Mark of the Essence, is a portal fantasy set in a world that mixes magic and advanced technology. Please enjoy the prologue and first chapter of the book below. If you have any questions you can find my contact information here.
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Twenty-Six Years Ago
The poetry was garish. The gestures far too dramatic. The flowery words and earth spirit imagery reminiscent of children’s rhymes. If this was how spells were performed in ancient times, then Adana was glad the practices had been lost.
Cassian swayed back and forth to his rhythmic chanting. A steady stream of cold air whipped Adana’s dark hair against her eyes. She tried to shift positions, but the hallway wasn’t big enough. If she’d known about the cold, she would have brought a jacket.
The chanting stopped. The chilling breeze died down, erased by the heat of a summer night and the stuffiness of an enclosed space.
“It’s done,” Cassian said, leaning heavily on the metal wall. “It…it won’t open again.”
The broken man could barely stand, both from the exertion of the exercise and from the beatings he’d needed to persuade him perform it.
Adana was glad the operation was over. She was tired of playing nanny. “You best be sure you’ve done it correctly, unmarked. If this spell fails-”
“I promise, on my life’s blood, that gate is closed.”
The rusted door frame was empty. A stockroom full of fallen shelves and broken glass replaced the eerie forest and dead landscape on the other side. She reached her hand through the opening to make doubly sure.
Nothing happened. No ripples. No light.
“Well done, unmarked. And you’re sure she won’t be able to open it from the other side?”
Cassian nodded, trying his best not to make eye contact. “Only unmarked can open the gate. And then only if they have a solid doorway and can harness the Essence. She’s in the woods, no doors for miles.” He took a ragged breath. “Please Mistress, my family-”
Adana closed the space between them. “Your family is waiting for you, yes. You’ll see them soon.”
She tilted his chin up and covered his mouth, so she could watch his eyes as she plunged her knife into his gut. Cassian’s body shook. A hot wetness coated her fingers as she pinned him against the wall; his face contorted as he bled out. His muffled screams were a brief melody for her ears only.
When his movements stopped, she drew her knife back. The unmarked slid to the floor in a heap. The smell of copper and urine filled the small room. Adana cleaned her hand and knife on his shirt. There was one thing left to do.
She pulled out her handheld and typed in a number. The shiny surface flickered to life revealing the face of an old man.
“It’s done, Sire,” she said with a wry smile. “That woman will trouble you no more. You are free.”
“Then so are you and yours. Well done, Mistress Adana.” The screen went black.
The hard part was over. Now to deal with the freak’s family. She’d considered keeping the little one as a pet, but if they could all could do weird arcane shit, then she didn’t want anything to do with them. Besides, the faster she finished tying up loose ends the faster she could claim her reward: Freedom and the favor of the crown.
* * * * * * * * * *
Tanya exhaled a held breath and watched it take shape in the air – a stray cloud in a frozen sky.
“Moon’ll be up soon,” she said motioning to the mountain ridge at the far end of the valley. “Good thing too. My backside is gonna freeze to this damn chair. Only real blessing tonight is there’s no wind to speak of.”
The trees stretching out over the last row of headstones grasped at the stars like the claws of some slender beast. Their stillness reminded Tanya of woodblock prints in her mother’s ancient collection of ghost stories. The book had always spooked her younger brother, leading to many nights of Tanya reading them just loud enough so the tales would drift across the nursery and send shivers down his spine.
She let out a chuckle and raised her thermos to the grave on her left. “Haven’t thought about that storybook in forty years. I wonder if it’s still in the attic?” She drank down the last bit of tea and screwed the lid back on. “Told you there were no such things as spirits or witches. It’d serve you right if I brought that damn book up here next time and read you the one with the creepy hallway. You always hated that one. You’d get all holed up in your quilt and beg for me to stop before the kid opened the glowing door at the end.”
Tanya’s cackling echoed across the deserted hill. “Never could figure how you could be scared of the same thing every time.”
The carved stone marker continued its silent vigil, indifferent to the laughter and the company. The emptiness of the cemetery bled into the town below as the windows that were its eyes winked out one by one.
For a moment, she was alone with no company save for a field of stones and her photography equipment. It was a familiar feeling she ignored as often as she could. But dark nights in the mountains were apt to make a body feel alone even when there were people about. Tonight, it was a hollow in her heart, not the stinging of her icy fingers, that yearned for the warmth of her bed and the comfort of unconsciousness.
