Thursday, April 26, 2012

One More Excerpt: Lord of the Screaming Tower

My third release for April is from Lord of the Screaming Tower, a fantasy novella from Etopia Press. This story has a long history. The story was inspired by the song "Wrapped Around My Finger" by the Police. I wrote a long short story originally, then later I decided it might work as a longer piece. I wrote some additional bits about the characters and the world but never quite managed to complete it as a full-length book. This time around, I took the original story and the bits and pieces and put them together and ended up with a novella.

In the world of this book, magic is performed with music, both vocal and instrumental. Sarangell, the protagonist, is a particularly talented young wizard faced with the ultimate choice--banish the older wizard he's been told is evil, or take into himself power beyond what any wizard has ever previously imagined possible.


Chapter One
The tower stood in a dark jumble of broken stones, ragged in the moonlight. And it was screaming.
Sarangell’s hand closed on nothing. For weeks, while he and the old wizard had planned, the screaming had haunted the edges of his dreams, howling into his heartbeat. On impulse, he touched the black rock that made up the tower’s outside wall. It lay cold and still under his fingers.

To his left a door grated open, and a boy put his head out. Sarangell jerked toward him, snatching his hand away from the stone.

“What do you want?” the boy asked. One side of his face drooped, making his words slur.

At the abrupt, disrespectful demand, Sarangell fought the urge to lash out, with magic or otherwise. This was only a boy, after all, and a broken one at that. “I wish to see your master.” His soft, careful voice moved like clean water.

The boy’s eyebrows rose at the sound of that voice, and he took a sharp step backward. “Wait here.” The door closed.

Sarangell eased his harp case off his shoulder and laid it down. The cold night air whipped through the folds of his white shirt. Sarangell shivered, then hummed warmth back into the air around him. It was a simple enough spell, one of the first the old wizard had taught him. A yellow glow rose from his feet, sending the biting wind into steam. Sarangell hummed a Sustaining pitch and smiled. With the harp, and the sixth octave the old wizard had given him last night, he could have filled the courtyard with flames.

The door grated back open, and the boy reappeared. He stared at Sarangell’s yellow aura then collected himself.

“My master will see you. Follow me.”

Sarangell had expected as much. His Natural voice had gotten him easily into other wizards’ towers. All he had to do was say “hello,” and he was ushered into the inner sanctums. It had been that way twelve years ago when he’d fallen at the old wizard’s doorstep, nearly dead from the wrath of his father. It should be no different here. Inside it was dark but warm. Sarangell hummed a Counterpitch, shedding his warmth, and sang up a light. The boy gaped at him yet again.

“Your voice… It’s Natural, isn’t it?”


The boy shook his head, eyes still wide. Sarangell smiled.

The corridor twisted between black, broken walls. At one time, the tower had been a single piece of obsidian stone, constructed with magic no one but its lord understood. Now there were chips, holes, and cracks that ran down the walls to the floor. The damage, Sarangell knew, was the remnants of the old wizard’s last assault on the tower. Afterward the tower had been silent for years.

Then the screaming had begun.

They reached a staircase that took them to a landing lit by magical wisps and mundane torches. The boy opened a door.

“He’s waiting.”

Sarangell stepped forward, tempted to sing a note that would lead him right where he wanted to go without needing to depend upon the wavering lights and the boy’s dubious guidance. It would have been rude though, and he didn’t want to offend the master of the tower. Not yet. Certainly he’d be offended later, when Sarangell killed him.

Beyond the door, a short, dim corridor led to a large room. A desk sat in the middle, next to it a tall standing harp of honeywood. Book-laden shelves lined the walls.

He crossed the room, eyes on the harp. It was a beautiful instrument, its curves perfect, the strings fairly humming with the movement of the air in the room. Sarangell looked toward the bookshelves. They held standard wizard texts where he had hoped for rare tomes of eccentric power. His mouth twisted with disappointment.

“I’ve always thought it was a rather pleasant room.”

Sarangell spun. The voice was a wizard’s, a bit deeper than training usually aimed for, but with the clarity of Natural intonations. Its owner stood in the shadow behind the desk, where Sarangell should have seen him and yet hadn’t, his tall, slim body draped in purple. A neat beard darkened his craggy face. His eyes were pale green, and he looked thirty years younger than he should have.

“It is a pleasant room,” Sarangell said. “A bit dark though.”

