September 2016 bright planet guide

Venus, Mars and Saturn light up the evening sky throughout September, 2016. Later this month, Mercury puts on a good show for northern observers before sunrise.

Source: September 2016 bright planet guide

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Firecracker Jax: On the Road to Hel (Book 1)

Firecracker Jax: On the Road to Hel (Book 1)


Chapter 1

A line of patients began to form in the hallway outside the med office of the Roman Falls Mental Health Hospital. The Reverend Handsome Jeremiah Williams was a frequent guest on the second floor ward, which was mostly reserved for nonviolent and chronic patients. He was a tall, black man in his forties, whose white, crisply-starched, short sleeve shirt barely contained his massive arm muscles.

Some said he looked like he should have been a prison guard or, at the very least, a bouncer, but the Reverend Handsome Williams was neither. He claimed to be the former pastor in churches of several denominations, from Southern Baptist to Pentecostal. And while he also claimed to be nonviolent, he would admit to cracking a few heads of those sinners who disrespected the “Lord Gawd Almighty.”

The reverend took his place in the med line. He looked around and saw a gangly girl of nineteen. Her name was Mysterious Raynes, and she stood near the far wall. She held her head down so that her long, blonde hair covered her face, which was her normal pose. Handsome took a few steps toward the girl and gently, but firmly, led her back to where he had been standing in line.

“You stay with me, baby girl,” he said softly in her ear. He had a strong grip on her arms as he planted her firmly in front of him.

“I don’t need my meds,” she whined. She sighed but didn’t try to leave the line. She knew there was no chance of Handsome letting her get away. “They make me loopy.”

“No, baby girl,” Handsome said very seriously in that deep, throaty voice that could make women swoon over him. “They make me loopy. They make you sane!”

The window of the med office opened, which caused a stir in the line, and the second-shift nurse dropped a large red binder down in front of her and called out the name of a patient. As an elderly woman approached the window to receive her nightly meds, a black female floor manager arrived with a crying girl of about eighteen, whose wrists had been wrapped with a white gauze bandage and taped. The floor manager warily glanced at Handsome, who smiled at her broadly. She rolled her eyes in mock disgust, and Handsome took the bait.

“Did you miss me on your days off, Miss Amber?” he asked, grinning at her.

“Absolutely not!” Amber grumped. She hated men who knew they were good looking and used their looks like weapons on women. But she had to admit, to no one but herself, that she did occasionally think about Handsome and wonder. “Handsome,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him, “just because your mama named you Handsome, does not mean you are.”

She threw back her head and exaggeratedly stuck her nose up in the air and turned to her weeping patient who had plopped herself down on the floor.

Handsome laughed. “I knew you missed me, Miss Amber.”

Amber turned and took a playful swing at the big man with her clipboard.

Handsome stepped out of reach of the floor manager, and when he did, he took Mysterious with him.

This movement seemed to stimulate another whining session from the girl. “I don’t need my meds.”

Handsome quickly forgot the floor manager and pulled the girl back in line a little too roughly, causing him too wince at his own strength. “Got to take your meds, baby girl,” he said firmly and guiltily loosened his grip on her slightly.

“I don’t need them,” she whined.

“Yes, you do!”

“I don’t want them.”

“Don’t care! You’re gonna take ‘em.”

“You’re a patient here too, Handsome.” She decided to try reasoning this time, instead of whining. “You should be on my side.”

“I am on your side, baby girl.” He stroked her silky blonde hair and sighed. “It’s just that of all the people in the world, you need your meds the most.”

“But why?” She had returned to whining.

Just then, Dr. Garvey walked by. She was a tall, shapely redhead, whose mere presence could turn heads, and tonight was no different. The entire line of patients turned to watch her curvy hips sway from side to side as her stilettos clacked down the hallway.

“Mm.” Handsome licked his lips. “That is one fine woman.”

The big nurse behind the med window called out, “Mysterious Raynes.”

“She’s here, Nurse Golden.” Handsome pushed his captive forward.

“I don’t want my meds,” Mysterious whined again.

Even though the big nurse had seen the girl five nights a week for nearly two years, she looked at a large red binder which had a color photo of Mysterious and then compared it to the patient standing in front of her. When satisfied the correct person was at the window, she handed a small paper cup full of pills to the girl and sat another one full of water down on the counter.

“It’s wrong. It’s too many pills.” Mysterious shifted from one foot to another and looked scared.

Handsome looked over the girl’s shoulder and peered into the cup. “She’s right,” he said. “It’s too many pills.”

The big nurse wrote something in the red binder and didn’t look up. “No, it’s the right amount,” she said in a bored tone. “The doctor ordered her a couple of new ones.”

“I don’t need new ones. I don’t need the old ones,” the girl protested.

Handsome gripped the hand that held the small cup of pills and moved it upwards toward her mouth. “Doctor knows best,” he said softly.

The girl reluctantly gave in and put the paper cup to her mouth and bent her head back. The pills slid in easily. Nurse Goldman, who had watched the pill-taking with interest, half rose from her chair and handed the cup of water to Handsome, who brought it to the girl’s mouth. As soon as she had swallowed the water, Handsome pried her mouth open while the nurse grabbed her hands in a concerted effort to make sure the pills had been neither cheeked nor palmed.

“I think she’s been a very good girl tonight,” Handsome announced to the big nurse. “Your friends here just want you to get better, baby girl.”

The floor manager announced that there was still some ice cream in the kitchen if anyone wanted any after meds. This started a few heads silently nodding in the med line, but the only noise was coming from the crying girl sitting on the floor next to Miss Amber.

“You want ice cream, baby girl?” Handsome asked Mysterious, whose head was bent forward to let her hair hide her face.

She didn’t answer. She rarely spoke after being forced to take her meds.

“Handsome Williams,” the big med nurse called out loudly even though Handsome was standing in front of the window where she was sitting.

“I’m here, Miss Golden,” Handsome said dutifully.

The med nurse looked at Handsome’s binder photo and then at Handsome. When she was certain the right patient was in front of her, she handed the big man his meds, who always took them without fuss. She watched him anyway. The pills went into his mouth, quickly followed by the water, and he dutifully opened his mouth wide, rolling his tongue from side to side and then stuck up both palms so she could see them easily. She smiled at him. “Thank you, Mr. Williams.”

“My pleasure, Miss Golden.” He smiled cheerfully and turned just in time to see Amber roll her eyes at him. “Now was that easy?” he asked Mysterious and pulled her out of the med line and away from the window.

Two male psych-techs rolled a round table down the hall and stopped in front of a room. Handsome moved toward them, pulling Mysterious along with him. “Hey, fellows, why’s the table in front of Mystie’s room? She’s never been suicidal.”

One of the techs, a blond with a ruddy complexion, jerked his thumb over his shoulder as he helped his buddy right the table. “Mysterious has a roommate tonight.”

Handsome glanced around and saw the sobbing girl, with her bandaged wrists, still on the floor in the med line. Miss Amber stood protectively by her side. “Mysterious has a roommate tonight,” Handsome repeated. He glanced at Mysterious. “You can make a new friend.”

Mysterious groaned at that idea, and both techs walked away in search of a couple of chairs.

“Would you rather go to the kitchen for some ice cream?” Handsome asked sympathetically.

Mysterious shook her head, walked in her room, and shut the door. Handsome stared at the closed door for a long moment. It was too bad that a young girl like Mystie was in this place, he thought. She should be in college, dating some jock with raging hormones. Would she never acknowledge reality? Remembering some of the things she had said in group about monsters, Handsome shuddered and then sauntered on down to his own room.


Mysterious opened her eyes and wondered if she had been asleep. She heard the screams of a woman coming from the hallway. Screams were a familiar sound to the girl. Being awakened at night by screams was the norm on the second floor. Her room was dark except for the ambient light that filtered through the open bedroom door from the brightly lit hallway. She glanced over at the other bed in the room where the previously sobbing girl was now quietly sleeping. She decided that she must have been asleep and that the screams had awakened her.

In the hallway outside her door stood David, one of the third-shift psych-techs, which meant that it had to be after 11:00 p.m. Handsome came out of his room in his pajamas and stood beside the psych-tech. Both men were staring at something that Mysterious could not see, and she supposed that it was the screaming woman. She wondered what Handsome found interesting enough to make him get out of bed.

Mysterious got up from the bed, threw on her robe and slippers, and hurried to the doorway. “What’s going on?” she asked, a little groggy from the new meds.

“It’s Dr. Garvey. A man with a dog knocked her down in the hospital parking lot and stole her car,” said the psych-tech.

“The DeLorean?” Mysterious asked.

“I’ve always wanted to steal that car,” Handsome said, grinning.

“Me too,” the psych-tech agreed. “Only I wouldn’t have knocked her down. I would have swung open those gull-wing doors and invited her in. And I’d have left the dog at home.” He grinned at Handsome. “She is one fine woman.”

“Oh, my man, you have read my mind. She is delicious.” Handsome licked his lips and laughed.

“Is she hurt?” Mysterious asked groggily.

“No,” the psych-tech said, “she’s just scared.”

“What time is it?” Mysterious asked and yawned sleepily.

“Third shift just came on duty,” Handsome answered.

That explained why Dr. Garvey had been out in the parking lot at this hour. She was going home. Mysterious shrugged, went back to her bed, and sat down on it. She was in pajamas but couldn’t remember putting them on. “The new meds,” she said aloud.

She yawned again and started to lie down when a noise made her turn toward the window. She stared at the pane of glass and heard a quiet tapping. “What is that?” she said, getting up and warily starting toward the window. The sound came a third time.

Looking out the window, all she could see was fog rolling in over the visitors’ parking lot. She had half expected to see a bird or some other animal scratching at the window but nothing was there. Suddenly, the noise was at the window again, and she realized that small pebbles were hitting the steel security screen.

Cautiously, she looked out again, and this time she saw two dark figures standing under her window, one waving a flashlight.

“Mystie, open up,” one of the figures called out.

“It’s the new meds,” she repeated aloud to herself. “It’s got to be that.”

The one figure holding the flashlight shined it on the other. When she saw her brother’s face, she gave out a small cry of surprise. Mysterious shot a quick look over her shoulder, but she could no longer see Handsome or the psych-tech. She carefully slid the window open. “Is that you, Tor?” she asked through the steel mesh security screen.

“Yes.” Mystie’s brother, Torrent Raynes, waved up at her. He was a tall boy of eighteen, with short brown hair and deep brown eyes.

“Who’s there with you?”

“I’m with Cat.”

In response to his name, Cat waved the flashlight at Mystie. Cat was the same age as her brother, both seniors in Roman Falls High School. He had bright blue eyes and wore an ever-present cowboy hat over his blond hair.

“What do you want?” she called down to the two teenagers as quietly as she could.

“Mystie, do you still remember where that cave is?” Cat called up to her.

Cave? Mysterious frowned. Were the boys here to make fun of her? “What cave?”

Tor stamped his foot in frustration. “The cave where the monsters live,” he called up. “Can you still find it?”

“Is this a joke? I’m going back to bed.” She watched as her brother turned and jogged off.

“No, wait, Mystie,” Cat hollered. “One of those monsters kidnapped my little sister tonight. Tor and I chased him, but we lost him out by Roman’s Point. Tor said you knew where the monster lived. You had seen several of them in a cave but no one would believe you.”

“Is this some sort of sick joke?” Mystie felt hurt that the boys were making fun of her and more than a little woozy from the new meds. “What is this, a new holiday called, Make Fun of Mystie Night?” She had first been placed in a children’s psychiatric hospital when she was fourteen. When she turned eighteen and was no better, she was moved here to this hospital with other adults that needed twenty-four hour care.

A small Toyota pickup truck backed up to the building. She saw Tor get out, reach in the bed of the truck, and come up with a grappling hook. He ran to the building and scurried up a drain pipe, hooking the grappling hook on to the metal mesh screen. “Does this look like we’re joking?” Tor growled at his sister.

Cat jumped into the cab of the truck and gunned the motor. The grappling hook line went taut, and Mystie could hear the steel security screen moan loudly. Suddenly, and with a loud pop, the screen was off.

Mystie stood in shock before the open window. She had dreamed about escaping more times than she could count and now suddenly that horrible screen was gone. She stood frozen while a single thought crept through her head. It’s the meds!

Tor clung to the drain pipe with one hand and grabbed Mystie with the other. “Jump, Mystie,” he pleaded.

“What’s going on in there?” the psych-tech hollered as he ran down the hall.

Mystie knew if she didn’t go now, she would be in this place forever. She hopped up on the window sill and swung her legs out into the chilled night air. Tor had already dropped down and was looking up at her. “Hurry!” he shouted.

As the psych-tech and Handsome entered the room, Mystie jumped. Once outside, she struggled to her feet, and both she and Tor ran for the truck. When they dived into the bed of the Toyota, Cat gunned the motor and raced across the empty visitor’s parking lot, with the grappling hook banging along the pavement behind them.



Chapter 2

As blue lights filled the stolen DeLorean, the agitated wail of a police siren pierced the ears of Jax Blizzard. He glanced over at his dog, who was riding shotgun. The wolfdog, which was strapped in, moved in the seat uneasily and then began to howl in pain. “Sorry, My Tie, but they’ve caught up with us.” He stroked the dog’s head. “The fog’s on our side, though, and there’s no moon.”

Jax was twenty-two years old and from a prominent New England family. He was exactly six feet tall, with shoulder-length shaggy, black hair and deep blue eyes. Estranged from his family, he had quit college and went on the road with his wolfdog two years ago. Together, he and My Tie lived hand-to-mouth while they traveled across the country, working a little here and there, stealing when he had to, which lately was a lot.

He had seen a woman getting in the DeLorean in the parking lot, and because he had always wanted a DeLorean, he took it from her.

He was just entering a patch of fog on the road when he looked in the rearview mirror and saw the cop gaining on him. When he had gone about a hundred yards into the thick fog, he shut off the headlights. Gunning the DeLorean, he maneuvered the steering wheel and felt the car leave the road. The night was pitch-black and by the rough bounce, he figured they were in a meadow, hopefully one with only a few trees.

“Hang on, girl.” He could see the blue lights moving on down the road and fading in to the fog.

He braked to a stop. “We’ve got to lose this car.” Grabbing his backpack and guitar, he unstrapped the dog and opened the door. As the gull wing door lifted up, cold fog wafted through the car and Jax shuddered. “Bad night, girl.” He grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled her outside with him. He could hear the siren down the road and knew it wouldn’t take long before the cop doubled back and saw the DeLorean’s tracks in the grass.

He knew when he had stolen the car that he wouldn’t be able to keep it long, but he had fantasized about owning a DeLorean since he was a kid, and he just couldn’t pass it up. He had hoped to keep it longer than just a few minutes, though. He had been hoping to get out on the highway and take it to another state…at least, keep it for a few hours. Giving a longing glance back at the car, he told the dog, “Girl, now that’s a car!” It seemed just then to him that the siren was getting louder. “Let’s get out of here, My Tie.”

He broke into a run, and the wolfdog quickly caught up. After stumbling and falling in the dark for the second time, he lay resting on the ground. The blue lights went past again. The cop hadn’t seen the tracks yet, but he would. It was just a matter of time. “Luck’s not been with us tonight, girl.”

The wolfdog stiffened and stared straight ahead. She moved ahead a few feet and began sniffing the ground. “What is it, girl?” She gave a low growl.

He rolled on his back, hugging his backpack and guitar next to him. Staring up into the swirling fog of the black night, he muttered sarcastically, “It can’t be a cat, My Tie. You’re afraid of cats.” He and the dog had hopped a freight train and would have been in another state by now, but My Tie jumped off the train in terror because a cat, which was in the boxcar, had bowed up and hissed at her. Of course, Jax had no other recourse but to follow his dog.

“Can’t be a rat. You’re scared of them too.” The thought that it might be a snake brought him to his feet. My Tie had fought a snake before; she killed a rattler that had been about to strike Jax, but the big wolfdog had paid a high price for her victory in the form of a nasty venomous bite. “Come on, girl. Whatever it is, leave it alone.”

My Tie broke into a full run, leaving Jax standing at the edge of the meadow. He grabbed a flashlight from his backpack and followed the dog, cursing at her all the way. When he finally caught up with the dog, she was standing in front of a cave, which was partially blocked from view by a rather large boulder. “That cop’s going to see this light.” He quickly glanced around to make sure there were no blue lights in sight. There weren’t.

My Tie sniffed the ground a couple of more times and then darted into the cave. “You get back out here!” he hollered irritably. He waited. The dog didn’t come out. With a heavy sigh, Jax followed My Tie inside.

He shined his light around the cave and found My Tie sniffing at the ground in a corner. Quickly surveying the cave, he decided that it might be a good place to hide out for a while…give the cop a chance to forget about them. He sat down on a cold, lichen-covered rock near the mouth of the cave and, after a few minutes, dozed off.

He was dreaming that he was flying with seagulls when a horrible grunting noise and the gagging odor of sulfur woke him. His first thought was that the cop had found him. He felt something move past him in the darkness and heard My Tie give out a yelp. He frantically searched for his flashlight. When his right hand hit it, he snapped it on.

He saw My Tie first. She was frantically backing along the opposite wall, her head down and her eyes filled with terror. She was making a pitiful gurgling noise and shaking so badly Jax thought she would collapse. Memories of the last night My Tie had spent with his mother filled his head, and he felt rage well up deep from within him. What was causing My Tie’s anguish?

