Did You Miss Me??!!

In case anyone noticed, I’ve not been around much this season (meaning Fall) and now the Yuletide has passed seemingly without me. Believe me, I was quite shocked to learn the world would continue without me so well.

At any rate, I’ve been out of circulation since September, only occasionally peaking in on Facebook and other places here and there. It’s hard to believe I’ve missed almost four months of my usual haunts (no pun intended, but I did miss Halloween) and everything went off without a hitch. I also missed Thanksgiving, the Obamacare Roll Out and 99% of the Christmas Season.

I guess what I missed most was the Duck Dynasty Controversy, but fortunately, it is still rolling along. I may yet get to say a few words about it.

I just wanted everyone to know I am back at home, all is well and the best Christmas present of all was being able to spend it in my own home with my family around me… all three kids, their better halves, my better half, mom and dad, nieces and nephews, dogs and cats all making a lot of noise, breaking a lot of toys, drinking a little Christmas Cheer and eating a great deal more. Tis the little things like friends, family and home that make Christmas a grand time of year, whether you be a Duck Dynaster or a complete Scrooge, no one can disagree with the fact that love is the best of all things we enjoy in life.

I want to get back to work soon and do some writing, some Face-booking and goofing off. I’m looking forward to a better year for 2014 and I’m not taking no for an answer.

Happy Merry Holidays, Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving, Halloween or whatever you may call your own!! christmas tree

Skara Brae ~ What the Hey!

Anyone who has known me at all, knows that I have great affinity for all things weird, ancient and unusual, especially if it has to do with Scotland.

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North of Scotland in a very hostile environment for human occupation, the ruins of a so-called ‘Neolithic Village’ dated to between 3600 and 2200 B.C.E. was discovered in the late 19th Century when a storm tore away the grass on some low-lying hummocks near the shoreline. Known to the locals by various names over the years, the site, consisting of 10 individual buildings made of stone and connected by covered alleys and passageways, Skara Brae is believed to have been occupied for approximately 600 years before it was abandoned.

Now I’ve read a lot of historical stuff, but looking at these ‘Flintstone Houses’ that conjure up images of Fred and Wilma Flintstone; and Barney and Betty Rubble, I am struck by the full impact of what went on in this tiny village in the middle of nowhere in such an unforgiving climate. 600 years! People lived in these structures for 600 years! It’s cold up there, though it is supposedly mild for such a northern location.

Wikipedia says: Orkney has a cool temperate climate that is remarkably mild and steady for such a northerly latitude, due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. The average temperature for the year is 8 °C (46 °F); for winter 4 °C (39 °F) and for summer 12 °C (54 °F).

Still, this is cold to most people with modern clothing, electric blankets, shoes and gloves. I simply cannot imagine living there, raising a family there and dying there… for generations. Certainly, Skara Brae speaks well for the tenacity of the human race in general. But I do have a problem with one thing. As with all archaeological finds, the archaeologists have decided that the inhabitants were religious and they probably were. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with their ideas concerning some artifacts found in the ruins. They say the items shown below are some kind of religious artifacts as usual, though they are not sure what they represent. To me, their purpose is quite obvious. Fancy Meat Tenderizers!

(Except for the bottom one, which may or may not be a Neolithic dental instrument! Ugh.)

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The last chapter of the Assassin Chronicles series: The Red Cross of Gold XXX:. The Wayward GodKing is now available on Amazon for Kindle and at Smashwords for all eReaders. Only $3.99! 

Sample Sunday ~ November 18, 2012

The following sample is from Book 30 of the Assassin Chronicles, Epic Fantasy Series, The Red Cross of Gold XXIX:. The Perfect Sun. It is available from Amazon for Kindle $3.99, Smashwords and other venues including paperback from Amazon.

The ragged band of Fox Soldiers stood waiting skittishly in the shade of the flapping canopy they had erected against the merciless sun. It was winter, but the seasons were skewed. Nothing had returned to normal since the floods and their hurried escape from New Babylon. They wore everything they owned on their backs and they held their automatic rifles ready to take out whatever this new threat might be.

Lucifer waved to them with his left hand and pulled the canvas bag gingerly from his sore shoulder.

“Greetings, fine warriors!” Lucifer called to them when they did not respond to his waves and Ernst grabbed his arm.

“Hold on, Luke,” he said in a low voice. “You’d best let me handle this. They don’t look very friendly.”

“Advance and be recognized!” One of the soldiers shouted to them and raised his rifle a bit.

Lucifer jerked his arm from the General’s grip, but allowed him to go in first.

“General Ernst Schweikert, Central Command Fox, Babylon!” Ernst answered the challenge and held up both hands, allowing his own rifle to hang from the straps.

“General Schweikert?” The soldiers looked at each other nervously and the name was said several times.

