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Mountain Game
Mountain Calling
The Golden City
The Witch, Ghost & Demon
Arts & Gifts

Mountain Calling

    Receives Honorable Mention at the 2008

            New England Book Festival  

   honoring the best book of the holiday season! 

 

ISBN: 978-0-9796489-1-5

PROLOGUE

The old man gradually melted away from reality. His rhythmic chant— a repetitive prayer— softly resounded through the smoke filled chamber, centering the mystic on the quest for understanding as he gave himself over to the calling. Steam and ash rose from the fire as the man splashed water on the flames then sprinkled a fine powder over the amber coals. White smoke, mushroomed forth, clouding the small room in a blanketed shroud. And the low, recurring mutterings continued: “Hi-ya-hu-ya...hi-yahu-ha...” as sweat beaded over the man’s face and chest. The mantra helped in the focus for the vision, bathing the one seeking in the dream world of the spirit messengers. From this place the riddles could be revealed. The future seen. The outcome foretold.

Eyes-of-an-Owl took a long pull from his sacred pipe and exhaled as he lifted his offer to the four winds. Presenting the instrument of tobacco was a measure of respect to the spirits and a silent request: please,— lead me on this journey. He had come to this secret world often in his many years of guiding his people. The spirits directed, but the visionary had to interpret the signs. From this realm what would be seen could be hidden: hazy, not full clear, drifting aimlessly... then centered; but the meaning always obscured by the disconnection of sights. The secrets to be revealed were there to be interpreted to one on the same plane as the guides; and the old man longed for that plane.

“Hi-ya-hu-ya...hi-ya-hu-ha...” The chant continues as the fog of reality lifted and the visionary drifted into the hallucinogen. Following the path of the unknown. The dream-world of the future, the past, the present. To which would the signs lead? What truths would the spirits tell?

The smoke of the chamber and the heat of the fire consumed the old man as he passed into the corridor of change. Like a blank canvas the visionary was incased in a void. Meaningless space of endless horizons unmarred by any distinguishing facets, but white. Mist shifted before him as the babbling of a brook trickled in the background. The fog began to lift. In the distance Eyes-of-an-Owl could see the white man — trappers... then settlers. Buffalo grazed an endless plain. The prairie was green from spring rains, but then one by one the buffalo vanished. At first gradually they disappeared, then faster,— faster as the meadow turned brown under the harsh sun, bleaching bones left scattered, and picked clean by scavengers.

The wind lifted the dust and blew the view away. In the wake were the dead. Lodges, broken and burned,— smoldering in the morning sun,— and bodies littered the ground: his children. The visionaries sacred lands...his people... laid waste. Snow began to fall, burying all and with it came the blinding wind. The old man closed his eyes, then blinked.

The haze of the trance continued to unfold as fog billowed at his feet. Reaching out he touched a wall, hot to his stroke, but smooth and hard. He had been here before. Recognition like dejavu questioned the sign as he felt both sides of a narrow passage.

The air was musty, thick with the smell of animal rot: death was in this place. He walked down a narrow corridor that opened into a larger chamber. Ghostly shadows emerged then disappeared in the heavy vapor that swirled and shifted with the eddies of passage.

The Gatherers,” whispered a soft memory — the spirits were talking. “The Gatherers...”

Eyes-of-an-Owl fumbled with his perception. He had seen this before as he looked at the ghastly features of the dark demon’s face. The piercing red evil eyes glimmered as the creature peeled the skin from a live human. The man screamed in agony as the war god seemed to relish in the suffering of the lost soul. Rolling its head as if laughing the demon continued the torture. Long taloned fingers worked swift and skillfully as the scaly muscular forearms flexed and rippled under the metallic skin.

Death’s Shadow...,” whispered the haunting voice. The visionary was pulled as if falling down a dark hole. Balance was gone. Spinning aimlessly the man’s heart raced as he again found himself in a tunnel — a cave.

Shadows moved cunningly through the misty dark crevices and corridors. Ammonia burned his eyes and seared his sinuses, yet the phantoms kept shifting,— darting. Polished black figures, drifting and moving in the dark like spirits in the night. A sharp squeal erupted as a jagged row of teeth came out of the gloom. Savage canines salivating for flesh. Then death stepped from the shadows. Organs and rotting flesh hung from massive bones. The ghoulish specter, a mutant skeleton, appeared laughing as it reached for him. Eyes-of-an-Owl stepped back, but ebony talons kept stretching foreword.

