This whole pandemic thing leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, I feel strangely cheated there are no zombies running around, giving the rest of us something to shoot at. Yeah yeah, I know, I’m one of the lucky ones, still able to get out of the house and go to work. I feel for those of you stuck at home, waiting for the green light to go to work. I can’t even imagine how frustrating it would be, needing to provide for my family but being told I’m not allowed to.
Hopefully that will change soon and we can try to get back to some semblance of normalcy. In the meantime, I’ll be here in the clinic if you need me, scribbling down words in between patients. Speaking of which, I have a treat for you at the end of the blog, so stick around.
I’d like to thank all those still making Night Zero a force to be reckoned with. Now entering its eleventh month, it remains in Amazon’s top 100 medical thrillers. Night Zero: Second Day is available for pre-order as an ebook, and is already working its way to the top 100, and it isn’t even out yet. (The paperback is, for those who just don’t want to wait another month.)
So, what’s a writer to do while waiting for the next thing to drop? Keep writing, of course.
Ascendancy, Book 3 of The Chosen Cycle, is done and set for an early October release. I’ve also re-released books 1 and 2 with new covers, so the set will have a similar look. At the time of this blog, I’m about 60% through Book 4, and am still on track for this series to end after book 5. Some of the characters will continue to make appearances, starting with Project: Genesis (the sequel to Project: Heritage), as the two series are inextricably tied together. You’ll start discovering these ties in Ascendancy.
Into Darkness, the sequel to Brightness, is also doing well, but I ran into a problem with Death Watch, my planned 3rd book in The Richards Saga. It’s going to be way too big. (I know, probably not a bad problem to have.) There’s simply way too much to fit into one book. We need to deal with Karie’s sudden disability as well as move the overarching story forward by addressing the problem of David Kellar. And, it’s time to introduce the endgame antagonist.
So, some division is in order.
The next installment will release as The Middle Child, and will pick up about a year after the end of Into Darkness. Middle Child will run directly into Death Watch. And, there’s a side story to be told, introducing the ultimate antagonist. A sample of this side story is included below. Its release is malleable. It could come out before Middle Child or after, just so long as it’s out before Death Watch.
And finally, my long-suffering Alpha reader/Wife has begged me to write something with dragons in it. It’s not really my cup of tea. I’m much more comfortable finding the supernatual in the everyday and keeping my stories grounded in the real world. But a few nights ago I had one of those dreams. (Not that kind–keep your minds out of the gutter.) It was one I couldn’t shake. It persisted after a midnight bathroom run–damn getting old. So I wrote it down and put a few hours into a first chapter. That chapter is also included below.
Now, here’s your homework. Read through both samples, and give me an idea which one you’d like to see more of. The vote is between Strays, a novel set in the world of The Richards Saga, and Caverns & Carnivores (Because the Other Name is Copyrighted).
You can send your recommendation to me at any of the listed places.
On Twitter @RobHorner8
By email: email@example.com
Or find me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/robhorner There’ll be a post about this blog, and you can simply respond to it.
Without further ado, here are the samples. Enjoy.
Carol Gregory stood at the kitchen window, staring outside but seeing nothing. She leaned on her hands, more to keep them from fisting than because she needed the support.
It happened again. How many times did that make? What should they do about it?
You could tell it was Spring just by looking out the window.
Postage stamp lawns all bordered in white, picket fences running to an exact three inches from the city sidewalk, which itself neatly paralleled the newly surfaced city street. Each house marched side by side and across the street from one another, one city block to the next. Flowers bloomed in well-tended gardens outside front porches; the buzz of insects newly awakened from Winter’s sleep zoomed past the window; somewhere in the distance came the cough and growl of a lawnmower starting up. Must be one of the retirees; at ten in the morning, all the regular working people were, well, at work.
A sudden tap on the window drew Carol out of her thoughts. The green splat of a dead fly appeared inches in front of her nose.
She snorted, “Figures.”
Closing her eyes to the green chaos outside, she worked to be calm.
It was the boy. It had to be.
Those dead eyes. The smile when he was caught.
It was the smile which caused her reaction—she was not a bad mother!
Not a look of guilt with hope of forgiveness. Nor was it a false smile meant to hide a lie.
Both would be understandable.
The boy smiled like he was the parent and he was proud of you for figuring out what he’d done.