A sudden movement along the back wall caused him to turn the light away from the dog. The beam wildly leapt from rock to rock until it settled on its target. It took Jax a few seconds for his mind to comprehend what his eyes were seeing, but when he did, he scrambled to his feet.

The thing, which was the only way he could describe it to himself, whirled around to face him. It was about seven feet tall, probably four hundred pounds, and its head seemed to be a mass of brown hair. Its small, beady black eyes stared at Jax, and he expected the thing to run at him. But it didn’t, and that’s when he saw what the thing was holding. A girl!

She was slim, had long, light brown hair and looked to be a teenager. He guessed she was either dead or unconscious because she neither moved nor made a sound.

Jax held his breath, not daring to move. He cringed when My Tie whined, and the thing turned toward his dog. He doubted that My Tie would be able to run from the creature because she seemed paralyzed with fear. And if that thing thought it was going to hurt his dog, it was wrong! He knew in an instant he was willing to fight to the death to keep My Tie safe. He owed it to her after what she had been through. But, to his amazement, the creature turned away from the dog and moved purposefully toward an opening in the back wall, which Jax had not noticed before. Soon, it was through the opening and gone.

He let out a quiet whistle of relief and hurried to his dog. My Tie was shaking so badly, her mouth was slobbering, and Jax’s heart ached for her. They had been through a lot together in the past two years, and she was the only thing in the world that he truly loved.

He knelt down beside her and stroked her long, sleek back. She had an even mixture of black and white hair and looked more wolf than dog. “Come on, girl,” he whispered insistently. “We’ve got to get out of here!”

Just then, a noise sounded behind him, and he jumped up, expecting to do battle with the creature. He shined his flashlight over toward the outside opening and saw three people entering the cave.

They saw Jax and shined their flashlight on him. “He’s human,” the only girl pronounced, and the two teenage boys standing beside her nodded their heads in agreement.

“Dude, you must have seen that creature,” the tall boy with dark hair said. “Which way did it go?”

“What was that thing?” Jax managed to ask and realized he was shaking as badly as My Tie.

“Dude, which way did it go?” This question came from the blond boy in a cowboy hat.

When Jax pointed toward the opening in the cave’s back wall, the trio turned and hurried to it. The girl who was leading the way stopped abruptly at the opening, causing the two boys to collide into her. She held her left hand up in the air as a signal to halt, and she shined the light into the darkness of the opening. When satisfied with what she saw, or didn’t see, she ventured through the opening, and the two boys followed closely behind her, leaving Jax alone with his dog.

He carefully looked My Tie over and was relieved when she seemed better. Now that the creature was gone, she was no longer shaking. “Let’s get out of here, girl.” With My Tie following closely behind, Jax made his way to the cave opening. He stopped and looked out into the foggy night.

The cop that had been chasing him had found the tracks where the DeLorean had left the road. The police car, its blue lights still flashing and its siren screaming, turned in to the meadow at the point of the tracks and slowly followed them to the DeLorean.

As he heard the siren of a second police car moving toward them, Jax growled, “Crap! Luck’s still not with us tonight, girl.” If he got caught tonight, he could spend years in jail for grand theft auto.

Acting on impulse, which was how he lived his life, he turned and hurried through the cave and into the opening of the back wall. He and My Tie were now in a tunnel, and he could see the beam of the girl’s flashlight play along the rocks up ahead. With his own flashlight in hand, he jogged toward the little group.

“Hey, wait up,” Jax hollered. The group stopped, and the girl’s flashlight beam landed on his face, illuminating it. “What was that thing?”

“El Cucuy.” The girl seemed positive in her identification.

“El Coo-Who-ee?” Jax’s mind struggled to grasp the girl’s words.

“El coo-COO-ee,” she said slowly, sounding it out for him. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about that creature, and that’s who I think it is. It’s a monster who steals children at night. It’s got to be El Cucuy!”

She turned to the others with a defiant look on her face as if daring them to disagree with her. They didn’t. “Come on, let’s go!” she ordered, and the trio started off down the tunnel again.

Jax watched them go. This was crazy…following that thing into the darkness. He turned, thinking about trying to sneak away from the cops in the fog. No, there would be more cops by now, all of them looking for him. He’d never get away, and he couldn’t spend the next ten to twenty years in jail. Who would take care of My Tie? Impulsively, he hurried to catch up with the teenagers.

“What is El Cucuy?” he asked.

“The boogie man,” the boy with dark hair explained.

“There’s no such thing!” Jax declared.

All three teenagers stopped and turned to stare at him. He felt foolish. He had just seen the monster with his own eyes. “Yeah, I guess that was a stupid thing to say, being that I just saw him.”

The girl’s lips curled up in a slight smile. “That’s okay,” she said. “No one believed me when I told them about seeing El Cucuy.”

“Sorry, sis,” the dark haired boy muttered guiltily.

The blond boy in the cowboy hat grabbed the flashlight out of the girl’s hand. “Hurry, it’s getting away!”

“Are you guys really going after that thing?”

“It’s got my sister!” the blond boy wailed as he hurried down the tunnel. The other two turned and dashed after him.

Jax followed. “What are you going to do if you catch up with him?”

“Kill him,” the dark haired boy called back.

“How?” He could see no weapons.

The kids ignored his question, and Jax suspected they hadn’t thought that far ahead. When they came to a place where the tunnel forked, the group stopped. They now had to decide between two different directions.

The girl peered down one branch and then the other. “Which way?”

“Don’t you know?” her brother asked.

“I was never in this far.” She shined her flashlight into the right side of the fork.

My Tie eased into the left tunnel a short way and sniffed the ground, whining nervously. “This way,” Jax said and led the group into the ever-deepening darkness.

“Look,” the girl said excitedly. She pointed the flashlight beam on the rock floor. “Is that a scarf?”

The blond cowboy bent over and picked up a long, white silky piece of fabric and studied it.

“Is it your sister’s?” the girl asked.

“I guess,” the cowboy said. “I’ve never paid any attention to her stuff.”

Jax could see the boy felt bad about that. “It’s got to be hers,” he said. “It looks like it was laid here fresh. It doesn’t have a lot of dirt on it.”

The cowboy stuck the scarf in his pocket.

This part of the tunnel seemed different to Jax. Its walls were smooth as though they had been sanded down. Large majestic stalactites hung from the incredibly high rock ceiling, and in places, the group had to go around huge stalagmites which gracefully pyramided up from the cave floor.

“This place is awesome,” Jax whispered reverently and felt as if he was in church. This part of the tunnel had a holy feel to it, and he wondered if there was any place on Earth more beautiful than this.

Suddenly, noises could be heard up ahead, and Jax smelled the sickening odor of sulfur. Standing beside her master, My Tie began to whine. “Be careful,” Jax warned. “I think that creature is up ahead.”

“I’m going to kill that thing,” the blond cowboy hissed angrily.

Jax was figuring in his head that the group had walked about four miles when he saw a light up ahead. “I think we’ve come through to the other end of the tunnel, guys.”

“Be careful,” the girl warned. “We’ve not been in here that long. It shouldn’t be daylight yet.”

Jax looked at the vintage Rolex his grandfather used to wear. “It’s 3:10 a.m. She’s right; it’s too early. That’s not daylight we’re seeing.”

They carefully walked on in silence. Soon, they reached a widened area and realized they were in another cave, which was quite bright. The light seemed to be coming from an opening in the opposite wall.

Jax reached the opening first and carefully peered out at the brightness. He blinked and turned to the others with a confused look on his face. “I guess we’ve been in here longer than I thought. This is the end of the tunnel system, and the sun is shining out there!” He thumped his old Rolex and looked closely at it. It seemed to be running, but obviously it was wrong.

The group ventured into the bright sunshine. There were giant trees in front of them that they could only wonder how tall they were since clouds covered the tops. A huge mountain loomed up on the right, and like the trees, clouds covered the top.

“You can drive a tank through those trunks,” Jax said, looking at the trees.

“You can drive a semi through ‘em,” the blond cowboy corrected.

“Where are we?” the boy with brown hair asked. “This is no place I’ve ever been.”

A shadow covered the group, and the girl let out a loud ear-piercing shriek.

“Get down!” Jax yelled.



Chapter 3

With a powerful slap of a foul-smelling leathery wing, Jax and the girl were knocked off their feet. The two boys swung their fists wildly in the air but neither made contact with the thing.

Jax picked himself up and watched as a giant bird maneuvered gracefully through the trees, heading away from them. “What was that thing, kid?” Jax asked. “I’m new around here. They don’t have those birds where I come from.”

The blond cowboy watched the bird for a moment and then turned to Jax. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Cat. And for your information, they don’t have things like that around Roman Falls either.”

Jax pumped the teenager’s hand. “Cat?” He smiled good naturedly at the boy.

“It’s short for Charles Arthur Taylor.”

“I’m Jax,” he said and offered no last name.

The girl stepped forward. “I’m Mysterious Raynes, but most people call me Mystie.” She pointed to the boy with brown hair. “That’s my brother, Torrent Raynes. We call him Tor.”

Jax glanced at the boy, who nodded to him. Tor seemed to be studying him.

“Now,” Jax said, “can anyone tell me what that thing is?” The huge bird still glided lazily among the giant trees.

“I’ve lived in Roman Falls all my life,” said Tor. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” He moved a little closer to Jax and examined his face. “You seem real familiar. Have we met before?”

“I doubt it. I got into town a few days ago. I guess I just have one of those faces.”

Tor seemed satisfied with that.

“Where’s that El Cucuy thing? We can’t let it get away,” Cat pleaded. “It’s got my sister!”

They all looked around but could see nothing but huge trees. Then Jax got an idea. He knelt beside his dog and took hold of her collar. “Let me have that scarf,” he said to Cat, who dutifully dug it out of his pocket and handed it to him. Jax placed the scarf in front of My Tie’s nose and let the dog sniff it. After a short whine, My Tie sniffed the ground and pulled Jax to his feet.

“She’s got the scent,” Cat said excitedly. “Let’s go!”

No one said anything as they followed the dog through the giant trees. They all kept looking around in awe of the vegetation. Then Tor broke the silence. “Keep a look out for that big bird,” he said. “I got a feeling that thing could eat us if it wanted.”

“Do you see those mushrooms?” Mystie asked. “They’re almost as tall as I am!”

Suddenly, a large mountain lion with tremendously long teeth growled from above them on a ledge. My Tie barked furiously, and Mystie screamed as the cat prepared to attack.

Jax grabbed a firecracker from his pocket, quickly lit it, and threw it. The firecracker landed a short distance from the cat and popped loudly. When it did, the cat fled, running off into the trees.

“What was that thing?” Mystie asked and sobbed a little as her brother drew her close.

“I don’t know where we are,” Cat said quietly, “but we’re not anywhere near Roman Falls.”

“We’re not anywhere near the United States,” Jax pronounced emphatically. “I’ve had a lot of botany and zoology classes. None of my professors said anything about birds being twice as big as condors or mushrooms being nearly as tall as a man. And I really think it would have come up in vertebrate zoology if the United States had mountain lions that looked like that.”

“We have to be in the United States,” Tor insisted. “We can’t have walked to another country in just a few hours. Not from Roman Falls.”

“That cat looked like a saber tooth tiger,” Cat said.

“They’re extinct,” Jax said irritably, still nervous over the size of the cat.

Beyond the trees, the group struggled to climb to the top of an escarpment, where the dog lost the scent. From the vantage point of the ridge they could see for miles.

“What is that?” Cat pointed up in the sky.

“Where?” Tor squinted, trying to see.

“Way over there, up in the sky,” Cat explained. “Is that the top of a pyramid?”

The group stared in disbelief. “It’s an optical illusion,” Tor offered. “It must be a hill.”

“I’ve got a really bad feeling about this place,” Mystie announced.

“You and me both, sweetness,” Jax said as he breezed by her. “Does anyone else have a watch?”

“I do,” Tor answered. “It’s right at six o’clock in the morning.”

“Yeah,” Cat agreed. “I’ve got the same thing.”

Jax looked stunned.

Cat noticed first. “What’s wrong, Jax?”

“According to my watch, when we came out of the cave, it was a little after three. I thought the watch was wrong because it was daylight outside the cave. Now it’s six o’clock. We’ve been walking out here in the open about three hours, and it’s been daylight the entire time! How can that be?”

The boys looked at each other in astonishment.

“All of our watches can’t be wrong,” Tor said quietly and thumped his.

“I’ve got a really bad feeling about this place,” Mystie repeated.

“There must be a rational explanation,” Cat muttered. Like Tor, he thumped his digital watch and then put it to his ear as if he expected to hear ticking.

“There’s nothing wrong with your watch, Cat,” Jax said. “And there’s nothing wrong with mine or Tor’s either. All of our watches are right. The problem is this place!” He ran his hand along My Tie’s back as the wolfdog sniffed the ground. “We go inside a cave in Roman Falls, and we come out in a place where the flora and fauna are not like any place in the world. And this monster we’re chasing, this El Cucuy, what’s that about? Why do you call him by that name?”

Mystie shrugged. “El Cucuy is the boogie man that parents warn their children about. You know, if you’re not good, El Cucuy will get you. Be home by dark or El Cucuy will get you because he steals children.” Mystie’s voice lowered a little. “I’ve seen him before in that cave, but no one would believe me.”

Both Tor and Cat looked guilty, but neither boy said anything.

“But I have no idea why it has been daylight since three o’clock,” she continued. “There’s no place in the world where it is daylight at three in the morning, except maybe up near the arctic in the summertime. There’s no way we could have walked that far!”

As her words settled over the group, My Tie started to pace around excitedly about fifty feet to Jax’s right.

“She’s picked up the scent again,” Tor said and started toward the dog. “Come on, Cat. Let’s go get your sister.”

As the foursome started after the dog, which was running toward a meadow, Mystie stopped and picked up something from the ground. “Hey, what’s this?” She held it up so the others could see that it was a gold chain, from which several large crystals hung. “Is this your sister’s necklace?”

“I guess,” Cat said unsurely.

Jax could tell he really wasn’t sure. “It probably is,” he said. He took the necklace from Mystie and handed it to Cat. “It probably fell off her neck while that thing was carrying her.”

Cat shuddered and put the necklace around his own neck. “Let’s hurry.”

The group followed My Tie through a large meadow in the middle of the forest, and when they came to the other side they saw an old man gathering large apples from a huge apple tree. Off to the man’s right was a black sparkling road.

“Hi,” Cat said to the man. “Have you seen a monster carrying a girl? She’s my sister, and she’s been kidnapped.”

The man looked the group over with a rather contemptuous sneer forming on his mouth. All of a sudden, he screamed and threw his basket, sending several large apples spilling out on to the ground. He turned and scurried toward the sparkling road, continuing to scream as he went.

“That didn’t go too well,” Jax said, grinning.

“Better let me talk, next time, Cat.” Tor placed his hand on Cat’s shoulder in mock sympathy. “I think it’s your lousy personality.”

“I didn’t do anything to him,” Cat said, laughing.

Jax picked up several apples and bit into one. He pitched an apple to each of the others. “These are great,” he said and took another bite. Sauntering over to the apple tree, he sat down beneath its huge branches. Some of the tree’s limbs were so loaded with apples, they nearly touched the ground. “We need a rest,” he said as he leaned against the huge tree trunk. “If everybody is like that old man, we’ll own this place by sundown.”

A shiver went through Mystie as she glanced up at the sky. No one had been able to come up with a reason why it had been daylight since 3:00 a.m. or why everything was so different here. She watched the guys settle down under the tree for a rest, but she couldn’t join them. Her mind raced furiously as she tried to process this new environment. It was one thing to find a place with different plants and animals but quite another for it to be daylight since 3:00 a.m.

“We need some transportation,” Tor said and yawned.

“Yeah, I sure wish I still had that DeLorean,” Jax mused dreamily and decided he could use a nap.

“DeLorean?” Mystie’s voice screeched a little as the full realization of his words hit. “A man and his dog—“

“What?” Tor asked.

“That’s what they said at the hospital. A man with a dog stole Dr. Garvey’s DeLorean.” She stared at Jax in disbelief. “Was that you? Did you knock down poor Dr. Garvey and steal her car?”

“I did not knock her down,” Jax corrected. “She tripped over My Tie and fell.” He now seemed indignant about the whole matter. “And she’s not poor Dr. Garvey. If she were poor, she wouldn’t own a DeLorean.” He pursed his lips and nodded his head emphatically as if proving the point to himself.

“You’re a car thief!” exclaimed Mystie. “Was that why you were in the cave? Were you hiding from the police?”

Jax took on a look of mock self-righteousness. “I don’t hide. I just make myself unavailable for a while.”

Mystie bent over and patted My Tie’s head. “Shame on you, Jax; you made your dog a car thief.” My Tie wagged her tail appreciatively, and Mystie glanced down at the dog’s collar. “Oh my god,” she exclaimed. “I thought your dog’s name was Mai Tai, like the rum drink, but it’s spelled like a man’s necktie.”

Jax chuckled. “My Tie belonged to my mother at first, and she named the dog after her favorite drink, which was a Mai Tai. But when she had the collar made, the man misspelled the name, making it My Tie. I thought it was funny, so I kept it.”

Mystie laughed. “Where are you from, Jax?”

