Excerpt: Khet

What follows is an excerpt from “Khet” a story that I’ve been working on just for the last year. This is first draft, no editing, so forgive any grammatical mistakes or lack of polish. Enjoy some free reading. I want to finish this story someday T_T This is a YA/New Adult Fantasy with a bit of Romance thrown in. It is based on an alternate earth in prehistoric times–A definite change from my usual work.

Khet (Working Title) – Excerpt, First Chapter

I sat atop a weathered skull half my size, naked toes curled into cool sand beneath me. I didn’t know the name that belonged to the skull – creatures such as this hadn’t been seen in the great valley since before my grandfather’s time. I removed the blackened brush between my teeth, leaning forward to paint a gentle black curve across the back of the lion’s head that decorated the small patch of cavern wall. Sitting back, I put the brush back between my teeth and used gentle fingers, blackened with charcoal to smudge the line, bringing darkened shadow to the image.

“Has he offered for you yet?” Adala’s soft voice echoed clearly from the other side of the small cavern where she worked to spray the outline of her hand onto the cavern wall with a small hollowed stick and a bowl of ground charcoal.  “Hadya said she saw Isam bargaining for another Cria the other day. I don’t think your family would turn down five.”

“I’m not sure he’s going to.” I spoke around the brush in my mouth, leaning back from the painting for a better look. The ears weren’t quite right. I leaned in again, taking the brush from my mouth to outline the right ear again.

“Please. He’s been following you around like a pup since you grew breasts.”

“He follows around anything that has breasts. That includes his family’s bitches.” My voice came out in an irritated tone. Adala’s loud and sudden laughter startled me, and my stroke wavered. “Baboon tits.” I cursed under my breath.

“What?”

“I tailed this line.” I replied, wiping a bit of spit onto my thumb and attempting to scrape off the extra color.

“That’s really disgusting.”

“Speak to me of disgusting when you see him staring at one of the poor things. He practically gets off on watching the pups nurse.”

Adala made an indelicate sound behind me and the corner of my lips quirked up in reply. “I hope-“

A faint roar echoed in the distance, bouncing off the valley walls, and we both grew still in the half-lit cave. The lion’s deep roar sounded a second time, and there was a shuffle of movement over my shoulder as Adala stood. I glanced back at her, leaning down to pick up a few small wooden bowls containing black and red dyes at my feet.

“Leave the brushes. I’ll wash them.” I said, tucking a few brushes into the corner of my mouth.

Adala stopped and frowned at me from across the room, “You aren’t coming?”

“In a minute.” I stood and crossed the cave to her, handing over the bowls, and retrieved her brushes from the crook of her arm. She eyed me in silence as I worked.

“He probably doesn’t even remember.”

I looked at her then, my green eyes resting on her own sienna ones.

“Did I say anything about him?”

“You don’t need to. You get twitchy when he comes into the valley.” She pointed out, turning on her heal to pick up a woven bag from beside the rock she’d been sitting on. She drew it over her head, and its strap fell securely between her naked breasts. She nested the dye bowls in her arms and tucked them into the bag.

“I do not get twitchy.” I tapped the blackened end of a brush against her shoulder, leaving a dark mark, and then turned for the bright opening of the cave.

“At least be honest. He scares you just like he scares the rest of us.” Adala continued, jogging forward to catch up.

I shrugged off her comment, stepping out of the cave and into the small trickle of the valley river as it lead away from the cave’s opening. I stepped delicately from one flat rock to another, ankle deep in the cool stream, following its path away from the cave and towards the larger river.

“I never said I wasn’t scared. Why do you think he’s here?” I asked, wading into the deeper water until it came nearly to my knees.

“I don’t know. He was here in spring. He doesn’t usually visit again so soon.” Adala frowned for a few moments, and then shook her head. “Guess we’ll see when we get there. Don’t take too long, he is not a patient man.” Adala shrugged back and continued on down the river without me, slogging through the shallow waters as she headed towards the village.

Man.  A feeling of uneasiness fluttered in my chest. It wasn’t the word I’d have chosen. She was right. I was scared. It had been six summers since the great lion god had given the first names to our people, and I was still afraid.  Since that day, I’d done my best to avoid his visits into the valley. I did not answer the call – I fled from it.

I bent above the river, taking the brushes from the corner of my mouth, and worked to scrub the black stains from their ends. The water grew dark around my calves, and I scrubbed until the water ran clear again. When I had finished, I tucked the brushes into a small satchel that sat low on my hips, swung wide across the simple linen loin-cloth I wore. The fabric was stained a dark, ruddy brown, and hid the stains of painting well. I took a few moments longer to wash my hands in the cool water, attempting to pry the black stains from under my fingernails, but it was of little use. My hands were shaking.

I glanced nervously down the river towards the village. I didn’t want to go back, but I had little choice. Surely Leander would have retreated to his mountain-home by now. He never stayed long. Resolved, I trudged down the river, enjoying the cool lap of the water on my skin. It was mid-summer and the searing rays of the sun beat down mercilessly on my golden skin. A gentle breeze lifted long, sun-streaked hair from my shoulders, tumbling it behind me in a silken flag. I took a deep breath. I would not show fear.

The river curved just before it hit the banks of the village. The water here was hip-deep and flowed by in a lazy tumble over smooth river stones and fine bits of sand. I glanced down at the water, trying to shore up my courage, and noticed a black streak of dye across my mouth where I’d been tucking brushes all morning. I grimaced and sunk under the surface of the water, scrubbing at my face for a few moments before coming up for breath. I glanced down at the water again, noting the absence of the dye, and reached up to squeeze the water out of my long hair.