That’s it. Good Mommy. Good Daddy. You’re soooo smart. Aren’t you just the smartest Mommy and Daddy a boy ever had?
Carol forced herself to take a long, slow breath in through her nose, then out through her mouth.
He was only six.
He couldn’t possibly mean any of the things she attributed to him, could he? Six-year-olds didn’t have the capacity to think like that, not according to the Child Psychology, Parenting Made Easy, and Being a Stay-At-Home Mom in the New Millennium books she read.
If he was older, she might call it acting out, or start tossing his room searching for a drug stash.
But no. He was six. He couldn’t possibly know how he looked when he smiled, or how it made her feel.
Get a grip, Carol.
It was the green bug splatter that got her moving. Got her ass in gear, as Bill liked to yell.
“C’mon, people. Get your asses in gear! Hell with the previews, the movie will be over before we even get outta the house.”
The splat made her see the rest of the window, inside and out. It needed to be cleaned. Which meant every window needed to be cleaned.
The window led her eyes to the curtains. Thin and gauzy, the off-white material had assumed a suspicious tan color. Whether from dust or bacon grease, it didn’t matter; they needed to come down and run through the wash. The thought of dust led her to consider the molding above the window and the natural wood cabinets running off to either side.
When was the last time she dusted?
Following the cabinets to the counters, she thought they might only need a little spritz with 409 and a washcloth. Things below eye level tended to receive more attention. The light green walls were fine; no sticky wickets ran through her house, touching everything after every chocolate dessert. Dean knew better.
The table had been cleared off; all it needed was a wipe down and a fresh tablecloth.
The floors and the mop could do with a reacquaintance—maybe after lunch.
A few breakfast dishes lingered in the sink. Bill’s coffee cup. Dean’s cereal bowl.
And the rolling pin.
She shouldn’t have grabbed it. Shouldn’t have swung the heavy, wooden tool.
But what was she supposed to do?
He was all right, anyway. Just knocked out. She’d put some ice on his goose egg later and tell Bill he tripped coming down the stairs, or something. Dean wouldn’t argue.
For a six-year-old, he rarely talked.
And even if he did tattle, why would Bill believe him over her? “Yeah, right, I hauled off and whacked our kid with a rolling pin. Is that what you think of me? Why’d you even marry me if you thought I was capable of something like that?” A few manufactured tears and his arms would be around her, his bristly chin scratching the top of her head, while he murmured how much he loved her, of course he believed her.
Just need to make sure it’s clean and back in its rightful place.
She bent to turn the water on and something slammed to the floor behind her.
Stifling a yelp, Carol turned, but nothing had moved.
The table was where it should be. Four of the six chairs were in their rightful places, because she’d been raised to tuck a chair back under the table every time you got up. The other two were Bill’s and Dean’s, cockeyed and pushed back. She didn’t remember exactly how’d they been, and it didn’t matter. Neither could have made the noise.
Between the table and the kitchen proper was a small pantry hidden behind a closet door. Something could have fallen off a shelf.
In the Gregory house, strange noises were investigated. You determined accident, or intent. And if it couldn’t have happened accidentally, you knew who to blame.
Drawing her lips into a thin line, Carol stepped toward the closet.
A cabinet door slammed.
“Sonuva!” She whirled, but, as before, nothing moved.
“You stop it, Dean!” she yelled.
Spinning again, Carol was ready to rush out of the kitchen. She didn’t have a rolling pin this time, but she knew how to make him stop. A pinch and twist in a certain soft place always made him stop.
One of the pushed back chairs—Dean’s, it has to be, there’s a spot of milk on the seat—slid away from the table, coming to a stop in the archway from kitchen to living room.
The wood chair moving across the wood floor created a grating sound which set the fillings in her teeth vibrating. Despite the impossibility of a chair moving of its own accord, all Carol saw were the white grooves created in the chair’s wake.
“That’s it, Dean! You’ve scratched my floor!”
Two steps took her from the kitchen sink to the blocking chair. She grabbed the back and yanked, but the chair didn’t move. A twinge of pain blossomed in her shoulder from the anger-driven effort; she’d pulled hard enough to fling the thing across the room. Instead of pulling the chair out of the way, she’d pulled herself toward the chair.
