1st Draft GAIA’S DREAM query letter (book was originally titled Corporate Holdings)

Here it is! Please let me know what you think. Any critiques/suggestions are welcome!

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Dear Agent,

Hundreds of thousands of years from now, most of Earth is a wasteland. Its last beacon of civilization is Friendship City: a place where the rich rule from the highest levels of the super-structures, and where the poor struggle for survival in the basements. Society there has been stable for centuries, but one man is out to destroy it.

My science fiction novel, GAIA’S DREAM, is complete at 90,000 words, and tells the tale of Mary Gold. She is a veteran in the arena, where corporations hire gladiators to compete for the right to lease retail spaces from the Rulers of the Sphere. She is also the object of unrequited love from a loser fan of hers who makes a hobby out of stalking her. When the military hires her to hunt down the most dangerous person in Friendship City, the last thing she expects is that the suspect is Gat Jones, her stalker.

The military aren’t the only ones after Mary Gold. Colt Wild, the leader of the rebel group Gaia’s Dream, approaches her with a different offer: deceive the military and provide him with whatever information she gleans from them. Mary must decide where her loyalty stands. She knows the Rulers are unjust in their treatment of their subjects, and that the rebels, despite their violent methods, want a better life for those who live in the basements. Will she stand with Friendship City, Gaia’s Dream, or on her own two feet?

The ensuing adventure takes Mary and her squad of gladiators outside Friendship City, where few have ventured before and still fewer have survived. Slave traders, genetically manipulated bandits, and the wilderness of untouched nature take their turns in obstructing the team from completing their mission. The biggest challenge of all comes when they learn that Gat Jones uses shadows as a weapon, and erases his victims from existence itself.

Excerpt from yesterday’s writing:

 “Our current mission involves the targeting of a serial killer, who has so far kept his activities within the borders of this mega-structure. He has evaded the action squads, the police investigators, and ourselves. I want to show you a video.” The major looked at the wall behind Mary. The wall became a hallway in one of the middle levels of the building. Mary recognized the scene; it was outside one of the largest shopping centers in the entire city.

The time must have been late at night or early in the morning. The holographic sky was black and littered with stars. A few people milled about, mostly homeless and hobos coughing in corners against the walls. Trash was everywhere, as was normally the case in any popular section of any building.

A man wearing a hooded cloak entered the scene. He walked down the hallway at a quick pace. Mary noticed that the shadows of objects and other individuals were faint, the streetlights casting them in several different directions. The cloaked man had a shadow that was solid black.

He had yet to pass near another person. When he did, his shadow, like pure night, reached out to cover an old man who had passed out against a wall. When the shadow returned to the shape of the man’s figure, the old man was gone. No sign of him remained.

“What the hell?” Mary said, unable to hold the curse back. “What happened? And how did you get this video? Is this real?”

“Please, just watch for now,” Mike said. Major Tom was intent on the content of the holographic screen.

Mary hesitated before turning around to watch. The hooded man continued his walk without even a turn of his head toward where his victim had lain. When he passed the people in the hallway, the shadow reached out toward its prey, seeming to erase them from existence. Ten, maybe twelve people, gone into nothing, not even dust, before the cloaked man walked out of the view of the camera. The wall returned to its normal concrete face.

Major Tom sighed. “I’ll answer your last question first. Yes, this is real. For your first question, we don’t know. As to your second, there are cameras planted all over Friendship City. Some of them are ours. The others are privately owned surveillance cameras that we have the legal authority to tap into.”

“You just watch us for fun?” Mary said. Her eyes burned into Major Tom’s.

“We do what is necessary to protect this city. The last thing I wanted was to take you in on this mission. Specifically you is who my superiors asked for. I understand their reasoning, but my attempts to show them why they are wrong have failed. So, here we are. Either you can listen up or you can walk out to an uncertain fate.”

“That’s a threat.”

“It’s a true statement. Listen to what we have to say, or you will go back to just being a gladiator, a tool of entertainment to control the populace.”

Just being, Mary thought. She calmed herself and heard her heart beating in her eardrums. A cold feeling formed in her stomach. Just being…

Corporate Holdings: Chapter One

Mary Gold and her team stood at the gladiator’s entrance to the arena. Here, underneath the stadium, the roar of the crowd was reduced to a dull drone.

“Four left on the second team that entered,” Mary announced to her teammates, using the device on her wrist to check the captains’ scoreboards. “Check your weapons, safeties off everyone. Keep your heads and don’t get shot. Let’s make this quick.”

The remainder of the six man team assented via shouts and cheers. One of them shouted, “Take it off!” Either Ricard or Johnny, but revenge wasn’t worth the attention. They all moved, back and forth. Janet jumped up and down, unable to contain her energy. Mary thought of a writhing snake that reared its head before the attack.

“We go in through the hallways first,” Mary said. The judges of the match had provided her with a map of the arena’s setup for this battle a few minutes prior. She now displayed the map to her team in a holographic model that the device on her wrist projected. “The staircase is to the north, five hundred meters. We make it there in five minutes, got it?” Her team nodded their assent. “From there, we’ll have a time of it getting to the hold. They have a random set up on top, meaning we’ll have to search for it. Keep an eye out for—”

The arena doors opened. The noise of the crowd was louder, and light flooded the tunnels.

“Move in, let’s go,” Mary commanded. “Don’t wait!”

Enemy fire began the moment that they crossed into the arena. Mary and her team found cover behind short concrete barriers. Bullets struck the walls, and their impacts created bits of concrete shards and dust.

The next few moments were a hellfire of bullets, as Mary’s team returned fire against the enemy. “Bastards were waiting for us,” Jamaal said, raising his voice over the din of the battle.

“Cut the chatter,” Mary ordered. “Ricard, go. Everyone else, cover him!” She sighted an enemy and fired.

Ricard dashed out from his position. The enemy fired on him at once. Mary and the rest of her team took advantage of this diversion to take better aim.

A bullet struck one of the enemy gladiators in the shoulder and he fell back onto the floor. Mary saw on the scoreboards that he was auto-disqualified for dropping his weapon. “Five left,” she called out.

Ricard sprinted toward the enemy position. He unpinned his sole grenade and threw it toward his target with expert aim before rolling behind a pile of concrete blocks. The explosive detonated just as Ricard ducked behind cover.

“One incapacitated, one dead,” Mary said. Each gladiator’s vital stats were displayed on the scoreboards and were updated automatically via the biometric monitor that was a part of their armor. “That’s three. Let’s move out before the next team enters.”

“Nice one, Ric,” Jamaal called out. He rushed to his teammate. Ric accepted Jamaal’s hand and stood, somewhat shaky on his feet. “Whoa, now.”

“You get to have all the fun,” Johnny said, punching Ric in the chest as he passed him.

“I can’t feel my legs,” Ric said. He walked a few steps, but lost his balance and fell down.

“They’re just asleep,” Mary said. She nodded at Jamaal and they each placed one of Ricard’s arms over their shoulders. “Keep flexing them.”

To everyone, Mary said, “Ninety seconds until the new team enters. Let’s move fast here, you lazy, inaccurate bastards.” Before Mary could move, a hand grabbed her ankle. She aimed down with a ready weapon. The arm belonged to a man whose face she recognized. He lay wounded under his fallen comrade.

“Gold, listen to me,” Andre Strong said, as the blood seeped from the left corner of his mouth. His voice was strong. “I tried to help. Listen to me, I wouldn’t harm you, not Mary Gold, with an unfair tactic such as this. I was after your teammates. Listen, you don’t know what you are up against, for the other team, it is the King Dragon’s.”

“Don’t try to protect me,” Mary said. Her trigger finger twitched.

“I wasn’t trying to protect you,” Andre said. “I was trying to protect the king.”

“Andre, let go or I will stomp you,” Mary said, her breath coming fast through her nostrils. Andre let go. Mary continued the jog toward the stairs with Jamaal, hauling Ric along with them.

