Mark Your Calendars: LEGENDS OF THE GEM is Coming!

Legends of the Gem is almost here. Two weeks.Legends of the Gem Final (2)

Tuesday, Jan. 15, to be exact.

That’s right — Legends of the Gem, a collection of short stories expanding on the Gem of Notna and the universe established in the novel Notna, is just two weeks from being released.

Even better? Pre-orders are now live for the ebook!

Millions of years ago, the Gem of Notna was created. A race renowned for its peace birthed the ultimate weapon—and it paid the ultimate price.

Eons have passed. The gem found its way to Earth, leaving a path of bloodshed and destruction in its wake. From ancient Greece to the Vatican through the Civil War to more recent events that saw the gem tucked away in a little-known tomb in the Amazon, there is no shortage of legends related to the Gem of Notna.

Building on the mythology established in NotnaLegends of the Gem takes readers on a journey through time, both in and out of this world. After all, the Gem of Notna has plenty of stories to tell… if you live long enough to hear them.

Here are the stories you’ll find in this volume:

  • Legend, the First: Lagos, Narazniya’s brightest scholar and mystical mind, is tasked with creating the Gem of Notna, but nothing goes as planned.
  • Legend, the Second: Ares, Head Elder of Narazniya, faces the reality of what he wrought, what his obsession did to the people he rules.
  • Legend, the Third: Divine warriors Michael and Damien fight off an Underworld invasion, only to discover an ulterior motive. Michael’s new obsession leads to his downfall.
  • Legend, the Fourth: A young girl named Vita finds herself in the middle of ancient Greek politics, whether she wants to be or not.
  • Legend, the Fifth: A young man named Pious III, who once would’ve been Pope, is on the run from the Vatican. His journal chronicles his descent into madness.
  • Legend, the Sixth: Union soldier Ferdinand Jackson is fighting in Gettysburg, but the Confederacy is the least of his worries.
  • Legend, the Seventh: Cian Kotzias pens his thesis on the Gem of Notna during his studies at Aristotle of Thessaloniki.
  • Legend, the Eighth: A secret task force discovers the Gem of Notna’s power, and a mysterious entity decides the crystal is better off out of humanity’s grasp.

Go ahead and reserve your copy today for just $1.99 — in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple iBooks! Paperback edition will be available on release day.

And if you haven’t already, snag a copy of Notna as well.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

LEGENDS OF THE GEM Update!

Legends of the Gem Final (2)Millions of years ago, the Gem of Notna was created. A race renowned for its peace birthed the ultimate weapon—and it paid the ultimate price.

Eons have passed. The gem found its way to Earth, leaving a path of bloodshed and destruction in its wake. From ancient Greece to the Vatican through the Civil War to more recent events that saw the gem tucked away in a little-known tomb in the Amazon, there is no shortage of legends related to the Gem of Notna.

Building on the mythology established in Notna, Legends of the Gem takes readers on a journey through time, both in and out of this world. After all, the Gem of Notna has plenty of stories to tell…if you live long enough to hear them.

Legends of the Gem will hit digital shelves in late January/early February!

Now’s the perfect time to catch up before Legends of the Gem‘s release. Pick up your copy of Notna now!

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

COVER REVEAL: Legends of the Gem

Check out the cover for my upcoming anthology, Legends of the Gem, which will release on October 31! Sarah Anderson once again knocked it out of the park!

The Gem of Notna is history’s greatest weapon. In the right hands, it can protect the world Legends of the Gem Final (2)from virtually any threat. In the wrong hands, it is capable of untold destruction. Having found Earth from light years away, the crystal has helped shape the course of human history, millennia in the making.

A young girl who finds herself as ancient Greece’s savior. Warring factions so separate to end a stalemate that a trusted general does the unthinkable. The Inquisition claiming not just people’s minds, but their bodies. A Union soldier who is convinced the ravages of war have driven him mad. Scholars who believe the gem is capable of more harm than good.

All is revealed, in the gem’s ugly glory.

J.D. Cunegan introduces Legends of the Gem, which takes the lore established in his fantasy epic Notna and builds on it, adding context and illustrating just how remarkable the Gem of Notna truly is.

Legends of the Gem releases in paperback and several ebook formats on Wednesday, Oct. 31.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV. Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

NEWS: Signed Copies of My Books Now for Sale!

(Most of) you have asked for this, and now you’ve got it!All Books

I am now offering copies of my books, signed, for sale. Barring the occasional discount (which will be given out on a case-by-case basis), here are the prices*:

One book (any title): $20

  • Bounty (Jill Andersen #1)
  • Blood Ties (Jill Andersen #2)
  • Behind the Badge (Jill Andersen #3)
  • Behind the Mask (Jill Andersen #4)
  • Betrayal (Jill Andersen #5)
  • Notna
  • Legends of the Gem

All five Jill Andersen books: $85 (a savings of $15)
All seven books: $120 (a savings of $20)

If you would like to purchase signed copies of my work, contact me either through my Facebook page or my email address (bounty_email@yahoo.com). I will need your mailing address and a PayPal email to which I can send an invoice.

Let me know if you want your signing personalized as well!

*prices listed are for shipping to destinations in the United States. International shipping will result in higher prices and will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I will be limiting trips outside the house; because of this and general shipping procedures, there may be a slight delay in your books being shipped and/or delivered.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

EXCERPT: Notna

I wanted to share with you another snippet of my current WIP, the fantasy/supernatural epic Notna, coming this fall. Please note that this represents an early draft and has not been properly edited as of yet. Any mistakes are my own.

Present Day, Somewhere in the Amazon…

Dark storm clouds, nearly pitch black, rumbled in the night sky. Flashes of lightning hopped from one cloud to the next. The trees shielded much of the wildlife from nature’s fury, but enough drops from the torrential rain fell through the leaves to give the foliage and the ground the sustenance it needed. Each crack of thunder vibrated through the branches all the way to the roots, causing the ground to shake.

Standing amid the foliage was a temple. Its stone was faded and worn, cracks meandering along the foundation. Chunks of rock and rubble piled up near the entrance, which led to nothing but pitch black. But what the Tomb of Notna lacked in aesthetic quality, it made up for in power and mystique. The temple had an aura about it, and the native wildlife kept its distance.

But the elderly man approaching was no local.

Cian was of Greek heritage, his bronze skin wrinkled with age. His left eye was missing and he walked with a noticeable limp — the result of a hip injury in his thirties that never properly healed. Cian hobbled along the rugged ground, his boots so worn that he might as well have been hiking barefoot. His wooden cane dug into the soft ground, mud caked on the end. He ignored the thunder as best he could, but as Cian paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, he couldn’t help but notice each rumble was louder than the last.

Cian stared at the temple in awe. His life’s work stood before him. He had waited half a century for this moment. Nothing — not the wildlife, not old age, not fragile limbs — was going to prevent Cian from seeing this pilgrimage through to the end. He understood what that possibly meant, but as a man who had dedicated his entire adult life to the mystery surrounding the Gem of Notna, he welcomed the thought.