“Come on in, sir!” The soldier called. “We will need proof of your identity.”

“I have my papers, Corporal.” Ernst looked back at Lucifer and smiled. “Follow my lead, friend. Just keep cool.”

“Cool, yes.” Lucifer smiled and raised his own arms in the air. “A very strange greeting ritual.”

“Whatever,” Ernst mumbled and they walked into the camp.

After a tricky exchange of identification cards, orders and other official papers that now meant nothing, they settled down around the fire to share the men’s meal with them. They drank and ate and talked about nothing in particular until the Corporal asked Ernst how long before they could return to the city. Ernst had no idea what had transpired in the city. He had no idea where Omar, the Prophet, had gone or how he had found himself running for his life along a deserted highway. The last thing he remembered was being in a boat off of the coast of Ireland with Omar Kadif and his wife, Ruth.

“It might be some time before we can get the situation under control,” he told them vaguely. “Where did you say you were heading?”

“We thought to rendezvous with some of the companies that left the city ahead of us, but we are beginning to think they went north instead of south,” the corporal explained and the others nodded their agreement.

“Well, we should try to connect with Colonel Bardsley’s battalion. Is he still in Jordan?”

“Jordan?” The Corporal frowned and the others fell quiet.

“We have no battalions in Jordan, sir,” another of the soldiers answered quickly. “We don’t even know if Jordan exists anymore.”

“Yes, of course, but we have to make some sort of plan.” Ernst nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose you’re right. Well, perhaps we should head north when the sun goes down. What mode of transportation do you have?” He looked around and saw nothing, but empty rocks and the flat landscape of formerly rich farmland.

The corporal laughed and held up one foot.

“Boots, sir. That’s how we got here. Same as you.” He laughed sarcastically. “We ran out of gas before we got out of sight of the city. There weren’t many supplies left. By the time we decided to run, the good stuff was taken.”

“Then you have no command structure? No contact with HQ?” Ernst’s frown deepened.

“Are you kidding?!” One of the men burst out and then fell quiet. “No disrespect intended, sir,” he said after a moment.

“Then it would seem we are all in the same boat, sir,” the Corporal added. “We have no orders, no communications network, no transportation. No mission.”

“We are not all in the same boat as you put it, young one,” Lucifer spoke up for the first time. His strange accent and inflection caused them all to gawk at him. “I have a mission, which is quite clear from the Most High Command.”

“Oh, really?” The Corporal eyed the sergeant’s bars on Lucifer’s collar. “What mission is that, Sarge, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Lucifer stood up and held out both arms. He looked up at the sky and a beautiful smile spread across his face.

“Lo, I bring glad tidings of great news! A son will be born to you and He will be a sign unto you from the Most High. And He will be called Michael Emmanuel, the Deliverer, the Savior. You will find him lying in a manger, and He will bring a sword to cast down the Ancient One.”

The soldiers sat staring at Lucifer with mouths agape.

“He’s been affected by the sun,” Ernst shrugged and broke the silence. “It’s all right, Sergeant Ramsay. They already know that story.”

“They do?” Lucifer looked very disappointed and dropped his arms to his side.

“Of course we do, Sarge,” the Corporal said and leaned toward the General. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Say, General, sir. Is Sergeant Ramsay a guy or a girl?”

“He says he’s a man,” the General answered in like tones. “But it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?”

“Hmmm.” The Corporal nodded and then smiled at Lucifer. “Say, Sarge, we have some time before we bed down. Would you care for a shower? Bennett’s rigged one back there in the rocks.”

Lucifer frowned and glanced toward the rocks.

“A shower? You mean rain?” He asked. “I’m afraid I can’t do those anymore. At least, not yet.”

“Oh, I see.” The Corporal sighed and circled one finger around his temple in the universal sign for ‘wacko’. “Well, we’d best try to get some rest before nightfall. It’ll be too hot to sleep soon. General? We have a few bedrolls. We can share.”

Schweikert glanced at Lucifer, and then at the soldiers who were staring at him. The ‘Sarge’ seemed oblivious to them as he frowned at the water in the bottle and then made a terrible face.

“What is wrong with you?” Ernst stood up abruptly.

“I don’t know,” Lucifer looked up at him. “I think I have the same disorder Michael and Galen had.”

“Oh? And what disease was that?”

“The running off disease.” Lucifer frowned again and clutched his stomach.

“Oh! Diarrhea. Yes, well. Probably the water.” Schweikert helped his companion to his feet. “Corporal, do we have any facilities here?”

“Are you kidding, sir?” The Corporal shook his head. “We just go in the rocks like always.”

“Oh, well, then, Sergeant, just go in the rocks like always,” Schweikert said and pushed him toward the nearest likely cluster.

