Jason dinAlt Goes Interdimensional

Sword of the Bright Lady (WORLD OF PRIME Book 1) by M.C. Planck

The character of Christopher Sinclair, mechanical engineer from Arizona, dropped into a world where magic works and rank is the most important aspect of society, is fascinating. He’s blunt, often clueless, and yet very intelligent and a determined personality. He reminds me of Jason dinAlt, if Jason didn’t know anything about subterfuge or manipulation. And Christopher’s current world is every bit as dangerous as any of Jason’s Deathworlds, though people and politics are more the drivers than the monsters are.


In a world where people can be brought back to life when nothing of them is left but their heads, and the gods are real, Christopher uses his engineering knowledge to level the playing field for himself – actions that affect larger and larger groups of people as he focuses on finding a way back to his wife, Maggie. He’s no kid; he’s forty and not used to the active life of someone who frequently finds himself embroiled in battles or duels. The idea of killing another human being – even if they DO have the possibility of being brought back – makes him ill, but he has his black belt in kendo, and he didn’t find his soulmate until his late 30s, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get back to her, including signing on as the priest of a god he never guessed existed.


It’s absorbing to learn, as he does, what this world is all about, and to shake your head over his cluelessness when it comes to people and politics. For him, rationality and logic are nearly everything, and it’s fascinating to see how he accomplishes what he sets out to do when he’s at such a disadvantage.


The first ebook was a bargain (as #1 books in a series can be), but subsequent books sell at nearly $10. When I started the book I scoffed at the idea that I might be willing to pay so much for each of the successive ebooks in the series (#3 is the latest). But as soon as I finished the last sentence, I was plunking down my money for book #2.

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Kick – a Book Review

KickKick by John L. Monk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a college student, Daniel killed himself over love lost. But his existence didn’t end there. Stuck in a limbo he calls ‘The Great Somewhere’, he finds he can exit through a kind of gate and spend 3 to 4 weeks in the body of a living man. The good thing is, he can enjoy pie again. The bad thing is, the guy he’s inhabiting is a nasty killer. Unable to access any of his host’s memories, he must use his wits to navigate the living man’s life, friends, and foes, to discover what he has been brought out of limbo to do. But when he does, his accomplishment becomes confused wonder as he’s given a ticket out of limbo again and again and usually to deal with the same sort of conscience-less killer. Connections to his life as Daniel occasionally come up and he understands them as small tests; ones he often fails. Then one day, he finds himself in the body of someone not a psychopathic predator. What is he meant to do?

This is the second book in one month I have read that deals with the idea of a personality piggy-backing on a living person (the other being A Warm Place to Call Home by Michael Siemsen). But where the protagonist in Siemsen’s book does not know exactly what he is, Daniel has all of his memories of life as a human man, even if he would rather not. Where A Warm Place speculates on the meaning of identity, Kick is about self-understanding, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s also about becoming a grown-up, something that Daniel did not allow himself to do.

With a young man’s passion, Daniel is frequently ruthless with his hosts, whom he refers to as ‘rides,’ though his ruthlessness is often anger on behalf of their victims. He is clever and resourceful, but he’s also aware that limbo hasn’t seemed to have made a real dent in his callowness. (He killed himself, after all, to make sure the girl who dumped him never forgets him.) But when his latest ride turns out to be a decent guy, he recognizes it as the opportunity it is. If he can make use of it.

It’s a difficult thing to balance self-examination while simultaneously trying to find your way through dangerous situations and author Monk does a good job of making Daniel’s struggles interesting. Likewise, his alternately carefree and introspective turns are never awkward or inhibit the pace of the book, which is brisk. There is violence, but seen from Daniel’s perspective, it becomes darkly humorous rather than off-putting; it’s easy to get caught up in Daniel’s brazen actions and wonder what crazy thing he will do next as he veers from avenging angel to junk food gourmand while trying to make the most of things before the next *Kick* that tells him his host is repossessing his ride.

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Wondering

 

horseonmoon

 

The horse is surprised to see you

here on the moon.

His lip is curled.

His eye rolls at you

and away.

You

have discovered his Secret.

 

If you promise not to tell, perhaps

he will not chase you and bite

your moon suit

and make you breathe space.

You can go home again and

walk in the air.

 

Walk past the fields and stroll

past the barns.

You will see the horses

and wonder

Have any of these been to the moon?

 

Have any of these been to the moon?

 

And then you might begin to look

at the cows

and the sheep and

all the rest.

 

It’s good to wonder, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Shining Moment

Burning and Pillaging

Picture from Chinese video game Three Kingdom Illation.

“This was not my most shining moment.”

“Have you had one?”

“Had what?”

“A shining moment.”

– – –

“Where did that come from?”

“I was just curious.”

– – –

“Damn it!”

“What?”

“I can’t think of one!”

“One what?”

“Shining moment.”

“Oh.”

– – –

“Have you had one, then?”

“Yeah. I think I have.”

– – –

“Well?”

“Oh! You want to know what it was.”

“Duh.”

“Not sure I want to tell you, now.”

“Don’t pout; you know I can’t stand it.”

– – –

“Well…”

“Please? Please tell me.”

“Well, it was when I pulled that guy’s head off before he could kill you.”

“Awww. That was a pretty good moment.”

“Thanks.”

“So cute. Can I kiss you?”

“Yeah – if you want to.”

– – –

“Oy! You two numb nutz bugbears! We threw you a rope five minutes ago! Get outta that hole and help us out!”

“Yeah! We’re burning and pillaging up here!”

“Yeah, and the burning and pillaging don’t take care of itself, ya know!”

– – –

“Sigh.”

“Heavy sigh. Later?”

“Later.”

“Coming!”

 

The Truffle Hunt – Part 2.

Foggy wood

No good path

The knife wound was like a slit along the side of Acan’s throat. It bled a lot at first, but from the way it flowed rather than sprayed out, Joa was sure it had missed the artery. The amount of blood was disquieting, but Joa forced himself to think of it as just another of the wounds Acan had collected as a boy. Joa had doctored all or most of those.

Sounds that were a cross between a mew and a growl sounded from the covered cage that had landed – upright – a few feet away. Joa pulled it towards him and removed the scarf, from which he tore a strip. He used part of the rest to make a pad to clean the wound and another to cover it.  They had no water, and there was no way that Joa would leave to look for any, but Acan had put a jar of spirit wine in his hip scarf at the Smiling Fish. It was still here. Joa used most of it to clean the wound. While he bound it up, he checked Acan for other injuries, but there were none he could find.