Striking his cane against the base of the temple, Cian flinched when flames erupted from the tip. The fire illuminated the entrance, but little else. Still, Cian took as confident a step forward as his body would allow; it was almost as if he was being pulled inside.

Cian was almost immediately engulfed in darkness. The flame only extended several inches in front of him — a full foot, if he was lucky. He heard what he thought were faint whispers in the humid, acrid air… but Cian figured his mind was playing tricks on him, exhausted due to the lengthy trip and the muggy conditions. Perhaps he should have refilled his canteen down by the river. Cian’s throat was dry, and it worsened with each step he took.

Cian had studied the legend of Notna dating back to his college days — specifically, his undergraduate years at Aristotle of Thessaloniki in the 1960s. Professors had thought him a fool in those days, told him he was chasing fairy tales. But the prophecies within the Narazniyan Scrolls had entranced Cian — so much so that his marriage to Marta, his lifelong love, dissolved.

In 1985, freshly divorced — or free, as Cian put it — he moved to Brazil and took a teaching job at Universidade Candido Mendes. The locals were a little more welcoming of his theories and his obsession, but Cian still didn’t feel completely accepted.

But that was fine. Genius was rarely recognized in the moment.

Cian never wanted the gem, or its power, for himself. His only vice was curiosity. He had to know if the Gem of Notna did, in fact, exist before he died — understanding that the discovery itself might be what killed him.

After all, they did call this place a tomb.

At this age, Cian welcomed death. Not because his life had been fruitless — quite the contrary. But with the hair on his beard ghost white and far more plentiful than whatever was on top of his head, with every step an exercise in pain tolerance, Cian could feel his body starting to give in.

At this point, the gem was all that kept Cian going.

The deeper Cian traveled into the bowels of the temple, the louder the whispers became. He tried to ignore them, but they pierced their way into his psyche… to the point where Cian was now actively listening for them, hoping to glean some meaning from them. But they were little more than gibberish to the elderly scholar, and he shook his head as he continued his descent.

It felt like hours. Cian had to stop to catch his breath, placing the palm of his hand flat against the stone wall to his left. He felt a cockroach flatten under his palm, ignoring the revulsion of bug guts now embedded in his skin.

He seeks the power. Thinks immortality is his for the taking.

Cian jumped and nearly lost the grip on his cane. But the flame died out, leaving him surrounded by pitch black. The voices continued to echo in Cian’s head, but he could no longer make out what they were saying. Beads of sweat trickled down his temple, and Cian’s hands trembled.

Keeping his free hand against the wall to guide himself, Cian started hobbling down the corridor again. Each step was wobbly, his entire body shuddering with effort and uncertainty. After several steps, sheer exhaustion drove Cian to his knees. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, and a flicker of light finally caught his attention.

It was green, almost emerald. The flickers grew more frequent, until the light was constant, spilling from the chamber into the end of the walkway. Cian’s heart rate nearly doubled, a surge of adrenaline taking over now that he knew he was near the end of his journey.

His muscles ached and his legs screamed for relief, but Cian could not stop until he reached the mouth of the chamber. The light was blinding at this point, engulfing the entire room in its bright hue.

His worthiness has not yet been tested. His presence was not foreseen.

The voices caught Cian off-guard, but his eyes eventually adjusted to the light. In the center of the chamber, he saw the very thing he had spent his life chasing: there, floating several feet atop a stone slab, shaped as four hands with palms raised skyward, was the Gem of Notna.

A tiny thing, not even two inches tall. Oblong and impossibly shiny. It hovered above the stone hands and rotated counterclockwise. The light spilling into the chamber originated from the gem, which seemed to throb with intensity. Cian licked his lips, hoping to combat the dryness in his mouth. The light was uncomfortably warm on his skin. But not even that discomfort could keep him away.

“Dios mio,” he muttered under his breath.

This power is not ours to give.

Cian ignored the voice, instead taking a step toward the display. His knee buckled, nearly causing Cian to fall face-first to the ground. But he kept his balance, even managing two more wobbly steps before the voices returned, louder and more insistent.

This one cannot keep the balance within the universe.

As he closed in on the altar, Cian could see symbols etched into the back of each hand. Having studied every text and scroll related to the Gem of Notna over the centuries, Cian knew these symbols by heart. He also knew the voices were arguing whether or not Cian was worthy of the gem’s power.

He wasn’t here for that. Even if Cian wanted to wield the Gem of Notna, his frail body and his advanced age wouldn’t allow it. The power would overwhelm him to the point of death. But Cian knew this would likely be a one-way trip, and the smile that crept on his face was one of joy, but also peace.

If Cian was to die tonight, his life was now complete.

He is not fit.

Cian studied the symbols once more. Running clockwise, he mouthed what each symbol meant: Strength. Conviction. Honor. Sacrifice. The four tenets of ancient Narazniyan civilization, ranked from least important to most. The Narazniyans valued sacrifice above all else… which was appropriate, considering they created a weapon capable of killing those it deemed unworthy.

He has come far… perhaps he is worthy after all.

“Yes,” Cian whispered before he could stop himself.

Exhaustion, mixed with relief, sent Cian to his hands and knees. He stared at the ceiling in awe, unable to believe he actually achieved the fruits of his lifelong labor. Everything he worked toward for the past fifty years was right in front of him, just out of his physical reach, and the euphoria that came with that was almost enough to override any physical discomfort.

It had not been in vain. He knew he could never tell anyone what he saw; no one would ever believe him. But all the work… the sleepless nights poring over texts… the long travels in search of like-minded academics… watching his beloved Marta walk out the door with two suitcases in-hand.

It had all been worth it.

“Yes, I am worthy,” he muttered. “I am worthy!”

Silence engulfed the chamber. The light dimmed.

No. This one cannot prevent the End of Days. His prime is well behind him.

The admonishment, true thought it was, was still like a kick to the stomach. Cian doubled over and shut his eye, shaking his head. Looking up again, he stared at the gem, watching as black strands of… something swirled about and a low hissing sound filled the chamber.

Cian had come to peace with his possible death. So why was he so scared?

In spite of the gravity of the moment, Cian managed a chuckle. He noticed there were no other bodies in the chamber. No bones, no remains, nothing. If the gem killed all those who were unworthy, shouldn’t the chamber have been littered with dead bodies? Cian wasn’t the first to be rejected, was he?

You are brave, old one. Perhaps, in another time…

The emerald light brightened once more, completely engulfing the chamber and burning into Cian’s flesh. He grit his teeth and his hands clenched into tight fists. This was pain unlike anything else he had experienced before; he could feel his insides burning. A loud crash from behind startled Cian, and he glanced over his shoulder just long enough to see the passage blocked off by a large boulder.

This… this is not The One.

Blood seeped from Cian’s ears and the tear duct in his right eye. His grunts morphed into cries of pain as he rolled onto his back. He reached out for the gem, screaming again when he felt the black tendrils slithering all over his body. The thorns of each dug into his wrinkled flesh, drawing even more blood. Cian’s aging muscles locked up, and his last scream was drowned out by sinews snaking over his face.