“I miss scaring you. Talking to you. It’s lonely in that damn house. It was never meant to be just me. Never meant to be just anybody.” She paused her words stuck at the back of her throat. “Do you miss me?”
A startled owl flew out of the stand of trees. Tanya stood shining her flashlight into twisted thickets at the forest’s base. Nothing moved. If there was something creeping around in the naked bushes it was too quiet for Tanya’s old ears. The barren hill remained as it had been – statue still and lifeless.
Curiosity sated, she returned to her chair. The edge of the moon was beginning to peek around the tip of the mountains. Tanya adjusted her camera and tripod to set up the shot.
At first, she was too busy to notice the new sound. It was barely a whisper floating on a nonexistent wind across the open space. An urgency in its tone is what finally caught her attention. The cemetery was weeping.
No, not the cemetery – the trees.
A shiver went down her spine. No animal in these woods could make a noise like that. “Be right back, Georgy.” Tanya grabbed her flashlight and waded into the brush.
It was tough going until she found a well-worn deer path. In the summer, the thin stretch of earth would be invisible under layers of foliage. Even now finding footing among the roots and grasping vines made her progress slow. As she pressed on the crying grew louder. This was no supernatural phenomenon. Someone was calling for help.
The trail led from the edge of the wood to a small clearing. Sitting against the trunk of a bent old pine was a young Asian woman in a thin nightgown. Long, dark hair covered most of her face and was tangled in the low hanging branches of the tree. Her legs were bare, her skin a patchwork of icy gray and angry red.
Tanya bounded across the open space. “Heavens! What happened? How’d you get all the way up here dressed like that? Come along dearie, we need to get you out of this cold!” Tanya removed her jacket and folded it around the petite woman. She lifted her from the ground and carried her back through the woods.
The young woman stuttered, “W-what happened to summer?”
“Quiet now, we’ll get you warm and you’ll be right as rain.”
“But it-t was warm just now. I could smell the primrose through my window. W-why is the summer gone?”
Tanya hushed her again and picked up the pace. The poor thing was delusional, either from the cold or some other trauma she had suffered. Someone must have dumped her there, hoping no one would find her so far from town. Dr. Barre was the first stop that night, but the police station would be number two. Tanya would make sure whoever had done this was brought to justice, painful justice if she had anything to say about it.
Back on the hilltop, she nodded a quick goodbye to Georgy and sprinted to her station wagon.
Lit by the yellow glow of the car’s overhead light, Tanya got a good look at the woman’s face, as she placed her in the passenger’s seat. Her nose and cheeks were blistering, her fingers stiff and pale. When Tanya tried to buckle her in, she noticed the woman was cradling her stomach inside the oversized coat.
“Move your hands dearie I got to-” She wasn’t hugging herself to get warm. The young woman was easily in her third trimester. “Mercy sakes child! Are you pregnant?”
The woman gave a slow nod. “Em-miko, is due on S-suns-day. Sh-she is so c-cold.”
Tanya got her settled and high tailed it to the other side of the car. She’d come back for the camera and tripod. This woman needed a doctor and she needed one now.
The chaos was like drowning. Desperation and hate fueled the storm, stealing the air from Emiko’s lungs. Waves of blue and green thrashed against the stone outcropping, hissing when their crests broke too close to its summit. In vain they pounded the invisible force keeping back the tide.
Emiko’s body ached to breathe. Her arms and legs screamed from the exertion of staying above the swells. Through the maelstrom, she saw a lithe woman standing statue-still on the dry rock unaware of the tumult around her. Her dark hair reached almost to her waist. Her skin was the color of an unpainted canvas, her expression equally blank. The only movement from the woman was a twisting black scar in the middle of her chest. It writhed in time with the storm. Repelling it. Mocking it.
The current shifted. The anger of the storm increased. A great surge lifted Emiko above the tiny island and hurled her at the bubble of calm. She braced herself for impact.
* * *
Something whizzed past her head and landed in the grass a few feet in front of her. Startled, Emiko turned to see a man in battered white van rumble by tossing a roll of plastic wrapped newsprint unceremoniously onto the neighbor’s lawn.
The mundane world was flat and unfamiliar. Mist hung in the trees, giving the street the look of a theater backdrop. However the fall morning’s subtle colors and crisp air could not compete with Emiko’s current obsession: the empty woman, the paint-thick storm, and the dark rune at its center. She had been haunted by the dream for weeks. Today was the day she would put paint to canvas and pull the scene from her mind into the real world. But first practical matters needed tending. Starting with heading home.
