Chapter Preview: Bitten

Enjoy this free preview of the bestselling Bitten:

 

Chapter I

 

Madeline Leftwich sat at the train station every day at exactly thirteen minutes past midnight. The faded brown bench on which she sat did not often have consistent occupants, as transients and hobos were sparse this far north.

But there she sat, hands crossed over her lap. The floral pattern of the thick skirt she wore was handmade. Buckles and clasps galore adorned the uneven cut and fold of the garment. Her face possessed an absent quality––not that characteristics were missing, but instead a vacancy of spirit. That bench meant a great deal to her. This was the very place that childhood was left behind.

It had been exactly thirty-nine years since her mother placed her on that very bench, brushed back her hair, and told her everything was going to be alright. She said she would be right back. A promise to a child is a sacred thing. Even as an adult, Madeline couldn’t tear herself away from the compulsion to come wait for her mother every day.

The whistle blew each night as the passenger train rolled into town. Cold air rained down upon the open station. Often, sheets of ice were expelled from the track, lining the waiting area. Attendants were accustomed to her presence. Some even offered her coffee in the wee hours of the morning when they had no other friend.

However, this night she was quite alone.

The heavy bleating of the distant train horn filled the night, filtering through a cloudy fog. The susceptible and otherwise occupied Ms. Leftwich was not yet privy to the gossip of the town. Murder, a topic of great concern no matter the venue, would be especially virulent in such a small community. Distance revealed a dark object hurtling through the night, steam and precipitation sluicing from the hot steel.

The station was empty.

A half-lit banister showed the narrow, icy path that crawled back out to the blacktop just outside the front of the station. She watched the train collide with the open air of the darkness, the squeal of the tight brakes announcing its arrival with startling clarity. Heavy doors opened; artificial light spilled from the side of the train.

Madeline watched the open door––waiting.

Seconds passed into minutes; yet, there was no sound external to the cold nature of Minnesota. Winter had a feeling all its own. Groaning trees fought against the arctic grip of snow and ice. Lakes moving in the distance, far beneath the heavy weight of the ice that had taken residence upon them, filled the night.

Someone stepped out. Her coat was wrapped tightly around her lithe frame. Sandy blonde hair was tucked beneath a brown wool cap. The scarf around her neck, braided and frayed, looked as if it’d been sewn by someone she knew well––not the simple manufacture of mass production. Brown eyes watched the empty train station with great interest and a precision that marked her immediately as more than a mere observer.

A bulge at her side revealed a weapon. The simple black bag slung over the shoulder of her long brown trench coat made her appear to be a woman on the run––or perhaps one who simply liked to travel light.

She made her way toward Madeline. Her voice was sweet, her tone full of purpose. “Excuse me, ma’am. Is this Locke? Locke, Minnesota?”

Ms. Leftwich watched the woman with wide eyes that pooled with tears. She was severely confused. Was this her mother? She hesitated. This woman was younger––younger than she was. Was this possible? A mother who was younger than you?

“Ma’am, I…”

“Mother?” Madeline asked, her voice rising shrilly.

“Pardon me?”

Madeline didn’t stand; instead, she shuffled her purse at her waist. “Are you my mother? You left me here a long time ago. Said you would be back…said you would be back soon.”

Staring into the vacant eyes of Madeline Leftwich, it took the woman a moment of complete incomprehensibility to see that there wasn’t much left. All that remained was a sad example of what could laughingly be called a life.

“No. I’m very sorry. I’m not….”

Madeline stood quickly, her features scrunching in anger. “Why would you lie to me? Why would you leave me here? Why?”

“Ma’am, my name is Lauren Westlake. And I am neither your mother nor a trained therapist. Can you tell me if this is Locke?”

Madeline interrupted Lauren. Her words were filled with venomous rage. “Don’t pretend I’m a child. I know where I am. I know who I am. Just because you’re my mother, doesn’t mean you can leave me behind.”

Lauren looked at the woman in a mixture of shock and horror. She resisted the urge to physically restrain the woman, concerned about the reaction she might have. “What’s your name?”

Madeline’s face was the very picture of surprise.

“You don’t remember your daughter’s name?”

Lauren was uncertain how much further this charade should be carried, whether or not disengaging from the woman would be simpler. Looking at the woman carefully, she noticed that her clothing was handmade. The name Madeline was sewn into the breast of her outermost jacket. Stifling an irritated sigh, she continued. “Madeline. Your name is Madeline.”

And then as quickly as the madness had come, it dissipated. “Why are you talking to me?”

“Excuse me. I….”

Madeline looked at Lauren strangely and stood, gathering her belongings. She moved past Lauren and out into the night as if the interaction didn’t even happen.