By the time the tendrils snuffed the rest of life out of Cian, his entire frame was covered in the living cocoon. He twitched in the seconds following his last breath, the tendrils wrapped around him glowing a bright emerald before a flash overtook the entire chamber. Incinerating Cian and his cocoon, the light burst through the ceiling, through the canopy of the rainforest, and into the night sky.

Storm clouds parted. The rain tapered off. Birds chirped into the night… but now, the chamber was empty, save the altar and the small crystal hovering above it.

There was no evidence Cian had ever been there.

Good News, Everyone!

Another NaNoWriMo, another win!

For the third straight year, I eclipsed the 50,000-word mark in the annual writing exercise. With that said, the first draft of Notna — at 58,000 words — is about half-finished. Still, the book is on track for a mid-2017 publication, which would mean each of my last three NaNo projects would go on to become published works.

Bounty was my 2014 project, and I used last year’s NaNo to write Behind the Badge.

And aside from the winner’s t-shirt and all of the other goodies that come with winning NaNo (including a discount code for the fantastic writing program Scrivener), NaNoWriMo establishes writing as a daily habit. That, perhaps more than anything, is why I’m so strident in my support of the program.

While I’m on the subject of the Jill Andersen series, a couple nuggets:

Bounty is the Book of the Month for December! Just in time for the coming holidays, this is your chance to pick up my debut novel and join the discussion (of which I might be a part from time to time) on Facebook. And if you enjoy Bounty, the next two books in the series — Blood Ties and Behind the Badge — are currently out as well.

Surprise the superhero fan in your life this holiday season with my Jill Andersen novels, which are available in both paperback and Kindle. Paperback editions are available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble (online only), and CreateSpace (BountyBlood TiesBehind the Badge).

The fourth novel in the series, Behind the Mask, is finally back underway. Originally slated to come out next month, I’m now targeting a mid-2017 release. The manuscript needed a complete revamp, and I’ve forced myself to at least create the bare bones of an outline. My inner pantser is screaming about being betrayed, but the story was in serious need of direction.

That’s the problem with completely retooling a series; it invites chaos.

Speaking of betrayal… the fifth novel in the series, which I hope to have ready by the end of 2017, will be titled Betrayed. I already have the cover for the book, and the blurb is ready to go… but the blurb would spoil Behind the Mask, so I’ll just hold off on that for the time being.

But I will unveil the cover in the coming weeks.

Also, we are roughly two weeks away from the release of a new book from one of my favorite authors: indie fantasy author R.R. Virdi will be releasing his latest opus, Dangerous Ways, on Dec. 14. The Kindle and paperback editions will be available that day, and there may or may not be a hardcover edition in the works.

Be on the lookout — not just for the book, but for my latest Author Spotlight, which will go live that day. And you know that once I finish reading Dangerous Ways, there will be a review.

BOOK REVIEWS: Part VIII

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

the-5th-waveThe 5th Wave is by far the most intense book I’ve read so far this year.

And “intense” is really the best way to describe it. I’ve not read many “alien invasion” sci-fi books, but I’m guessing most of them don’t start mid-invasion. But by the time we meet Cassie to open this book, we’re already three waves into this. Hearing the waves described after the fact doesn’t sound great, but… wave #3 alone is gruesome in hindsight (so much so that I’m glad we don’t really get it in real time).

The intensity is so thick that it keeps you turning the pages — and when you finally come up for air, you feel it in your gut. Even midway through the book, as we’re introduced to different characters and things are truly unraveling, the intensity never wavers. This book does not give you a breather — which makes sense, because that’s how it is for the characters.

Some of the exposition is mind-twisting. It’s hard to know what’s the truth and what’s not. That can be frustrating, but I think Rick Yancey did that on purpose. The characters, after all, no longer know who or what to trust — so what better way to engage the readers by ensuring they’re not sure what to trust, either?

This is not a book for the squeamish, because of the intensity and the fact that we’re exposed on more than one occasion to child warfare. That can be a difficult subject to stomach, and there were times when even I had to pause and walk away.

But The 5th Wave is incredibly engrossing, written in such a way that you cannot stop reading. The size of the hardback edition can be daunting, but the story is so intense, so all-encompassing, that hundreds of pages fly by in the blink of an eye. Not every character worked for me — Evan, in particular — but I say that understanding there are still two books in this trilogy I’ve yet to read.

But Cassie and Sammy alone are worth the price of admission.

I’ve read a lot of really, really good books in 2016, and The 5th Wave is definitely near the top of the list. The Infinite Sea and The Last Star have a high bar to climb.

Rating: *****

Buy The 5th Wave on Amazon

Bounty by Michael Byrnes

bountyI’ll be honest: I only picked this book up because it shared a title with my debut novel.

And while both my Bounty and Michael Byrnes’ Bounty share a title and open with a grisly murder, that’s where the similarities end. At its heart, Byrnes’ novel asks the fundamental question: when traditional justice fails, is it right for people to take matters into their own hands? This is hardly the first work of fiction to ask that question — I’m reminded of the League of Shadows from Batman lore, and even Batman himself — but Byrnes explores that question amid the backdrop of the Internet and our digital-dependent culture.

Along the way, the bodies pile up worldwide as numerous law enforcement agencies are chasing their proverbial tails. Murder victims aside, there’s little violence in this Bounty — this is more of a psychological thriller than anything — and yet this is a page-turner as fast-paced as anything else I’ve read in the genre.

The technical jargon is overwhelming at times — far more so than the scientific jargon peppered throughout The Martian — but I don’t think my level of knowledge had any bearing on how much I enjoyed the book. But there are a few occasions where a reader might come across a passage that leaves them a little confused, so it bears mentioning.

Readers might also find themselves occasionally backtracking in order to remind themselves of a certain character, and this book seems to end on a little bit of a cliffhanger; there is not 100 percent resolution, and it feels like there’s a potential sequel in the offing.

I hope there is.

The biggest gripe, to me, is the sheer number of characters. Byrnes does his best to give them all their unique quirks and personalities and what not, but there are so many of them that more than a few don’t come across as well as they probably should. The scope of the plot likely necessitated the sheer number of players, but if there is a sequel, I hope Byrnes trims the roster a bit.

All in all, Bounty is a fantastic mystery/thriller that features a disturbingly plausible storyline. To me, the best novels often posit the question “What if…?” and this novel certainly delivers.

Now… any chance Byrnes might read my Bounty?

Rating: *****

Buy Bounty on Amazon

Forget Tomorrow by Pintip Dunn

forget-tomorrowIf you could see into your own future, what would you do? Especially if you didn’t like what you saw.

Callie Jones saw the worst possible future for herself, sending Forget Tomorrow into an intense, frantic, and emotional journey that often wadded waist-deep into the philosophical divide between fate and free will. An unexpected ally joins Callie on her journey, and despite some missteps midway through, Pintip Dunn offers up one of the more emotional books I’ve read in 2016.

The immediate aftermath of Callie discovering her future is fraught with tension, fear, and the unknown. Though she spends many of the early chapters by herself, or surrounded by those she isn’t sure she can trust, those chapters fly by… and then she finds herself on the run, confronted with possibly the last person she wanted to see, and then… Harmony.

