The Thief of Cragsport
Thief and swordsmaster Sonata Diamante is now Sacudente do Mundo, the World-Shaker, with god-like powers she can’t control. Perhaps her wizard uncle, Borshen Galo, can help.
But he’s missing, and the streets of Cragsport have changed. Martial law has been declared, but Sonata refuses to keep the peace. She wants answers, and her quest brings her into contact with Duke Ernesto and his Night Watch.
The Duke hires Sonata as the security lead for a delegation heading north. He wishes to forge an alliance with the island kingdom of Corodana so that Cragsport can survive a war with its rivals Agadano and Pontaboro. Sonata finds her uncle in Corodana, but his answers to her questions are not helpful. Soon, the attempts of assassins and fantasma wizards on the life of the Corodana king force her to use her powers in ways that make it clear: Sonata is no longer human.
She returns to Cragsport, but her growing number of enemies threatens her life. To survive, she calls upon her newly-discovered father, but he and the powers he represents have their own plans for the world of Mirada. War has begun, and Sonata may be the only person standing between the city she loves and the gods that would see it fall.
Now available on Amazon…
**The Thief of Cragsport Excerpt**
It was cold below the Avenida das Marionetes, the Avenue of the Puppets, but the painted man endured the chill and stepped down, down, until even the echoes of his footsteps off the damp granite stairway could no longer be heard, even by himself. Very few knew of this place, this ancient and abandoned crypt that now served as the council hall for the Brotherhood of the Green Star, the Estrela Verde. Above on the avenida, they sang and danced and laughed and celebrated life. Here, in this cold, abandoned crypt, death was planned.
In his many years as an assassin for The Brotherhood, Heliodoro had never visited the Estrela Verde council often. There was little reason to do so. Moedas were paid, a name was proffered, and his job was to find and kill and/or subdue in some way the person whose name was scribbled on the parchment. Why bother the masters with details? But this was no normal time, no normal visit. A dragon had risen in Rosa Blanca. A dragon had been subdued by an even greater power, Sacudente do Mundo, and Heliodoro’s superiors wanted answers.
He stepped into a circle of green mist which swirled in the center of the forgotten crypt. Where the mist came from and how it was formed, he did not know. It did not matter, really, for when you were in the middle of it, you were theirs, and lying was not possible.
Six men and one woman emerged from shadow. They wore robes of dark green, and their faces were obscured by hoods. Some of their breath shown in the cool, musty air. They sat together in small chairs that formed a half-circle around the green mist in which Heliodoro stood. They were quiet, unassuming. Then one spoke.
“Tell us, please, Brother Heliodoro, of your time in Rosa Blanca,” the woman said to his right. “The information of events are mixed and chaotic in The Channels. Bits and pieces. Tell us the story, with events in order, so that we might judge the outcome.”
He told them everything from his perspective, from the moment he arrived in the small port town, to the end, when he bid thief and swords master Sonata Diamante farewell on the road.
“And we presume that you are still watching her,” one of the men asked to his right. “Where is she now?”
Heliodoro lowered his head, sighed. “She is back in Cragsport, or will be soon, I’m sure.”
“You’re sure? You do not know for certain?”
“I… released her from my hold, my sight. But she will return to Cragsport. She has unfinished business there.”
Heliodoro had tried to lie about giving Sonata back her swords. A lie of omission. He was not going to offer any information they did not specifically ask for. But the green mist swirling around his head and the nausea in his bowel grew worse whenever he thought about being anything but completely truthful.
“You released her from your sight? Are you foolish, or do you conspire against Estrela Verde’s long term and best interests?”
Heliodoro bowed. “Neither. I felt it… unseemly to track her like an animal, like she is some uncontrollable child.”
“She is an animal, an uncontrollable child. She is Sacudente do Mundo.”
“Yes, and if it is the council’s wish to see her become our patron saint, our santa padroeira, our Estrela Mãe, then I believe we must show her respect. Tracking her in such a way will just make her angry and may be a deterrent in and of itself. She’s scared, but smart and extremely willful. If she knew that we were still tracking her through her sword Chefe then she would moderate her behavior. I know her well enough now to know how she will proceed.”
“Then what measures have you taken to ensure that she reaches the destination that we desire?”
“There will be eyes upon her from beginning to end. I promise you. She will not be able to take any step without us knowing. She will reach her final destination. We will know of it, and we will be able to react to it.”
