Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hope Rekindled - Chapter 1

Hope Rekindled
Bethany House (June 1, 2011)
Tracie Peterson

Hope Rekindled

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Darkness Follows - Chapter 1

Darkness Follows
Realms (May 3, 2011)
Mike Dellosso


Gettysburg, 1863

Captain Samuel Whiting removed his gloves and sat on the cot in his tent. It had been a long, grueling day of battle, and his clothes were soaked through with sweat. He’d lost more men, good men, family men. Men who would never return home to their wives. Boys who would never again cross the thresholds of their parents’ homes.

He leaned forward, removed his boots, and stretched his legs. The air in the tent was still and muggy. At least outside there was a light breeze to carry away the stench of the wounded. In here, the smells hung in the air like a haze. Beyond the canvas walls the sounds of soldiers—heroes—in the throes of agony wandered through the camp like the souls of dead men looking for rest. But there was no rest in a place like this.

A single oil lamp sat on the floor, casting an orange glow about the tent’s interior. Samuel turned the knob on the lamp, giving more wick to the flame. The light brightened and the shadows darkened. From a writing box he removed a leather-bound journal, the one his mother had given him before he left to join Mr. Lincoln’s army. At the time he thought he was doing the right thing, thought he was fighting for a noble cause.

Now he thought differently. There was nothing noble about this war, nothing honorable about the way it was being fought nor the reasons for which it was being waged.

After dipping the tip of his quill into an inkwell, he put the tip to the paper and began to write. The words flowed from his hand, though they were not born of him but of something else, something dark and sinister, something to which he had finally given himself.

In the corner of the tent a shadow moved. He saw it from the corner of his eye. It was a shadow cast not by the oil lamp’s flame but by some other source, a source Samuel did not fully understand but felt.

The shadow glided along the canvas, following the angles of the tent, and came to a stop beside the cot. There it seemed to lurk, to hover, as if curious to see what was being written on the pages of the journal. A chill blew over Samuel, penetrated his clothes and flesh, and settled into his bones.

The shadow began to throb in rhythm with Samuel’s beating heart. His quill moved across the paper more rapidly now, the point carving words—vitriol—at an alarming pace. His heart rate quickened and, with it, the pulsations of the shadow.

At once a strong wind ruffled the canvas and brought with it a low howl that sounded more like a moan. It did not originate from outside the tent, from wounded and homesick boys, but rather from within, from the shadow. The wind circled the tent’s interior, stirred the pages of the journal, Samuel’s hair, his clothes, and finally, as if in one final great sigh, extinguished the light of the lamp.

Captain Samuel Whiting was engulfed by darkness.

Chapter One

Present day

Sam Travis awoke in the middle of the night, cold and terrified. The dream had come again. His brother. The shot.

You did what you had to do, son.

He sat up in bed and wiped the sweat from his brow.

Next to him Molly stirred, grunted, and found his arm with her hand. “You OK, babe?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna go get some water.”

“You sure?”

He found her forehead in the darkness and kissed it. “Yeah.”

The house was as still and noiseless as a crypt. Sam made his way down the hall to Eva’s room, floorboards popping under his feet. He cracked the door and peeked in. The Tinker Bell night-light cast a soft purple hue over the room, giving it a moonlit glow. Odd-shaped shadows blotted the ceiling, like dark clouds against a darker sky. Eva was curled into a tight ball, head off the pillow, blankets at her feet.

Sam opened the door all the way, tiptoed to the bed, and pulled the covers to his daughter’s shoulders. She didn’t stir even the slightest. For a few hushed moments he stood and listened to her low rhythmic breathing.

The past six months had been hard on them all, but Eva had handled them surprisingly well. She was just a kid, barely seven, yet displayed the maturity of someone much older. Sam had never known that her faith, much like her mother’s, was so strong. His, on the other hand...

He left the door open a few inches. Farther down the hall he entered the bathroom, where another night-light, this one a blue flower, reflected off the porcelain tub, toilet, and sink. He splashed water from the faucet on his face. Remnants of the dream lingered and stuttered like bad cell phone reception. Just images now, faces, twisted and warped.

After toweling off, he studied himself in the mirror. In the muted light the scar running above his ear didn’t look so bad. His hair was growing back and covered most of it. Oddly, the new crop was coming in gray.

From downstairs a voice called Sam’s name. A chill tightened the arc of his scar.

He heard it again.


It was neither haunting nor unnatural, but familiar, conversational. It was the voice of his brother. Tommy. He’d heard it a thousand times in his youth, a hundred ghostly times since the accident that had turned his own brain to mush. The doctor called them auditory hallucinations.

Sam exited the bathroom and stood at the top of the staircase. Dim light from the second floor spilled down the stairs into the foyer below, and the empty space looked like a strange planet, distant and odd. Who knew what bizarre creatures inhabited that land and what malicious intentions they harbored?

He heard that same voice—Tommy’s—calling to him. “Sammy.”

Sam shivered at the sound of his name.

A dull ache had taken to the length of the scar.

Descending the stairs, Sam felt something dark, ominous, present in the house with him. He stopped and listened. He could almost hear it breathing, and with each breath, each exhalation, he heard his own name, now just a whisper.

He started down the stairs again, taking one at a time, holding the railing and trying to find the quiet places on the steps.

From the bottom of the stairway he looked at the front door, half expecting it to fly open and reveal Tommy standing there, with half his head...

You did what you had to do, son.

He looked left into the dining room, then right into the living room. The voice was coming from the kitchen. Turning a one-eighty, he headed that way down the hall.

At the doorway Sam stopped and listened again. Now he heard nothing. No breathing, no whispers, no Tommy. The kitchen held the aroma of the evening’s meal—fettuccine Alfredo—like a remote memory.

“Tommy?” His own voice sounded too loud and strangely hollow.

He had no idea why he said his brother’s name since he expected no reply. Tommy had been dead for—what?—twenty-one years. Thoughts of his death came to Sam’s mind, images from the dream. And not just his death but how he’d died.

You did what you had to do, son.

From off in the distance Sam heard a cannon blast. Living in Gettysburg, near the battlefields, the sound was common during the month of July when the reenactments were going on. But not in the middle of the night. Not in November. Another blast echoed across the fields, then the percussion of rifle shots followed by a volley of more cannons.