I’ll be blunt. Most of the love story between Callie and Logan did nothing for me — but that’s because of my own bias against romantic subplots as a whole. They often feel out of place, though I will give Forget Tomorrow credit for not shoehorning in a love triangle like so many other YA novels.

And I did enjoy the fact that of the three potential romantic entanglements among those in Harmony, the spectre of their respective futures stood in the way. Aside from that, though, Logan and Callie as a romantic item did nothing for me.

However, Logan’s overall importance to the plot still worked for me. I have this odd ability to separate the romantic from everything else, so a book still works for me even if the romantic subplot doesn’t.

(And if my distaste for romantic subplots makes me a coldhearted curmudgeon, then… guilty.)

The end of the book seems to build to an inevitable conclusion, but there is a twist in the final moments that even had my mouth agape. I flipped through the final chapter thinking there had to be a way out of it, and I even had my theories on that, but I did not see the move that was made. Perhaps, in hindsight, it should be obvious, but still.

My issues with some of the middle notwithstanding, Forget Tomorrow is a fantastic read, almost impossible to put down. The beginning and end are that strong, and I am eager to pick up the next installment.

Rating: ****

Buy Forget Tomorrow on Amazon

EXCERPT: Notna

I’m excited to share with you an excerpt of my upcoming novel Notna, which will be available sometime in late 2017 in both paperback and Kindle. Keep in mind that this is a first draft and there will likely be changes before publication. Enjoy!

The Not-Too-Distant Future…
Depending on the culture, the Underworld has been known by several other names. Gehinnom, Sheol, Hades, Hell, the Fire… seemingly every Western culture or religion has some version of a spiritual place full of torment and punishment for the wicked. A simplified version of what was actually the truth — and the Underworld was not latched to any particular religion. It existed on its own merits, a hellscape of eternal fire and bloodshed. This was not merely a place for the wicked; anyone could fall captive to the Underworld’s eternal prison. No one ever escaped with their life or their sanity intact; the few who would manage to cross back over were condemned to a life of solitude and mental degradation. The ones who died in the Underworld were, in all honesty, the fortunate ones. But even they were faced with futures full of little more than torment and bloodshed.

On this night, the Underworld doubled as a battlefield. The final battlefield, truth be told. Fresh blood pooled everywhere, severed limbs decorating the drab, lifeless landscape. Fires blazed skyward, flames reaching for a nonexistent ceiling. The constant roar of the fire provided the soundtrack for swords clanging together, sparks flying, and warriors crying at the top of their lungs. Those cries were cut short when a blade lopped off a head or rendered a battle-hardened warrior defenseless. One of the Divine’s finest sword-wielders looked on in disgust as his hands were severed from his arms, still clutching his sword. But before he had a chance to look up, the leather-skinned demon swiped just under the warrior’s chin. The blow was clean, and the blood didn’t flow until the warrior’s head slid off and fell to the ground in a fit of dust.

From atop his throne, built from the bones of those who had dared defy him over the centuries, Seraphus couldn’t help but grin. This was what he spent the last several hundred years working toward: breaking his realm’s stalemate with the Divine and finally gaining the upper hand in this never-ending war. His smile grew when his eyes glanced down at the body at his feet. The previous bearer of the Gem of Notna had been formidable, far more than Seraphus had expected, but in the end, he was just another human being. Snapping his neck has been satisfying, but not nearly as much as prying the gem from his cold body and taking it as Seraphus’ own. The crystal hissed in protest initially, but once it settled into the ruler’s chest, talons and tendrils slithering all over his pale frame, he knew he was worthy.

And now that Seraphus had the gem, the Divine was without hope.

But there was one Divine warrior who hadn’t yet given up. Seraphus watched with great interest as Josef cut a swath among his demon hordes. Josef had died in battle several hundred years ago, at the hand of the vampire Demostricus, but the Divine — in a fit of panic — had resurrected him to serve as an ally for the Chosen One. Though the Chosen One lay dead and broken at Seraphus’ feet, Josef continued his rampage. He beheaded Ornias with little effort, green blood splattering onto his brown cheeks, his shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail. Another armored demon got the jump on Josef, but a well-placed elbow allowed him to break free. One more sword swipe and another demon head fell to the ground.

Two more demons approached, one from each side. Josef grit his teeth and pulled a dagger from the small of his back. With a blade in each hands, Josef thrust both arms out to either side of himself. Both weapons plunged into the demons’ respective necks. Seraphus couldn’t help but cringe at the resulting bloodbath and the gargled screams of his fallen minions.

“Seraphus!” Josef called out from the bottom of the throne. He smashed one of the skulls with his sword. “This ends now!”

Rising from his throne, Seraphus kicked the body at his feet aside and curled his hands into fists. Black eyes turned red and began to glow, as did the ruler’s fists. He was shirtless, a scar running from his right shoulder all the day down, across his abdomen, and stopping near his groin. Of all the scars Seraphus had accumulated over the years, this was his proudest. It spoke to his resilience, his tenacity. His refusal to let anyone or anything stand in his way. He approached the warrior with slow, purposeful steps until they were level with one another.

“Does it?” Seraphus couldn’t help the chuckle that burst past his lips. “You are losing, nomad! Your numbers are few!”

“So I should just quit?” Josef twirled the sword, which was a foot taller than him, over his head. “You don’t know me very well, heathen.”

“I know enough.” Seraphus raised his right fist, a black tendril snaking out from the gem on his chest and slashing Josef across the cheek. The warrior responded by slicing the tendril in two, a loud hissing filling his ears and causing him to recoil. Seraphus used the opportunity to close the distance, sinews of lively black covering the ruler from head to toe like armor. He grabbed Josef by the neck and lifted him into the air. “I know your Chosen One has fallen. I know your numbers are few. I know you, valiant as ever, are weak.”

Josef, struggling for breath, grit his teeth and kicked Seraphus in the stomach. The ruler loosened his grip and Josef swung his sword. Sparks shot from the tendrils as the blade bounced off with no damage done. Josef tossed the weapon aside and bumrushed Seraphus, tackling the ruler to the ground. They both grunted when Seraphus’ back slammed into the ground, dust kicking up around them.

“I know you talk too much,” Josef muttered, backhanding Seraphus across the face. Something black spills from Seraphus’ nose and mouth.

More tendrils shoot out from the gem, wrapping around Josef’s neck and pulling his arms away from Seraphus. The warrior struggled with every bit of strength he had, but the sinews only tightened their grip as the hissing grew louder. Josef found himself hovering several feet in the air, the living armor surrounding him growing thicker and more voluminous. It began creeping onto his face, and as Josef bit back as scream, he felt one of the sharp points poke him in the side of the neck. A drop of blood fell onto Seraphus’ foot.

The ruler grinned, the glowing around his eyes almost blinding by now. Both fists unfurled and Seraphus raised his arms above his head. “Enough!”

Seraphus’ voice echoed throughout the Underworld, a large tendril shooting from the gem and piercing Josef’s neck. The warrior gagged when the weapon came out the other side of his neck, blood pouring down his chest. His eyes widened for a moment before all of the breath left Josef’s lungs. He fell slack, now dead, hung upright and in the air by nothing more than the gem’s living armor. With a snap of Seraphus’ fingers, the tendrils disappeared. Josef’s body fell to the ground in a heap, and he watched as five angels followed suit, having fallen in the heat of battle.