Lauren watched her go, scrutinizing the entire exchange in her own mind. Shaking her head, she adjusted the bag at her back and moved forward past the dock of the train station and into the cold area just above it.

Ms. Leftwich was nowhere to be seen.

As far as Lauren was concerned, that was for the best.

The night was cold. A heavy veil of fog seemed to grow like a behemoth. She looked down the lane and saw only two endless views of darkness. The blacktop was crystalline, frozen precipitation having created an icy sheet better suited for ice skating than vehicular travel.

“Not exactly a warm welcome,” she muttered, drawing the top of her coat closer to her face. There were muffled sounds in the distance––muted voices. Sounds that could originate from only one kind of establishment: a bar. Lowering her head and pulling the strap of her bag tight, Lauren soldiered on.

 

MADELINE MADE a mistake that would cost her life. Each night she would wait for the sun to rise and then scamper home, ashamed. This night, her emotions got the better of her. Soon, she would now find herself in the presence of a creature of the night, one that would come to haunt and terrorize the inhabitants of the small town of Locke.

The moon overhead stung the fog, driving the ethereal wisps from its view. Wide and threatening, it looked peaceful when viewed in the company of others, in the arms of a lover perhaps. To Madeline Leftwich, a woman lost in her own mind, it was a portent of doom.

Thick branches grew over the sorry excuse for a path she walked each day. By daylight, the intricacies could be gleaned; at night, it was a haunted maze littered with obstructions and potential trip falls.

Her shoes were not suited for hiking through the woods at breakneck speeds, though that is what Madeline would need that night. When she paused at the center of the trail to make sure she wasn’t being followed, the dead silence of the night became a far more frightening sound.

“Who’s there?” she half-whispered, her voice cracking.

A branch snapped, frost claiming yet another soldier.

Another sound echoed in the night; this time much heavier, like weight lingering as a fledging branch gasped for its last breath before being trampled. She pulled her bag close to her chest, her face twisting in fear. Her eyes were wide as she searched the night frantically. “There’s nothing there,” she whispered, tearing her eyes away from the tree line.

Continuing forward, her steps were quicker, more deliberate. The woods around her thinned the faster she walked, white-speckled pines giving way to broken branches. The trail widened in places, enough that little pockets of dirt and soil were pushed up from use.

As if something were urging her forward, she began to run slightly, her breath expelled in heavy puffs of condensed air. She wheezed then––a panicked, hiccupping sound that erupted deep from within her chest.

And that was when she heard the first growl. There was something wrong with it. It sounded like an animal, the guttural low pitches. However, there was something human to it, a strange gargling sound.

Her feet were not as sure beneath her as she thought. The tips of her fabric shoes dug into the hard soil, making her wince in pain. Biting her lip hard, she forged forward, stumbling into an open area of the trail.

Trees crowded the edges of her vision and the clearing. The trail continued on the way she had been trampling, and then split suddenly into two smaller trails. The fog hung ahead of her, pulling away as if it were an entity all its own.

Silence permeated the area.

And then the growl came again. It sounded hungry, desperate; it was the pinnacle of auditory fear. “Who’s there? What? Why are you hiding?” She whimpered. “Please. Please.”

It seemed to come from all around her, enveloping the cold night air. The fog stirred; deep in its belly a shadow formed. Tall and hunched, it was a mass of darkness shaped like a man. Heavy in the shoulders, spines seemed to rise unevenly from the arms and body. Its head was lowered and the knees bowed as if it were ready to pounce.

It did not.

The figure stood, chest heaving. It was safely veiled by the fog bank. Hands that seemed to melt into long thin claws were obscured by the swirling mass of miasma ebbing and flowing within.

Her mouth opened, but no words came out.

Her mind raced. Panicked thoughts flooded her mind, erasing judgment and reason. She watched helplessly.

It took a single step forward.

Madeline Leftwich wasn’t a god-fearing woman. In point of fact, until that moment she never thought about death. Now, when confronted with something drawn from nightmares, her pulse raced and she realized, with a desperate certainty, that she wished to live.

The rain trickled then, a fat droplet striking her hair. Her feet hit the ground hard. She abandoned her bag. Churning, her feet dug into the hard winter earth. Her breath sputtered in front of her in rapid fits of exploding clouds. She whimpered as she ran, tears running down her face as trees slapped her hard across her cold, sensitive features; some left bruises, others broke skin.

The forest was now alive with sound.

Creatures hooted and hollered in the night.

They knew something was happening.

She could hear herself breathing.

She wouldn’t last much longer.

Her foot caught something lodged deep within the frozen ground. The world spun in circles as her back collided with the unforgiving earth.