The wizard stepped forward and touched the harp. The lights brightened. Sarangell’s hands shifted on his own harp case as the wizard’s eyes found the gold-rimmed insignia on Sarangell’s left breast.
“You bear the mark of Kandrell,” the wizard said.

Sarangell nodded to the wizard’s own black and purple badge. “And you bear the mark of Menesh.”

Teeth flashed ivory in the dark beard. “I am Menesh.”

“I know.”

Menesh nodded, the smile still playing across his lips. “You have a Natural voice. I didn’t believe the boy when he told me, but he was right. He’s tone deaf and simple, or I wouldn’t keep him here, but he can hear the grit in the Trained voices. How many of your octaves are natural?”

“Three. A little over.”

“Do you have the eighth octave?”

“No. Only six.”

Menesh rounded the desk and perched on the edge of it. “May I see your harp?”

Sarangell hesitated, then handed the instrument over. Menesh opened the case. The light in the room seemed to catch fire in the brilliant red wood. Menesh’s blunt hands touched the strings gently, playing harmless notes, music rather than magic. After a time, he handed it back.
“It’s a good harp. Why don’t you sit down?”

Sarangell obediently sat in the chair next to the desk. The desk had papers on it, most filled with music. Some were outlines of spells Sarangell recognized, but with minor changes here and there. Others appeared to be pieces of more complex magic, while still others Sarangell recognized as simply music. The notations ran through ten octaves, with harp augmentation up to eight. Sarangell passed a neutral glance over them.

“What’s your name?” Menesh asked.


“You’ve been studying with Kandrell for how long?”

“Twelve years.”

“And before that?”

“My voice disappeared when I was thirteen. When it came back after two weeks, I couldn’t say hello without breaking crockery or setting the walls on fire. So my father beat me, and I found my way to Kandrell.” It wasn’t the whole story, of course, but it was more than Menesh needed to know.

Menesh nodded, eyes narrowing. It wasn’t so unusual a story, Sarangell knew. Magic was not only feared but despised in the towns, which was why the wizards congregated in towers in the rugged countryside. Which was also why Sarangell’s father had crushed his wife’s magic-laden hands into uselessness, finally managing to kill her in her thirteenth trip to childbed. These days Natural voices were practically nonexistent, with the wizards searching more and more for apprentices in the southern countries. There older gods reigned, wizardry was still considered an honored profession, and children with borderline voices were often sent to towers with their parents’ blessings to be trained.

So Sarangell understood the gleam in Menesh’s eyes as he considered Sarangell’s potential. “And you’ve augmented three times since then?”

“Yes. And I want more. I’ve been to tower after tower, and the wizards are all the same—slow and careful. They won’t teach me what I want to know. Maybe you will.”

Menesh toyed with his beard. “Kandrell tried to kill me once, you know.”

Sarangell knew perfectly well. And Sarangell’s arrival here was Kandrell’s second attempt. “No, I didn’t.”

Menesh made a wide gesture. “You’ve seen the broken walls. Kandrell did that. He destroyed a great deal of important work.”

“What has that to do with me?”

Menesh’s robe rustled as he slid down from the desk. “Possibly nothing. But if I find that you maintain loyalty to him, I’ll kill you.”

Sarangell tried to match the other wizard’s quiet gaze, but couldn’t. “My Lord,” he murmured. Menesh smiled. His hand touched the golden harpstrings, and he disappeared.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Excerpt Week Continues: Accidental Evenings

"Accidental Evenings" is my first venture with Still Moments Publishing. It's one of three stories in the anthology Unleashed Hearts, which features stories about couples who are brought together by their dogs. As a dog lover, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to contribute. My story was accepted (yays!) and here we are!

Mandy is a homebody, much like myself in that she'd rather stay home and cuddle with her dog than try to find a new boyfriend. Her dog, though, has other ideas, and when Chloe keeps digging under the fence and ending up on the next door neighbor's back porch, Mandy has no choice but to meet the neighbor. The hunky neighbor. Who seems to like her...