“What’s that?” Tor asked. He and Cat both stood up.

Off in the distance, and getting closer by the second, were five vehicles. One was large, about the size of a boxcar, and it was flanked by four smaller ones, about the size of compact cars. Only, these were no ordinary vehicles, Jax noted as he rose to his feet. They were up in the air, and they were all flying purposefully, he thought, toward them!

When the vehicles arrived, they hovered for a moment and then each sat down. They were all the color of dull green, and Jax realized he had not heard the sound of a motor from any of them.

Four men hopped out of each of the smaller vehicles and ran toward Jax and the others. All of them were dressed in the same type of uniform and were carrying something. They wore brown hooded, long sleeve shirts that gave the distinct impression of being a monk’s robe, except that the shirts ended at mid thigh, and they were wearing dark green tights!

As they got closer, Jax noted the men were carrying spears, so he decided to try the friendly approach. “Hi,” he called out and waved.

The men surrounded the group. “Both hands, up in the air,” a tall, burly man ordered. “All of you!”

With spears pointing at their midsections, Jax and the kids quickly complied and raised their hands. “We’re friends,” Jax said and pointed to Cat. “His sister was kidnapped by some sort of monster, and we’re trying to get her back. We mean you no harm.”

The big man in charge growled, “Get in the transporter!” He motioned toward the larger boxcar-looking vehicle.

“Where are you taking us?” Cat’s voice quavered a little with fear, and My Tie whined.

“To jail,” one of the other men said. “You’ll receive a fair trial and be hanged.”

“Hanged?” Mystie shrieked.

“Why? We didn’t do anything wrong!” Tor protested.

“Murderer!” the big man pronounced and jerked the crystal necklace from Cat’s neck. “This is the proof.”

“We found that on the ground,” Tor tried to explain.

“That’s a lie!” roared another guard and jabbed his spear at Tor.

“We didn’t kill anyone,” Jax said, trying to calm the situation. These guys were obviously angry, and he figured one of their friends must have been murdered. “We got here a few hours ago.”

“Liar!” called out the big guard. “Take them to await trial.”

Another man motioned the group towards the transport vehicle.

As they were walking, Jax reached into his pocket and fished out some firecrackers and a lighter. He lit the fuses and threw three of them at a couple of the guards. As the firecrackers popped loudly, the two guards dropped to the ground and Jax yelled, “Run!”

Cat and Tor went in one direction and Jax, My Tie, and Mystie went in another.

Jax and Mystie got about a hundred feet away when Jax felt a warm blast to the side of his head, and the last things he heard before he fell to the ground unconscious were Mystie screaming and My Tie barking ferociously.



Chapter 4

Jax woke up on the ground, with both of his hands and feet bound. His head was in Mystie’s lap, and My Tie was licking his face. Moaning a little when he moved his head, he realized his right temple had been wounded, and it ached something fierce. He started to sit up, but a sharp pain forced a change of mind, and he stayed where he was.

Sighing heavily, he lifted up his bound hands and scratched My Tie’s ears with his fingers. “I’m glad you’re okay, girl. If I lost you, I really wouldn’t care if they did hang me.” The dog placed her paws on his chest and lay over him protectively. Jax glanced up at Mystie. “How are you doing?”

“I’m okay, except for this,” she said quietly and jerked her chin toward her left shoulder.

His eyes followed, and he saw blood streaming from her upper left arm.

“I can fix that,” he said and slowly sat up. His head roared, but he managed to reach for and drag his backpack to him. He glanced around at the two guards nearest him. The men seemed to be more interested in what was going on in another direction.

He shrugged both hands out of his binds and searched his backpack until he found the first aid kit. He carefully cleaned Mystie’s wound and then bound it up with a large absorbent pad and gauze strips. “There, that should stop the bleeding.”

Cat was brought back, carried by two large men. His feet and hands were bound, and the men shoved him down next to Jax and Mystie. Only Mystie’s feet and My Tie’s were free.

“Where’s Tor?” she asked worriedly. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost my brother.”

A guard leaned down, only inches from Mystie’s shoulder, and stared at the bandage curiously. “What’s that?” he asked and thoroughly looked the dressing over.

Jax was afraid he would pull it off. “I gave her first aid, that’s all.”

“What?” the guard asked.

“First aid, dude.” Then he reasoned that perhaps the man had never heard the term before. After all, they were definitely no longer in the United States. “I healed her,” he explained.

“You healed her?” The guard’s tone was incredulous.

“Yes,” Mystie said, smiling. “He’s Jax, The Great Healer. Have you never heard of him?” she asked in mock surprise.

Jax laughed and watched the guard walk off toward his comrades.

“Tor and I split up, Mystie,” Cat explained. “He said he was going to bring back help. He’s not going to let us hang. He’ll get us out of this mess. He promised he would.”

Mystie looked at him doubtfully. “I sure hope so.”

The guards marched over and surrounded Jax and the others. They grabbed them up and helped them into the large transport vehicle, throwing Jax’s backpack and guitar in with them. My Tie jumped in after her master and, to Jax’s surprise, the men also placed two dead guards in body bags on the floor of the transporter.

“You guys must have fought like crazy,” Jax said, staring at the two body bags.

“Those are the two you shot, Jax,” Mystie said and averted her eyes so she couldn’t see the bags.

“Me?” he exclaimed. “I didn’t shoot anybody. I don’t have a gun. Are you out of your mind? I shot off some firecrackers, that’s all!”

“Just firecrackers?” Cat asked and frowned.

“Yes. Just firecrackers!”

“No one dies from being hit with firecrackers,” Cat said doubtfully.

“They weren’t even hit with the firecrackers. I threw them on the ground near the men.”

“Maybe they died of heart failure,” Mystie offered. “The firecrackers might have frightened them to death.”

“One man, maybe,” Cat reasoned. ”Not two men…not at the same time. No, Jax shot them. I heard the shots myself.”

“You heard firecrackers, Bozo,” Jax insisted. “Just like I used on that big cat this morning.”

Since they were alone in the back of the transporter, Cat scooted closer to one of the body bags wanting to see the man’s wounds but couldn’t bring himself to untie it.

After about ten minutes of flying, the vehicles landed. A few moments later, Jax and the others were ordered out. Their feet were unbound so they could walk, and to make sure the prisoners didn’t run, spears were pointed at their heads.

They stood inside the walled courtyard of an imposing edifice, constructed of huge granite blocks. Jax had to bend his head back in a sharp angle to see the top of the structure. It was in the shape of a pyramid. He had seen the ones at Giza, and he figured this building was as tall as the largest of those.

“Wow,” Cat said quietly.

“Yeah,” Mystie concurred.

The guards pushed them into a side entrance of the building and then into a holding room. They threw Jax’s backpack and guitar in after him, and for good measure, one of the guards growled, “You will wait here for your fair trial, and then you will be hanged.” The guy closed and locked the door, leaving the prisoners alone in the room.

Jax looked around. The room was square, about ten feet by ten, and the outside wall had a large window. Along each wall were two five feet long crystal benches. “I’m getting out of here,” Jax said and grabbed one of the benches. He threw it against the window, but it bounced back, nearly hitting him in the head. Stalking irritably to the window, he examined it. “What’s this glass made of?” It seemed thin enough, but as he looked through it, he saw it was a bit convex, and the objects outside seemed distorted. He tried another bench and, again, it bounced back. The window would not break!

While Cat and Mystie sat down on a bench and leaned against the granite wall, Jax walked to the center of the room and studied the problem.

“We’re in real trouble,” Cat muttered and Mystie nodded in agreement.

Jax ignored them. After standing his guitar case on end in the middle of the room, he reached down and snatched up his backpack. Retrieving a black marker out of it, he outlined on the floor the shadow his guitar case made.

“What are you doing?” Cat asked.

“A little experiment,” Jax answered. “Things are weird in this place. I just want to see how weird.”

“Do you think they’re really going to hang us?” Mystie asked.

“Oh yeah,” Cat said and took his cowboy hat off. He ran his hand nervously through his blond hair and put his hat back on.

“Maybe they’ll believe us at the trial,” Mystie said hopefully but without conviction.

“You heard them,” Jax growled at her. “We’ll receive a fair trial and then be hanged. The verdict is made before the trial.”

“Maybe if you hadn’t shot those two guards, we could have convinced them we were innocent,” Cat whined. “Now, though, there’s no chance they’ll ever believe us.”

Jax rolled his eyes. “I didn’t shoot anyone,” he growled. “I just threw a few firecrackers at them.”

The door opened and Tor was thrown into the room. He stumbled but managed to keep upright.

“Tor,” Mystie exclaimed, jumping up. She ran to her brother and threw her arms around him. “I’m so glad to see you.”

Tor hugged his sister tightly.

“Why?” Jax asked sarcastically. “So he can hang with us?” He regretted his words as soon as he said them and winced a little.

“Oh, Tor,” Mystie whined. “I was hoping you had gotten away.”

Tor grimaced. “I’m sorry I got you in this mess, sis. You were safe in that place.”

“Don’t ever be sorry for getting me out. I’d rather die with you than live with all those strangers.” She led her brother to the bench, and Tor sat down between Cat and his sister. Finally, Jax sat down too.

They had all sat quietly for about an hour when suddenly Jax buried his face in his hands and growled so loudly that My Tie came to him and put her paw on his knee. He lifted his head and patted the dog’s rump. “Sorry, girl, but I’m a little edgy.” He looked into the dog’s big black eyes and had to smile. “I love you, girl.”

My Tie’s response was to whine a little.

Another hour went by. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not going down without a fight.” Jax pulled out several packs of firecrackers from his backpack.

“Where did you get all those firecrackers?” Tor asked.

It was Cat who answered. “He’s the one who knocked over old man Dolen’s fireworks stand last Wednesday night. Remember? We saw it on the news.”

Jax ignored him and sat about unraveling the firecracker bundles in to singles.

Suddenly, Tor had a look of recognition on his face. “That’s where I’ve seen him. He was on the news!”

“Huh?” Cat said, with a confused look on his face. “He wasn’t on the news. They didn’t know who robbed old man Dolen.”

“Not that,” said Tor. “He’s the one who killed Mr. James. He shot him in the head. His face was all over the news. They caught the whole thing on security cameras.”

“Absolutely not!” Jax bolted up and screamed with such ferocity that all three teenagers jumped. “I didn’t kill that guy. If you had seen the security tapes, then you saw I didn’t shoot anyone.”

“That’s right,” Tor sarcastically said. “Excuse me; I was wrong. What I meant to say was that your partner killed him. But to the law, and to me, it’s the same thing.”

“That guy wasn’t my partner!” Jax yelled. “I’d never seen him before.” He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. “My Tie and I were hungry. We went to this convenience store, and I looked in the window and saw this old guy behind the counter. There were no customers, so I waited until a customer walked in before I went inside too. I figured the old man would get busy with the customer, and I could steal some food and get out of there quick. I’ve done it hundreds of times. No big deal.” Jax’s voice lowered to a soft tone.

“Except, this time, it was a big deal. A customer came in, and I used that opportunity to go in and snatch some snacks and dog food. I walked toward the front of the store, with the idea that I would hurry out the door. Suddenly, shots rang out and the old man dropped. I ducked, figuring if the guy saw me he would kill me too. The old man hadn’t even argued with the guy. He grabbed the money and ran. I waited for a few seconds, letting the guy get some distance from the store. I couldn’t wait too long because I heard My Tie barking, and I was afraid the guy would kill her. So I left too.” Jax let the words settle over the group for a few moments. “Look, My Tie and I, we were hungry, that’s all.”

“Is that what the security cameras showed?” Mystie asked. “Did it show him bending down right after the shots were fired, like he was hiding?”

Tor thought for a moment and frowned. “I really don’t remember. The news said that two men robbed and shot Mr. James.”

“I wasn’t with that guy,” Jax said irritably. “The only partner I’ve ever had was My Tie.”

“Forget the past,” Cat said. “We need to concentrate on getting out of here.”

“Yes,” Mystie said. “Anyone got any ideas?”

“Look, I’ve been thinking about what’s gone down so far,” Jax said. “These guys aren’t human.”

“You’re crazy,” Tor said. “Of course they’re human. What else could they be?”

“We’re not in the United States anymore,” Jax tried to explain.

“We couldn’t have walked to Canada,” Cat said. “Those guys speak English, so they’re not Mexicans. Yes, we’re in the United States.”

“No, we’re not,” Jax argued. “We’re under it.”

“What?” the other three said simultaneously.

“Did you ever hear of the Hollow Earth Theory?” Jax asked.

All three shook their heads.

“See that guitar case standing there? I outlined its shadow a couple of hours ago. The shadow hasn’t moved out of that outline at all. If we were on the surface of the Earth, that shadow would have moved out of the outline by now. Shadows are supposed to move during the day because the Earth is turning fifteen degrees per hour. That’s why your shadow is long sometimes and short other times. Shadows move! That shadow hasn’t moved at all,” Jax said, pointing towards his guitar case. “That’s impossible!”

“What exactly are you saying, Jax?” Mystie asked.

“The Hollow Earth Theory says that the Earth is hollow in some places and that whole civilizations live there. I used to think it was crap, but how else do you explain the sun shining at three a.m. and shadows that don’t move?”

“Wouldn’t it be dark in the hollow world? If we’re under the surface, how is the sun shining on us?” Cat asked.

“See that sun out there?” Jax asked, pointing at the window. “It’s not our sun. It’s a different sun. We’re under the surface of the Earth!”

“If it’s a different civilization,” Tor said slowly, “why do they speak English?”

“I don’t know,” Jax said irritably. “Maybe they get our radio or television signals. How do I know? What I do know is that they’re not like us. Maybe they’re aliens from another planet. Maybe they used to be human, but they evolved into a different species. I don’t know. I do know, however, that the sound of firecrackers can kill them if they’re too close to the explosion.”

“What makes you think that?” Tor asked and looked confused.

Jax remembered that Tor had been on the run when the two men died, and he had not been with them in the transport vehicle to see the body bags. “Two of the guards died when I threw firecrackers at them.“

Cat nodded. “Mystie and I thought Jax shot them with a gun, but he swears he doesn’t have one. He says he just threw firecrackers at them.”

“That’s crazy,” Tor said and jumped up. “The sound of firecrackers can’t kill people.” He jerked Jax’s backpack out of his hands. “Maybe he does have a gun…one his partner gave him!” He searched the backpack. No gun.

Jax grabbed it back, his face red with anger. “You do that again, kid, and you’ll be my first fatality.”

Mystie jumped between them. “Look, we need to all calm down. We’ve got to get out of this mess, and we can’t do that by fighting among ourselves.”

Jax took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. She was right. He knew they would have to work together if they were going to get out of this. “All I know,” Jax said, “is that firecrackers kill these guys.”

He pitched a pack of firecrackers to each person in the room. After digging in his backpack, he found a package of three disposable lighters. Giving each person one lighter, he then fumbled in his pocket for a fourth. “Now, when they come in to take us to court, we light the firecrackers and run like crazy.”

“It didn’t work the last time,” reminded Cat.

“Have you got a better idea?” Jax asked grumpily.

“No,” Cat said, “but what if you’re wrong about the firecrackers killing them?”

“Then I’m wrong.” Jax flicked his lighter to see if it was working, and the others did the same. “Put everything in your pockets.”

The guys stuffed their jeans with firecrackers. Mystie, still wearing her robe and pajamas from last night, stuffed hers in her robe pockets.

They sat there for a long time in silence, everyone in their own thoughts. Mystie glanced over at My Tie. “Is she a German Sheppard?”

“No,” Jax said and patted the dog proudly. “She’s a wolfdog.”

“You mean she’s half wolf?” Cat asked and Jax nodded.

“Is she dangerous?” Mystie asked.

“Only if you trip over her,” Jax said and chuckled. “She has no wolf-aggression in her at all. As a matter of fact, she’s a bit of a coward, aren’t you, girl?” He bent his head down and My Tie licked his face.

“Why would you want a cowardly wolfdog?” Cat asked and frowned at the big dog.

“She’s the best dog in the world. I’m not prejudiced; it’s just a simple fact.”

Mystie laughed. “I see she’s had pups.”

Jax frowned. He didn’t want to think about My Tie’s pups—her murdered pups. They were why he and the wolfdog had left home.

Mystie tilted her head and listened. “What’s that noise?”

The others heard it also. It was a barely audible hissing sound.

Mystie stood up and walked around the room searching for the noise. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” she said quietly.

“Where’s it coming from?” Jax asked and looked around the room.

“There!” screamed Mystie and pointed toward a far corner.

A stream of vapor was shooting out from under a bench along the far wall, creating a white fog.

“It’s gas!” Jax shouted. “Put something over your nose and mouth.” He barely got the words out before he saw Tor crumple to the floor. Mystie reached out for her brother and collapsed on top of his unconscious body. She lay there coughing and wheezing until finally she too was unconscious.

Jax grabbed his shirt and tried to cover his mouth and nose with it, but it was too little, too late. As he sank into unconsciousness, he saw My Tie slump down on the floor and Cat fall off of the crystal bench.



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The Blood Toll: Thunderbird Valley Paranormals (Book 2)





“All you have to do is place a pillow over the old woman’s face, smother her to death, and you’ll be free to leave Thunderbird Valley,” Sheriff Bradshaw growled at me. “Stop whining, Charlene, nothing’s going to go wrong.”