“Khet.” The low, growling voice made me pause – arms tangled in my hair. Baboon tits.

I took a shallow breath, and slowly lowered my arms and turned to face the village bank. Leander stood in the white sands of the grass-lined shore, his naked skin glistening like burnished gold under the sun. As a man, his hair fell around his face in ragged sable locks, but his eyes were the same piercing gold the color of rich honey as they had been as a lion. He would have been beautiful if not for the silent rage clenching his fists and drawing his face into a rigid scowl.

If I’d been standing in shallower water I would have dropped to my knees, but struggling to bow in the deep water seemed more of an insult. I settled for a small bow of my head, averting my gaze towards the village for a moment before straightening to look at him again.

“Come.” He turned, and stalked up the river bank, tight corded muscles shifting in his lean back as he walked away from me. I felt my eyes widen. He wanted me to follow him. I was not willing to disobey a direct order, and sloshed out of the river with quick feet, jogging up the river bank to fall into step behind him. My loin cloth swung heavy and wet against my legs, making a distinct smacking sound as it hit my skin, and the sound made Leander pause in his step. I nearly ran into his rigid form, and stumbled back a step to avoid touching him.

He glanced down at me then, studying the cloth.

“Remove it.”

I stared at him, but his eyes lingered on the loin cloth for a moment before rising to meet my gaze. Embarrassment brought a deep flush to my skin, and I looked away while I untied the cloth from around my waist, and dropped both it and my satchel into the sand at my feet.

With no acknowledgement of my now naked state, he turned on his heel and continued up the bank of the river and onto the flat dirt of the village proper.

Nudity wasn’t abnormal to my people. I’d seen most of my male relatives naked as children, and all of my female ones, but past a certain age our differing male or female parts were usually covered. Leander was the first and only adult male I knew who never wore a cloth. Ever.

I fell back into pace behind him, and kept my back straight, head up, gaze focused. I would not let my fear or embarrassment show. This was my eighteenth summer, and though I was well past the age women began to wear cloth, I refused to let Leander know that it bothered me.

We entered the village center with its fire pit tucked away under the shade of a large banyan tree. The ground here was cool dirt, packed hard under decades of walking. The people of my tribe bowed in four long lines on one side of the clearing, their backs to the raised thatch huts that were their homes. Across from them four men and four women with hair the color of pale wheat stood rigid and waiting. They were Leander’s attendants. Golden hoops circled their necks and ankles, and saffron cloth fell between their well-muscled legs. They stood feet apart, arms behind their backs, eyes forward and watching.

The attendants had never left Leander’s fortress before. I frowned as I studied their faces. We’d all seen Leander pick and choose among us for the obedient staff of his fortress far up in the rocky hills of the valley, but he’d never brought them back down into the valley. It was unnerving how much they all looked alike. They wore their hair long and braided back along the midline of their body like the mane of a horse. The ends ran loose down their backs like a golden fall of water, reaching just past the long curve of their posteriors.

I glanced past the eight attendants and found Adala bowed low in the dirt beyond them. She lay apart from the others, her forehead nearly to the ground where she knelt. Her body shook in small inaudible sobs. A few pieces of grass stuck out at odd angles from her head, caught in her dark hair. I turned back to Leander, a question on my face, and caught his golden eyes once again focused on my own.

An indescribable hatred filled me. He’d done something to Adala. I did something then that had never been done in Leander’s presence. I glanced at Adala, still bent in the dirt, then back to the great lion god.

“Why?” My voice was breathy with fear and outrage, but it sounded out clear in the still air. A small strangled sound came from Adala, and I glanced over Leander’s shoulder to her. She still knelt, bent close to the ground, but her posture had become rigid and still. I glanced back to Leander. We did not speak to gods. We did not question them. It was the first law I’d ever learned.

He studied me for a moment, a calm curiosity in his golden eyes. A few seconds passed, and then he stepped forward, his hand reaching for my throat. His warm hand slid back against my neck to cup my spine against the palm of his hand, sending my pulse thudding wildly in my throat. He stepped into me then, his face nestling against the hollow behind my ear, and I stood rigid against him.

My hands rose almost of their own volition – whether to push him away or simply touch him, I didn’t know, but I forced myself to put them back at my sides, fingernails digging into my palms. I’d only been this close to him once; the day I’d been given my name. No one touched Leander—it wasn’t done—but he could certainly touch me.

He gave a low growl of warning, a deep rumble at the back of his throat, and then he took a deep breath, taking in my scent. My eyes were focused on Adala over his shoulder. She had cautiously raised her gaze, and now sat bent close to the ground, her eyes following Leander’s movements with a sense of bewilderment.

I didn’t dare move, but I sent her an answering look, one that meant caution. Leander wasn’t acting like himself.

There was a small movement from the attendants, and I glanced at them to find their eyes turned towards Leander and me. There were a few stray looks of shock and fear before they turned back to their rigid stance, eyes forward and unseeing. Their hesitant glances had done nothing to comfort me. I wasn’t the only one to notice his strange behavior.