A sense of danger, the barest hint of a flicker of motion seen from the corner of an eye, caused her to push back, shoving herself away from the chair as the other one—Bill’s—flipped through the air to land atop the first.
Rising to her full five-five height, Carol stared.
The seats of the chairs were neither deep nor wide enough to allow a second chair to stand on four legs. But that wasn’t how they were stacked.
Vertical wooden slats rose three feet from the seat, where a single horizontal bar completed the back frame. At each end was a carved knob of wood, raised off the horizontal piece by about three inches.
Somehow, impossibly, the second chair was balanced on the knobs of the first, feet pointed into the air, almost at the height of the arch.
The weight of the seat should topple it.
He had to be holding it in place.
Cabinets slammed behind her; the minute sing of glass filled the air.
Refusing to look, Carol reached for the chairs, intent on getting out of the kitchen. She could stop Dean if she could get to him.
The chairs held as though they’d been made in place, a solid construction of massive granite that only looked like wood.
The crash of glass shattering on the wood floor pulled her head away from the chairs. Slivers like tiny razors peppered her ankles above her pink, open-toed sandals. Her bare legs felt exposed beneath a knee-length house dress.
Chunks of thick glass from a tumbler lay strewn across the floor in front of the refrigerator, smaller pieces like the blast radius from an explosion radiated away from point of impact.
The rest of the glasses from the cabinet hovered in the air between Carol and the sink.
This can’t be Dean. It can’t be. He’s only six. He’s never been able to do this!
One of the three-inch tall glasses darted forward.
She ducked, and the glass shattered against the cupboard door.
Rising quickly, desperate to keep her eyes on the floating missiles, she yelped as another tumbler zipped in, scooting sideways as it dipped like a slider. More glass sprayed over her feet. Little lines of fire lit her nerves as thin red lines appeared, quickly spreading to stain her sandals.
“Dean!” she pleaded.
The remaining glasses flew through the air, not crashing to the ground or into each other, but swooping and swerving like a flight of birds suddenly inclined to show off their aerial mastery.
Letting out a little scream each time one came near, Carol spun and pivoted, jerked left and juked right, backing further from the blocked archway and the suspect safety of the living room.
The glasses organized themselves into a line and came in, zipping low, racing toward her legs. She danced back and back, knowing she had no more room to move but desperate to stay away.
The first three hit the floor mere inches from her feet. The splash of shattered glass now reached higher, lacerating her shins and calves.
Her back met the sink and she thought to move sideways, but two more tumblers split, one to each side, striking the cupboards beneath the sink.
She screamed again as shards pelted her thighs.
The next missiles didn’t crash but thudded into her lower legs. Waves of pain rose from her shins as she raised first one foot, then the other, a human reaction to injury she couldn’t prevent.
The cabinets and cupboards opened and closed, a welter of motion more akin to a Poltergeist movie than to anything possible in a normal suburban house. There was a pattern to the noise, which continued long after the last glass struck. It ebbed and swelled, a regular tattoo reminiscent of a high school drum line.
Dazed, Carol realized she’d sunk to the floor, her throbbing legs demanding a rest. Blood oozed from a dozen minor wounds, but nothing poured. Scintillating shards of glass stuck out of a dozen other places; she’d need to go to an Urgent Care of Emergency Room to get it all removed.
And still the clapping wood doors continued, drawing her out of her pain.
“Stop it,” she said, her voice a muffled whine.
Behind her, something stirred in the sink, giving off a solid clink as it freed itself from the weight of a plate.
Even sitting back against the sink, Carol was deaf to the sounds under the faucet. All she heard was the clap-clap-clapping of the cabinet doors.
“Stop it!” she said again, louder.
That was her blood beginning to drool its way down her legs, her blood staining the pale leather straps of her sandals.
How dare that little shit do this to her?
Those were her glasses. Sure, they came from Target, but that didn’t change who owned them. And it didn’t stop the righteous anger at the little brat who destroyed them.
Her “Stop it!” this time came on an explosion of air as she pushed herself upright.
Cut and stinging, bruised and battered, her legs weren’t broken. They could support her. They would support her.
She had a kid to kill.
Carol staggered away from the sink, intent on reaching the stacked chairs and tearing them down or bursting through them. His tricks might seem magical, but they couldn’t change something into something else. The chairs could defy gravity, but they were still just chairs.
