The Amber Arrow – Snippet 10

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 10 He plopped another amber bead into his mouth, took a sip of wine, and gulped it down. The flush of power was immediate, intense, and incredibly pleasurable. A man might become a slave to … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 10

He plopped another amber bead into his mouth, took a sip of wine, and gulped it down. The flush of power was immediate, intense, and incredibly pleasurable.

A man might become a slave to sensations like this, Rossofore reflected. Might want more and more until the desire drove him crazy.

But not me.

I’m a master inquisitor, with training in self-abnegation to fall back on. With knowledge of what it takes to sacrifice for the greater good.

And besides, I do have more beads before I need to feast on the crown.

Which reminded him . . .

As soon as he had the crown in hand, Marchioness Valentine Archambeault, the so-called Queen of Vall l’Obac, must burn.


The fulgin didn’t know why it travelled north, only that it must. This drive wasn’t a compulsion exactly. More like a purpose. In the same way that water wasn’t compelled to be wet, it just existed to be wet.

So the fulgin existed to go north.

Seeking a girl.

A young woman.

It has taken an image from the Dark Angel Queen’s mind. In fact, it had been molded around that image, so that its every thought involved her. The girl.

The Dark Angel Princess.

She was darker of skin than the pale people of the north. Her hair was raven black. Her locks twisted into cascading curls. Her lips were full. Her features were fine boned.

The Queen Mother remembered.


Longed to shelter and get to know the daughter better.

The fulgin felt this. It had been formed in the queen’s mind, after all. But it couldn’t understand any of it.

The fulgin couldn’t love.

But it did know that the girl’s skin was as smooth and soft as a toadstool cap. That would help in identifying her.

The creature was naked except for a bag strung around its back. In the bag was the crown. The creature did not know beauty except for the crown. The beautiful crown. The amber crown. The Crown of the Eight Towers. Eight amber towers carved in one strong amber band. The Couronne de Huit Tours.

The crown was beauty.

It was every purpose the fulgin had.

The creature must protect it. Deliver it to the princess. For the most beautiful thing in the world would be the crown in the girl’s hands.

The crown on the girl’s head.

Then the creature could cease. Dissolve. It couldn’t die because it wasn’t really alive. But it would have finished its task. In complete happiness. Its purpose fulfilled.

There was a long way to go still.

The fulgin could feel the princess to the north, but she was not near. It must struggle on.

Travel by night.

Hide in shadows during the day.

No matter what, avoid pursuers.

For there were pursuers. Many of them.

Romans. The red-collared priest who burned people for fun. The priest that wanted to eat the crown.

Wanted to eat it almost as badly as the fulgin want to take the crown to the girl.

The fulgin could sense the priest’s greedy desire for the crown.

To be captured would be agony. All would be lost. And it could never die, but would live forever in the shadows, seeking a crown and a girl that were dead and gone.

It must not be captured. It must cross fields, forests, slink through villages. It must find the girl.

It must give her the crown.

Her mother, the Dark Angel Queen, had made the fulgin . . . made it not wise, but clever.

Good at hiding.

And very good at sneaking.

Chapter Nine: The Inn

Wulf’s company had spent a morning burying the Romans and their horses in the gully as best they could. It was enough to keep the ravens away for a day or so, which was the real purpose. Romans did not like pyres. And Wulf didn’t want to attract the attention a giant fire for bodies might draw, anyway.

Captain Max Jager had overseen the grisly task until midmorning. Then he’d called it done. They’d moved out.

Wulf would never forget the tangle of dead Roman cavalry and their horses. It wasn’t that he felt guilty. The Romans had invaded. They were spies. They had tried to kill him.

But he was beginning to realize that the more he fought, the bigger the toll it took on his memories. Those dead Romans were something you couldn’t forget

He was afraid that images like that might one day push a lot of the good memories that were more fragile from his mind.

By the late afternoon, Wulf’s band arrived in the village of Tjark. It was the southernmost outpost of the Mark of Shenandoah. Tjark was a crossroads for travelers, but Wulf wondered if the town were prepared for his company of one hundred soldiers to march in and want food and lodging.

And not just any one hundred, but one hundred soldiers wearing the insignia of the Mark of Shenandoah.

This badge was a red buffalo passant on a green field with a silver moon behind it.

The men-at-arms carried small shields–bucklers–that marked them as sworn to Wulf’s family. They were painted with a black-and-gold hammer on a red field. The hammer was the Dragon Hammer of Tjark, the symbol of the von Dunstigs, the rulers of the Mark of Shenandoah.

The soldiers rode the intelligent valley horse breed called kalters. There was also a small herd of cattle along with them. These were handled by buffalo people as cattle drovers, both male and female. Behind that was a train of mules carrying tents, food, and supplies. Of course, this was the mark, so many of the “men-at-arms” of the company weren’t humans, but a wide range of Tier. There were buffalo men, bear men, raccoon men, and centaurs. The mule drivers were mostly goat men, the fauns.

Near the middle of this band was Saeunn Amberstone. She rode bareback on a graceful white kalter mare named Kreide. Much of the time Saeunn was slumped over the neck of the horse, clinging to her mane. Even half-unconscious, Saeunn could stay on a horse. She had grown up riding on a huge ranch in the Amberstone Valley out in the Great West. Ravenelle kept a watch, but nobody was worried Saeunn would fall off.

Wulf knew this didn’t mean Saeunn was well. She wasn’t.

That was one reason he’d diverted southeast to the inn at Tjark, instead of crossing into the Wild Kingdoms many leagues to the west as he’d planned.

For the past week of traveling, Saeunn had been getting weaker each day. She was fading. Sleeping in tents and riding a horse were wearing her down even faster. She had to rest for a little while. In a real bed.

Wulf rode beside her. On his other side was Captain Jager. Jager was the leader of the armed company. Jager was a bobcat man. At first glance, he looked like a child on the horse he rode. Wulf knew from firsthand experience Jager’s courage, his grittiness, and his intelligence.

If an enemy underestimated Jager, they would wind up dead fast.

Wulf had seen it happen.

Ravenelle Archambeault rode on the other side of Saeunn. They were off the woodland path they’d been following for days and were on a wagon road called the Duke’s Highway.

Rainer rode to the side and a little behind Ravenelle. To the rear of this lead group were Ravenelle’s three servants. Then, on one of the massive draft horses the buffalo people rode–horses that dwarfed the kalters–rode the wise woman, Puidenlehdet.

Several other buffalo women were with her. Buffalo women traveled with their men on long journeys–and to war. There were experts at pitching tents and setting up camp quickly in any kind of weather. And, like Puidenlehdet, at treating wounds.

We won’t need tents tonight, Wulf thought, breathing a sigh of relief. We’re staying at the best inn in the land. Or so they say.

It was called the Apfelwein auf der Therme in Kaltish.

The Applewine at the Hot Spring.

They’d been on the trail for three and a half weeks. They’d made their way west from Raukenrose, the capital of the mark. The seat of Wulf’s family was at Raukenrose Castle. Then they’d turned south and wound through the ridges and valleys of the Greensmoke Mountains. Tjark was the largest settlement they’d seen in many days.


Iron Angels – Snippet 18

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Iron Angels – Snippet 18 Chapter 11 Jasper dropped into the chair opposite Agent Temple Black, and slumped. For some reason, someone insisted on having all the chairs in the conference room at the maximum height. He released the chair … Continue reading

Iron Angels – Snippet 18

Chapter 11

Jasper dropped into the chair opposite Agent Temple Black, and slumped. For some reason, someone insisted on having all the chairs in the conference room at the maximum height. He released the chair from the extreme height down to an appropriate level. Temple had kept hers at maximum height, and no doubt her feet dangled. Perhaps she needed to feel as if she were in control and wanted the height.

The conference room itself wasn’t large, seating perhaps twenty people — more than enough for this little meeting. He wondered when his boss, the Agent in charge of the Merrillville office, would arrive with the ASAC from the main office.


Jasper glanced at Temple. “Yes?”

“How do you lower the chair?”

“The little lever on the side?” Jasper raised an eyebrow.

“I’m lifting it,” Temple said, and laughed.

“Really?” Jasper shook his head, trying not to laugh at the absurdity. “When you lift the lever, plop down on the chair.”

“Here goes.” Temple plopped down hard, sending the chair to its bottom-most position.

The conference door swung open and in walked SSA Johnson and ASAC Masters.

Jasper stood, and felt a little more loosened up at Temple’s chair height shenanigans. “SSA Black, I’d like you to meet ASAC Masters and SSA Johnson.”

She grinned. “Masters and Johnson, won’t forget those names.”

ASAC Masters sported his usual nonplussed countenance.

“Never mind,” Johnson said. He obviously understood the reference, but the ASAC’s obtuseness remained true to Jasper’s memory. “All right, none of us wants to be here on a weekend evening.”

He took a seat at the head of the table, Masters next to him. Both wore suits — a rarity for Johnson. He must be trying to either impress or gauge the headquarters Agent and ASAC Masters.