My face was pressed perilously close to Leander’s collarbone. I could smell the scent of sun-parched grass, sweat, and cat on his skin. His hand was strong and still behind my neck, his skin hot where it pressed against me. I turned my face just a fraction of an inch to glance at the side of his strong jaw, and the movement made Leander’s breath still. I froze, partially turned towards him. A heartbeat, two, and then he let go, stepping back.

I looked up at him then, searching the expression on his face, and found his eyes heavily dilated, the gold of his eyes only a thin sliver around the dark of his pupil. His mouth was half-open and he gave a small huff of breath as he took another step back, and then turned towards the awaiting villagers.

Slowly, I unclenched my hands. My joints ached with the strain, and I felt warm liquid slide down the palms of my hands. I glanced down at them. Small red half-moons cut into my palm where I’d dug my fingernails into my skin. There was nothing I could do about it, so Iturned back to watch Leander, small drops of blood hitting the dirt at my feet.

“Stand.” He commanded as he stood before the tribe, mouth still half-parted, scenting the air. A few members of my tribe looked up, though no higher than Leander’s knees, and slowly began to rise.

“Stand!” he shouted this time, and the entire tribe scrambled to their feet, eyes lowered to the ground. I started at the roar of his voice as it echoed through the valley. I took a step towards Adala, my eyes focused on the lion god.  He stood staring at the crowd for a moment, lifting his face as he scented the air. His voice came again on a low growl.

“Family?” he asked. I frowned at the odd command. When no one answered, he turned and strode towards me once more, thrusting out a hand. He grabbed the bicep of my left arm and yanked me towards him, pushing me towards the awaiting crowd. “Family.” He ordered, abruptly sending me stumbling towards my tribe.

I was panting, my breaths coming in short nervous bursts as I stepped into the awaiting lines of villagers. I grasped my brother Harith’s wrist and dragged him towards the lion god. Harith was my elder brother – a full six summers older than I, and a full head and a half taller. He was nearly the same height as the lion god. His skin was the same golden brown as mine, but he sported an array of messy mocha waves atop his head, and deep coal eyes. I was the odd-ball out in my family. My brother’s gaze met mine as I pulled him from the crowd, and I flashed him a nervous look of apology. I brought him to the front of the lines and then went back for another sibling.

By the time I was done, my mother, father, grandparents, three brothers, and four sisters stood lined up before the others of my tribe. My mother held my little brother Hanif in her arms – he was still nursing. My sister Basima, only now walking, clung to her leg with one thumb tucked into her small mouth.  Except for me, my family bore a strong family resemblance to one another. We all sported the same golden tone of skin, but the rest of them bore dark hair and eyes. My hair was lighter, more sun-streaked, and my eyes, a pale shade of green. Harith’s young wife stood beside him, her own babe in arms.  He was the only one of my siblings yet married, though my elder sisters Safiya and Ruwa were both of age.

I turned back to Leander, standing before my family line. He glanced over his right shoulder towards Adala.

“No.” I said, stepping forward. “Friend, not family.”

Leander’s gaze fell on me again and he nodded once. He glanced to his left side and then back to me. “Come.”

I glanced back at my mother. Her eyes were wide, clutching Hanif tight to her chest, and I turned away from her, striding towards the lion god. I stepped beside him, turning to face my family, and waited.

Leander stalked forwar, slowly pacing down the line of my family. He paused before each one, staring them down though none of them would look him in the eyes. They were more obedient than I. He’d started with young Hanif, inspecting his chubby brown arms and head of thick brown locks. Next was Basima with her clear hazel eyes and long tangled curls. On down the line he went, turning their faces with his large hands and inspecting their lean labor-hardened limbs. He took particular care inspecting my younger brother Mahir who was only thirteen summers, and my sister Sadia who was but five.

He turned towards me, eyeing my older sisters. “These have no children?” he asked.

I glanced towards Safiya and Ruwa. “They are not yet married.” I offered. He turned towards me then, eyeing along the length of my naked body. I felt the flush rush back to my face.

“Age?”

“Safiya is twenty summers, Ruwa, nineteen.”

“Your age.”

I glanced at him nervously then, and met his eyes for only a moment.

“Eighteen this season.”

He seemed to consider that.

“The others?”

“Harith is twenty-three summers.” I nodded towards my elder brother and his wife. “His wife is nineteen, their son, a season.” I glanced towards my younger siblings. “Mahir is thirteen summers, Sadia, five – Basima, two – and Hanif is just over 2 seasons.” I continued down the line in a tumble of words. Leander turned back to my elder brother and his wife.

“A mated pair for how long?”

“A summer.” I replied, my gaze falling on the couple. This answer seemed to please Leander and he nodded once, leaning towards the pair to inspect my brother’s son. The small wiggling baby flailed his arms at the lion god’s presence and his face began to pinch into the beginnings of a wail. Leander stepped back at the sight and scowled at the infant.

“Stop it.”

My brother’s wife clutched the babe close in her arms, which only served to make the child angrier, and he let out a loud, wavering wail. Harith looked frightened – he was male and knew little of small children. I strode forward, past Leander’s shoulder and lifted little Sa’id from his mother’s arms. She clutched at him, but I sent her a warning look and she dropped her arms immediately. I tucked the small naked child against my shoulder and patted his back, bouncing him gently as I paced away from my brother and his wife.  She was new to motherhood, but I’d helped raise my younger siblings.

I whispered a soft lullaby of birds and sunshine in his velvet ear, and small hands tangled in my still-damp hair, he stilled against my shoulder. I continued to pat his little brown back though it stung the small cuts in my hand, singing the soft song under my breath, and let my gaze fall back to Leander.