She stretched her tired muscles and let her breathing and heart rate settle to a less frantic pace. From the soreness in her legs, she could tell the morning’s run had been a long one. She scanned the area to get her bearings. On her left was her foster mother’s old Victorian. The house’s creamy peach paint looking very much out of place in the gray morning.
Despite the time spent inside her own head, her feet had once again found their own way home.
Emiko crunched through the leaves and retrieved the paper. Her sneakers made dark tracks across the dew, which turned to ghostly footprints on the slate path to the house. The stairs creaked as she climbed to the porch. The bottom step was loose again.
Aggie complained every week that the whole thing should be replaced. Emiko agreed each time, knowing full well she didn’t have the money to do it. Maybe she’d put a couple more nails in the stair treads if the weather was nice later. She considered opening the paper to check the forecast, but changed her mind when the faint aroma of dark roast coffee wafted in from the other side of the house. Henry was up.
She stuffed the paper in Aggie’s mailbox and rushed up the stairs to the second-floor apartment. The morning had been quiet thus far; she did not want to get dragged into another long-winded conversation with her tenant. She was turning her key in the lock when a familiar voice called out from below.
With a silent curse, she leaned over the railing and waved. “Good morning, Henry.”
Henry was thirty-one, only a few years older than Emiko, but he dressed like he was eighty-five. Today was no exception. His hand-knit cardigan was at least a size too big and, as always, clashed horrifically with the skinny patterned scarf he wore regardless of the season and whether he was indoors or out.
His curly hair bounced about as he jogged to the bottom of the stairs. “Just get in from your run?”
She wanted to say no, but sarcasm tended to fly right over Henry’s fluffy head. Better just to be direct and get the whole thing over with as quick as possible. “Yup, heading inside to get changed.”
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it? That fall air really wakes a body up.”
“Yeah. It’s nice. Listen I got to-”
“I like your running shorts. Are those new? They look comfy.”
Emiko tugged at the bottom hem of her shorts and smiled uncomfortably. They weren’t that short, but she wasn’t sure how much could be seen from his angle. “No, not new. Just haven’t worn them in a while.”
“Well they suit you.”
“Thanks. Well I better-”
“You interested in sharing a cup ‘o coffee? I made a full pot this morning. It’s a batch of the new Kona blend from Beans n’ Bags downtown. Got quite a kick to it!” He held up his mug with the picture of his cat on the side as proof.
Of course, the proof was not necessary. Henry made a pot of coffee every morning, somehow managing to time its brewing perfectly to Emiko’s erratic running schedule. Most mornings she was able to evade him; today she hadn’t been so lucky.
“Sorry, Henry, I’m kind of busy. Maybe later this week?” She cringed when the words left her mouth.
If Henry noticed her reaction, he didn’t show it. “Great! It’s a date! Maybe I’ll make some scones, too. Mr. Mittens loves scones!”
Her mood sank. “Sounds…great. Well, I have to get going. Bye!”
“Goodbye!” Henry said, saluting her with his cup.
She waved and let herself into the house, closing the door and locking it behind her.
“Why did I say that?” she asked her empty kitchen. “I never should have let him rent the apartment.”
The fact that a thirty-year-old man put his mother as the top reference on his list should have been her first warning. Listing his cat as his roommate should have sealed the deal. But she needed the rental income to pay the mortgage and his mom did give a glowing endorsement.
“Your problem Emi, is you’re a sucker for a sob story.” She let out an aggravated sigh, dropped her keys on the table, and headed to the bathroom.
At least she’d gotten out of it for the moment. Sunday or not, today was a workday and she needed to focus on what lay ahead. She threw her sweaty clothes in the hamper and stepped into the steaming water, humming a wordless tune while images of her unfinished painting swirled in her head once more.
* * * * * * * * * *
Most times Solomon woke before his alarm. He would lay on his pillow staring at the ceiling listening to the distant hum of the air purifier and the muffled customers at the cafe next door. It was the most peaceful time of his day. Nothing to do. Nothing to think about. Just darkness and quiet. Then the monotone beep from his bedside clock would announce the true start to the morning and he would grudgingly get up.
Today a shrill, high-pitched wave of pain stabbed at his ears jolting him from a dead sleep. His body lashed out in hopes of defeating its attacker. When he was able to process the sound was coming from the clock and not the lamp, he slammed the snooze button ending its reign of terror. A blessed silence fell upon the tiny bedroom. The sharp pain was gone, replaced by a dull ache across his entire body, reminding him again why one shouldn’t drink large quantities of booze on a work night.
