Excerpt from A Tournament of Witches

Happy October!

full moon photo

This month I am celebrating the completion of the Glimnodd Cycle audiobooks. Book 3, A Tournament of Witches has just gone live on Audible. You can read more about the series here.

To mark the occasion, here is an excerpt from Chapter 1.  Amlina, the exile witch of Larthang, has succeeded in winning back the mighty Cloak of the Two Winds, but at a terrible cost.   She and her warrior crew are in hiding while Amlina struggles to regain her health. She still hopes to return the Cloak to its rightful owners, but when that  can happen is in doubt …

Streams of light and shadow—some drifting slowly, others pouring in torrents, crashing in waves, spinning into whirlpools—so, in her meditation, Amlina the witch perceived the currents of the Deepmind, the realm below the surface of appearances.

In her immediate vicinity she perceived dense curtains of power, sparkling on one side, utterly dark on the other. But the curtains were separating, rips appearing in their fabric.

Once again, her concealments were coming undone.

Daily now, they grew flimsier, harder to maintain. Of course, she had known this must happen sooner or later. One could not hide a source of power so great as the Cloak forever—no matter how carefully the designs of concealment were woven, no matter how much energy fed those designs.

Amlina’s hands rose from her lap, fingers pointing and circling as her mind summoned power to repair the barriers. But even as she envisioned the fabric mending, the tattered weave thickening again, pain burned in her heart and throbbed behind her eyes.

Too much power.

That, of course, was her real problem—the dark power that seethed in her body, growing stronger, more insistent, no matter what measures she took to disperse it, to bleed it away.

Bleed it away.

Amlina opened her eyes, staring at the red lamps arranged around the room, the feathered desmets and glittering balls that hung suspended on threads. She sat cross-legged in her closet-bed, alone.

Below the floor, she could faintly hear her friends in the great room downstairs—talking, the clatter of pots and dishes as they prepared breakfast. Draven, Glyssa, Lonn, Kizier—friends who had become her family. This farmhouse in the hills south of Fleevanport was such a peaceful place, belying the turmoil of the outer world, the fear and chaos that had filled Amlina’s life for so long—chaos that was closing in on her again.

Half a year had passed since their arrival. At the start of First Winter they had sailed into the harbor of Fleevanport, their Gwales raiding ship a unique sight in these parts. That and the unusual crew had been more than enough to attract attention—scrutiny Amlina did her best to fend off with witchery. As soon as possible, they used some of their treasure to purchase this house in the hill country south of the town. Originally built as a hunting lodge by a Tathian merchant, it had become a farmstead and passed through the hands of several owners who tried breeding sheep and woolgoats—a difficult proposition in the frigid climate. Set on a wooded hill overlooking an inlet of the sea, the place made a perfect hideout for a renegade witch and her pirate companions.

The first months had been peaceful, Amlina grateful for victory, able to rest at last. Together with her warrior crew, her klarn, she had defeated Beryl, the Archimage of the East, reclaimed the Cloak of the Two Winds, which Beryl had stolen long ago. Amlina planned to return the Cloak to Larthang. She only meant to linger in Fleevan a short time, long enough to recover her health. The great ensorcellment she had forged, the Mirror Against All Mishap, had taken its toll, left her weak and sick.

At first, she seemed to be recovering, nourished by the peace of this place, by the presence of her friends, and by her love for one of them, Draven. That love had proven all she could have hoped for and more. So many nights she had fallen asleep beside him, satiated from lovemaking, warmed by his body, contentment filling her heart.

But even as her strength returned, her energies lurched farther out of balance. The Mirror was forbidden magic, blood magic. By invoking it, Amlina had raised fearsome, dark power. She had thought that when the Mirror expired, the evil force would drain away.

That hope had proven false. Instead, as her vitality was restored, hunger for more power grew. Food no longer satisfied her. Her coupling with Draven became by turns frantic and repellent. When she started imagining biting him, tasting his blood, she knew how deep the sickness ran.

With the arrival of Second Winter and the ice-sailing season, Amlina had planned to depart for Larthang. But in all her treasured imaginings, she had returned in triumph, presenting the Cloak at the House of the Deepmind, victorious and honored. Instead she was now a broken, tainted thing. Were she to return in that condition, she would likely be an outcast still, reviled because of the evil magic that possessed her.

So she had delayed longer, trying every method she could to overcome the sickness—meditations, purification rites, imbuing herself with light. She had consulted with the scholar Kizier and with Buroof, the talking book, who knew the magic of ages past.

All the time she had studied and fretted, others were searching for the Cloak. The Iruks had reported stories from Fleevanport of war in the Tathian Isles. On their voyage here, Amlina’s party had used the Cloak to unleash a storm that blew away the fleet of Hagan, Prince-Ruler of Kadavel. With the disappearance of Hagan’s fleet, rival city-states had moved to fill the void, seizing Kadavel’s lands and ships. In the midst of these skirmishes, the navy of Larthang had suddenly invaded the Island of Gon Fu—forcing the Tathians to abandon their differences in the face of a common foe.

To all of the rulers of the Three Nations, the Cloak would be an enviable prize. As a weapon of war, it could freeze whole cities, scatter fleets. Increasingly, Amlina had sensed the minds of deepshapers searching—Tathian State Sorcerers, magician-priests from Near and Far Nyssan, witches of Larthang.