“The fire in those eyes!” Andre exclaimed. “I can feel it burning within me as well now, giving me the strength I need.”

Mary turned her head and saw Andre push the corpse off his body, revealing the large wound that made his chest look like a charred slice of steak. He said, “That’s better, I can breathe much better now.”

Her face twisted, Mary shouted, “You jumped the grenade? You throw a newbie down for that! Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“Mary, come on,” Janet said. She was the only one brave enough to give Mary orders. “Let’s go.”

Mary nodded and ran after her team. They had taken two turns through the maze of hallways and had made it about a third of the way to the stairs when the new team entered the arena. “They’re fresh,” Mary prompted her team. “Let’s keep moving.”

Ricard was now in condition enough to keep his balance and ran along with everyone else. Mary hoped they could outrun their competitors to the stairs. She knew that the first team to enter must have almost cleared the automatic defenses that initially guarded the hold.

The King Dragon’s team, she thought. He owns five buildings in Friendship City, each one housing millions of people. The wealth is incredible. Why the hell is he fighting in this match? May be best not to think about it.

“Team Wes Lively has captured the hold,” the arena’s speakers announced. Above the basement level, the crowd cheered with enthusiasm and excitement. “The countdown has started at fifteen minutes.” Only one person from each team was allowed in the hold at a time. The timer would continue until it reached zero, or it would freeze when an opposing gladiator contested the hold.

“Damn” Argus said. “We’ve got to get up there.” The rest of the team looked at him with malicious intent. Argus was the prospective retailer who had paid Mary and her team to represent him in the arena. The prospect whose team that won this match would own the right to lease a small storefront on one of the middle levels of the building.

Mary had needed a sixth gladiator for the match. While it wasn’t unheard of for prospects to fight in the arena, the practice was rare. Many of the fighters frowned upon it, because they had worked hard to earn their spot. Mary had decided that Argus’ experience in the military meant that he was able to follow orders. That ability was all that she needed from him, and for him to stay alive.

“After fifteen minutes,” Mary said. “We lose. Sprint, let’s go!”

Jamaal felt the tripwire before he saw it, and tumbled onto the ground.

Johnny shouted, “Trap!”

Ricard helped Jamaal stand just as the ceiling began to crumble and fall apart. Bits and blocks of concrete and iron mesh crashed down onto the floor. A cavity formed above them, and concrete dust billowed out from the structural wound.

Mary felt the vibrations and heard the whirr of a death bot. A ball of steel that rolled, found its targets by their heat, and attacked its prey with various blades. Two of them, and the dust made vision unreliable.

A gun fired on her right. The death bot made a correction, its engines letting off for a moment. Time enough for Mary to take aim, into the fog to her right and a little south. She fired, tap-tap-tap, gently and with little movement.

The death bot slid into her vision, and she fired a few more rounds into its core. It managed to extract a blade, aiming for Mary’s right arm. She emptied the contents of her magazine into the machine, refusing to give ground.

Another weapon joined in chorus with Mary’s to drive the death bot back. The force of the bullets pushed the machine, interrupting its charge and damaging it beyond repair.

“Good job,” Mary said to Argus. “Keep it up.”

“Right,” Argus said. “Thanks.” The dust cleared, and Ric and Jamaal dispatched the second death bot.

“Two, up ahead,” Janet called back. Small and easily concealed, she was consistently the perfect candidate to scout. “They’re guarding the stairs around the corner. These aren’t our typical mercs, boss. They fired at me.”

“It’s the King Dragon’s team,” Mary said. “They’re trained well, but we have an advantage in that they’re not used to facing an honest fight.”

“I like the way you think, boss,” Janet said. Her grin was almost too large for her face to contain.

“Are we just gonna stand here?” Johnny said. He was a five foot six brick of muscle, almost as wide as he was tall. His fearlessness intimated the calmest fighters, and his ugly, twisted face only added to the effect.“I’m gettin twitchy.”

“Your turn, Johnny,” Mary said.

“I’m gonna enjoy this.” The rest of the team sprinted after him. They all dashed around the corner and came under immediate fire.

Johnny forged his way ahead. The rest of the team provided cover from behind the obstacles in the hallway. With six guns against two, the enemy fighters found themselves in a difficult position. Mary wondered if their plan was not to defeat her team at this moment, but to delay them until the third team caught up.

Mary gave the signal to push ahead after Johnny, who picked his way forward with speed. The team followed, forcing the two enemy fighters into a slow retreat.

Not once did the enemies turn their backs as they slowly backed up toward the bottom of the stairs. This was something that Mary took note of. They timed their reloads well, so that one would continue to fire while the other exchanged magazines. After a few moments, two of their comrades appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Down,” Mary ordered. She ducked, but the rocket was a miss, passing her team and landing further down the hallway. The shock wave of the explosion ripped past her and knocked the wind from her lungs. What are they doing? she thought as she recovered. The third team can’t be that close, not yet.

A pair of the enemy fighters reloaded the rocket launcher, while the other two fired on Mary and her team. They aimed the weapon again down the hallway. Mary’s team was scattered about; their distance from one another was enough to prevent any single explosive from affecting more than one of them. A second rocket streaked by, striking a spot closer to the stairs than the first.

“They’re trying to collapse the hallway,” Mary shouted to her team. “Charge them now, get up there!”

Mary led the attack, sprinting from the rear and passing the rest of her team. She forced her eyes to adjust for the dizziness and shaking from the shock of the second blast. The weapon in her hands became an extension of her existence, a form of her being. She fired remarkably consistent, for one who moved while shooting.

The enemy could do nothing against such an onslaught, and retreated up the stairs. They managed to pack the rocket launcher before they turned tail back toward the hold. Mary urged her team forward.

“Ten minutes until end of countdown and team Wes Lively victory,” a voice said over the loudspeakers. The announcement was difficult to hear over the roaring crowds, who now leaned over their railings, screaming in an ecstasy of gore. They waved their banners and jostled each other with cups full of beer and grease.

Thousands of people watched from the stands. Millions more watched from home, on their holovision sets that were fed by the cameras that hovered all over the arena and streamed the action live. Everyone was eager to see if Mary Gold would be the first to defeat the King Dragon’s team.

“Injuries?” Mary said to her team when they were all caught up. They gathered a short distance beyond the opening of the stairs, behind a concrete wall. The first floor contained a series of the walls were placed at short distances from one another and at random angles. The ceiling here was the ceiling for the entire arena.

“Jamaal,” Janet said, “you’re shot.”

“Oh shit, my arm,” Jamaal said. He examined the wound. A small rivulet of blood leaked out from his armor and toward his hand. “Didn’t feel it.”

“Fix him up,” Mary told Ricard, who was the most qualified medic on the team. “Johnny, you stay by the stairs and keep an eye out for that third team. Delay them as long as possible.”

The sound of bullets hitting concrete struck Mary’s ears and whipped her head around. She pulled Argus down, who had been peaking over the wall. “Check your head,” she said. “They’re on us now.”

Argus said, “The hold is to the northeast.”

Mary said, “Fine. Ric, Janet, Jamaal, you three are going east. Argus and I north. Johnny, you retreat to the northeast and figure it out when you get there.”

“This is my favorite part,” Johnny said. “Time to light ’em up.”

“Go,” Mary commanded. She led Argus north. Mary gripped the edge of the wall and launched herself across the opening to the next wall. She motioned to Argus to do the same once she had crossed.

They pushed north in this fashion. Progress was slow, as the enemy now knew their position. Each time they broke their cover, bullets sprayed down on them. Mary was careful to watch for enemy fighters before each dodge from wall to wall; she had yet seen none.

Mary and Argus perched in a spot about fifty meters from the hold, behind a wall. Gunfire sounded to the east, where the other part of her team was located. Mary heard footsteps on the other side of the wall.

Finger on her lips, she gestured Argus to remain still and silent. She crept around the wall and aimed her weapon, ready to fire. Nothing.

“Behind,” Argus whispered. Mary heard the footsteps again and turned toward them.

