him. “I like it here.” I smiled a crazy little smile.

“Hey, different strokes.” His eyes swept the room, resting on a mural of a white windmill on an island in the Aegean. The windmill’s blades were crooked. I remembered this eye-sweep from Casa Sanchez, where he had always sat facing the door so he could constantly scan the whole restaurant. His eyes returned to me. “Didn’t I hear a rumor you were supposed to be getting married? Some guy in California?”

“Just a rumor. Glad to hear the grapevine still works.”

I felt someone hiss into my ear. Nicky had slunk up behind me. He looked like a garden gnome in a plaid jacket and baggy pants, reeking of aftershave that had tried and failed. “Rose!” he snapped. He never called anyone by their right name. “What’s in a name?” I always murmured.

“Be right with you.” I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

“This is a classy place,” Joey said as Nicky ambled away.

“He’s the owner’s brother-in-law.”

“Diana?”

“There is no Diana. She’s a mythological figure.”

“Like Hendrix?”

“Kind of.”

“Hey, you want to have a drink after work?”

“Actually, I don’t drink any more.”

“You want to come watch me drink? What time do you get off?”

“Nine thirty. You could come help me fill the ketchups.”

“What?”

“You know, take the empty Heinz bottles and pour cheap generic ketchup in them.”

“Sounds like fun, but why don’t you meet me at Bert’s? Back room?”

I thought for a moment. This did not seem like a good idea, but I didn’t care. “Okay, why not. So, can I get you anything?”

“Just coffee.”

“You want a side of taramasalata with it? It’s made from fish roe.”

“I’ll pass, thanks.”

When I brought him his coffee, he said, “You’re still a hell of a waitress, Cookie.”

“You’re still a hell of a waitress, Rachel.”

“Whatever.”

“Thanks,” I said.

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VBT – Along Came Jones

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About the Author

Victoria Bernadine (a pseudonym) is, as the saying goes, a “woman of a certain age”. After twenty-something years of writer’s block, she began writing again in 2008.

Victoria enjoys reading all genres and particularly loves writing romantic comedy and post-apocalyptic science fiction. What those two have in common is anybody’s guess.

She lives in Edmonton with her two cats (The Grunt and The Runt).  Along Came Jones is the second novel she felt was good enough to be released into the wild.

 

About the Book

Title: ALONG CAME JONES
Author: Victoria Bernadine
Publisher: Love of Words Publishing
Pages: 324
Genre: Chick Lit/Contemporary Fiction

BOOK BLURB

Benjamin Ferrin Macon-Jones has it all: a luxurious lifestyle in Toronto and the love of an intelligent, ambitious woman…until that same woman refuses his marriage proposal, tells him he’s a detriment to her career, and leaves him. Unable to deal with his cantankerous family trying to be supportive, he quietly slips away into the Canadian countryside.

Lou Upjohn has problems of her own. She’s a recluse and agoraphobic, staying safely within the walls of her ancestral home in small town Saskatchewan and depending on Ike, her best and only friend, to deal with the outside world. Only Ike’s just married another woman and now he’s moving to Vancouver. Before he leaves, he hires the new guy in town, Ferrin Jones, to run her errands and do her yard work. Lou isn’t happy, but even she has to admit the stranger looks mildly interesting.

Both their lives could be changed forever if she only has the courage to open the door.

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Book Excerpt

“Marry me.”

Olivia laughs.

“What?” she teases with a fond, slightly mocking smile.  “Are you ‘proposing’ because you think it’s what people are supposed to do on New Year’s Eve?”

Ferrin smirks his lopsided, endearing smirk as he lowers himself to one knee and proffers the small, square velvet box he dug out of the pocket of his tuxedo.

The beautiful brunette laughs again.  “Oh, Ferrin, get up—you’re being ridiculous!  And the joke really isn’t all that funny.”

Olivia glances at the crowd of beaming friends and family surrounding them and Ferrin watches as realization slowly dawns on her face.  Her gaze snaps back to his as realization morphs into horror, and Ferrin feels a corresponding sick, sinking feeling grow in his stomach as her expression changes.  His own smile slips away and his face freezes into an expressionless mask.  Their spectators’ hissed in-drawn breaths and sudden, uncomfortable silence barely register given his complete and utter focus on Olivia.

He knows what she’s going to say before she says it, but like any impending disaster, he can’t seem to look away.

“Oh, my God,” she whispers.  “Oh, shit!”  She bites her lip, then says in a rush, “I love you, Ferrin, I really, truly do…but I can’t marry you.”  Her voice breaks; her eyes fill with tears.

The silence that follows seems to grow and envelop them in a stifling cocoon built from his humiliation and suddenly terrified heart.  Ferrin hears, as if through cotton wool, subdued voices and the shuffling of feet as their family and friends gather their things and leave the apartment.  In some distant corner of his mind, he’s mildly surprised they’re all leaving so quietly…or maybe he just can’t hear them across the yawning divide that’s opened between him and Olivia.

As the door closes, she whispers, “Get up.  Your knee must hurt.”

Does it?  He can’t tell over the crushing pressure in his chest, his stomach, his head, but he struggles to his feet anyway, like she asks, because she asks, aching and sore and suddenly ancient.  He straightens and becomes, as always, self-consciously aware of how big he is in comparison to her, and how his bulk looming over her always makes her edgy.  He automatically slouches his shoulders, trying to minimize his size, trying to make her comfortable.

“Say something,” she begs, and her voice breaks.

His voice is cracked, hollow, distant, as he says, “Is this it?”

‘It’, he thinks with despair.  Such a tiny word with such a huge meaning.

She hesitates, then nods, not quite looking at him.

“This can’t come as that much of a surprise.  Not if you’re honest with yourself.”

Ferrin can’t seem to make his brain work.  He shakes his head, trying to force something—anything—loose so his world—his life—will start to make sense again.

“I—I—no.  Yes.  Why?” he asks, and winces at just how lost he sounds.

Olivia sighs and says, very gently, “I want other things in life than you do, Ferrin.  My career means everything to me and I want to make it to the top of Macon-Jones Enterprises, or as high as I can get without being a blood relative.”

Finally, finally, anger flares inside him.

“And I’m holding you back?  In my own family’s company?”

Olivia hesitates.