The lion god watched me with a strange expression on his face. He seemed to consider little Sa’id in my arms, and his gaze swept the length of me. When his eyes met mine again there was a look I didn’t quite understand, and it sent my heart racing in my chest.

He turned to his attendants then and huffed an abrupt sound at them. The women stepped from the line up and strode forward with purpose in their step. Two grabbed Mahir’s scrawny wrists, the other two reaching for Sadia. My eyes went wide. He meant to have them. I turned towards my nearest sibling, handing off Sa’id to my grandmother, who cradled the now wailing babe in her arms and crooned softly in his ear. His back was a sticky wet mess of blood and I grimaced at the sight. I turned back to Leander and strode until I came nearly toe to toe with the lion god, my chest rising and falling in heavy breaths.

“Please.” I begged without touching him. There was a note of panic in my voice. “They are only children.”

He grabbed my arm then, in a painful grip, wrenching me out of his way.

“Leander!” I shouted, grabbing at his wrist where it clutched my arm. He paused at that, his fierce gaze falling to where my blood-stained hand grasped his bronze wrist. His eyes narrowed in fury and he let out a loud, halting roar near my face.

I didn’t breath. My hand slipped from his wrist, my fingers shaking. He shook my arm once, causing me to stumble against him, and growled down into my frightened expression.

“I am your god, and you will obey.”

I heard soft sobs behind me. Sadia. I stared up into Leander’s eyes, my own startled face staring back at me in their reflection. I let my gaze drop, letting the tension drop from my body. When my voice finally came out, it was breathy and soft against his chest.

“Yes, my Lord.”

Excerpt: The Soot Mother

What follows is an excerpt from “The Sooth Mother” a story that I’ve been fiddling around with for the last year or so. This is first draft, no editing, so forgive any grammatical mistakes or lack of polish. Enjoy some free reading. lol

The Soot Mother – Excerpt (First Chapter)

We are the mothers of soot-

We called it a birth, but the word on everyone’s mind was death.

We sing our mournful song-

We were only children; the seven of us, and at sixteen rotations, I was the oldest.

For we have lost our eggs-

Mohri Ibenmihl turned fifteen today.

And now our future’s gone-

The small, fair-haired girl could hardly walk under the strain of the globe of her stomach, and we six Nethenil did what we could to bear her towards the surface.

Cover your ears as we pass-

Our voices reverberated deep within the depths of the cavern, ringing out in haunting melody.

Turn your eyes to the ground-

Sweat beaded the young Mohri’s naked skin, and she gasped as she lost her footing, collapsing onto her knees. Nethenil Jaeli, the second eldest of the group, helped me to lift her from the stone, and together we bore her frail weight across our narrow shoulders.

She was dying.

We travel through the deeper Delves-

With the exception of Nethenil Jaeli, the other girls were too young to contribute, and instead, walked ahead of us, lending their nervous voices to our song. They were afraid—we all were.

To burn beneath the Suns.

The dark stone of the tunnel gleamed beneath our feet like a great black mirror, and as we neared the Genirbehr, the temperature climbed as quickly as our small sisterhood. It was the last bit of shelter before we hit daylight and a welcome respite along our journey.

We’d traveled for what seemed like days through the dark of the Delves, always heading up. There was no time to spare for rest; Mohri Ibenmihl wouldn’t survive much longer, and we had to reach the surface before she breathed her last.

“Sister,” I turned towards Nethenil Jaeli, peering around Mohri Ibenmihl’s limp head. “Help me set her on that rock over there—we have little time to prepare.” I nodded towards a large flat stone near the wall of the cavernous room.

Mohri Ibenmihl said nothing as we lifted her onto the warm rock, and left her there to address the anxious group of children. I watched her for a moment, though she did not acknowledge my gaze. We weren’t far from the surface, and already the radiation had begun to eat away at her skin. Blisters marred the delicate skin around her eyes and lips. We couldn’t afford to delay much longer.

This would be the first time many of the girls had left the Delves, and like Mohri Ibenmihl, many of them would not make a second.

My gaze fell over the small group as Nethenil Jaeli went around to each girl, making last minute adjustments to each where needed. Their hair, once a thick and lustrous black, had been shorn off with a crude blade—as close to their scalps as we dare. Already intricate silver patterns had been painted on the bare skin of their heads, and each wore only a short mesh skirt the color of the stone at our feet.

This is how I would remember many of them; frightened children sheared and painted for slaughter. Few would make it to the next Walk, and even fewer to the one after that.

I’d long ago lost track of how many Walks I’d attended, but this would be my first leading one. Our sisterhood had always been small, just a group of two or three at a time. Nethenil Kora had mothered us for as long as I could remember, but at the age of fifty rotations, she’d walked her last. Her ash now dusted the sun-baked surface, along with countless other Nethenil before her.

Millennia ago, the single sun of Jiha’Glohir had fractured into four separate burning balls in the sky. We had once orbited the great blue giant, but now, it orbited us. It had happened so long ago, there wasn’t a person alive who remembered how it had occurred, or the life we’d once had before it. We had only ancient folk stories told over cooking fires in the depths of the Delves to remind us of better days.

To say we’d survived the extinction of our planet would be overstating the matter. We’d endured. Survival was too pretty a word for it. Unlike our time before the Breaking, every one of my people knew the story of what came after.