There was silence, and then, “Does she know what that final destination will be?”
“So she does not know that she will become the third mask?”
Heliodoro shed a tear and shook his head. “Not yet.”
The Masks of Mirada
Sonata Diamante is a thief and swordsmaster. She serves her nefarious wizard uncle, Borshen Galo, doing his “dirty work” in the shadows of Cragsport. But when she stumbles upon a strange silver mask, her world shatters.
Now, she’s on the run. With the aid of her bullmastiff companion, Fellfang, Sonata must discover the truth behind the mask’s origin.
Her journey south into the enemy province of Pontaboro will test her mettle, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Sonata must confront not only the evils wrought by the mask, but must face the truth of her own origin. Who is Sonata Diamante? And could she be even deadlier than The Masks of Mirada?
Only the gods know.
Now available on Amazon…
**The Masks of Mirada Excerpt**
In the shadow of the dragon tooth, the painted man whispered. “You are certain that this mask is the one I seek?”
Nathyn Sombrio nodded, though no one could see the gesture in the darkness. “It is, and pure silver too. A petty little wizard named Rollo Marco acquired it above the Sorrow Sea. It must be taken from him before he discovers its value.”
“You’re certain that he does not already know? Wizards, even petty ones, are clever.”
Sombrio nodded. “I’m certain of it. He has just returned from his travels, and there have been no overtures from him indicating otherwise. He’s ignorant of its power. He assumes it’s nothing more than an actor’s prop. But he may, in time, try to sell it for its metal, assuming that it can be smelted. So you must act… now, before another day passes.”
It was dangerous to give imperatives to a painted assassin from the Estrela Verde, but Nathyn Sombrio would take his chances. Despite the ample gold that this creature had placed into his hands, allowing this killer free rein in the city of the Dragon’s Mouth was a far greater risk. One mention of such access to the duke and it would be Sombrio’s head on the very dragon tooth that they stood below.
“And there are no other threats I should be aware of?” the assassin asked.
“None. The city is yours.”
The assassin huffed. “It has been my long experience that nothing goes as planned. If things were to fall apart, my client would be very—”
“You have my word. This is my city, my streets. You will have the trinket in hand before Adriana’s Breath whispers in your ear.” Sombrio offered his hand. “So, what else do you need of me? The wizard’s address?”
The assassin ignored the hand. “I need only your departure… and silence. I will find out the rest myself.”
Sombrio nodded and walked out of the shadow. He climbed his horse, pulled the reins to guide it toward the Red Road, and did not look back.
What have I done? Was any amount of gold worth allowing this monster into his city? Doing so had put into motion pieces on a board that could not easily be stopped. If that silver mask were found and joined with its golden partner… What nonsense! The mask is a fake, has nothing to do with dragons, and any fool who thinks otherwise is a fool ten times over. That is why allowing such a killer to roam his streets did not bother Nathyn Sombrio. The assassin would find the mask and take it back to his masters in Pontaboro. And the only crime committed would be the potential death of a foolish wizard. And who cared about that?
He put the whole sordid affair out of his mind. There were more important things to consider now. A new day was dawning in the streets of Cragsport, and one very important person would be back in town, hopefully, today. It had been a long, long time since he had seen her, and no matter what happened in the dark places of the city, he, Nathyn Sombrio, Captain of the Night Guard, would not miss her return…
The Persistence of Dreams
It is 1636: five years after a West Virginia town from the year 2000 arrived in Germany in a flash of light and altered the course of history. Now, down-time master artist Daniel Block is troubled. No mention or proof of his name or life work, of which he has long been proud, made it through the Ring of Fire; it’s as if he never existed. What can a talented and proud artist like him to do, to make sure this new world remembers him long after he’s gone?
Daniel develops a plan to make himself one of the greatest artists the world has ever known, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to see his dreams fulfilled. Even if it means risking himself, his wife, and his children.
Intent on changing his own history, Daniel journeys to Grantville to learn about these Americans and their wild and outrageous art forms. But while there, he runs afoul of the up-timers’ strange attitudes—and the law. What follows upends seventeenth century art, threatens the emperor, and changes Daniel and his family forever.