Ferrin’s eyes widen.  “You really believe it,” he breathes.  “When have I ever stood in your way, Olivia?”

This time her sigh is long-suffering.  “You’ve never stood in my way, no, but you’ve never actively helped me, either.”

“I didn’t think you wanted me to!  If I recall correctly, you told me so in no uncertain terms when we moved in together.  That’s only a couple of years ago!  What’s changed?”

“I didn’t want you using any undue influence with Abram to get me promotions I didn’t deserve,” Olivia snaps, her own anger flaring.  “That didn’t mean I didn’t want you to help me at all!”

Ferrin snorts.  “Nobody has undue influence with Abram.  You should know that by now!”

“Abram isn’t the point!  The point is that I could have used your support when some of my projects came up for a vote before the Board.  Instead, you, as always, stayed out of it and gave your vote to the first cousin who asked for it, without any regard to how the decision would impact my career or my projects!  Half the time, you didn’t even bother asking me how I wanted you to vote!”

“I never ask anyone about the projects or how they want to use my vote!  The cousins know how I play the game and it works well for all of us.  Why do you think I’m the only one any of them will talk to without a witness present?”

Olivia throws her hands up in the air as she whirls and paces away.  “There!  That’s exactly the problem!”

He takes a step back, blinking.  “What?  The fact that I’m friendly with all my cousins?  That’s a problem?”

“No!”  She brushes a hand over her face in exasperation.  She turns to him, and now he recognizes that look on her face.  It’s the one she has when she’s getting ready to lecture him on what, exactly, he’s done wrong, and what he needs to do to avoid making the same mistake again.

She says, “It’s not the fact the cousins all like you that’s the problem; it’s the reason they all like you!  You’re such a goddamn fixer, itching to solve everyone’s problems that you’ve become a complete pushover!  I don’t want to hurt you, Ferrin, but, let’s face it:  you’re a sucker.  You’re gullible.  And I hate to say this, but you’re also a bit of a wimp.  You’ll do whatever anybody tells you to do, and that’s proven in spades by your so-called ‘business investments’!  All anybody needs in order to get money out of you is a sob story and a half-assed idea!”

His mouth sags open as he rocks beneath her barrage, every word slamming into his heart and his gut and his mind.

“What the hell?” he chokes.

Olivia deflates, pity in her eyes.

“Look,” she says, and now her voice is calm and firmly matter-of-fact, the way Ferrin has so often heard her speak whenever he’s forced to attend a board meeting with her, “I’m going to be CEO someday of a multi-billion-dollar multinational company.  Your family’s multi-billion-dollar multinational company.  It’s ruthless and cutthroat, and a spouse’s strengths and talents are just as important to an executive’s rise as the executive’s own skills and talents, especially in Macon-Jones Enterprises.  You know how outright Machiavellian your family can be, and that’s when they’re arranging Christmas!  If you think they’re ruthless in their personal lives, they’re ten times worse in the boardroom, trust me!”

“Yes, I know,” Ferrin says drily, and is almost glad he’s starting to feel something—anything—now.  “I have met my cousins and I’ve even been to a board meeting a time or two.  Abram seems to have done all right without a spouse to support him.”

She snorts.  “He’s Chair and he was handed the job by your great-grandfather!  He’s never had to prove anything to anybody!”

His laugh is harsh and barking.  “Now you’re the one who’s forgotten what my cousins are like!” He waves his words away.  “Doesn’t matter.  You knew when we met that I do everything I can to avoid anything to do with the company.”

“You’re not supposed to avoid it by giving your vote to whichever cousin gets to you first!  Besides, you’re your father’s only surviving child, the last of your particular branch of the family!  You out of all your cousins shouldn’t avoid the company at all!”

Ferrin flinches.

She grimaces.  “I’m sorry; that was low…but you know I’m right.  You could wield enormous influence and power in the company, and not only with the family when they want something, if you’d just take an interest!  If you would listen to me, let me guide you, advise you so you don’t believe everything you’re told, and let me stop Carson, Dyson and Jack from constantly distracting you, you could be the next Chair of the Board instead of Jack!”

“So I’m not only gullible and a wimp, I’m also so stupid I can only trust you to advise me?” he says, incredulous.

“Of course not!  But you’re wasting your potential—and your birthright!  Your father was Abram’s second-in-command, for God’s sake!  All you have to do is step up and follow in his footsteps!”  She runs a hand through her hair and groans.  “Face it, Ferrin, I’m never going to be CEO if I remain allied with you, not unless you change your approach to the business.”

Ferrin rears back and stares.

“‘Allied’?” he says slowly.  “Is that what the last five years have been about, Olivia?  An alliance?”

“No!  Of course not!  I love you.  I do!  You’re a wonderful man, Ferrin.  But you’re…” She spreads her hands and shrugs helplessly.

“Weak,” he says flatly, “and obviously a little stupid.  Have I got it right?”

“Ferrin…”  She takes a step towards him, but he quickly retreats.  She stops and stares at him, her large, brown eyes brimming with tears.  For once, he’s unmoved.

“I’m sorry I’ve been such a disappointment to your professional ambitions,” he grates out, a bitter twist to his lips.  He turns and heads for the exit.

“Where are you going?”

“I have no idea,” he says, and slams the door behind him.

♠♥♣♦

Lou signs the last of the papers and sits back with a rueful scowl.

“Considering I never leave the house,” she grumbles to Ike, “you’d think there’d be less paperwork.”

Ike chuckles as he straightens the papers and tucks them into his briefcase.

“You have a lot of investments, Lou.  You need to keep track of them all.”

She shrugs.  “I suppose, although I thought that’s what I was paying you to do.”

“Lou,” Ike says, and leans back in Ike’s Chair with an annoyed sigh.

She grimaces and waves a hand.  “Whatever.  You know I don’t read the things when you put them in front of me, and I tune out as soon as you start talking finances and investments and whatever the hell else you’re saying when your lips are moving.”

“Yes, I do know.  Why do you think I gave up a long time ago on trying to convince you to pay more attention?”

She shrugs, then tugs her over-sized, dirt-brown sweater more closely around herself.  Her stomach churns and tightens as she buries her suddenly shaking hands in the knitted wool.  She staunchly reminds herself of her New Year’s Resolution to make changes in her life, beginning with her relationship with Ike and ending with her finally figuring out a way to leave the house.