He tried to get his eyes to both stay open and focus on something, anything. His mouth felt like it was lined with cloth and his head was beating a rhythm in time to the ceiling fan’s slight wobble. He needed a shower and some healing tea. That would stop the pounding and settle his stomach, but it would also require getting out of bed. He tried to sit up but his thoughts were clouded and his body felt as if someone had used it as a mop. Maybe, what he really needed, was more sleep.
Solomon’s eyes agreed with his plan before his mind finished putting it together. He was almost asleep when the snooze alarm went off. The noise ripped through his right eye, into the back of his head, and down his spine. He sat up as fast as he could and chucked the small clock at the wall. The offending plastic box shattered, making the sound of a dying bird as the shrapnel that was once its body flew in every direction.
He stayed on the edge of the bed, balancing precariously in the position that caused him the least amount of pain. The change in posture lessened his discomfort, but brought with it another problem: getting to the bathroom. He half walked, half stumbled towards the attached bath, stubbing his toe twice before relieving himself and getting into the shower. His fingers were inches from the faucet when there was another beep, this one softer and less insistent.
Solomon peered through the dark scraggly hair in front of his eyes. The wall mounted viewscreen next to the bathroom door was blinking merrily. His eyes still refused to focus for any length of time, but only one person would be calling him this early: Matías.
With a throaty growl Solomon wrapped a towel around his waist and stumbled back to the bedroom. The screen flickered on with the press of a button.
“Solomon, my boy!” Matías said with a broad smile. “How are you doing this fine morning?” His boss was generally in a good mood. He was rich, lived in a mansion far from Ashton, and didn’t have a hangover. On a normal day, it was nice having an employer who was easy to please and very rarely cross. First thing in the morning after waking up with pounding headache was not one of those times. Damn cheery bastard.
“Morning, boss,” Solomon croaked.
Matías chuckled. “Did I interrupt your shower?”
“Almost. Just woke up.”
“I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Parts of you still seem to be asleep. Other parts? Well, let’s say you’ve looked better. Did someone die?”
“I might have.” Solomon tried to laugh, but his stomach muscles weren’t having any of it.
Matías laughed for him. “It’s good to know that even my best employee has his off days.”
Solomon attempted a smile. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded, but he knew he had to end the call soon or the results were not going to be pretty. “What can I do for you, sir? I’d like to get started with my day.”
“Nothing of major import for my number one shop!” Matías loved to butter him up when he needed something done, and today he was laying it on thick. Considering the amount of merchandise Solomon was short every week, the likelihood he was his boss’s number one anything was slim to none. Whatever Matías wanted was not going to improve Solomon’s day. “My auditor will be stopping by the shop today and I wanted to make sure you knew he was coming.”
A lot of responses came to mind, none of them good. “Thanks for the warning.”
“You’re welcome! Well, I’ll let you get to work. Keep me updated and have a great day!” Matías ended the call.
Solomon closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the now blank screen. The surface was cool, but not enough to ease his damaged body. Getting fall-down drunk the night before was dumb as shit. Yes, he’d run into his ex with her new arm candy, but she wasn’t worth the headache or the scene he’d caused in the bar where he would no longer be welcome. She wasn’t worth a single second of his time. She never had been.
Which was of course why he was still thinking about her. How soft she’d looked in the white lace dress. The half-smile she gave him right before she introduced, whatever his name was. Solomon’s fist tightened involuntarily. He should have decked the bastard. It wasn’t like she really loved him. He was just something for her to flaunt – something to piss Solomon off. To prove she’d never given a rat’s arse about him.
He sighed with his whole body. The friction of his skin on the wall and what little energy he had left was all that kept him standing. Fine, talking himself out of pining over a five-star sociopath wasn’t happening right then. He’d worry about her later. There were more important things to do, and worry about. He turned his back to the wall, ready to push off and return to the bathroom.
“You can do this. You’ll be fine. You are…” His eyes focused. On the blank spot, on the shelf above the desk. The spot where his hot drink packets normally resided. “You…you are all out of healing tea. Fuck…”
With a groan, he returned to the shower in an attempt to wash off the shame, all the while trying to figure out how he was going to fake an inventory report with a massive hangover.
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I hope you enjoyed the beginning of Mark of the Essence! Again, if you have any questions you can find my contact information here. Happy Writing!