Standing on the porch, Mandy wondered if she should have brought a housewarming gift. A bottle of wine, maybe, or a houseplant. But the only wine she had in her house was in a half empty bottle in the fridge, and all her houseplants were dead. The neighbors would have to settle for, “Hi, how are you? May I have my stupid dog back, please?”
Gathering her courage, Mandy rang the doorbell.
For a few minutes, everything was silent behind the door. Maybe nobody was home? But the porch light was on, as was the light in the garage, and she could see a car through the high garage windows. Not that she was snooping or anything.
She was about to ring the bell again when something stirred inside the house. A minute later, the door opened.
Mandy forgot to breathe for a minute. The man on the other side of the glass-and-screen door was about six foot three, with black hair, blue eyes, and shoulders that nearly filled the doorframe. She also noticed, with a reflex she’d developed over the last five years for no really good reason, that there was no ring on his left hand. He was wearing suit pants and a collared shirt, unbuttoned at the throat as if he’d recently removed a tie.
“Good evening?” He had an accent. She couldn’t quite peg it because her ears were ringing, but good God, just when she thought he couldn’t get any hotter.
“Um…hi?” Mandy managed. “I’m your next-door neighbor and—”
“Oh!” His face lit up and he held out a hand. “It’s so nice to meet you. I’ve been meaning to come over and introduce myself.”
“Um…” She couldn’t come up with any additional words, so she shook his hand. It was big and warm. The accent, she decided, was Eastern European. Not Russian, but close. Russian-ish. “Mandy,” she managed as he clasped her hand then let go. It was a good handshake.
“Tómas,” he said. “Won’t you come in?”
Come in? That wasn’t where she’d expected this to go. “I don’t want to impose. It’s just…my dog—”
“Oh, no imposition. Please. Come in and tell me all about your dog.”
It seemed she didn’t have much choice. He wanted her to come in and so she was going to come in, dragged bodily over the threshold by the sheer power of his amazingly blue eyes.
She figured she’d just tell him what was up with Cleo and get the socializing over with, and then run back to her comfortable living room where she could watch television and eat a pint of double-chocolate, mint chip ice cream, and pretend this Tómas thing of gorgeousness didn’t exist. It would be a much easier life than acknowledging he was here and wondering if he could see past the weird little flip on her bedroom curtains when she was undressing.
“Can I offer you tea? Coffee? A soft drink?” Good God, but he was friendly.
“Um…the dog…”
“Yes. The dog. I’ll bring you tea, and then we can talk about the dog.”
Friendly and bossy. And decisive. She thought about telling him she didn’t like tea, but that was a lie. And it wasn’t like she was any real hurry. Cleo was probably still lying stubbornly on his back porch with her feathery tail over her nose.
“Have a seat,” said Tómas.
Mandy had a seat. The living room was nicely furnished, with chairs that looked strangely modern and antique at the same time. She ran a hand over the red and gold upholstery on the arm of the chair she’d chosen.
“My dog…her name’s Cleo…” Mandy began, raising her voice so Tómas could hopefully hear her in the kitchen. It was around the corner from where she sat, and she could hear him puttering, the clink of porcelain and the soft glug of water pouring out of a kettle. “She’s normally really well behaved, but the last three nights she’s gotten out of the yard and—”
Tómas reappeared, carrying two cups of steaming tea. He handed one to her, kept the other for himself and settled into the chair across from hers.
“She’s gotten out?” he said. “Do you need help to find her? I’m sorry, I should have let you tell me earlier—”
“No, no.” Mandy waved off his impending apology. “I don’t need help finding her. The thing is, she’s on your back porch.”
Tómas’s black brows rose and he regarded her almost comically. “She is? She’s on my back porch?”
“Yeah. She dug a hole under the fence, and when I went to look, she was back there just…hanging out. She wouldn’t come when I called.”
“Goodness.” Tómas set his teacup carefully on the side table. “I wonder why she would do that? Let’s go let her in, shall we?”
He stood and Mandy followed suit, rubbing her tea-warmed hands down the fronts of her thighs. “You don’t have to let her in the house. I mean, she sheds and she’s been digging, so she might be muddy—”
“Oh, psssh.” It was an odd sound, accompanied by a flip of his hand that made it clear he wasn’t concerned about either muddy paws or the horrors of Labrador hair. “Is she friendly? She sounds like she must be.”
He was on his way to the back door already, leading Mandy through his kitchen. It looked as if he’d just been finishing up dinner when she’d arrived—there was an empty plate and a half-empty glass of wine on the table, the bottle sitting next to it.
“Yeah. She’s friendly.”
“Her name?”
Tómas opened the back door. “Oh, my goodness! Look what it is. A dog on my back porch. Come in, Cleo, and say hello to your mama.”