He took off his short coat and did not miss it – it was hot and humid in the Gateworld. Folding it up, he placed it under Acan’s head, then went back to the door to pound on it, yelling as he did so. There was no answer; not even a noise to indicate he had been heard.

He came back to sit beside Acan and examined the animal in the reed cage.

It stared back at him through slanted, amber eyes. Its body was covered in long fur that was several shades of dust and dirt mixed with grey. It had a very long snout with large, wicked teeth and a pair of jutting tusks. Its legs were short and there was a long, tapering tail; wedge-shaped forepaws were edged with very thick nails the color of clay.

“What kind of creature is it?” he asked aloud.

“It’s called a Badjel.” Acan’s voice was low and a little rough. “It’s a Truffle hunter; it sniffs out Man-eater Truffles. At least, I hope it does.”

Acan, obviously dizzy, was trying to sit up, but Joa stopped him.

“You were hurt.”

“Where?”

“Throat.”

Acan’s hand came up to touch the bandage and Joa could see in his eyes when he remembered what had happened. “Sa. That toad-licking bastard.” His eyes flashed to Joa. “You aren’t hurt?”

“No. When we fell through the door, I rolled back and slammed it shut. I didn’t want that man to get another chance at you. I got a bit of a bruise, but that’s all.”

“Let me see.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Let me see.”

Joa huffed and let one side of his robes slide down off one shoulder. Acan’s breath on his skin made his own breath hitch and the touch of the fingers exploring the bruise did not hurt but made him uncomfortable.

“The skin is not broken, which is good, because we have nothing to clean it with.”

“I cleaned your wound with some of the spirit wine you had.” Joa rearranged his robes.

Acan nodded, then stopped, wincing. “Good thinking. I have no idea where water might be in this place. Or what it might do. I’ve been told that practically everything in here has magical properties.”

“Like this, na?” Joa tapped on the Badjel’s cage. “He must have magic as he seems small for something that hunts things that can eat men.”

“I only hope he really is what I was told he is. No one on Yume has seen a Badjel for hundreds of years. This one was born outside the Gateworld and bought on the Market World.”

Joa was not eased at all by Acan’s looks. His face was very pale and he looked like he might lose consciousness again. He needed a doctor. “You lost a lot of blood. You should rest.” Joa got up and walked towards the Gateway. “Do you know how to open the door from this side?”

“It won’t open.”

“What?”

“The door won’t open, Joa. Once the door has been closed, it won’t open… again for two days.”

“But surely, Lord Yual’s key —”

“Can’t open the door, once it has been opened and then closed. No one knows… why. It’s so old, it may be faulty. Or someone… once set it wrong and no one knows how to correct it. For whatever reason, once the door has been unlocked and opened, you can’t open it again for two days.” Acan’s voice was breathy and it seemed he was having difficulty.

“But —” Joa looked at the door and back at Acan. “We cannot possibly …”

He broke off as the Badjel suddenly reared up in its cage, putting its paws on the bars. Its attitude was one of listening. Then its nose started moving, taking in short, deep breaths. Whatever it smelled excited it even further. It began to whine, then made a bark that turned into a howl. It bark-howled over and over and began to lunge against the bars.

“What should I do, Acan? Should I let it out?”

“No. No, don’t… let it…” Acan collapsed, unconscious again.

The Badjel’s cage fell over then tumbled over as the animal kept up its frantic efforts to escape. Even the sturdy reeds of which the cage was made began to snap under the  onslaught, and finally broke. The Badjel, with a feral light in its eyes wiggled and pulled itself from the wreckage of its cage and dashed away, dragging behind it what appeared to be a long lead. Joa saw the lead and threw himself on it, grabbing at the corded silk, but it did not tighten. Instead, it lay loose on the ground. The Badjel disappeared into the billows of fog.

Joa pulled on the leash, coiling it until the end, with its undamaged fastening, came into his hand. “It must not have been attached,” he said. He looked at Acan, whose bandage was now soaked with his blood. Two days without supplies, Acan injured, and now the Badjel – their Truffle hunter – gone. This hunt was not going well.

 

 

 

 

“I had planned to pick up my pack on the way to the Gate, but those foreigners made being able to run quickly more important. At least we have what’s left of the spirit wine. If we use it sparingly, it may last. We can do without food for a couple of days.”

Acan sat still as Joa finished re-bandaging his throat with strips from the remnants of the cage scarf. The edges of the knife cut were a little red, which worried Joa, though he said nothing, since there was nothing to be done about it.

“You still want to look for the Truffles.”

“I do.” Acan grinned that insufferable grin. “We don’t have anything else to do for two days, do we?”

Joa rolled his eyes. “I suppose not.”

After a while, and with a little help, Acan was able to stand and walk.  “Let’s just follow the road for a while. The air will get a little clearer as we go farther in.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Taking a message to the Ambassador on the Market World. The lord who was supposed to take it didn’t want to go, so I volunteered. Knowing the Daitoh’s need for rare ingredients would probably be my best bargaining point, I wanted to know as much as I could about the Gateworld.”

Joa snorted. “You’ve been here more than once.”

“What makes you say that?” Acan’s attempt at an expression of innocence was one Joa had seen too many times to count.

“When you want to know about something, you don’t stop until you know everything you want to know. Even if learning it is dangerous.”

“I knew you would lecture me, and we both know it wouldn’t stop me. So you would just worry. No sense in that, so I never told you.”

Joa made a fist and held it under Acan’s nose. “If you were not injured, I would injure you now.”

Acan barked a laugh.

“How many times then, Acan?”

“Have I been here? Mmmm… I would say seven, but this is my first time hunting magical ingredients. And that would be a lot easier if the Badjel hadn’t run off.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t move sooner.”

“And get in the way of those busy claws? I’m thankful you didn’t. Two of us injured and this Truffle hunt would likely be over.”

Joa glanced at Acan, but did not say what he was thinking – the odds that the hunt was already over were great.

As they walked on, the air did thin as Acan had said it would. Though it was still misty, it was possible to see more of the landscape: more greys, dull greens and browns. There were tall, thin plants that tended to cluster together and mounds of dirt that might be mistaken for hillocks, covered in a mossy, spongy growth. All of the plants seemed to be similar to ones Joa knew in Yume, but not one of them was recognizable as something from home.

Joa suspected that Acan wouldn’t be able to walk a great distance so soon after being injured, so he kept an eye out for likely resting places. When his friend’s steps began to slow, he picked out a grassy space and declared that he needed a break because he was no longer used to such exertion.

“You are not fooling me, Joa,” Acan told him, but allowed himself to be helped to sit. Joa had helped him to remove his short coat some while ago and then added it to his own coat to make a compact bundle, tied with the Badjel’s leash. He tossed it onto the grass and eased Acan down to lay his head on it.