We sat inside his personal car, not his cruiser, so we would be far less conspicuous. He had parked under a giant oak two doors down from Sissy Bustamente’s old Victorian mansion. Lightning danced above us in black, threatening spring clouds that had rolled in out of nowhere, making the moonless night even darker.

“Isn’t there some other way?” I wailed. “I’m a nurse; I’m supposed to help people not kill them.” A lock of my brown hair fell onto my wet cheek, getting stuck there. Absently, I tucked it behind my left ear and continued to sob.

“You’ve tried to leave, but I notice that you’re still here.” His voice had taken on an even meaner sneer to it than it usually had, and I looked over at him.

He sat in the driver’s seat staring straight ahead, his rotund belly pressing up against the steering wheel. He looked odd to me because he wasn’t in uniform or wearing his customary white cowboy hat tonight, and his bare head revealed thick, white hair. He looked as if he was in his mid-fifties, but everyone said he was a lot older.

“This is the key to her house,” the sheriff said and handed me a long, antique, copper-colored key that children would call a skeleton key.

As I stared at it, reality hit me head on. My heart started to thud in my chest. In a few minutes I would murder an old, helpless woman. “But why? What did Sissy ever do to you?”

“Nothing that I want to talk about,” he growled. He turned a little in his seat and stared at me. “If you want out of Thunderbird Valley, your toll is Sissy’s death. Got it?”

“Why…can’t you…do it?” I said, sobbing so hard I thought that I might be sick.

“It’s your toll, not mine,” he told me without any emotion or humanity in his voice. He turned his head back, looking down the street at Sissy Bustamente’s house. “If it was my toll, I’d go in there with guns blazing and send the old bat to Hell where she belongs, and I’d kiss this demonic town goodbye.”

“Why does it matter who kills her?” I asked, my hands shaking so badly I almost dropped the key.

He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he told me in a voice that rang with the truth. “Usually, it doesn’t matter who you kill to pay your toll, but this time it does.”

I thought about that. “If a toll-bound person only has to murder someone to be free of this stupid town, then why have you stayed so long? Why haven’t you killed someone?”

He was silent for so long that I thought he wasn’t going to answer me. Finally, he cleared his throat and said softly, “My toll is different. I’m not required to kill anyone. I’m the…messenger.”

“For how long?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.” With that said, he shoved open his door and slid out of the car. He walked around to the front of the vehicle and stood staring at old Sissy’s house.

I knew he was waiting for me to get out, so I opened my door. When I stepped out onto the sidewalk, I was assailed with the odor of cinnamon and…. I couldn’t quite make out what else was in the air. “What is that horrid smell?”

“Some of her homemade Voodoo,” he hissed irritably and used his chin to point to her house.

I stared at Sissy’s big, old house and cringed. “What if she wakes up?”

He shrugged. “Grab something and beat the hell out of her.”

When I stared at him in horror, he growled, “It doesn’t matter how you kill her—just kill her!”

“Why her?” I whined. “She’s one hundred and one years old; she’s never done anything mean to anybody. She’s always been nice to everybody. She does a lot of good charity work.”

He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly as if controlling his emotions. “I know,” he agreed quietly. “But the demon Maligo wants her dead.”

“But why?” I asked, hoping for some sliver of information I could use to get out of this murder.

“I don’t know. I just know it’s because of her Voodoo; she’s doing something that Maligo doesn’t like.”

“She’s always done her Voodoo. Why does it matter now?”

He turned toward me. “Look, Charlene, it doesn’t matter what she’s doing. I told Maligo that you would kill her. Everything’s set.”

At that moment, directly above our heads, lightning lit up the sky and thunder instantly blasted our eardrums. Instinctively, we both stooped down a little for a couple of seconds. And when the sheriff stood up again, I did the same.

“Can’t you kill her?”

He shook his head. “She has a book of magick that was stolen from the demon. It has increased her powers a thousand-fold. It keeps the demon at bay, and I can’t even get on her porch without being hurtled back into her yard. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s your job tonight. Now go in there and get rid of the old bitty.”

“Please don’t make me kill anyone,” I pleaded and continued to sob.

He drew back his right hand and viciously slapped me in the face. Knocked off of my feet, I hit the sidewalk hard. I gasped as my cheek burst into fiery tingles, and I sat up, looking around at him.

He stomped to me and menacingly stood over me. “Now, you get in there and kill that old troublemaker.” He jerked me to my feet. “If you don’t kill her, I swear I’ll kill you myself!”

I gasped at his threat, and I knew he would do it. The sobs in my chest were so violent I could barely get my breath. I turned and looked at Sissy’s house and then down at the skeleton key I still clasped in my right hand. Sighing heavily, I took a couple of steps toward the old Victorian mansion and stopped.

It was a huge structure and had always reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s creepy novel, The House of the Seven Gables. I wondered as I walked toward it if Sissy would curse me the way Matthew Maule cursed Colonel Pyncheon in the book. Would my descendents and I drink blood as a punishment for what I was about to do?

Behind me, I heard the sheriff growl irritably, “Go!”

I took a step toward the house and then another. “I can’t do this,” I muttered quietly and looked back at the sheriff.

Sheriff Bradshaw shouted to me in a whisper, “Keep going!”

I shivered as I reached the front of Sissy’s residence. Looking at the big house I figured the walkway up to it was only about forty feet or so in length, but I knew, without a doubt, that it would be the longest forty feet I would ever walk. I glanced back at Sheriff Bradshaw and saw him jab his finger at the house, silently ordering me to get going.

I gulped a nervous breath of air and took a step up the walkway. Forcing one foot in front of the other, I dragged myself toward the house.

The sheriff stood in the shadows of the big oak tree, but I could see his outline when lightning lit up the sky. He was leaning on the front of his car watching me.

I steeled myself and walked up to the front door. Looking down at the antique key, I sucked in a huge breath and gently placed the key into the lock. With a turn to the right, I heard the key click the locking mechanism. Cringing, I turned the old, crystal doorknob, and the front door creaked open.

I entered the house and walked directly into the foyer. Light from a single lamp on a table beside the stairs lit up the foyer enough for me to see plainly. With each step seeming heavier than the last, I made my way up the stairs.

The sheriff had told me earlier that Sissy’s bedroom was at the top of the stairs, and as I reached the landing I could see her door. My heart thudded wildly in my chest. “I can’t do this,” I quietly muttered, but I knew I had to.

My chest was heaving from fear as I crossed the hall to the bedroom door, and I felt my stomach flip flop. When I reached out for the doorknob, my hand was shaking so badly I missed the brass knob completely.

I slowly took hold of the doorknob to Sissy’s bedroom, grasping it tightly in my trembling right hand. I opened the door a little and peered inside. Candles sat on a table in the far corner of the room and several of them were lit, allowing me to see plainly into the room.

I sucked in a deep breath and tried to still and toughen my quaking nerves, but it did no good. I stuffed the antique key into the pocket of my jeans and shoved open the door a little more.

I crept into her room and headed for the empty side of her bed. I had to get a pillow, and thanks to the candles being lit, I could see two unused pillows on her bed. I snatched up one and then crept around to her side of the bed.

As I got near her, I stepped on a plank in the old floor, and it creaked loudly. I froze, my heart thundering in my chest. My ears pounded as blood rushed to my head and ears. I felt faint and was afraid my legs would turn to marshmallows.

She moaned in her sleep and turned on her side, facing me. I took several deep breaths and prayed for silent planks.

Again, clasping the pillow to my chest, I moved toward her, this time in complete silence. When I got near the head of her bed, where her head lay peacefully resting on a pillow, I glanced down at her.

I gasped. Was this Sissy Bustamente? This woman wasn’t one hundred and one years old. The woman lying in the bed seemed younger—much younger. What the hell?

Gone were the wrinkles in her normally heavily-lined face. The woman before me looked about the age of thirty. This can’t be Sissy, I thought frantically. I didn’t personally know old Sissy, but I had seen her at hospital fundraising events. I started to step away from the bed, but a floorboard creaked, and the woman’s eyes shot open.

I was caught!

I gasped and backed away from her.

“I know why you’re here,” she crowed in a voice that sounded old and crackly. She bolted up in bed. “Tell the demon I’m not your toll.” The young woman was Sissy Bustamente; I could tell by her voice—it sounded as ancient as she was.

She threw back her hand and then slammed it forward, sending out a blast of power at me.

Whatever Sissy hit me with knocked me to the floor. I landed hard and groaned.

Sissy threw herself out of bed and stood, towering over me. Glaring angrily, she hissed at me in her old, croaky voice, “Tell the sheriff that not even Rambo can take me down!”

As she threw back her head and laughed, I scooted farther away from her until I was backed up against her bedroom wall, next to the table that held the candles. I felt sick and started to cry.

“I’m protected by the spirits of Palo Mayombe.” She ran to the table I was sitting by and grabbed up a stick. Whirling around, she stalked toward me. “Do you hear me?” she yelled at me. “I’m protected by spirits that are much more powerful than the demon. Tell that to the sheriff.”

She raised the stick and grinned.

I scrambled to my feet. “Please don’t hurt me,” I begged. “Sheriff Bradshaw made me come in here. He’s waiting outside for me.”

“Tell the demon that he’s not getting his codex back. The book belongs to me now. And I’ll suck every bit of energy out of the demon until I’m twenty years old again.”

She was sucking energy from the demon? Oh, my god, that’s why he wants her dead.

She whammed the stick down on me, hitting me in the face and causing me to fall against the table that held the candles. I grabbed the table to steady myself and when I did, I saw it was some sort of altar.

Besides the many candles, the altar held a small, black book with gold hieroglyphs etched into its leather. The altar also held a cauldron, and inside the cauldron was the skull of a baby!

I screamed at the horrid sight of a poor, dead baby’s skull. Where had Sissy gotten it? I shuddered thinking about it.

At that moment, Sissy brought down her stick on me again, this time hitting me in the back. When the stick hit, I felt a searing power shoot through me. The pain was incredible. This was no ordinary stick. This was something magickal. I screamed again and turned toward her. I tried to run, but she stood in my way.

“Leave me alone!” I screamed.

“You leave me alone!” she screamed back. She raised the stick again, but I dived at her, knocking her off balance. She went down hard on the floor but immediately brought up the stick again. As I tried to step over her to get away, she whacked me again.

I screamed from the pain that seemed to reverberate throughout my body.

“Tell the sheriff that I know how to use the demon’s codex. And I’ll use it on him if he doesn’t leave me alone!”

She raised the stick to hit me again, but I grabbed it from her and ran. When I got to the door of her bedroom, she yelled at me, “Tell the sheriff if he doesn’t leave me alone, I’ll send my spirits after him!”

I shot through the doorway and down the stairs, sobbing and gasping as I went. When I reached the front door, I saw Sheriff Bradshaw waiting for me in the yard. He didn’t try to stop me as I flew past him, but he hollered after me as I sped down the walkway.

“Is she dead?”

“No!” I screamed and ran toward the street. I heard the sheriff throw curses at me. I was only about five blocks from Mrs. Garvey’s boarding house, so I decided to run home. I certainly had no desire to get back into the sheriff’s car.

Still carrying Sissy’s powerful stick, I sobbed as I ran toward the boarding house where I lived. I had been in Thunderbird Valley for nearly a year, and I really didn’t have any friends. I had spent all of my free time researching how I could get out of this town—this trap I had found myself in. I had only coworkers at the hospital, but I never felt I could confide in any of them. I was always afraid to tell people about owing a toll. If they knew, I would be an outcast in a town where I couldn’t leave.

As I jogged through the driving thunderstorm, ever onward toward the boarding house, I prayed to God for a friend.

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Far Side of the Moon



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I’m the Reason You Fear the Dark by J.R. Griffith


I’m the Reason You Fear the Dark

 Chapter 1

Only half conscious, I was pulled out of the bed of an old pickup truck and dropped unceremoniously onto a grave near a small mausoleum. For a moment, I opened my eyes and through the darkness of the night, with the help of the truck’s headlights, l could see the tops of several tombstones. I was in the Thunderbird Valley graveyard.

Pain shot through my head, pounding and stabbing at my brain, and the coppery taste of blood flooded into my mouth. What little consciousness I had registered that I was severely injured. I closed my eyes hoping the pain would stop. It didn’t.

Lightning lit up the sky, and I could see the brightness of it even behind closed lids. Immediately, a violent thunderclap sounded above me loud and long, shaking the ground that I lay on.

“Where is she?” It was a hoarse, crusty voice that cut through the night in an agitated tone. Even though I couldn’t see who spoke the words, I instinctively knew the man was ancient and somehow vaguely familiar as if I had met him once before.

I tried to open my eyes again to get a look at him, but the pain in my head fought against it, so I lay unmoving on the dew-soaked grass of the newly cut lawn.

“Over there. Her name, it be Victoria West,” a man said in broken English. I knew the owner of that slow, even voice; I knew him well. He was one of two servants who worked for Sissy Bustamente. His name was Homer Diggs, and he suffered from some form of mental retardation and took meds for his seizures.

Homer was a big man, slow in gait as he was in thought, and he walked hunched over because of a childhood spinal injury that had never healed properly. He was twenty-five years old and had thinning black hair and squinty, brown eyes. His mother was Tipper Diggs, cook and housekeeper for Sissy.

Why was I here in a cemetery late at night during the middle of a thunderstorm? I couldn’t remember. I wanted to ask the two men who worked nearby. I was injured. Why wasn’t I being taken to a hospital?

I tried to call out to them, tell them I was hurt, but no words escaped my lips.

I heard the eerie scraping sound of marble sliding against marble, and a brutal shiver creeped into every part of my cold body. And it was cold. The weather was unseasonably cold for this time of year. The icy winds of October moaned around me, seeking and finding every uncovered spot on my body, and there seemed to be many.

I realized I was dressed in my new nightgown only. It was a white, silk present to me from me for getting that interview with old Bustamente. At one hundred and one years old, she was the oldest living resident of Thunderbird Valley, and the things she had told me would go a long way toward my master’s in American History. I had a double major in college: History and Archaeology, and I wanted to specialize in American Pre-History.

Sissy had known where an ancient burial site was on property she owned, and my team had discovered the ruins of a prehistoric village of some still as yet unknown Native American tribe.

“Is she ready?” the hoarse, ancient voice asked.


I heard a slap upside Homer’s head, and Ancient growled, “The girl over there, dummy!”

Homer began to wail and tramp around on the wet grass. “No hit. No hit!”

“Then pay attention.”

“She ready,” the big man whined. “She dead. I deaded her real good.”

I stifled a gasp of horror. Logic finally found a place in my brain. The pain in my head was caused from an attempt on my life by Homer. Oh, my god! Why did he do that? I tried hard to remember recent events, but the excruciating pain quickly put a stop to that.

“You better have killed her real good.” Ancient hissed irritably. “She beat the hell out of me a while ago. Get over here and help me.”

What was he talking about? Within moments, I again heard the awful, soulful sound of marble sliding against marble. What was it about marble and granite? They seemed to be the preferred stones for the dead, and both of them, for reasons I could never fathom, gave me the creeps. It was as if they subliminally pleaded to me, declaring, “It’s your turn, Victoria West. Hurry, we’re waiting on you. We would love to be you eternal companions.”

Another loud scraping sound cut through the freezing night air, and I realized they were opening the lid of a marble casket.

What were they doing? Were they going to entomb me in there with some poor, decayed schmuck whose resting place they were violating?

Suddenly, bright light made its way past my closed lids, and I opened my eyes a little to see what caused it. An eerie, orange glow flooded out into the night from inside the mausoleum where the two men worked. Without a shadow of a doubt, I knew they were going to dump me inside that marble tomb.

I tried to cry out for help, but my voice failed me, and all I could muster was a scratchy moan.

“What was that?” Homer warned, and the noise of their terrible work stilled immediately.

I froze. They had heard my attempted cry.

As the silence engulfed all of us, I waited for one of them to examine me closer… examine me and kill me.

“Is she alive?” Ancient growled.

I closed my eyes again, hoping to play dead. But upon hearing the sound of footfalls coming toward me, I was compelled to open them again. I saw a weird-looking man coming at me.

Somewhere deep within the recesses of my mind, I called up that old legend people around Thunderbird Valley told each other on stormy nights to scare themselves. A Halloween story, I had always thought. Sleepy Hollow had its headless horseman, and Thunderbird Valley had the toll booth operator.

It was said that some people who came into Thunderbird Valley were stopped at a toll booth and were required to pay a toll. Of course I never believed in the toll booth operator because I had been born and raised in Thunderbird Valley and had never seen a toll booth here.

But as I stared wide-eyed at the man stomping toward me, I had second thoughts on that legend. In the glare of the mysterious light spilling out of the tomb and the headlights of Homer’s truck, I saw the man clearly, and he looked exactly how the toll booth operator should look.

The man I thought of as Ancient was an albino, black man. His salt and pepper hair was cut short, and his eyes—oh, those eyes! His eyes were creepy white orbs, with no irises or pupils in them. He was blind…totally blind. And, yet, he walked toward me to “see” if I was dead.

I wanted to shoot to my feet and run from the horrible “thing” who was stalking toward me, but my limbs were as useless as my voice. Would he make me pay a toll? Because that was the job of the toll booth operator. He exacted a toll from the certain few, unlucky victims he stopped. And the toll was always the same. BLOOD!