I hope you'll check out Unleashed Hearts, with "Accidental Evenings" as well as "Dog Day Afternoons" by Darlene Henderson and "Snow White and the Seven Dogs" by Denise Moncreif. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Excerpt: Dealing With David--Out Today from Samhain

Being sick and having a ton of work and lots of other things can really throw you off your blogging game... I'll be working on getting myself back into a regular gear over the next few weeks. As a result, this week you'll be getting not one but THREE excerpts! Why? Because I just had three stories--a short story, a novella and a full-length novel--release over the last week.

Today's contribution is from Dealing With David, available NOW from Samhain. Take a look, and if you grab the book and read it, a review would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

On to the excerpt... Hope you enjoy!


Stranded in the mountains after a freak spring snowstorm, our intrepid heroine finds herself in David's guest bedroom trying to get to sleep. But there's something about the former high school geek that has her in knots...

The bed was cozy, with clean-smelling sheets and a heavy comforter. Tony crawled in and flipped off the light.

The absolute darkness startled her. After so long living in town, she’d forgotten the deep, dark of night in the mountains. With snow and stars obscured by snow clouds, the only light in the room came from the hall light seeping faintly in under the door. She buried herself to her neck in the blankets and stared into the darkness.

This was not how she’d planned to spend her weekend. Of course, it wasn’t what David had planned, either. She really just wanted to go home, to her own bed, get herself mentally ready for her new temp assignment, eat chocolate, watch some shows off her DVR, go shopping, maybe buy some new shoes. None of that was going to happen. Instead, apparently, she was going to lie here in David’s guest bedroom and brood.

She couldn’t figure out why she felt so strange. Just being in David’s presence seemed to drag up all the yuck she’d tried to shove under the carpet when she finally ended her marriage. Why was it rolling up its ugly underbelly again when she found herself with someone who was acting like he might be interested in her?

And what was all this nonsense about him being infatuated with her in high school? She’d never been aware of any particular interest on his part, much less a crush or infatuation. Surely she would’ve noticed.

Then again, she hadn’t paid much attention to him. She’d used him once to help her get through an algebra exam. She couldn’t characterize the interaction any more charitably; she’d been nice to him while he been tutoring her, then, when the exams were over, had snubbed him. A minor sin, maybe, but it gave her a twinge of guilt when she thought about it now. Especially when he was being nice to her.

A half hour of brooding broodiness later, Tony looked at the clock and discovered only five minutes had passed. With an exasperated sigh, she sat up and turned on the light. After a moment’s thought, she slipped out of bed and opened the bedroom door.

A soft murmur of music drifted down the hallway. David’s bedroom door was partly open, and a light burned beyond it. Tony padded to the door and peered around it.

Yet another computer occupied a desk in a corner of the bedroom. David sat in front of it, his back to the door. Hesitantly, she knocked.

He turned to face her. He wore glasses now, lightweight wire frames with thin lenses. They made him look bookish but not at all unattractive. Tony became suddenly, acutely aware of where she was and tried very hard not to look at the bed.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing really.” His quilt was maroon and black, she noticed, a geometric pattern that complemented the one in the guest room. “I just can’t sleep.”

David grinned and reached over to pull some paper out of the printer tray. His sweatshirt rode up when he bent over, and Tony had a hard time convincing herself she shouldn’t look at his bare skin. The shirt settled back into place as he straightened.

“Here you go,” he said, handing her the paper and a pen.

Tony shook her head, not willing to admit he’d given her exactly what she needed. But she’d always sketched when she was nervous, even in high school. He’d kidded her about it more than once.
She should just leave now, she thought, but before she could stop herself, she said, “Do you, um…wear contacts now, or did you have Lasik?”

He smiled. “Lasik. I only wear glasses now at night, when my eyes are tired, or when I’ve been on the computer a long time. It was totally worth it.”

“I’ll bet. So what are you working on? Another game?”

He rolled his chair to one side so she could see the screen. Crudely rendered stick figures stood posed in battle in front of a background of color blocks.

Dark Princes III,” he said. “It’s a really early version. We still don’t have the artwork hashed out, so we’re just blocking out some of the major action sequences. Rich and I wrote up the plot along with one of our other programmers. The other programmer wasn’t happy about the predominately male characters in the first two games, so we took her advice, and now Dark Princes III is about Prince Aelfwyn’s sister Aethelfried.”

“Well, that’s a nice change of pace, anyway. Those adventure games always seem so sexist.” Belatedly, Tony noticed her clipped tone.