Frightened and defeated, she kept very still. Where she had landed proved defensible: high brush bristling with heavy branches and evergreen leaves that hid her partly from view.

The forest beat a heavy drum.

Footfalls of animals loose in the night filled the air. There was one set of footsteps that rung above the others: something primal, something large. She covered her mouth with her hand. Pressing tightly, she watched as a shadow crept across her vision.

She peered out the side of the brush.

It stood like a man.

Up close the fur was matted, uneven, missing in some places. The legs were muscular and covered in fabrics that seemed to sluice fluid. Hemorrhaging from the torso, it moved with a predator’s grace.

Its face was covered in shadow.

Madeline felt a scream rise from deep in her chest and she pressed her hand harder against her mouth. Closing her eyes, tears streamed from them. Her chest heaved, but she tried not to move, locking her body into a paralysis.

She couldn’t tear her eyes away from it.

Turning, the face was still well hidden.

Long slender fingers, like dull blades, bounced against the creature’s legs. The clothing was torn and dirty. A smell emanated from it that could only be described as nausea in the depths of a septic tank. Lifting its head, it sniffed the air, a hood pressing against its mangled hair.

Her breath caught in her throat.

The slow turn of the creature and the bend of its legs as it lowered closer to the ground was more than Madeline could take. And before she could remove her hand from her mouth to scream, it was upon her.

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Frighten is now available!

Frighten is now available!

Lauren’s time in San Francisco hasn’t gone as planned. After reconnecting with her brother Billy and discovering that vampires are at the heart of the murders in the foggy city, Lauren is faced with a terrible decision that will affect her career. Can she find a way to bring the killers to justice? Will she be able to find the Stranger in time to stop the nightmares in San Francisco?

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Lauren’s pursuit of the Stranger has led to Las Vegas. A series of supernatural murders leads the team to believe that warlocks are behind the deaths. The return of an old ally and a new threat complicates Lauren’s investigation. Can she stop what’s coming in time to avert the apocalypse?

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Re-release: Hobbes Family

Re-release: Hobbes Family

Synopsis: The world had ended abruptly and without warning. How will a family navigate a world that seems bent on destroying them? Follow them in this exciting new serial adventure.

 

An excerpt from Hobbes Family:

As Michael looked out the broken window of the convenience store, he grimaced. The tall blue oaks that surrounded the building on two sides were dusted with frost; the ground was an amalgam of crystal sheets broken only by brave stalks of undergrowth that dared the frigid touch of the gales. The building wouldn’t serve as a long-term solution. However, it would be useful until the weather broke.

The trek out of the suburban areas began in the family Subaru. Highway 99 was so overrun with smoldering and abandoned vehicles that the Hobbes family was forced to make the remainder of the trek on foot. The winter months proved disastrous. Often, the snow levels came down into the valley for a day, sprinkling unsuspecting areas with brief, beautiful moments of frozen precipitation.

This was different.

A storm settled in the valley, trapped and angry.

When the sun managed to peek through the clouds above, it almost felt bearable. But the great star was soon obfuscated behind a gray wall once more, bloated and teeming with fury as a fresh zephyr of snow and blinding particulates dragged the valley.

Michael looked over at his wife. Susanna’s high cheekbones were prominent and the sallowness of her cheeks from periodic starvation saddened Michael as much as he was capable.

He hadn’t fared much better.

His beard grew in with dark clumps and gray patches; his bedraggled hair was curly in places despite its length. Were it on purpose, he imagined Susanna running her long fingers through it and calling it cute.

The store weathered the apocalypse.

Shelves remained intact for the most part, though they were barren fields. Coolers were popped open. Overturned cans, smashed and left for dead, littered the floor.

This was someone else’s last stand.

 

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Re-release: The Little Artisan

Re-release: The Little Artisan

Synopsis: Not all fairy tales involve young princesses waiting to be swept off their feet by a prince. Some heroines want to change the world. Camille has watched her village, and the surrounding area, slowly wilt from years of unrelenting sun and no rain. Mein was once a land filled with magic and dense forests filled with fantastical creatures. Now, it suffers in silence. Camille believes that she can change their fate by creating a machine to make it rain once more. However, the village is suspicious of her efforts, concerned that her deep love of science will anger the magicks that once protected them. She will have to learn to stand tall and believe in herself if the world is to ever change.

 

An excerpt from The Little Artisan:

She paused in front of the entrance; her heart fluttered and her stomach churned. So close. All of the trials and tinkering and prototypes would soon be put to the test.

Taking a deep breath, she pushed aside the curtain and stepped inside. It was bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside. Mirrors covered all of the walls, which converged on a single hallway leading deeper into the tent.