Sam walked back down the hall and opened the front door. He saw only darkness beyond the light of the porch lamp, but the sounds were unmistakable. Guns crackled in rapid succession, cannons boomed, men hollered and screamed, horses whinnied and roared. The sounds of battle were all around him. He expected Eva and Molly to stir from their sleep and come tripping down the stairs at any moment, but that didn’t happen. The house was as still and quiet as ever.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Sam stepped out onto the porch. Three rotting jack-o’-lanterns grinned at him like a gaggle of toothless geezers. The air was cold and damp, the grass wet with dew. Nervously he felt the bandage on his index finger. He’d slipped while carving one of the pumpkins and gouged his finger with the knife. Molly had thought he should get stitches, but he refused. It was still tender, throbbing slightly, healing up well enough on its own. Here, outside, the loamy smell of dead wet leaves surrounded him. Beyond the glow of the porch lamp, the outside world was black and lonely. The sky was moonless.

Across the field and beyond the trees the battle continued but grew no louder. Sam gripped his head and held it with both hands. Was he going crazy? Had the accident triggered some weird psychosis? This couldn’t be real. It had to be a concoction of his damaged brain. An auditory hallucination.

Suddenly the sounds ceased and silence ruled. Dead silence. No whispers of a gentle breeze. No skittering of dry leaves across the driveway. No creak of old, naked branches. Not even the hum of the power lines paralleling the road.

Sam went back inside and shut the door. The dead bolt made a solid thunk as it slid into place. He didn’t want to go back upstairs, didn’t want to sleep in his own bed. Instead he went into the living room, lay on the sofa, and clicked on the TV. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep was watching an old Star Trek rerun.


Sam’s eyes opened slowly and tried to adjust to the soft morning light that seeped through the windows. He rolled to his side and felt something slide from his lap to the floor with a papery flutter. He’d not slept soundly on the sofa.

Pushing himself up, he looked out the window. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, and the sky was a hundred shades of pink. The house felt damp and chilly. The TV was off. Leaning to his left, he saw that the front door was open. Maybe Molly had gone out already and not shut it behind her.

“Moll?” But there was no answer. “Eva?” The house was quiet. Sam stood to see if Molly was in the yard and noticed a notebook on the floor, its pages splayed like broken butterfly wings. Bending to pick it up, he recognized it as one of Eva’s notebooks in which she wrote her kid stories, tales of a dog named Max and of horses with wings.

Turning it over, he found a full page of writing. His writing. Before the accident he’d often helped Eva with her stories but had never written one himself. He’d thought about it many times but had never gotten around to doing it. There was always something more pressing, more important. Since his accident he’d had the time, home from work with nothing to do, but his brain just wasn’t working that way. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate. His attention span was that of a three-year-old.

Sitting on the sofa, he read the writing on the page, the writing of his own hand.

November 19, 1863

Captain Samuel Whiting

PennsylvanIa Independent Light Artillery, Battery E

I am full of dArkness. It has coMpletely overshadowed me. My heart despairs; my soul swims in murky, colorless waters. I am not my own but a mere puppet in his hanD. My intent is evil, and I loathe what the dAy will bring, what I will accomplish. But I must do it. My feet have been positioned, my couRse has been set, and I am compelled to follow. Darkness, he is my commander now.

I can already smell the blood on my hands, and it turns my stomach. But, strangely, it excites me as well. I know it is the darKness within me, bloodthirsty devil that it is. It desires death, his death (the president), and I am beginning to understand why. He must die. He deserves nothing more than death. So much sufferiNg has come from his words, his policies, his will. He speaks of freedom but has enslaved so many in this cursed war.

See how the pen trEmbles in my hand. I move it,not myself but the darkneSs guides it, as it guides my mind and will. Shadowy figures encircle me. I can see them all about the room, specters moving as lightly as wiSps of smoke. My hand trembles. I am overcome. I am their slave. His slave.

I am not my own.

I am not my own.

I am notnotnotnotnotnotnotno

my own

Sam let the notebook slip from his hands and scrape across the hardwood floor. Gooseflesh puckered his skin. He thought of last night’s battle sounds, of Tommy’s voice and feeling the darkness around him—the darkness. He remembered the grinning jack-o’lanterns, the click of the sliding dead bolt. He had no memory of turning off the TV and opening the door, nor of finding Eva’s notebook and writing this nonsense.

What was happening to him?

He stood and went to the front door, barely aware of his feet moving under him. With one elbow on the doorjamb he poked his head outside and scanned the front yard, listening.

“Moll?” His voice was weak and broke mid-word. There was no answer. If Molly was out here, she must be around back.

Then, as if last night’s ethereal battle had landed in his front yard, a rifle shot split the morning air, and the living room window exploded in a spray of glass.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Reluctant Detective - Chapter 1

The Reluctant Detective
Monarch Books (April 30, 2011)
Martha Ockley

Chapter 1

“YOU KNOW I DON’T LIKE TO COMPLAIN.” Pat Montesque screwed up her soft cheeks into a fierce smile. “But I’ll tell you, Elsie, I was a tad put out. I’ve always done the altar arrangements – since before Vicar Alistair came. You need a good substantial block of colour and there she was putting up a great waxy lily and a couple of twigs. Striking simplicity! I ask you!”

Elsie Lively tut-tutted sympathetically. She was looking at her dear Arthur’s grave: probably thinking it needed a bit of a tidy, thought Pat. But then it was so difficult to get down on your knees at her age and well nigh impossible to get back up.

“Naturally I pointed out it wouldn’t do – not in that space. Who’s going to notice a single lily? The altar would be as good as bare. He said it was a misunderstanding. She’d only meant to help. Men!” She philosophized aloud. “What they don’t know about women! And as for men of the cloth…”


“What did you say, dear? Didn’t quite catch that.” Pat leaned down to the small, bent woman at her side with all the gracious condescension of a church officer to a valued lay member.

“Charitable – man of the cloth; a good thing.”

Dear Elsie. Always stating the obvious.

Pat was distracted. A stranger was getting out of a little blue car by the gate. It was one of those snub-nosed Japanese things they were forever advertising on the commercial channels.

“Now, who’s that?”

The newcomer was a young woman in her early thirties with glossy brown shoulder-length hair and a healthy outdoor tan. She was dressed in a crisp fifties-looking cotton shirt dress in dove grey. As she turned, the sun caught a discreet cross pinned to her lapel. The churchwarden’s nose twitched. It couldn’t be! The bishop wouldn’t do that to them – would he?

Faith Morgan looked down the path from the wicket gate. A couple of elderly ladies were standing by an evergreen bush, cataloguing her from head to foot. This was supposed to be a low-key visit – she was only investigating options, she told herself. It might lead to nothing but still, it wouldn’t do to get off on the wrong foot with the locals.

The parish church of St James’s in Little Worthy rose sturdy and enduring with its sunlit graveyard at its feet. According to the guidebooks, stones in the tower had been part of a church here since Saxon times. Faith felt a wash of pleasure and peace. This place of worship had served its community for nearly a thousand years. There could hardly be a greater contrast to the gritty, uncertain, challenging chaos of the urban parish she was thinking of leaving. A pang of guilt interrupted her moment of euphoria. The face of her mentor, Canon Jonathan, came to mind, fixing her with one of his wry looks. His tart comment echoed in her head: Little Worthy, Faith? A congregation of eight – if you’re lucky – with an average age of seventy; a fund-raising nightmare to crush the heart of a saint!