When the Suns broke, the planet’s surface was bathed in radiation and heat—a great wave of destruction that turned everything it touched to ash. A few of my people, the Grigowyn, fled into the darkness of the Delves—great underground caverns deep within the core of Jiha’Glohir—and within their depths, they found the Astym.

The Astym were a race of dark-dwelling beings that once, had barely been able to stand the weak sunlight of our temperate planet. After the Suns broke, however, like us, they could no longer near the surface.  Cast together in darkness, the two species made a pact.

Though the Astym were a frail species—they were also curious, and clever. Unlike the Grigowyn, whose children must be taught by the generation before it, the Astym had a race memory. Each Astym was born with the all the knowledge and memories of those before it, and it was the Astym that authored the written pact between our peoples.

In exchange for shelter from the unbearable surface of the planet, the Grigowyn signed themselves away to an eternity of rule under the Houses of the Mohri, and in only a generation, we had come to revere the child-like savants as living Gods. They were ancient, forgotten beings, hidden away in the dark depths of Jiha’Glohir. They were here before the first of the Grigowyn had been born to our world, and had survived many destructive events before the Breaking. We saw them as our one hope to survive.

For all their inherent strengths, however, a single, fatal, design flaw plagued the Astym.

Though we referred to them as female, the Astym had no gender. They resembled small children, and at 15 rotations, each began to wither and die. The Astym lifespan was short, and their bodies, pone to premature failure.

The Astym reproduced only once in their lifetimes, and that reproduction could only occur at the time of death—and only under the intense heat of our suns. In essence, each Astym replaced itself within the collective with an exact genetic clone, and if the cycle did not complete for any reason, the loss of that life could not be recovered.

For this reason, the greatest crime in our world was to cause the premature death of an Astym. It was this crime that had made us Nethenil.

At the conception of the Avelion Pact—the contract that bound all Grigowyn to a Mohri House—a caste system had been put into place. At the top of the castes sat the Mohri: the Astym. Below that, were the Gohri: their Grigowyn caretakers. Each was hand-chosen by the head of each Mohri House, and they were indulged much like coddled pets. Then, there were the Ihptorin: the male Grigowyn. The Ihptorin were the labor class of the houses—working as ore miners, hunters, and artisans. They were traded for breeding stock to ensure Gohri bloodlines, and used as a status symbol between the houses.

At the bottom of the castes were the Nethenil: the casteless. We were the unfortunate caretakers of dead Mohri. Somehow, our intended charges had been lost—killed, or had simply never been born. By Astym law, we were considered filth, and according to their dark god, be it accident, or intended harm, any Gohri that lacked a Mohri charge, was a murderer.

Many of us were caste as Nethenil from birth. Our mothers had provided too many daughters, or a Nethenil had failed a Walk, and an egg was lost—and so from the moment of our conception, we were slated for death.

The other castes were not permitted acknowledge us. We were but ghosts—ash floating in the wind—Soot Mothers. We were no longer seen or heard. If a house needed a body dumped, or a Mohri was sent to Walk, a note, smudged with ash would be dropped in the tunnels, and we Nethenil would respond without word.

We were a caste of desperate, starving nomads. We paced the Delves from House to House, caring for the dead—for death, was our only trade.

The Mohri need not put the casteless to death—the Delves were a dangerous place outside the Houses. There were rarely more than a handful of Nethenil per Mohri House. Most of us starved, succumbed to disease, fell to cave-ins, or burned.

For all our despair, however, we Nethenil were charged with a single task – the most sacred to our people – that no others were permitted to do. We Walked. The Astym could not bear the radiation or heat of our suns, and because even we Grigowyn often succumbed to it, the Gohri and the Ihptorin could not be risked to this task.

Unfortunately, it was a necessity. If we did not Walk, the Astym would die without progeny, and it was blasphemous to even consider the possibility. They were our Gods, our saviors in the dark of the Delves. It was our burden, and without our sacrifice, the whole system would fall apart.

The irony was that, until the Avelion Pact, the Astym had been a race slated for extinction. Without it, the Grigowyn would only have had to wait, and the Astym would have died off in a single generation. Fifteen years, and we’d have been free – but the Grigowyn were a compassionate race at heart. We’d been pulled in by the Astym’s child-like demeanor, and signed away the future of our species without hesitation.

It was hard to know how long ago the changes to Jiha’Glohir had taken place. My people had no written language, and with no day or night cycle, time was a concept few of us observed. We counted our time in rotations; at the end of each, the greater sun of the four would pass before the Genirbehr—the entrance to our cave system—and we’d know that a new cycle had begun. However, the count from the time of the many, to now, was vast, and long ago forgotten. We only knew that the Breaking had happened long ago—long enough, that the Grigowyn had begun to adapt to the surface heat and radiation.

We weren’t immune, but we’d found that we could stave off the effects for short periods.

“Nethenil, gather.” I motioned for the children to gather around me, and I sat on the warm stone beneath my feet at the center of the cavern. A few moments passed while the children huddled in around me in a great circle.

“I know you’re frightened—we all are. You may pass this day. I have walked more times than can be remembered, and I have seen few Nethenil return from their first Walk.” I said, and reached out to touch the clasped hands of one of the girls. “Ease your hearts. The dark will come; you need not fret over it. If you cannot stay calm, it will leave you. Do not allow fear to rule your hearts, and you will return safely.”