Camille headed down the hallway. Its walls were also covered with mirrors, creating a maze of kaleidoscope images. She proceeded forward slowly, restraining her impulse to run.

A voice emerged from farther ahead.

“Maker. Artisan. Tinker. Why have you come?”

“For the final piece.”

“The final piece to what?”

“To my Rainmaker.”

Peeling laughter filled the hallway.

“You continue on this fool’s errand even though everyone doubts you,” called the Trickster.

Camille paused.

She didn’t give much thought to what others thought. Occasionally, she would consider how the townspeople might react if the Rainmaker worked; otherwise, she only felt sad when she thought about the people of Mein because they were too frightened to try anything, to take real chances.

“I can make a difference,” she responded.

“Why would you wish to make a difference when no one else will care?” boomed a voice that suggested a large being.

Camille couldn’t even comprehend such a position. She didn’t require others to validate who she was; she did what she thought was necessary. “I have no need of riddles, questions, or condemnations. I only need the final piece. I only need fuel.”

“Fuel?” parroted the Trickster.

Camille noticed a small shadow at the corner of the hallway. Creeping close, she found a small knob attached to a long, thin mirror. She pushed it and the mirror creaked and receded, revealing yet another hallway.

The hallway was unlit except for a faint light at the end. She stumbled forward, feeling the walls to stay upright. Camille turned as the door she came through closed; she could no longer hear the sounds outside the tent. She pushed on through the darkness until the hallway terminated in an open room with a tall chair at its center.  A small figure with sandy red hair and a thick beard sat atop it.

“You’re the Trickster?” asked Camille.

The Trickster hopped down, revealing that he was nearly a head shorter than the little artisan. A jagged scar ran from his nose to his chin, giving him a suspicious look despite his otherwise handsome features and green eyes. “I see that you’ve seen past my mirrors, little artisan.”

Camille didn’t like it when people other than her father called her little artisan. “Do you have fuel?”

He shoved his stubby hands into his pockets. “I do indeed. What do you plan on doing with it?”

Frustration itched at her. “I need it for the Rainmaker.”

“Ah, for your weather machine.”

She looked around the small room and saw a cot nestled next to shelves upon shelves of books. “You live here?”

“Our sleepy little village wouldn’t suffer an imp, so I hide behind my mirrors.”

She felt a stab of sympathy for the little man.

“I’m sorry that you must hide who you are.”

The Trickster shrugged. “We all hide a part of who we are. Some must be more cautious than others.”

Camille walked to the bookcase and touched the spines.

“I don’t hide who I am.”

“I suppose that is why we fear you.”

She turned around, surprised. “Fear me?”

He nodded and paced to a long desk with open books stacked on it. “Knowing oneself is a hardship. It forces us to face parts of ourselves we may not like, so we hide behind our fear. Someone who doesn’t hide like we do is certainly to be feared.”

The little artisan looked down sadly.

“That must be difficult.”

“Ignorance proves to be fantastic insulation,” replied the Trickster. Pushing aside some books, he procured a waxen cube and held it up to the light. “I believe I have what you’re looking for….”

Camille crossed the room and looked at the small cube.

“I don’t have much to give you.”

He closed his hand, obscuring the fuel cube from view.

“I ask that you don’t allow our fear to stop you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I sell hope, and possibility. I wish for the world to be different; yet, I do nothing.”

Camille found his strange self-awareness disarming.

What was he playing at?

The Trickster extended his hand and placed the fuel cube in Camille’s hands. He smirked. “I expect to hear rumbling very soon.”

 

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Re-release: Dawn

Re-release: Dawn

Synopsis: The world is divided between a nation of men and a nation women, each of whom rules with absolute authority. A war brews deep beneath the surface of the peaceful negotiations between these two nations as a love blossoms between a princess and her guardian, a slave of the Society of Dawn, in the first entry of this romantic fantasy series.

 

An excerpt from Dawn:

Aurora had never journeyed so far alone. In the six years that Aeschylus served as her guardian, she left Pa’ngarin no more than a handful of times. She touched her saddle horn and rubbed the pearl there delicately.

She thought about the day Aeschylus was chosen as her guardian. It was her twelfth birthday, a milestone among maidens and Children of the Dawn. Her aunt, the Lordess Ascendant, the beautiful and powerful ruler of Pa’ngarin, picked Aeschylus for Aurora from among the horde of unseasoned and dirty men who worked the mines and fields.

Her aunt’s words were soft that day.

Soft speech wasn’t Lordess Ascendant’s way. However, on the day when Aurora was presented before the Court of the Nine Blossoms, she spoke in hurried, loving words. She told the young maiden that this man was the strongest among the bloodthirsty and hate-mongering species of men.