The something in the sink decided it had waited long enough. China cluttered and clanked, silverware tinged, and the heavy wooden rolling pin rose out of the stainless steel well.
Carol ignored the noise. She knew how to make it stop.
A second step brought her to the chairs. Her hands closed around the vertical slats of the upper seat back.
The rolling pin slammed into the back of her head.
The impact threw her face forward, slamming forehead and nose into the chairs.
A muffled grunt of pain blew out.
She pushed away from the chair, tottering slightly as she spun.
Bright red blood, somehow brighter than the cuts on her legs, dripped from her injured nose. She didn’t think it was broken; she hadn’t heard a crunch and you always heard a crunch when you got your nose broken. But it hurt. Already swelling, she couldn’t draw a new breath in without opening her mouth.
She saw two rolling pins hanging in the air, both images wavy.
Carol forced her eyes to focus and the two images drew together.
“Bastard!” she grunted.
The wooden cylinder darted in again, slamming her in the mouth.
Carol sat where she’d stood, the strength in her legs gone. An explosion of pain rocked her head, like being inside a firecracker instead of outside enjoying the light and noise.
There was still plenty of both, but the lights were popping behind her eyes and the noise was the roar of a drowning surf filling her ears. Her mouth moved and new waves of pain erupted. Sharp shards of broken teeth danced on her tongue while the jagged remains still attached to her gums lacerated her lips.
She needed to move. She needed to get up. She was in great danger.
But she couldn’t focus well enough to see anything.
The rolling pain darted to her left, a blur of unidentifiable motion. Then it swung back, smashing her cheek and jaw bones. The beveled edge tore the cartilage of her ear, though that newest pain went unnoticed as blackness swallowed her.
The pin continued to swing and strike, the blows more the rapid rise and fall of a man lost in blood-crazed madness than with any intent or aim. Head, face, neck, shoulders, arms, hips, and legs—nothing was spared.
Carol’s last breath came after a strike to exposed left side of her neck broke two vertebrae. It might have been the twelfth hit or maybe the twentieth—it didn’t matter to her.
It didn’t matter to Dean, either.
The little boy, all of six-years old, stood on the other side of the wall from the kitchen. Had Carol made it through the arch, she’d have seen him a few feet to the left.
His hands were plastered against the drywall, fingers splayed, all his weight pressed against them as if he wanted to make himself part of the structure, wanted to fall into the wall and never leave. His head was bowed. Long, pale-blond hair fell over his face, not-quite covering his sea-green eyes. His mouth moved but no sound emerged.
No tears escaped him, though he certainly knew what was happening on the other side of the wall.
The only wetness on his face came from a thin trickle of blood running from his forehead and down the right side of his nose, though it was mostly dry and already crusting. The blood came from a large lump straining the skin above his eyes.
It was where Mother struck him a few minutes ago.
She wouldn’t ever do that again.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
And that was all right.
Caverns & Carnivores (Because the Other Name is Copyrighted)
“Your human thief spots a trip wire in the grass,” Bob’s voice droned. “You can roll a twenty and try to disarm it or trust your party to step over it.”
Dale, the owner of the thief, looked around the table at the rest of us. “What do I need to disable it?” he asked.
He hunched a bit in his chair, small frame pulled back almost double so his feet also rested on the seat. The smallest of us in the group, he looked and acted the part of someone afraid of confrontation.
Bob was in his customary place at the head of table, features lost behind a tall, fold-out cardboard screen. It would be meager protection should any of us try to see his copious notes, or if we suspected him of doctoring the dice. But some of us had been gaming with Bob for years. We trusted him, literally, with our alternate lives.
“Your nimble fingers determine the trap is goblin-make, but remarkably well done. You’ll need a thirteen or better.”
“And what do we need to safely step over it?” Angela piped up from the end of the table.
She was the newest member of our party, a pretty redhead who worked with Bob at BestBuy. I still wasn’t sure what to think of her. Or what she thought of me.
Still, since she’d been coming to our gaming sessions for a couple of months now, things had changed for the better.
More of my party members had started wearing deodorant, for one thing.
