Few moments in life are powerful enough to bring emotional change at a core level. May 19th offered me one of those special moments. A Special Forces NCO got killed around Kabul and his body was being flown home that night. HQ encouraged anyone not doing anything to line the road at midnight in tribute to the fallen. Joe Burke and I grabbed our rifles and took our places in the lines of soldiers along Disney Drive. We could see the HMMWV carrying the flag draped casket at the end of the road, waiting for the escort to get in place. Another hundred or so soldiers lined the road in solemn ranks.
Everything seemed to happen at once; almost a sensory overload. A C-17 just landed, bringing with it a fresh batch of soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division. None of the newbies were enthused. Many wore fearful looks, much the same as our merry group had upon entering enemy air space all those long months ago. Marching out from the opposite side of the road was a group of our guys heading home. They were laughing and shouting in joy. Naturally there was some good natured ribbing going on between the two groups. Combine them with our silent bunch and it was almost too much. Midnight chimed and the SF procession began. A color guard marched in front of the HMMWV, flags waving in a weak breeze. A C-17 waited. The back ramp was down and an ominous red glow filled the cavernous body. Directly behind the plane, almost as if Fate had a hand in this affair, the full moon hung low and bright, illuminating the snow covered mountains in the distance. Marching boots echoed in the silence.
The honor guard was comprised of fellow SF men formed up on both sides of the vehicle. Many had tears in their eyes. Others that look of anger from being robbed of a friend. A pair of Apaches zipped by, followed by Chinooks carrying a company from the 82nd. The soldiers lining the road snapped to attention and saluted as the funeral procession passed them. I could see the end of the casket now and it inspired strong emotions. Rage, sorrow, pride. I could clearly see the pain in those SF soldier’s eyes as they escorted their friend and comrade down the flight line and up into the belly of the plane. Joe and I went to attention and saluted with our rifles. It was much harder to keep a straight face than I imagined. I’d been to the occasional funeral back in the States but those deaths were from training accidents, not combat. This man that none of us knew inspired me. He awakened raw emotions I forgot I had. Strange pride warmed me.
I can’t say where it came from but it was a moment I’ll never forget. Seeing that casket roll by I suddenly realized why I was still in the Army and why I really volunteered to go to Afghanistan. Any lingering doubts were gone, replaced by a sense of satisfaction that came from knowing each and every one of the men and women standing beside me were ready to lay down their lives for people they hardly knew. That’s it. That’s all it is. Soldiers share a bond no newscaster or civilian will ever understand. We’re here so you don’t have to be. So you never need know the horrors of war. That’s what makes us special. It’s the undying devotion to each other that sets us apart regardless of race, creed or nationality. I stayed in the Army all these years not for myself but for those next to me. We carry on despite seeing our comrades fall. We bury our heroes at the expense of our nation’s freedom, whether they support us or not. But that is merely an afterthought. While deployed the only thing that matters is the people on our flanks.
There’s no way I can find to successfully convey the strength of emotions I felt after I dropped my salute. One thing I was sure of was that as long as men and women were willing to leave their lives behind to go fight in a country they never heard of, for people they’ve never met, I’ll be right alongside wearing my nation’s uniform and serving with pride. All of these events helped make my deployment to Afghanistan enduring memory that I can still see when I close my eyes on a quiet day. There are no words to describe the emotions that run through a deployed soldier’s mind when he/she is exposed to such events. Even now as I write this, almost a decade later I can still see the wounded. Can still hear the machine guns and explosions. I can still feel the cold when I step outside and see mountains.
As part of a small monthly writing contest on LinkedIn I decided to sit down and go over a lighthearted romp I wrote a long- ok very long, time ago. I entitled it Strange Things and used the Jimmy Hendrix song for a basic concept. Here’s the excerpt I made for the contest. Tell me what you think:
Bored. Tired. Feeling cheated. All of these things went through my mind as I slipped into my leather jacket and headed out the front door. This was the worst party I had ever been to and I was done. It was time to go home. Fortunately I only lived a couple of miles away, across the mountaintop. Fall was here but it was still nice enough to walk. So I did.