At last… at last, Seraphus’ moment of triumph was nigh.

When the war was at its peak, Hermes found himself terribly overwhelmed. Grabbing Cassandra Federov, the blue-haired woman who had been The Chosen One’s partner from the beginning, he had hidden behind one of the many mountains decorating the otherwise barren landscape. There were bloodstains and burn marks littered throughout the surface, but it provided the Wise One and Cassandra the cover they needed. Cassandra, predictably, had resisted the urge to hide, but considering how many of the Divine’s soldiers were helpless in this battle, Hermes wasn’t about to let a mere mortal run into the line of fire.

But that was before the Chosen One had fallen. Minutes later, the image of the Chosen One’s neck being snapped in half was vivid enough to turn Hermes’ stomach. He closed his eyes and raked a shaky hand through his white hair. The scar on his cheek throbbed, and for the first time since the Primordial had informed him of the prophecy coming to pass, Hermes was at a loss. The Primordial had failed. The balance within the universe had shifted with this new development, the centuries-old stalemate between the Underworld and the Divine over. Seraphus had his army ready, and no matter what the Divine had done — aligned itself with the Chosen One, resurrected its most decorated warriors, nothing was going to stop Seraphus.

Especially now that he had the Gem of Notna.

As soon as Josef’s lifeless body landed, Hermes sank down to his knees. He cradled his face in his hands for several heartbreaking seconds, letting the emotion of the moment overwhelm him. His impossibly blue eyes, once the picture of clarity, were now clouded with tears. Tears of loss. Tears of mourning. Tears of failure. The Chosen One was supposed to be Earth’s salvation; instead, he suffered the same fate all mortal men did — albeit in a far more violent and destructive way. The screams of the dying filled Hermes’ ears, drowning out the roar of the hellfire. This truly was it. This was the night he was finally going to meet his end. For real this time.

“Josef is dead,” Hermes whispered with a shake of his head, staring skyward. A dragon roared by, one wing twice his size. Were the beast focused on Hermes, it would have itself an easy meal. Instead, the dragon swooped down low, gathering two Divine warriors into its mouth and ending their lives with its powerful jaws. The red spray made Hermes flinch; hundreds of years of war, and he still wasn’t used to the bloodshed. Perhaps this was why he never actually fought.

Hermes glanced to his left to see Cassandra where she had been ever since Seraphus had snapped the Chosen One’s neck. She was on her knees, practically catatonic. There was a distant, not-even-hear-here look in her green eyes. A scratch on her cheek trickled blood, but she didn’t notice it. She didn’t even blink. None of her muscles moved. Not even a twitch. So many times in recent months, Cassandra had been the one to insist on soldiering on, fighting the battles that needed to be fought. More than once, Hermes had wondered if the Gem of Notna had gotten it wrong. Jack Corbett had been a fine Chosen One, no question, but Cassandra had proven to be even bit as worthy as he… if not more so.

Just as obvious, though, had been Cassandra’s love for Jack. The devotion she felt to him was so strong, not even a war for the fate of the Earth could turn her away. But now, that devotion had led to her worst fear: the man she loved dying, right in front of her, and there was nothing she could do about it. Were the situation not so dire, Hermes would not begrudge Cassandra her moment of stasis; in fact, he felt the urge to go catatonic himself. But they couldn’t afford that. Not yet.

“Cassandra,” Hermes said, gently placing his aging hands on her shoulders.

No response.

The dragon returned overhead, its roar a blood-curdling shriek that vibrated in Hermes’ bones. He cringed and shook his head, making sure the monster wasn’t coming for him before turning his attention to Cassandra once more. “Cassandra, are you here? Are you with me? Say something!”

At first, Cassandra was as still and as silent as she had been. But without warning, her eyes turned red and began to glow. She lifted her gaze, chin held up high. The moment startled Hermes so much that he let go of her, watching in awe as Cassandra got back to her feet and began to float. She went from inches above the ground to several feet, until Hermes had to crane his neck to get a look at her. The energy surrounding her eyes was now encasing her entire body. Her hands had curled into fists. Hermes opened his mouth, but there were no words.

Instead, she looked down upon him.

We are here, O Wise One. There was an echo to Cassandra’s voice, as if she were no longer the only one occupying her mind. The Bearer has fallen. The Nomad has fallen. The Primordial was wrong not to interfere.

Hermes didn’t disagree, though this wasn’t exactly the time for an I told you so.

Returning to the ground, Cassandra grabbed one of Hermes’ hands and gave it a squeeze. When his eyes met hers, Cassandra nodded. Consider this our apology.

Cassandra pushed herself skyward, as if flying were something she had been doing for years. A force field of red energy surrounded her and she made a beeline for Seraphus, who was now back on his throne with Josef’s severed head in his lap. Seraphus! She called out, and Hermes couldn’t help the self-satisfied smile that spread across his face when Seraphus jumped to his feet, the head careening down the staircase back to the ground.

The Primordial has always acted in… indirect ways, Cassandra began, grabbing Seraphus by the throat and squeezing until black blood oozed out from under her fingertips. She lifted Seraphus into the air, almost reaching the same height the dragon had just moments before. But even we were helpless to stop this. Well… not so much helpless as stubborn.

Cassandra released her grip, and Seraphus plummeted several hundred feet back to the ground. He landed with a stomach-churning thud, several bones snapping in the process. Seraphus did not immediately return to his feet, barely able to get back to his knees. His nose was broken, a fountain of black spewing from his nostrils down his face. He grit his teeth and snarled before Cassandra landed behind him, grabbed a tuft of his dark hair, and smashed him face-first into the ground once more.

You will not win, O Terrible One. We will not allow it.

A tendril shot out from the gem still embedded in Seraphus’ chest, impaling Cassandra in the stomach. She doubled over with a grunt, her free hand reaching down to grab the strand of sinew buried in her gut. With another grunt, this one almost a scream, she yanks out the tendril and snaps it at a ninety-degree angle. The resulting hiss of anger and pain is sudden, before the strand recoiled back within the ruler. The red in her eyes was now white hot, and Cassandra flipped Seraphus onto his back before straddling him and choking him with both hands.

“I will take back what is mine,” the echo was gone from Cassandra’s voice, “and end this war!”

Reaching into Seraphus’ chest, Cassandra grabbed the gem and began to yank. The ruler’s skin was molded into the crystal itself, and the harder Cassandra yanked, the more Seraphus cringed and writhed in pain. Eventually, the skin began to tear away. Seraphus grunted and bit back several screams, but once Cassandra finally managed to pry the crystal from his chest, her fingers coated in black blood and the tendrils that had swiped at her disappearing, the ruler could hide the pain no more. His scream echoed throughout the abyss, catching all of his undead minions off-guard.