It was said that those who were required to pay a toll could not leave Thunderbird Valley until they had killed someone, and then a demon who was supposed to live under the valley would come and take his blood offering.

As this creepy, blind guy walked toward me, I froze every muscle of my body in the miserable hope he would think I was dead and go away. Suddenly, a loud howl sliced through the icy, night air of the cemetery and he stopped.

“The pack!” Homer screamed frantically, jumping up and down excitedly. “They close. Too close. What they here for?”

The blind man listened intently as a second howl, louder and longer, pierced each of our eardrums, sending chills down my spine.

“It’s the Stillwell Pack,” the blind man declared irritably. “In a couple of nights it’ll be a full moon.”

“Stillwell wolves is mean bunch,” Homer exclaimed. “I scared. Real scared. I go home!”

The blind man cursed old Sissy’s servant. “Master wants this girl.”

“Forget him,” Homer cried out. “I not care.” The servant ran toward his old, battered Ford. He jerked the door open and slid in behind the wheel.

Another howl echoed off the marble mausoleum, and the blind man whirled around, searching for the wolves.

“They here. They here!” Homer shouted from his truck. He started the old Ford and shoved it in reverse. “Wolves gonna eat you!”

Again, the blind man cursed the servant. “Get back here and help me with this body, damn you!”

But Homer was backing out of his parking space. He got his truck turned around the way he intended to go and hollered at the blind man. “Here they come!” He floored the accelerator and shot down the narrow, paved road that meandered through the cemetery.

I heard growling behind me and saw the blind man turn toward the sound and curse. A horse somewhere in the distance whinnied in fear, and the blind man forgot about me and ran toward the sound of the animal.

As the growling got closer to me, my heart began to thud in my chest. Adrenaline found its way into my bloodstream and flowed at the speed of light. I heard the blind man yell at his horse, “Go!”

The horse snorted and broke into a fast run, speeding past where I lay on the cold, wet grass. The man followed the same path as Homer, and I could see his rig as he passed by me. Through the weird, orange light coming from the mausoleum I saw that the blind man was sitting atop an old funeral coach, and he was wildly whipping the terrified horse.

“Faster!” he commanded the animal, and it was then that I saw the wolves. Two chased the horse, nearly catching up with it as it sped down the road at an unearthly fast pace.

Unable to catch the coach, the two wolves turned back and padded toward me. I watched in horror as they neared where I lay. I tried to move my legs a little and was rewarded with limbs that curled.

I tried to rise, but the world spun cruelly in front of me, and I thought I would be sick. I dropped back down to the ground, praying I could regain my equilibrium before the wolves got to me. Maybe I could run into the mausoleum, I thought. Maybe I could shut the door and perhaps they wouldn’t be able to get inside. Everyone said the Stillwell Pack was full of idiots.

Suddenly, I felt hot breath on the back of my neck. It was a third wolf, one that I hadn’t seen.

I gaped in terror. There would be no fooling a wolf. He would know I wasn’t dead, and the Stillwell Pack was the most vicious of the packs surrounding Thunderbird Valley.

I rolled over on my back and stared into the black eyes of a huge, Lupine male. His long snout sniffed me as if testing to see if I was eatable. I must have seemed delicious because his upper lips curled over his long, huge teeth, and for a moment I thought he grinned at me. But it was only for a moment. I quickly saw the snarl and the saliva that dripped from his sharp canines.

He growled viciously at me, and I screamed.

He moved in for the kill, and I froze as I waited to be torn to shreds. Then in a momentary blur, another Lupine dived at my would-be killer, and the two wolves fought only a couple of feet from me. They rolled around and around, snarling, growling, and biting, neither willing to be bested in the fight.

“Run!” I ordered myself and managed to get to my feet. I took a couple of steps toward the mausoleum, when a third male wolf jumped in front of me. This one actually grinned at me.

“Please, don’t hurt me,” I begged, sobbing and gasping for air.

As his buddies fought each other a few feet away, this new one reared back, his muscles flexing, preparing to jump on me.

I screamed, praying someone might hear me, but as I did I knew no one was in the cemetery this late at night.

Suddenly, the light in the mausoleum brightened, and a horrible roaring came from inside it. The wolf about to jump at me whirled around and stared at the tomb.

“The demon!” someone cried out, and the three wolves turned and fled away from the light into the safety of the darkness, zigzagging between the headstones as they went.

Again, the roar permeated the icy air of the cemetery. “Oh, my god!” I exclaimed. Was there really a demon in the tomb? A powerful demon’s domain under the valley was as much a part of the local legends as was the toll booth operator.

Another roar rolled out over the cold headstones.

I was now convinced the toll booth operator was real. I had actually seen him. And if he was real, perhaps the demon was also.

As I heard scraping and clanging coming from the tomb, I turned and staggered in the opposite direction the wolves had taken.

I stumbled down the same road that meandered through the cemetery and prayed I could get out of this horrid place before the members of the Stillwell Pack or the demon could get at me.

Finally, I reached the cemetery’s entrance gates, and I stumbled out onto a county road that I knew would take me into town. I started running, my head pounding with arrows of pain hitting their marks.

Suddenly, I saw lights on in a house not far from the cemetery. “They’ll help me,” I groaned and ran toward the big house. Off in the distance, I heard the wolves howl.

Chapter 2

“This place gives me the creeps!” Deputy Chris Gifford muttered as he walked around his patrol car and stared at the big mansion in front of him. He was a tall man with a massive chest and muscular arms. He could stop most bar fights by simply clearing his throat; you didn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side.

The old Mockingbird House, called Hell House by the locals, stood menacingly in the darkness, silhouetted by continuous lightning supplied by thunderclouds to the north. It was white with a black shingled roof, and black shutters graced each side of the windows. It was designed in the antebellum style with a large portico that ran the length of the front. Six massive pillars stood on the porch holding up the weight of the portico’s roof.

It had once been a majestic house, built by Joseph Mockingbird in 1910, and had been the venue of grand parties and merriment for multi-generations of Mockingbirds.  Most of the older residents of Thunderbird Valley could remember when invitations to its parties had been fought for and envied. But all of that was gone now—twenty years in the past.

There were reminders, though, if you looked in the right places. The public library had a book bound in black leather and embossed in gold lettering entitled, The History of Thunderbird Valley, Volume I. It was safely kept behind the desk and one had to sign it out and read it in the library. Between its leather bindings were pictures of beautiful ladies with their rich husbands drinking bootleg whisky at fashionable parties. And if you looked far enough back in the Thunderbird Valley Sentinel newspaper morgue, you could find the family name of Mockingbird on nearly every page…certainly, on every social page.

Nowadays, most of the present residents of Thunderbird Valley didn’t choose to remember those grand times. Instead, they remembered only the missing children.

As Deputy Gifford took a step toward the house, a sudden gust of wind hit him in the face nearly knocking him backwards. He regained his balance and glared irritably at the old place wondering if the house itself didn’t want him here. He quickly tried to put such nonsense out of his head but, despite himself, remembered back to when he was a kid and had to travel past Mockingbird House on his bike every day. It didn’t help to know that one of the vehicles in the driveway belonged to the coroner.

“Storm’s coming,” Gifford’s partner, Deputy Sam Brown announced and shut the passenger side door. Like Gifford, he stared at the old house in awe and a little fear.

Gifford moved beside Brown but continued to stare at the old house. “Yeah, I believe a storm’s coming.”

Brown shivered as the cold October wind whipped across the U-shaped driveway. Unlike his partner, Brown was a small, wiry, black man, who relied on his good sense and a Glock to get him out of trouble. “They never found her, did they?”

Gifford didn’t respond to the question. He didn’t have to. They both knew the girl had never been found.

At that moment, the front door opened, and a paramedic walked out pulling along a gurney after him. His partner had hold of the other end, and both of them stopped on the large porch to navigate the four steps down.

Lifting up on the gurney a little, the front paramedic deftly took the steps with ease. His partner followed him down holding up his end of the gurney.

Gifford strolled over to the paramedics as they reached the ambulance. “Whatcha got, Joe?”  He stared down at the unconscious woman.

“Victoria West,” Joe Olson the paramedic said and maneuvered the patient into the back of the ambulance.

“West?”  Gifford said with surprise in his voice. “Silas West’s daughter?”

“Old Shelly identified her,” Joe explained, referring to Doctor Sheldon, Thunderbird Valley’s coroner.

“What was she doing at Mockingbird House?”

The paramedic shrugged. “Don’t know.” His partner scrambled into the back with their patient, and Joe shut the back door.

“What’s wrong with her?” Brown asked and sauntered over to stand next to Gifford.

“Looks like a nasty blow to the head,” the paramedic said in a bored tone.  “See ya.”  He walked to the driver’s side door.

Gifford watched the ambulance driver slide in, start the motor, and slowly move down the long driveway.

“Now that Silas is gone, does the West girl have any family left or did that curse get ‘em all?” Brown asked.

“No family that I know of,” Gifford said. He stared after the ambulance. “As far as I know, everyone’s passed on.”

At that moment, the wind picked up. A strong, cold breeze shoved the front of Gifford’s brown hair to the side, sending a freezing chill down his spine. He grimaced as he imagined the skeletal fingers of death combing through his hair. Turning to his partner, he warned, “I guess we better go inside before the sheriff starts bitchin’.”

Brown nodded, but neither deputy moved. Both stared at the old mansion, each man reliving bits of memory the house brought back to him.


“What’s taking you so long, Joe?” the paramedic Bill Cannon asked.

“There’s a tractor in front of me,” Joe called back. He actually couldn’t see the tractor because of the layers of round hay bales that sat atop a flat trailer.

“Turn on your siren and make him pull over.”

“We’re coming up on the bridge,” Joe explained.  He smiled, knowing exactly what his partner would say and silently mouthed the words with him.

“Why would anyone build a one lane bridge?”

Joe said what he always said when they went over one of these bridges, and there were plenty of them around Thunderbird Valley. “That’s the way they built them a hundred years ago.” He also knew Bill’s response to what he had just said.

“It’s time for new bridges.”

Joe smiled.”You want your taxes to go up?”

“Our senators should use some of that pork money on us.”

“Yup,” Joe had to agree.

Suddenly, a large object about the size of a man came crashing down on the hood and windshield of the ambulance. Joe fearfully shrieked out the word, “Crap!” Instinctively, he slammed on the brakes causing Bill to fall from his seat next to their passenger.

“What the hell is going on, Joe?” Bill exclaimed from the back floor and scrambled to his feet.

Joe’s heart thudded in his chest as adrenalin coursed through his body. He stared wide-eyed at the hideous face, whose eyes were staring back at him. Leaning forward to get a better look, Joe chuckled nervously. “It’s a scarecrow,” he pronounced, breathing hard. “Someone’s scarecrow got loose and was flying in the wind. It hit the ambulance.”

Just then, the “scarecrow” lifted its left arm and shoved its fist through the windshield. Joe’s cries of surprise were stifled as the scarecrow grabbed the man by the throat and squeezed hard.

Horrendous pain shot from Joe’s Adam’s apple and up through his skull, causing his eyes to feel like they were going to pop out of his head. Instinctively, he grabbed the attacker’s arm with both of his hands and fought uselessly against the deadly hold. Joe felt his consciousness slipping from him and knew he would be dead at any moment.

“Get off him!” Bill demanded. The lights were on in the ambulance, and they reflected off the windshield preventing the paramedic from getting a good look at the attacker, who was strangling his partner of fifteen years. He pushed at the attacker’s arm, but it did no good. Joe was held tight in a death grip.

When he couldn’t get the attacker off of Joe, Bill reached around to a cabinet and frantically fumbled in it until he came up with a pair of large scissors.“Get the hell off of him!” he screamed and violently jabbed the scissors deep into the attacker’s arm.

The attacker shrieked from the pain and instantly let go of Joe, but it was too late.  The ambulance driver was dead.

The attacker slid off of the hood and stood at the front of the vehicle for a moment, illuminated by the headlights. The “scarecrow” glanced down at his wound, jerked the scissors out of his arm, and then scowled angrily at Bill.

“What the hell?” Bill exclaimed as he got a good look at Joe’s attacker. It was no man.  It was a…  Bill didn’t know what it was.

The creature was at least six feet tall, with flowing white hair halfway down his back. He had bulging eyes and a greenish tint to his skin. But what creeped out Bill the most, was the guy’s white teeth inside a lipless mouth.

Those bulging eyes stared at the paramedic, who was transfixed by them. Bill gasped as the creature started around the ambulance toward the driver’s side door. Bill quickly shot over the seat and frantically locked the door.

The creature reached out his hand to jerk open the door but stopped. It stood perfectly still as the wind wildly whipped its hair around, and it seemed to be looking past the ambulance. Bill followed the creature’s gaze and saw a car approaching the ambulance from behind.

As headlights illuminated the creature once again, it turned and fled out into a pasture, scaring several cows as it went. Within moments it had disappeared, leaving the paramedic shaken and sobbing.

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How to get started publishing on Amazon .com

How to get started publishing on Amazon .com

I had always dreamed about becoming a writer but didn’t think there was a chance for me. I was constantly reading about people who complained they had sent their manuscripts to every publisher in the country and was either rejected or forgotten about.

Then one day last year, I accidentally ran across an article explaining about Independent publishing on That’s how I found out about the subject. Now, a year later, I have eight ebooks up for sale on Amazon. See my Amazon Author’s link:

I’m living my dream of being an author, and so can you. It’s actually pretty simple.

 This where you start…where you create your author’s account with Amazon for free.  

(1.) You can start here:

(2.) Need help formatting your ebook? This link will help: 

Amazon’s Simplified Formatting Guide:

(3.) This is the FREE BOOK that may explain formatting easier than the one above (it’s actually the one I use):

This is the same book as above but in PDF form:

Also want your book in paperback?

Amazon’s partner CreateSpace will publish your book in paperback for free and give you a free ISBN number.

Go here to make a free CreateSpace account.

So, if you’ve ever wanted to publish a book, now is the time to get started. You’ve got no more excuses.

I hope this helps you. If you need help, you can contact me for more information here on this blog or on my Facebook page.

Follow me on Twitter:

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I just published a new novel on this week. Between the Legs of a Nightmare: The Succubus (Book 2)

What would you do if Lilith, Adam’s first wife and the mother of all demons, possessed your body since birth?

After being possessed for twenty-one years, Marcy Wylde has accidently gained control of her body.

Fleeing New Sodom, Marcy is determined to save her world, and the handsome stranger who just rescued her from a demon is determined to kill Lilith before she becomes all-powerful. 

Hiding her true identity from the man, Marcy accepts his help and travels back to southern California where the madness all began.

Falling hard for the man, who unknowingly wants to kill her, Marcy must make the most important decision of her life because it’s just a matter of time before Lilith’s demons find the Key of Reversal and become mankind’s worst nightmare.


Ages 18 and up.  Sexual situations, violence, and strong language. 

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Firecracker Jax: Hel’s Spawn (Book 2)

Link to book on

Chapter 1

Today was important. The biggest story to ever hit a news desk was about to break. James Edward James, known to everyone as Jim E. Jim, scurried around the studio set. He was producer and glorified gopher of the program. Everything had to be perfect. If it wasn’t, he would hear about it from the “scream’n demon” after the show. The demon was seated behind her desk on the set waiting to be cued.

Ayesha Hall was, of course, not really a demon; instead, she was a stunningly beautiful black woman and was as driven and competitive as any man ever thought about being. She was host of her own local television show, The Ayesha Hall Show, on RFNZ in Roman Falls, Oklahoma. It was a program usually aimed at women and their issues. Ayesha called it her powder puff show and desperately wanted to move upward to a national news program, where the real money was—and the celebrity status that came with it.

The director cued the intro: “Three, two, one.”

While the preprogrammed introduction to the show started, Ayesha laid down her mirror and shuffled papers nervously. Today’s show just might be the most important of her career. When the intro stopped, the director cued her.

“Welcome everyone,” she said as professionally as she could manage. She hoped this would be picked up by the networks. “I’m Ayesha Hall, and this is The Ayesha Hall Show. We’re breaking from our usual format to bring you exclusive coverage of what might be termed, The Story of the Millennium. Ladies and gentlemen,” Ayesha said and leaned slightly forward toward the camera, “this is not a hoax. I repeat: This is not a hoax! The facts in this bombshell story have been triple-checked by RFNZ’s roving reporter, Tiger Torres. We’re going live to Tiger now.”

Tiger’s face flashed across television screens. He was a good-looking Hispanic man in his early thirties, with neatly trimmed hair and wearing an expensive suit, which he had bought especially for this broadcast.

“Tiger, what has happened?” Ayesha asked.

“Thank you, Ayesha,” Tiger said and, like the beautiful host of the show, tried to be as professional looking and sounding as possible. “I want to repeat your words. This is not a hoax.” He took a breath and stood as straight as possible. “Ladies and gentlemen, some of the dead have come back!”

“Tiger, I want you to repeat that in case some of our viewers didn’t catch it,” Ayesha said.

The camera went back to Tiger. “Some of the dead, and we don’t know how many, just yet, have actually come back!” He let that sink in for about two seconds. “Gil, can you get a shot of what I’m talking about?” he asked the cameraman.

Gil panned the camera around and scenes of police cars were flashed across the television sets of Roman Falls.