“Wait. Here you go!” The Corporal tossed a roll of toilet paper toward him. “Be my guest, Sarge.”

Lucifer caught the paper out of the air as a dawning realization took hold of him and he began to sweat. Another terrible thing he had to suffer in his present form. Humans were certainly messy creatures. Within the space of a few moments, the Heavenly Messenger had three lessons in human anatomy he could have done without for eons. He lost a great deal of weight and lot more dignity before it was all over, but he gained an enormous measure of humility.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00926BCG4 

Smashwords:  http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/220048

Six Sentence Sunday ~ November 18, 2012

“… Do you understand the crimes of which you stand accused, Lord Nanna?”

Meredith stared at the judge in shocked silence.

“How do you plead to the charges? Guilty or innocent?”

“I… I… I…” Meredith glanced at Marduk and he frowned slightly. “I must throw myself on the mercy of the court, Your Honor.”

The Red Cross of Gold XXIX:. The Perfect Sun $3.99 for Kindle on amazon. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00926BCG4

For other eReaders on Smashwords $3.99 http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/220048

Sample Sunday ~ November 11, 2012

Here’s a sample chapter from Hounds of Oblivion. Genre: Horror Available at Amazon for Kindle and paperback and Smashwords for other eReaders. 

Pontiac Drake backed his old truck into the little shelled slot beside one of the concrete slab picnic tables at Clementine Park and got out slowly, easing his creaky back upright and shaking out his bad knee before hauling his fishing tackle box from behind the seat.  He reached over in the bed of the truck and picked up his rod and reel, tackle bucket/seat contraption and limped off toward the little fishing pier on the over-sized pond, Lake Clementine, named after the young lady with big feet from the old folksong.

He stumped halfway down the pier and plunked his bucket and box down.  The day was perfect for a little white perch fishing.  Not a cloud in the sky, no wind and a fresh snap in the October air.  Drake didn’t get to go fishing much anymore.  He was getting a bit too old to brave the harsher elements and he couldn’t take the heat of the Texas summers.  But today, was perfect.  In fact, his wife had insisted he get out of the house and go do something rather than mope around in the work shed, hammering on stuff and making noise.  She was busy making homemade deer sausage with her daughter-in-laws and he could at least look forward to some good eating over the winter.  His two sons had bagged four good sized deer already.  One eight-pointer, a six-pointer, a four-pointer and one doe.  His youngest had killed a nice turkey and his eldest had taken a goodly number of squirrels.  Yep, the holidays would be good this year. 

He checked his line, baited his hook with a fat nightcrawler and threw it out about twenty feet.  He didn’t expect to catch much, but if he could drag in a couple of nice specimens, he’d have fried fish for supper.  Within a few seconds, he had some healthy nibbles and then he pulled in a good two pounder that fought like four pound bass. 

He pulled his leather glove from his pocket and grabbed hold of the perch, avoiding the sharp spines on its back and disengaged the hook from its upper lip and slipped on the stringer.  When he reached for his nightcrawler box, he was surprised to see that the worms had all crawled out of the little paper carton and were wiggling around in the sun on the wooden planks. 

“Well, damn me,” he said and frowned at the worms.  “You lost your wormy little minds?”

He plucked them up and put them back in the dark soil in the carton and threaded the last one on his hook.  Just as he was about to throw out his line, a nerve-wracking howl went up behind him.  His entire reel left his hands and landed in the water about eight feet from the pier.

“Shit!” he said and swiveled around on the bucket seat to look back toward the shore.  Seeing nothing there, he frowned at the water.  He could see the handle of his rod just under the surface when he squinted at the water just right.  The pond couldn’t be more than a couple feet deep where his rig had landed.  He looked forlornly at his rubber boots, knowing quite well that they were far too short to keep his feet dry if he waded out.  He’d have to take them off. 

A few minutes later, he was grimacing in disgust as his bare feet sank in the cold, sandy silt at the bottom of the pond.  Even though he had rolled his pants up above his knees, he realized they would still get wet if his feet kept sinking in the mud.  He sighed and slogged on toward the spot where his favorite rod and reel rested in the brown water. 

After a little searching and squinting, he located the rod and pulled it out of the water.  He started cranking in the line and then stopped as he felt a distinctive jerk.  He’d landed something while his rig had been sunk.

“Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit!” he said as he started reeling in his catch.  This one didn’t fight much, but it definitely didn’t want to come out of the water.  His hopes sank when he figured he had hooked a snag or a turtle.  As he reeled it in, the tension on the line reached the breaking point.  He punched the release tab on the reel and let out some slack before reeling in again, not wanting to lose his rig so soon.  His perfect day was turning to shit.