He would protect her until his death.

Her new guardian would be her steadfast companion for as long as she saw fit. He would see to all her needs; and if she required, be her First––marking her ascendance.

Aurora smiled as she remembered young Aeschylus. He was already a man when he was appointed as her guardian. Strong-jawed and tight-lipped, he was a cordial, but removed, warrior just a moon past his eighteenth birthday.

At the time, she didn’t know that Aeschylus followed her around long before he became her guardian. His mother died in the same Scythian raid that killed her mother when she was an infant. Every time young Aurora wandered without supervision, Aeschylus wasn’t far away.

But his assistance had a price.

When he was only thirteen, he carried Aurora from the orchards after she fell down and injured her foot. It was against Pa’ngarin law for a man to touch a woman without consent, especially to treat her as if she were powerless to help herself. His act of compassion earned him ten lashes at the center of the Court of the Nine Blossoms. After that incident, he became more careful, making certain to remain hidden from view as he protected her.

Aurora shook herself from her reverie.

Along the side of the road sat a heavy black stone etched in sparkling silver lettering. The letters read Ma’oren.

Ma’oren was a rich town built around mining and forestry operations and run by a minor ascendant named Eris. Aurora couldn’t remember having met her.

Rows of tall trees obscured her vision to the north and south, but she had little fear in her heart despite the circumstances of the previous evening. The silence enveloping the surrounding forest would’ve been disarming if Aurora didn’t know that mining drove the creatures of the forest deeper into the woods. There were few dangers to a woman of her station in a society governed by women. If she were attacked and kidnapped by brigands, they would swing in the Court of the Nine Blossoms.

The trees lining the road soon gave way to cramped male dormitories built upon each other like sloping cliffs. The buildings had no windows except for a wide opening on the second floor.

A man stepped out of one of the dormitories’ slanted doors. His long gray hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail and his brown eyes, wide and wise, watched the young maiden pass. He didn’t meet her eyes, but instead stared intently at her mount. He knew the penalty for looking at a woman, if not asked to do so, was the sealing of the eyes.

Opposite the dormitories stood a vast cavern dug deep into the earth, beside which sprawling mining equipment was placed. A piercing whine filtered from the mine’s entrance, as if a whistle were being blown deep below. Aurora spurred her mount forward through the haze of dirt and dust spewing from the mine and made her way up the road toward the city proper.

As if by magic, the haze disappeared and a gleaming citadel rose in the distance. A dawn sphere was a great, ribbed structure composed of symmetrical, ivory pillars from ground to sky.

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Perd Hapley is a Dimension-Traveling Alien

will-the-real-perd-hapley-please-stand-up-2-26474-1428472335-14_dblbigIf you’re like me, then you have a strong and abiding love for Parks & Recreation. I can admit that it is one of my favorite comedies in recent memory, due in large part to the brilliant casting and writing. And Ron Swanson, always Ron Swanson.

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However, I came to an interesting realization the other day: Perd Hapley is a dimension-travelling alien observer who is clearly the most powerful being in the shared TV universe. For eagle-eyed fans, you will notice that Jay Jackson, the actor who plays Perd, has a penchant for reading the news on your favorite TV show.

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What you never noticed though, his how closely he likes to stay to danger and intrigue. Much like the Observers from Fringe, I think that Jay Jackson has created a kind of shape-shifting constant character that is not unlike Stan Lee in every MCU movie.

Starting in 2007, Jackson has played a report or news anchor no less than 14 times, including:

Bones (TV Series)
Scandal (TV Series)
The Catch (TV Series)
Supergirl (TV Series)
Pretty Little Liars (TV Series)
Parks and Recreation (TV Series)
Revenge (TV Series)
Battleship (Movie)
Fred: The Show (TV Series)
Body of Proof (TV Series)
The Mentalist (TV Series)
Fast Five (Movie)
The Closer (TV Series)
Dexter (TV Series)

Now, perhaps you can say that he has been typecast as a reporter/news anchor or even that Jay Jackson likes playing these parts. However, I like to think that a casting agent, writer, producer, director, or even Jackson himself is purposely creating one of the greatest easter eggs in all of TV history.

So, the next time you are watching a TV show and they cut to a reporter in the field or an anchor delivering the news, don’t be surprised if it is Perd Hapley looking back at you.

Preview of Sixth Prime

Purchase the book by clicking on the cover above. I’ve decided to release an unedited preview (for copyright purposes) of the first novel in my new series for your enjoyment. Please comment, share, and follow.