“No need for formality here.” So Temple decided taking charge of the meeting was a strategy for success. That wasn’t surprising, given the brassy nature she’d displayed during their interactions. “Jasper and I have reached an understanding.”

“We have? That is how you see it?” Jasper adjusted himself in his chair.

“Yes. SAG is taking over the investigations.” Temple’s tone was matter-of-fact.

“Hold on.” Masters ran his fingers through slicked back hair. “What is SAG?”

Jasper opened his mouth —

Temple pointed a chiding finger at him. “Scientific Anomalies Group.”

“And what is this group exactly? Never heard of it.” Masters glanced back and forth between Jasper and Temple.

“Neither had I, sir,” Jasper said.

“We investigate matters the field won’t touch and the locals ignore.”

“Who runs the group? You?” Johnson asked, cutting in.

“I’m the supervisor — ”

“She has one person who works with her, Special Agent Vance Ravel. He’s here too,” Jasper said, “but I think he’s attempting to analyze a few samples they collected today.”

“I’ll show you.” Temple stood and walked over to a dry erase board, which snapped on — surprising Jasper. “We were stood up to investigate matters of national security. Watch.” She gestured at the screen and dimmed the lights.

“Huh,” Jasper said, “I didn’t know dry erase boards were capable of such a feat. Fascinating.”

“It’s a SMART Board,” Temple said. “They’re installed in most of the field offices.”

“I don’t need a presentation,” Masters said. “Tell me what’s going on here, but first, who do you report to?”

Temple’s shoulders slumped and her head lolled backward, clearly exasperated. She took a deep breath. “Fine.” She raised the lights. “I’m going to run the slideshow as I speak.”

Behind Temple, slides whisked by displaying formulas and high-resolution photos of objects Jasper couldn’t make heads or tails of.

“We’re part of the Critical Incident Response Group,” Temple continued, “you know, CIRG — ”

“Yes, we’re all well aware of the Division — ”

Temple coughed. “We were conceived to handle counter terrorism leads believed to be nonsense. We quickly evolved beyond dull CT leads and now investigate matters falling in the cracks and outside normal FBI guidelines and protocols.”

“I don’t understand how the kidnapping of a child and subsequent double suicide are nonsensical or fell through the cracks,” Masters said.

Perhaps the ASAC wasn’t so obtuse after all, but Temple wasn’t telling him the whole story, either. Jasper wanted her to keep going, because it would quickly become too fantastical for both Masters and Johnson to accept.

“The crimes are serious.” Temple paced in front of the screen. “Think about their nature though.”

“But the missing girl has been found and the men are dead,” Johnson said. “And the other case, a straight up homicide, has no Bureau nexus.”

“A pile of meat with protruding bones doesn’t strike you as extraordinary?”

“You’re wasting our time, why are we even talking?” Masters asked.

“Exactly,” Temple said. “My group has already been granted concurrence to operate in Indianapolis’s AOR by your SAC. And your man here, Agent Wilde, seems intent on watching us which is why we’re talking. I simply can’t have him hampering our investigations, especially since he doesn’t believe we belong here.”

“Fine,” Masters said, “go about your business, but have this wrapped up by tomorrow. The SAC says yes a little too easily if you ask me. I don’t want you and your group, what was it, SIG?”

“SAG, sir — ”

Jasper hid a grin.

“Whatever, I don’t want you ruining the relationships with the locals we’ve worked so hard to develop. I don’t believe for a moment any of what you’re investigating will make a difference to the Bureau. We’re overstepping our mandate, and remember, we do not typically investigate murders and suicides.” There was a pause, and he drove home one more point: “And do with this as you will, but your group sounds like another pointless headquarters initiative the field not only disdains, but despises.” Masters ended the tirade red-faced.

Wow. Perhaps Masters was pissed for driving up to Merrillville on a weekend, and missing little Johnny’s ballgame or something. Jasper suppressed a grin. He respected him a little more for having a pair — most executive management didn’t — but he’d been hard on Temple and even though she’d tossed Jasper under the bus, he thought Masters had gone a little too far. One thing was clear, Temple believed in what she was doing. She believed in the work and the mission she’d been given by FBI HQ. She wasn’t just going through the motions. Jasper had to respect that.

He cleared his throat. “Sir, I don’t think Agents Black and Ravel can wrap the investigations up in a day.”

“Are you for real?” Johnson asked. “All right, I’ve had enough of this.” He spun his chair. “ASAC Masters?”

“Hold on a minute. How did HQ even find out about the investigations out here?”

“Agent Wilde’s report itself,” said Temple. “There were certain anomalies in the report responsible for triggering an alert. You see, Agent Ravel created a list of key words.”

Johnson cut in. “What was in the report capable of triggering the alert?”

“Oh, let’s see,” Temple said. “Suicide by thermite, stone slabs, possible ritual killing, cults — ”

“I said nothing about a cult,” Jasper protested.

“Fine, I added the cult bit, but the other evidence in the report as well as at the scene suggested cult-like activity. You get the point.”

“We need Agent Wilde here assigned temporarily to this SAG thing,” Johnson said.

Masters’ eyes narrowed and he spread his hands, palm up. “What for?”

“Look, if it’s going to take Agent Black and her assistant Ravel more than a day, I’d rather have someone from the Merrillville office tag along so those ‘relationships’ you mentioned don’t get burned.”

“Thank you, sir,” Temple held up a hand, “but Agent Wilde’s help won’t be necessary — ”

“Oh, but it is, and it’s happening. If you don’t like it, go back to the Hoover building with all the other zombies.”

“I don’t work out of the Hoover building,” Temple said, a bit stiffly.

“I agree,” Masters thumped the table top, “I’ll square it with the SAC and make a call to the Assistant Director at CIRG. But consider yourself TDY’d to this SIG or whatever it is.”

“Sir, it’s SAG,” Jasper stood, “but I’d rather not — ”

“Nope,” Johnson said, “it’s too late. I need you to watch over the HQ personnel so they don’t run amok here. That’s all.”

“For how long?” Jasper didn’t want to whine, but it must have come across like one.

“If there are more of these men out there, and these investigations are somehow linked, a Bureau nexus may exist after all. Just don’t piss off the local cops, okay? Lord knows, Agent Wilde, you have a unique ability.”

“Pissing people off?” Temple asked.


Chain of Command – Snippet 10

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Chain of Command – Snippet 10 Sam’s mind wandered as it always did during ceremonies. He tried to look serious and attentive, mindful of how important ceremonies were to other people and unwilling to hurt or offend them. The truth … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 10

Sam’s mind wandered as it always did during ceremonies. He tried to look serious and attentive, mindful of how important ceremonies were to other people and unwilling to hurt or offend them. The truth was he never really understood–whether it was a birthday, wedding, graduation, or funeral–why people believed those particular five or ten or thirty minutes were more meaningful than the five or ten or thirty minutes which came before or after. They always felt the same to him and that made him feel slightly awkward, as if he were missing something important.

Not that all moments in his life were the same. Some took his breath away, some would stay with him forever. His first sight of the seven gray body bags was one of those moments. But the important moments almost always came upon him by surprise, and never as the result of planning, never because time had been set aside for them in his schedule.

As for this ceremony, he felt as if everything important which could happen to Jules and the others already had.

“Honor guard, hand salute,” Captain Huhn ordered.

“Mariner Striker Louise DeMarco, Chief Petty Officer George Nguyen, Machinist Mate Second Class Vincent Pulaski, Quartermaster Second Class Ernest Schwartz, Sensor Technician Third Class DeRon Velazquez, Ensign Robert Waring, Lieutenant Junior Grade Julia Washington.

“We therefore commit their remains to space, to rejoin the universe from which we all came, and to which we all surely will return.”

There was a pause of several seconds, presumably as the outer door of the airlock was opened and the bodies released, and then Captain Huhn spoke again.

“All hands, resume duty.”

“Okay,” Sam quietly told his work party, and they all returned to the job of repairing their boat, but without the banter which had filled the transit tube before.


Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker for the Enemy, sat in the fleet tactical center of KBk Five One Seven and studied the sensor readings from the thirteen Human ships. All communications between them were by tight beam and so interception of actual messages was out of the question, but he could at least see evidence of the volume of signal traffic by their changing emission states. What they said was unknowable, but it was clear they were all saying something, which meant none of the vessels had been disabled. He was not sure how he felt about that.

Why were they at war? What was the point? What was its strategic purpose? What did his government hope to gain by it? Admiral e-Lapeela clearly supported the attack. He must know the objective, the stakes, the plan for prosecuting the war after the opening salvos were fired. What else did he know?

Nuvaash glanced at the admiral who sat in the console to his right. Three months earlier, when the admiral had assumed command of the First Striking Fleet, Nuvaash had made several unobtrusive attempts to draw a response from him which would indicate membership in one of the shadow brotherhoods, the secret societies which cut across boundaries of class and nationality and which riddled Varoki society. Nuvaash knew the secret challenges of nearly a dozen such organizations, and he knew how to insert them casually into conversation, in ways that might provoke a reaction. He always arranged it so he could ignore a positive response and carry on as if the challenge was a coincidence, the significance of its answering countersign unrecognized. In e-Lapeela’s case, however, that was an unnecessary precaution. The admiral had responded to none of the challenges, and so Nuvaash had no more understanding of his commander’s true loyalties now than he had before he had heard his name.