David only grinned. “Touché. Actually, I’d always intended to move into some more gender-flexible games, but the Dark Princes plot didn’t lend itself too well to that, and games with male leads are proven to sell better.”

“Why is that?” asked Tony.

“Supposedly women don’t have a problem playing games where they’re presenting themselves as a male character, but men aren’t so happy pretending they’re a female character. A few games have bucked the standard, but with Dark Princes being a new franchise, I decided to play it safe.”

“I see.” Tony paused, evaluating her tone. Had she sounded too snippy? “I guess video games are a man’s world too.” Just like everything else. Yeah, that had sounded a little snippy. She needed to work on that.

David didn’t seem offended. He turned back toward the computer and touched a button. The stick figures came to life, moving into confrontation. “The world is what you make of it.”

Maybe for you. Tony managed to quash that thought before she voiced it aloud. Some people turned everything they touched to gold. Others turned it to mud.

She started to back out of the room, then paused, watching the little stick figures bash each other with stick-figure swords. Their movements were jerky, unrefined, but even at this stage, she could tell the choreography of the battle had been carefully thought out. They just needed clothes. And skin and muscles and, well, faces would be good too. Pictures started to form in her mind of what they might look like, pictures that made the tips of her fingers long to hold a pencil, to work it all out where she could see it.

“What got you interested in this line of work?” she heard herself asking.

He glanced back over his shoulder. “I spent a lot of time in front of video game consoles in high school and college. It seemed like a natural progression.”

“I guess you always were good at math.” Lame, Tony. She really didn’t know what developing computer games involved, though, other than the obvious programming skills.

He chuckled. Even her lamest lameness didn’t seem to faze him much. “I am that. And I can barf up C++ code with both hands tied behind my back, typing with my nose.”

It was an interesting image on numerous levels. “I’d like to see that.”

“I bet you would.” He swiveled his chair so that he faced her more directly. Her eyes caught on the line of his throat, the curve of it as it disappeared behind his collar. His heartbeat pulsed in the groove along the side of his neck, and there was a small spot just under his chin where he hadn’t shaved quite cleanly. “Anyway, I studied computer science in college, where I met Rich, and we decided to take the jump and start marketing our own games.”

“Rich programs too?”

“Yeah, and he has a better eye for art than I do, so he recruited our initial graphic artists. Now we have a department for that, and he runs it. Good artists are hard to find.” His gaze seemed to narrow on her little, as if he were trying to tell her something. She didn’t know what that might be. She certainly didn’t know anything about art for computer games. Sure, she knew her way around Photoshop, but she was going to be an accountant, so it wasn’t really relevant knowledge. Uncomfortable under his attention, she lifted the hand that held the paper.

“Thanks for the paper.”

“Any time.” His smile was warm. She wanted to get away—wanted to move closer. She could almost feel his touch again, the casual, not-quite-accidental tracery of his fingers against her thigh. God, she really needed to get out of here. His gaze weighed heavy on her as she turned and headed back to the guest room.

The bed had grown chilly in her absence, and it took a few minutes for Tony’s body heat to soak the sheets again. With the pile of paper propped in her lap—not exactly steady but steady enough for her use—she began to sketch.

She started doodling; then that mysterious something took over, and she found the lines shaping a horse, a woman on its back, dressed in war gear. She slid out of the warm bed to kneel next to the nightstand, spreading papers out under the light of the lamp. With the wider, harder surface, the picture became more intricate until she had produced something that looked more like a professionally finished product than a doodle.

She moved to another sheet and started another—a dragon in flight against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Discussing David’s game must have triggered something in her subconscious. She hadn’t drawn a dragon in years.

Tony finished that picture and moved to another. She could lose everything in the act of drawing: tension, insecurity, insomnia. She felt alive when she drew, as if her soul found its true purpose in the point where pen met paper.

Every time she drew, she wondered why she kept pushing this need away. It made her feel so…herself. The doubts and insecurities, the fluttery tension that made her day-to-day living so twitchy at times, disappeared when she let herself draw.

The pen moved across the paper in a flat arc, then moved downward. Along the same theme as the wedding, as the dragon, she drew a man in armor, a big, two-handed sword balanced between his hands, its tip resting on the ground. It wasn’t until she had sketched in the eyes and started to outline the long, strong nose that she realized she was drawing someone who looked very much like David.