Hermes watched on in awe. Becoming a vessel for the Primordial had actually been her idea. Seeing everyone around her so supernaturally inclined had left Cassandra wondering if there was anything she could do to change that — and seeing as how she wasn’t going to abandon Jack any time soon, Hermes thought it wise to at least investigate the possibility. Gaia and the rest of the Primordial hadn’t been happy — Hermes long thought they were nothing more than lazy do-nothings who hated to be imposed upon — but given the gravity of the situation had reluctantly agreed.

Upon meeting Cassandra, Hermes had underestimated her. What she had lacked in physical strength, she more than made up for in cunning, intellect, and heart. In many ways, she surpassed even Jack, and Hermes felt that she would’ve been just as deserving of being the Chosen One. Even now, he had to chuckle at the memory of something she had once said: Why is the Chosen One always a he?

Well, because the world was an unfair place.

BOOK REVIEWS: Part VI

Lots of books in this batch, including strong entries from Jason Luthor, Andrew Mayne, and Christy King.

Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 DescentI thoroughly enjoyed Floor 21, so much so that I had extraordinarily high expectations of Descent. Fortunately, author Jason Luthor not only met those expectations, but even surpassed them. The result is a fantastic sequel that is equal parts intense, terrifying, and adrenaline-packed.

When I read the first book, I considered this sort of a dystopian type of fiction. But this book really hammers home the horror aspect of things, as Jackie and her crew finally come face-to-face with not just the Creep, but scores of other threats that are, at times, downright unsettling. Which highlights one of the many highlights of Luthor as a writer: he has done a tremendous job of world-building in such a limited setting. I mean, everyone’s confined to one building, yet it’s clear that Luthor is building a world and mythology that is all-encompassing. The macro and micro merge together perfectly in Descent, resulting in a wholy satisfying read.

Jackie grows tremendously in this book, and I love how true to her voice Luthor remains. I’ve read far too many books written in the first person that eventually no longer sound like the protagonist telling the tale, but Jackie is Jackie throughout, changes and all. And whereas there were passages in the first novel from another character to add much-needed context, the same is done in Descent.

All in all, Floor 21: Descent is a wonderful follow-up, and it sets the stage nicely for the next installment — which hopefully pops up sooner rather than later. If you loved the first novel, then I can’t recommend this one enough. And even if you didn’t read the first, I really think you should and then give Descent a read.

Definitely one of my favorites of 2016.

Rating: *****
Dirty Deeds by Christy King

Dirty DeedsDirty Deeds by Christy King is a great many things — badass vigilante chick, undercover saga, heartbreaking love story, and supernatural drama that spans over the centuries, behind the proverbial curtain to the point where the reader doesn’t realize the true ramifications of Cameron James’ life until it’s too late.

Even with all of that going for it, Dirty Deeds never feels rushed or crammed too full. A book this ambitious in vision could’ve easily been bogged down by that vision. Yet King never allows the macro to get in the way of the micro, and even when the macro reveal feels like a “Where did thatcome from?!” punch to the gut, hindsight, and well-placed clues, will paint a much clearer picture.

There aren’t many books that surprise me anymore. Dirty Deeds did just that.

One of the reasons this book jumps back and forth so well through so many styles and genres and twists is that King never loses sight of the characters. Cam is many different things to many different people — even to herself — and we never lose that sense of who she is throughout everything. Even the supporting characters, like Dev, have enough life to them that your concern for their predicament outweighs your own bewilderment.

In a way, I wish there was another book featuring Cam in the offing, because King has created a wonderful, vibrant character — to say nothing of a potentially rich supernatural mythology that’s practically begging to dug into more. But long and short of it, I’m a sucker for tough female characters, and this book fits that bill perfectly.

All in all, Dirty Deeds is a fantastic read, one of the best I’ve had so far in 2016.

Rating: *****
Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne

Station BreakerIf you’re familiar with Andrew Mayne’s Jessica Blackwood novels, I’m gonna warn you right now: Station Breaker is not like either of those books, and David Dixon is not Jessica Blackwood.

But that’s a good thing.

Mayne has penned a fantastic sci-fi thriller, one that throws you into the fire from the word go and doesn’t bother letting you catch up. That’s a good thing in this instance, as what is supposed to be the best day of Dixon’s life — his first outer space mission — quickly turns to his worst. He’s on the run for much of the book, and there’s a Jason Bourne quality to this book that works, even if the main character is anything but a spy.

Action sequences are masterful, and exposition chapters aren’t too massive with the info-dumping. Mayne grows as a writer with each book he writes, and the climatic battle toward the end represents some of his finest work.

Two minor quibbles:

1) LOTS OF ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! I get that some of them are sound effects (this being a first-person narrative, Mayne chooses “BANG!!!” as opposed to “Gunfire from behind startled David.”), but a lot of it is also some of David’s inner monologue. It’s effective in terms of giving David a definitive voice, but I can see where it would get annoying from time to time.

2) This book ends on a cliffhanger. Yes, it makes it clear there will be another David Dixon book, but I’m of the mindset that you can end a book in a series without a cliffhanger (pay no attention to Behind the Badge…).

Still, Station Breaker is a fantastic, adrenaline-packed sci-fi thriller, and proof that Andrew Mayne is not just a one-trick writer.

Rating: ****
Transference by Sydney Katt

TransferenceI feel like Transference would’ve been a much better book if it were longer. It’s a fast-paced read, to be sure, and I don’t doubt that would still be the case if several important things were fleshed out. But as it is, this book feels rushed… and that affected my ability to emotionally connect with either Allison or Brad.

Too much of the transformative events in these characters’ lives were mentioned in hindsight, in sort of an oh-by-the-way manner, and I feel this novel would’ve been much richer, much livelier, if the author had written flashbacks in which these events had actually occurred. Don’t just tell me how Allison found herself on her way to prison in the book’s open — take me on that journey with her.

What is here is well-written, crisp and free-flowing. There’s a lot of potential, a lot of stuff that could’ve been extremely compelling if it had just been fleshed out a little bit more.

Transference is a solid, entertaining enough read, but it could’ve been so much more.

Rating: ***

SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 1

I realize I have a buttload of manuscripts in various forms of production right now, but apparently, I’ve also got this short story that’s just begging to be told. So, as a treat to you loyal readers, I’m offering Ghost of a Life for free, right here on my website, broken up into chapters. There’ll probably be about five or six chapters total. Please feel free to share and give feedback as you see fir. Enjoy!

 

They say once you lose one of your senses, the others make up for it.

I don’t know if that’s true, but as I peer down the pitch-black hallway, my heartbeat pounding in my chest, I swear I can sense the walls closing in on me. Every creak in the overhead pipes fills my ears, and it’s all I can do not to turn around and go back. My eyes eventually adjust to the dark, a dull speck of red on the far end of the hall signaling an exit. That’s my destination, but who knows what lies between me and that light.

A week ago, I got a phone call from the president of Mountain Oak College informing me of a potential haunting in one of their dorm rooms. What President Grayson had failed to mention at the time was that the dorm in question had at one point been an insane asylum. Just hearing that made me glad I decided on attending Somerset University instead.