“Admiral, it will be easier for me to assess whether the attack has produced the desired effect if I knew what effect was desired.”

The admiral chuckled and tilted his head to the side, the Varoki equivalent of a shrug.

“Nominally, we aim to end the criminal colonization of K’tok by Humans. Since the re-integration referendum, all of K’tok is legally uBakai soil.”

Nominally, e-Lapeela had said, so there was a larger objective in sight than simply the planet K’tok.

“The bio-compatibility issue complicates–” Nuvaash began but e-Lapeela cut him off with a gesture.

“It does not complicate the legality of the situation, Speaker. That much is simple. K’tok was discovered by Varoki survey vessels one hundred thirty-four years ago, colonized by Varoki settlers sent by the uZmataanki and our own uBakai governments a decade later, became a sovereign and independent member state of the Cottohazz two years ago, and voluntarily became a confederated territory of the Commonwealth of Bakaa eleven months past. Legally, Humans have no claim on any part of the world.”

“Legally,” Nuvaash said, and e-Lapeela nodded.

“You are right. Legality matters little to Humans. Every world in the Cottohazz where there are Humans, they are involved in crime. Some places they have even taken over the other criminals and organized them. Can you imagine? But you have experience with them, so you do not need to imagine. That is why I retained you in your post as Speaker when I took command here. I could have brought my own specialist, but you know Humans. You understand them.

“So speak for the enemy. How will they respond to our First Action initiative?”

“Rage,” Nuvaash answered immediately. “Like us, Humans have a cultural aversion to wars begun by treachery, particularly the main Human nations involved in the colonization effort of K’tok. An unprovoked surprise attack such as this will produce righteous rage in these governments and their people. This will complicate our task.”

“How? Humans are savages and they will fight savagely. Will they be docile if we begin the war politely?”

“Of course not, Admiral. But if they feel wronged, they will fight longer. Their governments will be less likely to come to terms. We will pay a higher price in warriors and ships. In both categories these four Human nations combined outnumber the uBakai Star Navy. But most importantly, in their rage they will strive to find a way to revisit on us not merely the physical damage of the attack, but also its psychological toll. They will attempt to strike back harder than they were struck.”

Admiral e-Lapeela nodded and smiled.

“They will not simply react to our attack,” he said softly. “They will over-react. I believe you are correct, Nuvaash. I certainly hope so. All of our plans rest on that.

“Humans have been a problem since they were admitted to the Cottohazz seventy years ago. At long last, we are going to solve that problem.”

Nuvaash shuddered, and he could not tell if fear or excitement made up the greater part of the feeling.


The Amber Arrow – Snippet 09

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 09 Chapter Eight: The Couronne de Huit Tours Magister Rossofore managed to suppress a wild laugh, but he couldn’t help chuckling in delight. “Who . . . what have you turned into?” Valentine whispered. “Something … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 09

Chapter Eight: The Couronne de Huit Tours

Magister Rossofore managed to suppress a wild laugh, but he couldn’t help chuckling in delight.

“Who . . . what have you turned into?” Valentine whispered.

“Something more than human, Marchioness. A man-drake,” Rossofore said. “I am destruction personified. Let me show you.”

Then he picked out a rooftop toward the city’s great wall. He’d been bothered by that rooftop since he’d taken up these chambers in the Pierre du Corbeau Castle.

Green tiles.

All the other roofs were red.

The green offended him.

It was wrong.

The houses and shops of Montserrat should be the same.

Who did they think they were, these people under the green roof? Special?

Probably blasphemers. Most colonials were.

He concentrated on the house, then slowly reached toward it with an open palm.

He clenched the palm into a fist.

The roof, and the house under it, imploded in a puff of dust. The green tiles collapsed–then shattered in a thousand pieces. Along with the house and everything in it, they disintegrated when they hit the ground. A large cloud of dust rose from the spot, roiling outward into the streets and alleyways.

Rossofore heard distant shouts of alarm and horror.

Beside him the marchioness cried out again. Bloody tears rolled down her face. “What have you done? You’ve killed my people. Innocent people.”

Rossofore felt a twinge of regret.

“The faith doesn’t kill for killing’s sake,” he said. “But this was sadly necessary.”

Necessary? Why, in the name of the Bishops and all that’s holy?”

“Can’t you see?” Rossofore said. “Now the roofs are the same.”

Valentine was trembling. Her voice shook as she spoke. “You’re a monster.”

“Yes,” Rossofore replied. He smiled. “A man-drake.”

There was so much more to do. He needed more amber, lots of it, if he were to accomplish the great things he was meant to do. Most of the Roman Empire had been picked over for every scrap of dragon amber. Aegypt and the Afrique had no more to give. The mines of Roman territories on the continents of Meridianus and Austrinalis were worked out. The Freiland Roman colonies had some, but it was not near the surface. So far very little had been produced, almost none of it for export. Beyond Rome, Sarmatia and the Eastern empires of the great continent had been mined bare.

Rome’s control was based on the Talaia faith, and the faith’s power came from celestis, the holy herb of Talaia. Celestis was grown on dragon amber, consuming it in the process.

“Rome needs–”

He turned to the marchioness, but she had stepped back from the window. She was sitting in a chair on the other side of room. She dabbed her tears with a handkerchief already stained blood red.

He walked over, looked down upon her.

“Marchioness Valentine, you see the power of amber now. It is not meant to be worn as pretty baubles. Dragon amber is pure power. It must be used.”

Valentine didn’t answer or look up at him. He could only see her coiled black hair held in place by pure silver clips. Her black and red dress left her tawny shoulders exposed. They quivered in her distress.

“Where is amber to be found? In the colonies, yes. But the Kaltelands and Wild Kingdoms of Freiland–they have amber, and lots of it.”

The heathens didn’t even mine it. They left it be while they worshipped their false gods and cringed in awe of the dragon parasites feeding beneath the land.

“They leave their amber in the ground!” Rossofore found himself shouting. He tried to control his voice, but his agitation was too strong. “Rome needs that amber. I need it! Don’t you understand, Marchioness? I could be the conquistador Rome needs. We could finally take the north lands. Avenge your humiliating defeat. Make the heathen suffer for what they’ve done.”

Rossofore opened the hand with which he’d crushed the house with the green roof. Five more beads of the Golden Rose of Lerocher still lay within it. Their tawny glow was spellbinding.

“You saw what a few beads can do in the hands of a true priest of the faith,” he said. “I need more. If I’m going to conquer the north for Rome, I have to have more, much more. And at the moment, there is only one place I can get that much.”

Rossofore could see that Valentine understood immediately what he was saying. She looked up at him. Red streaks ran down her face, but her gaze was fierce, defiant.

“You cannot have the Couronne de Huit Tours to aid you in this craziness!” she said. “The royal crown is the symbol of my kingdom.”

“It is made of pure dragon amber.”

“I know that. It’s the crown because it’s made of amber.”

Rossofore nodded. “You believe you cannot give it to me. But I have to tell you, the deficiencies I noticed in Count Lerocher, I have perhaps seen in your home. Could it be that heathen ways have infected your household, as well? After all, your daughter, the heir to your crown, has been given to the barbarians to raise.”

“For peace. The Little War ravaged both our lands. We were . . . defeated. Shenandoah was exhausted, nearly ruined.”

“There are no excuses before the Emptiness. What is true is true. What is right is right. So say the bishops.”

“You wouldn’t dare accuse me of heresy.”

“No one is above the Inquisition, Marchioness,” Rossofore said darkly. “Not even you.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t have the crown.”

“But I will have it. And you will hand it over to me. For the glory of Rome.”

A sly smile began to spread over the marchioness’s face. Rossofore did not like this one bit.

“You cannot have it,” Valentine said, “because it isn’t here anymore.”

It was Rossofore’s turn to feel shock and dismay. “What have you done with the crown, woman?”

“Do you think I didn’t notice what you did to Lerocher? I even knew why you did it. Do you think I’m ignorant and powerless in my own castle? In my own kingdom? I am the queen of this land, and my people have not forgotten this.”

Rossofore gripped both arms of the chair Valentine was sitting in. He leaned close and loomed over her. She turned her face up and met his gaze with a defiant stare.

“Where is the crown?”

“Far away.”

“If you do not tell me, I promise you that I will wring the truth from you in the most brutal way imaginable. Then I will burn your bones until they crumble to dust.”

Valentine laughed.

She laughs at me!

Rossofore backhanded her across the face. Her head twisted. He hit her again. Blood flowed from her nose and lips.

“Drag her back to her chambers!” he bellowed at the guards. “Lock her in. I’ll decide what to do with her later.”

His men obeyed instantly.