I nodded towards Nethenil Jaeli, at the rear of the group, and quietly, she stood to rummage around in the small pack she carried on her belt.

“In a moment Nethenil Jaeli will hand each of you an Iiviib Root. It will help to stave off the pain of the scarring. Though it is only a momentary pain, it will be intense, and if you are unprepared, you will lose the dark to it.” I turned my head to the side to show the girls the intricate pattern of scars that covered my scalp, and one of the smaller girls reached out to trace the patterns with her small fingertips.

“Hair burns off on the surface, as does any material you may take with you. That is why we wear the Raii-Enibra.” I explained as I pointed to the delicate latticework of metal mesh I wore that served as a skirt. “The Syn Ore the off-worlders come here to trade for does not melt in our environment like other materials. It burns with an intense heat, and it will cause pain, but it will not harm you as long as the dark is with you. “

I reached down to the small metal trinket hooked onto the belt of my skirt, and removed it, holding it up for the group to see.

“Stay aware of the markers you wear at your hip. They are your warning. When it falls from your body, you must return to the Genirbehr.” I cautioned. “The dark makes us immune to the heat and radiation of the surface, but it is only for a short while. When the marker falls, your time is up. If you fail to heed this warning, you will burn with the Mohri.”

I glanced around the small group for a moment.

“May the dark keep you.”

“Darkness keep us.” The girls chorused.

I rose to my feet as Nethenil Jaeli handed out the last of the roots, and I strode to her side.

“Did you finish checking them?”

“Yes, they should be fine.” She replied. The metallic paint used to pattern their skin was not truly paint, but a volatile mix of ores that would ignite and burn in a flash under the heat of our suns. We used it to inscribe the marks of our shame onto our scalps, branding us as Nethenil. It was this scarring that made our first Walks so deadly. The momentary torment of the scarring often broke the concentration of the girls, and if they could not stay calm, they would lose their only protection.

“Good. I must attend to Mohri Ibenmihl. Please, keep them calm until I am finished.”

Nethenil Jaeli nodded, and I turned to the Mohri, waiting quietly at the edge of the room. I strode forward to kneel at her feet, and pressed my forehead to the stone beneath them.

“Let the dark gods hear my prayer, and return the dead to your sight.” I recited, and then sat back on my heels, coming face to face with Mohri Ibenmihl for the first time.

Slowly, her gaze rose to meet mine, and for the brief moment, I was acknowledged into existence.

“I see ash before my view, and ask of it what it requires.” Mohri Ibenmihl responded in the custom of the ritual. The strain on her face was evident, and though she looked at me, she could no longer see. Already the radiation had taken her eyes. They were sunken and clouded, boiled in her skull.

“I ask the name of your descendent, so that I may whisper it to the ash, and all may know her.”

“Mohri Senlehl.” She turned her gaze back to the stone, and the acknowledgement was gone, the ritual complete.

I rose to my feet as Nethenil Jaeli approached, and with little hesitation, we took up our burden for the last time.

“It is time.” I called to the girls as we passed their huddled mass, and one by one, they fell into step behind us, a procession born of death and anxious with hope for the next generation of Mohri.

A thin veil—a small, protective shimmer in the sweltering air—masked the entrance to the cavern. It was a testament to long ago forgotten forces the Grigowyn had once mastered. Little remained of these old ways, and what little I knew had been passed down to me by Nethenil Kora. It was knowledge I had been entrusted with, along with a single task; one I would trade my soul for in order to accomplish. Today, I would do the unthinkable.

The barrier gave a bit of resistance as I passed through it and out into the open ash fields of Jiha’Glohir, and as I stepped into the light, the darkness overcame me.

In reaction to the radiation of our broken suns, my skin shot black—the color of burned stone—and a dark film rose to protect my eyes from the light. The scars of my scalp and the metal of my skirt burned bright as coals against the dark of my skin. The heat was intense, a searing pain that engulfed every inch of my body, but I `was used to the pain, and grit my teeth as I helped Nethenil Jaeli haul Mohri Ibenmihl beyond the veil.

Her scream was brief – a short punctuation to the end of her life as her body burned, and turned to dust in the blink of an eye. I brushed the ash from my shoulders, and hefted the large blackened egg she’d left in her wake into my arms. It’s surface bubbled like tar as the ash of her mother burned from the hard shell.

It would be several more minutes before the heat would work its course and trigger the gestation of Mohri Senlehl. I stood to the side, and watched the procession of Nethenil as they took their first steps onto the surface of their home planet.

The first stepped through uneventfully—a flash of fire, and the glow of ore—and she glanced around with wide eyes at the barren plain around us. Forgotten cities, burned black and hollow, sat on the horizon, and seemed to writhe in the waves of heat.

The next three didn’t make it as far. They’d stepped out cautiously into the heat, and panicked when the pain hit them. The darkness fled from their skin, and limbs beyond the veil withered and baked in mere seconds. Nethenil Jaeli, set with her task, pulled the remainder of the convulsing bodies into the sun, and watched them turn to ash with little compassion. A Nethenil who could not Walk, was of no use to us.

Of the six Nethenil that stepped beyond the veil that day, three survived.

“Sister.” I called out to Nethenil Jaeli, and hefted the heavy egg higher in my arms. She turned in my direction, our younger sister at her side. “Show Nethenil Ahven how to check the supply orders, I’m going to run a visual on the landing site.”

“Are you sure? It’s a ways out.” Nethenil Jaeli responded, concern in her expression.