And the snacks had leveled up from half-empty bags of Doritos and Cheese Puffs to Ritz Cheese Cracker Bites and Pretzels. There were fewer empty soda cans dotting the table and overflowing the trash can. Now, more receptacles meant less collection in one spot. (Jimmy bought one of the blue Recycle bins a week ago. He said he wanted to be a better steward of the environment, but I’m pretty sure those words never crossed his mind until Angela said them.) Brian had even started shaving, despite that he didn’t have a job to go to or anyone to impress at home. Losing two legs in Afghanistan kind of did that to a guy.
“Your half-elven cleric has enough dexterity to make the step with ease,” Bob replied.
There was a humorous tone in his voice which said he wasn’t done. Wait for the punchline.
“As do most of you. A five or better will get you past the trap. Except for Brian.”
“Oh right. Pick on the guy with no legs,” the veteran said good-naturedly.
Brian had legs. Really cool prosthetics provided by the VA. But he said they made his hips ache and his nubs itch, so he preferred rolling in a motorized wheelchair.
“Your character has legs,” Bob pointed out.
“Only because you wouldn’t let me roleplay a paraplegic,” Brian muttered. Despite his propensity for keeping a beard PTA (Prior To Angela), he liked his head shaved bald.
“Dungeons don’t have handicap ramps,” Piper…um…piped up. She was a classic What the hell is she doing with you? Blue-eyed and petite, girly about her nails and her clothes, but more eager than anyone else for our weekly get-togethers. She was a nurse practitioner, though that didn’t mean much to me. A nurse who could write prescriptions—that summed it up better.
She’d been my best friend since high school. Well, Bob was my best friend and she was his sister, so she got the title, too. When she first started hanging out with us, I had the feeling there might be something there. But Bob said not to make too much of it. She was pretty and friendly, and a lot of guys took it the wrong way. Anyway, she played for the other team.
“Hmph,” Brian harrumphed. “So, what do I need to roll?”
“Your half-ogre fighter needs a fifteen to avoid setting off the trap and blowing the rest of your party to bits.”
Gene laughed. The last member of our band of six, he was the quintessential quiet type. Strange since he roleplayed a halfling bard. Tall, with broad shoulders, he was another Desert-something veteran who’d joined us just after Brian did. He rarely volunteered anything about himself, preferring to sit at the table, drink his soda, and roll whenever he needed to. None of us minded. A bard was a great addition to any adventuring party, provided he was played right. “Told you to take the dexterity ring instead of the strength belt last week.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes. I did.”
“You made the kill swipe across your throat,” Brian said, pointing across the table at his friend. “Which I took to mean go for the thing that’ll let me kill stuff better.”
“That wasn’t a kill swipe,” Gene replied, making a kill swipe across his throat. “That was the quick flurry of fingers on a flute.”
“Party survey?” Brian asked.
“Kill swipe,” Piper said.
“Kill swipe,” Dale said.
“I dunno,” Angela waffled, looking from Brian to Gene. She had an impish smile which said she was enjoying the argument. “What d’you think, Connor?”
That would be me, Connor Dalton, the second son of a wealthy family who didn’t have the grades to be a doctor, like my dad and older brother. So, I owned a few franchise businesses, spending most of my days driving from one to the other, making sure everything ran smoothly. Bob kept the books and liked to pick up the occasional shift at one of them, mainly so he could see the newest gadget or game before its street date. C&C was a much-loved hobby, a way to stay close to old friends without falling into a strictly business relationship.
Only Bob and Piper knew my background.
“Kill swipe,” I said, smiling back at the new girl.
“I knew it!” Brian crowed.
“No appreciation for music,” Gene grumbled.
“And all that aside,” Bob intoned from behind the screen, “you found that loot in a room under a trapdoor.”
“Which you wouldn’t have fallen into if you’d waited for me,” Dale added.
Bob waved that away. “Regardless, you were alone and supposed to be deciding for yourself, not getting advice from your war buddy.”
Gene did something with a hand beside his hand and a chopping motion, to which Brian replied with a finger over pursed lips while the other hand showed a peace sign.
“I saw that,” Bob said, which made everyone laugh.
“Seriously,” Brian began, once everyone calmed down and had a drink, “if I screw this up it could kill the party?”
“I only need a thirteen,” Dale offered. “Piece of cake.”
Before anyone could offer a warning, Dale grabbed his bright blue twenty-sided die and rolled it across the table.