Her eyes searched the roof line. Bound to be Grade I listed. Maintaining Saxon masonry couldn’t be cheap. It all seemed in good shape. Besides, there were always the heritage funds…

The bells began another peal, and the whiff of vanilla from a nearby shrub struck her with a breath of nostalgia. She had been here more than once as a child with Ruth and Dad on his bell-ringing outings. Those convivial summer Sundays with the dads and their kids and the occasional mother. After church they would go to the pub across the green – still called The Hare and Hounds, she noted happily. The dads would take off their ties and swap stories while she and Ruth sat outside with their lime shandies on benches of sun-warmed wood. You can never go back, she mused, so what was she doing back here?

She rallied. There was nothing wrong with peaceful continuity. Decency deserved to be cherished too.

There was a little time yet before the service began. Faith avoided the main approach and followed a gravel path around the back of the church. A creamy cloud of ivory clematis cascaded over a grey stone wall. Beyond, a solitary pony raised its chestnut head to gaze mournfully at her from a field of weeds. Some way off squatted a group of ramshackle farm buildings.

There was a well-worn track leading from the vestry door. Through a clump of limes she glimpsed the corner of what she thought must be the vicarage.

A dark-haired young man in jeans and a rumpled striped shirt strode out of the church. He had an angular face and the coltish appearance of not having quite grown into his bones. Behind him, a distinguished-looking fifty-something clergyman in surplice and cassock filled the doorway. That must be the incumbent, Alistair Ingram, thought Faith, wondering if she should introduce herself. He called out to the retreating youth, who turned back briefly to make a dismissive pushing gesture with both hands. She was about to step forward when she registered the youth’s expression: disdain, fury, and something else. Triumph? Faith turned away, embarrassed. It felt like a private matter; she shouldn’t be spying. She retraced her steps and entered the church.

The transition from sunlight to cool interior blinded her briefly. In a pool of clarity, Faith saw a service sheet held out in a meaty hand. It belonged to a cheery-looking man in a red waistcoat and a moss-green tweed jacket. He was smiling at her as if they knew one another.

“Fred Partridge,” he pronounced in a carrying voice. “Churchwarden. Pleased to have you with us.” He winked conspiratorially as he turned to greet a couple coming in behind her.

Faith slid into an unoccupied pew. There were twenty or so worshippers scattered about. Not a bad turnout for a small country church on the fifth Sunday in Lent. Her eyes settled on the little bent woman who had been outside as she arrived. She was arranging her hymnal and prayer book on the shelf before her with delicate, twisted hands. Her fine silver hair was folded into a thin bun secured by a network of old-fashioned two-pronged pins.

A presence blocked the light from the door. The formidable-looking lady who had been sizing her up as she arrived was standing in the aisle looking at her with speculating grey eyes. She was solid, with a healthy complexion, probably in her late sixties or early seventies, dressed in what Faith’s mother would refer to as “good clothes”.

“You’ve met my fellow churchwarden, I see,” she said. She had a round face and a hint of Morningside gentility in her voice. “I’m Patricia Montesque, the other one,” she stated brusquely.

Faith gave her best smile and held out her hand to have it clasped briefly in paper-dry fingers.

“I’m pleased to meet you. Faith Morgan. I’m visiting for the weekend – my sister lives locally. I have fond memories of Little Worthy. We used to come here when I was a child.”

“So you like our little church?”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Faith responded warmly. “So well proportioned, and a lovely, comfortable feel about it.”

They contemplated the nave together.

“That’s a striking arrangement,” Faith remarked, indicating the display of lilacs and ivory viburnum by the altar. It was a deliberate ploy. Pat Montesque seemed the kind who was almost certain to do the flower arrangements. She was right. The churchwarden’s face relaxed into a narrow smile.

“Not one of my best, I’m afraid. I was rather rushed. But lilacs do give a lovely block of colour.” She inclined her perfectly coiffed head in a faintly regal manner. “So you’ve family in the area, then?”

“I was born in Winchester…”

“Winchester! Barely twenty minutes away. You’re almost a native.”


“I’m just a newcomer, of course – hardly been here twenty years!” Pat Montesque gave a hard little laugh. “Not like dear Elsie Lively there.” She nodded in the direction of the silver-haired lady with the bun. “She’s Little Worthy born and bred. Ran the post office for half a century. A close-knit lot, the old families – but we have a very friendly parish here,” she ended firmly.

Faith remembered the post office. They had sold old-fashioned sweets: shell-shaped sherbets and Parma violets. She could almost smell the sugar. Ruth always chose liquorice; not because she particularly liked the taste, but for the way it stained her tongue black.

“So you haven’t met our vicar, Alistair?”

Faith was surprised by the challenge. Pat flicked a significant look at the cross pinned to her dress. So I’ve been rumbled, Faith thought.

“I haven’t had the pleasure,” she said.

“He’s a good pastor. A bit of a liberal, some thought when he first came, but he’s sound enough in the essentials. And very good with the finances.” Pat paused. “He’s leaving us, you know.”

“I had heard something of the kind,” murmured Faith. To think she had meant to slip in and out with being noticed. She should have known better. Rural parishes always had a Pat Montesque.

“Mmm. A bit of a dicky heart. He looks wonderfully well, but…” Her tone implied something more.

A petite woman with smooth, long fair hair, wearing a simple cotton dress came out of the vestry.

“…decided to take early retirement,” continued Pat.

The blonde had striking long-lashed blue eyes and a neat-featured prettiness that retained an element of youthful innocence, although she might have turned forty – it was hard to tell. She saw the churchwarden looking at her, and gave a little girl lost smile before leaning over a pew to exchange greetings with a young mother trying to hold a squirming toddler in her lap.

Pat turned back to Faith apparently as an afterthought. “You’ll be staying for coffee after the service?” Without waiting for a response, she was gone.

Could this place feel like home? Could these people ever be her people?

Faith studied the faces around her – silver-haired Elsie; the doting mother shadowing her small determined son as he ventured out down the aisle; the ruddy-faced man with the jacket too short in the sleeve, who couldn’t be anything else but an English farmer; a single black family with mother and father and a boy and a girl dressed in smart Sunday clothes. Faith’s eyes drifted up into the barrelled roof. There was such comfortable familiarity about the space. Why should that make her feel guilty?