The night air felt good after the stagnant party air. The road was rough under my boots but I’d made the walk a hundred times before. Only a hint of moon hid behind wispy clouds. I’d either drank more than I thought or just wasn’t paying attention.
Soon enough I was across the street from the old Civil War cemetery that hadn’t seen a new soul in more than a hundred years. Mist clung to most of the old tombstones. There was nothing special about it but tonight it felt…different. I paused, staring into the graveyard. I couldn’t place where the odd feeling came from.
I froze, furtively looking around for the sound of the voice. There wasn’t anyone nearby. My heart quickened. A puzzled look crossed my tired face. Someone was playing a joke on me. Hiding in the darkness. “Who’s there?”
Again, “Hey boy, come over here.”
The harder I looked the less I saw, until the alabaster form of an ancient skeleton came into view. The mist parted just long enough for me to catch a glimpse of him. I’d never seen the like. My stomach churned, threatening revolt. The old skeleton was sitting in a rickety old rocking chair, gently rocking back and forth.
My first thought was someone was playing a joke on me. Halloween was only a few nights away so it made sense. Then I saw the skeleton’s jawbone open as it called me over. I don’t exactly recall what made me do it, but I soon found myself ambling over.
“Are you talking to me?” I asked, dumbfounded. Then I realized just how dumb that question was.
The skeleton grunted. “Don’t see no one else around here do you? Folks must’ve gotten dumber since I died. Course my eyes ain’t been too good for some years now.” He broke out in quiet laughter. “Sit down boy. It’s been a spell since I had company.”
I had trouble accepting the fact that I was standing in a graveyard talking to a skeleton. Maybe my brain had finally tipped over the fine line between sanity and straight up crazy. Who knows? I wondered what size straight jacket I wore. Internal deliberations aside, I had nothing better to do so I sat down in an empty chair that hadn’t been there a moment ago and patiently waited for the skeleton to get on with what he meant to do. I didn’t think I was drunk, but the possibility of the beer being bad certainly entered my mind.
Just as I was about to explore all of the logical and illogical possibilities the old skeleton reached under his rocking chair and produced a deck of beaten up playing cards. Seriously? They looked three times as old as he was.
“You and me are going to play a little game. You win, you get to go home,” he stated matter-of-factly.
I swallowed hard. “If you win?”
“I take your body and you stay here.”
How did he know I wasn’t any good at cards? His deal was all but a nail in my coffin. I knew there was no way I could win, even against a dead man. Unspeakable malice radiated off the bones, forcing me to realize I had no choice. Reluctantly, I agreed.
He laughed again as daftly began shuffling the deck with his bony fingers moving so fast I was pressed just to pay attention. This wasn’t going to end well but I didn’t see any way out. When he finished he slapped the deck against his knee and handed it to me with what I interpreted to be a broad smile. Nervous, I reshuffled just to be on the safe side.
The five cards slid from my hand faster than I wanted but Fate seemed to guide my hand. He picked up his. I picked up mine. I’d watched poker on television and heard all about tells and what not. What sort of tell did a skeleton have? He didn’t have a face! I began to wallow in misery. Then I looked at my cards. All I had was a miserable pair of sevens. Crap. I was going to die.
He laid three cards down, as did I, and I gave us each three more. Without any money, the hand went fast. He slapped his knee again and laid down two pairs. Fives and jacks.
Leaning forward, he said menacingly, “Beat me.”
I stole a peek at my cards before laying them down. A king, a three…and three sevens. My eyes popped wide. The skeleton growled and knocked the small table over. I did it. I won! I jumped up and raised my hands to the star filled sky. I won!
The skeleton rose. His bones grinding in an unholy sound. I thought for sure he was coming for me, but instead he tipped his head and turned away. Was this a trick? Did my eyes deceive me? No. He walked back to an old cross shaped tombstone and disappeared. The mist evaporated and I was alone in the cemetery again.