He looked up, expecting to see an old limb sticking out of the water and froze.  His mouth gaped open in shock at the sight of what he saw emerging from the quiet little pond.  A scream welled up in his throat, but came out as a strangled gasp.  He stumbled backwards, away from the dark shape walking steadily toward him. 

At first, Drake thought he was hallucinating.  There was no such animal in his entire imagination as the thing rising up from the water.

He turned around and tried to run through the squishy pond sediment and water, forgetting to drop his rod.  The string wrapped around his body and impeded his progress even more.  The thing behind him howled and yanked on the line.  The six pound test monofilament cut into his arms and pulled him over backwards.  He shouted for help as his back hit the cold water and his body sank in the lake, sending up a huge splash. 

Panic gripped him as he struggled to regain his footing and he felt clam shell and small rocks cutting into the flesh of his feet.  His head cleared the surface and he drew a deep breath, blowing water out his nose at almost the same time.  Water ran into this eyes and he blinked rapidly, trying to get his bearings.  He looked about quickly and saw no sign of the horrid beast.  It was not in the water or on the shore.  His weatherworn heart threatened to beat its way out of his chest as he half-walked, half-crawled back to the pebbly beach.

It had to be hallucination.  Perhaps a side effect of one of the new medicines his doctor had put him on the week before.  He clambered up the bank and hobbled back down the dock to his gear and sat down, fully disgusted with himself.  If he went home soaking wet without his rig and one fish, everyone would be asking stupid questions and he couldn’t possibly tell them what had happened.  They’d never let him out of the house alone again.

 He sat for a long time, trying to dry out, shivering and glancing about, still upset about the hallucination.  When he had sufficiently recovered and put his boots back on, he was feeling better about life in general.  He would just say he had to wade in after his reel, but hopefully, he had left a shirt in the garage and he wouldn’t have to tell them anything except the fish weren’t biting. 

Back in his truck, he headed home without his favorite rod and reel, but no one had to know about that either.  He had a dozen more to take its place.  Some of them never used before, still in the wrappers.

About a half mile from the main highway leading back to town, he saw a Red-Tailed Hawk perched on a power pole and leaned forward to look up at the beautiful bird as it took flight into the forest.  Returning his eyes to the road, he slammed on the brakes, yanked the wheel to the left and skidded into a ditch.  The old truck bucked over the shallow drainage ditch and smacked the bumper hard against a pine tree.  The airbag inflated, squishing back against the seat, but did not immediately deflate.  Cursing his luck, Drake fumbled in his pocket for his knife and punched the bag angrily with the blade.  Blood poured from his nose and his vision was blurry from the sudden blow.  He checked himself over quickly and climbed out of the truck. 

He limped around the truck, calling “Hey! You all right?!” 

But there was no one in the road.  No one anywhere.

He looked up and down the road, frowning.  Hallucinations! He would lay off the pills and get back to the doctor on Monday.  This was bullshit!  He would give the doc a bill for his rod and reel, too.

He already knew he had major problems from the hissing sound coming from the crumpled hood and the smell of hot coolant as it sprayed onto the motor from busted hoses.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” he cursed and looked around.  He didn’t like using cell phones, but his wife insisted he carry one, all the same.  Just in case, she said.  This was certainly a ‘just in case’ situation.  He tried the phone, but naturally, he had no signal.  Too far from the highway.  Nothing to do but walk up to the highway and check the phone there.  If he got lucky, someone would come along and give him a lift into town.

About 100 yards from the highway, he heard the howl again.  Something was in the brush off to the left.  He could hear it crashing through the undergrowth.  Whatever it was, it was big.  His heart rate kicked up and he tried to put a little more energy into his step.  He moved along fairly rapidly for an old man, but he kept looking off to the left, trying to see what was pacing him or if it was just an illusion.  The howl sounded like a dog, but not really.  Drake had never been a superstitious fellow, didn’t believe in ghosts or angels or vampires.  He watched a lot of television at the gun shop when business was slow and that was most of the time these days so he had seen his share of the weird stuff that passed for good television. 

The one thing that popped into his mind was chupa cabre.  He’d seen some weird looking things in his day.  When he had worked for the power company, the rural routes could be pretty ominous on stormy, rainy nights.  Animals seemed to just have death wishes on such nights.  He didn’t know how many times he had run over deer, foxes, dogs, cats, raccoons and armadillos in his bucket truck while out looking for downed power lines or thrown breakers.  His logical mind told him that this was just a continuation of the hallucinations, but his instinct screamed at him to run.

Pontiac couldn’t run anymore.  He hadn’t been able to actually run in years and he didn’t know how many times he had hoped and prayed nothing ever got after him now because it would surely catch him.  He hurried as best he could, keeping in mind his two bypass surgeries, not wanting to experience a third anytime soon.  The howling and crashing in the brush continued to keep pace with him.