Guilt. Purpose. Being of use. From the very first, Faith had always known that she wanted to be part of some greater purpose. That desire had led her into the police force. And, for a while, she thought she had found her place: to serve and protect; to bring the guilty to account; to protect the weak. That was what had first brought her and Ben together.

Running away, Faith?

I am not.

Ben always seemed to engage life so directly; he was unflinching, so sure of himself.
She was daydreaming. She could see Ben staring her down. Taking refuge, Faith? Never thought you were a coward.

You know I’m not, she protested the thought.

The rhythm of the old argument circled in her mind; the argument they had recycled so many times. It had moved them further and further apart, until she had left him – Ben, her lover, her mentor, her inspiration, once.

I can’t hold on to your certainties any more.

He had been so hurt. She couldn’t make him understand that it wasn’t about him. It had been something so personal; each step on her path to the ministry had seemed undeniable.

Her eyes came to rest on a stained-glass window panel leaning against the wall in the shadows beyond the pews. She guessed it must have been taken down on its way for repair. A glass section was cracked through and the leading twisted. The echo of the panel’s shape above was boarded up. A haloed lamb stood on a stretch of gaudy emerald grass. The Victorian artist had given the lamb a smiling, enigmatic expression. The Lamb of God.

Running away from reality.

That’s what he’d called it. To Ben, it had been a betrayal. And was he right? Was she seeking refuge from the world?

She looked around the congregation. These were people, individual persons, with their complicated lives, their struggles, their fears, their sins, their souls.

An intelligent, capable woman past thirty – with a degree, no less – buying into this delusion… for what? Ben always challenged her. They’d been a good team, once.

What am I doing?

Finding out.

That voice was somehow neither her own nor Ben’s. God and she often spoke like that. He would enter the conversation in her brain – not exactly unexpectedly. She had a sense he’d always been there. But since she had taken this turn – embraced this risk and embarked on the ministry – the sense of a presence, of an enduring and constant friend, had grown.

Finding out. The sense of opening horizons warmed and excited her. But then, what about Ben? He had moved back to Winchester more than a year ago.

And why should that matter one way or the other? He had his world now and she had hers.

The organist finished up with a self-important chord. The vicar was standing before them. Faith pulled her thoughts back to concentrate on the service.

Alistair Ingram took a step towards the altar draped in its Lenten purple, and the choir embarked on the Agnus Dei. Faith suppressed a smile as Pat Montesque’s forceful soprano rose above the rest.

“Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world.”

The vicar’s voice was clear and impressive. Faith wondered briefly if her own lighter tones could ever carry the words so well. Then she was caught up in the familiar comfort of their meaning.

“Jesus is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those who are called to his supper.”

Alistair Ingram spread out his arms to encompass his congregation. Sunlight, tinted by the stained glass in the window behind him, painted pastel blue and red on the white linen runner laid on top of the purple cloth.


He picked up the communion cup and drank.

The toddler escaped from his mother and made a break for freedom past the communion rail, his feet pattering in quick uneven steps. What perfect timing. There had to be a life metaphor in that. Faith was pondering how children brought life into a church when her ears registered the choking rasp from the direction of the altar.

Alistair Ingram was staring out at nothing, his eyes wide, his chest heaving. Faith saw in slow motion. The chalice dropped from his hands. It hit the edge of the table. Wine flowed out red over the white cloth and stained the purple black. The empty cup rolled off the altar and struck the stone flags.

Alistair Ingram was no longer standing before them. Clutching at his chest and tearing at his vestments, he sat heavily on the steps.

The mother caught her son up in her arms. She turned his head into her shoulder, covering his face. Alistair slumped sideways. Faith realized that she was standing in the aisle, then she began to run towards the chancel steps.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Over The Edge - Prologue

Over the Edge
B&H Books (May 1, 2011)
Brandilyn Collins


A vision denied is a battle lost.

With a flick of his hand the blackened sky blipped into eerie green. Crouched on the house’s back deck, he adjusted his night goggles. The high bushes surrounding the yard illumed in surreal glow, the wizened limbs of a giant oak straggling upward. The color reminded him of fluorescing bacteria under a microscope.

He ran his hand over a pocket on his black cargo pants. The vial created a telltale bump against his thigh. His latex-gloved fingers closed around it.

Rising, he crossed the deck in five long strides. He surveyed the lock on the sliding glass door. Not enough light. He raised the goggles, darkness reigning once more. From a left pocket he extracted a tiny flashlight. Aimed its beam at the lock.

A common thief he was not. His mission had required intricate study of skills he’d never dreamed he need possess. The pick of a lock. A stealthy skulk. A means to render unconscious.

He pulled the necessary tools from the same pocket. Holding the flashlight in his mouth, he worked the tools into the lock, manipulating as practiced. The mechanism gave way with a tiny click.

He slid the door open.

No alarm sounded. He knew it wouldn’t. In this upper-crust town, home to Stanford University, alarms were for vacations. Children at home were too apt to set them off.

He replaced the flashlight and tools in his pocket. Slipped inside the house and eased the door shut. Down came his goggles. The large kitchen gleamed into view. His astute nose picked up the lingering scent of pizza, cut with a trace of ammonia. A cleaning agent, perhaps.

The digital clock on the microwave read 2:36 a.m.

From where he stood he could see through open doorways to a den, a hall, and a dining room.

At the threshold to the hall he stopped and reached into the lower right pocket beneath his knee. The three-ounce glass bottle he withdrew had a covered plastic pump spray. The chemical inside was not compatible with metals. He removed the cap and slid it back into his pants.

Holding the bottle with trigger finger on the pump, he advanced into the hall. A left turn, and he stood in the entryway. Straight ahead, a living room. On his left, a staircase. Carpeted.

He lifted a sneakered foot onto the bottom step.

The bedrooms would be upstairs, two occupied. One by the nine-year-old daughter, Lauren. The second, a master suite, by mother Jannie. She would be alone. Her husband, the arrogant and remorseless Dr. Brock McNeil, was attending a medical symposium on Lyme Disease. No doubt spewing more poisonous lies.

His jaw flexed.

After three steps he reached a landing. He turned left and resumed his inaudible climb.

His heartbeat quickened. Too many emotions funneled into this moment—grief-drenched years, anxiety, all the scheming, and now adrenaline. He willed his pulse into submission. Once he went into action everything would happen quickly. He needed his wits about him.

Within seconds his foot landed on the last stair. To his immediate left stood an open door. He craned his neck to see around the threshold. Empty bedroom. With a quick glance he took in three more open doorways—two bedrooms and one bath, halfway down the hall. The closed door directly in front of him had to be a closet. He looked down the length of the hall, saw one open door at the end. That was it. The master bedroom, running the entire depth of the house.