As the pressure mounted and her concealments frayed, she still hesitated, indecisive, unsure. A few days ago she had invoked the Bowing to the Sky, the ultimate surrender to the Deepmind. But that ritual gave her no answer at all—except that she must wait and accept.

It was the Bowing that originally told her to go forward with the blood magic. At least, that had been her interpretation of the message at the time. And that course had led her to defeat the Archimage and win the Cloak.

But at what cost?

Despondent, Amlina wondered if she had vanquished the bloodthirsty Queen of Tallyba only to become like her.

“That is right, little Larthang, little fool.” Beryl’s voice crept into her mind.

Amlina lurched out of bed, clutching her skull with both hands. The voice came often to torment her. Was it the product of her imagination, or the Archimage’s actual ghost? She did not know.

“You are not real,” she said. “You are dead and have no power over me.”

“I have no power, it is true,” the voice answered. “But the blood magic, that has power, power you cannot deny. The cravings grow and grow. Sooner or later they will overwhelm your paltry qualms and then … your lover, your friends, victims you lure from the town, it will not matter.”

“No,” Amlina whispered through closed teeth. “I will not become like you.”

“You were always like me. You just refuse to see yourself.”

That much might be true. Amlina had often thought herself lacking in self-awareness, blinded by ambition, an exaggerated sense of her own importance and power. Ambition had brought her to this …

“There is no other way to still the cravings,” Beryl taunted her.

“Oh, but there is.” Amlina crossed to a dressing table, pulled open the top drawer. Reaching to the back, she extracted a small bone-handled knife with a razor-sharp edge.

“Cutting yourself is no solution,” Beryl whispered.

“Begone,” Amlina said, and used the knife to trace a sign of banishment in the air.

Pulling up the sleeve of her dressing gown, Amlina stared at her forearm. The tiny scars were growing numerous, a pattern like a spider’s web. She used a cosmetic and a cantrip, a mind-trick, to hide the marks from Draven and her friends. How long would that concealment last?

No matter, she must relieve the pressure. She must balance her energies, restore her equilibrium, so she could make plans to return the Cloak to Larthang.

Time was running out.

Deliberately, she sliced the steel edge along the skin above her wrist. Holding her arm over a porcelain basin, she squeezed the spot above the cut and watched the red droplets fall.

                                                      ***
— from Tournament of Witches, Chapter One.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Jack Massa. All Rights Reserved.

Tournament of Witches Audiobook

Want more?

Read about the Glimnodd series here.

Or check out Tournament of Witches on Amazon

Abby’s Scary Dream – An Excerpt from Ghosts of Lock Tower

In this selection from Chapter 2, Abby has returned to Harmony Springs in rural Florida, her spiritual home. She has just graduated from high school in New Jersey and is now living with her grandmother. She hopes to spend a peaceful summer catching up with her friends, taking one college course, and (of course) resuming her magical studies.

But the peaceful part is not to be. Her first night back in town…

That night, the terror begins.
I am in some kind of virtual reality space—muted colors and huge shapes looming all around. My body is an avatar, a robot or two-legged bug, and I’m running. Running frantically.
Something is chasing me.
The dream is charged with much more emotion than you would expect from an online game. Besides, I’ve hardly done any gaming since I was thirteen and had my breakdown. That was when I started hallucinating, seeing goblins and alligator men from the games appearing in my waking life. Terrifying me.
Terror like this dream. Except, this feels different—less about me and more about the whole world.
The world isn’t as safe as it used to be.
I dash into a long building that looks like an office or school. But when I get inside, I see it’s a dungeon. I flee through stone-paved rooms with low ceilings. There are kids everywhere, mostly guys, but some girls. Some are running, like me. Some are just milling around, or standing in front of monitors hung on the walls, hypnotized by VR displays. I watch one boy get sucked into a monitor and changed into a wriggling reptile.
I run up a long corridor, climb a flight of steps. I pass a girl collapsed on the landing, sobbing. Her hands are gone, her arms bloody stumps. I want to stop and help her, but I’m too afraid.
I enter an upper chamber, like a temple or throne room. Suits of glittering armor stand along the walls. More kids are lined up in a queue, approaching a throne. On the throne sits a huge white frog, with mad angry eyes in its head—and dozens more eyes in its stomach. A girl approaches the throne, and the frog monster opens its mouth. She shrieks as he sucks her in, like sipping cola through a straw.
I wake up, horrified, shaking, I stare into the corners of my bedroom, looking for monsters or floating eyes. It takes me a long time to catch my breath. Climbing out of bed, I sit down on the rug. I do the Ablution exercise, the basic meditation designed to calm and center the spirit. Taking long, slow breaths, I visualize the five Springs of Harmony as fountains at the nerve centers of my body.
Love, at the root of my spine, pure water, clear and cleansing.
Endurance, at the solar plexus, filling me with strength.
Balance, at the heart, centering my energies.
Amity, at the throat, filling me with serenity and love.
Bliss, at the crown of my head, the water pouring out and down over my body, washing away all fear.
Bliss is a long time in coming.

  Ghosts of Lock Tower

For the rest of the story, check out Ghosts of Lock Tower on Amazon.