Around the corner came, “Johnny,” Mary whispered. He aimed his weapon at the friendly pair. She turned again, too late.

Johnny fired, dropping the enemy gladiator whom Mary had missed. The slain fighter’s eyes rolled into his skull, and blood seeped from the wounds in his body.

“Nice shot,” Argus said. “Thanks for that.”

“Chief woulda had him,” Johnny said, lowering his weapon. “I just like to take initiative.”

“That’s why I hired you,” Mary said with a smile. “Status on the third team?”

“Got two with a grenade. I coulda gotten a third, but I decided to let ’em play for a bit.”

“Good job.” The third team was now in a weakened position, but would still be on the first level to provide extra targets for the King Dragon’s team. “Let’s finish this up. Five left.”

They headed in the direction of the hold. Each push forward brought more enemy fire, and the attackers remained hidden.

Mary wondered if the King Dragon was among them. Andre Strong had seemed convinced that he was. Still, Mary had known Strong to be more than a little eccentric in the past, and found it difficult to believe that the owner of five buildings would risk his life in such a manner. She decided that Andre must have been mistaken, and then she saw him.

The Dragon stood behind a wall that was perpendicular to the one that Mary, Johnny, and Argus used for cover. He was taller than Mary had thought, and what skin she could see of his was dark and beautiful. “That’s him,” she said. What is it like to live under the sun?

“Are you sure?” Johnny said.

Mary looked at him. “You need to pay attention.”

“So you’re sure, okay.”

“Five minutes until end of countdown and team Wes Lively victory,” the announcer said.

Two of the Dragon’s teammates stood on either side of him. That left one in the hold and one unaccounted for. These three were preoccupied with the arrival of the third team, who took cover about twenty meters away.

The crowd watched the exchange of bullets with apparent relish, and their screams reached new decibels when Mary’s team arrived on the stage. They booed when Mary rolled out of the way of a grenade. They cheered when Johnny physically clubbed one of the Dragon’s teammates with his weapon. They cringed when their king retreated, taking a bullet to the calf on his way toward the hold.

Mary took cover behind the same wall that had protected the Dragon a few moments before. The third team launched a volley of bullets, but Argus and Johnny moved too fast for them to hit. “They’re timid,” Mary said, observing her opponents’ inaccuracy.

Johnny said, “They know it’s the Dragon.”

The third team pushed forward. The moment that they left their cover was the same moment that Jamaal, Janet, and Ricard fired their weapons. One went down, lowering their number to three, and that was it. The team had served their purpose well, as far as Mary was concerned.

“We saw you coming,” Janet said to Mary.

“It didn’t look like you needed any help,” Ricard said.

“Surprise is pretty key in these matters,” Jamaal said.

Mary said, “Enough talk.” A grenade interrupted her next orders. Everyone dove for cover. Its explosion stunned Mary, and perhaps a half minute, an eternity in the arena, passed before she regained her bearings.

“File through, one at a time,” Mary ordered. She led the charge through the open-roofed corridor that led to the hold.

The crowd became a savage beast that demanded a frenzy of gore and death. The stands shook under the mad stomping of the animal that occupied them. The roar carried the fighters through, inspiring their momentum for this final battle.

Mary charged out from the corridor, passed the enemy gladiators, and entered the hold, moving too fast to provide a solid target. She left her gun at the entrance and drew her sword upon crossing into the interior, for the hold was only won through melee combat.

“Team Mary Gold has entered the hold,” the announcer said. The crowd was wild. “The timer has frozen at twenty eight seconds for Wes Lively victory.” If Mary managed to capture the hold, then the timer would reset to fifteen minutes in favor of her team.

Two levels existed in the hold. The top level was a series of walkways that crossed above the ground floor. The ground floor itself was wide and open. Each corner contained a covered staircase, providing four places to stage an ambush. Mary stood near the center of the ground floor and scanned the area for Dragon’s holder.

“You can’t hide all day,” Mary said, calling out to whomever might have been waiting. “You have to come out eventually. Or are we waiting until the new third team arrives?”

Something moved behind her. The dirt that covered the floor was disturbed there. Mary stared for another sign of movement, something, anything that gave an indication of the enemy. She refused to go searching through the hold, as a dog hunts for its bone.

“Team Mary Gold has captured the hold,” the announcer said. Mary looked up at the crowd in surprise. All of the thousands of spectators chanted her name, so ecstatic were they to see this challenge against a king. She doubted if any of them had known it a few moments before. “The countdown has started at fifteen minutes.”

Mary stood in the center with her sword drawn. The third team would arrive soon. She checked the scoreboards and saw that there were still five of the Dragon’s team left, and six of hers. The sounds of a battle raging outside reached her ears in a diminished and quieter form. Her breath slowed and her mind was calm.

Some time passed. The announcer said, “Team Wes Lively has entered the hold. The timer is frozen at eight minutes and twenty five seconds in favor of team Mary Gold, and at twenty eight seconds in favor of team Wes Lively.”

Mary faced the King Dragon, who was not Wes Lively but had no name for the commons. They stood apart twenty meters apart. He was so dark and so beautiful. Mary was pale and waxy. They were about the same age, but it was difficult to judge that fact on looks alone, for Mary appeared at least ten years his senior.

A moment passed while they stared, each assessing the stance and strength of the other. The Dragon charged. His sword drawn, he brought it against Mary, who had just enough time to gain momentum in her favor. They were locked into one for just a moment before breaking apart.

Mary came back, cutting from above her head. The Dragon raised his own weapon, and parried late enough for Mary’s edge to cut his hand between forefinger and thumb. A shock wave of blood frenzy tore through the crowd, and each of them screamed the air from their lungs.

She kicked him in the shin as he again raised his sword. He lost his balance, staggering backward and falling while retaining his grip on his weapon. He rolled out of the way before Mary could pin him or strike him with her sword, and stood before she could blink.

They crashed into one another, and their strikes turned into flails, and their attacks became swings of random might. Mary took a blow to the shoulder, and then hit the Dragon in his side. The Dragon struck Mary in the hip, and then barely dodged a cut to his head.

Minutes passed as they fought. The crowd almost became quiet, so absorbed was their collective attention in this battle. Mary’s team still fought the Dragon’s outside the hold. Both teams attempted elimination of the other by numbers, so that their holder would have an easier time of it.

The holders clashed in the hold. When one gained an advantage, the other rose up to the occasion and returned the playing field to an even setting. When one of them appeared to succumb to final defeat, the other made some mistake or misjudgment that allowed their opponent’s return to full strength. The battle was a question of endurance.

Mary stared her enemy down. They had arrived at yet another standstill. Each one lasted longer than the previous, as the holders grew tired.

Her attacks had all been met with equal or more powerful counterattacks. She could think of no new strategy that might quickly win the battle. Only two weapons remained in her arsenal of tricks, and those were her sword and her speed.

Come on, Mary Gold, she told herself. Almost done.

Mary charged, attacking left and right and up and down. The Dragon could only defend and wonder at this new energy that his opponent displayed. Mary struck down his sword when he tried to raise it, again and again, no matter the angle and no matter his strength. Mary pushed him back against the wall, and pinned him against it with her sword pressing his own against his face.

“You’ll do,” the Dragon said. He smiled and Mary frowned.

“Drop your weapon,” Mary said.

“No.”

The King Dragon thrust forward, pushing Mary away. He spun around and raised his sword. Mary returned the threat with a ferocious strike of her own.

Their blades met for a brief moment, and Mary’s edge slid along the Dragon’s. Sheer force of will made Mary’s sword crush the Dragon’s. His weapon crashed onto the floor. Mary’s point aimed at his neck.

“I’ll let you live,” Mary said. Sweat greased her face, and her blonde hair was brown with dirt. “I’m a nice lady, after all.”

The King Dragon grunted. Once a holder was defeated in the hold, their team was automatically disqualified. Without saying a word or giving a hint of any emotion, the Dragon left the hold toward the arena exit.