It’s been years since that incident and I still have trouble believing any of it really happened. But then again, it’s not up to me to believe. It’s up to you.
The first novel I wrote as an adult was ambitious to say the least. Titled Tomorrow’s Demise, it details the lives of a broken people on a desert world struggling for survival. Genetically created monsters called Berserkers kill at will. A handful of those brave enough become Slayers and are all that stand between life and death. They are aided by the arrival of the Imperium’s assault division. Complete with monsters, pirates who float over lava seas, an intergalactic war, and political maneuverings Tomorrow’s Demise spawned an entire universe for me to explore.
Crimson Spiders is the first side tale featuring a few of the main characters BEFORE Demise. While I am still trying to get Demise published you can find Spiders on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Enjoy this excerpt.
Turgan River Valley. Planet Shaalam IV. C Company Headquarters, 3rd Battalion 1st Special Operations Command. Captain Orna Malago, commanding.
Ten figures huddled around the holographic map display. The non-infra red light was the only one in the command bunker. Various clerks shuffled around them, each performing an integral part in the company’s combat operations. Most of the line soldiers passed foul glances at them, for they were the fortunate ones who never had to worry about shooting it out in the mud or seeing their best friend die in their arms. These were the paper pogues, but at times, some of the most important troopers in the unit.
Each of the ten troopers staring at the map wore the standard gray uniform of the Imperium infantry. The gray had hopelessly stained from weeks in the field. Stacks of body armor and weapon packs cluttered the limited open spaces in the bunker. They kept a hold their individual weapons. No trained soldier was dumb enough to be caught without one in their hands, especially in the middle of enemy territory.
Captain Malago ran a hand through her sandy hair, a look of disdain furling her brow. She’d been a combat commander for almost two years, and out of everything, this was the part she hated the most.
“Listen up. This valley is the center point for the whole damned sector, and it’s all ours. Battalion wants us to open it up for them so they can begin funneling in the ground troops.”
“One company through all this jungle? Sounds like suicide to me, boss.”
“Perhaps you would care to tell the Colonel that, Sergeant Kimel?” She hated being interrupted, even if the man had a point. A good soldier never questioned authority. That was the first thing the Academy taught. If the situation wasn’t so dire, Kimel, known as Snake Eyes to his troops, wouldn’t even be in this meeting. An indig mortar round took out the platoon sergeant a few weeks ago and that left Snake Eyes in charge. It was one of the little parts of the war that people back home, whichever planet they were from, would never find out about.
Snake Eyes rubbed the tiny red spider engraved on the left breast of his body armor and smirked. Malago was such a kiss ass, never once bothering to speak up to any superior, even if it meant her people getting killed in the process. But he knew when to keep his mouth shut. A man just couldn’t make sergeant without that instinct.
She’d only been in command for the better part of three months. Hells, she hadn’t even been assigned to the battalion when they made planetfall. She’d been incredibly hesitant when the orders came down to assume command of C Company. The Crimson Spiders, so aptly named for their decorative emblem on their armor, had one of the fiercest reputations in all of the Imperium. Who in their right mind would willingly step in and try to establish command in the middle of a combat operation?
“He’s right you know, Ma’am,” First Sergeant Derlnth told her.
“Orders are orders, First Sergeant. Mine say I need to tear a hole through enemy lines so the rest of the army can assault. Division’s been stalled for too long. Don’t make this hard, Top. The mission is a go at zero four hundred.”
First Sergeant Derlnth blinked his middle eye. Each of the three was capable of singular movement and control. His steel gray skin blended almost perfectly with his armor. He was a Crendaphidian, one of the hardest warriors in the entire galaxy. Still, there was something about this mission that didn’t sit well.
“What kind of support are we getting? Latest intel says the Xemp’s got one, maybe two brigades of reinforced infantry down there. We’re good, but not that good.”
“Division has given us a clip of gunships,” she answered.
Madness. “What about artillery?”