Or get the audio book on Audible

Historic Florida: A Visit to the Belleview Inn

I recently spent a delightful overnight at the historic Belleview Inn. Located in Bellair Florida (north of St Petersburg, south of Clearwater) the Inn has long and fascinating story—riches to more riches to rags to near demolition and then salvation.

The Belleview Inn today
Source: https://www.thebelleviewinn.com/the-belleview-story/ (All photos by Jack except where noted.)

The Inn’s History

Originally built by railroad magnate Henry Plant as a destination resort, the Inn opened in 1897. The railroad ran close to the Inn’s front door and brought tourists from the northern US to Florida’s west coast.

Source: https://thehudsonco.com/news/the-belleview-biltmore

The resort included luxury rooms and boating and swimming in the nearby bay, as well as a swimming pool, golf course, and bicycle track. (In those days, Florida bicyclists needed a track since the roads were mostly unpaved sand.)

This painting by Christopher Still envisions the Inn and grounds in those early, glory days.

Painting by Christopher Still from the Hotel Lobby.

The Inn was purchased from the Plant family in 1920. Expanded to over 400,000 square feet, it remained a popular destination through the 1920s and 30s, Some of the nation’s most famous athletes played on the golf course, including Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and others.

Source: http://janetsjaunts.com/index.php/2019/10/14/floridas-newly-opened-belleview-inn-built-from-the-storied-bones-of-belleview-hotel/

During World War II, the hotel was requisitioned by the US Army Air Corps to house troops training at nearby airfields.

Postcard from WWII illustrating the resort as a training center.
Source: https://www.thebelleviewinn.com/the-belleview-story/the-history/the-historic-hotel/

After the war, the property was completely restored. It reopened as a hotel in 1947 – this time, under the name of the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel.

Over the years the hotel was again expanded. New wings and extra levels were added, bringing it to over 800,000 SF, when it was said to be the largest occupied wooden structure in the world.

The Inn at its maximum size
https://thehudsonco.com/news/the-belleview-biltmore

Notable guests continued to visit, including politicians, performers, and even Bob Dylan.

Notable guests from the Hotel Museume
Photos of historical guests from the Inn’s Museum room

After celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1997, the property went through a series of ownership changes and failed plans for renovation. With the economic downturn of 2008, the hotel closed. For eight years it sat empty, deteriorating and threatened with demolition. Then, in 2016, a new group formed and made plans to preserve a portion of the inn.

Much of the building was beyond repair and had to be demolished. However, the original central structure was preserved and actually moved to a new location on the property.

How do you move a grand, hundred-year-old pinewood hotel? Check out the video to see. (Source: ABC Action News).

The Belleview Inn Today

Following the moving and reconstruction, the Inn reopened in 2019. Today, it is an historic gem set among condominium towers and two golf courses.

The Inn features over forty guest rooms, an excellent swimming pool with fountains and spa, and wide front and back porches for enjoying the breezes.

Belleview Inn porch

The interior spaces offer exquisite recollections of Florida’s Gilded Age.

Several times a week, a knowledgeable guide provides an hour-long history tour.

To learn more about the Belleview Inn, visit https://www.thebelleviewinn.com/

*********

Celebrating May with Poetry

Like many fiction writers, I dabble in poetry from time to time. I’m not afraid to send my poems out. Still, when one gets accepted, I am always a little surprised.

Eccentric Orbits

So I was more than a little surprised when not one, but three of my poems were recently published in Eccentric Orbits, Volume 2, An Anthology of Speculative Poetry. I did think those poems were pretty good, but since the anthology was described as for science fiction poetry, and these three all have mythic or metaphysical themes, I was delighted when the editor, Wendy Van Camp notified me that all three would be included.

Eccentric Orbits Vol 2

If you’d like to check out my three poems, along with works by 18 other poets from around the world, Eccentric Orbits 2 is available in print and ebook here.

The Lyric

Last month, after reading a book about quantum physics, I wrote a short poem based on an idea that popped into my head (like the collapse of a wave form, if you get my meaning).

Next thing I knew this poem had been accepted by The Lyric, “the Oldest Magazine in North America Dedicated to Traditional Poetry.” I had published a poem in The Lyric way back in 2008, but I was quite surprised they wanted this one. Especially because, unlike the three in Eccentric Orbits, this is rather a “science fiction” poem. It is called “Quantum Dream” and will be published in the Spring Issue. What a thrill.

The Lyric MagazineYou can check out The Lyric here.

A Poem for May

But enough about me. Happy May to all of you!

In keeping with the poetry spirit, here is one about Beltane, the traditional day of celebration at the First of May, written by a very wonderful author named Kathryn Hinds.

BELTANE

The birth night of the radiant brow,
of the golden-haired boy and
the miraculous colt, the gestation
of the cut grain complete—now is time
to light the hilltop fires that call
the sun to bless the blossoming land,
the fires that call back the lost
and wandering hearts, the fires
that halo lovers’ holy bowers.
We have such faith in the fire
of love to catch and spread and blaze
beauty around our Earth.

When morning comes,
dew-washed and garlanded, we feel
in our bones the fire-heated, sun-heated
seed crowning out of the soil
and we breathe and we cry out
“Unite!” for the newborn of the Mother
sustains us, as she does, as we—
in our love, in our dance—nurture
Earth and seed: the great returning.
We ribbon the Maypole to turn
the Wheel and ourselves become
the Earth-rooted, sky-rooted,
fire-reaching, sun-reaching, uniting Tree.
We have such faith in our love.