“I’ll be alright. I think an ash storm may be on its way, and you’ve got your hands full already. Keep an eye on our sister, and I’ll return quickly.” I nodded towards Nethenil Ahven, and turned to stride farther out into the ash plain.

The ground beneath my feet was soft with a millennia of ash coating its surface, and my feet sunk easily into the searing gray. Traversing the surface any length of distance was a struggle, and made more difficult by the heavy burden in my arms. I searched the horizon, and saw the telltale blurry haze that signaled an ash storm was imminent. I hadn’t been lying about the danger. I was counting on it.

Ash storms were deadly. A searing cloud of ash, brought up from the surface by the solar winds could blind and suffocate in seconds.

I glanced down at the egg in my arms. It was almost time. Tiny specks of molten ore flecked the shell of the egg, and began to glow with heat—a sign that Mohri Senlehl had finally begun her short life.

I dragged my feet through the ash as I walked, encountering little resistance from the fine particles until at last, my toes hit upon something buried beneath the surface. I stopped, and set down the egg, nesting it between my feet, and turned to glance towards the Genirbehr. Some hundred feet away, my sisters were huddled around a group of stones set along the edge of the veil. Both were intent upon the placement and counting of the stones, marking the orders of off-worlders who would be returning to trade for ore.

Off-worlders were not permitted to enter the Delves, and with no written language of our own, taking orders had become somewhat of a challenge. Off-worlders could only visit the surface of Jiha’Glohir for a short time, even with their protective suits, so the timing of meet-and-greets had to be timed carefully.

The first off-worlders to reach our planet nearly a hundred years ago had strived to teach us their language, and with a bit of trial and error, a method was found in the placing of small stones to help us communicate. Unfortunately, with the high fatality rate of the Nethenil, it was difficult for us to learn a spoken or written language between our species.

After a while, most traders picked up the basics of our speech, and in return, we’d done our best to pass on their counting system between our sisterhoods. Only the oldest of the Nethenil, such as Nethenil Kora, had picked up enough of the alien speech to be able to communicate fluently. She’d taught me all she’d known, but even that was only the basics.

The ash storm raged in the distance, drawing nearer by the minute. I turned my back to my sisters and knelt over the egg at my feet to lift the corner of the object hidden in the ash. A few more seconds.

This moment had been planned for nearly three decades—waiting for the right conditions—the perfect opportunity. Born in secret, deep within the Delves, my mother, Nethenil Kora, had raised me outside the Houses of the Mohri. I was a true casteless—the only Grigowyn born and raised outside the Avelion Pact since its conception—and all for this moment.

The ash storm hit with silent force, and I ripped the hidden off-worlder helmet from beneath the layers of ash at my feet, and pulled it over my head. As the seals locked, I gasped for breath, and opened my eyes. A massive swirl of gray blanketed everything around me. I couldn’t even see the egg at my feet, but I felt its searing surface against my calves.

I took a deep breath, and then with words and movements older than the Breaking, I called on the ancient forces long lost to the Grigowyn, and prayed for an answer. The marker fell from my hip, I felt it drop, and knew I was running out of time.

“Noen.”  As I spoke the first word of the ritual, I traced around the top of the egg, and the shell lit up like a trail of burning embers beneath my fingertips. I inscribed the ancient pattern along the surface of the egg until it burned like a beacon in the gray ash of the storm. The egg was a catalyst in a ritual passed down for hundreds of generations, since the time of the Breaking—it was an exchange—a borrowing of life. The words were of a language long since forgotten to our kind, used here to summon up lost magics.

Break. Take. Transfer. Burn the eldest bloodline back to its beginning, and sacrifice the embers for the place and time of its conception. Old Ones hear my plea, and undo all that has been written.

I spoke the final word, and clutching the egg to my chest, I crushed it, just as the burning took me.

Excerpt: The Madigan Witch

What follows is an excerpt from “The Madigan Witch” a story that’s been playing around in my brain for the last couple of days. I wrote it in the last hour. First draft – no editing. So forgive me if it’s lacking a little polish. I’m always talking about my writing and figured I’d take some time to share a little. It is an unfortunate coincidence that the character name and genre closely resemble a book I recently reviewed, but both were decided on BEFORE I’d read the book, and you know what they say about originality: it doesn’t exist anymore. So rather than fret over the name, I’m just going to let the story speak for itself and not worry about the similarity.

The Madigan Witch – Excerpt

My name is Molly Madigan. I am 24, and I don’t believe in ghosts. I repeated the words like a mantra in my head. A warm August breeze swept through the two-inch gap in my car window, lifting a russet strand of hair, and sent it sliding across the bridge of my nose. Almost absently I tucked it back behind my ear, but stubborn, it immediately slipped out and fell across my cheek again.

I could do this. I’d done it dozens of times. I glanced out the passenger side of my car towards the small suburban home that lay across a neatly-mowed lawn. It was a small one-story house. Two six-paned windows stared out across the lawn in my direction, trimmed in white and set against a deep gray background. Three short concrete steps lead the way to the brand-new screen door.

Sitting on those steps was a small boy. I grimaced. I hated working with children. With a resigned sigh, I turned away from the picture of the cozy gray house and slipped out the driver’s side door.