“None. Secrecy is our largest asset, gentlemen. The rest of the brigade attacks once we have the far end of the valley secure. We are all alone until then.”
A hushed silence settled in the bunker. The severity of the mission sunk in.
Malago looked at each man in turn. “I suggest you go brief your people and get some rest. Tomorrow’s coming early.
So, I have three novels going through the editing/ review process. Another four under consideration by the publisher and five already released. Not to mention the numerous anthologies and round robin novels I’ve had the privilege of being a part of. To commemorate my forthcoming works I decided to leave you all with a little taste of what I like to call: The Dragon Hunters. Enjoy-or not. Either way let me know what you think!
A Foul Wind
A pale wind kissed the fading winter day. Spring was but a few weeks away and the lands were still being assailed by an unexpected blizzard coming down from the Darkwall Mountains to the north. Massive snowdrifts dotted the lightly forested plains. Trees drooped under the weight of gathering ice. Winds howled and screamed in tortured agony from canyon to valley. Even the skies, normally pale blue by this time, were sickened in a mottle of grey and black. Winter refused to let go.
Normally Fitch Iane would be nestled in his favorite chair built by his great grandfather, in front of the fireplace, but this winter had been especially harsh on hunting and fishing. A record six storms all but crippled the lands, making it next to impossible for most to gather food or firewood. As he tramped through the woods on the way home, Fitch wished for the thousandth time that he’d been born some sort of royalty. Living in a warm, toasty palace with marble floors and dozens of waiting servants seemed the life. A sudden gust of wind sent ice and snow down the back of his heavy coat, forcing Fitch back to grim reality.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. His knapsack was filled with three cleaned and quartered hares and a handful of plucked grouse. Not too bad considering it was just for him and his wife. The thought of Shar, with her warming smile and long, flowing golden hair stirred his passions. How much he’d give to be lying next to her supple body under the down blankets right now. Fitch shook his head. That sort of thinking would leave a man dead quicker than getting cut wrong. Besides, he still had too far to go to get distracted with thoughts of what came next.
Fitch sighed and continued his trek across the darkening landscape. He couldn’t help but shiver at the unseasonable cold. The snow should be nearly gone by now and the land was soggy from the additional moisture. A quick glance around and he figured it would be another six weeks before things got right. Six whole weeks. Fitch wondered how this year’s harvest would turn out. The farmers were all but panicking by now. As it was, this part of Thrae wasn’t known for outstanding crops or heavy farming. Most of the residents of Gend, Fitch’s home since birth, were miners. The kingdom of Thrae won ownership of the jewel mines after a fierce war with the Dwarves of the Bairn Hills nearly a generation ago.
It was left to those like Fitch to provide for their homes and right now all he wanted was to get out of the insufferable cold. He could almost taste the stew and freshly baked dark bread. A pint of heavy ale would do nicely too. Fitch stumbled, his foot snagging on a buried root. A tremendous roar shook the very ground as he dropped. His heart froze as a blast of freezing wind sliced into him. Fitch looked around but couldn’t spot the source of the fury in the gathering darkness.
“What?” he asked himself, hoping his mind could rationalize the moment.
Fitch looked up just then and noticed the entire eastern sky seemed as if it was on fire. He smelled ash and burnt meat. He wanted to believe it was just an illusion played by the setting sun. The first flicker of flames shooting up over the treetops changed his mind. He looked around. Everywhere he looked trees were blackened and dead. Fresh snow was dusty, charcoal splashed. What nightmare could have done such a thing? A tiny whisper in the back of his mind warned that the answers were much closer than he wished.
Then it hit him. A horrible, sickening thought all but crippling him. Fire. Smoke. Distance. Gend! His village was burning. Fitch dropped his sack and started running. The need to get home, to find Shar, overpowered all other thoughts and emotions. A nightmarish roar frightened the world. Fitch covered his ears and ran. Blood began to trickle from his nose.