Now available on Amazon…
**The Persistence of Dreams Excerpt**
Grantville, May 1636
Daniel Block stretched his aching back, then tilted his canvas to capture more of the fading light of the evening. The reddish hue changed the colors on his palette, giving Fraulein Barnes’s pale arms and shoulders an orange tint that he found most intriguing. Painting outdoors had much to offer, though he worried the colors of his final work would be off. But then, the painting would seem odd to down-timers anyway. Even many of these up-time folk seemed tied to tradition when it came to art. Perhaps, he thought, my coming to Grantville will help change—
Daniel jumped, turning to see Warner Barnes waving a thick hand as he entered the yard from the back door. “Ach, scheisse,” Daniel hissed. He spun, wide-eyed, looking for the canvas drape he used to cover paintings between sessions, only to remember laughing earlier as his five-year-old, Benjamin, had wrapped the cloth around his shoulders like a cape and swooped through the yard, shouting, “I’m Superman, Superman! Fly like the birds!” while his young friend Stefan Weiss cheered him on. It had been so utterly charming, but now— “Scheisse.”
The painting wasn’t ready.
Barnes, sweat beading on his pale forehead, stumbled to a halt a few feet away from the painting, his mouth gaping and his face going a sickly-white. “That—that—that,” he said, raising his hand to point, “That is not—you didn’t. Dear God in heaven, man, I trusted you. A master painter, Clyde said, and you—you—bastard!” Warner kicked at Daniel’s easel, knocking the painting face-first onto the ground, stomping on the back of the canvas, howling in rage. “You have violated her—violated my daughter!”
Daniel gaped in horror, frozen, thinking only of the still-wet paint smearing in the dirt—all his work, all his hopes and dreams . . .
“Please, Herr Barnes,” Daniel said, holding up his paint-stained hands, “let me explain. I wanted to portray your daughter similar to the way Picasso would have in his later work, you see, showing multiple viewpoints of her at once. But, you know, I’m no Picasso.” He shrugged. “At least not yet. I realized that trying to create a painting that bold too soon would be a disservice to you and your daughter. So, I thought I’d throw in a little of the current tradition, coupled with a touch of Surrealism, and—”
“I don’t give a damn what you thought you’d do,” Barnes said, a thick vein pulsing across his reddening forehead. “I paid you good money to paint a proper portrait of my little girl. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this trash see the light of day—and I will see to it that you never paint another of this town’s decent young ladies. You filthy, disgusting, sorry son of a—” Barnes stepped forward, arm raised and fist clenched, ready to take a turn at pummeling the artist himself.
Daniel—finally recognizing the danger—armed himself with a nearby folding chair.
Barnes knocked the chair away, grabbed Daniel’s sweater, and drew his fist back to deliver a crushing blow.
Stefan’s mother, Nina Weiss—housekeeper and companion of Daniel’s host, Ella Lou Rice—came barreling through the rear door, shouting, “Nein, nein, you must not, Herr Barnes!” Her small, thin body radiated outrage. “There will be no fighting here! Frau Rice is sleeping and is not well today. You must stop, I beg you!”
Both men halted in place as Nina rushed up to them.
She took hold of Barnes’ raised arm and pulled it down, patting it soothingly. “You do not wish to cause trouble for Frau Rice, surely. Do you want to wake her when she is not well? Her son Herr Rice would be most upset.” She turned him, pulling him gently by the arm, and he went with her, a bewildered look on his face.
“But I—but he—that painting!”
“Ja, ja, Herr Barnes. You do not like it,” she said, nodding her head sympathetically. “I said as much to Herr Block myself yesterday, but he is most taken with these new up-time art forms. Very modern, very advanced. We do not understand them, I think, you and I.” She patted his arm.
“We’re not finished here, Block,” Barnes said as Nina led him into the house and out of sight. “Not finished at all!”
Stunned, Daniel turned to survey the wreckage of his work. He did not fully understand these “modern” art styles himself, he acknowledged, as he turned the painting onto its back. He grimaced at the smears of green paint that ran across Mikayla Barnes’s distorted profile, marred her bare, round breasts and belly, and dotted the pale background. Her cobalt hair, which had flown upward, transforming into undulating birds, was dotted with dirt and gravel. Worst of all was a nearly foot-long rip separating her bare legs from the purple boulder upon which she was draped.
He had envisioned a sort of Picasso-esque Andromeda, with the saturated, golden palette of Gaugin’s Tahiti paintings. Fraulein Barnes lay sprawled on the rocks, chained, waiting to be freed from her bonds by a transformed, heroic sea monster. It had been unlike anything he could have imagined before his studies at the Grantville library. It was to be the first step in a grand project to make a mark—a lasting one, this time—on the art world. But it was gone now. Destroyed.