Death’s Shadow...,” the voice whispered and the old man fell backwards down a dark shaft. Spinning, twisting, then floating, the panorama below opened up. A young woman groaned in the throes of birth. Under the moaning pains of delivery she rubbed her abdomen. Rocking her head back she screamed as her chest bulged and her frame contorted. With every ounce of her strength she pulled herself upright then fell back into convulsions. Gagging on blood the woman surged once more then her skin began to peel from her ribs. The transformation had begun as flesh melted from bone. Out of the pool of human residue the new organism rose from its chrysalis. Rising erect the unnatural life lifted its head in triumph. A giant, living skeleton, greased to a glossy sheen in the puddling remains.

The terrified woman’s distorted features laid twisted in the liquid mass like a mask; the last remnants of the human cocoon the creature was wrapped in.

More bodies appeared confined within walls. The stockade,— fencing of the white man,— concealed in the trees near the forking of several rivers. Scattered over the grounds: men and women— with gaping wounds where death was delivered. The infestation was coming. “Death’s Shadow awakened…” the voice whispered, “…the Gatherers….”

Eyes-of-an-Owl focused on the realization. It was the beginning.... Marking: “The harvest’s coming.”

Death’s Shadow...,” whispered the voice again.

The dark chamber snapped to reality as the old man took a deep breath of the stale air and stared at the bark walls of his den. The amber coals of the fire shifted in intensity as each in turn consumed the depleted oxygen from the small room offering the only light to the shrouded interior. The vision was gone, but Eyes-of-an-Owl continued to sit. The thin layer of sweat over his weakened frame glistening like shellac in the faint glow of the dying pit. His expression revealed nothing as he sat motionless.

The plague was coming. The time of change to arrive. “Hi-ya-hu-ya...hi-ya-hu-ha...” Eyes-of-an-Owl raised his pipe to the four winds. More was needed,— his time of quest,— incomplete.

Chapter One

Broken-Toe’s Honor

From the heavens will fall, a poisonous seed

The Mountain’s Call , there will be no peace

Vengeance yearns, a cry for blood

But the ear can’t learn, when death stalks alone

A sprout will grow, The Awakening at last

But the stones won’t hear, The Destroyer pass

An alien giant stood over his bridge; his command in a shambles. Lights flickered and sparks arched across air and apparatus, in vain attempts to maintain their connection or transfer the power they still held before the reactors exploded. The ship rocked at additional impacts as many of the crew were knocked off their feet, but the giant Guardian managed to hold his stance; the twisted and damaged toe on his right foot was no deterrent to his balance. Broken-Toe was locked to his perch on the deck plating. The large muscular talons flexed like biting anchors with each trembler as the giant ordered the third wave of counter blasts amid the continuing barrage of plasma cannons. His transport vessel and crew had born the brunt of the pirate vessel‘s salvos with courage and grim determination: pride was a powerful force among his clan. But feelings of anger and disgust passed through the giant’s mind as he stared at the vile enemy ship; a craft that held a pack of the dishonorable. These were more than criminals,— galactic scum. Thieves that traversed the heavens in search of someone else's livelihood. This clan of rejects from their own race had done the unspeakable: abandoning the Guardianship, perverting the creed of his people. Broken-Toe snarled with disgust. His red orbs burned beneath the glossy black visor of his war helmet. In dishonor they stalked their own; preying and pirating on their own kind. Unseasoned and unskilled Podjows. Rejects from the academies and enemies of the state.

Broken scanned his busted bridge. His young crew of unseasoned troops, many first year cadets, were ill equipped to face the evils of the Transaque clan. They were not even full marshals yet. Not one of them was a warrior. Most lacked any military training at all. Only Broken had the experience of live combat. But today what little training they had would be taxed to the limit.

Broken-Toe couldn’t believe the degradation of the pirates in their raid. This rogue clan had waited to attack when he and most of his squad had gone to complete the finial cleansing and reclaiming of the abandoned planet. His team had been on the last leg of their sterilization before they continued their mission to transport one of the parasites to their home planet for study. An antidote was desperately needed for the deadly bug before any other colonies faced the ravaging death unleashed by a still unknown terrorists group. Broken’s young team had been chosen for the controlled Yet-Tat: the extraction or destruction of an infestation; but now the giant wondered if fate had cast him in the path of the terrorists group responsible for the savage outbreaks of the plague across the many diverse sectors.