— From Candle, Thread, & Flute
Copyright 2013 by Kathryn Hinds.

Candle Thread & Flute

You can find Candle, Thread, & Flute, along with Kathryn’s other books, on Amazon.

And if that doesn’t get you ready for May, I don’t know what will.

The Mystery of Lock Tower

Ghosts of Lock Tower is Book 3 of The Abby Renshaw Supernatural Mysteries.  In this opening chapter, Abby and her friends arrive for their first sight of the tower. They are on a magical mission.

Bok Tower
Bok Tower, the inspiration for the fictional Lock Tower photo by Jack Massa

1. No Entry Sign

Lock Tower might be the weirdest place in Florida.

I know that’s saying a lot.

But picture this: a pink marble bell tower, 23 stories high, set inside a moat full of goldfish. The tower stands on a hill in the middle of the state, surrounded by acres of flowery grounds with ponds, trails, and a visitor center. They say Emanuel Lock had tons of black soil trucked to the top of this sandy hill so they could plant the gardens. These days the place gets its share of tourists—those willing to drive the back roads to discover “old Florida.” Of course, the inside of the tower is closed to the public.

But that’s not stopping us today.

“I really believe you need to rethink this,” Ray-Ray warns, as Molly and I approach the gate that leads to a little footbridge over the moat.

From here we have a good view of the stained glass windows and carvings on the tower walls—images of birds, alligators, people in robes, and symbols that I recognize as occult. The front entrance is on the other side, huge bronze doors sculpted with scenes from the Book of Genesis. But the back door is small and narrow, just across the bridge from this gate. Molly spotted two maintenance men going through a few minutes ago. If they left the door unlocked, we’ll walk in. If not, we’ll knock until they open it.

Either way, this seems to be our only chance to get inside.

Which I have to do—for magical reasons.

“It will be fine,” Molly insists. Although to be fair, the No Entry sign on the gate doesn’t exactly boost her case. “We’ve got a story ready. We’re a couple of students doing research. We’re harmless and charming. What are they going to do, arrest us?”

“Uh, maybe,” Ray-Ray says. “More likely they’ll call security and have you escorted off the premises—which, I have to say, would be what you deserve.”

Why is he even here? He’s not my boyfriend anymore, if he ever was. That thought makes my heart cringe as I look up at him, all tall and hunky in his sleeveless T-shirt and Claremont State cap. But I have to sweep those feelings aside. I’ve got more pressing issues than my lack of a love life.

Like trying to awaken an ancient goddess to protect myself from an evil ghost and his monster. And maybe protect the rest of the world while I’m at it.

“Don’t be a doomsdayer, Ray-Ray,” Molly tells her brother. “We’re not being frivolous here. Abby has work to do—magical work. I explained that to you, and you promised that if you came along you’d be supportive.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know that meant breaking and entering.”

Supportive, Ray-Ray,” Molly says. “And it’s not breaking and entering. At most, it’s criminal trespass.”

“Okay. Okay.” He shows his palms in surrender. “I’ll stand here and do my best to block the view. When they escort you off the grounds, I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

He steps aside, and Molly opens the gate.

One thing I learned growing up in New Jersey: if you’re not supposed to be somewhere, don’t let it show. Act like you own the place. As we cross the bridge, I put that intention into my stride.

Molly’s a step ahead of me, walking like she really does own the place. She didn’t grow up in New Jersey. For her, it just comes naturally.

She reaches the door and tries the handle. With a click and a creak of hinges, it swings open. Cool, sweet air drifts from the dim interior.

I suck in a breath as we cross the threshold.

Moat at Lock Tower
Bok Tower moat with giant koi

To continue the story…
Check out Ghosts of Lock Tower on Amazon
OR
Listen on Audible

What to do when your story’s going nowhere?

Recently, I was chatting with a friend, a talented writer, who was having trouble getting a new short story off the ground. “My new story is very pretty,” she said, “but not going anywhere. I have characters, a setting, and some leads but they stump me.”

My friend had seeds, ideas that sparked her imagination, but was having trouble figuring out how to grow them into a story.

Notice I say grow, because I think of stories as organic, living beings. They need time to gestate before they can be born.

At times, all fiction writers face this dilemma. Here are three approaches that might help you get past the problem.

 1. The Analytic Approach

Begin by remembering the elements of storytelling, as elucidated by Jerry Cleaver in his book Immediate Fiction, which we discussed in this earlier post.

Five Elements of Storytelling, adapted from Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

Using this model, sit down at the keyboard and ask yourself:

  • What does my protagonist want?
  • What are the obstacles?
  • What actions will they take to overcome these obstacles?
  • What will be the result/resolution?

Keep asking and typing your answers until the muse circuit kicks in and starts to show you the story.

 2. The Backwards Approach

A similar technique is to start with the ending. If you already know what conclusion you want, great. If not, start by asking how you want the story to end.

Picture the ending (resolution) in your mind. Then keep asking yourself,” How did we get here?” “What happened before this to get us here?” “What happened before that?”

Rinse and repeat until the story comes clean.

 3. The Character Interview Approach

This method works best if you have some of the story pieces but are not sure about the characters. Remember that character goals and conflicts drive most stories, so you need to have a clear vision of who your protagonist is and what they want. You also need to know this stuff for the other important characters.