“Would you like something to drink?” she asks, carefully casual, but she can’t quite keep the hopeful lilt from her voice.

It’s been a long time since Ike stayed past the time it takes to get her signature on a stack of papers, or to confirm she’s still breathing.  She misses the days when he’d linger and talk with her, giving her news of the world outside the walls of her house.  Even more, she misses those all-too-few nights, when he’d whisper against her heated skin, and leave her weak with need.  But those nights, like everything else, faded away and now he barely spends any time with her at all.

She doesn’t really miss people, but she misses Ike, and he’s the only one right in front of her.

Now he hesitates, and the thoughtful look on his face makes her stomach drop.

This won’t be good, she thinks.

“I don’t want anything to drink,” he says slowly, “but I do want to talk to you.”

Her stomach drops even further as she shifts her weight in her seat, her fingers clutching at the strands of her sweater.

“All right,” she says, feeling as wary as a rabbit sensing danger.

Ike leans forward, his gorgeous golden-brown eyes never wavering from hers.  He says, very carefully and precisely, “On New Year’s Eve, I asked Irish to marry me, and she said yes.”

The ensuing silence lengthens, deepens, as the words drift around her like leaves, like dust.

She loves Ike, has always loved him.  Even while they played cops and robbers through the dusty streets of Ledoux, or hunted for ghosts in and around the abandoned hospital on the outskirts of town, or searched for buried treasure in the rare copses of trees that dot the prairie landscape, she also secretly dreamed of playing house.  He’s her white knight, riding to her rescue whenever he noticed her schoolmates teasing her or when her mother got sick or when she realized she could no longer bring herself to face the world lurking outside her windows.  He starred in more dreams than she can count when she was a teenager, and he’s in more fantasies than she cares to admit as an adult.

Ten years ago, he helped her cope with her mother’s illness as he gradually took over all the mundane tasks she had no time or energy to do:  paying bills, buying groceries, talking to the neighbours.  Five years later, he stood by her side, strong and tall and comforting, when she finally laid her mother—that poor, long-suffering woman—to rest. Lou had been twenty-five then, grief-stricken and suddenly unable to cope with the world outside, but Ike remained her friend even after she crept into her house and allowed the doors to seal shut behind her.

She stayed inside, and there were those few brief months when he joined her in her bed, but then his desire faded away, and when she wasn’t looking, he fell in love with Irish.

She shivers.

The cold of a Saskatchewan winter doesn’t even come close to the ice growing inside her.

“Lou?”

She blinks and shifts, her fingers flexing nervously against the knitted fabric of her sweater.

“Congratulations,” she croaks.  Her heart clenches at the genuine happiness on his face, in his eyes.  She clears her throat, then asks, her voice husky, “When’s the big day?”

“The beginning of March.”

“That’s only six weeks away!”

He laughs.  “Well, there’s no reason to wait, is there? Don’t worry, Lou, I’m still going to manage your finances and take care of you.”

“Oh.  Well.  That’s…good.”  What did it matter, she wants to scream, if there’s no longer any hope you’ll come back to me?

Ike nods as he smacks his hands against his knees and surges to his feet.

“Maybe someday you’ll meet her,” he says, grinning as he picks up his briefcase.

She forces a smile, and hopes he doesn’t notice her trembling lips.  “Maybe.  You’ve told me so much about her, I feel like I know her already.”  She winces inside at her dry tone.

Ike either doesn’t notice or decides to ignore the sarcasm.

“You’d like her, you know,” he says as he walks to the door.  She drifts after him and watches, helpless, as he pulls on his boots and parka.  “She reminds me a lot of how you used to be.”

Lou opens her mouth to say she could be the way she used to be; she just needs to figure out how to get there, that’s all.  But he’s already opening the door, and she closes her mouth, the words unsaid.

He pauses on the threshold, the icy air swirling round his feet and into the large, cluttered foyer. He half-turns towards her, standing in both shadow and light.  Lou swallows, once again struck by how perfect he is, from the compelling beauty of his amber eyes, high cheekbones and perfectly symmetrical features, to his crown of carefully groomed dark brown hair, now ruffled by the cold winter wind.  She sometimes finds it hard to believe he’s ever run barefoot through mud, or hovered over her as he patiently coaxed her to orgasm.  Maybe if she had been able to enjoy the sex more—

“I’ll be back before the wedding,” he says now, startling her from her thoughts.  “See you later, Lou.”

He flashes his charming smile, and is gone before she even finishes nodding.

She stares at the door without seeing it before she carefully straightens her sweater, vaguely aware her feet are numb even in their wool socks, thanks to the cold prairie wind that had blown inside the house.  She turns and walks just as carefully back to the living room.  She eases down onto the couch, feeling as if even the air touching her skin is enough to break her.

She stares at nothing, and allows the comforting silence to gently settle over her.

Book Spotlight – The Song of Solomon Revealed

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About the Book:

Title: THE SONG OF SOLOMON REVEALED
Author: Owen Sypher
Publisher: Litfire Publishing, LLC
Pages: 308
Genre: Religion/Bible Studies

BOOK BLURB

The book of Song of Solomon is a spiritual book full of allegories or pictures where God used the natural to show the spiritual. By using the keys of understanding found in the Bible the author has unlock the hidden meaning of the book of Song of Solomon.

The book of Song of Solomon is about the love that Jesus has for his bride. When looked at from this angle a lot of the verses makes more sense.

The Song of Solomon Revealed 2

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Book Excerpt

Song 4:16: Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits. KJV

We know that north is God’s direction as stated in Psalm 75:6–7.

Ps. 75:6–7 For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. 7 But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another. KJV

Since promotion comes from God, and the only direction not mentioned is north. That makes north God’s direction. That would make south man’s direction. This illustrates to me that we need the right spirit in our lives, no matter what comes our way. Whether the wind is blowing from the north or the south makes no difference; we still have the same spirit (our fragrance).  What this tells me is that no matter if I am receiving the blessings of God (north wind blowing upon my life) or cursing or tribulation from others (south wind, or man’s direction), I would have the same spirit blowing out of my garden or I would show the right spirit no matter what is happening in my life, and it would be a sweet smell to the Lord, and it is all because of the things that the Lord has planted in my garden.

We have the capabilities of doing this because we understanding this verse in Romans 8.