The Cross of Saint Boniface
The Cross of Saint Boniface is the full length novel version of my story of the same name. It is set in the early 16th century, and revolves around the East Prussian city of Starybogow, which now lies in ruin from various real-world and supernatural disasters.
Thus enters Lux von Junker, a Teutonic knight on a quest to rediscover an ancient Christian relic known as the Cross of Saint Boniface. Together with his Muslim companion and ex-Tatar soldier, Fymurip Azat, they begin a journey that will take them from East Prussia, to Luebeck, to France, into the Mediterranean, and then onward to Constantinople. These two brave men will face physical, mental, and spiritual challenges that will come close to breaking their spirit.
But the quest is worth it, and they are willing to do what must be done to see Saint Boniface’s cross brought safely back to Saxony.
Now available on Amazon…
… and on Winged Hussar Publishing’s Website
**The Cross of Saint Boniface Excerpt**
The Streets of Starybogow
The olive-skinned man in the center of the fighting pit moved like a dervish. He fought Florentine, a Turkish kilij sword in one hand, a Kurdish khanjar dagger in the other. The man facing him was a brutish oaf, big in the chest with thick, black Armenian hair covering his lacerated skin. He hacked and hammered his way forward, trying to catch the more nimble fighter by surprise, but Lux von Junker could see the exhaustion in the big man’s eyes, hear the man gasping for air even from his comfortable view from the slavers’ loft. The quicker man stepped aside, paused in mid-motion while the bigger fighter lost his balance. Then he struck, sliding his dagger across the nape of the man’s pale broad neck with one clean stroke. The blade cut straight to the bone. The brute was dead before he hit the bloody cobbles of the fighting pit.
The crowd roared.
Lux could hardly hear himself think, let alone speak. He pointed at the victorious fighter, shouted, “Him! That’s the one I want!”
“Not for sale,” Stas Boyko said with a grunt.
“It’s not a request, Stas,” Lux said, turning to eye the old man. “You agreed to allow me my choice. I’ve made it. He’s the one.”
“I’ve changed my mind. He’s far too valuable to free.”
Lux pulled a jeweled dagger from beneath his brown robe and placed it on the table between them. “More valuable than this?” Then he reached into a loose sleeve and untied a leather bag dangling from his forearm. “Or this?”
The slaver, his eyes large with surprise, moved cautiously to the items. He ran his dry fingers over the rubies in the dagger’s handle and along the blade’s gold-inlaid blood groove. Then he hefted the bag, letting the enclosed gold coins click together like Spanish castanets. He smiled, forgetting himself for a moment, then grew serious again.
It was all part of a slaver’s game. And Lux knew how to play that game.
“What do you want with a washed-up Tatar soldier?”
“He’s a soldier?”
Stas nodded. “Was. . . or so he claims. Though he practically threw himself at me when we found him drunk, destitute, and half dead near the Pregola. He’s unstable, erratic. He’s got dangerous history I’m sure.”
Who doesn’t? Lux turned toward the pit again and watched as the fight masters opened the gate and another poor sap lurched forward to meet his executioner.
“Regardless. I want him.”
“He’s Muslim, too, though I’m not sure how devout.”
That paused Lux for a moment, and he considered. What would Duke Frederick say about him using a heretic on such a sensitive mission for God? Nothing, most likely, as the Duke was hundreds of miles away in Saxony, and he would never know of this man if all went according to plan. In fact, no one could know why Lux von Junker was here, in Rostenbork heading for Starybogow.
Stas Boyko huffed as if he were about to say something funny. “Judging by who you are, who you represent, I would think a Muslim in your company would bring unwarranted attention to—”
Lux brought his fist down onto the table, knocking the dagger to the floor and tossing the coins from the bag. Stas jumped, but Lux reached out fast and grabbed the slaver’s silk shirt and pulled him close. “The dagger and coins are not just for that man’s freedom, Stas. They’re for your silence as well. You will not speak of who I am, or what I represent, or speculate among your slaver friends as to why you think I’ve returned. For if I find out that people are aware that I’m here, I will blame you. And then I will use that man’s dagger to gut you from balls to brains.” He let go of Stas’s shirt. “Now. . . I will ask you once more: do we have a deal?”
The slaver fixed himself, cleared his throat, adjusted his neck, and tried to keep his anger and fear in check. “Very well. Take him.”