“Witnesses that I have interviewed, and we have that footage for you, have told me that a large, black stagecoach-looking vehicle drawn by black horses showed up in front of this house about an hour ago. A man got out and went inside. The man is Gerald O’Conner. Neighbors say that Mr. O’Conner was a long-time resident of Roman Falls and was recently deceased last January.” Tiger turned to a woman standing beside him.

“This is Sarah Teller, a neighbor of Gerald O’Conner.” The camera focused on a heavy-set woman about fifty years old. The woman was excited about being on camera.

“Hi everyone,” she said and waved to the viewers.

“Mrs. Teller, explain to us what you saw.”

“I was here in my yard working on my flowers, and there was this big, black stagecoach that pulled up. It was being pulled by six or eight black horses. I’m sorry, but I just can’t remember how many horses there were. Anyway, the horses were snorting fire, and before anyone asks, I wasn’t snorting anything myself!” She glared at the camera as if daring anyone to say she was on drugs.

“Then what happened?” he prompted.

“Well, when the stagecoach stopped, a man got out and walked toward the O’Conner house over there,” she pointed to the house directly across from hers.

The camera again got a shot of the police cars in front of the O’Conner house. “Did you recognize the man?” Tiger asked.

Mrs. Teller’s face came back on camera. “My first instinct was to say that it was Gerald O’Conner, but then I remembered he was dead!” She took a huge breath and laughed nervously. “You’ve got to understand that those fire-snortin’ horses shook me up pretty good.”

Tiger nodded that he understood and moved the microphone closer to the woman.

“Anyway, I figured the guy was Gerald’s kinfolk. You know, someone who looked like him…maybe an identical twin. I went to poor Gerald’s funeral, and it was an open casket. I know he’s dead!”

“Do you know what he died of, Mrs. Teller?”

“He had a heart attack and died on the front lawn there.” Again she pointed to the house across the street. “I know, because I saw it happen and called 911. Those guys in the ambulance did everything humanly possible, but they couldn’t save him. He died!”

“Okay, Mrs. Teller,” Tiger said. “What happened after the man got out of the coach?”

“He just walks up the steps of the O’Conner’s house, opens the door, and goes in—big as you please!”

“Then what happened?” he asked and tried to keep the excitement out of his voice.

“The stagecoach and horses took off.”

“Did you get a look at who was driving the coach?”

She shook her head. “No one was driving that I could see.”

“Go on,” Tiger urged. “Then what happened?”

Remembering what she had seen, the woman swallowed hard. “All of a sudden, all hell breaks loose at the O’Conner house. Joy O’Conner comes running out of the house screaming for me to call 911. She runs into my yard and says that her dead husband, Gerald, is in the house. Well, I figured someone was playing a nasty prank on Joy, so I called the police.” Mrs. Teller suddenly got excited. “Oh, look,” she said and pointed to the O’Conner house. “That’s the guy!”

Gil whirled the camera around in time to get a shot of the police taking a man into custody. He was handcuffed, and a deputy led him to one of the three police cars parked in front of the house.

Tiger and his cameraman ran across the street and tried to interview the handcuffed man. “Sir, are you really Gerald O’Conner? Did you die and come back to life?”

The man didn’t speak; he just stared straight ahead. A deputy put him in the back of the police car.

Tiger turned toward the deputy. His nametag proclaimed that he was Deputy Gunter. He was a young man of about twenty-five, and he looked pale and shaken.

“Deputy Gunter, can you tell us if this is really Gerald O’Conner?” The deputy ignored the reporter, and Tiger tried again. “Can you tell us why you are arresting him? What did he do wrong?”

“Talk to the sheriff,” he told Tiger in a voice quavering with fear.

Three other deputies stood in the front yard of the O’Conner house speaking quietly to one another. After the arrested man was secured in the backseat of the patrol car, Gunter shut the car door and turned around. “I’m not going by myself,” he called out to the others and waited.

The other deputies conferred among themselves. Finally, one of them walked to the patrol car. “I’ll ride shotgun,” he told Gunter. As he opened the passenger door and slid in, Gunter hurried around to the driver’s side.

Tiger continued to ask questions, and Gunter continued to ignore him. Finally, the two deputies drove away with their prisoner.

Tiger and his cameraman tried to go into the O’Conner’s front yard but were escorted back by the two remaining deputies. “Sir,” Tiger asked one of them. “Can you tell us if that was indeed Gerald O’Conner?”

“The sheriff will speak to you when he’s able,” the bigger of the two deputies growled. “Now get back!”

As Tiger walked back out of the yard, he spoke to the camera. “Ayesha, this would have seemed like a hoax to us, except for the fact that Mr. Gerald O’Conner is not the first dead man, or even the second dead man, to show up in the Roman Falls area today.”

Ayesha Hall broke in. “Can you tell us about the other two men, Tiger?”

“Yes. The first man was Nafitz Mohammed, who showed up at his home this morning in the neighboring town of Sallisaw. We were fortunate to have an interview with some of his relatives. Let’s run that, Gil,” Tiger told his cameraman.

The video of the interview ran. Several people, some of them relatives of Mr. Mohammed, stood in front of the camera. The story was remarkably like the tale Mrs. Teller had just told. A black stagecoach, with curtained glass windows in the sides, showed up early this morning. It was pulled by eight black, fire-snorting horses. The vehicle reminded several people of an antique horse-drawn funeral coach, only it was much larger.

Mr. Mohammed got out of the coach and tried to go into his house. The door was locked, and the family thought a burglar was trying to break in. By the time police were summoned, the coach and horses were gone. One neighbor said the horses reminded her of Santa’s reindeers. “They lifted off and flew through the sky,” she said.

The family told police that the man, who stood like a zombie and never said a word, looked exactly like their relative who had died only two months before. He even had the same scar on his cheek! Because the man had been trying to get into the house, the police took him into custody. When the man did not respond to police questions, they took him to the hospital for physical and psychiatric evaluations.

The video interview stopped, and Tiger came on live again. “Ayesha,” he said, trying not to show excitement but failing. “My sources at Sallisaw Hospital have confirmed that the man police brought in this morning was definitely dead. He’s still walking around, but he is dead!” Tiger excitedly stood on one foot and then another like a child just about to receive his long-awaited birthday present.

“They are calling the man John Doe because police didn’t want to confirm that he was indeed Nafitz Mohammed, and my sources said that he had no heart beat and that he was still wearing the white cotton shroud he was buried in!”

Ayesha asked, “Are you sure about this, Tiger? Is the hospital saying the man is dead but still moving about?”

“The hospital is not officially saying anything, Ayesha. But I have two respected and trusted sources in that hospital, and both of them are telling me the same thing. One has told me that DNA samples were taken from the man and sent to the lab for identification purposes.” He tried hard to remain professional but excitement was creeping into his voice.

“What is the Sallisaw Police Department saying, Tiger?” she asked.

“Not much,” he answered. “They did confirm that a man was arrested and then transported to the hospital. That’s all they’re willing to say at this point.”

“You said three men have been dropped off at various locations,” Ayesha reminded. “Tell us about the third man.”

Tiger exaggeratedly nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “The third man lived here in Roman Falls, like Mr. O’Conner. That man’s name is allegedly Aaron Feinstein. As it had done with the other two men, the black stagecoach pulled by eight fire-snorting horses pulled up and let Mr. Feinstein off and then flew away. Like the others, Mr. Feinstein died a few weeks ago.

“Mr. Feinstein was placed under arrest and transported to the hospital. Like the other men, he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak or even acknowledge anyone else—not even his sister-in-law, who was hysterical when police responded to the 911 call. I interviewed Mr. Feinstein’s sister-in-law, who was at the home when he apparently just walked inside and sat down. Run that, Gil.”

The video ran. Ester Mayer, a pretty woman in her twenties, was wiping tears from her eyes. “I was so shook up when I saw him. I was in the kitchen making lunch for my two-year-old niece—Aaron’s daughter—when I heard the door in the living room open. I thought my sister Mischa—Aaron’s widow—had come back. I went into the living room to see what she had forgotten, and there he was, just standing there, staring, and not saying a word.” She wiped at her eyes again. “Well, I can tell you truthfully, I freaked!” She sobbed a little and tried to catch her breath. “I grabbed the baby and ran out the back door!”

“What did he do?” Tiger asked.

“Nothing, as far as I know,” Ester said. “I ran to a neighbor’s house, and he called 911 for me.”

At this point, the neighbor, who was standing next to Ester, broke into the story. “That’s right,” he said. “Ester was screaming that Aaron was back from the dead and all sorts of crazy things. She was pretty hysterical. I called the cops, then got my gun, and went to have a look.” He visibly shuddered. “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

“Why?” Tiger asked excitedly. “What did you see?”

“Aaron Feinstein,” the neighbor said. “It was him, Mr. Torres. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“I could see him sitting in the living room,” the man said. “I opened the door a little and asked him who he was and what he wanted.”

“What did he say to you?”

“Absolutely nothing! He just sat in the chair and stared at the television, which wasn’t even on.”

“Did you go into the house?”

“No, I just stood in the doorway until the police got there.”

“What did they do?”

“They spoke to Ester,” he said. “She told them who he was and that he was dead. The police took him away.”

Tiger shoved the microphone toward the young woman again. “Miss Mayer, did you identify the man as your dead brother-in-law?”

“It was him,” the woman said. “He had the same weird left eye as Aaron. There’s no doubt in my mind. It was my brother-in-law!”

A few more questions were asked and answered and the video ended.

“Remarkable,” Ayesha said. “Tiger, I have to ask this because everyone will want to know. Could this possibly be a hoax? You know, where someone is dressing up as these dead men for some unknown reason?”

“I don’t think so, Ayesha,” Tiger said. “If this is a hoax, the police and hospitals in two cities are in on it.” He shook his head. “I don’t believe either the police or the hospitals of Roman Falls and Sallisaw would want to ruin their reputations, just to pull a prank.”

“Has anyone been by the cemeteries where these men are… or…were buried?” Ayesha asked.

“Yes, while we were in Sallisaw, we swung around by the cemetery where Mr. Mohammed is supposed to be buried,” Tiger said. “Run that footage, Gil.”

Another video popped onto the screen. It showed the grave and headstone belonging to Mr. Mohammed. “As you can see, Ayesha, the grave has not been disturbed,” Tiger said excitedly. “The next scene is that of the gravesite of Mr. Feinstein. It has not been disturbed either. We haven’t yet been to Mr. O’Conner’s gravesite, but my assistant called the cemetery where he is buried, and they told her that his grave had not been disturbed.”

Suddenly, a voice sounded out from the gathering crowd, interrupting the interview. “The bible says that in the end times the dead in Christ shall rise,” an old woman hollered at Tiger.

“What was that?” Tiger hurried over to one of the onlookers. “What did you say?”

The woman spoke into the microphone. “For the Lord himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Thessalonians 4:16.”

“So you believe that we are in the end times?” Tiger asked.

“How else do you explain the dead rising?” the woman challenged him.

“What’s your name, ma’am?”

“Peggy Pyle,” the woman said proudly.

“But two of the dead men aren’t Christians. One is Muslim and one is Jewish,” Tiger argued.

“Yes,” the woman admitted, “and Gerald O’Conner was a lying, thieving drunk. But maybe they accepted Christ as their savior just as they were dying. That’s all it takes, you know. There are no works or good deeds that will get you into Heaven. You must accept Christ as your savior to get through those pearly gates.”

Peggy was the pastor’s wife of an independent Christian fundamentalist church in Roman Falls. She was sixty years old, tall, and slightly overweight. Her blonde hair, graying rapidly with each coming year, was piled high on her head in an old fashion bun. She wore a long sleeve blouse and an ankle-length skirt. And, most importantly, God spoke to her daily, telling her what He wanted her to do. She was fond of saying that she was one of God’s chosen few.

Not wanting Tiger to dwell on religious beliefs, Ayesha changed the subject. “Do you know if the hospital took DNA samples from all the men?”

“They took samples from Mr. Feinstein and Mr. Mohammed,” he answered. “We still don’t know if they are taking Mr. O’Conner to jail or the hospital. But one thing we do know is that none of the three men have spoken a word.”

“No words at all?” Ayesha asked, surprised.


“And what of this black stagecoach?” Ayesha asked. “Where is it?”

“Regretfully, we don’t know.”

“James, put up the station’s phone number,” Ayesha told Jim E. Jim. “If any of our viewers see a black stagecoach, pulled by eight fire-snorting horses, please call in and let us know. And if one of you out there can get a photo of the coach and horses, we’ll put it on the air.”

Jim E. Jim rushed to perform his task, and the number quickly appeared on the screen.

“We are in the end days, people,” Peggy said, as she jerked away Tiger’s microphone. “Repent and get right with God, or you’ll burn in Hell. The Lord just told me to tell you that!”

Tiger wrestled the microphone back and started to say something else, but Peggy yelled out her message. “Repent. A great battle is coming. Armageddon is about to begin. Look for the Antichrist because he’s here on Earth, right now!”

Chapter 2

Jax Blizzard took a break from his yard work. He walked over to a small table on the patio at the back of his house and drained the last of the honey-wine. He looked around at his new home and smiled. With the help of Cuneas, Jax had built a small one bedroom cottage in Five-Rivers on land Sounder had given him. The little house had a thatched roof, and natural stone covered its exterior walls. It was about a quarter of a mile west of Sounder and Mystie’s house, next to a river that separated it from North Mountain.

He figured staying in Bottom World, under the surface of the Earth, was the best decision of his life. He was living with the wife he loved, had good friends, and he was a judge on the new Bottom World Court. “I’m almost respectable,” he said aloud and chuckled. “Granddad would be proud.”

The buzzer on his com-bracelet went off. It was time to turn the egg. He walked into the house and over to the incubation basket. The Cunea egg was two feet long and weighed about five pounds. And like any good foster dad, he picked it up and gently turned it over before placing it back into the basket. “How did I get stuck with you?” he asked the egg and smiled.

When a snippet of his last dream swam to the surface of his consciousness, he figured it was because he was thinking of the egg’s daddy, and his best friend, Cat. He thought of how he was forced to let Hel, the Goddess of Death, pleasure herself on him in trade for Cat’s life. He remembered being held down by six cwn annwn hound-men and screaming in horror as Hel’s green scaly body slithered all over him. He shook his head in an effort to dispel the memory and violently shivered.

“Stop it. You’ve got work to do, so do it!” he growled. He thought about calling his wife, Calista, but he didn’t want to appear needy. She was the only one who knew what he had gone through on the Island of Souls. She had held him after the nightmares, speaking softly to him, telling him the attack was over. For hours, she had watched sympathetically as he dry-heaved after a bad dream caused him to recall something new that had happened to him...something even more horrendous than he had previously remembered.

Stop thinking about it, he told himself. He covered the egg again and walked outside. He took a deep breath of fresh air. He loved Bottom World, especially Five-Rivers. For the first time in his life, he felt he belonged somewhere. He was home.

He picked up a garden hoe, planning to dig a place for a rose garden. He stood looking at his yard, trying to decide where to put the flowers. He had built a thirty-inch-high rock wall that surrounded his house and marked the boundaries of his yard. Should he put it next to the wall? Did he want to put the garden in the front yard, so visitors could see it? Maybe, he should put it in the back where he and Calista had parties. He couldn’t decide.

He heard a twig snap behind him. Werewolves or vampires?

He whirled around just in time to see three cwn annwn hound-men grinning at him. He didn’t see the one that slammed him in the head with a club. His head exploded with pain, and he dropped to the ground as unconsciousness overwhelmed him.

Jax moaned as he regained consciousness. Shooting pain throbbed in his head. It took him a couple of minutes to remember what happened. He had been at his house when the cwn annwns attacked him. He sat up. The pain in his head was excruciating, and he lay back down. He closed his eyes and groaned.

“Hel, your lover boy’s awake,” Dung, Hel’s right hand cwn annwn, said.

Someone moved next to him. He felt fabric touch his cheek and knew Hel, the Goddess of Death, was standing over him in her benevolent widow weeds outfit. He was back on the Island of Souls. He felt her kneel down beside him, but he refused to open his eyes.

“You hit him too hard,” Hel scolded. “You idiots nearly killed him!”

“Who cares?” a cwn annwn growled.

He felt Hel rise up quickly and heard a booming sound. A cwn annwn screamed. He opened his eyes a little. The hound-men were scattering to get out of her way. Hel had reverted to her serpent form and was covering the screaming cwn annwn. Jax tried to get up and run but staggered and fell back again.

“Hel, he’s getting up!” Dung hollered.

Hel turned back to Jax. It was the only thing that saved the cwn annwn she was attacking. She slithered back to Jax and morphed into her loving Ancient Mother form. The hound-man who had incurred her wrath crawled away to nurse his wounds.

Hel put out her hand to Jax, but he recoiled from her. She reached out farther and touched him. Instantly, the pain in his head left.

“Is that better?” she asked sweetly.

“What do you want?” he demanded and sat up.

“I have something for you,” she told him. “Come inside and see.”

“I want to go home.” He got to his feet.

“You will,” she said. “I have something for you—presents.”

Is she crazy? After what she did to me, she thinks giving me presents will make everything okay? “I don’t want anything from you!” he growled.

“You’ll want these,” she said as a proud smile crossed her face.

“No, I won’t!” he said savage and raging.