To the Guardian’s young crew the Yet-Tat was a— Right-of-Passage; it was a triumph of trust placed only on the best. A marking of the bravest of marshals in obedience to the Center Counsel’s command as they walked through an inferno that would purge any weakness granting the victors the full rank of Guardian. The Yet-Tat could take many forms, but the Counsels letter and decree were the finial label to any challenge. To survive such a challenge was an honor few would ever hoped to attain.

This mission to capture the parasite required great skill and the Counsel had hand selected Broken-Toe to lead the Yet-Tat. But seasoned marshals were on short supply due to eruptions across the empire, so the giant was forced to draw from fresh recruits that had just completed their training. It was a dangerous gamble, but the Counsel had no choice. One parasitic Queen with her hanging ulcers had been released on the Sig-zaw by a rogue terrorist group and the colony was totally engulfed in mere days. Any planet the terrorist might dump such an abomination would be devastating, sending ripples across the empire, and fear through the entire galaxy. And what fear? In hours a parasite queen builds her nest while infecting hosts. No indigenous inhabitants of any world is safe. Her viral seeds seep into the blood of the contaminated. Using the host’s cardiovascular system infection dispenses throughout the body rewriting the very DNA of the victim.

Transformation is swift; in one day the new life breaks through shedding the now useless skin of the former animal. The bone mass grows as an exoskeleton of the new being. Organs and tissue of the old animal gradually fall off as the useless rotting evidence of previous life dissipate with time. Only a queen carries the mucus ulcers that drop like eggs giving birth to the beginning larva of the parasite. All other hosts develop into workers, like a horde of ants that support the queen in one common goal:— to multiply.

If the Queen on Sig-zaw were let on her own the entire planet would have soon been completely overrun. But the code of The Guardian could never allow that to happen. The battle for Broken’s trainees became a life and death match to kill all the parasite’s offspring and recapture or kill the queen. If the Queen couldn’t be taken alive a larva needed to be saved. Finding an antidote was the empire’s top priority.

Broken’s strategy was simple. Secure a few shed ulcers first. Quarantine them then destroy the nest. It would be a difficult battle with her horde of mindless drones, driven on by the telepathy of their leader and their own instinct, for a worker would sacrifice all to protect its royalty.

And the Queen herself could display an uncanny intelligence. Driven by survival, her cunning, and viciousness was unpredictable in the course of battle. That trainees would die in the venture of a Yet-Tat was expected by the empire, but Broken-Toe was a wise leader and as of yet never lost a cadet in any other Rightof-Passage.

The Pirates had waited like cowards, hitting the giant’s ship when it was virtually deserted because of the Yet-Tat — stealing and killing everything in sight. The Parasite larvae, that Broken-Toe’s troops had recaptured from the hive, stored in the cargo hold of the transport vessel, were stolen. The needless carnage and destruction had filled the giant’s heart with anger. It had taken his crew hours to get his damaged ship into somewhat of a working order: enough to get it into space and begin pursuit. The ion trail and faint gases left in the wake of the pirate ship’s passing had dispersed, but not enough to hide their course from Broken-Toe. As a skilled marshal he was trained to stalk his prey in whatever environment his game was hiding. Whether some distant planet at the outer reaches of the galaxy or in the empty void of space, Broken-Toe could read the signs and find his quarry. And he was driven to succeed, driven by honor, driven by pride; the dead cried out for justice and the giant planned to continue his quest until the last drop of his blood spilled from his veins. If victory was his he would lengthen the punishment rent upon his vanquished until their life’s-fluid painted the decks of their ship and drenched the bulkheads of his own.

The two frigates had been playing a deadly game of hunter and prey for the better part of a week; the roles changing, back and forth, between hunter and hunted, as they dodged through solar systems and danced around stars. Each encounter brought a wave of fire and more damage to both of the crippled ships, but still Broken-Toe pressed on. He would not lose this match. To much was at stake.