 

The Curious Case of Ale Euclid

Canvases lined the walls. Smudged and erratic strokes revealed a quiet genius encumbered by a great sadness. The open space in which the somber artist brooded appeared larger than it was. Ale Euclid suffered from a tendency to check out from his surroundings, imbuing his personal experiences with a special kind of significance felt only by those who wrote the story of their lives with broad strokes of emotional connection.

Outside the darkness of the light-filled metropolis ebbed and flowed like the lapping shores of the island on which it sprawled. The bustling world around him not only satisfied the collectivistic yearning of his gregariousness, but also allowed him to disappear from the crowd behind closed doors, playing to the reserved sensibilities of an artist in the midst of a storm of conflicting and contrasting ideals. Ale had few friends except for a small circle of fellow painters and artists who populated the Inked District of the remote island of Nyan, the largest of the Tranquil Isles.

Euclid placed a special emphasis on the aesthetics and ambiance of his surroundings, which made island life amidst the peaceful, harmonious culture of Nyan the ideal backdrop for his inspiration.

The outer door of his loft beeped rhythmically, a sliver of light infecting the purposeful darkness of his studio. Ale did not move, instead remaining motionless. His gaze was intently fixed on an almost-finished piece he called Constancy, a magnificent representation of the universe reduced to darkness and light battling toward an inevitable end.

Yet, it remained unfinished.

Footsteps crossed the room, approaching the disheveled figure with a splattered brush in hand. “Ale? Are you not ready?”

Ale thought of himself as a quiet, friendly, sensitive, and kind friend. He tried to enjoy the present moment, paying special attention to the joy around him. However, he went to great lengths to carve out his own place, an undisturbed mental and physical space where his art could take form. The intrusion, though expected, made him prickle slightly in irritation.

“Mian, you’re early.” He continued to look at his work.

Long and thin like Ale, Mian had gorgeous dark hair that she pulled back into a tight, attractive bun, framing her symmetrical features. The musculature of her legs rippled beneath her thin dress as she shifted her weight from one leg to another. “They are already setting up. Some potential buyers have started to trickle in.”

He sighed. Ale desired only for space and time, much like all of the celestial beings decaying on a molecular level throughout the universe. However, he had made a commitment to Mian, and to the rich of the Inked District, to display his artwork so it could be probed and critiqued, purchased and traded.

“I don’t wish to argue, Mian.”

“You’ll find no argument from me, Ale.” She stepped closer to Constancy and pressed a hand to her chest. “This is so evocative. It makes me feel so alone, yet embraced by it.”

Ale stepped forward and applied a single stroke at the center of the canvas, a brush of crimson in the swirling darkness. With a sigh, he stepped away from the painting and pulled a burgundy jacket from a skeletal chair tagged with splotches of color. “This is the last one. We can be social now.”

Mian smiled and grabbed the edges of the painting carefully.

Ale placed a hand on hers. “Not this one.”

She looked at him. “Then why did we wait for you to finish it?”

He walked ahead of her. “I didn’t say it was finished.”

 

THE AEROPOSTLE GALLERY was lit in such a way that every imperfection would be revealed; as such, the women in attendance painted away their flaws, so their masks of make-up would appear unbroken beneath the harsh luminance. Harsh and bright in places, it also cast shadows where the lighting was less concentrated, less intense.

Ale held the door open for Mian.

Mian nodded, her features tight as she did so.

Whitewashed features marred by campy paint identified the elite of Nyan, those who would be willing to part with resources for art as a means of solidifying their place in the hierarchy. Some clapped as Euclid entered; others raised a sparkling drink that cost more than the wages of four helium miners on the many moons of Sedecim.

Ale dipped his head.

He moved through the crowd, shaking hands and making small talk, mostly about the state of art in the Inked District and his future projects. Euclid had begun to make a name for himself in Nyan; there was talk he would receive a special commission from the Commonwealth. He avoided talk of the simmering conflict between the Commonwealth and the Sovereignty.

As he gestured toward a gargantuan canvas that depicted a range of colors in an orderly and algorithmic fashion, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. Red eyes, flittering in and out of focus, watched him from the shadows.

It gave him pause.

His mouth open, Ale stared back at the red eyes, not realizing he had stopped mid-sentence in his explanation until one of the waxen elite of Nyan cleared his throat.

“Pardon me, where was I?” asked Ale.

A man with a well-oiled mustache and a single line of azure hair traced back over old skin looked at Ale with dull brown eyes before speaking. The hard syllables of his speech were hindered by his uneven teeth. “This painting. Why is it so organized? Is art no meant to convey the liberation and lack of inhibition of the soul?”