“Eight minutes until end of countdown and team Mary Gold victory,” the announcer said. The ravings of the crowd soared to new heights, and not one person was left sitting in the stands.

Jamaal was waiting for Mary at the entrance to the hold, but did not himself enter. “Janet is out looking for the approaching teams,” he said.

“Good,” Mary said. Her lungs struggled to keep up. “Eight minutes and we’re golden.”

“You’re golden,” Jamaal said. “No more work for you today. We’ll keep ’em out of here.”

Mary nodded, and Jamaal returned to his other teammates. Although the match wasn’t officially over, it might as well have been. Her team was known for their refusal to give ground. Mary stood in the center of the hold with her sword raised high until the match ended.

 

The crowd settled down before the end, returning to their seats after receiving their fill of a good fight. A few, here and there, left for the shops or the bars or work or home. Gat was not one of these, and he was not one of those who was determined to get the full value from his ticket. He was in love Mary Gold, and he watched her.

Gat was subscribed to the Supreme Arena Bundle on his Omnibus account, which allowed him to view any arena match on any of his devices. He was able to sit in his room at home and watch Mary’s face in close up, three dimensional detail. The view was better here, although the physical distance was quite far. He felt that the ability to see her in person was of greater benefit to him than watching some transmitted picture.

He imagined that he could smell her.

Mary had rejected him many times. Gat was undeterred. He felt that Mary just needed more time, and would eventually accept his advances as a welcome gesture. Time heals all wounds, and Mary had a wound in her heart. A hole was inside her chest, and Gat knew that he would fill it. He loved her.

Eight minutes passed much too fast…

 

Chapter Two: The Ultimate Power

Here it is:

 

The sewer was dark. Water rushed through a canal made from brick and dried mud, carrying with it the scent of piss and shit. The sound of the rushing water pressed itself into Gat’s ears. He imagined that he was falling from some great height, or that he was sitting by a creek in the woods. He hadn’t seen a forest in a long time.

Gat was sniveling. He sat on the floor with his knees pulled close to his face. “She will love me,” he said. “She will.”

No, he thought. She’s just a bitch. I just have to forget about her.

No, she’s not a bitch. It’s too hard to forget. I’m nothing, everything is nothing. The world is dark without the light of her love. She’d love me if I was dead. That’s how it works with women. They don’t realize what they have until it’s gone.

Gat’s Stone was glowing. It was on the low point of a necklace that he wore. “Why are you glowing?” he asked. “I’m trying to think.”

Now is the time.

“No, no, no. Not yet.” Gat shook his head. Tears formed in his eyes. “She’ll love me soon. I just have to…I have to show her. I’ll write her a poem.”

She said she would kill you.

“She…she’s just confused. She doesn’t know what she wants.” Gat laughed, chuckling into his knees. “She’s so beautiful like that.”

Rise up.

Gat kicked out his legs and pushed his palms against the crusty floor. “Okay, I’m up. What should I do now?”

No, Gat thought. Don’t listen to the voice. It doesn’t know what you want. I know what you want, because I’m me.

“Yes, this all makes perfect sense now,” Gat said. His mutterings echoed against the sewer walls, although the water somewhat dampened the sound. “Everything is just coming together on its own. I don’t even need to try, because I control everything. I control the City, the world.”

An animal chittered some distance up the tunnel. Gat peeked toward the direction from which the noise originated. He saw a large rat.

A shadow formed behind Gat. It grew, morphing into intangible shapes that formed a constantly changing blob, a geometrical disgrace. The shapes, dark shadows, reached out toward the rat.

“No,” Gat said, willing the shadows to stop their motion. “It’s not time yet. I need more time.”

A thousand souls screamed out from the darkness, tearing into Gat’s mind.

They want to be used. They will perish if you neglect their power.

“No, no, no,” Gat said. He slapped himself across the right side of his head. “Stop it! Stop it now!”

The shadows receded and fell int Gat’s true shadow, an outline of the man he was. I am a man, he thought. I’m a man and Mary should love that about me, but she doesn’t. She’s neglecting the power that I have to make her feel good. She doesn’t realize the love I have for her. I have to show her.

He needed food. The rat snickered at him. “I hate you,” Gat said. “You’re just a fucking rat. You’re just something else that needs to die.”

Gat walked toward the rat. Its back faced him. He silently moved behind it, lifted his bare foot, and violently stomped on the rat’s head.

He lifted his foot and looked underneath it. “Ew,” he said. “Gross.” He flicked the bloody mess of brain and bone and teeth. Blood dripped from the sole of his foot. “It hurt me.” The words exited his mouth with a pitiful tone. “It hurt me.”

The pain made clear the way for new thought. Why should he accept that a rat could hurt him? He had the power of a thousand souls.

“Souls,” he said, looking down at his Stone, which glowed to provide light enough for day in the darkness of the sewer tunnels. “Souls in this Stone.” He touched it.

“I have human souls, thousands of them stored here.” He rubbed the Stone between his greasy fingers. The power was enough to tempt the most pure of men, and Gat was far from purity.

“I need to think,” he said and the words were tinted with pain and hesitation. He gathered the body of the dead rat in his arms, caressing it as a mother would her baby, and began to walk.

 

“Hey, Ga…Gat!” one of his roommates shouted at Gat as he entered his small apartment that was cramped with randomly placed tables and chairs. This roommate’s name was Tick Joffree.

“Hi,” Gat said, frowning as he entered his apartment. A circle of his roommates and their friends sat on the floor, apparently unsatisfied with the rigidity of the chairs. Smoke filled the common area and a large hookah with several hoses attached stood in the middle of the human circle.

“Man,” one of the friends said, looking up at him with glazed eyes. Gat didn’t recognize the woman. “You gotta get on this.” She laughed.

“Oh,” Gat said. Her eyes mesmerized him; all deep blues and glowing. She wore a simple brown dress that didn’t look to be enough to shield her from the chill outside.

“Hey,” she said with a smile. “Are you checking me out?” She laughed again.

“Gat!” Tick shouted. “Come on and smoke some of this! It’s fucking great!”

“What is it?” Gat asked.

“There we go, there we go. It’s ditzel. None of that cheap crap either. Mary here grew it herself.”

“Mary?” Gat said. He frantically scanned the room for her.

“Easy Gat,” Tick laughed. “Not your Mary. Another Mary.”

“I’m another Mary,” the blue-eyed woman said, laughing. “I’m the only Mary. Mary Silver.”

“Hi,” Gat said, standing there like a moron. Her eyes held his in a vice-grip. “I’m, uh…I’m Gat.”

“Sit down, Gat. I want you to sit down, next to me.”

His five roommates, including Tick, and the two other friends watched this exchange with open and interested expressions. “Woo, Mary,” one of them said with a smirk, whose name was John Underbelly. “Are you trying to get some?” She just laughed. The hookah bubbled as Tick inhaled its smoke.

Gat shuffled over next to Mary and gingerly sat on the ground.

“Put your arm around me,” she said, shivering. “I want you to keep me warm.”

Gat did as he was told and found her warm already. A burning desire grew within him and he struggled to pace his breathing. Mary lifted her chin and closed her eyes with a satisfied smile.

“Hey, we don’t need no show,” Tick said. His eyes looked on with ferocity.

“Relax, Tick,” Mary said. She shuffled under Gat’s arm.“He’s alright, I like this guy. I want the hose.”

Tick handed her the hose. “Hey John, when was the last time we had a drink?”

“I think about three hours ago, Tick,” John replied. He smirked and watched Mary and Gat in a spirit opposite to that of Tick’s. “Is it time already?”

Tick stood and retrieved his long coat from its resting spot on the floor. He put his arms through the sleeves and buttoned the front and looked at John, nodded his head, raised his eyebrows, and walked out the door, saying, “It’s been time.”

John sighed and then stood. “Gat, don’t worry about him. He’s still sore ’cause Mary turned him down.”

“John, leave him,” one of the friends said. Gat assumed she was a friend of John’s; he didn’t recognize her. “Stay here.”