Rossofore stood for a long time, shaking with rage.

Dragon-rage, he thought. Righteous fire within. Dasein flowing through him. Pure power.

Something in his palm?

Ah yes. The remaining beads from the Golden Rose of Lerocher.

I could save them for later, Rossofore thought. But why?

I need one now.

I will use it to look far and wide. I will use it to locate the thief in the night who has stolen the Couronne de Huit Tours.

The crown was pure dragon amber. It contained the dasein he would need to fully transform into the dragon he knew was inside him.

It held the amber he would need to consume for the triumph of the faith in the north.

My crown.

In Rossofore’s wildest dreams he dared to hope he might become one of those heads of the faith, those bishops sitting so serenely in the Basilica of St. Judas on their huge block of amber, pronouncing the fate of Rome. They were the rulers of the world.

He was young yet. That would be later. For now, his task was to bring Shenandoah under Roman control.

And once I devour the crown . . .

Rossofore imagined all the dragon amber that was waiting in the Kaltelands.

A feast.

But I need power to get at it. More dasein.


Chain of Command – Snippet 09

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Chain of Command – Snippet 09 Chapter Four 2 December 2133 (ten minutes later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit) “Thanks for staying after,” Huhn said, pulling his blanket more tightly around his shoulders and avoiding eye contact with Sam. “I … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 09

Chapter Four

2 December 2133 (ten minutes later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit)

“Thanks for staying after,” Huhn said, pulling his blanket more tightly around his shoulders and avoiding eye contact with Sam. “I know we haven’t exactly been on the same page a whole lot, but we’re deep in the shit now, and we need to work together. You know what I mean?”

“Work together. Yes, sir,” Sam said, trying to concentrate on Huhn’s words instead of the image of gray body bags.

Huhn frowned at him and then looked away.

With the others gone, Sam now saw a part of the smart wall near Huhn’s cabin workstation which was live, showing a rotation of family pictures. Most of them looked posed. They featured three people: Huhn, usually in uniform and with a variety of different hair lengths and colors; a woman ranging from her mid-twenties to late-thirties in different pictures, but always with the same tentative smile; and a boy ranging from six or seven up to late teens. The younger version of the boy looked bored, the older one defiant.

“You’ve got a good tactical head on you, Bitka,” Huhn said.  Sam looked up from the pictures with a start, but Huhn’s attention was on the blank gray expanse of the opposite wall. “You’ve shown that much. That was quick thinking during the attack, recommending we realign the boat. I had to think about it a little before agreeing, but you were right.” Huhn glanced at Sam again, perhaps gauging his reaction to this re-writing of history.

“Thank you, sir.”

Huhn fidgeted with his blanket for a moment, as if unsure how to proceed.

“Okay. Like they say, water under the bridge, right? Okay. So …XO, huh? Quite a feather in your cap. Something to brag about to the folks back home, that’s for damn sure. It’s a big job, and a thankless one–take that from me. No one appreciates the XO, but you’ll learn that as you go. You’ll have to keep the tactical department too for now. Short-handed.”

“Yes, sir. Not a problem.”

“I’ll help you out with this job, show you the ropes. But you need to help me out too. I’m new to being captain, you know.”

Something was happening here but Sam was too numb to understand quite what it was or what to do in response. His brain–the analytical part anyway–was still sharp, but the emotional part remained punch-drunk, useless. He knew he should say something.

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay. Well …we’ll take this up again later. Now you better get started on drafting the new watch list and general quarters assignments. Oh, and since you’re still Tac Boss, you’re also the boat’s intel officer. We need to let the crew know what’s going on. You know, big picture stuff, keep it simple, but put together a summary and broadcast it over the all-crew channel.  So …well, dismissed.”

Sam glided out and closed the hatch, then spent a moment holding a stanchion on the bulkhead, thinking through the conversation. Once Huhn got over his surprise having Sam as his XO he had at least been polite, had sounded as if he wanted to get along, work together. Sam wasn’t sure the two of them could manage that, but then he shrugged. What choice did they have?

First things first.


“All hands, this is Lieutenant Bitka the executive officer speaking. Captain Huhn directed me to tell you about our current situation and our mission. As you all probably know, as of 0937 Zulu today, the United States of North America, along with our allies–the West European Union, the Republic of India, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria–have been at war with the Varoki Commonwealth of Bakaa. The biggest thing we know is they shot at us first.

“Something to remember is we’re not fighting every single Varoki out there. Like us, the Varoki don’t have one central government. They’ve got almost thirty sovereign nations, and we’re only at war with one of them: the Commonwealth of Bakaa. They’re called the uBakai in their language.

“You’ve probably heard USS Hornet was badly damaged by the sneak attack. The other destroyers of the squadron took damage and suffered casualties too. We don’t know the extent yet, but for the moment it appears that all twelve destroyers are operational. Our own damage is repairable and does not threaten our survival or that of the boat. Our losses were heavy, though–seven dead and seventeen injured. The good news is, all but four of our injured have already returned to duty or will shortly.

“We’re here in this system for one reason only–to protect Human colonists on the planet K’tok. Why is K’tok such a big deal? Because of all the ecosystems any of the Six Races have discovered in the last couple hundred years, K’tok’s is the only one that has proteins compatible with Humans. That means it’s the only place other than Earth where we can eat the fruit and vegetables and meat without it killing us. People can grow food in the ground, not just in hydroponic tanks.

“The Varoki settled a corner of the world before anyone knew it was compatible with us, but when they found out, they tried to cover it up. That all came out a couple years ago and there’s been a flow of Human settlers there ever since. The local Varoki–the uBakai–started getting rough and so our government sent us to keep everyone honest. Instead they pulled a sneak attack on us.

“There’s a big combined task force following us, ships from all four Human allied navies. They’re headed for K’tok, and so for now our mission is to provide the forward screen for that task force. That’s exactly what they built our destroyers for, and what we’ve trained for.

“In twenty minutes we’ll secure from general quarters and go to Readiness Condition Two. That will give half of you a chance to grab some chow and rest. They you’ll spell your shipmates.

“We’re in a shooting war. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it, and there’s a lot of combat power backing us up. I was proud of the way everyone I saw performed during the attack, and I’m sure the captain feels the same way. Carry on.”


Two hours later Sam was supervising a repair party, welding permanent patches over the holes in the interior of the central transit tube where uBakai “buckshot” had punched through. The all-boat commlink alert sounded.

“All hands, bury the dead,” he heard Lieutenant Marina Filipenko, the officer of the deck, announce.

He waved his work party to a halt and they all anchored their feet to stanchions and came to attention. Captain Huhn’s voice came on next. He must have been aft in Engineering, where the large maintenance airlock would allow all seven of their dead to be buried together, as was customary. The captain read off their names and said something about each of them, although he sounded as if he read summaries from the service folders.


Iron Angels – Snippet 17

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Iron Angels – Snippet 17 Chapter 10 Carlos Ochoa’s meeting with the police had gone as well as expected. The only problem he foresaw was the waitress, Lali. She kind of understood what he did and where he went, but … Continue reading

Iron Angels – Snippet 17

Chapter 10

Carlos Ochoa’s meeting with the police had gone as well as expected. The only problem he foresaw was the waitress, Lali. She kind of understood what he did and where he went, but wouldn’t be able to provide any real details. But why would the police bother asking her anything? He was probably worried over nothing.

Even though today was Saturday and few of the guild members would be hanging around the machine shop, he was expected to report in after the contact with law enforcement.

He headed south and east from the diner, working his way across multiple sets of tracks. He’d been lucky so far, missing every train and hitting little traffic. Carlos drove with his windows down, enjoying the warm and sticky air mingled with the sharp scent of gasoline and slightly acrid scent of metal working. The mix of abandoned buildings standing alongside operating businesses had been the reason the guild took up residence on Summer Street, running a business called Wayland Precision.

He pulled up to the main gate, and waited. A few seconds later, the gate retracted, allowing him entrance. He drove around back and parked alongside Steve Stahlberg’s extended cab Ford pickup. He desired a vehicle as sweet as Steve’s, with the heavy-duty suspension. He could practically live in the precious hunk of machinery if he had no choice. On the other side of Steve’s pickup was a beater, a worn out Ford Ranger.

“Great, she’s here as well,” Carlos muttered as he thumped his Toyota pickup’s door shut. He had no desire to deal with Steve’s daughter Penny, but no other choice existed unless he wanted to quit. Ever since her father’s stroke, she’d practically taken over the day-to-day operations of Wayland Precision as well as the guild. Penny wasn’t doing a bad job, but Carlos believed she influenced her old man a bit too easily, and a bit too often.

The back of the Wayland Precision building appeared much the same as the front — red brick and frosted glass windows all around. He trotted up the steps and punched his code into the keypad. A buzz sounded and he let himself in.