Sure enough, here I am on the third floor of the freshman dorm with as serious a case of the heebie-jeebies as I’ve felt in my six years as a paranormal investigator. I just sorta stumbled upon this career. I once longed to be Samantha Blanchard, detective… or Samantha Blanchard, federal agent. I never expected to be Samantha Blanchard, wannabe Ghostbuster.

I don’t even have a photon pack. Or a zapper. Or a trap. Or any of those kickass gadgets you used to see in those paranormal mystery stories back in the day. I barely have the budget for office space, telephone access, and what scientific gear I do own looks like something I picked up at a RadioShack clearance sale.

One step and my shoes find something cold and sticky. I grimace in disgust, knowing exactly what I stepped in before turning on my flashlight. Sure enough, a pile of blue gunk sits on the floor, looking like some spine-chilling combination of snot and tree sap. In my experience, if this slop is lying around, then supernatural beasties can’t be too far behind. It’s their trail, for lack of a better term, almost like if I had left a line of footprints on a sheet of snow.

But snow is pretty. This stuff is anything but. It’s a lot like sand. If it gets on you, it’ll wind up in places you didn’t realize you had. Don’t ask me how I know; that’s one story that will never get told.

Fortunately, this pile of goop decided not to latch onto my foot. Peering down the hallway, flashlight illuminating my narrow path, I see more of the stuff on the walls. It oozes down a silent trail that makes me shudder, and my eyes travel to the ceiling. Just then, a large drop of the stuff falls from an off-kilter ceiling tile and onto the floor, not six inches in front of me. One more step and that stuff would’ve been in my hair.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wound up with bubblegum in your hair? Yeah, it would have been a lot like that.

I’m about midway down the hall when I hear this screech. I flinch and cover my ears, gritting my teeth and hoping desperately for the shudder in my bones to go away. No sooner do I uncover my ears, the ungodly sound returns. It echoes along the hall and I find myself cowering into a fetal position, even though I’m still on my feet. I can’t tell if it’s a cry of rage or agony – oftentimes, in this line of work, the two are interchangeable.

I look up just in time to see a ball of that gunk heading straight for me. I duck just in time, whirling around to see it splatter against the white walls.

Get out…

Oh, good, they spotted me. Whoever they are.

Wherever they are.

Get out!

Well, that’s just rude. I’m here to help, and these things are basically throwing supernatural monkey poo at me. It’s a good thing the school’s offering me five figures for this job; otherwise, I’d just turn around and tell them to deal with the haunting themselves. Then again, this isn’t a case of cockroaches run amok. If left unchecked, hauntings can lead to mass hysteria, psychological problems, and even suicides or murder. Naturally, the school would like to avoid that; the word of mouth alone would be damning.

Hey, did you hear about Mountain Oak? That dorm the freshmen stay in used to be an insane asylum, and now the ghosts of the deranged haunt the place and drive the students batty.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

This is no place for you, little girl

My mouth hangs open. Can ghosts be sexist?

Go back from whence you came, or else you’ll not see the coming day

Oh, good, we’ve reached the cryptic riddle portion of the festivities.

“Well, come on out and it won’t get that far,” I say, reaching for logic even though it has not worked for me once when dealing with these things.

This is our home! I can almost hear the anguish in the spirits’ collective voice. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for them. They have no right being here!

More often than not, hauntings are the result of a spirit that can’t quite move on to the next life. They’re stuck, either because of some external force holding them back or because something related to their previous life was left unresolved and they can’t break free until there’s closure. Sadly, mental institutions are some of the most vulnerable places for hauntings for just that reason. Decades, if not centuries, of mental anguish and emotional torment create an environment thick with hate and fear – and the living are often the targets.

Given that Mountain Oak is itself 150 years old, there’s no telling how long these ghosts have been here. Hauntings that last centuries tend to end violently for everyone involved – living or not – and I’m not sure I have the delicacy or the patience to see this through to a non-violent conclusion. Then again, these spirits aren’t corporeal, so really, how much pain can I inflict?

The spirits, on the other hand… one of the arms appears from the wall and swipes across my chest. It goes straight through without touching a thing. Even as cold air compresses and rises around me, all I feel is a nasty chill take over my entire body. I am nearly frozen me in place, except my knees buckle and I drop to the floor, mouth agape. All color has left my face and it’s a wonder I still have a hold on my flashlight.

The arm swipes again, passing through the top of my head this time. The shock and cold overwhelm me to the point that I gag, hunched over myself in anticipation of my lunch’s return. Yet I regain my composure and eventually scuffle back to my feet.

Every instinct is telling me to turn around, go downstairs, and get back in the car. To say screw the outlandish payment and let Mountain Oak deal with this on its own. But student safety is paramount; if I bail, and these spirits keep haunting to the point where students start hanging themselves in the showers or slitting their wrists in their beds… wouldn’t that make me worse than the ghosts hidden in the walls? Wouldn’t I, theoretically, be making more ghosts?

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot,” I offer, even as I wonder if these things actually have feet. “I’m Samantha.”

Slowly, the beam of my flashlight dances along the wall. If I can find the source of the spirits, where that gunk is at its highest concentration, I might have a chance of drawing a few of them out. I just hope there aren’t too many. I work alone, and there aren’t many others like me around. I’m pretty much it, and I am not about to take on an entire dorm full of spookies. Not without a significant rate hike.

The source is across from me, just underneath the red exit sign. The flow of that substance is constant, a large puddle on the floor that keeps growing. I keep my distance; just because I’m wearing old, beat-up sneakers, that doesn’t mean I want them submerged in light blue slime. There’s no telling what’s actually in that stuff, so the less of it that actually finds its way onto my person, the better.

The spirits haven’t answered, and I can’t tell whether that’s a good thing. They haven’t flung any more of that stuff, so I have that going for me. Still, it’s not a fun feeling dealing with a bunch of supernatural beings when armed with little more than a flashlight, night-vision goggles, and a temperature gauge. No crossing the streams here.

“Please,” I try again, “please, whatever is causing you pain, I need you to let it go. Okay?”

If I sound like a shrink, it’s because that was I originally went to school for. Got an undergrad degree in psychology and was all set to start working on a Master’s in counseling. Only the idea was always to counsel the living; something tells me there aren’t many programs in this country for dealing with the emotionally disturbed once they’re dead.

So how did I wind up a ghost hunter instead?

Funny you should ask, and I promise it’s a riveting tale, but… can I save this dorm from being haunted first?

There’s a wooden door to my right. I reach for the golden, rusted knob, but the shock it gives me causes me to recoil. The goop-covered wall in front of me hisses, like a snake pit one might find in those old Indiana Jones movies. Snakes never have bothered me the way they did ol’ Indy, but I gotta tell you… that hissing sound is not helping my nerves right now.

No!

Okay… apparently, that room is off-limits. What, are they afraid I’m gonna find ghost porn or something? Is ghost porn even a thing? How would that work, exactly? And why am I standing here, in the dark, pondering the logistics of ghost smut when the wall in front of me is practically a waterfall of supernatural mucus?

I’m pretty good at this job. I swear.

I’d be better with a partner, but… oddly enough, no one wants to work for no pay. Not even slapping the word “internship” onto the job description got any hits. Because let’s be real: where would this internship be of use? It’s not like the Ghostbusters are just down the block, a big NOW HIRING sign on the door.