Lux smiled and nodded politely. “May God show you mercy.”
Lux turned again to the pit and watched as the fast man easily finished off his next opponent with a swift undercut of legs and a sharp jab of steel through the liver.
Lux nodded. The duke – and even God – might disapprove of his choice of partner on this mission. But the cursed city of Starybogow, looming so large down the long road that he yet had to travel, required the best, most savage fighters to survive. Lux allowed himself the small vanity that he was one of those fighters. The man in the pit, holding his bloody weapons aloft to the enraptured glee of the crowd, had already proven that he was one of them as well.
“One more thing,” Lux said. “What’s his name?”
The Wayward Eight: A Contract to Die For
Ex-Confederate officer Captain Marcus Wayward and his infamous “Eight” are on a deadly mission. They have been contracted to find and kill the most notorious scientist in the world… European madman Doctor Burson Carpathian, who resides somewhere in the rough interior of Arizona. Carpathian is protected by an undead horde of his own construction, and powered by the miracle fuel RJ-1027, they will defend him to the death. Yet the chance for Wayward and his mercenaries to acquire fame, fortune, and immortality on such a mission is too great to refuse. The journey is fraught with perils and pitfalls – outlaws, Union troopers, thrill-seekers, Shifters of the Warrior Nation, and even other mercenaries hell-bent on finding and killing Carpathian first. And when the shadowy force known as the Dark Council gets involved, the way becomes even deadlier. But the greatest challenge for Captain Wayward could very well be his own people, who begin to question the nature of the mission as it unravels. Can he keep it all together? Can he keep his mercenaries intact long enough to finish the job, to ride them to glory, and into the history books? Time will tell…
Now available on Amazon.
Note: This is a scene taken from Chapter 6. The Wayward Eight are on the move, having accepted the challenge of finding and killing Doctor Burson Carpathian. They have crossed the Mississippi River and are heading west into Contested Territory, which in the Wild West Exodus Universe, comprises many of the states in the middle of the country, including Arkansas, where this scene takes place. Flowing River, a distinguished member of the Eight and a exile of the Warrior Nation, is experiencing a waking dream…
She had a dream, and the dream became real. Or so it felt, calling to her through the hazy uncertainty of sleep. It was her spirit animal, its body undulating across the ground toward her, seemingly unmoving as its cold, smooth scales shifted back and forth to propel it through grass and soft dirt. It came to her and told her to awake, and she did. Then she followed it into the darkness, her arm outstretched and reaching for it. She tried to shift into it, as she had tried hundreds of times in her life. Her hand was just above its tail. She grabbed for it and imagined herself a snake, coiled up beneath a rock, ready to strike. It slipped away, as it always did, and she kept chasing it.
Follow me, it hissed, deep within the recesses of her mind, and she did so, across the cold, wet Arkansas field, away from her brother, away from the camp. Let me show you something.
But it had already shown her things that she did not want to see, like the tall man with a beard, the one they called Lincoln. It showed her the Tonto Forest days before they had met the ex-president of the white nation, who was now himself a ghost, dead and yet not dead. And now it wanted to show her something else, and she feared the worst: an image of a death, perhaps, one of her family, her brother maybe or Marcus at the end of this mission that they had agreed to take. Showing her such terrifying images would be punishment for not being good enough, brave or strong enough, to shift. Sun did not believe in the spirits, but she knew the truth. Those worthy were allowed to shift, and Flowing River had not shown her worthiness.
Show me, she said in her mind, and it did.
A large building with concrete walls. A fort with guards in blue, walking the ramparts. Large piles of steel track lay near a train that stood waiting to unload the terrible weapons and soldiers of the Union army. Around the fort were tiny white tents, hundreds of them, all mixed together, some bigger, some smaller. And people, scores of white people, living in those tents, taking comfort and security from the large walls nearby, but scared too, she could see it on their faces. Everything aglow with the red fluid, weapons and lanterns and batteries, vehicles and mighty iron trains. It terrified her, and she tried to turn away.
What is this place? She asked, for the image, though clear and precise, seemed distant, almost foreign. She did not recognize it, did not remember ever seeing it before.
The snake changed the image again, of terrible men waiting for them there at the fort, mindless killers, and she saw her friends, her family, fall, one after the other, in fires ablaze and red acidic bursts. Her heart raced and she stopped following her spirit.