“Me, Mary,” Mary said, replying to John. She handed the hose to John for a final hit, looking at Gat all the while. “Not your Mary.”

“Right.” John handed the hose back to Mary. He looked over to his female friend. “I’d stay, but you know Tick. He’ll need somebody to watch his back.”

“Ohh,” his friend complained.

“I’ll be back.” John donned his coat and put his wide brim hat on his head.

“John,” one of Gat’s roommates said, whose name was Tuck Joffree, Tick’s little brother. “Dagger.”

“Right.” Gat saw the hesitation in John’s eyes. John slowly strapped the belt, with the dagger sheath attached, around his waist. A weak man. He walked out the door, saying, “And I’m off.”

“I swear,” Tuck said. “Tick does that just to get John to follow him.”

“Does what?” John’s female friend asked.

“Picks up fights.”

Another one of Gat’s roommates muttered some joke that he didn’t catch, and everyone laughed. A conversation picked up, but Gat paid little attention.

Mary Silver rubbed herself against Gat’s body. He felt good, better than he had in months, years even, with her left breast pressed against his ribs and the scent of her hair sliding into his nostrils. The desire in him grew into a more physical form.

“Someone’s happy,” Mary said. Gat noticed that she no longer held the hookah hose. “I want to take a nap. Show me your bed?”

“Okay,” Gat said. He stood first and assisted Mary with his strong arms. “It’s, uh…” Gat’s voice trailed off as Mary walked in front of him, toward the bedrooms, as though she had been there before.

The others ignored them as the pair left the room. They carried on their conversations of how much merchants were willing to lower their prices during the festivals.

“Is this it?” Mary asked, entering the bedroom. A single window broke the wall to let in the smallest amount of light. Bunks lined the walls, stacked three high. “What’s up with the cages?”

“So you don’t get robbed,” Gat said in a near whisper. Anticipation welled inside him. “People, they sneak in, at night, sometimes.”

“So you what, stack everything behind the cages with you when you sleep?”

“Everything you can’t replace,” Gat said, leaning into her.

She backed away. “Which one is yours?”

“The top one. Here.” Gat directed her to the top bunk on the left side of the room. “Do you need any help?” But she was already climbing into his bed.

“Brr,” she said, shivering. “It’s cold up here.”

“I’ll just get your coat,” Gat said, disappointed. “For a blanket.”

“Oh. Why don’t you come up here instead? I want you to keep me warm.”

“Okay.” He climbed up into his bunk, perhaps in a too hurried manner. At first, he simply laid next to her warm body. She rested her head on his chest, and Gat worried that she would notice his quickened breath.

“Don’t you want to lay on me?” Mary asked. Her voice weakened him, banishing to the recesses of his soul any resistance that existed within him.

Words failed to enter Gat’s mind. He rolled over on top of her and sat up on her thighs, staring down at her body.

She lifted her dress above her waist. “I want you to fuck me.”

Gat’s pants entertained her hands for a moment before dropping. He lowered himself down and slipped himself inside her.

Mary groaned and closed her eyes, gripping the bar that served as a headboard.

Her face. Her eyes. They made him angry. “Fuck…you,” he groaned between panted breaths.

“Yeah, fuck me.”

He wanted to hurt her, to cause her pain. He drew from the strength of his body with each thrust into hers.

“Yeah, rough me up, yeah.”

He bent down and ground his teeth against her taste buds. Their shadows in the dim light melded together and began to take shape. Gat wanted them to grow, to consume her and drown her screams.

“Ohh…”

He gripped her shoulders and he wanted to crush her bones. Her screams broke into his mind and he wanted them to be screams of torture. Tears formed in his eyes as he restrained himself. Anger gripped his face.

“Oh, Gat…”

He blacked out.

 

Outside, under the moonlight and in the oil-lamp-lit streets, drunks staggered their way to their abodes. One slapped another upon hearing some fine joke. Another was bent over with his head between his knees, vomiting onto the street. The inebriated would find their resting places in beds of rotting straw, in broken shacks in the slums. They were the first to enter the City and the last to make their exit, drifting in and out as anonymous strangers amongst her denizens.

Gat hated all of them.

He watched the night through the small window in the bedroom. The pair of jokers’ laughter echoed against the walls of apartments, invading Gat’s ears. That someone should feel such joy, such companionship while walking drunk in the street, made anger rise his mind, like the wind before a storm.

“This is my city,” he muttered to himself. The person who vomited would be the first to die.

“Gat, that was wonderful,” Mary Silver said for the second time. She lay in his bed, on her back, with her eyes closed and legs crossed. She was a dark shape, a slim figure in the night. “Come to bed.”

“Okay,” Gat said, but he remained still. Light from a fire in the common room cast shadows against the walls, and remnants of spoken words carried themselves unbidden to the bedroom. Dreams of the City, of a new vision or version of life, held him captive. He examined the street below, imagining that he possessed clairvoyance. The future held for him the ultimate power over the City. Over the world.

Gat watched as dark shapes formed outside, as though the night street was a painting and its artist had spilled black colors onto the canvas. The shapes grew and slithered, not quite unlike snakes, but stealthier, quieter, and with a twisted rigidity that serpents themselves, whose bodies flow in graceful fashion, would be ashamed to admit. The sick frown on his face morphed into a smirk.

A man in the alley, dressed in an assortment of rags, stopped his walk as suddenly as one moment passes into the next—at one, he walked, but at the next, he was still. A force visibly constricted his limbs, or else the man was insane or a very good street performer, though no audience witnessed this act. The shadows squeezed into him, striving to rip spirit from body.

A scream broke for just a moment before Gat muffled the man’s mouth with viscous darkness. Shadows covered the man’s torso and spindled around him, stretching tighter and further constraining his already meager resistance. He looked up at the sky, and Gat wondered to whom the man prayed, or wished for, in this moment of dire need.

“Gat,” Mary said his name with a tired, dream-tinted tone of voice. “Are you awake?”

Gat said, “I’ll be in bed soon,” and his smirk changed into that sick frown. The man in the alley below fought and struggled. “Just let me…”

The man broke free and begged for breath with his hands on his knees and then ran into the street, scanning the area with wide eyes all the while.

“Damn.” They needed practice. His souls were weak, but they could be strong. Perhaps that was why they had attempted to consume the scavenger in the sewers.

Gat had spent his years from childhood into adulthood attuning his soul to his Stone. Anyone who was able to identify the Stone for what it was would either kill him on sight, or embrace him as a brother. With it, he had the power to conjure fire, to hail strong winds, or to stop a person’s beating heart. With each of those acts, a piece of his soul dissipated, draining his very being as the Stone projected his will unto the world. But there was a way around this…

A stranger gave him a gift a few years past, in return for which the stranger had asked no service nor material. The gift was a secret, and the secret was known to but a few—how to consume the souls of others. The stranger imparted this knowledge to Gat in a kind of way that Gat still did not understand. One single existence had encompassed theirs for less than a moment. When that blink of existence had passed, Gat had felt the presence of thousands of others inside his mind.

The stranger had given him souls. Unthinking masses that were merely practice rounds for the new weapon that Gat would train in. Over time, Gat had learned to attune these souls to his Stone and use their energy in its spells rather than his own. The souls were weak, but they would become stronger with more practice.

Gat glared out the window, watching as the man ran away and escaped the shadows. The walls that lined the streets displayed skulls and carcasses in their design. The pavement roiled with boiling death. The people who walked on it were ants, nothing but ants who lived only upon Gat’s mercy. It was time to practice.

The accomplishment would be to add souls to his own. The existing souls would gain strength as others joined them. Gat had to first join the shadows and meld in with them, both physically and mentally, before he would be able to fight against the City. He would create a world where he controlled the City and ruled it in his own name. Next…no, better not think about next. The time for work had arrived, and Gat turned around and began to make his exit.

Mary Silver snored as he walked past her. He left her in his bed.