He advanced to the next room on his left. Peered inside. The green-haloed room held a canopied bed and several dressers, a large stuffed lion in one corner. In the bed lay a small form on her back, one arm thrown over the blankets. Lauren. Beside her head was some sort of stuffed animal. A dog? He could hear the girl’s steady breathing.

His mouth flattened to a thin, hard line. He turned and glared at his targeted bedroom, left fingers curling into his palm.

His legs took him in swift silence to the threshold of Janessa McNeil’s door.

With caution he leaned in, glimpsing a large bed to his right. She occupied the closest half, lying on her side facing him. How very thoughtful.

Scarcely drawing oxygen, he stepped into the room.

Her eyes opened.


His limbs froze. He’d made no sound. Had she sensed his presence, the malevolence in his pores?

Janessa’s head lifted from the pillow.

In one fluid motion he strode to the bed, thrust the bottle six inches from her face, and panic-pumped the spray. The chloroform mixture misted over her.

A strangled cry escaped the woman, cut short as her head dropped like a stone.

He stumbled backward, holding his breath, pulse fluttering. When he finally inhaled, a faint sweet smell from the chloroform wafted into his nostrils. Leaning down, he dug the plastic cap from his lower pocket and shoved it onto the spray container. Dropped the thing back into his pants.

For a moment he stood, fingers grasped behind his neck, regaining his equilibrium.

Everything was fine, just fine. No way could she have seen him well enough in the dark.

Remember why you’re here.

Visions of the past surfaced, and with them—the anger. The boiling, rancid rage that fueled his days and fired his nights. So what if this sleeping woman was known to be quiet and caring? So what if she had a likable, if not beautiful, face? He’d studied her picture—the gray eyes that held both caution and hope, her smooth skin and upturned mouth. She looked as if she could be anyone’s friend. But she was nothing to him. Neither was her daughter. Merely a means to a crucial end.

He snatched the vial from his upper pocket.

Raising it before his face, he squinted through the hard plastic. Saw nothing. The infected parasite within it was no bigger than the head of a pin. He turned the vial sideways and shook it. A tiny dark object slid from the bottom into view.

His lips curled.

This Ixodes pacificus, or blacklegged tick, carried spirochetes—spiral-shaped bacteria—that caused Lyme Disease in California. And not just a few spirochetes. This tick was loaded with them, along with numerous coinfections. Thanks to painstaking work the spirochetes had flourished and multiplied in the brains of mice. As the infected baby mice had grown, the sickest were sacrificed, their brains fed to the next generation of ticks. How the spirochetes loved brain tissue.

Janessa McNeil would soon attest to that.

He moved toward the bed. No need to hurry now, nor be anxious. His target would not be roused.

Last summer in its larval stage, the captured tick had enjoyed its first feeding on an infected mouse. Now as a disease-carrying nymph, it was ready for its second meal.

He leaned over the sleeping woman and opened the vial.

The hungry tick would bury its mouth parts into Janessa McNeil’s warm flesh and feed for three to five days. After one to two days it would begin to transmit the spirochetes. Even fully engorged, nymph ticks were so minuscule they could easily go unnoticed on the body. But just to be sure, he held the vial above the woman’s temple. Her dark brown hair would provide cover.

Pointing the container downward, he tapped the tick over the edge.

He slipped the vial back into his right pocket, pulling the flashlight from his left. Then raised his night goggles and turned on the flashlight. He aimed its narrow beam at his victim’s temple and leaned in closer, squinting.

Ah. There it was, crawling near her hairline.

With a fingernail he nudged it farther back until it disappeared among the follicles.

He straightened and took a moment to revel in his victory. He’d done it. He had really done it.

Smiling, he put away his flashlight and lowered the goggles. With a whisper of sound he turned and left the room. Down the stairs he crept, and through the kitchen. He stepped out onto the back deck, closed the sliding door and relocked it with the tools from his pocket.

As he slunk from the backyard, a wild and primal joy surged through him. He smirked at the memory of the green-hued sleeping figure, every fiber of his being anticipating, relishing the fulfillment of his vision.

A battle won.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Undaunted Faith - Chapter 1

Undaunted Faith
Realms (May 3, 2011)
Andrea Boeshaar

Chapter 1

*****Coming Soon*****

Fade to Blue - Chapter 1

Fade to Blue
B&H Books (May 15, 2011)
Julie Carobini

Chapter 1

Of all the people I might have imagined seeing today through the windows of this graying warehouse, Seth had not made the top ten. Not even the top one hundred.

The older man next to me cleared his throat, causing me to tear my gawking eyes away from the window where a ladder had cast a long shadow across our work stations. Not to mention the man on said ladder whose unexpected appearance made my steady hands quake.

“He’ll be done soon enough, Suzi-Q.” My mentor’s voice cut into my thoughts, his designated nickname for me still startling. Fred’s round eyes peered over his wire-rims, “All those windows are a blessing to the artists, but they can be a curse too when the sea winds kick up sand and dirt.”

I nodded, my mind not completely connecting with my new mentor’s explanation of why the wall of northerly windows needed cleaning. Maybe I was hallucinating. Maybe the man on the ladder only resembled Seth, and my mind had gone too fuzzy to recognize that fact. Surely the aromatic swirl of oil paints and glossy finishes could have such an effect on a person. I drew in a carefully filtered breath and tried again to focus on the man at my side.

With his cherry red cheeks, featherlike white hair and round spectacles, Fred reminded me of jolly old Saint Nick. Considering the array of raw materials spread all around us on every shelf and table top, this drafty building could pass for a toy shop too. Without all the elves and hilarity, of course.

“Now see these here?” He pointed to a tray of metal tools in varying degrees of size and sharpness and didn’t wait for me to answer. “Each one has a purpose all its own. Here.” He placed a cold strip of metal into my hand. “Go ahead and roll it around in your palm.”

I did as I was told, glancing at the object, trying to memorize its size and shape, while also predicting the type of work I might use it for some time. “It’s heavy,” I said.

He nodded. “That it is. You’ll want to use that mainly for wood. If you try to wield it across anything lighter than that, you’ll be in danger of damaging the piece.”

Heavy. Had its own purpose. Got it. Outside, the ladder scraped across metal, sending out a high-pitch screech. It took all my will-power not to turn and gawk at the man who carried a bucket and wielded a squeegee. But if I didn’t do so soon, I might continue the notion that Seth, the man I’d left years ago, had found his way to Otter Bay. The idea was…was…well, it was crazy.

A whirling concoction of fuschia-colored fabric and cinnamon-laced perfume lofted into the studio and landed next to me. Her name was Letty and we had met less than a week before, yet who could tell? She was blunt and honest, too much so to mess with surface pleasantries. So she had given me the two-minute version of her life-story and quickly assessed me in one, long, flowing stroke. “You are a people-pleaser. And you have stars in your eyes.” She reached over then and thumbed through my portfolio, the one I’d pulled together in a valiant effort to acquire a job restoring art at the famed Hearst Castle. “Dang, you can paint, though.”