He could see cars and trucks passing on the highway up ahead and decided his best bet would be to actively try to wave someone down for help.  He trudged on, each step becoming more and more heavy, his pace slowing. 

When he reached the highway he checked his phone.  Two bars.  He turned toward town, slowed to a drag and punched the key for his home.  He smiled at the sound of his wife’s voice on the other end and then watched in astonishment as his hand with the phone clutched in it, went flying through the air, trailing a stream of bright red blood behind it.  Unsure of what had just happened, he turned his head to the right very slowly, still in shock.  The late morning sun flashed off of something metal and he squeezed his eyes shut. 

His body jerked sideways and he looked down in time to see what appeared to be a hook embedded in his stomach.  A garbled scream erupted from his mouth along with a gout of blood as the bronze hook ripped through his skin and spilled his intestines onto the ground.  Drake swung his handless right arm at the dark shape beside him, spraying more blood in a wide arc in front of him.  He leaned his left hand on his bad left knee and went down hard on both knees.  Strangely, he felt no pain in his arm or his stomach, but the pain from his crushed knee shot up his thigh and exploded behind his eyes as they bulged from his head at the sight of the gray and white tubes lying in a steaming pile in front of him. 

No hallucination could have done this to him.  He still had the presence of mind to question what he was seeing.  He couldn’t die like this!  He was too old!  With grim determination, Drake pushed himself up shakily and held up his right hand in front of his eyes, but there was no right hand, only a bloody stump, still pumping his blood out on the ground.  The howl erupted right in his ear this time, and he jerked his head around in time to see the face of his murderer. 

The scream that came from looking in the gleaming black eyes of death was cut off abruptly when the serrated blade smashed into his neck, cutting through the veins, arteries, cartilage and bone as if he were made of Papier-mâché.  He blinked twice as his head flew through the air, slowly turning in a complete circle.  In his last coherent moment, he wondered why the thing was pulling his hair.

Sample Sunday ~ The Knight of Death

The Knight of Death is the first book in an epic fantasy series: The Red Cross of Gold. The series contains 30 books with 29 published and only one to go. The setting is mainly contemporary, heading into the future with flashbacks to the past and forays into fantasy time.  The books are available at Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, KOBO.

At last, the imposing figure of the Templar Grand Master, dressed in a charcoal gray business suit, entered the room and stopped at the head of the table. His faded blue eyes were large and watery as if the sunlight bothered them, and on his head was a rather untidy mop of thinning, red hair. The men standing around the table watched him apprehensively as he surveyed each of them individually as if assessing them for proper attitude. He nodded in approval, and then sat in his chair causing them all to follow suit. At once, a tall, thin boy dressed in neatly pressed brown slacks and a white shirt brought a crystal decanter and filled his glass with dark red wine.

The Master drank from the goblet and clunked it loudly on the table in front of him. The meeting had been called to order almost an hour earlier by the venerable Seneschal, Philip Cambrique, Chevalier d’Orient, the Knight of the East. They had been forced to wait as always, just so Master d’Brouchart might impress upon them their subordinate positions.

He held out one meaty hand toward the empty chair on his left, and the young man stepped forward again. He reverently picked up the empty golden goblet and presented the cup to the Master, who accepted it with equal gravity. The young valet poured a bit of wine into the cup and stepped back quickly as the man up-ended the goblet in front of the empty chair, spilling the wine across the gleaming surface.

A murmur erupted around the table, and a muffled “No!” sounded from the far end of the long room, where eleven apprentices sat in two rows of heavy, medieval-style armchairs. Each of these fellows, ranging in age from fifteen to fifty, was there at the beck and call of his Knight, with the exception of one: Christopher Stewart had no Knight present on this day. His Master was the reason for this unscheduled meeting.

The ‘no’ had inadvertently erupted from his lips, and he had received a punch in the ribs from one of the older apprentices sitting behind him for the mistake. Apprentices did not speak, unless spoken to in Council. He looked about the table, searching for a sympathetic face and found the formerly dozing Italian Knight gazing at him with a peculiar expression on his face.

 “Sirs, Most Respected and Honored Brothers and Fellows,” d’Brouchart began his address in French. “You are all aware of the need for this assembly, the nature of our emergency and the grievous news, which has reached us from abroad.”

A stilted silence greeted him.

“Brother Dambretti.” The Master turned his watery blue eyes on the Italian sitting halfway down the table on his left.

“Your Excellency,” Dambretti answered and tore his gaze away from Christopher with the hint of a smile sparkling in his dark eyes.

“What news?”