This latest encounter had turned out to be an ambush. The pirate ship was hidden in an asteroid field in a solar system containing one inhabited planet. The planet was familiar to Broken.He had walked its violent and savage terrain before. It sat third from the sun and held a warrior species. Hunters, savages, beings that could track and kill with skill beyond any other aliens he had ever confronted. He himself had to fight them just to survive and found them to be a true challenge. A prison break years past had trapped him on that violent world. And today his fate had come full circle. Hunting for criminals he had returned to this solar system. But today he was not hunting for escaped convicts. Today his hunt was for vengeance. Today he would kill for lost honor.

The enemy had used the asteroid field skillfully. Hidden by the heavy metals of the fields undefined ores and the random gravitational forces that sent ghost images to the stalking sensors, Broken had approached too close and unprepared for the swift execution of a surprise lunge at their rear. The first salvo had taken out the ships steering thrusters and port weapons before the giant could even fire a shot. In the counterattack one of Broken-Toe’s gunners actually missed the enemy frigate and hit one of the asteroids that contained a high concentration of hydrogen. Luckily the ensuing explosion swallowed up the pirates’ ship and disabled its engines enough to equal the match.

A growl and a few short clicks from a nearby crew member told Broken what was left of their weapons were locked on target. The honored giant raised his closed fist and opened his clawed hand: a sign of the hunt meaning to engage. He could have voiced the order, but this was a Yack-Taw and he felt like treating it as such.

The wounded and limping enemy craft had taken a severe pummeling over the chase and the final blow of the asteroid rendered it virtually dead. It was in no condition to continue to try and run; its battered hull and damaged engines left it unable to propel itself at light speed any longer. The last thrust it fired, cast it adrift in the void of space at a virtually uncontrollable speed as it passed by the stalking ship almost helpless. With limited steering and useless engines it floated aimlessly; the only source of repair parts floating in the massive hulk still firing on its weakened frame from behind. With its damaged reserves of power the vessel turned to face its enemy. A boarding party would have to take the ship.

Broken-Toe felt a sense of amusement at the sign of life. So they’ve had enough running and now they’re going to stay and fight. His ship shook as the diminished weapons aboard his craft fired on the fast approaching vessel. Even in the onslaught the enemy ship continued to employ breaking thrusters set for a collision as Broken-Toe’s craft continued forward carried by the last momentum of its final thruster fire. “Perhaps they do have some honor left,” Broken-Toe clicked and chirped under his breath.

Alarms flashed all around him warning of an unexpected power up in the oncoming ship. The pirate frigate surged toward Broken’s vessel: veering starboard at the last minute. The action led to their ships scraping across each other. The impact sent Broken Toe and his crew off their feet. Further rumbles shook his ship as explosions sounded throughout the interior.

From underneath, the enemy vessel fired large grappling hooks at point blank range. Strong ionized liquid steel cables shot through space as their clawed ends grappled with the damaged hull of the pursuing ship, tearing through the outer skin and locking onto any supporting structure. The sheer power of the boarding weapons welded their supports to the enemy’s craft, as specters in heavy space armor launched across the void, shot by personal cannons: boarding tubes that could propel the infantry through the emptiness of space to the opposing ship. The attacking party quickly torched entry holes in the thick plating of the Marshal vessel’s outer skin.

The sound of metal tearing at near ear shattering volumes gripped the structures as the crafts heaved: the two frigates colliding under the drag of the tow cables pulling their frames together. Alarms for hull breaches were heard on the bridge. Broken-Toe gave the order for the breaches to be sealed and for zero-gee armor to be donned by all the crew. The battle was now reduced to hand-to-hand amid the emptiness of space. Survival for the victors would come only if the needed parts for their own ship could be salvaged from that of the vanquished pirate vessel.

* * *

Three Spots stood guard as four other pirates guided the boarding tubes manually aiming their soldiers to the hull of the Marshal’s ship. Two others of The Lost stood near him. His warriors were ready for battle, waiting for the chance to wet their blades with the blood of the empire’s police. Three Spots held the position of point man, — a place of honor given to the most proven warriors. Many guardians had fallen by Three Spots hand. He was proud to have taken their weapons from their cold death grip. How he longed for the glory of battle. He stood proud, holding the spear that had pierced his skin and had given him his name. During a fierce confrontation a warden years earlier had thrust this very lance through his chest and scarred his hide. The double bladed weapon sheared his flesh and ripped a wound of two large round scars that matched a birth mark on his left shoulder. He had killed that assailant with his bare-hands, wrenching the lance from his chest and thus earned his name.

 

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