The building’s eerie weekend stillness unnerved him a little. Only two people in the guild knew where he’d been today, meeting with the FBI and the police — and they were both here and would have plenty of questions. The machine shop itself was dark today. Steve ran a tight ship, keeping the place spotless, at least by machine shop standards. There was hardly a sliver of metal anywhere on the floor or on the machinery. It helped, of course, that they only worked with high-grade steel alloys. If they were cutting stuff like cast iron or bronze, it’d be impossible to keep the shop this clean.

Carlos walked the length of the machine shop, pushed through a swinging door into the warehouse, and descended a flight of stairs off to the side. A vegetal scent filled his nose as he proceeded deeper into the recesses of the building. Warm, damp air hung thick in the wide bench-lined corridor. Mushroom-filled boxes rested atop the benches. The public never saw any of this, only employees and guild members who were one and the same.

“I like the Wizard of Oz,” a female voice echoed from a speaker over his head. That was Penny.

A light flickered on as he approached a solid white door, its edges coated with greasy fingerprints and dirt, as if no one used the doorknob. On the other side of the peephole, he knew, Penny was staring at him.

“It’s me,” Carlos said — he hated this password crap she’d instituted.

“Come on,” Penny said, “what’s the response?”

Penny had obviously gorged herself on too many movies, probably James Bond or the old spy show, Mission Impossible, but this nonsense came from some Christmas movie.

“Fine.” Carlos took a deep breath, and blew out the air with a sigh. “I like the Tin Man.”

“Thank you,” Penny said.

The door buzzed and sprung open. Carlos entered the so-called inner sanctum.

Penny grinned. “See? That wasn’t so bad.”

“Why do you insist on these silly spy antics?” Carlos asked. “I’ve never even seen the movie we’re quoting.”

“We’re quoting A Christmas Story.” Penny shot Carlos a reproving glare. “One of the funniest movies ever.”

“What Christmas story?”

“I feel like we’re Abbott and Costello here doing who’s on first.”

“What?” Carlos asked.

“What’s on second,” Steve chimed in, yanking ripped and faded overalls up.

“You people are insane.” Carlos smacked his forehead. “I don’t know what you’re — ”

Penny’s face turned red, she laughed so hard.

“What?” Carlos was truly perplexed.

“Never mind. Thank you for playing though,” Penny said.

Steve grinned and rubbed his white whiskers with rough hands, like they’d been chewed on like a dog toy.

Carlos grabbed a coffee-stained mug off a shelf and filled it with water from the cooler. “Why use any lines from any movies? Gates, locked doors, and cameras aren’t enough?”

“Let her have some fun,” Steve said. “I don’t quite understand either, but using passwords certainly doesn’t hurt.”

“If you two haven’t noticed, people aren’t beating down the door to uncover what happens in a machine shop. No one cares. Hell, I doubt if more than one percent of the people who drive by — don’t nobody walk on this street — even notices we’re here.”

“Enough,” Steve said.

“So tell us what happened.” Penny grabbed another mug, dropped a bag of black tea in, and drew hot water from the cooler.

Carlos worked his way around and behind a battered old three-drawer filing cabinet, and sat in a chair resembling refugee furniture from the mid-seventies. If the basement had been finished with the dark, wood-grained paneling so prevalent back then, this could have been any house built back in the odd seventies. He was a little too young to truly remember plaid and all the crazy exploitation movies, which made a comeback a few years ago.

“They want to continue meeting me.”

“And?” Penny motioned with her hand as if trying to pull the information out of him.

“So I’m in,” Carlos said, “what more do you want?”

Penny smacked the top of the filing cabinet. “You know damn well what kind of information we’re seeking.”

“Ease up, Penny,” Steve said. “No need to get angry.”

Penny rolled her eyes.

Carlos grinned. “Fine. They had plenty of questions, and for a moment I thought they had caught on to the scene over at animal control, but for now, they aren’t sure what’s going on and haven’t connected the two events.”

“They aren’t sure, huh?” Steve rubbed his chin. “The cops or the FBI still investigating the matter?”

“I don’t know,” Carlos said.

Penny frowned.

“Look,” Carlos folded his arms, “I couldn’t ask too many questions, right? I mean, I had to kind of work with what they tossed at me. If you want my opinion, the local cop, this Pedro, isn’t interested. The FBI guy did most of the asking and appears more eager to use me as an informant.”

“Interesting,” Steve said. “We’ll keep tabs on them as best as we can to be sure they aren’t getting too close.”

“And you want me to continue meeting and figuring out if they’re learning too much?” Carlos asked.

“Yes.” Penny picked up the phone.

“It’s starting up again, the demon universe leaking into ours, right?” Carlos gazed at Steve.

Steve shrugged. “Let’s just call it the ‘other’ universe. We don’t really know for sure what we’re dealing with. But, yes, we think so. There’ve been too many horrific coincidences lately.”

“Speaking of a coincidence,” Carlos drummed his fingers atop the cabinet, “did we have anyone over at animal control today? Once the police arrived?”

Steve shook his head and glanced at Penny who now had the phone up to her ear. She frowned. “No, not that I’m aware of,” she said to Steve and Carlos, then spoke into the receiver: “Hey, John. Be here first thing in the morning. We need to be cutting stainless all day. Let Danny and Ian know also. Right.” A second later she hung up.

“Our old enemy has returned, I’m afraid.” Steve said. “They’re up to something. The two men who died in the hotel weren’t an anomaly or wannabes. No way. The Câ Tsang is back.”

“Great,” Penny said. “We’ll be dodging the law, the Câ Tsang, and Nephilim from another world.”

“Maybe Nephilim,” Steve cautioned. “We don’t really know what they are. We’ve never known, as far back as our records go.”


Iron Angels – Snippet 16

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Iron Angels – Snippet 16 “Wait a moment, please,” Vance said. “I didn’t complete my explanation and analysis. What is not ordinary is men using thermite on themselves, and also using such an interesting chemical as a means of catalyzing.” … Continue reading

Iron Angels – Snippet 16

“Wait a moment, please,” Vance said. “I didn’t complete my explanation and analysis. What is not ordinary is men using thermite on themselves, and also using such an interesting chemical as a means of catalyzing.”

“The mats,” Jasper said. “They stood on the mats, coated their feet with a liquid, and hopped into the basins.”

“Yes,” Vance said, “sulfuric acid. Remember, I read your report.”

“How could I forget? You called me at some crazy hour to talk about it.”

Vance coughed. “Now, this sort of suicide pact –”

Jasper opened his mouth, but Vance raised a hand —

“This sort of suicide pact is common with cults.”

“But there were only two men, wouldn’t there be more cult members crowding around for a peek?”

“A good point, but I still believe we’re dealing with a group of men engaged in heinous –”

“So you’re saying this wasn’t some fucked up kiddie porn type thing, but some sort of ritual killing? A sacrifice?”

“Perhaps,” Temple interjected. “We’re entertaining a few theories, but we’re still forming a more complete picture.”

“But you figured you had enough so that your little group — your guild or whatever you call it — could roll into Indiana and take over what is essentially a crimes against children case.”

“There has been more than one death,” Temple said.

“Yeah, two men killed themselves. Two utterly despicable men.”

“But three deaths over all,” said Temple.

“What?” Jasper stepped closer to Temple — uncomfortably so for him and hopefully for her, but she stood her ground. “Are you trying to tell me the pile of meat and bones over at animal control is somehow related to this?”

“Possibly. Vance?”

Jasper turned his attention toward Vance, and felt Temple take a step backward.

“I found markings near the site of the uh, pile of meat and –”

“Yeah, yeah, go on. I get it.”

“– uh, similar to the striations and distortions on the floor and wall here at the hotel.”

Jasper dragged his hand down his face in frustration.

“But how could they possibly be connected? A cult? The mess over near animal control was no suicide.” Jasper tried to keep the incredulity out of his voice, but failed. “The pile of meat? No way.”

“No,” Temple said, “but perhaps the pile of meat, as you so eloquently put it, had been witness to the cult’s activities and paid the price.”

“I’m sorry, but the idea a person could mangle a body in such a way is ludicrous. Are you two about finished here? You were supposed to wait for me, remember? I was going to escort you through the crime scene –”

“Oh, I wasn’t aware of any arrangement.” Temple stepped into Jasper’s space now. Her glossy lips pursed and her eyebrows arched in a go ahead, make my day sort of way. “Remember, we’ve taken over the investigations.”

“Wait. This one and the murder? The locals, the East Chicago Police, will never agree –”

“They already have.” She turned her attention on Vance whose head was down studying some smudge on the floor. “How much more time do you need?”

“A few more minutes. I need to collect samples from the basins.”

“Ten-four,” Temple said. “Now, Jasper, tell me, has the rest of the building been checked?”

“Yes, but this is unacceptable. I can’t have you two blundering all over Lake County. Don’t screw around too much with this place, the Evidence Response Team is going to give this place another going over –”

“Afraid not.”

“Are you trying to be a pain in the ass?” Jasper huffed. Out of nowhere, a chill crept up his legs and worked into the core of his body, as if emanating from deep within the earth. His shoulders shook, despite his attempt to tamp down the urge.