“Hey, Olly.” A familiar voice called from just down the sidewalk, and I turned to see Oliver Crewe as he slammed shut the door on his blue SUV. He’d called me that since grade school. He was a grown man and still thought it was funny that people called us ‘Olly and Oliver’. I didn’t have the heart to ruin his fun. Oliver was a great guy; smart, dependable, and fun to be around. He was also firmly in the ‘friend’ box.

A grin spread slowly across my face. I turned away from him as I popped open the trunk of my car and pulled out the silver hard-sided case that housed my equipment, but glanced back over my shoulder. “Who’s with us tonight?” I asked as I slammed the trunk of my car closed again and hefted the equipment a little higher.

“What, no hello? No ‘Hey Oliver, you’re looking particularly handsome today’.”

“I saw you four hours ago. You really need to talk to someone about that separation anxiety.”

Oliver reached out and plopped a black baseball cap over my hair and tapped on the brim. “What can I say? I’m trying to keep in touch with my feminine side. Not my fault she happens to be a redhead.” He grinned, jogged back to his SUV, and began to rummage around in the backseat, no doubt gathering more equipment.

I shook my head and spared a glance towards the house. The kid was still sitting on the front steps. Damnit. “So, who’s the crew?” I called to Oliver as I turned back towards the blue SUV and rounded the open door to watch him gather the equipment. He poked his head out the door and squinted against the sun over my shoulder. We had maybe two hours before sunset.

“Eric and Claire. Small house, small crew.” He shrugged in lieu of an explanation.

Shit. I didn’t mind Eric, he was a bit of a geek and got a little over-zealous at times, but he was good people. Claire, I couldn’t stand. She was one of those women who liked to be friends with everyone even if she had nothing in common with them.  Most nights I’d spent with Claire consisted of listening to her talk about her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, or sitting on the floor of the bathroom trying to get her to stop bawling her eyes out after she’d quite literally scared herself snotless. It was going to be a long night.

“Who’s got lead?” I asked as I reached around Oliver’s athletic form and grabbed a few coils of cable from the backseat.

“Want to flip for it?”

“Not really.”

“Aw, come on Olly. They get so excited when you open your mouth and words come out.” Oliver laughed and shot me a cheeky grin.

“I am not my great grandmother, and I’m getting tired of explaining that to every call we get. Nan was as much a witch as I am a brunette.” I snapped out the words in irritation, and Oliver shrugged, arms heavy with equipment, and then kicked the car door closed with a backwards tap of his boot.

“I know,” he said solemnly and shot me an apologetic smile, “but your Nan is the reason we get half the calls we do. She had a reputation around here. It doesn’t hurt to pander a bit to the customers.”

“I’m taking HQ.” I said definitively. There was no way in hell he was going to get me to run lead with a kid in the house.

“Fine, but you have to take the evidence too.”

“Deal.”

We trudged up the curb and onto the front lawn, abandoning our equipment into a well-organized pile in the vivid grass just as the team van pulled around the corner of the block. Before Eric and Claire had even pulled up to the house, Oliver was signaling them to take care of the equipment.

“You’re with me for meet and greet.” He said, reaching out to tap on the brim of my baseball cap again.

I adjusted the cap that had ‘Grace Cape Paranormal Society’ emblazoned across the front in creepy white font, and jogged to fall into step behind him. As we came to the front door, I hung back a few paces, just out of reach of the front steps. The kid hadn’t moved an inch and stared down at his feet without a word.

Oliver punched a finger at the doorbell, and stepped down off the steps as well, waiting for the owners to answer the door.

“Cute place.” Oliver commented over his shoulder. A voice called out inside the house but I couldn’t make out the words. “You think it’s haunted?” He wiggled his eyebrows.

I glanced away from the kid on the steps just as he lifted his gaze to Oliver. “Not a chance. Building’s too new.”

“Damn. You’re usually right about these things. Guess we’ll be chasing dust specks all night.”

I snorted in reply. That was Oliver’s way of reminding me of Nan again. He was still hoping I’d step up and take lead. Fat chance. I think in a way Oliver believed the stories about the great Molly Madigan. She’d been born at the turn of the century, back when séances were first coming into popularity, and my Nan, the origin of my namesake, had frequented all sorts of ‘ghost talks’ in her twenties.

They’d called her a medium back in those days, then as the decades wore on, a sensitive, and eventually when she was long passed, a witch. People loved to romanticize those old crazy stories where people sat in rooms, ten to a table, and called upon the spirits of people long dead.

In reality, my Nan was an outgoing, independent woman fascinated with the occult. She wasn’t a psychic, medium or sensitive, and she certainly wasn’t a witch.

I was pulled out of my thoughts as the front door to the small gray suburban home opened, and a thin, nervous woman greeted us. She was young, probably around my age, and wore a pastel cardigan. Great. She was one of those. New couples were a pain in the ass. Especially if-

A little girl’s wail sounded in the background, and the young woman smiled apologetically at us. “Sorry. Hi, come on in, I’ll be right back.” Not waiting for an answer, she turned from the door and disappeared down a narrow hallway towards the back of the house.

Just what I needed. Another kid.

Oliver turned to shrug at me over his shoulder and stepped up the stairs and into the house.

“This sucks.” I muttered under my breath, and steeled myself as I walked forward, stomping up the front steps and straight through the kid sitting on the middle step.

Like I said before, my name is Molly Madigan. I am 24, and I don’t believe in ghosts. Saying you believe in ghosts is idiotic. It’s like saying you believe in gravity. It doesn’t matter what you think – they’re there every god-damned second of the day, belief or not.