There was a silence like the whole world held its breath, but it was really just seven people around a kitchen table in Lenoir, North Carolina.
The die clattered on the wooden surface, then stopped with a seven showing on top.
This was the moment when many groups would push chairs back from the table, jump up and start cursing, or rake their hands across the surface, scattering papers and dice.
We knew to wait. Trust Bob.
“You failed to disarm the trap,” he said softly, followed by the clatter of a die only he could see, “but your level-based trait of Avoiding Catastrophe kicked in, preventing you from setting it off accidentally.”
The collective sigh almost scattered our character sheets anyway.
“Whelp, guess it’s up to you, Bigfoot,” Dale said cheerily. He could at least act a little sheepish; he did almost get us all killed.
“Can’t you just try again?” Angela asked. “I’ve got a full stock of spells for the day. I can heal us.”
“You’re too close to the trap,” Bob warned her. “And no, he can’t try again. Not for twenty-four hours.”
Sudden inspiration struck me, which wasn’t a good thing, though it certainly seemed so at the time. Before my tablemates could start arguing for a different route or give up on the adventure altogether, I said, “What if I levitate him across?”
“Do you have that memorized?” Bob asked.
I made a show of flipping through my character sheets, ready to provide proof if needed. I knew it was my repertoire; I’d made it a point to write out the incantation.
Anyone reading this who hasn’t spent time with a group of friends around a table, throwing dice and speaking in loud, boisterous tones like Thor out of a Marvel movie, probably thinks we’re just a bunch of crazies. But there are a lot more of us than people know, and some of us even have all our marbles.
We’re not all the same, first of all. There are a hundred different role-playing worlds, and while most owe some homage to the progenitor, Dungeons & Dragons, the systems and stories have more variety than a Baskin Robbins.
For example, while many of my friends waged tabletop war with hand painted miniatures representing every troop on the field, we only had one each for our characters, a visual representation to aid in roleplay discussion. “I sweep back my cape to allow the light to strike my ruby-hilted blade.” Something like that.
What made us unique, as far as I knew, was Bob’s insistence on intonation. If the cleric wanted to cast a spell to heal a minor wound, she couldn’t just say, “Casting Heal Wounds.” She had to vocalize the prayer, including the name of whichever god or goddess she served. The same went for me, a magic user. Every spell I learned had to have a complicated chant. So a part of my preparation before each session was to make sure I had something written down to use for every spell my character had memorized.
So, yeah, I knew my character had it ready.
“All right,” Brian said. “Everyone else get past the trap. Just far enough to be safe. Sneakyfeet, scout ahead and make sure nothing’s waiting around the bend.”
Sneakyfeet was the name of Dale’s rogue.
“Five or better,” Bob said.
One by one, the others rolled their dice.
Sneakyfeet went first on a roll of twelve, then announced he was going stealth to scout.
The new girl and her cleric, Laroly—because, you know, half-elves and their weird names—also made it.
Piper giggled as rolled a natural twenty. “That’s my girl, Ohm-Mega, safe as always.”
Gene pantomimed strumming a lute, or maybe a power chord from an eighties rock ballad, as his twenty-sided die bounced, eventually showing a five. “Made it by the hair on my feet,” he said, as Twiddles the bard moved to safety.
Which left me and Grogg, the half-ogre fighter.
“All right,” I said, “casting Levitation on Stinky.”
“Hey!” Brian objected.
Flipping through pages in my spellbook—ahem, Composition Memo Book for those in the back rows—I selected the chant for the spell.
I don’t know about everyone who plays games like this, but my belief is that if you’re going to do something, do it right.
In this case, since the “something” referred to roleplaying a magic-user who had to recite a weird collection of syllables in order to cast a spell, that meant creating some basic rules. I hadn’t gone so far as to write out a word for word dictionary, but I did keep a basic incantation for every spell, and I would add a word or change a suffix if a more powerful version of that spell came along, or if I discovered some way to modify it in the game.
In this case, since Levitation was something new to my character, I had a neat limerick ready to go.
Waving my hands over the table and in Brian’s general direction, which earned another giggle from Piper, I said:
Literum Aerose Um Feathera Via
“Your spell is a success,” Bob said in my ear.
Before I could complete the first part of a doubletake, the lights went out.
Cheers, until next time.