When he got closer he could hear new sounds, sickening sounds of steel ripping human flesh. Women screaming. Children crying. Fitch suddenly grew very afraid. His body became lethargic. He found it difficult just to move. Shar. Thinking of her kept him going, but he was so afraid. A warm feeling ran down his leg. Sweat turned cold. His body shivered and trembled. He was no great hero, but neither was he a coward. What manner of demon can make me so? Fitch Iane gave in to his fears and collapsed. He used what strength remained to crawl under the boughs of a snow-laden fir and cried.
The screaming quickly drowned out his sorrow. Fitch tried covering his ears. Tears streaked his frozen cheeks. Strength abandoned him. Fear dug deeper, gaining strength and crushing him. Jagged pieces of ice fell from the pine needles and cut his face. He didn’t care. His only concern was staying alive. Just to stay alive!
What must have been hundreds of booted feet crunching through the ice-covered snow inspired new terror. Fitch reluctantly opened his eyes and had to cover his mouth to keep the gasp from escaping. He barely made out the huge, barrel-bodied figures marching by. Watching the shadows move so stealthily through the forest reminded him of the ghost and ghoul stories his mother used to tell him and his three brothers when they were growing up. These apparitions were much more real. Fitch got a good look as they marched closer.
Garbed in black and grey, they had massive bodies and spoke in a gnarled tongue. The sound of their boots crunching made him cringe. Stomp, stomp, stomp. He wanted to break and run but couldn’t. The demons wore armor and had flowing capes of the purest black. Spikes jutted up from their helmets. Axe and sword rested in their mailed hands. Some sang songs which were cruel and wicked. Fitch saw hundreds of them moving through the forest. He’d never believed in demons before. They seemed so dire, menacing. Then he noticed the tiny rivers of crimson staining their armor. Blood! Demons or not, they were pure killers. Struggling to control his sobs, Fitch watched them as they merrily went about slaughtering every last man, woman, and child in his village.
A pair of demons halted nearby, close enough for him to hear part of their conversation.
“…much longer?” snarled the first.
The second spit a wad of bloody phlegm. “Maggots take too long to kill. No honor. They run instead of fight.”
“The king’s army will come soon. We must hurry. Ramulus wants them all dead but we aren’t strong enough to fight an army.”
“One hour,” the second confirmed.
The demons stalked off, going their separate ways and leaving Fitch more frightened than before. He didn’t want to die. The thought replayed in his head over and over. He knew it was shameful to be so selfish but he couldn’t help it. Gradually, the slaughter abated and the demons returned to the shadows. Fitch was alone. The flames of Gend slowly faded. Night crawled back into the world. He nearly summoned the strength to crawl out of his self-imposed prison when that horrible roar shattered the calm. A fierce gust of wind shook most of the snow from the branches. Fitch pulled his knees up as an immense presence sailed overhead. Wrapping his arms around his knees, he cried himself to sleep.
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. Goofy comic books to more elaborate ones. I won the student of the month award in 11th grade for writing a horror novel. (I’m still trying to figure out where my mother hid it so I can burn the horrid thing.) A 20 year career in the army kept me writing in those precious few spare moments but I never stopped. By 2010 I had more than 12 full length- I mean really full, like 170k words long- manuscripts. It wasn’t until 2011 that life smiled and I was starting to get published. Sales are slow, but what can you expect from a guy who doesn’t have a name yet?
I thought I’d be a horror writer but that bug died early. I have always hovered around traditional fantasy, but go light on the elves and such. There are better things to write about than pointy eared androgynous figures who live forever. The recent trend with vampires and silly teenage girls who fall in love with them certainly put a dent in my plans to conquer the literary world but the war continues. If I am to get to Valhalla by the end of this journey I need to keep fighting.
Right now I have four novels in print, participated in several anthologies, won an award from the L Ron Hubbard writers of the future contest and have a ton more work to get done before I can rest. My publisher and I are expecting to have nine novels for sale by the end of the year. So if you’re interested in a strange, full steam ride sit back, pick up a copy and buckle up. This train doesn’t stop.