“How is it?”

Acan made a minute shrug. “The wound throbs, but isn’t otherwise painful. I only wish I didn’t feel so tired.” He took a short drink from the spirit wine jar and offered it to Joa, who took only enough to wet his mouth.

“Can’t be helped. You lost blood and nothing’s been done about it.” Joa looked up. “I can’t see anything that might be the sun. How are we to tell time in this place?”

“You really can’t, although there is something that approximates night here. Damn it. I think Lord Yual would have let me go for my pack. If only that damned foreigner hadn’t interfered.”

“Then how will we know when we have to be back at the gate?”

“We’ll count the number of nights. And if we are a little late, we’ll just have to wait until they open the door again.”

“What kind of creatures live in this world?”

“No one knows for sure anymore. Most of the scrolls and paintings were destroyed. The remaining scrolls tell of various strange animals: large, carnivorous beasts bigger than a dog, the Man-eater Truffles, some insects as big as palanquins, and even possibly a type of human.”

“Human?” Joa was shocked.

“Who knows? And there are occasionally raiders  – people who bribe their way through a gate to hunt for magical ingredients. That’s one of the benefits of being exiled to the Market World as Ambassador – the bribes.”

“Does the Daitoh know?”

“He knows or suspects. But it’s not something he can do much about.”

“Acan – do you know where to find the Truffles and what they look like?”

“Everything I could learn leads me to believe they are in what passes for a forested area in the Gateworld. It’s nearer the gate to the Market World than to Yume, so another half a day of walking at the pace we went today. As for the Truffles, the best description I could get is that they look like dried dark fruit, only much larger, and with teeth. They live in underground burrows. And who knows what they eat when there are no humans.”

They were silent for a while and in that interval they heard what sounded like the cry of the Badjel far in the distance.

“Damn animal. I paid a lot of sen for him.”

“Then why did you say he was a friendship gift?”

“Obviously, the girl never told her uncle or sweetheart about the money. Those two and the others never complained to Lord Yual that what I paid was too little or offered to trade back. If I had to guess, I would say that she planned to leave her family and that her leave-taking was arranged for tonight. She probably told them that I seduced her and tricked her out of the animal so they would all run out in a fury and she could make her escape on one of the foreigner Ether ships. A good plan and clever. Why should I ruin it for her? Anyway, by now they probably know the truth of it.”

Joa rubbed his temples. “You. You are an idiot.”

“But a chivalrous one, na?” Acan grinned. “Why don’t you sleep a bit, Joa? I’ll be awake a while. Then I’ll take a turn.”

Joa pretended to look doubtful. “If you’re sure…”

“Absolutely.”

“Very well, then.” Joa curled onto his side and put his head on his arm. He stayed that way just until heard Acan’s light snores. Permitting himself a slight smile, he turned over and put his hands behind his head while he contemplated their situation.

The bad? They were trapped in the Gateworld for the next couple of days without supplies except for half a bottle of spirit wine. Acan was injured. They had no weapons other than Acan’s sword and short blade. The animal Acan had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to acquire to help them find the Truffles was lost to them. They still had to find the Truffles. And subdue them. The good? Acan had not been injured more severely. They had half a bottle of spirit wine. They were together – together as they had not been in years.

Joa turned on his side to look at Acan’s profile, watched his chest rising and falling. It had been long since he had had this view of his childhood friend. Until this moment, Joa had not realized how much he had missed Acan’s company, his voice, even his insufferable grin. Though he had not wanted to acknowledge it, it had hurt deeply to think he and his friend had drifted apart or worse, that Acan had been avoiding him.

He had known from early in their lives that Acan, as the son of the Lord, was destined for a different life from his own as a retainer’s child. Someday, Acan would be expected to swear fealty to the Daitoh, marry a Lady, and manage his domain. Joa had accepted that more than a decade ago, so why did seeing Acan again in this time, this place, make him feel both nostalgic and sad?

Maybe it was that, as separated as they had been since Acan had moved to Court, the expected path of his life could take him even farther from Joa?

But both Joa’s father and Acan’s father remained close friends, though Joa’s father had been a retainer and Acan’s father was the Lord. Thinking about it, Joa realized that might have been because both his mother and Acan’s had died. There were no other children and both men had declined to marry again since they had heirs. Both Lord Akash and Joa’s father had enjoyed exploration and risk-taking ventures and had spent much time away from home.

Except for lessons and some other duties, Joa and Acan had mostly raised themselves, much to the dismay of the Manor servants. They had been given guidance by their fathers, but also a lot of freedom to adventure within the confines of the domain. Each had been the most constant part of the other’s life. Once Acan was Lord and married, there could still be friendship, but there would be limitations on it. And there, Joa realized, was the problem.

Joa was still part of House Loha, even a member of the family by the decree of Acan’s father. Acan would want him back at the domain. Would probably want Joa to work with him on the business of running the fief. They would see each other all the time. Joa would still have a place in the domain. But — it would never again be just the two of them. Never again would Joa have all of Acan’s attention, or be the only one by Acan’s side. The place closest to him would be held by someone else.

Joa was startled to find his cheeks wet with tears. He wiped them away with his sleeve, wonderingly. Then he looked at Acan again and recognized his pain; he finally understood what it meant – it was a discovery that filled his heart and then crushed it. He was in love with Acan and probably had been since before their fathers died.

 

 

 

When he awoke, it was from the light touch of Acan’s fingers brushing aside the loose hair that covered his eyes and softly calling his name. He sat up quickly.

“Easy, Joa. Move carefully.” Acan was holding out the leash that had tied together their short coats. Joa blinked at him, then followed Acan’s gaze to where the Badjel was sitting with its head cocked, regarding them with its slanted, amber eyes.

“It came back.”

“It did indeed, though I don’t know why. But since it did, let’s not lose our opportunity. You have a better chance of leashing it again than I. I’m a little lightheaded right now.” Joa looked at him with concern, but Acan waved it away. “Let’s get the Badjel leashed.” He handed the woven silk cord to Joa, who took it slowly and just as slowly leaned towards the Badjel.

The animal stuck out a pink and brown tongue and licked its nose and shifted its front paws. Then it yawned. Then it walked right over to Joa and sat still as he fixed the lead to the collar. It seemed to smile at him and Joa was emboldened to put his hand out and caress its head. To his surprise, it leaned into his hand and panted happily, with the tip of its tongue hanging out from the side of its long snout, which was wet.

Acan laughed and lay back on the makeshift pillow. “Well, it’s not exactly wild, is it?”

