Community is LIVE!
As I've hinted here and posted elsewhere, I have been building up to the launch of of a novella sequel to last year's short story, "Identity". Well, Rogue Phoenix Press has now e-published the follow-up novella, Community!
The story is launching at a download price of $3.99. Click here to buy directly from the publisher in HTML, PDF, or Kindle formats, or you can purchase from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for your Kindle or Nook. Look below for a sneak peek!
Eight years earlier...
A storm raged across the late afternoon sky, lashing Joseph with cold, stinging rain. He pressed his back against the base of a jagged cliff, inching his way toward the cave mouth to the right and the glow of firelight flickering from within. No sound could be heard over the gale, but he knew what might otherwise have reached his ears: the sounds of heavy labor, metal picks on hard stone.
Beyond that, he couldn't know what to expect in the cave. Rumor had it the enemy, King Ludvarch, or one of his nobles at the very least, had enlisted a rogue's gallery of wizards and treasure hunters to locate the grave of the Mad Sorcerer Dalviir, Scourge of the Fourth Dynasty. Joseph had doubted the rumors, and even if they were true, he didn't see what it could harm. Most scholars agreed Dalviir, if indeed he ever existed, had been no more skilled than any other wizard of his day, certainly not able to create enchantments that could still be active now, some five centuries after his death. Legends grow with time, after all, and what story doesn't benefit from a terrible villain?
Still, something was happening. Joseph's scouts had noted an increase of enemy movement in the area despite the absence of any apparent objective. Joseph's captain was convinced some mischief was afoot, magical or no, and had dispatched the hunter and his band to investigate. Now, as Joseph made his way to the cave, his six scouts would be converging on it from other directions, but unfortunately the sudden squall made it impossible to see or hear them.
At last he crept to the edge of the cave mouth, peering around the corner to see what transpired within. By the light of two iron braziers guttering in the damp wind, he noted seven large brutes smashing the back wall with pickaxes, transplants from one of King Ludvarch's "client states", no doubt. Nearby were three men-at-arms keeping watch and another man in red robes poring over a sheaf of charts and ancient runes spread out on a makeshift table of supply crates.
One of the workers grunted, and a footman craned his neck at a dark patch in the wall where the brute had been working. "Master Viraz," the footman shouted, "we're through."
The red-robed man looked up from his papers with an irritated frown that twisted into a predatory smile when he saw the hole in the wall. He pulled back his hood, revealing a short brush of black hair over olive skin. "Splendid," he crowed. "I'll take over, now that I'm sure where to apply myself." Viraz paced to the hole, his movements so fluid he seemed to float in his robe, put his hand to the wall, and began to chant.
Joseph looked around for the rest of his scouts, knowing robed men and mysterious chanting made a troubling combination, but still saw nothing in the gloom as the wind and rain buried the sounds of anything farther away than a few feet. His bow was strung and ready, but he was badly outnumbered. Ludvarch's colonial conscripts were notoriously unpredictable; some would switch sides in the hopes of gaining their freedom, but others hated foreigners as much as Ludvarch did. Joseph was forced to assume any workers for an assignment like this would be chosen from the more partisan category. If the workers were unpredictable, the wizard was downright inscrutable. A shot from Joseph's bow might slay him as it would any other man, or it might be blocked, redirected, or nullified by any number of sorcerous protections, and if any of them had signs or traces to reveal their presence beforehand, Joseph had no idea what they were. Normally he took his shot and hoped for the best, but without support he could just as easily doom himself and the mission by revealing his presence. In hindsight he shouldn't have been surprised to arrive well before his men; they were accomplished woodsmen, but for all the training he'd given them, none approached his skill. Very few men did.
As Joseph willed his scouts to hurry or his situation to otherwise improve, the wizard, Viraz, finished his brief chant, and the wall around the hole disintegrated into coarse sand just long enough to flow downward onto the floor before hardening back into stone, leaving a portal as wide as a door and perhaps two-thirds as tall. Light from the braziers crept inside, revealing a stone slab in a small, round chamber, all obscured by dancing webs of shadow. Viraz stooped and walked inside, breaking the crust of brittle stone that had flowed over his feet, and Joseph dared a backward look into the gloom. He could see one of his scouts, probably Tobias, judging by his gait, jogging in from the north, opposite the cave mouth, and motioned him to be silent. Once the man was closer, he gestured in their code of simple hand signals, "Where are the others?" Tobias shrugged. Inside, Viraz shouted for help, and one by one the tall, broad workers squeezed into the room, the largest two being forced to their hands and knees to pass the makeshift door, followed in turn by all but one of the footmen, who kept watch in the outer cave.
At last four other scouts arrived, quickly explaining through hand signals and mouthed words that the sudden rains had swollen a stream course at the bottom of the ravine they'd been following. They lost Jerome. Joseph nodded with a frown, frustrated over the deaths of Thatcher and Donald two months before. Jerome's loss would not have happened on their watch. Hesitating no longer, Joseph pointed to Ulf, his toughest fighter, then motioned to the guard inside. Ulf rushed forward with his long knife drawn, silencing the watchman permanently. Joseph had no desire to duck through the low, inner door to be stricken down without a fight, so he arrayed his men in the outer cave, flanking the small door and out of sight. On the far side were Klaus, his second, Ulf and Richard, the newest recruit; Joseph stood across from them with Tobias and Nathan, still his youngest man, though he'd been with Joseph over a year now. They stood with their bows at the ready, waiting for the enemy to emerge into their ambush.
A worker came out first, and the bowmen tensed and waited, bent on delaying until the last possible moment to launch their attack, lest the remainder barricade themselves in the cave until the wizard could concoct a means of victory or escape. A second worker emerged, followed quickly by the wizard himself. In his hand was a glowing sphere, not much smaller than his fist, its light pulsing red. As one, Joseph and his men drew their bows, and the motion caught the wizard's eye. Before they could reach even half-stretch, he swept his fist at the trio across from Joseph, the orb's light blazing through his fingers. Their bows and clothing incinerated instantly, and the three fell to the ground with agonized screams, the reek of burning flesh smoking through the chamber. Joseph's group loosed their arrows. Tobias, to Joseph's right, didn't have a clean shot at the wizard; his arrow took a workman in the chest. Joseph and Nathan aimed true, but their missiles caught in Viraz's clothing as though it was the densest oak. The wizard stretched forth his hand again. Joseph dove to his left, tackling Nathan into what he hoped was safe cover behind the crates, but Tobias was consumed by a blinding flash of flame.
Joseph protected the young scout with his body and peered over the crates, now blackened and smoking, at the wizard, sure his life had reached its end. His heart longed to see Delia just one more time, and he cried a silent apology that he would not be coming back to her. Viraz strode toward the cave opening, looking into Joseph's eyes. Joseph stared back, unflinching, waiting for the wizard to raise his hand. Viraz only smiled, his gaze as cruel as it was dismissive, and walked out of the cave into the slackening rain, his men trailing behind.
After a minute had passed, Joseph finally breathed again and let his charge sit up. "What are we going to do?" the young man asked, terror in his voice.
"You're going straight back to the captain to explain what has happened here. If all else fails, someone has to know. And me...I'm going after them."
If the preview sparks your interest, click straight to Rogue Phoenix Press, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble to download your copy today! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask via comments here or directly to me through the Contact form. I look forward to reading your reviews of the story on all the sellers' websites!