“Gat, where are you going?” Tick said to Gat as the latter grasped the doorknob. The pair was alone in the room. Gat turned around and saw a fire going. The fire blazed and hissed. Its flame cast dangerous shadows that fought along the walls.

“Um, nowhere,” Gat said. His eyes itched for the door and his body turned in that direction.

“Yeah, nowhere. Right.” Tick sat in a chair. The chair was as far away from the fire as it was possible to be. “Like you went nowhere with Mary Silver.” His eyes burned into Gat’s own.

“Hey, I heard…”

“Heard what, Gat?” Tick leaned forward in his chair. “Heard what?”

“Just..that…”

“I’ll tell you what you heard. You heard I wanted Mary Silver.” Tick leaned back in his chair. “So you fucked her.”

“Tick…” It wasn’t like that, Gat wanted to say. But maybe it was.

“Well, I’ll tell you what. I fucked Mary Gold.”

The shadows conquered larger areas of light.

“You didn’t.” Gat took a shaky step in Tick’s direction, pointing his finger at the sitting man. “You’re just trying to make me mad.”

“Prove me wrong.” Tick leaned forward in his chair. “Go ask her. She won’t even talk to you.”

“Maybe I will.” And images of Mary ‘s body flashed through his head. “I’ll just ask her.”

Tick laughed. “You won’t ask her. You’ll just follow her home like you always do and turn around.”

Gat, with maniacal eyes, stepped toward Tick. The shadows grew along the walls, and some of them jumped from the surface and into the air.

Tick stood. “Well, we’re done here. I’m going to bed.” He turned around.

“You’re a coward,” Gat said, expounding lungfuls of breath with each word. The shadows fanned out before him. “Just a…just a weak person.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Tick stopped before he reached the hall, but didn’t turn around. “I’d kill you, but you’re not even worth it. You’re sick.”

The shadows wrapped themselves around Tick. Solid night held him against his struggles and silenced his voice. Tick’s eyes darted in wild directions, bursting from his skull.

Gat said, “You need to understand that I’m not fucking around here.” Power coursed through his soul, the room and the world. He soaked the feeling into the essence of his being, the core of his existence. “You’re going to die.”

Shadows consumed Tick, covering the man until Gat could no longer see his figure. They contracted and then exploded outward in a shadowy blizzard that blanketed the room in night. Gat was blind, and during this moment of impairment, he felt as though the bliss of the universe had collapsed into him, as Tick’s soul melted into his own.

Gat’s vision returned after a short amount of time. The fire played about in the corner of the room, spreading light that slithered tenuously along the walls. Bits and pieces of Tick’s remains littered the chairs, the table, the floor, everything. Gat flicked torn flesh off his shoulder and shivered.

All was quiet. He examined the room in his solitude, staring down the walls as though they were witnesses of this murder. “He deserved it,” Gat said. Still as a statue, he looked around with zealous eyes.

“I have the ultimate power,” he whispered. The power to absorb souls into his own. The Stone’s light shone out from its place on his neck. He laughed and tears poured forth from his eyes. His body shook with the joy of having attained perfection after years of effort. Gat was ready.

He wiped his face and walked, with his body covered in gore, through the hallway and into the bedroom. Mary’s chest rose and fell as she slept beneath the sheets. He watched her for a long time.

“I don’t need you,” he finally said. The next words almost remained beneath his breath. “He’s right. You’re just scum.”

He exited the bedroom and left the apartments. The night’s street was dark. The lamps cast his shadow long across the empty road. The only people left out were criminals, who hid in the alleys and dealt amongst themselves, and the drunks, who lay snoring in the street itself. Gat ignored them all.

Now is the time.

Chapter One of The Adventures of Mary Gold!

Below is the first chapter of the second draft of my book. I’ve decided to post it chapter by chapter, as I finish each one. The first draft took me around three months to write, so I’m hoping to finish the second before the end of the year. This is a work in progress, so please feel free to leave with me your thoughts.

 

Chapter One

“Why did you kill me?” he asked, wisping around her as a planet around a star.

“You’re not going to follow me home, are you?” Mary asked. Her sword was sheathed behind her back. The blade was warm from the fight.

“Nowhere else to go.”

“Everyone went home. You need to die.” Mary didn’t look at it. Her eyes remained straight and that was the key to ridding oneself of a ghost. Just don’t look.

He twirled around so that his misty body floated in front of her. He was all faded grays, but the blood that circled his neck was red, fresh. “I tried to surrender.”

“They ordered a kill and I delivered.”

“Hey, Mary!” a man said. This man was alive. “Mary Gold!” The streets were crowded with walking people heading here or there, home or to their work or the market or the arena or elsewhere. This man’s voice boomed over the noises of the street.

Mary knew who he was. She stopped, although a certain part of her wanted to ignore the man.

The ghost glanced over at the shouting man and said, “Looks like someone you might want to be worried about.”

“Just another journalist,” Mary said. Annoyed people brushed past her on the street. “He won’t talk to you.”

“You’re a hard one to catch,” the robust man said, catching up to where Mary stood. He panted and wiped at his forehead. “I have a few questions. If you don’t mind.”

Mary said, “I’ve got some time.” She hoped the ghost would turn away from her and attach himself elsewhere if she took her time with an interview.

“I’m Al, Al Lichtenstein,” the man said. He extracted a tablet and a stylus from a bag that he carried.

“I know who you are, Albert,” Mary said. She shifted her weight to one leg. Passerby either grumbled or stared as they passed. “We’ve met a few times before.”

Albert said, “Ah, but you can never know with you gladiators. Excuse me, gladiatrices.” A walking man bumped into Albert. He ran a large hand through his wispy hair, glancing at the ghost. “Perhaps we can take this to a place with less crowds, eh?”

“Lead the way.”

Albert started walking. “There’s an excellent pub not so far from here, just a couple of streets down, I’d say.” His feet waddled, making circular motions.

The ghost said, “I know the place.” He swirled around through Al, who shivered at that moment, to face Mary. “It sucks, you should leave.”

Mary said, “You leave. Now.”

“Don’t talk to it,” Albert said, turning his head to look at Mary but obstructed by his large neck. “Talking only makes it stay longer.”

“Don’t whine, Albert. I have more experience than most with ghosts.” She followed as Albert led her across the street. Crowds parted for Albert, clearing the way for Mary, or maybe it was the ghost for whom they parted.

“Almost there now.” He pushed forward through the crowds with thirsty determination. “I’ve drank in this hole for years.”

“Years of drunkenness,” the ghost said. “That’s exactly what you want in a journalist. Might as well drown the lot of them.”

“Don’t be so fatalistic,” Mary said. She touched the hilt of her sword for assurance it was still there.

“I believe it’s within my rights.”

Albert said, “Shh. Shush.”

“You can’t shoo me way, no matter your size.”

“My first question,” Albert said, holding the pub door open for Mary. “You have a history of letting these pests follow you. Why do you insist upon recognizing their existence?”

Mary said nothing until they had sat down and found a spot, although there was much deliberation upon where they should sit. They settled for a corner table, the desired spot miraculously empty in the frenzy after an arena match.

“I don’t see the harm,” Mary finally answered after taking a seat.

“Indeed,” Albert said. “What is the harm of letting a fly go free within one’s home? A nuisance is but an inconvenience.”

Mary said nothing. A waiter arrived and asked what drinks everyone would be having. Al ordered wine, Mary ordered a brandy, and the ghost ordered an ale, but received nothing.

Albert said, “Well, then. On to my next question.” He cleared his throat and the noise was loud enough to warrant a few stares from strangers. “You’re aware of course, that the team you just defeated was the King’s team. Your quite offensive strategy is unusual given the history of–”

“Stop,” Mary said. I defeated the King’s team, she thought. “I was not aware.”

Al’s eyes opened wider as his brow drew down. “Surely, you research your opponents. It is the law that everyone has the right to know whom they are fighting in the arena, their records, their statistics. This is information given to every team, weeks before the match’s scheduled date.”