Lucio Dambretti, Chevalier l’Aigle d’Or, the Knight of the Golden Eagle, pushed back his chair and the legs grated on the floor, echoing against the white marble panels covering the walls. He stood to address the assembly, glancing at each of them before beginning, indicating his ‘news’ concerned them all. He was tall, but not too tall and dark of complexion. His black, curly hair was cut short. A frown creased his brow and crinkled the pale scar on his left cheek.

“My news is no news,” he said slowly in perfect French, not his native tongue. “Brother Ramsay has not communicated with my office in over forty-eight hours.”

“What of the world?” The Master asked another question of the Knight.

“The world remains in balance, Your Grace. The wars progress, and the peace negotiations continue, though without much success. A new uprising is brewing between the Musselmen on the West Bank and the settlers, but should not break for another week or so. There is nothing noteworthy to report from Persia. The Gauls, as always, deny everything, and the Germans are innocent as usual. We have heard nothing from the Russians lately, and, even if we did, they would blame the Americans. My concern lie with the Chinese, Sir. I believe our little yellow friends are practicing global feng shui, if you will, and are currently investing heavily in the western colonies. What they intend is…”

At this, one of the men across the table from Sir Dambretti pounded his fist against the wood, demanding attention, effectively cutting off the Knight of the Golden Eagle’s report.

The Grand Master turned his gaze wearily on the man dressed all in black from head to toe. The Knight’s face was weathered and heavily lined as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors. His long hair was streaked with silver. His black eyes, deep set and somewhat sunken on either side of his long nose, burned with a smoldering fire. He locked eyes with the Grand Master for several long seconds before capitulating. The Master was not ready to hear from Konrad von Hetz, Knight of the Apocalypse who sees, harbinger of doom and gloom. They had enough problems already.

“Hold, Brother von Hetz,” d’Brouchart said in a low voice, but he was finished with the Italian, whose comments had already caused a few raised eyebrows from the French Knights at the table. “I would hear from the Chevalier d’Epee, if you please, Golden Eagle. We will discuss Cathay some other time.”

Dambretti smiled tightly, nodded briefly and resumed his seat as another man stood; a tall, thin man with hazel eyes and wisps of blond hair on his balding head.

“Your Eminence.” Thomas Beaujold, also known as the Knight of the Sword, bowed slightly to the Master, and then glanced at every other pair of eyes at the table, lingering when he encountered the Italian’s steady gaze. “Pardon my bluntness, Brothers, but the Order of the Rose continues to bloom, especially in America.”

His expression revealed his obvious disgust at even having to pronounce the name of the Order of the Rose.

“It seems we may have underestimated their importance by a considerable sum. That we have ignored them merely because of their androgynous structure may have been a supreme act of pride for which we will now all pay dearly. This latest development calls for urgent, mayhap drastic action, no less than an undeclared state of war.”

“Preposterous!” The exclamation, totally out of order, emanated from the Chevalier d’Epee’s right, where a very sturdy man with curly brown hair and dancing blue eyes stared up at him in dismay.

“How so, Brother Argonne?” The Master allowed the breach of protocol in light of the gravity of the situation and recognized the Order’s historian. Sir Beaujold yielded the floor reluctantly to the Knight of the Throne, the Council’s historian.

“Your Grace. Brothers.” The shorter man rose from his chair to address the assembly. “Historically, all such androgynous orders are but ephemeral deviations. No order permitting women as members has survived, not since the elder days, and especially not in these so-called orders are nothing more than groups of businessmen and merchants masquerading as Knights of Christ. This profane rejuvenation of the Order of the Rose is nothing more than a social club for sexual perverts and libertines. A band of false knights dabbling in alchemy and the black arts. They worship Venus and Aphrodite, while devoting themselves to licentious activities and corruption of the moral codes of our honorable Order. They are hardly a formidable foe.”

“The idea of war, declared or undeclared, is ludicrous. They will fade and go the way of all pretenders, given time. It is my concern, begging Brother Thomas’ pardon if I may, that we are concerned with this matter at all. Begging his pardon again, I submit to you, they are of no concern. However, concerning Brother Ramsay, our concern should be centered on his redemption, rather than focusing on his association with this spurious order, notwithstanding our concern with the Chinese threat, of course.”

“Of course,” the Italian muttered, but had to smile at the normally stodgy historian’s attempted contempt.

The Knight of the Throne, whose sole duty was recording and maintaining the Order’s archives, glanced nervously at the Chevalier d’Epee, who glared at him angrily, as the Ritter von Hetz’s fist pounded the surface of the table again. His adherence to the archaic method of gaining attention grated on the Master’s nerves. Of all the traditions, which had fallen by the wayside, why did he always insist on retaining the most irksome ones? The Knight of the Apocalypse would not be denied.

“Brother von Hetz?” The Grand Master gritted his teeth. “What have you to say?”

