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)
  • Notna

All four Jill Andersen books: $70 (a savings of $10)
All five books: $85 (a savings of $15)

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.

 

Official SealBounty has been nominated for a TopShelf magazine Indie Book Award!

It’s a big deal for my debut novel to even be nominated — and there are plenty of perks therein — but if by some stroke of luck I actually win, then there’s no end to the awesomeness that would ensue. Mostly I’m just jacked that someone thought enough of my work to nominate it. That’s pretty damn cool.

Anyway, check it out (and if you haven’t got your copy yet, do so)!

 

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.

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.