Throwing the handle of the lead over one hand, Joa scooted over and felt Acan’s face. It was hot and he was perspiring freely. A fever, which meant the wound was infected.

“Acan,” Joa started.

“No.” Acan turned his head to look at him. “I will not go back to the Gate and wait until the door opens. The Badjel came back. I will continue this hunt.”

“But –”

“No. And again, no. I cannot lose to the Daitoh. I will not. This is too important to me.”

Joa felt both annoyed and dismayed. “What could be that important? What could you lose?”

Acan looked hard at him, then closed his eyes and sighed. “Everything. Everything worth having.”

Joa felt a pressure against his hand. It was the Badjel, seeking attention, which Joa gave it absently. He was at a loss in the face of Acan’s vehemence and he wondered just what everything worth having could mean.

The Badjel looked up at him and closed his eyes. Something between a growl and a hiss seemed to come from him, but to Joa it sounded more content than annoyed. Joa’s hand moved over the Badjel’s collar and the silver decoration caught his eye. He brushed some of the animal’s long hair out of the way to see it better. At first he thought the design, which curved and swooped, was merely pleasing to the eye. But the longer he looked at it, the more it looked like writing to him.

His hand slid along the length of the leash, which was also decorated in what looked to be the same design. The characters, if they were characters, were confusing. They seemed familiar but Joa could not quite read them. He felt he had seen them, or something like them, before. But where?

Acan chuckled. “Good thing none of the insects as big as a palanquin found us last night. I turned out to be a poor watchman.” He opened the spirit wine jar and took a small drink, then offered it to Joa, who pretended to drink, and handed it back. “We likely slept the ‘night’ away. We should get going.”

 

 

 

The sodden air made exertion more costly and both Acan and Joa had let their outer and inner robes slide off to hang over their hip scarves. Even so, their faces were wet with perspiration and Acan’s was red, the redness extending down his neck. Joa suspected the fever was worse.

“How do you manage to look so good while being so miserable?”

Joa turned to look at Acan and sniffed as though he found the flattery unconvincing. In his opinion, the sandal was on the other foot. Without his robes covering his chest, Acan’s lithe muscularity and smooth skin were nicely displayed. There were a few scars that looked recent and more scars than Joa remembered his friend having. He thought back to the last time they had shared a bath as boys and he had seen Acan naked. Suddenly, he felt his cheeks flaming.

“What are you thinking about, Joa-piin?” Acan’s insufferable grin was back, though surrounded by sweat droplets and damp, dark hair.

Joa did not answer, but looked ahead to where the Badjel walked. Knowing what he now knew, he found all of his thoughts of Acan had taken a different turn. One he had no intention of sharing.

For his part, the Badjel seemed unbothered by the humidity, even with his long fur. His tongue hung out and he panted, but his amber eyes remained bright and interested. He was leading the way with the leash taut but not strained.

“Look at him,” Acan said. “He even looks happy.”

Joa fanned his face with one hand, glad of the change of subject. “What else do you know about this place, Acan?”

“Not a lot, though I read every scroll I could find about it. It’s been here since before the Cataclysm. No one knows its origins or how or why it connects to the Market World. You know there are other gateways on other planetoids—”

“Everyone knows that.”

Acan grunted. “You would be surprised, I think. In any case, all of those gates connect to the Market World and not to each other and no one knows why.” He pulled a leaf from one of the bushes. “Another thing no one understands is why what grows in the Gateworlds have magical properties.” He dragged an arm across his face, wiping away the sweat in his eyes.

“I have heard that magical ingredients can grow outside of the Gateways.”

“Yes, but no one knows if they grew outside first or in the Gateworlds first and then came outside.”

“What about the Man-eater Truffles?”

Acan’s answer was slow and his voice sounded weary. “Very rare. In the scrolls I could only find one drawing and that was of a dead Truffle that had been preserved for study.”

“Does the specimen still exist?”

“No, just the drawing. Apparently, at the time that the Daitoh’s ancestor decided to abandon the outside worlds, he ordered practically everything that could cause curiosity about them or the Gateworld destroyed. What’s left is hard to find.”

“How the scholars must have wept.” Joa imagined the beautifully displayed calligraphy of his school and how he would feel if it all were burned. Not just the work of the recent masters, but those that were part of the school’s lineage; calligraphic paintings that were hundreds of years old.

“Indeed. Although there is some evidence that many of scholars were destroyed as well. There seems to be a strong streak of insanity in the Daitoh’s family.”

“Acan!”

Acan chuckled quietly. “He can’t hear me, Joa.”

“Still—”

They had crested a hillock and before them was the beginnings of the forested area that Acan had mentioned. It appeared as a dark green vegetation overlaid with ribbons of the foggy Gateworld air. It looked both thick and wide and Joa experienced a sinking sensation when he thought of trying to find what they were looking for within it.

The diffused light seemed to catch on a few things here and there, which might be reflections from a creek or a river. Certainly, the ‘trees’ of the forest would not have grown so thickly here, were there not a readily available source of water.

The whole picture seemed both tantalizingly familiar and unreal and Joa wondered what an artist or poet would make of such a landscape. It was ancient, and it looked every bit of that, paralleling the past of Yume all the way back to before the Cataclysm that had helped to create it. The Cataclysm – what must that have been like to live through?

The Badjel danced sideways, then sat and licked at a front paw. The light caught on his leash and collar and picked out the silver, making the characters stand out. Suddenly, Joa knew where he had seen those characters, written in that style. Moreover, he thought he could now read them. Excited, he turned to Acan. His friend was swaying where he stood, a hand on his forehead, his eyes too bright. Then he slumped forward and was still.

 

To be continued…

The Truffle Hunt – Part 1.

Pirate Airship

Steampunk Pirate Airship by ChasingArtwork on DeviantArt.com

This long short story or maybe short novella was intended for an anthology based on a shared world where influence is tied to alchemical cuisine. The anthology never happened. Which is probably fortunate, since Truffle Hunt was really too long to be included and cutting it down to size was very painful. I do believe that a tale decides its own length and that should not be interfered with, if at all possible.

This was also a story that puzzled and frustrated me greatly at the beginning. I had a character I really wanted to use but he absolutely refused. Through false start after false start, he would appear and plant his feet so firmly the story would not move. I had to incorporate an entirely different protagonist and I am holding a grudge.

In any case, here – in 3 parts, is The Truffle Hunt.