Rom. 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. KJV

Phil. 4:11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. KJV

I use this scripture to show that I am not going to let outside circumstances dictate how my spirit responds to the Lord. I can be content in the Lord no matter what.

About the Author

Owen Sypher

Owen L. Sypher is a devoted servant of the Lord. At eleven years old, he started a spiritual journey to discover and understand God and his word.

In 1979, he received the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Since then, he has had fellowships with the same group. Song of Solomon is his first book.

You can visit his website at http://www.sypherbooks.com.

Book Spotlight – The Heatstroke Line

 

Hot off the presses! THE HEATSTROKE LINE by Edward L. Rubin is available now! 

 

 

Title:
THE HEATSTROKE LINE
Author: Edward L. Rubin
Publisher: Sunbury Press
Pages: 223
Genre: Scifi/Cli-Fi (Climate Change Science Fiction)
Nothing has been done to prevent climate change, and the United States has spun into decline.   Storm surges have made coastal cities uninhabitable, blistering heat waves afflict the interior and, in the South (below the Heatstroke Line), life is barely possible.  Under the stress of these events and an ensuing civil war, the nation has broken up into three smaller successor states and tens of tiny principalities.  When the flesh-eating bugs that inhabit the South show up in one of the successor states, Daniel Danten is assigned to venture below the Heatstroke Line and investigate the
source of the invasion.  The bizarre and brutal people he encounters, and the disasters that they trigger, reveal the real horror climate change has inflicted on America.
BUYING INFORMATION:

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Book Excerpt:

They were in some sort of garage, with several other vehicles and various pieces of equipment scattered around. The two men who stood beside them, watching, were the ones who had taken him out of the auto-car, one white, one black, both very big. Three people approached from a doorway to Dan’s right. In front was an attractive woman with blond hair, wearing an elegant leopard print dress and the long, pointed shoes that were the latest fashion. Behind her stood a man and a woman, both much bigger, and dressed in work clothes like the two men who were guarding them.

The woman in the leopard dress looked at her wristlink, then at Dan and Stuart, and smiled at them in self-satisfied manner. She motioned to the woman beside her and then to one of the two guards, and they led Stuart, still complaining about his arm, through the doorway they had come from. Then she turned toward Dan and motioned to the man beside her and the other guard, who grabbed Dan’s arms and started to lead him toward the same doorway.

“Who the hell are you?” he said, trying to turn toward the woman. “Are you aware that we’re part of a diplomatic mission from Mountain America to Jacksonia authorized by President Peter Simonson? I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but if you – – – “

One of the men let go of Dan’s arm, grabbed his cheeks to force his mouth open, and plunged a plastic gag into it. Dan felt himself choke and struggled for breath. The gag had a slightly sour, greasy taste. Then both men grabbed his arms again and led him through the doorway. Dan suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of dread, stronger even than he had felt when the men first pulled him out of the car.

Beyond the doorway was a narrow corridor with dirty green walls covered with beads of water. Clearly, they were underground. The men lead Dan through the first opening along the corridor and into a small, dimly-lit room with three chairs facing a transparent plastic window. Through the window was another room, painted grey and brightly lit. Dan was forced into the chair at the back of the room, his handcuffs were removed and his arms were strapped to the armrests, and then, to his increasing dread, some sort of metal device was placed over his head and tightened so that he was forced to look straight ahead into the room beyond the window. He felt saliva dripping down his chin. The woman in the leopard dress came in, sat down in the chair placed to his left and closer to the window, looked at him up and down, then crossed her legs and turned to the window.

A moment later, Stuart was led into the brightly lit grey room by his two guards. All his clothes except his undershorts had been stripped off. He had always been slender, but now he looked emaciated and pathetic. He was obviously in pain. Dan felt tears coming to his eyes despite his own discomfort. The woman turned to him, smiled, and then turned back to the window. By now, one of Stuart’s handcuffs had been removed and re-attached to a metal loop that was built into the wall. The two guards left and Stuart was alone in the room, one arm fastened to the wall, the other hanging limply at his side.

With a sense of horror, but not, for some reason, of surprise, Dan saw a dark shape fly through the air and attach itself to Stuart’s thigh. It was a biter bug, shiny black and nearly three inches long. Stuart jumped and writhed, turning one way and the other, but Dan didn’t need to see clearly to know what was happening. The bug’s six legs had plunged immediately into Stuart’s skin; now its two sharp mandibles, each half an inch in length, were folded under its body, tearing his flesh. Blood welled up from under the bug, and as it moved down his leg, it left a trail of raw, bleeding flesh behind. Stuart clawed weakly at the bug with his other arm, which was obviously disabled. That didn’t matter because Dan knew that tearing a biter bug off your body was virtually impossible. As soon as you started, its legs dug deeper, and you would wind up tearing out a chunk of your own flesh, which was just as painful, and somehow more awful, than letting the bug continue for the half minute or so until it was satisfied and flew away.

Dan wanted to yell. He heard the words “Why are you doing this” form in his throat, but he couldn’t speak. He tried to lift the chair to get out of the room, to smash the window, to kill the woman sitting calmly next to him, but the chair was bolted to the floor. He couldn’t move — he couldn’t even look away. The first bug was gone, leaving an oozing wound behind, but two more bugs had been released and attached themselves to Stuart’s body, one to his chest and one to his arm. Helpless and in agony, he was trying to pull away from the wall and he was screaming. No sound came through the window and the silence, compounded by Dan’s own inability to speak, made the scene somehow more horrible.

Dan closed his eyes. If there was nothing else that he could do, he could at least deny this woman the satisfaction of making him watch his friend be tortured. Beneath his sorrow, fury and horror, he sensed another feeling, some indefinable nausea that lay deep inside him. After a few minutes, he felt compelled to look again. Stuart had collapsed and was lying against the wall. There were four or five bugs on his body now, and one was on his cheek, moving toward his eye. He was still writhing, but had also begun to shake compulsively. Blood was oozing from bug tracks on his arms, legs and stomach, covering his body and dripping onto the floor. He was going into shock; they were killing him. Dan had never felt so angry or so powerless. It was hard to believe that this was real, that Stuart was really dying, that in a few more minutes he would cease to exist. The bugs flew away, one leaving a pool of blood in his eye socket, and then three more, five more, came flying in. Dan closed his eyes again. They were wet with tears; he felt himself sobbing and gasping for breath through the greasy gag.

