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.
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 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.
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.
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.
During World War II, the hotel was requisitioned by the US Army Air Corps to house troops training at nearby airfields.
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.
Notable guests continued to visit, including politicians, performers, and even Bob Dylan.
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.
The interior spaces offer exquisite recollections of Florida’s Gilded Age.
Several times a week, a knowledgeable guide provides an hour-long history tour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 …
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Hope you liked my little poem. And if you’re struggling to hold up your world right now, take heart.
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 unrelatedideas come together. This seems to create a kind of magical tension as I wonder “How can these things fit together?”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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)
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.
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.
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?”
“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
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.”
The Lights of Alexandria, along with the other Conjurer of Rhodes titles, is available on Amazon.
The writing of this novel took far longer than I like to think about. Suffice it to say that the original outline was developed sometime in the last century. So it is extremely gratifying to me for this mind-child to see the light of day at last.
This third volume of the saga sees Amlina the witch and her Iruk warriors sail to Larthang to return the Cloak of the Two Winds to its rightful owners, the witches of the House of the Deepmind. Epic fantasy often involves a journey, as well as a multi-layered plot rife with contending forces and intrigue. Tournament has all that aplenty.
The Golden Land
Larthang, Amlina’s homeland, is the westernmost of the Three Nations and has a long history of deep magic. But along with great witches, it is a land of warriors, sages, scholars, philosophers, and poets. Elements of the cultural background are drawn from ancient China, mixed with other historical sources, and transposed into the magical universe of Glimnodd.
The Iruks, barbarians from the south polar region, are largely unfamiliar with Larthang and unsure what to expect. In this excerpt, as they near the coast, the scholar Kizier gives them an introduction to the history and politics …
Their destination was Randoon of the Onyx Gates, one of three major ports on the Larthangan coast, each built at the mouth of a river. Kizier described the city one evening, as he and Eben sat in the stern beside the windbringers. It had become their custom to spend an hour or two there each day reviewing and practicing Eben’s language lessons.
In ancient times, the scholar said, the three rivers had flowed free and wild from their sources in the west and north. But during the first centuries of the current era, when the Dynasty of the Tuans was established and the great witches of Larthang practiced their arts, the rivers had been tamed. Now levees and dams controlled the floods and maintained irrigation of the farmlands. Inland, a grand canal linked the three rivers at Minhang, the Celestial Capital.
“But why is it called Randoon of the Onyx Gates?” Eben inquired.
“This you will see when we arrive,” Kizier answered. “On each side of the river stands a mighty tower fashioned of smooth, precious stone. These towers control a magical force that can be raised from the riverbed like gates of onyx to prevent ships from passing in or out of the channel. This witchery guards Larthang from invasion by sea.”
“So? Do the other ports also have such defenses?” Eben asked.
“Indeed,” Kizier said. “Hanjapore of the Jade Gates to the south, and Haji-Chan of the Moonstone Gates in the north.”
“The history is all very interesting,” Lonn grumbled, speaking Low-Tathian. Standing at the helm, he had listened to their talks in Larthangan for days now and was understanding much of what they said. “But I am more concerned with the greeting we’re likely to get when we land.”
“Yes, and with good reason.” Kizier shifted to Low-Tathian himself.
“This war faction that the drell described,” Eben said. “They tried to take the Cloak once. We haven’t spotted any naval vessels since Fleevanport, but once we near the coast of Larthang, what then? Will Amlina wield the Cloak against their ships again? If not, how will she keep them from taking it? But if she does, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be received as friends when we do reach Larthang.”
“All true,” Kizier allowed. “But there are other powers in Larthang.”
“You mean the witches at the House of the Deepmind,” Eben said. “They who sent the drell.”
“They, yes. And still others, I am sure. It’s many years since I studied in Larthang, and no doubt the political situation has evolved. But I can tell you this for certain: by tradition there are three powers in the Golden Land, known as the Three Pillars of the Throne. The Witches, who practice the arts of the Deepmind; Warriors, who practice the arts of war; and Magistrates, who administer the laws and maintain the civil government. Within these three orders, or estates, there are always factions and sub-factions, and constantly shifting alliances. Above all sits the hereditary ruler, the Tuan. In name, the Tuan is supreme, but in practice he or she must balance the contending forces of the three estates.”
“Are the witches always women?” Eben asked. “We know that elsewhere in the Three Nations, mages and sorcerers might be men as well. Is this not true in Larthang?”
“No and yes.” Kizier seemed to relish conveying the complexity of these matters. “The House of the Deepmind, known as Ting Ta Roo, is the supreme magical power and home to the Five Revered Arts. It trains only women and only they may properly be called ‘Witches of Larthang.’ But there are other, lesser traditions of deepshaping and deepseeing that teach both males and females. These schools train prognosticators, alchemists, and conjurers, as well as scholars and sages who may include mysticism as part of their studies. Any of these practitioners might be called mages, but never Witches of Larthang.”
“Sounds very complicated,” Lonn grumbled. “So, assuming we manage to land, Amlina will need to seek out her fellow witches, since she plans to surrender the Cloak to the House of the Deepmind.”
“Yes, but perhaps not just any witches,” Kizier said. “Some witches are allied to the so-called Iron Bloc. This we have seen already. No doubt there are other factions in the three estates who would love to possess the Cloak and the power it brings. Amlina has chosen to surrender the Cloak to the Archimage in Minhang—but how we will get there is an open question. Indeed, what will happen when we land in Randoon? That I cannot even guess.”
— from Tournament of Witches, Chapter Ten.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Jack Massa. All Rights Reserved,