Joa spent most of the day with an unsettled heart and questions to which he could not guess the answers. His brief talk with his legal uncle, Lord Omaya, had been disturbing, and not the least for having not seen the man in nearly ten years. He wanted to speak with Acan, but Joa had told Lord Omaya the truth, if not all of it. Over the last five years, Joa had seen Acan only a handful of times. And he had not seen him at all in the last half-month. Joa had begun to wonder if his childhood friend was avoiding him, though when they met, Acan always behaved as though they had seen each other just the day before.

That Lord Omaya should be taking an interest in both of them now was both intriguing and disquieting. Joa, who had no experience with the art of word-fencing had been hard-pressed to fend off his uncle’s enquiries, and he was certain he had missed something valuable in the man’s subtle remarks. Though the interview had not lasted long, it had left a pulsing ache in Joa’s temples.

Returning to the studio workroom, Joa had continued on his own calligraphic studies and prepared for the afternoon class. These days, the number of well-to-do merchant children was larger than it had ever been, reflecting the changes on Yume since the Daitoh had been forced ten years ago to open the planetoid once again to trade.

People had gone nearly insane over the variety of items the merchants, often escorted by military ships, brought through the Ether from other planetoids or the Market World. Clothing and decorative items were particularly popular although technologies like clear glass for windows was making an increasing appearance in store fronts, artist studios, and schools like the one in which Joa worked.

The afternoon class went well enough. The merchant children might be richer than some of the sons of the nobility, but five hundred years of isolation reinforced the class distinctions. The merchant children knew their place in the order of things, saving their bragging for their own caste, and most of the noble children in his group were too well bred to show the others anything but a polite indifference. This made it easier for Joa to provide a calm learning environment, helped along by the authority derived from his being a member of House Loha. Even so, Joa felt the class had been somewhat shortchanged because he was distracted, and he knew it showed. Cleaning his brushes at the end of class, he was aware that the students were watching him from the corners of their eyes. Probably wondering what was wrong with him. 

And naturally, what was wrong with him was Acan. Even when the future Head of House Loha made himself scarce from Joa’s life, he remained a presence in it. Studies and classes kept Joa busy, but he often found himself thinking of the times at the Manor when he and Acan had spent nearly every waking hour together. They were both nearly at their majority, but surely it was not wrong to miss your closest –only – childhood friend? Once again, he wished he could contact Acan, but years ago Acan had asked him never to come to Court and Joa had no idea where to send a message.

As he wondered and fretted about Lord Omaya’s interest and Joa’s own inability to contact Acan, the ache pulsing in his temples bloomed into pain.

 

 Most of the students had gone and the afternoon had worn away. Another beautiful sunset would be approaching, though this time of year would not find many on the rooftops of the City to see it unless they were well-wrapped. The school’s geki were politely, though impatiently, waiting for the last of the students to leave so they could board up the precious glass windows of the school for the night, and Joa had finished reviewing the day’s work for discussion at the next class. He was checking his desk for the second time to be sure the ink tray was covered, the brushes aligned and that everything was as it should be, when he saw Acan at the window.

Acan’s face was full of that grin that in childhood Joa had often found arrogant and insufferable, talking and laughing with someone Joa did not recognize, while his hands made gestures in a code only he and Joa understood.

Joa caught Acan’s eye and made a very brief gesture of agreement, doing his best to keep his face as impassive as he could; he did not want to give any students or geki reason for more interest. When he looked up again, Acan was gone.

Joa took his leave of his Calligraphy Master and the school and after making sure his short, decorated coat was neat over his robes and that his hip scarf was tied properly, he went to meet Acan. Along the way, he considered increasing the distance of his evening walks, for surely his rapidly beating heart was a sign he needed more exercise.

 

  

Smiling Fish was the name of the eating establishment Acan had signaled. It was an old favorite that they had not met in for quite a while. Acan was in his regular place, a smallish back room with screens that opened onto a view of the lake walk, along which the evening lanterns had been lit.

“Joa! How was school today? Come sit beside me. Have a drink. Eat something.”

As usual, Acan sent a torrent of directions his way, ratcheting up Joa’s irritation, which was already inflamed by the two young women alternately offering Acan bites of food or rubbing up against him like pets and giggling.

It had been so long since he had seen Acan, but Joa just could not convince himself that there was the smallest chance of the conversation he wanted to have as long as those women from the nearby house of entertainment were in the room. It was disappointing. It was more than disappointing, but…

“I need to talk with you, Acan-piin, but it can’t be done in this place,”  Joa turned towards the doorway, his long, heavy braid thumping against his back as he changed direction.

“I want to talk with you, too. Sit down, sit down. There’s a bowl of Fire Berries, and there is  Rokk fish.”

Joa could not help but stop. When Fire Berries were handled by a skilled alchemical chef, they could tantalize all of the different taste sensations. For how long depended on how long you could keep from biting down on them. Once you did, they created a peppery explosion of flavor. And if you added a bit of Rokk fish before you bit down, it was as though fireworks had gone off. What’s more, you could actually see visions of them behind your eyelids. Fire Berries were Joa’s weakness, and Acan knew it.

One of the girls reached out a hand to Joa. “Oh, don’t be like that; come and sit with us and drink. We’ll put a smile on your face.”

Joa closed his eyes and bit his lips. He really wanted to talk with his childhood friend, but…

“Girls, go play with someone else for a while.”

“No! We haven’t seen you in ages! You never come to the shop anymore. We want to play!”

After a few minutes of argument in which Acan remained friendly but firm, the two young women got up, grumbling. They squeezed past Joa into the hall, giggling behind their hands as they rubbed against him and made exaggerated expressions of disappointment.

Acan patted the pillows next to him, but Joa was still annoyed. He sat down at the end of the table farthest away.

“They saw me come in; I didn’t invite them, Joa.” Acan made his own exaggerated expression of disappointment.

Joa almost laughed but turned it into a snort instead. “Young women seem to turn up wherever you are. I’m sure it must be some kind of curse.”

Acan grinned, patting the pillows once more. “I have limited time. Let’s talk.”

Joa’s sigh should have been audible to every other customer in the Smiling Fish, but he moved to sit down heavily next to Acan, who immediately put an arm around his shoulders.

“I haven’t seen you in nearly a month, kinsman. If anything, you appear to have gotten even more beautiful. I’ll bet the students at the school follow you with their eyes instead practicing their calligraphy.”

Joa shrugged off the arm, feeling the heat rise in his face, something that happened too often around Acan. “Flattery doesn’t work with me; you know that. And don’t call me ‘kinsman.’ It’s not appropriate.” He reached over to the dishes, looking for the Fire Berries.

Acan laughed; his long black hair, caught at the back of his head with a simple tie, spilled across his shoulders as they shook. “Truly, I’ve missed you and your proper ways. You’ve always taken your charge to guide me on the correct path so seriously.”