Suddenly, there were people around him, three or four. They released his head, unstrapped his arms, stood him up, handcuffed his arms behind him again, turned him around and dragged him out into the corridor. In the process, he caught a glimpse of Stuart’s prostrate, motionless body through the window, covered in blood, with bugs still crawling over it. Once in the corridor, he was dragged a short distance, through an opening, and into an even narrower corridor. One of his captors opened a door and he was pushed into a brightly lit grey room. The steady sense of dread that Dan was feeling congealed into panic. They were going to set the bugs on him the way they did to Stuart. They were going to kill him. He was going to die.

His gag was removed, his handcuffs were opened, and then one arm, still cuffed, was attached to a metal loop in the wall, just the way that they had done to Stuart. Then all the guards left the room and closed the door behind him. He was alone. In front of him was a large plastic window, dark and blank. The woman was sitting behind it, he was certain, and she was going to watch as the biter bugs killed him.

How could this be happening? He felt a roaring in his head, he couldn’t think. There was something he had to figure out, something he had to make sense out of, but he didn’t know what it was. Would he really die, would he really stop existing? What about his children and Garenika? “If I die now, I’ll never see them again” he realized. “No, there will be no ‘I’ not to see them. The world will come to an end. It can’t be, it can’t be.”

He heard the unmistakable, high pitched buzz of a biter bug flying toward him through the air. Instinctively, he knew what to do—he had been trained in Mark Granowski’s department before he went to central Texas for a research project. The bugs flew in straight lines when they were attacking. He waited until it almost reached him, then slapped it with his free hand. It fell to the ground with a sickeningly solid thud, but right side up. Black and huge, it crawled a few inches, its long mandibles opening and closing. Even though he had his shoes on – he realized that they hadn’t taken off his clothes – he knew there was no point trying to crush the bug; its carapace was much too hard. After a few moments, the bug’s wings started vibrating, it rose up in the air, and flew toward him once more. Again, he slapped it and it fell down right side up. The hideous thing crawled a few inches and rose up again. Once again he slapped it and it thudded to the ground, right side up again. Its wings vibrated, it rose up and flew toward him, he slapped it hard and it fell down again, this time on its back. Immediately, he stamped his foot on it and felt the satisfying crunch as its body cracked beneath his shoe.

But what was the point, he asked himself a moment later. They could release another bug, five more, fifty more. The pain would become worse and worse and he would die, just like Stuart. No, not just die — the world would end, there would be nothing. The roaring in his head returned, the sense of dread and disbelief. It couldn’t be. He heard himself bellowing “No, No, No, No.” There was a high pitched buzz behind him, and as he spun around, the biter bug slammed into his upper arm. He felt its feet dig in, and then the burning, searing pain as its huge mandibles, now tucked under its carapace, began to tear his flesh. He could only stare at it in horror. Blood rose up under it and turned his light blue shirt sleeve sickly purple. The bug moved slowly down his arm, leaving a track of bloody, torn up flesh, visible inside the inch-wide tear in his shirtsleeve. The pain was unbearable. He couldn’t believe that the twenty five or thirty seconds that they bug was on him seemed so long, and he felt a moment of relief when it finally flew away, dripping blood behind it.

He had to organize his thoughts, there was something that he had to do, but what was it? How could he stop existing? Would he live somehow, because of his research? Would he live in the memories of Josh, Senly, Michael and Garenika? But he wouldn’t be here, there would be no world for him. An image, a memory, suddenly came into his mind. He was walking across the University of Utah campus with Garenika. They had just met, he had said something to her and she laughed, in a soft, silvery tone, and he wondered if they would end up having children together. Now he saw his home in Arches Park City. His father was reading to him, his mother came into the room with the poster of the Milky Way, the one he had wanted and that hung in his room when he was growing up.

After a few minutes, he realized that no more bugs had come. A sudden surge of hope passed through him. He was afraid to even form the thought, afraid that it would somehow preclude the actuality. But the door opened, one of the guards came into the room with a suppressed smile on his face, removed the handcuff from his wrist, removed the other part from the loop on the wall and walked out with it. The lights in the room suddenly dimmed. Dan sank down onto the floor. He took the bottom of his shirt and pressed it against the wound on his arm, as much to relieve the burning pain as to staunch the flow of blood. He became aware that he was sobbing, but whether it was with relief or anguish was impossible for him to say.

Several hours later, the door opened, and before Dan could react, a tray with clothing, a plate of food and an inflatable mattress was pushed into the room. The door closed again. The clothing was an ordinary, open collar white shirt, a pair of dark brown trousers and dark green undershorts. Dan became aware that the front of his own pants was wet and realized he had pissed himself when the bug attacked him. Next to the clothes was a large blue, disinfectant bandage. Slowly and deliberately, Dan stripped off his clothes, wrapped the bandage around his arm, which immediately felt a bit better, and put on the clothes he’d been given. Looking around, he saw an open hole in the opposite corner of the room, walked over and peed down the hole.

He went back to the tray, took a bite of one roll. All at once, he felt nauseated, ran to the hole and vomited. He couldn’t stop; he vomited repeatedly and convulsively, long after there was anything left in his stomach. The roaring in his head returned, he felt intensely chilled and his body began shaking uncontrollably. After what seemed like a long time, the shakes and chills subsided, but they were followed by a slowly intensifying fear. Suppose they turned off the lights and began to fill the room with water. He could feel himself being forced to the top of the room, feel his head pressed against the ceiling when only a few inches of air remained, feel the water filling his nose and mouth as he gasped helplessly for breath. Suppose the walls of the room began to close from both directions, pressing against his body until he was trapped tiny, pitch black space. Suppose they raised the temperature until searing air burned his lungs with every breath as he began to suffocate.

Dan tried to calm himself. He wondered if he should use Jiangtan –why hadn’t he thought of it when he was watching Stuart die — but somehow didn’t think that it would help. Had the bread been poisoned? That wouldn’t make any sense. Clearly, they meant to keep him alive. Were they holding him for ransom or as a hostage for some political purpose? In any case, once the Mountain American government found out about it, they would arrange for his return, he reassured himself. He decided he should try to sleep; he was obviously exhausted. He inflated the mattress, lay down, and closed his eyes. The biter bug wound on his arm was still throbbing and his head ached. He tried to think his college days, of his evenings with friends, of nineteenth century novels, of Garenika, but it all seemed thin and pointless. Finally, his thoughts returned to his early fascination with astronomy, and he pictured himself touring the moons and planets of the solar system and then venturing out among the undiscovered worlds that orbited the distant stars.