Frankly, I let her believe what she wanted. No need to tell her the gritty details of my past. In the brief time that we’d known each other, I’d decided one thing: Letty made biding my time here as a restoration artist apprentice in this warehouse much, much easier.

She stood close, her black hair wrapped in a chocolate-tinted scarf, the spicyness of her perfume tickling my nose. “You do sushi?”

I tilted my chin. “I can honestly tell you that I do not.”

“Do not what?”

“Do sushi.”

“Well. It is a shame.”

I owed her a snappy comeback, but my attention stood divided. How stupid. What was I thinking? The man out there on that ladder could not be Seth. Seth’s hair had length and wave, and, well, it had always been rather moppish. A trademark look for him, but this man wore his hair short in soft spikes. To better highlight his eyes. I swallowed my own gasp and flashed Letty a grin. “But I’m happy to give sushi a try. For you.”

Letty puckered her nose and mouth. “Hey, do not put yourself out on my account.”

“Come on, Letty. You angry with me?”

She plunked herself into a chair, and twirled the fringed edge of her scarf. “Me, mad? Nah. I just like to see you squirm.” She rested her chin on the backs of curled fingers. “You’re just such a goody two shoes. I will break you of this yet.”

I laughed and slid a look at Fred who only offered a brief shrug and no comment. I glanced back at Letty. “Oh brother. Who says ‘goody two shoes’ anymore? And what does that have to do with eating sushi anyway?”

“Was that a spark of fire that crossed your face?” she asked, her voice nearly-taunting me. She turned to our boss. “I think I may have finally offended our Suz here.”

Fred scratched his head, leaving a plume of feathery hair to stand aloft on his crown. “Doesn’t look offended to me. Did you want to offend my newest apprentice?”

She leaned back and laughed into the rafters before jerking herself upright. “Okay, you and I, we are going to do some sushi. Tonight. I know the cheapest dive in town. The only place I ever dine out.”

Fred cut in, his mouth quirked downward in defeat. “I think this would be a good time for a break, Suz. I will return in twenty minutes with a picture of the cabin, if you’re interested.” He shuffled off.

Letty leaned in. “Cabin?”

I kept my voice neutral. “I’m hoping to move soon and Fred mentioned that he and his wife own a cabin that they rent out.”

Letty’s voice rose. “The one in the woods? Isn’t that occupied?”

“The renters are leaving soon. A job transfer, I think.”

Letty seemed perturbed. Maybe she was annoyed that I’d skirted her dinner invitation. I set down the tool that I’d been rolling over and over in my hand until every bit of its cold surface had turned warm. She watched me in silence for once, her eyes piercing, as if wanting to know more about my desire for new digs. The reason was simple, but I wasn’t about to divulge it, nor anything else about my past.

I set the tool down and smiled. “Tell you what. I promised Jeremiah I’d take him to the Red Abalone Grill tonight. Not so sure about sushi being on the menu but everything’s good. Wanna come?”

She hesitated. “Sure he won’t mind me butting in on your date?”

“He’s four. He’ll get over it.”

She sighed. “The elbows on the table, the toothless grin…the eating with the mouth open. Hm, it has been a long time since I have had dinner with a man.” She slapped the workbench. “I will take it.”

“Hey, thanks for all the compliments on my parenting skills.” Even as I said it, a slight twist tugged at my insides. “See you at six?”

Before she could answer, a thump against the wall drew our attention to that expanse of windows outside. Seth’s lookalike stood at the base of the extended ladder, slid it sideways, his eyes drawn upward. And not on me. Shadows played down the length of his arms exposed at the elbows by upturned sleeves, his muscles moving reflexively.

“My,” Letty said. “I think I need to call a man about some windows.”

“Really? Thought your landlady had the whole house done last weekend.” I grinned. “Or did they miss your room?”

Letty pushed her chin forward. Her black eyes flashed. “I do not rent a room. It is a cabana, Suz. A cabana.”

She’s embarrassed about her rooming situation. Check. At least she pays her own way and doesn’t have to rely on a generous older brother to provide shelter for her. And her child.

“It was a joke. Sorry.”

She batted her hand. “No sorry. Just consider yourself lucky. If I had not committed to dinner with you and that little one of yours, I might have turned to a hottie window washer instead.”

“Well then. I must live right.”

She fixed her eyes on the windows again. “Then again…” Letty gaped at me. “Can you explain why that guy is ogling you?”

I would remember that moment for the rest of my life. Until now, I had been playing with the dream, wondering if the man outside the window could be my old love, yet unwilling to garner his attention, stare him boldly in the face, and come to a conclusion. Was it just a fanciful dream brought on by a life not working according to plan, not to mention the finger-numbing temperature in this drafty studio warehouse? Or had Seth coincidentally landed in the same small town as I had just a few months ago?

The man had stopped his work and stood, peering through the window, one strong arm still propped against the ladder. And I knew…it was him.

The diner bustled for a Tuesday night. As usual, Mimi wove in and around booths, swinging a coffee pot, but both Peg, the diner’s owner, and her niece who helped run the place, Holly, still hung around.

Holly pulled up in front of us, gathering menus. “The three of you tonight? Then follow me.”

She whisked us to an open table along the side wall where windows offered a glimpse of the sea. Nights still came too early this time of year and the sun had already begun its descent, but there was no mistaking the bubble and churn of the ocean at twilight.

“Hey there, Jeremiah,” Holly said. “Bet you’d like some hot chocolate with marshmallows on top.”

Jer looked at me for quick approval, and when he received it, he nodded vigorously.

Holly laughed. “All right, and for you, ladies? Suz, you usually like chai about now, am I right?”

“Perfect, thanks.”

“I’ve seen your friend around town but never in here before.” She smacked her order pad on the table and reached out a hand. “I’m Holly. Welcome to my home away from home.”

“Gracias. Letty. And I will have a cup of your strongest coffee. Black.”

Holly nodded then picked up her order pad again, drawing my attention to her unusual clothing. I was glad for the distraction. “You’re not wearing your uniform tonight, Holly. Pretty dress. Going somewhere?”

A blush crossed her face and she dropped in a mini-curtsy. “Thanks for noticin’. Yeah, I’ve got a date.” She glanced over toward the kitchen. “Tryin’ to get out of here, but my aunt Peg’s got a bee up her bonnet tonight for some reason.”

“Sorry to hear it.”

“Eh. It’s less and less these days so you won’t hear me complainin’. I already went home once, but she called me back. Anyway, I hope to get to the back office soon.” She patted her head. “Have to do somethin’ with this mess of hair.”