She turned on him, and he could see her start to morph into her serpent form. He knew what she was capable of, and it terrified him. All he wanted to do was go home…get away from her and her minions.

“What do you want me to have?” he asked quickly, trying to placate her.

Her loving Ancient Mother form became more prominent. She calmed and smiled. “I’m so proud of my harvest,” she said in a joyful sing-song manner.

“Harvest?” Jax asked with incredulity thick in his voice. What’s she going to do, give me a bushel of tomatoes?

She opened the door of her home, stepped into the foyer, and beckoned him inside. He had been here before. The house looked regal and immaculate. He knew it was an illusion because the last time he was here he had seen the house as it really looked—demonic and dirty.

He followed her into the room where she had previously drugged him. He could no longer see the skulls on the mantle, but he knew they were there. Instead, the image of the Faberge eggs was back. The paintings by the old masters were back also, but Jax had seen the reality of the room and knew the real paintings could only have been made by demons.

“Bring them in,” Hel told a waiting cwn annwn.

The hound man walked over to a door and opened it. He said something Jax couldn’t hear. Jax glanced over at Hel. She was beaming with pride. He looked back at the cwn annwn and saw he was ushering in children!

“Aren’t they beautiful, Ophiuchus?” Hel asked excitedly.

Ten children, seven boys and three girls, timidly walked into the room.
Hel pointed to Jax. “Children, this man is your father.”

“What?!” He was stunned. He stared at Hel. “What are you talking about?”

“Yes, Ophiuchus,” she said in a warm and loving voice, as if they were best friends or lovers. “These children are the product of our lovemaking.”

Lovemaking? Was that what she called her attack? Jax stared at the children. They all looked about twelve years old. They seemed shy and even scared. One of the little girls looked as if she would cry at any moment. “You’re saying I’m the father of these…” He counted the children. “These ten kids?”

Hel smiled sweetly. “Yes, Ophiuchus.”

He remembered that she had spawned the Gamers from an encounter with Prince Bekker, in return for Pisha’s life back. “Oh my god,” he said. His brain was reeling. “I have ten children?”

He suddenly remembered Siblaclaire’s letter. Take ALL the presents Hel offers you. Don’t leave any behind. They are the world’s only hope. They can defeat her! Stunned, Jax sat down hard on the couch.

“Let me introduce them to you,” she said and eagerly motioned for the first boy to step forward. “This is our first born. His name is Crotalus.” The boy had thick brown hair and bright green eyes. He smiled timidly at his father.

“This is our second son, Thunder,” Hel said. The boy looked curiously at him but didn’t seem afraid. “This is our daughter, Harmony.”

Jax flinched. Harmony looked exactly like his mother. The girl smiled, and he forced a smile in return.

“This is Shadow,” Hel said.

“Hello, Dad,” Shadow said and stuck out his hand confidently.

The boy was black. He had green eyes and short blond hair. He got his black skin from Hel. Half of her body was white, and the other half was black. Jax was just glad that Shadow was all one color and not two. He leaned forward on the couch and shook the boy’s hand. “Hi, Shadow.”

“This is Beryl,” Hel motioned for the girl to come forward. The frightened child stepped to the left not forward.

The awkward movement caused him to feel sorry for the girl, and he smiled at her. “It’s nice to meet you, Beryl,” he said gently. She kept her head down and refused to look at him.

Hel motioned for another girl to step forward. “This is Panther.”

“Hi.” The girl seemed shy, but she looked him in the eyes.

She was a black girl, with shoulder-length black hair and large, intelligent green eyes. Jax stared at her for a moment. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. “Hi, Panther,” he said, trying to put her at ease.

“This is Congelo,” Hel said and motioned a boy to move toward Jax. The child clearly had Down syndrome...a form of mental retardation. Hel chuckled. “I’m afraid Congelo has brain freeze.”

Jax blanched. How could she make fun of her own son’s condition? Jax stuck out his hand for the boy to shake and smiled. “Hi, Congelo, it’s good to meet you.”

The boy just stood, staring at him. He was a cute kid with curly blond hair and brown eyes.

“Shake his hand, dummy,” Hel said irritably.

Jax cringed at her insult. He reached over and took the child’s hand and pumped it.

“Are you my father?” Congelo asked. His voice sounded as if he didn’t use his tongue to pronounce words, probably a condition brought on by his Down syndrome, Jax thought. Clearly, no one had worked with the boy.

“I guess so,” Jax said and smiled at him. He had no idea what he would do with the boy, but he made up his mind right then that he was not going to leave the child with Hel any longer.

The rest were boys. Hel introduced the next two as Payne and Dante. He shook hands with each of them.

Hel motioned for the last boy to come forward. He marched confidently up to Jax, looked him in the eyes, and smiled broadly.

“This one looks the least like you, so I named him after you,” Hel said with pride in her voice and smiled.

Jax stuck out his hand and said, “Hello, Jax.”

The boy’s smile instantly turned to a frown. He tightly scrunched his lips together, and his whole body shook with rage. His temper was obviously hot and quick. “My name’s not Jax,” he growled. “It’s Ophiuchus!”

Jax laughed. “Sorry,” he said. He glanced at Hel. “I guess it’s the thought that counts.”

Hel came forward. “Do you like them?” she asked and looked at the children.

The children looked anxious. They glanced at each other worriedly, and Jax felt sorry for all of them. He knew what their mother was. “I think they’re all beautiful, and I’m very happy with them.” He watched the children relax with relief, and they all smiled.

“Great,” Hel said. “Now you can meet the rest.”

“The rest?” he exclaimed and stood up. “There are more?”

Hel took his arm and guided him to the glass doors in the side wall. “This is the rest of my harvest.” She opened the doors for him. “See?”

There was a long line of children, all waiting to meet him. Jax felt faint. “How…uh…many are there?” he mumbled.

“Ninety-nine.” She stood, looking at her “harvest” with great ecstasy seemingly etched on her face.

One of the cwn annwns ran and pushed a chair to Jax. He sat down hard on it. “Oh, my god!” he moaned.

It took a few hours, but he was introduced to all of his children. They all looked like they were about twelve years old, and all but Ophiuchus and Thunder seemed shy and reserved around him.

“Now we must talk about their new living arrangements,” Hel said.

“Their new living arrangements? What does that mean?” Jax began to feel sick again. He held his breath, but he knew what was coming.

“They can’t live on the island anymore,” Hel explained. “The island is for the dead, not the living. I have raised them so far, but now it’s their father’s turn to assume responsibility for them.” She smiled her sweet Ancient Mother smile, and he wondered if the children knew what their mother really looked like.

“I can’t…where will they live?” he asked, horror growing in his voice. “I have no place for them.” Jax could see Hel slightly turn serpent. He glanced at the children, who were playing now that the introductions were over.

“Are you saying I should murder them?” Hel hissed.

“No!” Jax exclaimed. “Are you out of your mind?” He glared at her.

“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to murder all of them.” She hissed again. “Make up your mind, human. Do they live or die? It’s your choice!”

Jax stared at her in disbelief. Then he turned toward the children. They were so innocent, and they had no idea what their mother was capable of. He sighed heavily. Ninety-nine children? He looked back at Hel. “Okay, I’ll take them,” he said quietly. He knew, without a doubt, that she would murder every one of them if he didn’t take them. What else could he do?

“Good,” Hel said.

“I’ll have to call for some transport vehicles,” he said. He tried his com-bracelet, but he couldn’t get a signal. He started walking toward the small bridge that crossed over the river at the back of the island.

“Where are you going, Dad?” Ophiuchus asked, as he and Thunder ran up and walked with Jax.

“To the edge of Gameland, so I can get a signal,” he explained. “I need to call for transportation.” They came to the edge of the mushroom forest, and Jax put in a call to Calista.

“Oh, Jax,” Calista exclaimed. “Where are you? There was blood in the yard. Are you all right?”

He grimaced. “Bring four of the big transport vehicles to these coordinates.” He punched a button and his coordinates were sent.

“What’s going on, Jax?” Calista asked worriedly.

“I can’t talk about it right now,” he said. “You’ll find out when you get here.” How could he tell his new wife he just became a father to ninety-nine children?

Jax, Ophiuchus, and Thunder walked back to the island. “Thanks, for not letting her kill us, Dad,” Thunder said quietly.

Jax blanched. “You knew?”

“Yes,” Thunder said and Ophiuchus agreed. “She said if you wouldn’t take us, she would kill us like she did our Claire sister?”

Jax stopped. He was stunned. “She killed one of you?”

“Yeah,” Ophiuchus said, “just before you got here. She was a little Claire.”

“Where’s the Claire at?” Jax demanded. He was more angry than he would have thought possible.

“Over there,” Thunder said and pointed to a compost heap of mushrooms stalks and dead twigs.

Jax walked over and squatted down. There was a little red gelatin Claire in the compost heap. “Oh no,” he moaned. “I bet she killed you for the same reason she murdered Siblaclaire—to keep you from talking.” He closed his eyes in disgust.

Suddenly, he felt something touching his wrist. He opened his eyes. The little Claire wasn’t dead! She had wrapped one of her many tentacles around his hand.

Jax looked around. No one seemed to be watching him. Hel was speaking and laughing with some of the children, and the cwn annwns were busy with their chores. He quickly shrugged off his jacket and wrapped the Claire inside it. Her little gelatin body jiggled with the movement.

“Here, Thunder,” he said, handing the bundle to his son. “Take this. Don’t let anyone see what’s in it. Go stand at the edge of the forest where I made the call and wait for the transport vehicles. Put her up front in the first vehicle. Don’t let anyone see her!”

Thunder looked at the bundle. He could feel the little Claire squirm around inside his father’s jacket. “She’s alive!” he exclaimed.

“Don’t let anyone know that,” Jax ordered. “Now go!” The boy hurried toward the little bridge at the back of the island.

“Hurry,” Ophiuchus urged. “We need to get away from this spot before we’re seen.” He grabbed his father by the hand and pulled him along to the other children.

“What do you think of your ninety-nine children?” Hel asked, smiling.

Jax felt like knocking the crap out of her for what she had done to the little Claire. There weren’t ninety-nine children, there were one hundred.

All the children looked at him expectantly. “I think they’re wonderful,” he said. “I’m happy with all of them.” Several of the girls clapped and giggled, and the boys looked relieved.

Soon, the first of the transport vehicles arrived at the edge of the Gameland forest. Calista was in a vandico. She got out and walked to meet Jax. She looked at all the children. “What’s going on, Jax?” she asked. “Where did all these children come from?”

“Remember I told you what I had to do to get Cat’s life back?” he asked.

Her eyes widened. “Are these your children, Jax?”

“Yes,” he said and wondered if she would divorce him.

“This is like Prince Bekker and the Gamers,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed. She at least understood that.

He ordered the children into the transport vehicles for their trip to Bottom World. Each awaited their turn and scrambled inside. There were no seats in the back, so the children sat on the floor. They all seemed excited to be leaving.

“Where are they going to live?” Calista asked. “Our house is too small for all of them.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” Jax said. “I’m going to put them in Serpent House behind East Mountain.”

“Where Cat was killed?”

Jax nodded. “What do you think? It’s deserted. No one has lived there for hundreds of years.”

“It’s pretty dark back there,” she said, unsure about the idea.

“It’s in perpetual twilight,” he agreed. “But they’re Hellions. They’ll probably love it back there as soon as we clean it up.”

Calista thought about that. “Hellions,” she muttered. “Jax, what do they eat?”

Thunder answered the question. “Blood!”

Chapter 3

Jim E. Jim ran down the corridor of the television studio, RFNZ. “Hold the elevator,” he yelled. His big black briefcase bounced against his leg as he ran.

The new production assistant, a young woman of twenty-two, held the door open with her hand.

Jim E. Jim bounded into the elevator. “Thanks,” he gasped, trying to catch his breath. “You’re a lifesaver. Third floor.” The new girl watched him heave in a huge breath and then let it out loudly and chalked him up to being a drama queen—which he was.

The elevator came to a halt on the third floor, and Jim E. Jim left it running. He sped past several secretaries and burst into the office of Ayesha Hall. “A. H.,” he said, breathlessly. “I’ve got it. I’ve got it!”

“Are you out of your mind, boy?” Ayesha asked, looking at her flawless dark complexion in her ever-present compact mirror.

“Yes,” Jim E. Jim said and hurried to her desk. “You will be too when you see this.” He placed his briefcase on her desk, opened it, and drew out a computer disc. He ran to the computer on a table across the room, placed the disc in a drive, and waited for it to load.

“Do you think I should add more highlights to my hair?” she asked, ignoring his drama. After all, there was no other drama than Ayesha.

Jim E. Jim hurried back to her. He took the compact out of her hands and ordered, “Watch this!”

“This better be good, fool,” she pouted and looked up at a large monitor on the wall.

Just then, Tiger Torres ran into the room. “I got your text. Where’s it at?”

“Are you two out of your minds?” she huffed.

“Watch!” Jim E. Jim ordered.

The computer started to play the disc, and the monitor on the wall showed the scene of any standard parking lot…cars coming and going, and people walking. All of a sudden, a large black stagecoach, pulled by eight black fire-snorting horses, pulled up in front of the building’s security camera.

The black curtained glass door opened, and a man stepped out. He neither looked left nor right, nor did he say anything to two amazed women standing nearby. He walked straight into the building and past the camera.

“Holy crap!” Tiger exclaimed. He hurried to Ayesha and picked her up, swinging her around. “We’re going to the big time, babe!”

Ayesha threw back her head and laughed. Then she got serious. “Okay, get everything together,” she ordered. “I want to know who this guy is, where he was dropped off, and get it to Bobby. Tell him to make sure this thing hasn’t been photoshopped...or whatever. Make sure this is real before I go on the air with it.”

“Everything’s been done, except for Bobby’s part,” Jim E. Jim said. He handed her a paper. “The guy is Rick Ramos. He’s fifty-six years old. He died about six months ago. Unlike the others, he didn’t go home. He went back to work. I spoke to the guy’s supervisor a while ago. It seems old Rick was a workaholic. He died of a stroke in his office.” Jim E. Jim laughed. “Old Rick just got out of that coach and walked into his office late yesterday afternoon. He stood at his desk until the guy who replaced him got up and ran out of the room screaming! Then old Rick just sat down at his desk and did nothing.”

“Did he say anything?” Tiger asked excitedly.

“Not a word,” Jim E. Jim said. “And he didn’t do anything either. He just sat there, staring straight ahead.”

“Oh my god,” Ayesha said. “What did the company do?”

“They called the police,” Jim E. Jim said. “The cops took him to the hospital.”

“How did you get the footage of the coach?” Tiger asked.

“I put out the word on the internet,” Jim E. Jim said proudly. “I put a link to Monday’s show on every site I could think of—Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, some of those UFO sites, occult sites…” He waved his hands around. “Everyplace I could think of. I told them to be on the lookout for that coach, and the one who sent in genuine footage would receive a thousand dollars for it if they let us use it on the air. Well, the security guard who worked at old Rick’s company sent it in. He overnighted it to me.”

“The networks have to pick it up now!” Ayesha said happily.

“There might even be a book in this,” Tiger gushed.

“We could all three write it together,” Ayesha said. She knew she would never be able to write a book by herself. She hadn’t even read a book since graduating from college. “Tiger, you could tell what you did, I could tell my part. Jim E. Jim could tell his part.”

“It smells like Pulitzer to me,” Jim E. Jim crowed.

The three of them stood silently in Miss Hall’s office considering what it would feel like to be rich and famous. And not one of them considered what the footage actually meant to mankind as a whole, or how it would start the ripping apart of people’s lives.


Peggy Pyle watched the Ayesha Hall show with her husband, the Reverend Abraham Pyle, and several of their parishioners. “It’s happening people,” Peggy said quietly as they watched the footage of the eight fire-snorting spirit horses pull the coach into the parking lot. “You are witnessing the beginning of the end.”

“Maybe it’s a hoax, Peg,” the Reverend Pyle said. “We shouldn’t get all worked up until we know what’s really going on.”

“Monday, I saw Gerald O’Conner get into that police car,” Peggy said. “The dead in Christ are rising, Abe, and we need to do something about it.”

“What should we do, Sister Peg?” Tom Williams, a parishioner asked.

“Pray,” Peggy said. She thought about that for a moment. “Maybe we should call a meeting, Abe,” she told her husband. “We should make a plan.”

“Will we be raptured, Sister Peg?” Sarah Donovan asked in a worried tone. Her husband wasn’t saved. What would happen to him?

Peggy looked at her husband. “Will we, Abe?” she asked. “And if we’re not, and we have to stay in this mess until the good Lord comes, what will we do? We need a plan, Abe!”

Reverend Abe nodded his head. “We’ll be raptured, all right, but there are two schools of thought about when it will happen. Some say we’ll have to go through the tribulation, and others say we’ll be raptured up first and won’t have to go through it.” He thought about it for a moment. “It wouldn’t hurt to call a special meeting,” he said. “But let’s not go getting people all riled up over nothing.”

“Nothing? You call that nothing?” Peggy exclaimed and pointed to the spirit horses on the screen. “The dead are rising, Abe. Look around you!”

“All right, don’t get all in an uproar, hon,” he said calmly. “We’ll call a meeting. But I’m just saying that we should make sure this is not a hoax. Why aren’t we seeing this on the other channels?” He took the remote and flipped through the television channels, looking for more pictures of spirit horses. He found none.