Ale dreaded this part of being an artist, pontificating at length about his process. In many ways, it was his worst nightmare: having to listen to rude people criticize his personal choices, as well as his art, for prolonged periods of time. None of them seemed to understand how connected he was to his work.

“Art is expression, but expression need not be disorganized. I find my inspiration in the orderliness of the universe.”

Another movement caught his attention from the shadows. A long coat dusted the edges of the darkness, making a kaleidoscope of fractals similar to rubbing one’s eyes too hard.

Another clearing of the throat: this time from the angular and painted clown that hung on the man’s arm. “I find this piece so…dull. Don’t you, honey?” she said, batting her absurdly large fake eyelashes as if to accent her ignorance.

Ale collected himself, not wishing to create conflict despite her snide attitude. “It is meant to be simple; dull might be a consequence for people who lack a certain kind of imagination when they try to experience the work.”

The man snorted and the woman moved on, her attention drawn to an aesthetically pleasing member of the wait-staff with pants that were far too tight. Ale smiled weakly as they moved on, and Mian moved in close, handing him a stout glass of amber-colored liquid.

“You should have brought down the unfinished painting. I think even this crowd would have appreciated the surrealism of it.”

Ale nodded, but remained quiet, contemplative.

He continued to stare into the darkness of the room’s corner, past the crowds of wealthy huddled around splattered paint upon canvas. Part of him knew that the Constancy piece was something different. It was not so much that he had painted the Void, but more that something compelled him to create the abstraction. While Mian saw randomness and surrealism, Ale felt different.

Order prevailed.

 

THE CROWD HAD DISPERSED and the night waned before Ale retired to his loft. Mian offered to keep him company, the insinuation not lost on him. He declined, content to sit before the painting, gazing into the Void.

Sitting there before his latest (and possibly greatest) creation, he realized that for the first time in his life he felt a connection to something he had created. Too often, he viewed his work as derivative and insufficient to sustain a livelihood. This, of course, was more the result of a deflated sense of self than the reality of his bank account; his paintings sold for some of the highest prices on the entire planet of Tertius.

Nyan bustled just beyond his window, but the loft remained whisper-quiet. Ale stood and approached the painting, touching the darkness at the center. A strange sensation overwhelmed him, a familiarity that he had felt once before in his life.

As if in a trance, he walked toward the double glass doors that led to the balcony that overlooked the city. A warm wind caressed his face as he ran his fingers over a small table to his right. Taking a deep breath, he gripped the balcony and slipped into introspection. Ale saw art as compassion, and an exercise in mindfulness. A peaceful being at heart, he lacked the conviction to be an activist; yet, he saw mindfulness as the means to live a more compassionate and loving life.

Looking up into the night sky, observing his relative insignificance in the context of the universe, Ale felt a connection to the great abyss spread out before him. It was not a theology per se, but rather a sense of interconnectedness that transcended the biology of his existence. Ale only considered himself close to a few people, most of those related by blood had been causalities of the conflict between the Commonwealth and the Sovereignty; those who had not been taken in battle had been consumed by the violence and difficulty of the blocs of Tertius.

When Ale looked into the vast consciousness of time and space, he felt alone yet connected to his fellow interstellar travelers. When he listened deeply to the cosmos, he could feel the suffering and the cries of those who desired compassion in the face of such horror; this was his way of doing good in the world, he listened despite the sadness it brought him.

A few sirens wailed in the distance filling the tranquil and prosperous streets of Nyan with discord; its well-manicured parks and ecological preserves spoke of an environmental awareness hidden behind an ego that desperately wished to be noticed for its efforts. Ale despised their superficiality, the falseness with which they showed their care for the sentient creatures of the planet when so much of Tertius was covered in mega-blocs, vast pollution-filled slums where the wealthy and personally unaccountable placed the poor and unwanted under the guise of enlightened welfare.

This exact point of contention drove a galactic conflict between warring ideologies, a question of whether the rich and powerful had the right to impose political freedom in a particular way; one side  saw freedom through an aggressive capitalism, while the other saw it in a robust social state.

Ale sighed, irritation creeping across his arm like thousands of small insects just beneath his skin. He couldn’t understand such a radical need for others to define personal freedom; it was in each and every moment, in everyday mindfulness of why people made decisions.

With a sigh, he walked back inside and across the loft, and then behind a partitioned area complete with a bathtub and a sink. Ale tapped a mirror just above the sink. It fragmented into millions of individual pixels. He pressed his fingers against them and they dissipated revealing a cabinet.

A small dark box beckoned him.

Disappearing into himself was as much a part of him as his art; reaching out, he grasped the box. Ale turned it over in his hands, thinking about the painting and wondering whether he wished to make the journey that awaited him within the container.