Do not go there, the words flowed numbly through her mind. Do not go there.
The snake spirit faded away, and Flowing River stood alone in the middle of a dark field, light from the moon shining down, casting her faint shadow across the fallow rows. She turned left, right, trying to see the light from their camp, the light from the small town they had passed through. Nothing. Just darkness.
Which way should I go? Which way back to camp? She asked these questions but received no response.
She smelled them before she heard them. A deep musky scent of sweat and male stench, the sickly sweet pungent odor of wet fur and unclean, sweaty skin. Then they shuffled into view, each distinct and threatening, with war paint masking their faces, and hands holding knives and sharp hatchets. She counted them: one, two, three… eight. Seven scalpers and a half man, half wolf creature that towered over her like a giant, a seven foot mass of muscle, teeth, claws, and greasy black fur. Not an uncommon sight in the Warrior Nation: a master shifter with a pack of younger, less experienced scalpers learning the ways of the people. And here they stood, far away from home, circling her, waiting, watching to see what she might do.
She pulled her weapons.
The man-beast bared its fangs, snarled, and motioned its followers forward while it fell back to observe. The seven killers closed in, like a noose, moving cautiously, but determined.
Am I dreaming? She bent her knees and waited. If I am dreaming, let me wake…
NOTE: This is a scene from Chapter 10. Robert “The Wraith” Gunter, having narrowly escaped an exchange with the Wayward Eight, struggles to remain alive.
The Wraith had ridden half the night, through rain and hail and into a deadly windstorm that blew his ‘Horse off the road. He jumped just before it struck a pine tree and burst into flames. He rolled into a gully, gnashing his teeth against the excruciating pain in his right arm.
A lucky shot. The woman who reminded him of Lucinda Loveless had gotten off one lucky shot. Now, here he lay, bleeding in the middle of a thunderstorm. Thankfully, his shoulder armor had deflected most of the energy of the bullet, and thus it had only grazed his arm and not blown it off; if that had happened, he’d be dead right now, not only from the concussion but from the radiation that would have sickened his blood right good. He was still nauseous, for sure, but already that sensation was subsiding, as he knew it would. He was The Wraith, and by-God, there was no one that could take a bullet like him. Atomic pistol be damned!
Where was he? He wasn’t sure how far he had traveled. He had slipped past the Union soldiers at the fort and had headed south, laughing and smiling, having left Marcus and his miserable stooges behind. He tried looking around, trying to see if he could recognize anything, any buildings or trees that might give him an idea of where he was. Nothing stood out. It was too dark and he was in too much pain.
He ripped off a piece of his shirt and wrapped it around his arm as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. It did, but his arm still hurt like hell.
In the light of the burning ‘Horse, he crawled through the gully, through mud and water, until he came to rest against a tree trunk lying on the ground. He closed his eyes and felt comforted by the heat coming off the burning vehicle. He slept.
He awoke the next morning to four ugly faces.
The men that carried those faces smelled too, as if they’d been on the trail for weeks without bathing. Their clothing was tattered and disheveled, spotted with dirt, mud, and grass stains. Two of the men had beards. And from what he could tell from their arrogant smiles, none of them had very good teeth.
“Who are you, mister?”
The man who asked the question must have been in charge of the miserable group. The Wraith looked into the man’s ugly face and blinked. “I’m The Wraith.”
They laughed. “What the hell kind of name is that?” another asked.
He ignored the question and looked around some more. They had come in on Blackhoofs. Four of them stood nearby, one with eagle and hawk feathers hanging off its iron neck. That was one good sign at least, The Wraith thought. Indian killers.
“How’d you get like this, mister?” The youngest of the group asked. He was a pretty clean-cut kid, no beard, five or six years younger than the others. Too young to be running with these losers.
“Got into a little dispute at Fort Smith,” he said, pushing himself up straight to sit more erect against the log. “The Union doesn’t seem to like my politics.”
“Looks like it,” one said shaking his head in disbelief. “Where you headed?”
On that, The Wraith paused, then he said, “Nowhere special. Just traveling. And if you boys will help me up, loan me that whiskey bottle you got in your pocket there, and a Blackhoof, I’ll be much obliged and on my way.”
They laughed at him. The one in charge shook his head. “I don’t think so, mister.” He pulled a pistol and aimed it at The Wraith’s face. “You ain’t in no shape to be asking us for anything. Now, how’s about you hand over those weapons you got? I ain’t never seen any like them, and they’d fit my hand just as good as yours I figure.”