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About the Author

Edward Rubin is University Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in administrative law, constitutional law and legal theory. He is the author of Soul, Self and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State (Oxford, 2015); Beyond Camelot: Rethinking Politics and Law for the Modern State (Princeton, 2005) and two books with Malcolm Feeley, Federalism: Political Identity and Tragic Compromise (Michigan, 2011) and Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State: How the Courts Reformed America’s Prisons (Cambridge, 1998). In addition, he is the author of two casebooks, The Regulatory State (with Lisa Bressman and Kevin Stack) (2nd ed., 2013); The Payments System (with Robert Cooter) (West, 1990), three edited volumes (one forthcoming) and The Heatstroke Line (Sunbury, 2015) a science fiction novel about the fate of the United States if climate change is not brought under control. Professor Rubin joined Vanderbilt Law School as Dean and the first John Wade–Kent Syverud Professor of Law in July 2005, serving a four-year term that ended in June 2009. Previously, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1998 to 2005, and at the Berkeley School of Law from 1982 to 1998, where he served as an associate dean. Professor Rubin has been chair of the Association of American Law Schools’ sections on Administrative Law and Socioeconomics and of its Committee on the Curriculum. He has served as a consultant to the People’s Republic of China on administrative law and to the Russian Federation on payments law. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton and his law degree from Yale.
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He has published four books, three edited volumes, two casebooks, and more than one hundred articles about various aspects of law and political theory. The Heatstroke Line is his first novel.

Website & Social Links:

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK

 

VBT – Light in My Dark

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About the Book

Title: Light In My Dark

Author: William Dresden and Jean Gilbert

Genre: YA Fantasy

Sixteen-year-old Harper Deveraux has longed for an adventure ever since her mother died of cancer four years ago. Much to her dismay, she is stuck in Glen Eden, a small mountain town in upstate New York that does little to fuel her hopes and dreams.

Another year of high school has begun, and with the Moon Dance only a few weeks away, Harper suddenly finds herself torn between the affections of two boys: her best friend Jack, and a new boy from the City named Knes who might not be from this world.

Strange things begin to happen in Glen Eden when Harper uncovers a mystery that involved her mother and a realm shrouded in darkness that lies beyond the wall… A realm that Knes intends to take her to. Only Jack stands in his way.

Light In My Dark, is an action-packed modern YA fantasy, filled with dark forces, love, and self-discovery.

Authors Bios

William Dresden is an author and award-winning screenwriting. He spent several years as a script doctor and pursued the dream of writing hollywood blockbusters. Now he mostly writes fiction and enjoys spending time with his family and friends. William currently lives in Virginia with his wife and two children.

Jean Gilbert is an award winning speculative fiction writer from New Zealand. She is a Core member of SpecFicNZ, and is also the coordinator for SpecFicNZ Central. Jean’s novels include the Vault Agency Series: Shifters, Ardus, and The Vault. You can find her short stories Blonde Obsession in Baby Teeth: Bite Size Tales of Terror, and Pride in the Contact Light Anthology.

Links

ITUNES: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/light-in-my-dark/id1153359302?mt=11
AMAZON: https://www.amazon.com/Light-My-Dark-Beyond-Wall-ebook/dp/B01LVVONUS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UT
F8&qid=1480723001&sr=8-1&keywords=light+in+my+dark+by+william+dresden
AMAZON UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Light-My-Dark-Beyond-Wall-ebook/dp/B01LVVONUS/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1480742236&sr=8-5&keywords=light+in+my+dark
AMAZON CA: https://www.amazon.ca/Light-My-Dark-Beyond-Wall-ebook/dp/B01LVVONUS/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1480742304&sr=8-2&keywords=Light+in+my+dark
KOBO: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/light-in-my-dark
B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/light-in-my-dark-jean-gilbert/1124599371?ean=9780473363833

Social Media & Websites:

Authors Websites: www.williamdresden.com www.jeangilbert.com
Authors Twitter: https://twitter.com/WilliamDresden, https://twitter.com/jean_gilbert
Authors Facebook: www.facebook.com/william.dresden.31, www.facebook.com/jean.gilbert.7370

Publishers Twitter: https://twitter.com/readroguehouse
Publishers Facebook: www.facebook.com/roguehousepublishing
Publishers Website: http://www.roguehousepublishing.co.nz

Spotlight – A Pact of Lies by Matthew Siegard

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A PACT OF LIES

Fatebreaker Saga, book one
396 pages
Released: February 13, 2016
Cover and map illustration by Christopher Schramm
AMAZON

Synopsis

In a medieval-era world of great men and new nations rising from the ashes of a fallen empire, Raven is a talented pain in the ass. A cynical, arrogant thief and fleecer, he has a dagger and lockpick up his sleeve and a comeback on his lips. He was once the younger brother of a boy who was prophesied to be an invincible warrior, and who was killed for that mistaken belief. Now he has only venom for causes and talk of destiny, happy to be a successful nobody. But when a mysterious job goes bad, he finds that the secrets he holds are vital to the coming war between the republic of High Iyanor and the necromantic dominion of Kishoria.
He is captured and coerced by an Iyan captain into guiding an expedition to find a long-forgotten weapon before the Kishorians can reach it. He joins a team of soldiers and mages, and if the danger were not enough, his party includes not only another fated young warrior but a member of the jotunn race that killed his brother. Bitterly, he leads them beneath the Temple Among Worlds, and they fight through barbaric goblins and cosmic monstrosities, navigate dark mazes, and sabotage horrific traps. Raven is distrusted, but only he knows that he has been courted by the Kishorians with a promise: betray the Iyans, and walk away wealthy.
When plans fail, heroes fall, and deadly secrets are revealed, Raven’s cynicism and self-interest is tested by the valor of his companions. He might lead his allies to ruin… or he might use his dark reputation to lure his enemies into his most daring con yet.