Letty’s eyes flashed wide. “Tell me you are kidding! Don’t you know how much women pay to have hair like that? No, no, no, do not give in to the comb and brush. Just leave it as is.”

Holly smiled. “You think?”

“I do not think—I know.”

“Well, then. Thank you. Considerin’ he’s pickin’ me up here any sec, I’m relieved to hear it.” Her smile brightened her face. “I’ll be back in a New York minute with all your drinks.”

Letty glanced at me. “That was fun.”

I nodded. “She’s a character, isn’t she? Holly’s known for being able to snag all the eligible surfers in town, but she’s too precious to resent.” I jerked my head up. “Not like I’m into chasing surfers or anything.”

Jer, as I liked to call him, giggled. “She’s nice. She makes good pancakes—with whipped cream!”

Letty’s eyes grew wide again. “Whipped cream? Maybe I will have to order that for my dinner.”

Jer dropped his head in an avalanche of giggles. “You can’t have whipped cream for dinner.” He poked me with one tiny forefinger. “Tell her, mama. Whipped cream is only for dessert.”

“And breakfast?” Letty asked.

Jer smacked himself in the face with his hands. “Oh yeah. For breakfast!”

Holly appeared with three drinks on a tray. “Here we go. Jer, your chocolate is just the right temp’rature for you.” She spoke while serving us. “I’ll be takin’ your orders now, and Mimi will be bringin’ them to you. Now don’t you worry, you’ll be in good hands.”

After scribbling down our orders, she took off in a hurry. I played with the handle of my mug, but didn’t take a sip. Jeremiah ate two marshmallows off the top of his drink.

Letty stared. “You want to talk about the window washer with the sizzling eyes?” She leaned into the table, zeroing in on me. “The one who ran off like a wounded buck after taking one long look at you?”

Jer slurped his chocolate. “What’s a buck?”

Letty patted his hand. “A wild animal. Drink your chocolate, honey.”

I took a sip, allowing myself time to answer, but I knew she wouldn’t let up. “He’s…he was an old friend.” I sighed. “We didn’t part on very good terms, though.”

“But I thought you weren’t from around here.”

“I’m not.”

A coy smile upturned the corner of her mouth. “So, perhaps he has followed you.”

I shook my head. “Not possible. He didn’t know I was here. It’s all just a…a fluke.”

Jer had already emptied half his mug of chocolate, much of it on his upper lip. “What’s a fluke?”

Letty shook her head. “Phwee. There is no such thing, young Jeremiah. Everything is part of the plan with a capital P. The man up stairs—he knows what he’s doing.”

Jer scrunched up his face. “What man’s upstairs?”

“I meant God, Jeremiah. He knows what he is doing. And he has his mother, Mary, and all his saints to help him. You know that, right?”

I rubbed my lips together and peered at my son whose furrowed soft brow displayed his confusion. Fluke, or chance, whatever we earthlings called it, was a deep concept to explain to a four year old, especially when mixed with theology. “She means that God is in complete control of our lives and that we shouldn’t worry about things that happen.” I looked to her. “Isn’t that right, Letty?”

“Yes. Amen. So. You going to talk to him?”

“You mean like make amends?”

“That’s one way to break the ice, I guess. Hey, I’d stick an olive branch in my teeth if it meant I’d be invited up close and personal.”

“You are so weird!” I sighed. “It’s been so many years. That look you saw on his face told me all I needed to know.”

“And what might that be?”

“That of all the places he could have landed in this great country of ours, why’d he have to pick the one with the most wretched woman from his past?”

Jer’s cup fell over. Fortunately, it had already been drained. “What’s wretched?” he asked.

Mimi blew toward us, a full tray of steaming food on her tray. “Here we are,” she said, as she began placing the food before us. “Can I get you anything else…oh, looky here.”

We all turned. Seth had just walked into the diner, looking tall and sharp in dark pants, a denim blue shirt, and a casual blazer. He was alone.

Letty grabbed my hand and hissed. “Invite him to sit with us!”

I jerked my hand away and dropped my gaze to the chopped cob salad in front of me. Twice in one day? What was he doing here? Lord, I’ve prayed for you to show me the transgressions that have gotten me to this place in life. Could he have chosen this public place for me to make amends with a man I once hurt?

Letty’s sudden, deflated, “Oh,” pulled me from my thoughts.

Holly greeted Seth. They exchanged some words, and although I tried, I couldn’t make them out. Then he held the door open for her. Just before leaving, Holly turned her head toward us and with a wide smile mouthed the words: This is him.

Hidden Affections - Chapter 1

Hidden Affections
Bethany House (May 1, 2011)
Delia Parr

Hidden Affections

An Unlikely Suitor - Chapter 1

An Unlikely Suitor
Bethany House (May 1, 2011)
Nancy Moser

An Unlikely Suitor

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

T Win Her Heart

To Win Her Heart
Bethany House (May 1, 2011)
Karen Witemeyer

To Win Her Heart

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Gift by Bryan Litfin

The Gift
Crossway Books (April 30, 2011)
Bryan Litfin


The people of the twenty-first century nearly destroyed the earth in a global nuclear holocaust. This is the story of what God did next.

The horrific war followed a viral rampage that began in the year 2042. Together the biological threat and the human conflict reduced the earth’s population to a tiny fraction of its former size. The survivors viewed those who lived before the Great War of Destruction as an ancient culture whose ways were now lost. Clawing their way back from brutal chaos, the people of the postwar centuries recalled some of their former technologies and learned other skills anew. Thus, in a strange rewinding of history, the society of the twenty-fifth century became medieval once again. Men rode on horses and fought with swords; they sailed ships without engines and built civilizations without machines. And what about their religion? That too they rebuilt with little reference to the distant past—until a young soldier and a beautiful farm girl stumbled upon an ancient book.

The alpine Kingdom of Chiveis had forged a noble society when Captain Teofil of the Royal Guard’s Fifth Regiment and Anastasia of Edgeton found themselves swept up in their great adventure. Anastasia was kidnapped by outsiders and relinquished all hope of returning to her home. Everyone in Chiveis feared she had been lost forever—everyone, that is, except one soldier who believed in action more than fear. Teo set out alone to find Ana in the Beyond, snatching her from the outsiders at her most desperate moment. They galloped away on a single horse into the black forest around the outsiders’ village.

Although Teo and Ana only wanted to return home, circumstances led the pair to a lost city and its forgotten temple, a building the Ancients had called a cathedral. In that vast edifice of mystic beauty, Teo and Ana found the Sacred Writing of the one true God. The language of the book called him Dieu, or Deu in the Chiveisian speech. It was a name they would learn to treasure.