Treat it as an interview. Imagine your main character sitting across the table from you.

Now ask how you can help them. What is their problem or trouble? What do they need? What’s stopping them from getting what they need?

job interview stock photo
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Once you have some answers, you can also turn this into a group session. Bring in one or two other important characters and lead a discussion. Focus on how the new characters relate to the protagonist and whether they are supporting or hindering the goals.

What do you think? 

What do you think about these three techniques?

If you are a writer or aspiring writer, what methods do you use to grow your stories?

Interview with the Sea God

The Treasure of the Sun God is Book 3 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series. In this novel, our hero Korax has returned to his home island of Rhodes after adventures and misadventures in Egypt and the Greek capital at Alexandria.

Though young, Korax is a skilled magician and student of the Mysteries. He wants only a peaceful life as a citizen of Rhodes and son of a merchant family. But times in Rhodes are hard. Bad weather and piracy have combined to decimate the shipping trade. When the loss of two of his familys’ trading ships threatens catastrophe, Korax decides he must invoke Poseidon, the Lord of the Sea, who is known to be sympathetic to the pirates of Crete …

The modern harbor of Rhodes
Harbor of Modern Rhodes Source : https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/Greece/South_Aegean/Dodekanisos/Rhodes/photo695497.htm
On the evening of a dark moon, Korax walked alone to the end of the mole. He wore a hooded blue cloak trimmed in silver and carried a wineskin and a ceremonial dagger. On his chest was the amulet Miriam had designed.

In the past month, two more cargos from Rhodos had been stolen by pirates. Worse, word reached the town that the family’s vessel, the Melancarmia, had sunk in a storm off Locri. Korax had decided he must speak with the god of the sea.

Behind him, the last remnant of daylight died over the city. All around him surged the gray, unquiet waters. He climbed onto the parapet wall and pulled the stopper from the wineskin.

Whispering words of offering, he poured the wine onto the rocks below.

Returning to the center of the parapet, he drew his dagger and traced a magic circle in the air, an invisible boundary of protection. Next, he drew the sigil of Poseidon, then of Set, the Egyptian god of the abyss.

He spread out his arms and spoke his summons: “Poseidon, son of Kronos, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea, accept my humble offering in peace and deign to speak with me. Arise from your golden palace beneath the waves and come into my presence, mighty lord.”

He waited. After a time, a gust of wind lifted his cloak. The nocturnal sea surrounded him like an enormous living spirit, a god of old and dreadful power.
Image of Poseidon rising from the sea
Poseidon: Source: https://everyfactever.com/facts-about-poseidon/
“Mortal man of Rhodes, I know you. You have sought to pierce my intentions with your tiny mind. Now you would cajole my will with a meager spilling of wine?”

The voice, compounded of wind and wave, reverberated to the bottom of Korax’s soul, where it roused an instinctual terror. Korax lowered his arms, pressed his feet firmly on the rock.

“Mighty Poseidon, I am in truth but a puny mortal, and have no wish to rouse your enmity. I only ask what I can do, what the men of Rhodes can do, to appease your wrath and secure your protection.”

The wind blew harder, salt stinging his eyes.

“Of old, three sons were born to my father Kronos, the devourer of his children. When we gods overthrew Kronos and chained his body to the pillars of the world, we divided his realm into three. Zeus took the sky, Hades the underworld, and the sea became mine to rule. Earth and Olympus, we agreed to hold in joint and equal dominion. But now on earth and sea alike, men disdain my worship. Those who do offer prayers and sacrifices make empty gestures; the awe and fear have dwindled in their hearts. I will not succor them.”

Korax lifted his chin and answered, “It is true that many men have lost their belief in the old gods. But the seafarers of Rhodes still honor you with all due reverence. I have sailed with them, and I know this to be true.”

“I will not debate my whims and actions with you—I am a god! I will make the waves crash and the storms blow as the urges strike me. So it has always been and will always be. As for the sea-wolves, the men of Crete worship me with fitting veneration. I will not scorn their sacrifices, nor will I help the Rhodians destroy them.”

Now the wind was howling. Back along the mole, Korax could see the spume of waves splashing on the rocks. He saw no further point in trying to placate the sea god. He only wished to end the audience and withdraw himself to safety.

“Mighty Poseidon, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea: I thank you for your presence here at the boundary of your realm. To pay you further homage, I will make worthy sacrifice at your temple.”

He bowed low and stayed down. Gradually the wind died away and the powerful immanence dissipated. Korax rose and quelled his fear with long, deliberate breaths.

The sky was starless. Across the harbor, the braziers and lanterns of the city cast the only feeble light. Korax picked his way warily back along the mole, pressed on both sides by the dark and sinister sea, feeling defeated and utterly alone.


Treasure of the Sun Gode

The Treasure of the Sun God is on sale
the week of December 14th for just 99¢.
 

Or you can check out the earlier books in the series here.

Holding Up the Sky

Lately I’ve been feeling like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. (Yes, I know I’m not the only one.) Thinking of that phrase this morning reminded me of Hecules and how he carried the sky (or some say the world) on his shoulders as part of one of his labors.