“Of course I took it seriously. It was a duty entrusted to me by both of our fathers, and it was by no means easily done.”

“Never mind the errors of my youth,” Acan chuckled, pouring Joa a cup of spirit wine from one of five or so small jars. “And it’s entirely appropriate to call you kinsman. Father’s Will made you part of our family.”

“Akaash-din was being kind because he knew I would be alone if something happened to my father. As it is, I’ve made my own way, so please disregard it.”

“No.” Acan’s expression was joyful, and therefore confusing.

“What are you saying? Don’t be an idiot.” Joa pulled the platter of grilled Rokk close and added some to a slice of thin, neutral tasting cracker, then spread a few Fire Berries on top.

“Have you seen my uncle lately?”

Joa’s eyebrows rose and he stopped short of biting into his cracker. Something in Acan’s expression was knowing.

“Did you see him come to the school?” Joa asked him.

Acan’s insufferable grin was back. “Just because you don’t see me does not mean I do not see you.”

Joa’s brown eyes widened. “Are you spying on me or him?”

“Say rather that I am looking out for you.” Acan drank some spirit wine and ate some fish. “What did Uncle want?”

“Tell me why you are watching me.”

“I will, but a little later. There are several things I want to tell you. For now, tell me what Uncle wanted.”

Joa told him about the conversation and that he thought Lord Omaya’s renewed interest was probably due to their birthdays, which would arrive within a week or so of each other, in about another half month. Their twentieth birthdays, which would make them adults in Yume.

Acan looked down and fingered his cup. “You’re not wrong. At this dinner he and Aunt will probably bring up the subject of marriage.”

“Marriage.” For some reason, the word made Joa’s heart speed up. He absently took a bite of the Berries and Rokk fish. “You are past the age where such matches would have started to be discussed, especially for the heir to a House,” he reasoned.

Acan’s voice seemed wry. “I doubt Uncle has had any inquiries from marriage makers for me – it would not be quite advantageous for any of the noble families to ally with mine at this time.”

Joa frowned. “That makes no sense at all. Your family is very old and respected. There have likely been many ups and downs over its long history. I believe it would be wise for a noble family to ally with your house now, especially if they have less rank and more material wealth. Your house is bound to rise again and take them with it.”

“You really mean that.”

Joa closed his eyes to see the fireworks then opened them again. “Of course.”

Without warning, Acan leaned forward to take Joa’s face in both hands. He looked at him for what seemed to Joa an unconscionable length of time, then leaned in and kissed him on the forehead.

“Reliable Joa,” Acan said.

Joa felt his face catch fire and for a moment he could hear his own heartbeat like a drum in his ears. “Idiot,” he whispered. Then he picked up a pillow and hit Acan in the face with it. “You idiot! Don’t make so free with other people’s foreheads!”

Acan tossed the pillow aside. It landed on top of something hidden under a scarf and there was a rattle as of something moving in a reed cage.

Joa sat up and straightened his coat and robes. “Honestly, Acan-piin. Why must you delight to break my temper?” He sighed again. He always seemed to lose his composure when in Acan’s company.  “Truly, I’m worried for you.”

Acan laughed. “I’m more worried for you.”

“What do you mean?”

Acan ran a hand over his brow. “Joa – I’m going away for a few days.”

Joa took a sip of his spirit wine. “You might have been gone for the last 20 for all that I’ve seen you.”

Joa did not know what he had expected, but a chuckle from Acan was certainly not it. “You count the days between seeing me?”

“Certainly not. It’s just that a – a commission was made on that day last and is due for delivery tomorrow.”

Acan sighed ostentatiously. “Well, I suppose I should be happy I’m remembered at all.”

“Where do you travel?”

Acan was silent long enough that Joa turned again to look at him. “Gateworld.” It was almost a whisper.

Joa knew his mouth was moving, but for some reason, nothing was coming out.

Acan laughed. “You look like a Rokk fish.”

“Why there?” Joa picked up a cracker and put it down again. “And don’t make me ask you Thirteen Questions. We’re not children anymore.”

“You’re right.” Acan took the spirit jar and poured the last drops into his cup. “We’re nearly twenty, and that’s why I’m going.”

Joa’s earlier headache was returning. “Why is everyone being so mysterious? Speak clearly, I’m begging you.”

“Why do you think you have seen so little of me?”

“Well, I told Lord Omaya that you were busy now that you lived at Court. Is that not right?”

Acan nodded. “After His Highness tired of bullying me, I took to running errands for many of the higher ranking nobles.  Over the last five years I believe I’ve made some gains in building some support before our majority. What do you think happens then?”

“His Highness confirms you as Head of House Loha, and you take the oath of fealty.”

“And then?”

Joa had to think a bit. The last time a young lord succeeded to Head of House had been a few years ago; the new Head of House had not been married and the Daitoh had betrothed him on the spot. A political marriage that benefitted His Highness. The Lords had almost all objected, but though the law giving the Daitoh the right to marry off his vassals had not been used in a couple of centuries, it still existed. Over the last few years, His Highness had used that right often.

Joa felt lightheaded. “His Highness wouldn’t…” He had to stop, unsure.

Acan took a long drink of spirit wine. “You’ve never been to Court, so you don’t know what it’s like. He could and he would – especially me. After all, it was my father’s Ether Ship that led the Market Lords to Yume, even though both our fathers were already dead from Pirates. Without that, the Daitoh would never have been forced to open Yume to trade.”

“It would have happened eventually.”

“Tell that to the Daitoh. I’ll bet he’s been burning lamp oil figuring out which Lady would make him the best political advantage while ruining my young life. Which is why I went to him first to make an offer.”

“What kind of offer?”

Acan opened another jar and poured some spirit wine into his cup. “As Daitoh of Yume, His Highness controls the Gateway, and no matter how the yearly Cooking Competition on the Market World turns out, that remains true. But since His Highness was induced to open Yume for trade again, he has used the Competition to show the other Lords and Merchants that Yume is not a fruit to be plucked and that it will not be easy to replace one Daitoh with another.”

Joa was shocked. “Could that happen?”

Acan lifted his brows. “In any case, the Daitoh has found a particularly good chef with a recipe that, when perfected, could keep the Market Lords at bay for quite a while.

“I don’t know the details, but it’s an offensive spell, something that can control behavior. And, according to His Highness’s Alchemical Chef, it doesn’t have to be eaten, but can be drunk, inhaled, or taken in through the skin.”

“Which would make it hard to guard against.”

“Yes, so it would give the other Lords something to think about. The one thing I do know for sure is that a main ingredient is Man-eater Truffle.”

