Mark of the Essence, is a portal fantasy complete at 109,000 words, and is 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.
– – –
Mark of the Essence
Twenty-Six Years Ago
The town below the hilltop cemetery was quiet. The lights that were its eyes twinkled out as shades were drawn and houses darkened. Tanya gazed at the wide expanse of sky. The chill in the air brought the stars into sharp focus. Once the moon rose, she could get her photos and head back to the house for a hot bath and a warm bed. She didn’t mind the cold so much, but her old bones liked being warm much better. Winter in the mountains was good for stargazing, not so good for anything else.
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 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 laugh echoed across the empty 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.
“I miss scaring you. Talking to you. It’s lonely in that damn house. Do you miss me?”
A startled owl flew out of the stand of trees. Tanya stood and scanned the forest. Nothing moved. She was about to sit back down when she heard a noise that was out of place. Someone was crying.
“Be right back, Georgy.” She grabbed her flashlight and waded into the brush. It was tough going until she found a well-worn deer path. The narrow trail led from the edge of the hill to a small clearing. As she broke through the trees, Tanya heard the sound again.
This time she could make out words. “Help…m-me… I’m-m…here…”
Sitting against the trunk of a bent old pine was a young Asian woman in a thin nightgown. Her 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.
“Why…why is it so c-cold? What…what happened to sum…mmer?” the young woman stuttered. The poor thing was delusional.
“Quiet now, we’ll get you warm and you’ll be right as rain.”
“But it…it was warm-m just now. I could smell the p-primrose through m-my window. Why is the sum…mmer gone?”
Tanya hushed her again and picked up the pace. Back on the hilltop, she nodded a quick goodbye to Georgy and sprinted to her station wagon. She’d come back for her camera and telescope. This young woman was hypothermic. She needed a doctor and she needed one now.
* * * * * * * * * *
The poetry was garish. The gestures far too dramatic. The flowery words and earth spirit imagery reminiscent of children’s rhythms. 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 stiff breeze died down until the air was still.
“It’s closed,” 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 you, on my life’s blood, that gate is closed.”
The rusted doorframe frame was empty. The stock room beyond dark and quiet. The chill in the air was gone, erased by the heat of a summer night and the stuffiness of an enclosed space. 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. “She is marked. Only unmarked can open the gate. And then only if they have the spell, a solid doorway, and can harness the Essence. She’s in the woods, no doors for miles. There is no way she can make it back.” He took a ragged breath. “Please Mistress, my family-”
Adana closed the space between them. “Your family is waiting for you, yes. Don’t worry, 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 heard by 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 only 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.
Adana left the abandoned building without giving the unmarked a second thought. The hard part was over. Now she just had to deal with the freak’s family. She’d considered keeping the little one as a pet, but if all of them could do that 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.
The chaos was like drowning. Desperation and hate fueled the storm, stealing the air from Genevieve’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.
Genevieve’s body ached to breathe. Her arms and legs screamed from the exertion of staying above the swells. Through the maelstrom, she saw the silhouette of 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 Genevieve 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, Genevieve 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. The fall morning’s subtle colors and crisp air could not compete with her current obsession. The empty woman. The paint thick storm. The dark rune at its center. The thoughts haunted her, but the spell was broken. Despite wishing otherwise, the day could not be spent dreaming. Practical matters needed tending. Starting with getting 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. She was in front of her foster mother’s old Victorian. Once again, her feet had found their own way home.
She 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. Genevieve agreed each time, knowing full well she didn’t have the money to do it. Maybe she’d put a couple more nails in it if the weather was going to be 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 to the stairs of her second floor apartment. The morning had been quiet thus far; she did not want to get dragged into another longwinded 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 only a few years older than Genevieve, but he dressed like he was eighty-five. Today was no exception. His hand knit cardigan was at least a size too big and clashed horrifically with the skinny patterned scarf he always wore regardless of the season and whether he was indoors or out.
His curly hair bounced around as he jogged to the bottom of the stairs. “Just get in from your run?” he asked.
“Yup, heading inside to get changed.”
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Listen I-”
“I like your jogging shorts. Are those new? They look comfy.”
Genevieve 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. 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 Genevieve’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 Evie, 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 he was awoken by pain – a shrill, high-pitched wave of pain that stabbed at his ears over and over again. 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.
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 joined 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 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 hangover. On a normal day, it was nice having an employer that 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, wishing he had brushed his teeth before answering. Had he vomited last night? His mouth tasted like vomit.
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, 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 morning. “My stock inspector will be stopping by today and I wanted to make sure you knew he was coming.”
A lot of responses came to mind, none of them good. All Solomon could do was nod as gingerly as possible. “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 against the now blank wall. The surface was cool, but not enough to ease his damaged body.
“All right. You can do this. You’ll be fine. You are…” His eyes opened and finally focused. On the blank spot on the shelf above the desk. The spot where his hot drink packets normally resided. “…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 a stock report with a massive hangover.
– – –
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!