“Because the networks are being run by atheistic Democrats, that’s why!” Peggy growled. “The government’s full of ‘em.”

“Oh, hon,” Reverend Abe said, trying to keep her calm. He had been married to her for forty years, and he knew she had a tendency to get excited.

Peggy turned around. “Sarah, you get on the phone and call everybody. We’ll have that meeting tonight.” She glared at her husband, daring him to object. When all he did was sigh, she turned to Tom. “You get on that silly phone of yours and write to people. Tell them to get here tonight. This is an emergency!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tom said and pulled the phone out of his pocket. “I’ll text them.”

“Get on your computer too, Tom,” she added. “Let the word go out; the end times are here!”

Reverend Abe made sure he didn’t let his wife see, but his eyes rolled toward the heavens.

Chapter 4

Each child had a duffel bag made from mushroom skins containing their personal things as they filed into Serpent House two at a time and waited for Jax in the Great Room. The front part of Serpent House was in the shape of a serpent’s head. It had four levels: Three levels were above ground and one was below. A creek passed in front of it, and a drawbridge could be let down so people could cross over the water.

Jax and the kids spent the day cleaning the house, which looked as though it had not been lived in for a thousand years. Temporary makeshift beds were brought from other buildings in the abandoned Serpent City and orders were placed with the Cuneas for new ones. Vats of blood were ordered from the Tribers. Fruits and vegetables were brought in, once the kids demonstrated they could eat solids without problems, which pleased the Tribers who were already wary of vampire Gamers.

Jax stood guard over the basement in his and Calista’s small house while the Cuneas moved his furniture to Serpent House. Once that was done, he and some of the children moved his gold to a more secure place in their new home. He was certain if anyone discovered he had stolen the queen’s gold, he would be hanged. He wasn’t taking any chances. At one time, Jax thought the large amount of gold would last him a lifetime. Now that he had one hundred children, he didn’t know if it would last even a year.

Calista came in at dinnertime. “I’ve got something for the little Claire,” she said. She put a crystal platform mounted on wheels on one of the long cafeteria-style tables in the dining room. She carefully sat the little seer on it.

“What is it?” Jax asked.

“It’s Siblaclaire’s mover,” Calista explained. “Claires don’t have feet, so they need a way to move around. When they’re little, they use their tentacles to pull themselves from one place to another. It makes them strong.” She put a scarf over the seer’s head, which Jax recognized as Siblaclaire’s holy scarepis. The little seer shuddered and then cooed.

“I think she likes it,” he said. “How do we feed her?”

“If she’s like Siblaclaire, she’ll eat twice— once after downtime and once before,” Calista explained.

She put a bowl of blood in front of the seer. One of the Claire’s tentacles moved back and forth over the blood, sniffing it. Soon, she was hungrily sucking up the blood.

“She’s hungry,” Raven said. “Mother didn’t feed her today.”

Jax grimaced. He wondered if the girl knew her mother had tried to kill the little Claire. “Your mother’s name is Hel, call her that,” he ordered. If he had not taken the children, Hel would have murdered all of them. She was not a mother!

Raven shrugged. The little Claire wrapped her tentacle around Raven’s finger, and the girl gently stroked it.

Calista checked her buzzing com-bracelet. “They found one of the vampire’s. He finally showed up at his house. My father wants me at the pyramid for the interrogation. I’ve got to go, sweetie,” she said and hurried out the door.

He leaned back in his chair, watching the Claire slurp the blood and coo over it. One hundred children! How was he going to manage? He could hear the sounds of the children throughout the house. Noisy was how he described them. Very noisy! And he was now responsible for all of them. Would they grow up feeding on people like the vampire anarchists, or would they become responsible adults he could be proud of?

Suddenly, it hit him. Whatever they became would be, in large part, his doing. If he let them run wild with no discipline, they would be anarchists. Bottom World would live in fear of them. The guards would be out hunting them down, killing them. They would bring shame on him. And he would deserve that shame because he had failed his children and his neighbors. But a hundred children! How could one person control that many kids?

He thought about his own childhood. He’d been raised in a household where he was an only child. He thought back to all the crap he’d put his grandparents through and shook his head in dismay. He’d been a horrible, spoiled child, always getting in trouble. He’d hate to raise a child like himself.

Off in the distance, probably on the second floor, he could hear an argument going on…loud words, doors slamming. Somewhere in his brain he did the calculations. He probably had forty children who would be like him and another forty like Hel. That left twenty as a mix of both parents.

He suddenly felt old and overwhelmed. The thought crossed through his head that he could just walk away. Fathers did that all the time—his had. What had their children become, he wondered. Some grew up just fine, he supposed. But prisons were full of those who grew up as predators. Jax’s own father had never publicly acknowledged him.

Could he leave his own children? His life would be a whole lot simpler. He and Calista could escape to the surface and leave the children to Bottom World. He figured they’d grow up fine. Would Calista lose respect for him? Would he lose respect for himself? Could he leave them?

He gave the kids life, and he saved their lives by bringing them to Bottom World. Wasn’t that enough? He could hear another argument break out somewhere in the house…the first floor, he thought. More doors slamming. If he ran away, his world would be peaceful. If he stayed, it would be full of arguments and slamming doors. His days would be spent in endless turmoil. He didn’t know if he could live like that.

A movement to the right of him caught his eye, and he looked over. A girl with short black hair and big brown eyes stood staring at him. He noticed she had tears in her eyes. She looked pathetic. When she saw he was looking at her, she turned to leave.

“Come here,” he told her and held out his hand.

She turned back to him but didn’t move toward him.

Again, he said, “Come here.”

She put her head down as if she was studying her shoes. Finally, she slowly walked to him. She still wouldn’t look at him.

When she got close enough, he reached out and took hold of her arm, pulling her to him. When she still wouldn’t look at him, he cupped her chin in his hand and raised her head up. He could feel her shaking. She was afraid of him, but she needed something from him or she wouldn’t be here.

“What’s wrong?” he asked gently.

She shrugged.

“You can tell me,” he said and hugged her close to him. “I’m your dad. You can always tell me anything. I’ll help you.”

She took a deep breath. “I don’t like my bedroom,” she said shyly.


“It’s scary.”

“What’s scary about it?”

“There are those things in it.”

“What things?”

She frowned and Jax realized she was having a hard time verbalizing what she meant.

“Let’s go see,” he said. “Take me to your room.” He rose from his chair and took hold of her hand, mostly because he wanted her not to fear him. He wanted her to like him…be comfortable with him.

They walked out of the dining room and headed for the stairs. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Riley,” she said quietly.

“Riley, I’m going to have to learn one hundred names,” he told her. “That’s a lot of names.”

“Yes,” she agreed.

“If I forget your name, you won’t get mad at me, will you?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Good, because I’ll probably have a bunch of your brothers and sisters mad at me when I forget their names.”

“If you forget, you can ask me. I know all their names,” she said in a small voice.

He chuckled. “Thank you. That’s very nice of you, Riley. I may have to do that.”

They came to her room. She stopped at the door and pointed to it. “They’re in there.”

Jax opened the door. Immediately, he saw what she was talking about. There were four, six feet tall, marble statues. He walked in and examined them. They were in the shape of people, if the people had square torsos and faceless square heads. Their arms and legs were in a curlicue style.

He looked back at Riley. She had a look of worry on her face. “Wow, I’ve seen some ugly things in my time, but these guys are the ugliest.” He shook his head. “Don’t you think they’re ugly?”

She nodded her head vigorously.

“I sure wouldn’t want these ugly things in my bedroom,” he said and called for a floater.

A couple of the boys stopped in the hall and peered into the room through the open doorway. ‘What’s he doing?” one asked Riley.

“Getting rid of those ugly things,” she said.

One of the boys ventured into the room. “Are you going to throw those away?”

“Yep,” Jax said. “They’re too ugly for Riley. Isn’t that right, Riley?”

The girl grinned and nodded her head.

“I like them,” the boy said. “Can I have them?”

Jax looked at Riley. “They belong to Riley. Ask her.”

“He can have them,” she said and smiled.

“Problem solved,” Jax said. He walked out into the hallway and gave Riley a hug. “Are you okay now?”

“Yes,” she said shyly and clung to him.

“If you ever need me, just ask. I’ll always help you,” he said.

“And I’ll tell you names if you forget,” she promised.

Jax chuckled and left her in the hallway, watching her brothers examining the statues. He walked back toward the dining room. He knew the problem he had just solved was probably going to be the easiest he would have. He figured that’s what parenting consisted of mostly…solving one problem at a time.

As he started down the stairs, he looked back at Riley. She was still standing in the hallway watching her brothers. She had been frightened of him. With just a few kind words and a willingness to be nice to her, they now had a relationship established. True, it wasn’t much of one yet, but it would grow. How many of the others were afraid of him, he wondered.

He started down the stairs. He was going to have to establish a relationship with each one of them…one hundred of them. He was going to have to learn who they were, and they would have to learn who he was. One day at a time, one problem at a time…lots of kind words and being nice to them.

He wasn’t going to run off and be the absentee father. He knew that. He guessed he always knew it. He was going to stay. He heard doors slamming. “I hate you,” one of the children called out to another. “Not as much as I hate you,” the other child responded. Another door slammed.

How much noise could I reduce in the house if I removed all the doors? he mused and headed back to the dining room.

A little later, Mystie and Chaos came in. “Oh my god, Jax,” Mystie said, laughing. “It’s all over the frequencies, but no one knows how many children you have.”

“One hundred,” he said wearily.

“Siblaclaire was right,” Mystie said happily. “Your children will be legion.”

“If I had known she was telling the truth, I would have turned and run back to the surface,” he said.

Mystie happily went through Serpent House meeting the children, leaving Chaos with Jax. The girl couldn’t take her eyes off the Claire. She cautiously moved closer to the Claire and looked at her. She put out her hand and touched her gelatin body. Suddenly, Chaos shook and screamed.

Jax thought the child was having a seizure.

Chaos ran to the other side of the room and continued to scream.

It was then that Jax noticed the bruises on the little Claire. It looked like she had been strangled. So that’s how Hel had tried to kill her, he thought.

Chaos kept screaming. Mystie and several of the children ran to see why she was making such a commotion. “Chaos, what’s wrong with you?” With her mother present, the four-eyed seer calmed a little. Chaos put her hands over her top pair of eyes and moaned.

“I guess my little Claire scared her,” he said.

“You’ve seen a Claire before,” Mystie said and hugged her daughter. “Remember Siblaclaire?” Chaos shuddered in her mother’s arms.

Jax looked at the Claire’s bruises. “What would you have divined?” he asked her quietly. “What did Hel not want you to see?” Because of the letter, he knew Hel had gotten Princess Destiny to kill Siblaclaire. Whatever Hel’s reason, she was killing Claire’s to stop their prophecies. He figured Chaos had psychically seen the murder attempt on the Claire, and that’s why she was shaking violently in her mother’s arms.

“What in the world is wrong with you, girl?” Mystie asked. “She’s not scary.” Mystie tried to pull Chaos toward the little Claire, but Chaos started to scream again. “I don’t know what’s wrong with this girl, Jax.”

He shrugged and moved the scarepis to cover the wounds. “Okay, kids,” he told the curious children. “The show’s over. Go make sure you have all your things in your rooms.” They filed out of the room.

“Well, I better get going,” Mystie said. “Hel has invited me and Chaos for a visit.”

As soon as she had gotten the words out, Chaos started screaming again. “I’m not going. I’m not going!”

“Are you out of your mind, girl?” she asked. “What is wrong with you?”

Mystie thought of Hel as Ancient Mother—a warm, loving woman. Jax hadn’t been going to say anything to her about what Hel had done, but with Chaos shaking in terror, he thought maybe he had better tell her.

He sat and reminded Mystie about Siblaclaire’s letter and showed her the little Claire’s bruises. He told her Thunder’s story about how Hel had tried to kill his sister.

“That’s just crazy talk, Jax,” Mystie said. “I know Hel. She would never do that.”

“Look at your daughter,” he urged. “Why do you think she’s screaming? She saw what was done to the Claire.” He watched Mystie frown and study her daughter. “And if Hel is killing seers, is Chaos next?”

Mystie gasped and hugged her daughter tightly. “Why would Hel do such a thing?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s up to something big, and she’s not taking any chances that a seer will warn people.”

“Do you think she would kill Chaos?” Mystie asked, suddenly fearful. “Sounder is Hel’s favorite. Surely, she wouldn’t kill his daughter.”

“I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “Are you willing to take a chance and put Chaos in danger?”

“No!” Mystie exclaimed. She bent down to Chaos. “We’re not going to Niflheim, darling.” Chaos relaxed. “We’re never going again!”

Crotalus, Jax’s first born, came into the room. “I found this in my room. What do you want me to do with it?” he asked his father. He held a small serpent figurine in his hand.

Jax looked at it. “Do whatever you want with it. I don’t want it.”

Chaos immediately left her mother and rushed toward the boy. She looked up at him and smiled. “You’re Crotalus, aren’t you?”

The boy smiled and nodded.

“You and I are going to spend a lot of time together,” she said cryptically.

“Why do you have four eyes?” Crotalus asked, examining her forehead.

Chaos pointed to her lower, normal pair of eyes. “These see the present.” She pointed to the top pair. “These see the future.” She smiled at him. “I’ve been seeing you my whole life.”

“Do you want to see my room?” he asked. “Or have you already seen it?”

She giggled and followed him to his room.

Mystie watched her go and then turned to Jax. “Do you have any idea what Hel is up to?” she asked worriedly.

“No,” he said. “All I know is that she’s murdered one Claire and tried to kill another.” He turned back to his little seer and frowned at her bruises. “What is it that Hel does not want you to divine?” he asked the child. She merely cooed at him.

Mystie sat down at the table and sighed. “How am I going to tell Sounder? He loves Hel.”

“Just tell him the truth, so he’ll know to protect her from Hel.”

Mystie nodded and examined the little Claire’s bruises. Suddenly, she asked, “What’s her name?”

“The kids say she doesn’t have one,” Jax said. “I guess Hel thought she wouldn’t live, so she didn’t bother naming her.” He looked at the little seer’s three eyes. “Divinaclaire,” he said to the girl. “Do you like the name, Divinaclaire?” The little seer wrapped her tentacle around Jax’s finger and cooed. He laughed. “I think she likes it.”

Mystie fussed with Divinaclaire’s scarepis. “Let me cover your two eyes,” Mystie told the seer.

“She has three eyes,” Jax said.

“She’s only got two in the back,” Mystie corrected.

“She’s has two in the back?” Jax exclaimed. He stood up and bent over Divinaclaire. For the first time, he saw the two eyes in the back of the little seer’s gelatin-like red body. He laughed. “Do all Claires have five eyes?”

“Siblaclaire had five eyes,” Mystie said. She was silent for a few moments, thinking. “What are you going to do with all your kids, Jax?”

He shrugged. “Raise them, I guess.”

“Wow, a hundred kids,” Mystie marveled. “I thought I would go crazier than I already was, when I had three at the same time.”

He frowned. “Why did they put you in a mental hospital, Mystie? You seem perfectly normal to me.”

Mystie laughed. “Yeah, like you would know what is normal.”

“I’m serious,” he said. “You don’t belong in a mental hospital. Why did they put you in there?”

“I saw monsters,” Mystie said and smiled wanly, thinking of those terrible times.

“Oh,” he said and laughed. “No wonder you seem normal. Everyone sees monsters down here. Let’s see, what have we got? Vampires, werewolves, bigfoots—or is it bigfeet? You know, the Tordrods. Oh yeah, let’s not forget alien queens and demons.” He pointed to Divinaclaire. “And fortune tellers, hound-men, goddesses. Anything else?”

Mystie laughed. “How can you forget the bird-people?” She pointed to Donner’s egg in the corner. “You know, I actually saw a Tordrod kidnap a girl and take her into that cave. That’s how I knew which cave to go in to rescue Cat’s sister.” She was silent for a moment. “I guess all the other monsters that came out of my closet weren’t real. But they sure seemed real at the time!”

“When I was a little boy I had monsters in my closet…and under the bed too,” he said.

Mystie laughed. “I bet they weren’t like mine.”

“What were yours like?”

“They were black, leathery serpent people.”

Jax wondered if the monsters in Mystie’s closet were the same as Hel. “Do you remember that first day we came to Bottom World?”

“How could I forget?” Mystie shuddered. “We were nearly hanged.”

“Ah, the good old days,” he said and laughed. He suddenly got quiet and said, “When I was in that mind-lock with Siblaclaire, she warned me to beware of the serpent people. She also wrote about them in that letter she left me.”

Mystie stared at him. “Do you think she was warning you about the kind of people who were in my closet?”

He shrugged. “Who knows?”

Divinaclaire gurgled a little, and Mystie turned to look at her. “Why did Hel want her dead?”

“Simply because she’s a seer.”

Chaos ran into the room and hugged her mom. “I’m so happy,” she gushed in her small growling voice. “I now have someone who will help me fulfill my destiny.”

Jax frowned. “What does that mean?”

She turned, looked at Jax, and stopped smiling. “Nothing,” she growled coyly. “It means nothing at all.” She glared at him for a moment and then suddenly gave out that insane little laugh of hers.

Jax shivered as he felt chills run down his spine.

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