Joa could not help but pale a little. From what he had heard, Man-eater Truffle was one of the most dangerous and hard to capture ingredients in all of the Yume Gateworld. “How did you find out all of this?”

To his surprise, Acan looked embarrassed. “While at Court, I’ve been spending time at the Alchemical Kitchen with the Competition Chef. From our conversations, I guessed some of the ingredients for proposed recipes. She really wanted to perfect this one, but worried that the Truffles would be impossible to come by. Then the gods provided me with the information I needed to put me in the position of being able to get them.” He gestured at the covered cage. After securing  this, all that was left was to approach the Daitoh.”

“The Chef in charge of the Competition is a woman.” For reasons he could not name, Joa found himself irritated.

“Yes. I managed to make her acquaintance on a market day and it seemed we had some things in common. It’s not been particularly easy being the woman His Highness promoted over several other cooks to make his Competition Chef, after all. As you might expect, she has few friends in the place, which is another thing we had in common. Kaiya and I have passed some pleasant hours with spirit wine and she’s let me taste a few of her proposed recipes – without the magical ingredients, of course – “

“Another friendly woman whose company was imposed upon you?”

Acan frowned. “Not at all…” His eyes widened as Joa’s narrowed. “That – that is, there was some mutual benefit to our conversations…”

“Conversations! Who do you think you are talking to –“

“Wait, now. I did not take advantage, or at least if I did,  then she was taking advantage, too. It’s not as though she didn’t enjoy our private meetings, but it was all necessary to —“

“And I expect you helped that along with a few little gifts here and there. You really are the worst, bribing the Chef with trinkets and your body like a, a –“

“My body? Who said anything about — and why are you so angry on her behalf? I told you I wasn’t taking advantage, even if she was trying to… Anyway, it was necessary! Can’t you see it through my eyes?”

“No! Because it would make me ill.”

“Is that so? Do you think I am so low that I could… Wait. Joa — are you sure this is about her and not about you?”

“How would it be about me? You’re the one who shouldn’t have done it, much less enjoyed it. You are the worst – “

Suddenly, Acan put his hand over Joa’s mouth. Joa pulled at it, then stopped as he caught the tension in Acan, who was tilting his head, listening.

Joa listened as well and heard loud voices coming closer and what sounded like furniture and pottery being thrown and broken. Some of the voices got louder and he could hear the word “foreigners” being repeated.

Acan’s hand slid down to Joa’s and grasped it firmly. The other hand grabbed a jar of spirit wine and shoved it into his hip scarf, then grabbed the handle of the covered cage. Joa was pulled into the night through the lake view doors and made to run as fast as his robes would let him.

He came abreast of Acan, who released his hand.

“Who was that and where are we going, Acan?”

“You’re going home, Joa. At the next intersection, take the right-way path. If it’s who I think it is, they don’t know you, so they won’t bother with you even if you meet them.”

“You’re in trouble. Tell me what is happening.”

Acan paused a moment, drawing Joa into the deep shadows of a wall. Joa could not see his expression clearly, but he had the impression that it was pained.

“Joa, there’s so much more I want to – I need – to tell you, but it looks like it’s all going to have to wait. I promise I will explain when I come back. Until then, you are just going to have to trust that I’m doing the best thing I can for both of us.”

“For both of us? Acan, what do you mean?”

“Not now, Joa. There’s no time.” Acan glanced around. “We’re at Lantern Street. If you take Net, you should be home in no time. Go home, Joa. For my sake, please go home and be safe.” Before Joa could reply, his friend was gone, running.

Joa stood there, listening to the sound of Acan’s sandals on the narrow cobbled street, fading away. A sudden fear closed his throat and made it hard to breathe. He was still standing there, trying to decide what to do, when four men, their features indistinguishable in the lantern light, passed him. They ran down Net street, but soon came back, circling like hunting dogs. Then one put a hand up and ran it through his hair, spinning about. Another stopped him and gestured towards the street Acan had taken, saying something in a foreign language.

They ran down Lantern Street into the dark.

And Joa followed.

 

 

The Gate was really a pair of doors set in a rocky hillside. They were tall and wide, with a smaller door set inside of each. From having read history, Joa knew the Gate had been made completely of sword steel and covered by a fortune in gold leaf painted with pictures and designs. It stood at the top of a flight of wide, shallow stairs made of wood and stone flanked by long ramps used for transporting heavy goods on those rare occasions when wagon loads were received or sent. It was guarded at all times and no one could use it without the Daitoh’s permission.

When he arrived, Joa could see Acan standing in front of one of the small doors, surrounded by a dozen of the Daitoh’s guards whose short spears were pointed away from him. At his side was a tall, thin man in luxurious robes who was smiling grimly at the four men held off by the guards. Near to that man stood a palanquin and its carriers.

In the light given off by lanterns brighter than any Joa had seen before, he realized the men pursuing Acan were probably from the Foreigner’s Village.  They wore heavy shoes instead of sandals, and were dressed in a way he was not familiar with. Their hair was cut very short and without combs, pins, or ties. They were speaking in heavy accents to the man next to Acan.

“This man is a thief.” Their spokesman pointed at Acan. “He has something of ours and we want it back.”

A soldier with a decorated helmet drew his sword. Obviously the guard captain. “You will not take that tone when addressing Lord Yual. And you will not speak before the Daitoh’s Gatekeeper gives you permission.”

The men, Joa saw, were taken aback. Five of them seemed to catch hold of themselves and attempt to be calm. The fourth, though – Joa could feel anger in the very set of his body. He stilled, but it was the stillness of an animal before it leaps.

Joa walked a little more forward, not thinking of anything beyond getting to Acan and Lord Yual saw him.

“Who is that?” he asked, shading his eyes against the bright light, which Joa now guessed must have been imported from the Market World.

Before he could bow and introduce himself, he heard Acan say his name and something else in a low voice and the tone puzzled him. It sounded both worried and angry.

Lord Yual glanced at Acan and his smile widened. A long-nailed hand gestured to Joa. “Ah. Join us, please.”

Joa bowed low, then came up the stairs, edging far from where the foreigners were standing. He bowed again when he reached Acan and Lord Yual, who looked at him with interest.

Acan spoke first. “My kinsman has nothing to do with this, Lord Yual. He happened to be dining with me when we were set upon by these men. I would appreciate it were he to be allowed to return home.”

Lord Yual’s arched brows lifted and he continued to stare at Joa. Then he laughed. “Please excuse my rudeness, but you have a face worth looking at.” His gaze moved to Acan as though seeking a reaction to his remark. “I have known Lord Acan for years, and I believe this is the first time you and I have met. You are?”