The recovery of this long-lost book opened up new spiritual horizons not just for Teo and Ana, but for a community of seekers who longed to know the God of the Ancients. Yet their knowledge was incomplete, for only a portion of the Sacred Writing had survived the ravages of time. Though the first Testament remained intact, the pages of the second had dissolved. The New Testament could not be found in Chiveis.

Opposed by enemies who did not want to see the religion of Deu return to the world, Teo and Ana faced the ultimate choice: to curse the name of their newfound God or be run through with a sword. Ana was willing to die for her faith, but Teo—always fiercely protective—offered her a third way. He would take her across the snowcapped peaks of Chiveis into the unknown world on the other side. Though it broke Ana’s heart to leave her beloved homeland, she agreed to go. The army closed in; the die was cast; Chiveis refused to believe. And so it was that Teo and Ana joined hands and stepped into the Beyond once more.
Chapter 1

Anastasia lay awake under a bearskin cloak, listening to the alien sounds of a land far from home. The stub of a candle hung from the ceiling of her leather tent, providing enough light to chase away the nocturnal spirits, but not the heaviness in Ana’s heart.

Three weeks earlier, she had relinquished her home in the Kingdom of Chiveis. When she crossed the mountains into the Beyond, she had abandoned every person she knew in the world except one: the man who slept beside her in a bedroll on the tent floor. She sighed as she lay under her covers, contemplating a future of exile and uncertainty. It wasn’t the future she had dreamed of, yet it was the will of Deu, the Creator of all things. Ana resolved to bear whatever burden he might ask of her.

She glanced over at the dark-haired man on her right. At least I’m not completely forsaken, she thought. Teofil had come over the mountains with her, lending his strength and encouragement when she faltered. The steady sound of Teo’s breathing reassured Ana in the vastness of the unknown.

Descending from the glacier, the exiled pair had met four army scouts from a land called Ulmbartia. The men had welcomed Teo and Ana into their expedition, for the scouts too were in a foreign land, far from their own realm to the south. Warlike tribes called Rovers wandered these wild mountains, often raiding into Ulmbartia, so the kingdom had sent an expedition to seek out the passes the enemies were using. When the tall, powerful warrior Teo appeared out of nowhere, the Ulmbartian scouts readily accepted his offer to join them in exchange for provisions. Lieutenant Celso and his men-at-arms were happy to add Teo’s sword to their dangerous patrols. With Ana cooking and tending the needs of the camp, the soldiers decided their mission had taken a dramatic turn for the better. Teo and Ana were assigned a tent of their own at the expense of the tracker named Bard, who was relegated to sleeping outdoors.

Ana hunched into her bedroll and gathered her blankets. Though it was high summer, a cool mountain breeze found its way into the tent and fluttered the candle’s flame. Dawn was still several hours away. Ana was about to roll over when she felt something move against her leg.

She froze.

Did that really happen?

Ana lay still, trying to convince herself she had imagined the movement at her ankle. Her heart thudded. She held her breath lest she stir up the thing that had invaded her bed.

It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.

Ana had decided her anxious mind was playing tricks on her when the creature moved again, sliding against her calf under the covers. It was smooth and ticklish in a revolting way. Ana’s mind reeled as she realized the creature was a snake. She began to tremble as she felt it move up her leg, but she forced herself to hold still, hoping it would move past her and find its way out. Instead the creature sought the warmth of her body and slipped beneath the linen shift she was wearing. Ana clenched her jaw at the slippery sensation against her thigh. The snake paused, then glided onto the skin of her stomach. Only willpower held back the scream that clogged Ana’s throat as she felt the serpent crawling up her body. Is it poisonous? She didn’t dare move in case it was.

Time hung suspended. Ana’s every sense came alive. She heard the gentle rustle of her garment and felt every undulation of the snake’s muscles against her belly. Though it moved slowly, as if with painstaking deliberation, she knew the creature was coming toward her face. It was about to emerge from her neckline. Ana scrunched her eyes. Deu, help me! Make it go away!

For a long time nothing moved. The tent was quiet. Ana swallowed. Maybe it’s gone? Yes. It slid away from me just like I prayed. She opened her eyes and glanced down.

The viper rested in the center of her chest, staring back at her. Its yellow eyes were lidless and glassy. A forked black tongue tasted her skin.

“I’m coming for you,” it whispered.

Ana exploded into a scream, snatching the snake behind its head in an attempt to hurl it away. The serpent recoiled, then struck her mouth with a smashing blow. Ana felt its fangs latch onto her lip. The hideous burn of fresh venom flooded her face.

“Teo! Help me! Get it off!” She was outside her covers now, writhing on the floor and grasping the snake’s flailing body as it dangled from her lip. Though she yanked on it, the viper refused to let go. Its fangs pumped more venom into her soul.

Strong hands grasped Ana’s shoulders, firm yet gentle. A familiar male voice spoke into the confusion. “You’re okay! It’s Teo. I’m here with you. You’re safe.”

“I’m coming for you,” the snake repeated, then let go. The walls of the tent crowded toward Ana. The world spun in circles.

“Wake up, Ana. You’re dreaming. Everything’s okay.”

What...? Who...? Where am I? Am I home in Chiveis? Relief coursed through Ana. There were no Ulmbartian scouts. She hadn’t left home after all. It was just a horrible nightmare.

The space around her came into focus. A musty leather tent. A wobbly candle. A rumpled bearskin cloak. The night air cool against her skin. She looked into Teo’s gray eyes. His handsome face wore a look of deep concern. His hands were steady on her shoulders.

“The s-snake,” Ana stammered. “Is it gone?”

“There was no snake. You had a bad dream.”

Ana put her hand to her lips. The burning sensation had vanished. She glanced at her fingers. Nothing. “Am I bleeding?”

Teo leaned toward her and inspected her face in the candlelight. “You’re unhurt.”

“It seemed so real. A snake was in my bed.” She shuddered. “It touched me.”

Teo glanced around. “The tent is tight. The mesh in the vents is unbroken. A snake couldn’t get in here.”

Ana felt a heavy weight settle into the pit of her stomach. The snake may have been a dream, but everything else was real. The tent. The scouts. The journey over the mountains into the Beyond. Her beloved Chiveis really was lost—maybe forever.

A draft stirred the air in the tent. Goose bumps arose on Ana’s exposed legs. She gathered her knees to herself, wrapping her arms around them.

“I’m cold, Teo.”

The bearskin cloak enveloped her, then Teo’s arm encircled her as he held her close. Ana tucked her chin to her knees and began to cry.

“The Eternal One knows the plans he has for you,” Teo said softly. It was a quotation from the Sacred Writing of Deu. Those holy words and the strong arm around her shoulders were Ana’s only comforts in the turbulent sea of grief.