Sir Argonne sat down, and the Knight of the Apocalypse who sees unfolded his considerable height from the chair. He addressed the Grand Master with utmost gravity, and then stared darkly around the table, causing the rest of them to shift uncomfortably in their seats.

“My Brothers.” His voice was deeper and more resonant than the Master’s. He did not speak to them in French, but in his native German, disdaining the use the common language normally reserved for Council.

“Behold! He was brought forth into the presence of a female like unto the great Whore of Babylon. She has ensnared our beloved Brother, the Chevalier du Morte, in her chaotic web of deceit. She has profaned his body with fornication. She has whispered the foulest heresies unto his ears, proclaiming she is at once High Priestess, as well as, High Priest.”

He paused and waited as another round of murmurs circled the table. When his Brothers grew quiet, he continued. “She has taken knowledge of both male and female in unholy union and she has murdered one of our own. She has given our beloved alchemist the liquor of the traitorous Anthony of Sardinia and has blinded him both physically and mentally to the truth of his purpose, the obedience of his vows and the fulfillment of his duty. She has brought him unto ruin and laid claim to his immortal soul through treachery and guile. She has set herself up to be Grand Master and lusts after the Mystery of Life.”

Another murmur started and quickly rose in pitch as the Knights made louder and louder declarations of disbelief, protest and/or anger. The Seneschal pounded the table for order in vain until the Knight of the Apocalypse finally stepped up on the table and raised both arms to the ceiling, throwing his head back. His long dark hair fell in strands down his back as he turned in a complete circle, causing the men to cease their babbling in fear of what might happen next. The dark Knight stopped and dropped his head forward, looking directly into the eyes of the Italian Knight before speaking. “He lives, he dies, he lives again. He lives, he dies, he lives again… for her pleasure. I am become a stranger unto my brethren. Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.”

The Apocalyptic Knight ended with a scriptural quote and every eye in the room widened in horror at the meaning of his words. He lowered his arms and sank down upon the table, sitting in the center of the insignia with his arms crossed over his chest and his head down.

“I am the Knight of the Apocalypse who sees,” his voice trailed off as if he were going to sleep in the middle of the table.

His words seemed to echo in the marble enclosure much longer than they should have. The Knight of the Apocalypse’ fervor and pronouncements always left them breathless, puzzled by his cryptic riddles and shaken by his power to instill fear in their hearts. Even unto the hearts of the immortals. But these words, with the exception of the last scripture concerning wives, were not couched in riddles or vague innuendo. These words were as clear as spring water, and their meaning held a shocking revelation. They had lost their Knight of Death… to a woman, no less. The thought was inconceivable to everyone at the table with one exception.

Sir Dambretti was visibly shaken by the archaic manner in which the Apocalyptic Knight delivered his oration and the fact that the last, most enigmatic phrase seemed to be directed at him, personally. The Italian thought von Hetz’ use of the High German language, which was very difficult to understand even for seasoned linguists, was merely an attempt to intimidate them. Surely his grave pronouncements were a bit exaggerated and what had he, Lucio Dambretti, to do with wives? He had no wife!

“Bother Simon,” the Master’s voice softened somewhat as he addressed the youngest of the assembly when silence returned.

The man, who looked to be about thirty years old, stood nervously to address the group, never taking his eyes off the dark figure sitting on the tabletop. He was Simon D’Ornan, Chevalier du Serpent, Mystic Healer, Father Confessor for the Brothers and the Master’s favorite amongst the Council Members.

“Your Excellency.” He nodded to the Master and then bowed his head politely to each of them, smiling nervously, and then returned his attention to the Master, frowning. He had prepared no statement. He said nothing further.

“Is there a chance for healing? Is it possible our beloved Brother Ramsay is not lost to us?” D’Brouchart asked him.

“If by ‘liquor of the traitorous apprentice’, Brother Konrad means the potion of which the apprentice, Anthony, was capable of preparing, it is possible he is lost in a manner of speaking. However, I have no firsthand knowledge from whence to draw any valid conclusions. This potion is something beyond my sphere of understanding. You, Sir, would be more inclined to know of these things. Concerning Brother Ramsay, it is a most unusual circumstance. I would have to examine him in person, Your Eminence. It is unlikely Brother Ramsay would allow such an exam, as you all know. He is not and never has been the most amiable of Brothers among us. The very nature of his mission affects his demeanor profoundly. I believe the weight of his office lies heavily on his soul.” Simon licked his lips and glanced at the Knight of the Apocalypse again before continuing in a lower voice. “As for Brother Konrad’s prophecy, I hardly think Brother Ramsay would engage in such… such… licentious behavior, if he were in a normal frame of mind.”

“But what is normal, Brother?” Louis Champlain, Knight of the Golden Key, asked the question very quietly from across the table.