“My team.” Janice fell back behind a column. Two men, thirty feet ahead, guarded the stairs. Mary nodded at Janice and ran across to find cover behind a large marble block. They charged at Mary with their swords, while Janice fired arrows that split bone. “We train to adapt.”

“I see. That is certainly an interesting development.” He sipped his wine and wrote a quick note, wiping his forehead upon completion of each task. “The great Mary Gold refuses to research her opponents. Shocking, indeed.

“Now, back to my question, about your offensive strategy, I–”

Mary interrupted, “I have to go.” She swallowed the last of her brandy, while Albert had had only a few sips of his wine. Mary stood and started to walk away. “Thanks for the drink.”

“Wait! Just a few more questions.” Albert remained seated with his wine, unable to leave the glass behind.

Mary weaved her way through the crowded pub and toward the door, bumping into strangers and causing grunts. Few would recognize her outside the arena, outside of her gear and without her helm. She opened the door into the still crowded streets, crowded with the throngs of people who had so recently cheered the deaths of others.

The ghost was absent. Must have finally died, Mary thought. I’ve been doing nothing, a ghost as well among the living. People who see their own purpose. And what is mine? The King Dragon’s team, defeated. There must be some other challenge.

She walked in the direction of her home, a good mile away. She could have taken the tram, but walking gave her a chance to reflect upon her actions in the arena, if she could ignore the noise of the streets.

All this practice biding my time, and I’ve gotten too patient. Jesry would be around for the next match if I had ordered the charge to the final hold just a couple minutes earlier. It will be hard to replace him.

The King’s team…

Best to let it simmer, not think too much about it.

Ahead, Mary saw a crowd gathering around Andre Strong. He was large enough to make other gladiators appear as normal sized men. After Mary had faced him for the first time and his team had defeated her’s, he had asked her if she wanted his autograph.

“Andre, Andre!” the crowd was cheering. “Let me touch you!”

“Just a bit of your sweat in this vial.”

“A lock of your hair to keep.”

“A drop of blood from that cut!”

Mary crossed the street to avoid meeting him, but he saw her. “Mary!” he called, his booming voice ever more boisterous than Albert’s. “Come, let us talk!”

His crowd was watching her, and probably wondering who this person was whom Andre called over by name? Somebody famous, no doubt, although none recognized her.

His presence didn’t leave her much of a choice. Best to just get it over with.

Mary said, “Andre, it’s been a while.” She held out her hand and tried to smile.

Andre ignored the hand and bear hugged her, his body sweat rubbing into her hair and skin. “Oh,” he said. “It’s been too long since we have last seen each other.” He finally released her from his grip.

“Well,” Mary said. “You know.”

“We have fought many battles. Yet we remain friends” Andre spoke as much for Mary as for the crowd, who gathered around him and listened to each dripping word. “Tell me, Mary Gold, how was your last match? I hear you defeated the King Dragon’s team. That’s quite an accomplishment, eh?”

“Yes, well, I do my best.” Mary shrugged and glanced in the direction of her home.

“Indeed, we must all do what we can, although I would pick my enemies more carefully.” He laughed and the crowd laughed with him. A joke. “And what is this, behind you? A pest!”

Mary turned and saw the ghost behind her, its neck still red. “Die, already.”

“Now, don’t speak to it. There’s a trick to these things. We must ignore them and they will go away.”

“Ignore me all you like,” the ghost said. “I will continue to speak. And Mary, I must speak with you.”

“Back, you!” Andre said. Mary recognized his pose as an attack position. “Let mother death take you into her arms.”

The ghost floated skyward. His sad eyes looked down on Mary. She looked away and said, “I really must be leaving.”

“Of course. I will not hold you any longer, my dear. Off you go, now.”

Mary never had a chance to say goodbye.

“And there goes the great Mary Gold, ladies and gentlemen,” Andre said to the crowd. “Remember that one well. One of the most unappreciated holders in the sport.”

Out of earshot. Mary walked down the street in sweet anonymity, leaving Andre and his fans behind. He would talk about the arena. The arena is a bloodbath, she thought. A way for those tired of life to gamble themselves, their souls. My own soul is one lost amongst the spirit of the City.

Mary looked around and saw all the people wrapped up in wools and linens in the dead of winter. The sun blew up the sky and clouds were absent. It should have been a happy day. It should have been a day of games and feasts, but Mary saw all the people, huddled down and only surviving. They existed and their purpose was just as clear as Mary’s.

“I need help,” the ghost said. It floated down from behind Mary.

Mary said, “I thought you left.” She shook her head. Passerby turned odd looks in her direction. Her sword marked her as a gladiatrix, and a strange one she must have been to acknowledge the presence of a ghost.

“I won’t die yet. I’m actually becoming quite comfortable in this new form.”

“I only killed you a few hours ago.”

“So recently was it?” The ghost shook its head, the blood dripping from its neck to fade away in the air. “You’re the only one who will talk to me. I am less than a fly to most. You are a holder, are you not?”

“I am.”

“I was. I am nothing now, and you are matter. You know the job of a holder. We charge in, swords drawn and ready, sweeping through any enemies in our path to take the hold. It is the most glorious position.”

Mary charged into the hold. The opposite entrance revealed her only present opponent, Wes Lively. They fought, clashing and twisting and beating each other into the walls. “It’s not so romantic as that,” she said to the ghost.

“My point is that you know the fear that all holders feel. When you charge in and you know that you are going to die, and the day you die might be today. We are trained to break through that.”

“Yes, through practice and practice.”

“Right. I was a holder and I knew that fear and I broke through it. You see the result. There’s nothing like it, to be a ghost, but I wanted to die after watching Albert pour his wine over a cheese pie. I thought about death, about the real death and not this halfway body I wear now.

“And I saw something.” The ghost floated a little higher in the air and then drifted down. “Shadows moving in the dark. I felt my soul drifting away…” His spirit stretched thin into the mouths of tentacles that grasped him and brought him toward the dark, the shadows in the corner of the pub. Al, he tried to say, Al help me.

“Was it just death?” Mary asked.

“This was evil, something other than death, a prison. I’ll remain a ghost for long before I am bound there.”

“You’ll have to die sometime. Nothing lives forever.” She ignored the stares on the narrow street.

“My will is strong.”

“You fought well.” Everyone is afraid of death, Mary thought, of shadows in the dark. “I had to kill you.”

“I know.”

Mary walked into the alley that led to her apartment. “Hey!” she shouted as a bucket of shit and piss emptied onto the street from above. She looked up and spotted the culprit, a man three floors up. “What the hell! The sewer is three blocks down.”

“Look where you’re walking!” he shouted back. He shook his head and spit and drew his upper body through the window and back into his home.

Mary shrugged the incident away. The ghost remained motionless when Mary started to walk. “What?” She said.

“It went through me,” the ghost said, its form shivering.

She lived on the second floor of a four story building outside of the strong walls of the City. Her apartment was modest. A kitchen, small living area, bedroom. All the necessities of shelter and life and little more.

She walked inside and turned on the radio. A disc jockey’s voice blared through the speaker, “…CELEBRATIONS TODAY. THE CITY GUARDS ARE OUT AND WATCHING, SO REMEMBER FOLKS, DRINK SLOWLY AND BRING YOUR FLASKS.”

Mary turned down the volume and walked into her kitchen. The radio said, “In our news for the day, we hear there is more trouble at home even as our soldiers return victorious against the other City’s forces, which, as we all know, finally settled the dispute of who owns the marble rich areas of the Dank Forests.”

She placed more fuel on her cooking fire and gathered water from her basin. She poured the water into a pot and set the pot on the stove to boil.

The ghost said, “Making tea, are we?”

“Shh,” Mary said. “I’m trying to listen.”

The radio continued, “…attack was believed to have been carried out by rebels who claim that the King Dragon is but a fraud. That’s right, folks. There’s someone who thinks that one who provides food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and who has love for all is a liar. A cheat. A steal.