About the Author

Matthew Siegard lives in Gainesville, Florida with his beautiful fiancé, who encouraged him to finally stop editing and take a go at publishing. He works as an analyst during the day, and saves writing about sword and sorcery for after hours (mostly). He reads a great deal of historical non-fiction, along with classic and contemporary genre authors such as JRR Tolkien, HG Wells, George RR Martin, and his favorite, Jules Verne.

Matthew currently organizes the Gainesville Fiction Writers group in his hometown, facilitating discussion of writing approaches and tough critique of each other’s work. He’s happy to write in any genre, but is focusing now on epic fantasy, although the closest he has ever come to actual medieval warfare was fainting while learning about 19th century surgical techniques in a Civil War fortress.

Twitter: @matthewsiegard
Goodreads

Excerpt

The gods must have had stronger throats than Raven’s, because while his burned, the spirits of the desert blew one vast sheet of iron wind across the sand dunes. Raven had long since abandoned his vest and jacket, and wore his smelly old undershirt wrapped around his head, and a kerchief to cover everything under his eyes from the stinging sand. He walked eastward—at least he thought it was eastward, judging by his rare glimpses of the sun through the storm—and doubted that he could have made the journey to the city of Cleon even in fair weather. At least the sandstorm kept the vultures away. They could have their fill after he was dead, but Raven hated the thought of those bastards getting friendly when he was still puttering along.
Climbing a dune and squinting through the rush of a billion flying barbs, Raven found nothing familiar. He could not see far, but there was no sign of any rock formation that might offer a cave and shelter, or a dying animal from which he might carve some sustenance, or a broken-down caravan from which he might “borrow” some water. All he could see apart from sand was a trio of fearsome animal-headed totems, warnings by the desert nomads for the civilized peoples to keep away. Not a problem, he thought.
He pressed on. The skins on his belt were bone dry, and the skin on his arms was red and cracking from the dehydration and barrage. Perhaps there was an upside to dying here, Raven thought. If his body were never found, maybe that little weasel Vaclav would worry from time to time that Raven was still out there, pursuing his revenge. The same went for the dozen or so other people that Raven hoped would suffer for fear of him. Perhaps he could remain on the earth as some kind of wraith; there were tribes in Mongut who made it sound almost like child’s play to remain bound to the world after death, not that he had remembered how they said to actually do it. He had long since conceded that no gods would vouch for his virtue and that the Great Judge would have no part of passing him on to Paradise, but if damnation allowed him to torment all the people who irritated him in life, at least he could keep busy for the first several decades of eternity.
For now at least, Raven was still alive, and he heard something. Something that sounded not at all unlike neighing and muffled galloping along the sand through which he trudged. It took his mind a moment to grind back to his grim reality, but then he immediately dropped prone to the ground, and waited under the blanket of driving sand. Two horsemen flew past, heading… southwest-ish he estimated. They either ignored him or hadn’t seen him, and he raced off after them, his grunts resonating in his own ears. He had no chance of catching up to the galloping steeds, of course, but he quickly came upon the camp to which they rode. He crept up behind a rock formation and peered down into the small valley it overlooked, where a camp was set up.
It was an Iyan military camp… Republican Guard… Ninth Legion, Raven determined by the orange banner bearing the outline of a spotted salamander–not quite Raven’s favorite animal. They must have just been one company, judging by the number of tents; he saw fewer than a hundred men, but there were likely more either in the tents or on patrol. They were dressed appropriately for the weather, their eyes protected by thin gray netting under their helmets to block most of the sand. Considering that all tents were pegged down and horses corralled, they had been here for at least several hours, and judging by the minimal guarding and lack of defensive emplacements, this was a base from which to coordinate a search, not some larger provocation against desert nomad tribes.
Raven produced a short monocular from his satchel and examined the camp more closely. Though his vision was obscured by the flying sand and his necessary distance from the camp, he believed he spotted a saurite among the humans, engaged in some conversation with two other soldiers. The saurite’s form was distinct, and judging by the pattern of conversation, one of the soldiers was there to translate for benefit of the other. This was definitely a search operation. Saurites–lizard-men most often hailing from the swamps in southern Iyanor and river banks throughout the world–were famous for their acute senses and skill as trackers in many environments, and some of the swamp tribes had friendly enough relationships with the Iyan Republic, as they had little use for each other’s land. This saurite was wrapped in a longbow and quiver, a belt and loincloth strapped with basic supplies and a curved knife, and a horribly gaudy bandana covered in bright feathers that identified him as an accomplished hunter. Or maybe a saurite queen; Raven knew little of the ugly skinks.
Raven pulled back the spyglass and surveyed the entirety of the camp once more. Though his throat burned, he could wait until nightfall now that opportunity awaited him. If he were impatient or a notch more desperate, he might have made his move now, attempting to take advantage of the sandstorm to obscure his movements. But now was not the time. Even in the Iyan desert, on the frontier of the civilized world, opportunity was everywhere for those who were patient, and more importantly, unafraid to get their hands a bit dirty.
*
Under cover of night, the desert was cool and calm, the air fresh. A half-mile east of their camp, the saurite and a young Iyan southron soldier patrolled side-by-side, sweeping northward. They were observant but relaxed.
“Gannix kopka se phelam, Kevork?” the Iyan asked.
“Sis por kalesko fu kopka,” the saurite answered, his voice deep, words accompanied by a trilling from the back of his throat.
“Fu kopka seem kalesko wo ne hexlu,” the Iyan joked.
“Sis mug kopka qui bru miga mix sim.”
The Iyan laughed and nodded in agreement.