“Then there may be a chance for recovery?” The Master asked, ignoring Champlain’s question.

“Possibly,” d’Ornan answered gravely. “Anything is possible through God.”

“He has broken his vows!” Beaujold stood suddenly without being recognized. “He must be destroyed. He is the Knight of Death. He alone of all of us could bring about our destruction. He is Master of the Key to the Bottomless Pit, lest you all forget.”

“He is not himself,” the voice of Konrad von Hetz startled them, when he raised his head, and then slid from the table and back into his chair.

Most of the apprentices jumped at his sudden reanimation, and one of them coughed loudly. Of all the assemblages they had attended, this animated behavior on behalf of the Knights was unprecedented in the presence of the Master. They had to wonder what would happen in the Council if something of enormous proportions should occur.

“He has been evilly influenced by powers beyond his control,” von Hetz concluded. It seemed he might smile at the commotion he caused, but it was only an illusion.

“He must die!” Beaujold glared at the Apocalyptic Knight and pounded one fist on the table to emphasize each word. The nearby goblets jumped on the lacquered surface, sending the nervous valet hurrying around the table, wiping at the spilled wine and beer, which sloshed out.

“Enough!” The Grand Master stood up and the men fell silent. The Chevalier d’Epee resumed his seat angrily, and the Healer sat down quickly as well, blinking rapidly, looking as if he would be ill. “The man is our Brother until proven otherwise. You will remember that, Chevalier Beaujold. If there is a chance of recovery, I want the opportunity to be had. He will be afforded the right to repent and be saved. Repent and be saved! Thus sayeth the Lord God Almighty!”

Each of the men and all of the apprentices crossed themselves and said ‘Amen’.

“Sir d’Ornan, Sir Beaujold and Sir Dambretti, you three will go to Sir Ramsay and bring him back. Tomorrow, you will leave for America. You will bring back our Brother by whatever means necessary. Sir Barry will see to the needs of your journey. Chevalier d’Epee?”

Beaujold bowed his head. “Yes, Your Eminence.”

“I trust you are up to the… mission? Perhaps I should call it a crusade as, indeed, the very fiber of our Order is in jeopardy at the hands of these… infidels. You will find Chevalier Ramsay a challenge, if he is unwilling to return with you.”

“I am prepared, Your Excellency.” Beaujold raised his eyes to look into the face of the Master with just the slightest a hint of defiance.

“You had better be,” the Master said doubtfully. The man would need his courage and perhaps his arrogance, as well, if he were to encounter the Knight of Death in a foul mood. Beaujold was an expert swordsman and strategist, though something of a hot-head, but he’d never gone against Ramsay. They were, after all, usually on the same side.

Another of the Knights at the table cleared his throat. William Montague, the most recent addition to their assembly indicated his desire to speak as his discreet British manner required. He was a quiet, reserved gentleman about forty years of age, dressed in a dark business suit. He had been an apprentice until 1944 when his master had been killed in Italy during the second Great War of the century. The Grand Master excused his strange, modern ways and beliefs, but had little faith in his untried abilities in the field. He was a good enough accountant, but had tasted little of the rigors of the battlefield other than his service in the RAF during WWII.

“Excuse me, Your Grace.” Sir Montague stood up.

The Master looked at him as if he had never seen him before, and then nodded. The Knight of the Holy City cleared his throat and spoke in perfect, well-refined English, also disdaining the French as his well-bred British upbringing demanded.

“The treasury is not what it used to be. Not that we are straitened by any means, but if we were to incur considerable expenses such as those recently discussed with Sir Dambretti for additional support facilities in Jerusalem, and expanded operations in Bhutan and Nepal, it may well deplete our reserves in short order. I would like to expand upon one item in particular brought up by Brother Beaujold, Your Grace, and that is Sir Ramsay does, indeed, keep the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as, the Key of Death. It has been over twenty years since he has added even one gram of gold to the coffers. Of course, he never lets us run short, but, as you know, we live… rather well. If anything should happen to him and the secret were to be lost… need I say more?”

Montague eyed Beaujold thoughtfully. Montague’s Master had been Beaujold’s friend, as well as, his Brother. They had both been present when Ramsay had dispatched Beaujold’s former Master into the ether. There had been no other choice. He would never forget it, but he also would never forget the scene between Ramsay and Beaujold after the ceremony. At the time, he had thought they were going to kill each other had it not been for the intervention of Dambretti and d’Ornan. Things had never been right between them afterwards. Montague felt the Master’s decision to send the Knight of the Sword to bring Ramsay home was an error in judgment. He doubted seriously Ramsay would be afforded a fair hearing, if Beaujold had anything to do with it, and he was sure only one of them would return with his head attached to his shoulders.

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