Statue of Hercules
Source: https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Heroes/Heracles/heracles.html

As you might remember, Hercules (Greek Heracles) was a demi-god, a son of Zeus. In the myth, he murdered his wife and children in a fit of madness. To atone, he was given twelve nearly-impossible tasks to perform. One of the last was to obtain the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The titan Atlas, who held up the heavens (or some say, the world) was one of the few who knew the location of the sacred garden where the apples could be found. Atlas refused to disclose the location, but offered to fetch the apples himself if Hercules would hold up the sky while he was gone.

Contemplating the story, I wrote this poem some years back…

Hercules with the Sky on His Shoulders

Who’d have thought the sky could be so heavy?
Below it looks so empty, full of light,
Not this altar slab of bloody marble
Pinching the bone at the back of my neck.
I should have thought to fold the lion skin,
Make it a pillow to soften the pain.

The Nemean Lion–there was a foe.
His famous hide no blade or point could pierce.
Lucky I caught him sleeping, belly full.
Still, not many heroes, or even gods,
Could have strangled him, won that prize pelt. But
I was stronger then, not so worn with toil.

So many labors, monsters, wars–For what?
Expiation? How can that be justice
When you can’t even remember the crime?
Only awaking from a drunken sleep
To recognize the slaughtered innocents:
My wife, my babies–No! Don’t think about it.

I might have been a fool to trust that giant;
He seemed a bit too ready to oblige,
As if, almost, he knew I was coming.
Maybe Hera put a plan in his ear:
Offer to fetch the gold apples yourself;
Leave him supporting the sky forever.

Oh, that would be so very like the gods:
Send a man fishing in a leaky boat
Then wonder at his prayers as he’s drowning.
Better luck to try and drain the ocean.
That’s always been my way: tear up the roots,
Topple the whole…Yes, look where it’s brought me.

What would happen if I just let it go,
Slip aside and let the Cosmos collapse?
Would Olympus fall, and Zeus my father–
If he is my father–Would his house fall?
The glorious palace, the smug, bright gods…
If I could only be there to see it.

But would it be so bad to wake a shade
In Hades realm, to slowly fade to nothing?
No more tragedies, no scenes at all,
Just a quiet, merciful dissolving…
No! I can bear this pain much, much longer.
My knees will not buckle; I am resolved.

When the giant returns, although it be
Only to smirk and gloat, I’ll find a way
To make him take back his burden, and then
Carry the apples back to Argolis,
Laugh at the king’s dire disappointment
As I spill them glittering at his feet.

I will finish his trials, every one.
And on the day I’m released, scale the heights
Of Olympus, break down the shining doors,
Storm through the gaggle of horrified gods,
Face Zeus, stare into his uncaring eye,
And demand to know the reason.

Statue of Atlas holding up the world
Atlas holding up the world. Source: Wikipedia

Hope you liked my little poem. And if you’re struggling to hold up your world right now, take heart.

Even demigods must endure hard times.

_____________________

For more stories based on Greek mythology, check out my Conjurer of Rhodes titles.

Ghosts, A Hurricane, and a Dash of Shakespeare

… Or the genesis of Ghosts of Prosper Key.

Stories are strange things. They grow from tiny seeds—characters, actions, imagined events. Often for me, a story really takes off only when two or more completely unrelated ideas come together. This seems to create a kind of magical tension as I wonder “How can these things fit together?”

Background

My newest novella, Ghosts of Prosper Key, evolved in this way. It is the fourth of a series, the Abby Renshaw Supernatural Mysteries, so I already knew the back story. Abby is a teenage “true magician,” student of a tradition founded by her ancestors in the town of Harmony Springs in rural Florida.

Ghost of Prosper Key Cover
Ghosts of Prosper Key is available on Amazon.

At the end of the preceding novel, Ghosts of Lock Tower, Abby has succeeded in overcoming magical challenges and dangers spawned by the occult. She is living with her grandmother and starting college. She has relationships with elders in the magical circle, as well as two guys she is interested in romantically.

Idea 1: Molly is Haunted

Abby also has a best friend, an aspiring journalist named Molly Quick. All of my readers seem to love Molly, due to her bravery, insatiable curiosity, and no-nonsense approach to things. In Lock Tower, it was also revealed that Molly has native talent as a spiritual medium.

So I wanted this story to focus on Molly.

What’s her situation? She’s in her last year of high school, applying to colleges. Like many sensitive and intelligent kids, she is scared of the coming changes, scared of growing up. These fears haunt her. Because of the subject-matter of the series as a whole, these fears manifest as paranormal events.

Molly is haunted. But by what?

Idea 2: The Setting

One thing I love about this series is that it lets me write about out-of-the-way places in Florida. A location I had visited and wanted to use as a setting was Cedar Key.

This island lies off the northwest coast of the state. The area is known as the Nature Coast, as it has little population but lots of swamps, ranches, and nature preserves. Today, Cedar Key is a remote, “old Florida” tourist destination.

But the past has a different story to tell.

Cedar Key cemetery
Cemetery at Cedar Key, site of one of the scenes in Ghosts of Prosper Key

In the late 1800s, the Cedar Keys (as they were then called) were one of the most populous areas in Florida. The island then known as Way Key was the end point of the east-west railroad and the major port on Florida’s west coast. Fishing, oyster farms, and especially timber were major industries. Because of over logging, the economy began to decline in the 1890s. Then, in 1896, the area was devastated by one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the United States.