“Well, I can tell you that I, for one, do not agree with this person, and believe that the barbarians behind these attacks deserve to be executed, without trial. Death is the only true justice. It’s up to us true citizens to carry it out.”

Mary turned the volume down as a band began to play a song about falling in love.

The ghost said, “Something is out there.” It swirled around in the air behind her.

“You’re just afraid of death.” Mary tried to relax on her couch in the living area. She let her limbs go limp. “You’ll feel better when it’s done.”

“You have to listen. You need to understand what I saw here.” It floated two feet high. It hands begged. “This was more than some nightmare, some mere dream to ignore upon waking.”

“It was death and I’m sure it was horrible.” She closed her eyes and tried to drown out the noise of her neighbors arguing. Shouts and screams drifted upward from the street. “You really need to leave.”

The cold of the day was the worst part of it all. Mary never liked to fight in the cold.

A knock at her door. The ghost asked, “Who is that?” A second knock at her door.

“A noisy person,” Mary said. She was still, determined to relax.

“Mary, open the door,” an outside voice said. The door muffled the sound. “It’s me.”

Just go away, she thought. I’ll just ignore everything and drift away.

A third knock at her door. “Come on, open up.”

“Fine,” she said, as the teapot whistled. She removed the pot from the stove before answering the door. “Who the hell–”

“It’s me,” Gat said, standing at her door in a wool cloak, its hood pulled over his head. Strands of his brown hair poked out from underneath and twitched when he moved. “I just want to talk to you.”

“I fought today.” Mary shifted her weight to one leg and blocked the entrance. “Don’t stress me out like this. I’m really asking you here.”

“If you asked me here then I should stay.” He smiled.

Mary wondered if he was a demon. “I should just kill you. I could kill you and who would ask questions?”

“You’re not that type of person, Mary.” Gat chuckled at some joke inside his head. “That’s why I love you.”

Behind him, men and women walked up and down the stairs and milled about the terrace below. Mary sometimes spent her time on the balcony, watching children play games of hide and seek. They would laugh and giggle and she would wonder what that was like.

“Come in,” she said. She walked to the living area, tea in hand. “Just sit down.”

Gat shut the door and followed her with a puppy grin. “Thank you for talking to me. I just want to hang out, you know? You and I can be friends.”

“I didn’t say I would talk to you.” Mary sipped her tea and stood facing Gat, who sat on her couch. “You said you wanted to talk to me. Okay, talk to me. Go.”

“What? I don’t understand.” He squirmed in his seat and searched for words in a puddle of mud. “Just, let’s talk together.”

“I’m giving you the opportunity to speak to me. It is not one that I often afford. If you have something to say then you say it. Now.”

“Let’s just hang out, listen to the radio. Something like that.”

“Damnit, Gat.” Mary’s tea slopped around in its cup. “You need to stop. Your constant badgering alone is grounds for a fair kill.”

“You really mean it.”

Mary frowned at Gat’s gaping mouth. His eyes swelled up and his face turned red. She wanted to look away.

“I love you. I really do.” He wiped a tear from his face and gazed upon the floor. “And you would kill me.”

“Gat,” Mary said. “You’re acting as though you’re worth loving.”

Tears streaked his cheeks.

“Do something with your life. You’re just a bum, living in the slums and begging.” Mary’s eyes penetrated his. “If you want to be loved by someone, do something.”

Gat muttered a few words.

“What?” Mary said. Leave, she thought.

“I could give you everything.” His eyes burned beneath the hood of his cloak. His lips were tight, his teeth the guardians of great secrets. “I have the ultimate power.”

“You have nothing.”

“I have everything. I will lay waste to the City and everyone who lives here.” He swept his arm out in front of his body and stood. “I will be the only one left alive and I was going to spare you, Mary. I wanted to let you live.”

“You’re drunk, Gat.”

“I am not drunk!” He shouted so hard that he stumbled. “Drunk? Drunk with power? With rage?! Everyone is going to pay, especially you, Mary! Everyone who wronged me, everyone who was mean to me, who belittled me.”

He cried, and mucous exploded from his nostrils. His voice near screaming, “Bastards!”

“Get out of here before I kill you.” Mary had drawn her sword and held it above her head, poised to strike. She didn’t bother to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“I leave because I want to.” He walked to the door with his head trained on the floor. He stopped, turning to face Mary. “You could have loved me. But he’s right. You’re just scum.”

Don’t say anything, Mary thought. He’s baiting you.

Gat walked outside and left the door open.

Mary sheathed her sword and shut the door. She collapsed on her couch and filled her lungs with deep breaths.

The ghost said, “Well, that escalated quickly.”

“Why are you still here?” Mary complained. “There’s nothing I can do for you.”

“I think there is.”

“Yeah, what?”

“Don’t kill me again.” The ghost swirled down to float in front of her as she sprawled out on her couch. “A joke.”

“Am I laughing?”

“It does not appear so, although I have already forgotten much of what living is like. Would I know laughter if I saw it?” He stared at Mary for a few moments. “I don’t know.”

Mary sighed. She sat up, lifted the tea cup from its perch on her unpolished wooden table and sipped it. “I’m trying to stay calm, if that helps.”

“Of course it does. Back to the matter at hand. That person you spoke with.”

“Wouldn’t call it speaking…”

“Right. That dipshit who yelled at you; I noticed something about him.” The ghost looked toward the door and his voice became a near whisper. “He is the thing I saw in the pub.”

“So…why are you still here?” Don’t take it the wrong way…

“I’m wondering the same thing.” It drifted in the direction away from the door, looked down at itself and stopped with a shiver. “I’m dead. I should be able to accept that.”

Mary nodded.

“To cross over to the true death would be to accept that man as my eternal dominion.” If a ghost could sigh then it would rise a little higher in the air and lower itself down once more. “I felt my existence slipping away into his mind. And his mind was all dark thoughts and evil desires. I won’t die yet.”

“He’s gone,” Mary said, shaking her head. “You can die now. He left.”

“I still feel his presence. It permeates the entire City.”

I’m done, Mary thought. “Look, that’s fucking ridiculous. Gat is insane, he’s a bum. He just mutters to himself all day and wanders around the slums. He doesn’t even pop by here often; that was the first time I’ve seen him in a few months. You need to forget about your fear and die.”

“It is not fear!”

“Then leave me alone and let me drink my damn tea!” Mary was exhausted. She remained seated, but sat straight up, tea in hand. “Just leave.”

The ghost looked into her eyes for a few moments. “Fine. I will leave you to your devices.” It floated up through her ceiling and was gone.

“Finally,” Mary muttered. She leaned back and sipped her tea. On the radio, the band began to play a song about fighting in the arena, in honor of the day’s festival.

Another novel excerpt!

Rough draft, about 35,000 words into it. About a third of the way there, I think….here goes it:

“I’m going to show you something,” Aazim said. “I’m going to show you someone, whom I may ask you to kill. Are you prepared to do such a thing?”

“Why would you want this person to die?” Mary said.

“I think he may be the one causing the Shadows. I once knew him as a friend. I did at the moment that you are about to witness.”

“You have video?”

“No, see here,” Aazim said and waved his arm and revealed the past to Mary.

Mary saw in the room many men. Some were waving their heads and others were fighting each other, punching bloodied knuckles into one another’s bruised stomachs. They snarled and growled and seemed drugged or drunk or else possessed by some evil spirit that corrupts men’s minds in the dark of morning after midnight.

She witnessed this and became transfixed, lost in the sight of horrific bloodied bodies bashing into one another and destroying each others constitute. They danced dances, kicking their legs and jumping several feet into the air. They stomped each other and bit each other and seemed generally as though they were not in control of their own bodies.

All this blood and these hundreds of insane individuals appeared before Mary, and to her, they were really there. Arms were falling off and toes being eaten. All Mary could do was watch and take that sight in.

She knew Aazim had spoken of a weapon. She had thought of the Shadows. Now she thought of the cannibals that lived below the slums. How many were there? Hundreds? Thousands? Standing in the middle of them all, Mary’s sight honed in on this one man.