“Sorry,” I say with my hands out, hoping the international signal for I mean no harm crosses over to the other side. The hissing dies down to the point where it’s no longer fraying my nerves, but the sound is still there. “I just – kids live here, and it’s hard for them to learn when you’re all scaring the piss out of them and –“

This is OUR house! THEY are the intruders!

Oh, boy… pissed off, territorial ghosts. This isn’t just a case of lost souls on their way to the ether. We’re talking poltergeists who feel some type of way about being dead, and feel even worse about the fact that they have to watch the world around them evolve over time. It’s a terrible way to not-live, and the sympathy pangs tug at my heart again. These ghosts are potentially bad news, but that’s just because of the craptactular situation in which they find themselves.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see another arm reaching out from the wall to swipe at me. I jump back with a start, holding my breath as those ethereal, skeletal fingers barely miss. Again, I have to remind myself these things can’t actually touch me. But they don’t feel that great passing through me, and I’m loathe to experience that again.

Remembering the bag hoisted over my right shoulder, and the notepad within, I roll my eyes and fish for it. I really should’ve consulted this thing before entering the dorm, but hey… it’s not like there’s a manual for how to do this sort of thing. Flashlight clenched between my teeth, I grab the notepad and flip it open and suddenly wish I’d taken more care of my penmanship when I was in elementary school.

Before I get to the page in question, a mind-numbing chill reaches my left leg. My brain tells the leg to move, but a weight comes down over it and the rest of my body shivers in response. Closing the notepad, I glance down with a furrowed brow, only to curse under my breath when I see one of those boney, sinewy arms latched onto my calf. This… this is not supposed to happen. Ghosts are not supposed to be able to affect our realm like this. They are not supposed to be corporeal!

“Hey!” I whack at the arm with my notepad. Bits of bone fall to the floor, but the grip on my leg remains tight. “Let go!”

Instead, the hand around my leg tightens even more. The numb sensation has now spread over both legs, and I can feel it crawling up past my hips and into my midsection. My stomach almost lurches at the sensation, but because my brain can’t stop sending signals to my legs to move, I fall forward before anything else can happen. My chin hits the hard floor, and my teeth come within less than half an inch of biting off the tip of my tongue.

I lose my grip on the notepad, and the bag on my shoulder has slumped all the way down to my wrist. Black spots form in front of my eyes and I have to shake them out. Now my arms are numb, as is my chest. I can barely gasp for air to fill my lungs, let alone fling a series of expletives at the ghosts who have managed to break the laws of physics.

Now I’m moving. Toward the wall. This ghastly thing is dragging me toward a brick wall that’s covered in blue slime. Great, so I’m going to have a concussion and the unshakeable need to shower for the next week and a half. I flash back to my Harry Potter-loving friends, the ones who fantasized about taking the train at Gate 9 ¾… only to have me burst their bubble by telling them they would smash face-first into the wall and lose enough teeth to be drafted by an NHL team.

Now here I am, with a one-way ticket to How many teeth do I have left? And it’s not like I can lift my arms to protect my face, because hello? I’m numb. Not comfortably numb, just… numb.

But then a strange thing happens. Okay, another strange thing happens. I pass through the wall. I legit pass right through the wall, slime and all. None of it’s on me, unless you count the stain on my favorite pair of cargo pants from where the Cryptkeeper wannabe tried to cop a feel. If I get out of this, I’m sending that bastard a bill.

Ghosts get snail mail, right?

So… I’ve traded one pitch-black hallway for another. At least… I think this is a hallway. I can feel a floor beneath my feet, but damned if I can see it. I check my pockets, belatedly realizing I must have lost my flashlight sometime before crossing over. But what, exactly, did I cross over? Am I still alive? Did I just… slip through a portal I didn’t realize was there?

I check my phone. No service. Because of course.

“Hello?” My voice echoes, but that’s the only response I get. Still, it’s a cool effect. If I ever get out of here, I might try to learn how to get back, just so I can talk to myself and listen to the echoes.

I amuse easily, alright?

But this isn’t so funny. I don’t like my question being greeted by nothing more than a fading memory of my own voice. So, naturally, I try again. “Hello?”

Ugh, what’s the definition of insanity again?

Having my bag with me would be nice, not to mention that notepad. I suppose I could keep all my notes and everything on my phone for instances like this, but why suck up all that storage space and drain my battery even more? If I’m gonna be stuck somewhere unfamiliar with no way out, I need my phone to last.

A small flicker in the distance catches my eye. For a moment, I think I’ve imagined it, but it returns. Almost like a lightning strike miles away signaling an incoming storm, each flicker is accompanied by a low rumble. Each rumble is louder than the last, until I begin to feel them in my ribcage. The light is almost blinding now, and I tell myself it’s because I’ve spent the past however many minutes in near-pitch black conditions.

Naturally, I shield my eyes – as if my arm is going to do any good.

But just like that, the light is gone… replaced by a floating apparition with a tail almost as long as I am tall. Its limbs are gangly and over-stretched, and more of the blue gunk that surrounded the walls of the dorm coat its ethereal frame. Its face is empty save a hole where a normal person would have a mouth, but something tells me this thing isn’t much of a talker.

Greetings…

Or I could be wrong. Again.

“Um… hi?”

Forgive Merle, he’s not used to having guests.

I arch a brow, because… Merle? I’m standing at the precipice of the biggest supernatural discovery of my young career, and I got snatched into a different plane of existence by a spook named Merle? What is this, Supernatural meets My Name is Earl?

“Where am I?” I ask, because it’s really the most obvious question at the moment.

This place has many names. I believe your kind call it Purgatory.

Oh, that’s splendid. I mean, I guess I should be glad this isn’t Hell, but… Purgatory’s not exactly a winding field of roses. I glance at my surroundings, frowning at the fact that I’m still surrounded by pitch black. If I make it back home after all this, I’m sleeping with a damn nightlight. I don’t care if I’m 28 years old.

“What am I doing here?”

You have stumbled upon one of the many gates between our realms.

My nose crinkles and I shake my head. This is so much more complicated than I was originally led to believe. I might have to charge double if I get out of this alive. “There’s a dimensional rift in a college dorm.” Sure, because that was the most normal thing ever.

The rift has weakened over the decades… we cannot come and go as we once did. Many of other brethren are stuck on the other side.

“So they’re not haunting the place,” I theorize, “they’re just… stuck?”

Precisely. We wish the students of Mountain Oak University no harm. We merely wish to return to our realm as we please.

Okay, this complicates things, especially since some of the voices on the other side shouted about the students being the ones who didn’t belong. I came into the job thinking the poltergeists were my adversaries, for lack of a better term. To this point, I had been operating under the assumption that the students of Mountain Oak needed my help. How… alive-ist of me? Like, racist but against ghosts?

However… we are glad you are here, young Samantha.

I frown. I generally don’t like dead things knowing my name without me telling them first. Another one of those icy chills runs down my body, this one almost powerful enough to make me topple over, and I dread the answer even before asking the question.

“Why?”

Because you are the one who will set us free.

Read Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5