Joa fought not to show his confusion and was not sure he succeeded. “I am Joa of House Loha, Lord Yual. I’ve never been to Court. Although Lord Acan and I grew up together, I am but the son of a retainer.”

“Yet he said that you are a kinsman.” Lord Yual waved a hand. “Never mind for now, I have this matter I must attend to. I am sure we will have time for a longer talk another time. Perhaps over tea. For now, I hope you will please wait patiently. Once this matter is concluded, I will be glad to send you home.”

“Acan? Who is Acan?” The spokesman for the foreigners looked confused. The guard captain made to use his sword, but was stopped by the Gatekeeper.

Lord Yual indicated Acan with a sweep his hand in which he held a key attached to a long, silk cord around his neck. “This person is Acan, soon to be Head of House Loha. Who did you think he was?”

The foreigners looked at one another, except for the fourth man. Joa saw that he kept his eyes on Acan and that his face was still dark with anger.

The spokesman rubbed his short hair all over and sighed. “He told us his name was Sechi and he promised to help us meet merchants we could sell our goods to. Then he seduced my niece and stole one of our prized goods.”

Joa stiffened and edged closer to Acan protectively, though he could not resist glaring at him. Acan did not notice; he was gritting his teeth and scowling at the foreigners. Without a word, he handed the covered cage to Joa and put his hand on his sword.

That grim smile was once again on Lord Yual’s face. “Acan-piin?”

“The item they want was a friendship gift from this man’s niece. He maligns her by implying that her actions were in any way immodest. He should be defending her honor, not impugning it, himself.”

The fourth man spoke up, “That is lying! This man lies!” He struggled with the language of Yume to make his meaning clear. “If his intent to friendship, why did he fly falsely colors?”

Lord Yual flicked his eyes at the guard captain. “If this one speaks again without having been spoken to, cut out his tongue.”

The man silenced, though his attitude remained defiant.

“Fly false… ah, I see.” Lord Yual tapped the key on one long nail. “You are probably unaware that it is not unusual for a lord of Yume to travel incognito. Especially when dealing with foreigners who might misunderstand because they lack experience with our nobility. No doubt, Lord Acan was protecting you from just such a misunderstanding. As your presence here indicates, such things can happen so easily. He says the item was a friendship gift, while you say it was stolen. This is a strong misunderstanding which would normally have to be brought before the Daitoh’s Chamberlain.”

Acan glanced at Lord Yual, then returned his attention to the foreigners.

“But I am charged by the Daitoh to see that Lord Acan undertakes an errand in the Gateworld this very evening, so this misunderstanding may have to be resolved at a later time.” A pleasant smile remained on Lord Yual’s face, although Joa felt sure the Daitoh’s Gatekeeper disliked the foreigners.

The spokesman rubbed his head again. “But –“ he looked at Lord Yual, who indicated he should continue to speak. “But if he takes our property into the Gateworld, we may never see it again.”

“Hmmm. I assume you reference the fact that Lord Acan might lose the item in the Gateworld, not that he would purposely avoid returning it for judgment, which would be improper, na?”

 The spokesman blinked and then nodded slowly.

Lord Yual turned to Acan. “Would I be correct in assuming that the item is something you need for the success of your errand?”

Acan bowed. “It is essential, I believe, Lord Yual.” His voice seemed tight and his posture wary.

“Ah. That settles it, then. If Lord Acan requires it for his errand, then the Daitoh requires it.” Lord Yual moved past Acan and Joa to insert the key into the lock on the small door and push the unlocked door ajar. “You have permission to leave, Acan-piin, though it is somewhat earlier than the hour we agreed upon, and you seem to have rather less baggage than I expected.” He gestured pointedly at the covered cage. “Perhaps you are not ready to go? His Highness’s instruction to me was that you must go by the Water Hour, but there is still some time left until then.”

Joa thought Acan looked a bit surprised and perhaps discomfited by Lord Yual’s remarks. His mouth opened as though he would say something, but he never had the opportunity.

“Damn you!” The fourth foreigner had pushed his fellows aside and cleared a small opening. “Damn you, whatever your name is! You perfumed fop! You think you can seduce my Sira and then just leave her after getting what you wanted?”

Joa did not understand a word of what the foreigner was yelling, but he could clearly see the glint of light on a throwing knife. Without thinking, he pushed Acan behind Lord Yual and through the open door. There was a hiss of air near his ear and he heard Acan cry out. Then the two of them were tumbling over the threshold and Joa was rolling back to slam the door shut on the blades and confusion.

After a minute or so, Joa sat up slowly and found himself looking down the pathway into the Gateworld. As far as he could see, it was mostly grey. The air seemed very heavy and wet and there were strange reflections that looked like the nita, the band of colors sometimes seen in the sky after rain. The tiny nita appeared and disappeared as the misty air moved. Except for the cobblestone road he sat on, there was very little else to be seen.

His back felt slightly bruised, probably by hitting the heavy door, but that seemed to be all. He stood, steadying himself on the wooden door and realized he could feel no vibration or hear any sound of the struggle that must be happening. There did not seem to be any handle or keyhole on this side, either.

“Acan, how do we open the door?”

When there was no answer, he turned and saw Acan lying nearby. His eyes were closed and there was blood, a lot of blood, creating a pool under one shoulder.

 

To be continued…

Halloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate – Review

Halloween Jack and the Devil's GateHalloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate by M. Todd Gallowglas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a romp of a story.

Based on Irish folklore, Halloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate starts out on a darkly magical note with the Devil’s minions taking over the gatehouse where demons gather on their way back to Hell. This Halloween night, the only night in which demons are free to walk the earth, will be the last one where Jack o’ the Lantern holds power. At least, if the Devil has his way. And to make sure, he orders every one of Jack’s line to be killed.

Caught up in this maelstrom is John O’Neill, soon to take on the persona of Halloween Jack. With his magical coat, stick, and lantern, he and his only surviving relatives and allies must find a way to return Satan and his demons to Hell and keep them there. It seems like an insurmountable problem, but Jack has a Plan.

The tone stays comically dark all through the novel and the action occurs at a furious pace. There’s no time at all for resting and planning; each step of Jack’s plan must be carried out forthwith, but nothing really goes right. Fortunately, Jack is nothing if not clever, and like the heroes of the tales at the heart of this one, he overcomes obstacle after obstacle, managing to convert an ogre to a friend and even get St. Peter to help out.

Naturally, as all heroes must, Jack will triumph. But at what cost? Only Jack knows, and he’s keeping that a secret from the others. After all, without a secret or two, the adventure wouldn’t be as much fun, would it?

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