The others had pulled their pistols too, save for the boy, who held a knife forward in a wobbly hand. Not a single gun among them, however, had RJ. Standard issue pieces: a Schofield Smith & Wesson, a Colt 45, and a Webley Bull Dog. The Wraith raised an approving eyebrow on that last one; he hadn’t seen one of those in a while. Wouldn’t mind having this one, in fact.
He put up his hands in peace. “Okay, boys, no need for anyone to get hurt. I’ll give you the guns. But first, if you’ll show me one courtesy, I’d appreciate it.” He pointed at the boy. “Son, will you be so kind as to walk over yonder and scrape up a little bit of RJ on the tip of your knife? I seem to have left my blade back at Fort Smith.”
The boy hesitated, then moved on a nod from his leader. “Okay, now, hand them over,” the man said, cocking his 45.
The Wraith moved his hands slowly to the pistols at his sides. He smiled. “Have you all heard the story about the wolf and the three little pigs? ‘Little pig, little pig, let me come in. No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin. Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your –’”
He drew his pistols and put rounds in the heads of the leader and another man. Then he pulled both triggers and sent two shots into the chest of the man standing right in front of him. All three were dead before they hit the ground.
“‘—blow yours heads off.’ I always liked that fairy tale.”
The boy stood behind the three corpses, holding his knife out, hot, red RJ on its tip. He didn’t move a muscle.
The Wraith tucked his pistols away and stood up slowly. He grabbed his shotgun and carefully slung it over his back. He grimaced. The pain in his arm was blinding.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the knife from the boy and opening his coat to expose the red, swollen cut from the bullet. He grit his teeth and pushed the RJ into the wound and massaged it in slowly; slow enough to work the searing fluid into the cut thoroughly, but not so strongly as to excite the volatile properties within the red fuel and force it to ignite and blow his arm off. He howled like a wolf, fell to one knee, but kept the knife in place until the RJ had thoroughly cauterized the wound.
When the pain subsided, he stood and handed the knife back to the boy. Then he rummaged around the body of the man who had held the Webley Bull Dog, found the piece and dropped it into his coat pocket. He also pocketed the whiskey bottle he had asked for.
He went to the Blackhoof with the hanging eagle feathers and climbed aboard. He turned it on, and its eyes ignited red with RJ coursing through its frame. He let it trot forward a bit; it was a little wobbly on the left side, but it would have to do.
“Now,” said The Wraith, halting the Blackhoof next to the boy who still stood in shock among the three corpses, “I figure the Union will be by directly looking for me. If they do, you tell them that Marcus Wayward did all this, you hear?”
The boy nodded quickly.
“And you further let them know that Marcus is headed to Fort Waco. You tell them this exactly as I have told you, or I’ll track you down and kill a fourth pig. Understand?”
“Y—yes, sir. I sure will, sir.”
He nodded politely and headed out, leaving the boy and the carnage behind.
He was still in pain, but pleased with himself. If by some chance Marcus and his merry band had escaped Fort Smith, their next best move would be to head to Fort Waco. A place like that would provide support and succor to them as they tried discovering the whereabouts of Carpathian’s hideout. A place like Fort Waco was a good place for The Wraith as well, but he wasn’t headed there. His destination lay further south, along the Texas-Mexican border, in a pleasant little town called Laredo.
NOTE: This third and final excerpt is from Chapter 18. Marcus Wayward and his “Eight” are lying in ambush for Thomas Edison and his Enlightened goons to move into position. In the Wild West Exodus universe, Edison is not your smiley-faced inventor of the light bulb; he’s a servent to Doctor Carpathian, and this may be the only chance The Wayward Eight have of securing entry into the mad scientist’s complex.
It was difficult to see with clouds continuously floating past the moon, but Marcus was fine with that. It would be difficult to fire true in such intermittent light, but they had an advantage: they were lying in wait for Edison and his devilish creatures to move through the gap below their position. Once they were in place, Hell itself would unleash.
He had sent Jake, K-Free, and Zarelda to the other side of the gap with strict orders not to fire until they heard his hand cannon first. He could not see them from his hiding place, but they were there, waiting just like he and Icarus, Hicks, and River. River had been given one of the Union blasters. She hated using it, at first refusing, but under the circumstances, it was the most practical thing for her to use. She would not be able to get up close and personal until the enemy had scattered, and perhaps there would not even be such an opportunity. Marcus had never fought against Enlightened constructs before; this was new territory. He found himself more excited about it than he wanted to admit.