“Look, why do you care so much?” Temple shook her head, the tight curls wiggling. “You said yourself this was a clear case of suicide and the other a murder and they weren’t connected. The girl was rescued, right? You’re off the hook.”

Yeah, why was he so interested in all this? Why did he care so much about the turf war? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply go back to busting lowlifes? Black was right, after all. Suicides, murder, and a rescued girl. Why stay involved?

He realized it was because a part of him believed what she was saying. Both the suicides and the murder were fantastic in nature. He’d never witnessed human bodies devoured by thermite and had never seen a human corpse rearranged into a pile of meat.

Vance looked up. He’d donned thick spectacled glasses that reminded Jasper of some nutty scientist examining bugs or something. “Hey, this is interesting.”

“What?” Jasper and Temple asked in unison.

“I can’t be certain out here in the field, but a sample I took from the murder scene and another from here match. This is big, we’ve never seen anything like this.” Vance grinned. “Once I can get the samples to a real lab, I’ll go to town.”

“Can you give me a hint as to what you’re talking about?” Jasper asked Vance, but never took his eyes off Temple. Damn, she was good. Her eyes hadn’t left his either, and he wasn’t sure if she’d even blinked yet.

“You don’t have to answer, Vance.” Temple arched an eyebrow, as if once again relaying a go ahead and try me look.

“All right, I guess we’ll be straightening this out over at the Merrillville office. My boss, SSA Johnson has agreed to meet me, and he requested your presence.” Johnson hadn’t requested her presence, but Temple didn’t need to know he lied.

“I’ll do you one better,” Temple said. “Your Assistant Special Agent in Charge is going to be there as well.”

“Great.” Jasper hadn’t ingratiated himself to ASAC Masters any more than he had the ERT leader. A minor insight hit him: perhaps the other person wasn’t always the problem. A slim chance existed that on occasion he caused the problems. He laughed.

Temple’s eyes widened. “What is so funny? Care to let me in?”

“Not at this moment,” Jasper said. “I was simply detecting an emerging pattern, is all.”

“With the investigations?”

“No. Not at all.” Jasper took his eyes from Temple’s. “Fine, I’ll meet you over at the office. When is ASAC Masters supposedly arriving at the RA?” She’d gone above and beyond to shoehorn her little group into places they didn’t belong and then had likely gotten him in hot water. As if he needed help in the hot water department.

Temple glanced at her watch — a slender non-digital piece — a Tag Heuer. Perhaps this woman had some class after all, or perhaps it’d been a gift from a lover jilted by her cherubic demeanor.

“If we leave in fifteen minutes,” she said, “that should give you plenty of time.”

“Fine, I’m leaving now.”

“Okay. Bye now.” She fluttered her fingers, shooing him from the hotel.

He spun and made for the stairs. What a total bitch —

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“That’s good, but do I get to zap you with electricity if you’re wrong?”

She laughed, the first genuine one he’d heard out of her. “That a Ghostbusters reference?”

“Something like that, kind of obscure I’d imagine,” he said, still pissed and managing his anger poorly. “Bill Murray at the beginning when he’s zapping the guy, but not the girl when they’re guessing what patterns are on the cards he’s holding. So, yes.”

“I’m good,” Temple said. “Relax, Agent Wilde, maybe you’re not so bad after all.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“And maybe I’ll allow you to tag along.”

“Too many maybes for me.” That had done it. “See you later.” He wanted to salute her with a finger, but buried his hands in his pockets like he was some little kid being run off the playground by a bully.


The Amber Arrow – Snippet 08

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 08 “As Rome’s highest representative in the kingdom at present, I am the Hand of the Bishops, so yes, I am in charge of its fate.” “Poor Count Lerocher,” the queen murmured. “Your sympathy is … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 08

“As Rome’s highest representative in the kingdom at present, I am the Hand of the Bishops, so yes, I am in charge of its fate.”

“Poor Count Lerocher,” the queen murmured.

“Your sympathy is misguided. He was a heretic.”

“You would know, Magister.”

“Marchioness, the man confessed to sacrilege and crimes against the Colonial Dispensation. He allowed his bloodservants Roman surnames. He made midnight sacrifices to the Kalte gods to beg for good tobacco crops.”

“And you got him to confess this after only a little prodding with red-hot pokers?” the marchioness said. “Amazing.”

“The Resonance of the Faith demanded his confession, not me. But it is my task as a master inquisitor to bring the heretic into harmony.”

“With the use of the whip and rack, I’m sure,” Valentine said. Rossofore detected the marchioness’s obvious sarcasm, but decided to ignore it. He had more important matters to attend to.

“Sometimes the body must suffer so that the soul can be saved.”

He’d thought the young Countess Lerocher a self-serving coquette. It had turned out that the young girl loved the old man after all. How disgusting and unnatural!

She came to Rossofore and pled with him to keep her husband from burning at the stake. She offered him nearly everything, even–he thought with disgust–herself as a mistress.

Then Rossofore had named the price he’d intended to demand all along.

“The Golden Rose of Lerocher would be suitable atonement for what Count Lerocher has done,” Rossofore had said.

The little countess’s hand had gone to her mouth in shock.

“Please don’t ask that of us,” she pleaded. “It’s the foundation of the family fortune. If you take it, we’ll be ruined. My husband would rather burn than give it up.”

“Do you care nothing for your husband’s soul, Countess? Would you rather he never resonated with the Emptiness?” Rossofore asked. “I remind you that the souls of the excommunicated are doomed to walk in the underworld forever.”

“Yes, I know it.”

“The Golden Rose stands between your husband and the Blessed Void. With its weight upon his conscience, he will never ascend from this world of suffering.”

Even then, she had wavered. So he’d ordered the stakes erected and the wood piled high for burning. There were ten heretics currently held in the Montserrat dungeon.

He sent a messenger to the countess saying that one of those stakes was for Lerocher.

The messenger came back bearing the Golden Rose in a strongbox.

“The count confessed,” Rossofore told Valentine. “And the faith was merciful. He did not burn.”

“You had the old man hanged in his cell,” the marchioness replied dryly.

“Yes, but we released the body to the widow to be buried in consecrated ground with a wafer of blessed celestis on his tongue. This is the foundation for passage to eternity, as you know, Marchioness.”

Rossofore looked from Valentine down to the necklace again and smiled.


There is nothing that this old woman can do about it, either.

He took one of the amber beads in his hands and gave the metal that enclosed it a powerful twist.

“No!” Valentine gasped.

He gave it another twist. The bead popped from its casing and into Rossofore’s hand.

“That is a priceless relic from the first days of the colony,” Valentine said, her voice trembling with dismay.

Well I certainly wiped that arrogant smile from her face, Rossofore thought. Good.

One by one, as the queen watched, horrified, he twisted the other amber stones out in the same way. He threw aside the rest of the necklace. It was gold, and worth a small fortune, but was useless to him. He held the amber beads before his eyes.

Lovely. Perfect. Concentrated dasein. The power that had made the world, and that could unmake it.

He stepped over to his writing desk near to the window where a wine pitcher and glasses sat.

He smiled at Valentine. “Join me in glass of wine, Marchioness?”

Rossofore poured himself a glass. He began to pour one for Valentine, but she shook her head and put a hand over the top of the glass.

The obsidian Raven Ring of l’Ange Noir glinted on her right hand. The Montserrat rivulet topaz sparkled in a bracelet on her wrist. She wore a subtle and no doubt expensive perfume, a mixture of jasmine, vanilla, and musk. Rossofore felt for a moment that he was in the presence of a creature who maybe was a little more than merely human.

A true queen.

Mother of a kingdom.

He quickly shook the feeling off, however. No time to be foolish.

Rossofore raised the wine glass, then put one of the amber beads into his mouth. He rolled it around on his tongue.

Valentine whimpered at the sight.

“Don’t!” she gasped.

The bead was warm. There was no taste to it. This always disappointed him. Pure power ought to have a taste.

“Blood and marrow!” the marchioness exclaimed. “Are you crazy?”

Rossofore smiled. He took a sip of wine.

He swallowed.

“No!” Valentine cried.

She lunged at him, but the guards were nearby to hold her back. There was no need. She controlled herself at the last moment.

At least she has some self-dignity and good breeding, Rossofore thought. For a colonial.

One after another, he swallowed five more of the dragon amber beads. He washed each down with another sip of wine.

Each swallow drew another whine of agony from the marchioness.

It took only a moment for the power to blossom. He felt the warmth flow through his body. His skin began to shine, the dasein inside him producing its own light. His mind raced with a thousand thoughts and plans. If he gazed into a looking glass, which he’d done before when the amber flush was upon him, he knew he would see his eyes glowing like reddish-yellow orbs of fire.

He stretched out his hands. They were crinkling. No, they were scaling, like a fish. A reptile.

He was becoming a dragon.

A man-dragon. A mandrake. A creature of pure dasein.

“Dark Angel protect us!” the marchioness shouted. She backed across the room at the sight of Rossofore. She would have fled entirely, but the guards would not let her pass.