The saurite stopped short and clasped his hand on his companion’s arm, stopping and silencing him. His bulbous eyes widened and his nostrils flared, sniffing quickly. Saurite smell was not quite as acute as Saurite sight and hearing, but in the uncluttered air of the desert, a stray odor did not evade a veteran hunter. The saurite sniffed and soon settled on a direction for the disturbance.
“Kra human mok,” the saurite said with a tinge of hunter’s excitement, drawing the bladed longbow from his back, along with a trio of slender arrows that he balanced easily in his long, muscular fingers. The bow was a fellfang, its limb carved from the great black klaymer trees of the deep swamp and affixed to a scythe-like blade running parallel to the wood. In close combat, the saurite would grip the wooden limb with both hands and wield the weapon as a kind of sword. It was an elegant weapon, one born from saurite woodwork and the blacksmithing of their human trade partners, and the hunter was fluent in its use, sensitive to the weight of its every component. He kept it ready for use at a blink’s notice as he led his companion toward the unknown quarry.
Just over a dune to their west, a man clad only in frayed pants lay face-down in the sand. The soldier was quick to rush to his aid, while the saurite first studied the surroundings for any indication of an ambush. Satisfied that none awaited them, the beastman too came to the unconscious man’s side, and the soldier held up his head and patted at his cheek, trying to provoke a reaction from his closed eyes and faintly wheezing mouth. The fallen desert traveler had the look of a northern Iyan or a Sade, or perhaps a highland Algostine, judging by his light hair and how easily his fair skin had burned. His lips were dry and cracked, and his eyelids flickered dreamily.
“Come on, friend, we’ve got you taken care of,” the soldier said, tipping his canteen to the man’s lips. The fallen traveler wasn’t lucid, and his eyelids continued to flicker, but his lips opened and sucked in the trickle of water, and when it was done, he slipped a slow moan.
“Kras kleeton jam mericon,” observed the saurite.
“Cimminosha,” said the soldier. Pulling the man to his feet, he said, “Slas humics harak!”
They lifted and carried the man together, holding him between them with his arms wrapped around each of their shoulders, his feet somewhat stumbling along as they carried him back to camp.
“That’s right, friend!” the soldier said. “Keep walking. Get that blood flowing, and we’ll get you up and moving on your own in no time!”
His prediction was immediately fruitful, for the man planted his feet and pulled at his two rescuers’ shoulders to smash their two skulls together at the forehead. The Iyan and the saurite were instantly unconscious, collapsing into the desert sand with simultaneous plops. Raven clapped his hands and shook off the sand caked in his hair.
In his journeys, Raven had seen the river saurites of the eastern lands up close–vicious buggers–but not the swamp-dwellers of southern Iyanor. Bards had made them out to be small dragons, but this was more like a large iguana. The creature’s face was slightly elongated, with a loose sack of skin under its chin that inflated and deflated with each silent breath. The scaly skin was mostly lime green, but with some darker texturing around the cheeks and circling the bulbous eyes. A thin spine ran from its nose to its tail, which waved gently in the creature’s rest. Raven wondered if that was normal, or if the creature was only pretending to be knocked out. Probably involuntary he decided; if he were any less of a gentleman, he would have slit the thing’s throat just to be sure.
It wasn’t the beastman that interested him, but the soldier, who was stirring. As the Iyan’s head began to shift in the sand and his fingers tremble, Raven grabbed the sword from the man’s scabbard and locked his head in a choke hold.
As the soldier gargled for air, Raven stuck the sword to his chest and demanded, “Name!”
Recovering some of his senses, the soldier blurted out, “Ack! Kieron Clame, squadman! Republican Guard of High Iyanor!”
“Commanding officer?”
“Who are you?”
Raven slid the blade lower, to his stomach.
“Ahh! Sergeant Palapanit! Ugh! But he’s returned to the city for the night! Meeting with some Sky Mage! I don’t know why! Corporal Farfax is in charge while he’s gone!”
“How many other companies are stationed out here?”
“I can’t…”
The sword shifted a few more inches down.
“Gaggh! Four companies, the entire second regiment! Epsilon company’s two miles north, Kappa’s eight to the southwest. Sigma…”
“Who’s in charge of Kappa?”
“Captain Dior!”
“Excellent. Now tell me your mother’s maiden name.”
“… What?”
Raven squeezed his arm tighter. Though the soldier flailed, he quickly lost consciousness and sank back onto the sand. After checking the saurite again to verify that he was still out, Raven went to work on the young soldier, starting with his canteen.
Moments later, he was walking toward the camp in a Republican Guard uniform: a blue-painted iron cuirass; bronze greaves, bracers, and a helmet painted with yellow salamander spots; and dark leather gauntlets and skirt. His belt held the xuparia, a mid-length, double-edged sword, and a smaller kurio short sword as an auxiliary; Raven’s spare dagger was strapped inside his boot, above the ankle. The armor was tight around the midsection and a hair short in the arms, but the key to having it look right was to move quickly and confidently, which Raven could do, despite having only skeletal knowledge of the particular military unit he was infiltrating, and despite being within shouting distance of a soldier and a southern swamp-swimmer who would wake up very angry at him soon enough. Most of the troops at the camp were gathered around fires or on watch. He went right for a pair of soldiers–simple armsmen and not landed knights from the looks of their plainer armor–who sat lazily on boxes of grain. They ate scraps of bird meat off the bone and watched over the makeshift corral of ropes and pikes, which enclosed eleven or twelve horses, mostly Wakari Ashen, a fine breed of warhorse.
“Where’s Sergeant Palapanit?” Raven demanded, adopting a reasonable facsimile of a northern Iyan accent.
“In town,” answered the plump soldier with a thick moustache. “Why?”
“Dammit,” Raven said, briefly waving his journal. “Captain Dior has a message for him. Has to get to him immediately. I’ll need to take a horse.”
“Where’s yours?” asked the thinner, older soldier with a glass eye.
“Reared up after seeing a damned snake a few miles back, and fell onto a rock. Broke its leg. Had to put the judgéd thing out of its misery.”
Moustache squinted, seeing with only the light of a campfire and the stars. He said, “You look terrible. You look all…”
“Dried up? Thanks for noticing,” Raven said, helping himself to the small tin of water set beside Moustache. After a long gulp, he explained, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but we think someone’s been poisoning Kappa’s water supplies. A friend of mine got it bad, and might not make it through the night. It’s gotta be those judgéd sand-drinkin’ nomads if you ask me.”
Glass Eye paused from sipping from his own tin. “Poisoned?”
“Yeah. I’m so damned parched, I’ll trust that you guys haven’t gotten hit yet, but keep an eye out,” said Raven as he loosed the strongest-looking filly, tossed on a saddle, and mounted while Moustache helped to hold it still. “Thanks. Command’s trying to keep this a secret for some reason, so let’s keep what I said between us. Just stay alert. Look out for strange people around the camp.”
“You think they’re coming here?” asked Glass Eye, unnerved.
“We’ll see, but I’d watch those horses. Thieves always go for the horses before anything else. Good luck, my friends. Hi-ya!”
Raven galloped into the darkness to the east.

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