So, I thought: if Molly is haunted and if our heroes visit Cedar Key, the ghosts must originate there. And if there are unhappy spirits roaming the place, they most-likely lived during that great hurricane.

Idea 3: The Tempest

So now I had the main character, her conflicts, and the setting. But something was still missing. Who were these ghosts? Why were they restless?

It had something to do with that hurricane.

For research, I read the book The Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896: Disaster at Dawn by Alvin F. Oickle. The events were both frightening and amazing. The island that is now Cedar Key was leveled, while nearby Atsena Otie Key (then known as Depot Key) was inundated by a ten-foot storm surge.

Their whole world washed away in a night and a day.

Pondering that, I suddenly thought of a famous song that the spirit Ariel sings in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them. Ding-dong, bell.
(Act I, Scene 2)

Sea change. The sea rising up and changing everything. That idea resonated strongly. My story had some relationship to The Tempest. But what?

Scene from the Tempest
Illustration from the Tempest source: https://shakespeareyouthfestival.com/2015/12/tempest/

As you might recall, the play concerns Prospero, a powerful magician who has lost his Dukedom by betrayal and now lives on a remote island with his daughter, Miranda (and spirits that he conjures).

Prospero raises a storm to wreck a passing ship which, he happens to know, contains the party of Alonso the King of Naples and Prospero’s own brother, Antonio, who usurped his place as Duke of Milan. Ferdinand, the son of the king, swims to shore and is found by Prospero. Put into service by the magician, he falls in love with Miranda, and she with him.

So: Molly haunted by ghosts, a powerful father and his daughter, a tempest and disaster, a love story.

My completely unrelated ideas had come together.

The story had taken off.

Denouement

Throughout the action of Shakespeare’s play winds roar; confusion reigns and disappears; love is found; moral order is restored; and all the lost characters reunite in the end.

As Gonzalo, the loquacious king’s counselor, summarizes:

…O, rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.
(Act V, Scene 1)

Shore at Cedar Key
Along the shore at Cedar Key

These days, of course, our own world is facing dangers and changes of every kind. Will we all drown in wreckage, or will we emerge on some better shore having found ourselves in unlikely ways?

We can hope for the best. That’s what stories are for.

————————

You can find Ghosts of Prosper Key on Amazon.

Or check out the rest of the
Abby Renshaw Supernatural Histories here.

An Initiation in Alexandria

This post presents an excerpt from The Lights of Alexandria, Book 2 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series. The story takes place in the city of Alexandria in the Third Century BCE. At that time, Alexandria was a crossroads of learning and culture, a cosmopolitan center such as the world had not seen before.

Ancient Alexandria Image
An artist’s impression of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, built c. 300 – c. 280 BCE and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (From the computer game Assassin’s Creed Origins) Source https://www.ancient.eu/image/7615/lighthouse-of-alexandria-artists-impression/

Our hero, Korax, is a young Greek from the island of Rhodes. Owing to some careless conjuring, he ended up a slave in Egypt. After two years as a scribe at a temple on the Nile—during which time he gained initiation into the Mysteries—Korax escaped his captivity. Now he has come to Alexandria with the aim of mastering his magical gifts. Using the name Astrametheus, Korax  has applied for membership in a society of scholars and magicians from many lands.

Late one night, they summon him via psychic message…

The mist had cleared from the sky, leaving the moon a golden shield hung on a tapestry of stars. Korax hurried through the dim, deserted streets. He had dressed in a chiton and sandals, wrapped the gray chlamys over his shoulder. He had considered bringing the beaded satchel, but decided not. Instead he had slung on his sword-belt. The streets of Alexandria were patrolled by a watch, but at this late hour, in this part of the town, robbers might be lurking.

As he neared the grounds of the Paneum, he saw that the iron gates stood shut and guarded by two sentries. The men wore black hooded cloaks and carried truncheons.

“Reveal your name and business,” one of the guards ordered.

“I am Astrametheus of Hermopolis. I believe I have been summoned.”

The man nodded. “Surrender your weapon to me.”

Korax removed his sword-belt and handed it to the sentry. The other man pushed the gate open.

Passing inside the wall, Korax was confronted by a figure dressed in a loose white robe and holding a lamp. The person’s face was concealed by a cowl and a mask of hammered gold. From the size and slender shape, Korax guessed it was a woman. She raised a finger to the lips of the mask, commanding him to silence. Then she gestured with the lamp for him to follow.

At first, Korax wondered if his guide might be Miriam. But after a few steps, he concluded not. This person moved with a sinuous confidence, unlike the rather stiff adolescent stride he recalled in the young Jewish woman. Beneath the hem of her robe, small feet appeared, bare on the grass. Korax glimpsed the sparkle of a toe-ring.

They entered the pavilion of Pan and moved through the shadows. Behind the statue of the god, the secret door stood ajar. The guide motioned Korax to enter first. Bent at the waist, he felt his way down the passage. Soon the height increased and he could walk upright. Faint illumination appeared ahead.

The tunnel ended in the great circular chamber at the interior of the stone mound. Moonlight glinted through slanted vents in the distant pinnacle. At the center of the black floor burned a ring of lanterns.

A solemn voice issued from the area of light: “Let the candidate come forward.”