He walked to the citadel window and looked out over the stronghold of Montserrat, his base in this cursed colonial land.

“Come here!” he commanded Valentine. He saw her try to resist, but with the amber power behind it, his voice was compelling. It’s dasein was irresistible. She turned and stumbled toward him.

“Stand beside me at the window,” he continued. Valentine did as he said. He smiled. “Watch this, Marchioness.”

Rossofore raised his now-scaly hands and stuck them out the open window. He clapped them.

A great peal of thunder boomed through the city.

Lightning forked across the sky, then crashed somewhere near the horizon.

The people looked like bugs from here in the tower.

Roaches, Rossofore thought. Like those cursed colonial Palmetto bugs. Ugh.

And like roaches, they scurried in all directions, startled and frightened, but not knowing which way to go.

He clapped his hands again. This time the thunder was louder. It shook the ground. A blast of wind flowed through the town and the people below were blown from their feet.

Then the wind stopped. The people slowly picked themselves back up. After a moment, they went back on their ways.

I did that,” Rossofore said. “Me!”

“This is sacrilege,” Valentine whispered.

Rossofore chuckled. “How can it be, Marchioness? I’m the one who decides what sacrilege is in these cursed colonies. That is my appointed task.”

He reached over and pulled Valentine closer to himself.

The old daydream returned.

She did smell so good. Rich. From some other world.

A beautiful world beyond the filthy orphanage and Brother Luigi’s leather straps and knotted rope whips.

Rossofore shook his head to clear it.

No, no, no. She isn’t my mother. She may not be anyone’s mother soon.

But he would have to find out the name of whatever perfume she was using. He might recommend it to the true ladies of Rome.

Later. There would be plenty of time.

“What you are seeing is dasein,” he said. “Pure power. You colonials have had it for generations. But you’re ignorant. You didn’t know how to unlock it.”

Rossofore took another bead, put it in his mouth. Swallowed.

“But I do.”


Chain of Command – Snippet 08

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Chain of Command – Snippet 08 Moe listed the holes the uBakai buckshot had torn in their boat’s roster: two officers and five others dead; one officer–the captain–and three others critically injured and in cold sleep; one officer and twelve … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 08

Moe listed the holes the uBakai buckshot had torn in their boat’s roster: two officers and five others dead; one officer–the captain–and three others critically injured and in cold sleep; one officer and twelve others injured but expected to return to duty soon. It was a big bite out of a total crew of ninety-five, but the biggest bite had been out of Sam’s tactical department.

As if thinking the same thing, Huhn’s gaze settled on Sam

“Bitka, I don’t know how you’re going to manage the tactical department without Lieutenant Washington. She was a hell of an officer. You lost your senior chief, too, didn’t you? And Waring?”

Sam looked away and swallowed before answering.

“Yes, sir. Chief Nguyen was killed on the bridge along with Lieutenant Washington, Ensign Waring, and one of my sensor techs. But our weaponry is up, except for one point defense laser mount. I’d like to get the power ring recharged as soon as possible so we’ve got plenty of juice for the spinal coil gun and lasers, but TAC’s up and running otherwise.”

The power ring was the boat’s superconducting magnetic energy storage system, or SMESS, wrapped around the boat’s waist like a corset, buried under armor and coolant lines.

Huhn stared at him for a few seconds. “Well, can you handle the department without your best people? No officers, no senior chief–do you know what you’re doing?”

Once Sam might have felt a surge of anger or resentment at that, but he looked at Huhn’s scowling face, wrapped in his ridiculous blanket, and he felt nothing: no anger, no resentment, no contempt–nothing. He tried to remember what it had felt like to be intimidated by Huhn, but he could not. He felt detached, withdrawn from everything going on in the room, as if it was happening to someone else. His body was here but his mind–part of it, at any rate–was in the wardroom staring at a floating gray body bag.

“My two division chiefs are rock-solid sir. Chief Burns is ready to move up to Bull Tac, and he’s got a good machinist first behind him in weapons division to move up to chief.” Sam decided not to mention his candidate for promotion to chief was Joyce Menzies, one of the two petty officers Huhn had argued with him over earlier. “I’ve got a good set of acey-deucies to fill in behind them. We’ll manage, sir.”

Bull Tac was the unofficial title of the senior chief petty officer in the tactical department, the position Chief Nguyen had held. Acey-deucies were the petty officers first and second class, the men and women who did most of the real work in the boat.

“I hope to God you’re right,” Huhn said. “We’re going to need your department up to speed where they’re sending us, which is right straight into hell. There’s a combined task force following us in, about six days behind us. It was meant as a show of force, to keep the Varoki from pulling something like this, but it’s too late for that. Now they’re the counterattack force, and we’re riding point for them, all the way down to low orbit around K’Tok. When I said we were in the shit, I meant it. This is definitely Charge of the Light Brigade stuff.”

Hennessey and Filipenko exchanged a worried look, but again Sam wasn’t sure if they were more worried about the new mission or Huhn.

“I think somebody better warn the follow-on force to expect the same attack we got hit with,” Sam said.

“Noted,” Huhn answered and looked away–which was Navy-speak for Who cares what you think?

“I’m serious,” Sam said. “We need to get a tight beam message to the main task force right away or they’re going to get whacked.”

“They came in later than we did so they’re in a different intercept corridor,” Huhn said.

“Doesn’t matter.”

They all looked at him and Huhn opened his mouth to cut him off but Sam pushed on. “This attack was launched along an exactly reciprocating course track. That’s nearly impossible. There is only one way this attack could be executed.”

“Oh? So please educate us all, Mister Bitka,” Huhn said.

“Yes, sir. Buckshot is just inert pellets, so once it’s launched there’s no way to alter its vector. That means the launch vessel has to already be on the correct course. The only practical way to do that would be to leave orbit around K’tok and accelerate into the reciprocal course, but to do that they would have to already know our position and in-coming course. That means the vessel had to leave K’tok orbit after we came out of J-space and began our glide. I bet there’s a departure report somewhere in the intel feeds for the last two weeks.”

“You mean they had us detected all along?” Filipenko said.

“Impossible!” Huhn spat.

“Not if they knew where to point their hi-res optics,” Sam said. “If they have a couple optics platforms out in the asteroid belt we don’t know about, all they have to do is point them at the right spot, look from a couple different angles, and wait for us to occlude a star.”

“But how would they know where and when to look?” Huhn demanded. “Do you have any idea how enormous the volume of space above and below the plane of the ecliptic is?”

“Yes, sir, I do. But according to our standard operating procedure, we always enter this star system from above the plane–galactic north–always at the same distance from the orbital plane, and we always do it so that our residual momentum from the final sprint at Bronstein’s World carries us on a zero-burn intercept with K’tok. And we always do it with the same residual momentum so we don’t have to recalculate the intercept problem.”

“Wait one,” Rose Hennessey said. “You want to unwrap that a little for the benefit of a poor engineer who doesn’t know beans about astrogation?”

“Boy, howdy,” Moe agreed.

Sam looked at their blank faces. Even Filipenko, who was supposed to have some background in astrogation, frowned in thought.

“Sure. The galaxy is a flat spinning disc of stars. There’s no real north or south, up or down, but for purposes of reference, if you’re looking at it from a distance and it looks as if its spinning counter-clockwise, you’re ‘up’, or galactic north of it. If it’s spinning clockwise, you’re galactic south. Got it? Okay.

“Same with a star system. Over 99% of the matter that makes up a star and its planets, asteroids, all that stuff is concentrated in a very flat disc. The planet orbits, the asteroids, all of them are in that disc, called the plain of the ecliptic. Only stuff that wandered in and got captured later, like some comets, move outside of it.

“When we jump from star to star, we pop out of J-space into real space. If we come out and some part of the ship is in the same space occupied by, say, a rock the size of a baseball, you get what’s called an ‘annihilation event’.”

“That sounds bad,” Moe said.

“Sounds bad, is bad. So we like to do it above or below the star’s plane of the ecliptic, because there’s hardly anything floating around there.

“When you make a jump you retain whatever momentum you had from before. So we jump here from Bronstein’s World, which has a plane of the ecliptic aligned almost the same as K’Tok’s: both of them angled between thirty and forty degrees off the galactic disc. Before we jump, we accelerate down, stellar south, away from the Bronstein’s World plain of the ecliptic, but we calculate the jump to come out north of K’Tok’s plane.”

“Okay, so our momentum is carrying us down toward the plane and the planets,” Moe said.

“Right. We know where K’Tok is in its orbit at any given time so the astrogator calculates the jump to come out exactly where our residual momentum will carry us on an intercept course with K’Tok.”

“Of course,” Huhn admitted, finally speaking. “That way we don’t have to expose ourselves with a mid-course correction burn. All we do is decelerate into orbit once we get there.”

“Yes, sir. But here’s the thing: at any one time there’s only one place we can emerge from J-Space with that vector and make that intercept. It’s a moving exit point, because K’tok is moving in its orbit, but it’s pig-simple to calculate where it is. Maybe they aren’t idiots. Maybe they noticed that. And so maybe that’s where they point their optics.”