Ale opened the box, revealing a small stack of wafer-sized sheets. Touching his index finger to the top of the pile, he exhaled. The slightest of touches activated the cocktail of hallucinogens imbued in the slip. His hand began to shake, addiction and anticipation stealing his autonomy.

Closing his eyes, he wiped his finger against the stack, taking a single sheet with it. Ale licked his lips and then placed the slip under his tongue and closed his mouth with a moan. He knew from experience that he only had about twenty minutes until the Euphorium took effect.

He felt the exquisite warmth as it dissolved.

Leaving the makeshift washroom, he took a few short steps and plopped down onto a comfortable chair he had purchased for this precise occasion. It articulated at the base, turning him so that he could see the series of unfinished canvases that depicted various stages of a mathematical void, layers of darkness that brimmed with a divine kind of logic.

Time slowed, and each breath felt like it would last forever. Ale felt his somberness sink into a vast ocean of despair; the moment before already felt like a lifetime ago. Euclid had taken this trip enough times, even in a desperate state, to know that unpredictability was the name of the game. He chose to embrace the exploration of the darkness in his unfinished work, the algorithm that called out to him.

A word filled his mind: constant.

The Constant.

Religion did not appeal to Ale. Insight into the universe that could only be afforded by the Euphorium was what he sought. Awareness at the expense of vivid hallucinations was a fair trade.

The paintings changed; darkness became geometric shapes that pulled from the canvases and danced through the air. The walls breathed and the colors sung, joining the blackness in front of Euclid. He could smell the center of the universe; it reeked of sulfur and bile.

Ale Euclid disappeared and become one with the ego of the universe, with the being called The Great Darkness That Came Before. The room disappeared and became only the vast cosmic canvas on which all of life and darkness and nothingness was painted. It was here that the real painter existed, the true artist.

Form became figure, a vast mass that pulsed and slumbered.

The ego called Ale drifted into the bulkhead of the cosmos.

 

HOURS PASSED AND THE DRUG-FUELED journey subsided; Ale returned. Sitting there in his chair, he felt the lethargy in his limbs. They felt heavy. His mind crawled slowly. Turning his head, he peered around his loft.

A figure stood stoic.

Ale smiled. It felt strange on his face. “Hello?”

The figure remained impassive.

“Who’s there?” Ale placed his feet on the ground, and immediately recoiled. Cold spikes jabbed him; his legs had fallen asleep. Gripping the cushion rests, Ale pushed himself into a more rigid seated posture. He squinted his eyes as he tried to make out his mysterious visitor.

Licking his lips, he moved around his tongue, trying to generate some saliva. His voice was hoarse as he spoke again. “What do you want?”

The figure moved quickly then. Bridging the distance between them, he grabbed Ale by the shirt and lifted him into the air with ease. Euclid reached his hands out weakly, grasping and struggling, but to no avail.

The dark-garbed assailant threw Ale across the room.

The artist’s wrist shattered as he collided with the floor. He felt his stomach tighten and he vomited in his mouth as he tried to push himself up with his uninjured hand.

The dark-garbed shadow picked up the artist again and struck him across the face.

Ale felt his teeth clatter in his mouth. His mind swam as he sailed through the air and crashed through the partition to his washroom, splintering the divider into thousands of metallic pieces that spread across the ground like grains of rice.

Ale tried to stand, the pain in his face and hand making the numbness in his legs dissipate. Using his good hand he managed to raise himself up to a seated position against the tub. The assailant grabbed Ale’s good hand and bent his fingers back, breaking them easily.

Euclid screamed away whatever euphoria lingered. His screams became whimpers as the assailant crouched beside him. “Take anything you want.” Ale tried desperately to flex his hands.

Up close, Euclid saw that his attacker wore black wrappings that hid any distinguishing features. He reached out with his useless hands to touch the wrappings, but the shadow batted them away with one hand and used the other to grab the back of Ale’s head and slam it against the tub.

Euclid’s head bobbed as he dribbled blood and teeth. He groaned as the assassin lifted him once more and turned toward the large bay windows that reflected the skyline of Nyan.

With a grunt, the assassin threw Euclid toward the window.

Ale landed hard, feeling his ribs break beneath his fall.

Looking across the floor of his loft, he saw another figure. It looked familiar; a long cloak dusted the hardwood floors. Red eyes watched from the darkness. Ale reached out, his broken fingers unable to respond to his wishes.

The assassin lifted Ale for the last time.

Euclid saw the figure take shape as he felt the cool air of the night and the small pebbles of the protective glass break around his back. Staring up into the sky, he closed his eyes and embraced what came next.

Fifteen remained.

 

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