Korax and his guide stepped noiselessly across the chamber. As they approached, he spied perhaps forty persons seated on cushions, each behind a flickering lamp. Twelve of the company sat in an inner circle, the others in a second circle outside the first. All of the figures wore white robes with hoods and gold masks with the same blank, enigmatic expression. A dense cloud of incense floated in the air.

Korax was led to a seat in the center of the concentric circles. His guide repeated her earlier gesture, warning him to silence, then withdrew to take a place at the outer circle. Korax stared at the masks and waited.

For a long time all was quiet.

Korax’s spine grew tense and achy. A tingling crept over the skin of his arms. He took deep breaths to quell his emotion, but the smoky incense made him lightheaded. He could feel the minds behind the blank visages, probing him.

Needles seemed to prickle his nerves. The prickling grew sharper, till tiny worms of flame were crawling all through his body. His limbs trembled. He forced himself to keep still, to stare resolutely.

Abruptly a jolt shuddered through him and the fire vanished. His whole being was enveloped in an aura of peace and relief. A tall person rose from the inner circle. When he spoke, Korax thought he recognized the voice of Krateros.

“My brothers and sisters of the Paths of the Mysteries, this candidate seeks admission to our Society. What is your judgment of his worthiness?”

“He is most worthy,” said a woman’s voice from the outer circle. “He has talent and a brilliant mind.”

“Brilliant yes, but inconstant,” said a deep male voice with an Egyptian accent. “He lacks clarity and depth.”

“He is young,” answered another. “He only needs cultivation.”

“He knows Thoth-Hermes. I sense the god’s influence.”

“Yes, I felt it too. A peculiar paradox: His knowledge is shallow, yet his experience is profound.”

“He is courageous.”

“But also willful and proud.”

“Once he was arrogant, but his soul has been tempered by suffering.”

“He feels the pain of others and knows compassion—rare in one so young.”

“I sense that his spirit is lost. He is not sure what he wants.”

“Surely that is true of us all to some degree.”

“Still, it worries me that his heart is frivolous.”

Knots tightened and re-tightened in Korax’s belly. Their perceptions sliced him apart, he thought, with the cool efficiency of a chef filleting a fish.

“His ability is undeniable, but does he have sufficient dedication?”

“He has promised to serve the gods. That is a worthy ideal.”

“Yes, and he holds to that strongly.”

A hush settled over the enormous chamber. Korax waited nervously, straining to keep still. Finally, the man he believed was Krateros spoke again.

“I thank you all for your assessments. By their tenor, I believe we are agreed to offer this young man membership in our Society. Is there anyone who disagrees?”

Silence.

“So let it be done.”

The masked figures stood all at once. They picked up their lamps and filed after Krateros, who had turned and was pacing across the floor. Korax clambered to his feet, his knees unsteady. His guide appeared beside him and indicated he should follow. They took their place at the rear of the line.

A chant began, rolling in low powerful tones through the long procession. The sound vibrated inside Korax’s head: three lines in some archaic tongue; three more, in another language he did not know; then a third verse in Egyptian:

Light rushes forth
In rays manifesting
From the mind of the One
Beehive Tomb Interior
Interior of an ancient beehive tomb, the inspiration for the fictional interior of the Temple of Pan. Source: https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/9122777

At the edge of the chamber, the procession moved up a curving ramp. It mounted to the first gallery and turned a complete circuit. The chanting never altered as the company filed up the next ramp and around the second gallery.

In all, the magicians ascended seven ramps and circled seven galleries. Each circuit grew shorter, as the walls of the enormous space curved inward toward the summit. At the top of the seventh ramp, Korax followed his guide into a narrow cleft of rock. At one point, the way grew so narrow he had to turn sideways to squeeze through. The chant had ceased, and for an alarming moment he feared he had lost the company. Then he emerged to find his guide awaiting him at the base of a winding stair. They climbed together and walked out onto the roof of the Paneum.

The moon now floated in the west. Stars glinted in the blue vault, seeming to reflect the countless lights of Alexandria that twinkled far below.

The company had formed a single circle within the round parapet. Korax was led to the center, where Krateros, still masked, stood before a plain stone altar. On the stone sat two gold vessels: a bowl full of wine and a platter piled high with cakes.

“Here at the summit of the Temple of Pan,” Krateros said, “we honor and worship all gods and goddesses. Young stranger, known to us as Astrametheus, I bid you welcome.”

“Welcome.” The word echoed around the circle.

The priest lifted the bowl and handed it to Korax.

“I give you wine, the blood of the god who eternally dies and is reborn: Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus. May his sacrifice renew the strength of your blood.”

As Korax tilted the bowl to his lips, the voices repeated the divine names.

“Osiris. Adonis. Dionysus.

Krateros held the gold plate. “I give you bread, the gift of the goddess who eternally sustains all life: Isis, Astarte, Demeter. May the fruits of her body replenish your spirit.”

All in the circle chanted: “Isis. Astarte. Demeter.”

Korax took a morsel and ate it.

Krateros said: “All gods are one. All goddesses are one. All life is one. This is the Mystery of Pan.”

The priest’s hands came up and lifted away his mask. “Now, Astrametheus, it is my privilege to welcome you to our company, the Society of Alexandrian Pan.”

Book cover: The Lights of Alexandria

The Lights of Alexandria, along with the other Conjurer of Rhodes titles, is available on Amazon.

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