Rosie Hennessey ran her hands back through her buzz-cut hair and looked at Huhn. “Shit, sir, sounds to me like he’s on to something.”

“Okay, okay, so you’re on to something, Bitka. What does that get us?”

“If they saw us, they’ll use the same method to spot the follow-on force and may have buckshot on the way to them, so they need to be warned.

“But we also know when ChaCha’s probe went active there was no ship on that course within normal detection range of our radar. Unless they’ve got some new super-stealth ship out there–and there’s nothing in the intel briefings to suggest it–they did a low-signature course correction after they launched the ordnance, and they got way the hell away by the time we started getting hit, which means they did it a long time ago.”

“Get to the point,” Huhn snapped.

“They had to have fired that buckshot days before the incident on K’tok they say started the war. This was a carefully-planned surprise attack.”

For a moment the only sound in the compartment was the hiss of the ventilators.

Moe put his hand to his temple and squinted, a habit he had when getting an incoming message on his embedded commlink. He nodded a few times absently, then his eyes opened a bit wider.

“Roger that,” he said and turned to the others. “That was Yeoman Fischer. We sent the casualty report up to squadron and just got the modified chain of command. Commander Huhn, you’re skipper, of course.”

Moe turned to Sam. “Looks like you’re second in command, Bub.”

“What?” Huhn said. “No, that’s got to be a mistake! They must have drawn it up not knowing Larry’s returning to duty status.”

“No, sir,” Moe said. “Seems like Bitka has almost a year’s seniority in grade over Goldjune.”

“Were you on active duty when you got your promotion to full lieutenant?” Huhn demanded.

Sam shook his head.

“Don’t matter, sir,” Moe said. “Effective date is effective date.” He turned to Sam, his right hand out. “Congratulations, XO.”


The Amber Arrow – Snippet 07

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 07 Chapter Seven: The Necklace “Bring me Marchioness Valentine,” said a tall, somber man. He looked to be about thirty years old. He had a close-shaven face and wavy hair that fell to his shoulders. … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 07

Chapter Seven:

The Necklace

“Bring me Marchioness Valentine,” said a tall, somber man. He looked to be about thirty years old. He had a close-shaven face and wavy hair that fell to his shoulders. His hair was dark brown. So were his eyes. He had the olive skin color of a Tiberian. Here in the Roman colonies, he stood out. Most of the inhabitants of Vall l’Obac were much darker in complexion. They were of Afrique and Aegyptian ancestry.

The young man wore the jet-black tunic of a Talaia priest. His red clerical collar showed his clerical order.

The Talaia faith called this order the Fratelli di Sangue, the Brothers of the Blood.

Two guards in Roman scale armor near the door to the room left to execute the command of the man in the black tunic.

The man’s name was Quintos Rossofore. His official title was Continental Magister Praelatus of the Inquisition Suprema and Vice Abbot of the Fratelli di Sangue Order of Talaia.

Although vice abbot of an order was a higher title, Rossofore liked people to address him as “Magister.”

While he was waiting for the marchioness, Rossofore gazed down at the lovely necklace of amber beads in his hands. Yellow-golden beauty. He let it swing freely and shifted it this way and that to catch the afternoon light streaming through a citadel window.

Dragon amber.

So much concentrated dasein, he thought. Magic. That was what dragon amber was. Dasein that brought the world to life and sustained it.

And now he held that power in his hand.



If dasein was the essence of life, then the dragons were life’s greatest enemies. They fed on the dasein in the Earth. They took its magic for themselves, only allowing tiny amounts to escape their horrible appetites.

So said the articles of the faith of Talaia.

Rossofore knew the teachings of Talaia. Oh yes, he knew them well.

He’d spent his younger days in a special orphanage in Rome having them beaten into him.

No matter. That was years ago. Now he was a very powerful man.

Because of amber. Because of dasein.

If the free amber in the world could be collected . . . concentrated . . .

He took the beaded necklace in both of his hands. Each golden amber droplet was the size of a robin’s egg.

He was admiring it when his guards returned with Valentine Archambeault, Queen of the Colonial Kingdom of Vall l’Obac, and Marchioness of the Holy Roman Empire.

“You wish to present yourself to me?” Valentine asked. Her voice was low for woman, a rich alto. Some might call it edged with iron, but Rossofore thought it ridiculously prideful coming from a colonial.

“Yes, Marchioness,” Rossofore replied with a bow. “Thank you for coming.”

Valentine hesitated. She was obviously miffed. All in Vall l’Obac called her “Your Majesty,” Rossofore knew. Even though it was officially correct, calling her marchioness was an insult. What Valentine didn’t know, and never needed to know, was that he called her by a lesser title for his own sake as well as hers.

She reminded him of his mother.

His imaginary mother.

He had never known his true mother or his father. Instead there had only been old Brother Luigi who had drummed the books of wisdom and the Testament of the Covenant into all the children at the orphanage.

Brother Luigi and his knotted whip.

And when memorization didn’t work, the children were sold.

Sold away. Gone.

Rossofore later learned that these were sent to the mines or indentured as chimney sweeps and night-soil collectors. But when he was a small boy all he knew was that children who didn’t learn what Brother Luigi wanted . . . disappeared.

He’d been constantly worried that it might be him next. He’d had to come up with something to keep himself from digging his nails into his palms and grinding his teeth every night.

So he’d secretly imagined having parents.

He thought they might be a rich couple, possibly noble, who had to hide him from jealous relatives who wanted to kill him for his inheritance.

He was a smart boy. A boy of quality. Why shouldn’t he be of the nobility? After all, nobody knew where he’d come from. He’d just showed up in a dirty basket on Brother Luigi’s doorstep one night.

He might’ve been brought from a manor house.

Rossofore fantasized that his mother would one day show up. She would claim him from the orphanage.

She would hug him, and tell him what a good boy he was.

Then she would take him home to her big house and feed him everything he ever wanted to eat. She would have him sit next to her by the fire. She would stroke his hair.

Rossofore hadn’t been touched often in the orphanage, and when he was it was usually by the back of Brother Luigi’s hand.

His mother would never spank him. He would be a good boy. In his fantasy, he would get his own room, a really nice one. But sometimes when he had nightmares–which was all the time at the orphanage–she would let him crawl into bed between her and his father.

He would fall asleep between them, warm and safe.

He would know that nobody was going to send him to the mines.

His parents would never allow that.

Rossofore had grown older and learned that such daydreams were foolish. Idiotic, even.

Many orphans had them. They couldn’t all be the secret sons and daughters of nobility could they?

In fact, none of them were.

Such fantasy was a weakness and had to be stamped out.

Rossofore tried.

But he never could quite stamp out the memory of his imaginary mother.

Marchioness Valentine Archambeault reminded him very much of that daydream mother. She looked almost exactly as he’d pictured her. He’d been struck almost speechless when he’d first met her. Now whenever he was around her, he had to make extra sure that he didn’t give her any special privilege because of some childish delusion that he hadn’t succeeded in wiping out.

She was not his mother.

No one was his mother.

Valentine Archambeault was a heretic. She deserved punishment. He knew it. He just had to prove it.

And she never came for me! She just left me there for Brother Luigi to torment!

Stop it. That was nonsense.

The marchioness was merely of professional interest to him. After all, he was an inquisitor of the Holy Roman Empire, and she was a heretic. Most colonials were in one way or another.

After a moment off balance, Valentine regained her proud bearing and nodded to Rossofore, acknowledging that he didn’t have to address her as he would a queen.

Then she saw the necklace he was fingering, and let out an involuntary gasp.

Rossofore raised his hands and let the sunlight from the open window of the tower hit the amber beads. His office in the castle had once belonged to the marchioness’s lord high counselor.

That was before the same high counselor had been burned at the stake for heresy.

On Rossofore’s orders.

They were in a towering turret that was part of Pierre du Corbeau Castle, residence of the queen. The window looked out over the western regions of Montserrat, the capital city of Vall l’Obac.

“Do you recognize the jewelry?” Rossofore asked.

“Of course I do. It’s the Golden Rose of Lerocher. It belongs to the countess. I have no idea what you are doing with it.”

“It was owned by the Lerochers,” Rossofore replied. “By the old count and his young countess. She’s twenty years younger than the count, you know.”

Count Lerocher had disgusted Rossofore. He could still picture the wrinkled old man’s claw of a hand grasping the lovely, smooth hand of the countess.

He’d brought the man and his young wife to Montserrat. He’d told them it was for a special duty to the Brothers of the Blood. And it was, in a way. He’d immediately seen the count’s seemingly devout nature was merely a cover for deep heresy.

“In actual fact, the necklace was only in the possession of the countess. It belonged to the count. It has been in the Lerocher family for generations. When he confessed his heresy, naturally he forfeited his family’s earthly possessions. So now the Golden Rose belongs to the faith.”

“You mean, to you, Magister Rossofore.”