“They’re here,” Icarus whispered into his ear. Marcus pulled back. She was closer to him than she ought to be. He waved her off.
“Over there,” he said, directing her where to go. “Behind that dry log. And remember: don’t shoot Edison. Take out his support first.”
Icarus nodded and slithered into position. River was at the far end of their triangle, the idea being that, with the aid of the others, they would hit the scouts in the front, middle, and rear. That was the plan, anyway.
Marcus took a deep breath and pulled his hand cannon, cocked it, and waited. The line of constructs below moved into position, led by Edison and, seemingly, a personal human assistant. He and Edison made small talk, or what sounded like small talk to Marcus. More like useless babbling. They laughed. That angered Marcus the most. What was funny about any of this, he wondered. Are they that confident? That arrogant? Well, not for long. He rose up on his knees, aimed at the assistant, and fired.
The man fell dead at Edison’s feet, his face a deep, bloody cavern.
Jake and the others fired as well, followed by Icarus, Hicks, and finally River. A massive volley of atomic and blaster fire swarmed into the gap and lit up the night, smashing into Edison’s constructs, throwing their broken bodies against the rocks and pine that lined the gap. The initial shock of the ambush took them totally by surprise, but it did not take them all out. About half were still standing or alive enough to return fire, and the ridgeline on both sides of the gap began to smolder with returned RJ and blaster fire. Marcus had to dive onto his belly to keep from getting hit. Icarus jumped out from behind her log which was blasted away by one concentrated shot of RJ-fire. The log literally blew into the sky like a firecracker.
Marcus grabbed her arm and pulled her to his hiding place. “Son of a bitch,” Icarus said, reaching for reloads on a bandoleer draped over her shoulder. “He’s got grenades.”
And more than one, it seemed, for one after the other, positions along the ridgeline began to sound with up-thrown dirt and rock, one strike, then another, and another. Icarus managed to crawl back up on her knees and fire again, taking out one construct as her atomic rounds flayed and burned its chest. Marcus rose up as well, hitting another in the shoulder. The impact of the shot turned it right around, but it kept on shooting, seemingly not caring where it fired, so long as it peppered the ridgeline with bullets. Marcus could hear Edison barking orders, and the constructs responded quickly. Some took cover, while others just fired up the line, without caring if they got struck or not. Marcus watched as Zarelda ripped one construct to shreds with shots from her repeater. He smiled. Things were looking good. It was time to move.
“Down!” he shouted, loud enough so that those on the other side of the gap could hear.
Marcus crawled down the ridge about ten feet, finding another boulder to hide behind. He was followed by Icarus, Hicks, and River, who crawled as well to their designated locations. It had all been planned ahead of time. The idea was, as Edison’s scouts took casualties, the Eight would tighten the noose again and again, slowly making their way down the ridge, to deprive the enemy of retreat. It was a risk getting closer, but absolutely necessary to ensure that not a single construct got free. No one could escape alive, except Edison, and he had to be captured.
So far, the other seven had followed his orders and had not taken a shot at Edison. This, unfortunately, gave the man free reign to fire and throw grenades. It also gave him time to set up the speakers on his back.
Marcus took a shot toward Edison, trying to ricochet a bullet off the metal of a dead construct near his feet, in the hopes of distracting the inventor. But it didn’t have the effect he wanted. Edison, as calm as walking in a park, turned his speakers toward the ridgelines, one left and the other right, and let it blast.
Immediately, Marcus grabbed his head and felt his left ear give out as wave after wave of blaring sound rushed over his hiding place. This was not a weapon that could be avoided, not out here in the open. Even with the boulder and fallen trees, the powerful sound waves pumping out of Edison’s phonic blaster pinned them all. Icarus screamed at the intensity of the attack, and Marcus tried putting his head up to see what was happening to the others. The waves were so intense that even his eyes hurt.
Who it didn’t seem to effect were the few remaining constructs who were trying to retreat their way out of the gap, continuing to lay fire upon the ridgeline. Seeing them move, Marcus suddenly knew the weakness of Edison’s weapon. It was powerful, but its strongest waves emanated more forcefully in the direction the speakers were facing. In the dark, it was possible for Edison to miscalculate where to turn the speakers for best effect. Marcus saw an opportunity.