(And now, for this week’s Weekly Sampler!)
SoulChaser #2: Heaven’s Eyes – Chapter 1
Collingloria Military Academy:
Softly, almost as a caress, the young woman wiped her classmate’s blood from the silver carving blade onto her left pant leg; the crimson liquid joined and congealed with the rest of his cooling blood.
A choking, retching sound drew her gaze to the dying teen’s eyes. The last telltale signs of terrified astonishment still glimmered there, surrendered to momentary panic, then dull lifelessness. His well-muscled body sagged against the ropes that bound him upright to the backside of the old tree.
“We have to hurry! We won’t be able to stay much longer!” her companion hissed from where they gathered on the distant end of the academy’s exercise yard.
Warm blood filled the silver goblet the killer held up to the boy’s severed neck. As the crimson pool reached the goblet’s rim and threatened to spill over onto her pale, milky skin, she pulled it away and handed it to her worried partner.
With the blood packed away in the box a few moments later, along with the rest of their alchemical ingredients, the duo abandoned their freshest kill, retreating into the school’s deep afternoon shadows.
“Sorry if I sound impatient,” Pol grumbled to the misty apparition of his mentor, Joshua. “It’s just that Brenden and I are ready to move, and being told to wait without a reason is very frustrating.”
Joshua stood motionless. His white skin looked even paler, given his translucent nature for this mission update. If Pol focused carefully, he could not only see right through his mentor, but he could also tell that in reality the man stood about an inch above the floor.
“You need to calm yourself, Pol. The last thing you need is for them to get spooked because you acted too soon.” Joshua’s voice was strong, firm, despite his ethereal nature.
Pol jumped up from sitting at the foot of his cot and said, “This is infuriating! We’ve located the host that Helann is using.”
“The rogue, Helann, is not the only person you have to worry about, Pol.”
“Once we have her in custody, it’s only a matter of time before Brenden gets the identity of her partner,” Pol exclaimed. “It’s a miracle we located Helann at all. I’ve never seen a female rogue integrate into a host so seamlessly. Without the SoulStar, we could have spent weeks tracking her.”
Unwavering, despite the heated discussion, Joshua shook his head. “This debate is moot; until we get clearance from Above, you and Brenden are information gathering only.” An edge was creeping into his voice at having to continually bring the SoulChaser back around to following proper protocols. He’d had two other discussions of this type with Pol and Brenden, and his patience had begun wearing thin.
Pol shook his head and walked over to the dorm room window. “Kiah never would have put up with this,” he muttered as he stared out into the early afternoon sunlight.
At the mention of Pol’s old team leader, Joshua shifted his footing and “walked” around to face Pol’s window. “Kiah wouldn’t have been expected to undertake this retrieval for that very reason. His impatience and unpredictability made it a gamble every time he was sent out, and a challenge to keep him from simply running roughshod over even the simplest procedures. You have the skills needed to accomplish the mission, but you need to exercise the patience I know you have.”
Pol found himself able to agree with his mentor’s assessment and slowly turned and leaned back against the window frame. He couldn’t quite meet his mentor’s eyes, but he was able to relate to the man’s opinion. “I guess that it’s a good thing you sent me and Brenden on this one, then.”
With a satisfied smile, Joshua nodded. “Be patient, as I’ve said. I get the feeling that you’ll be let loose on these rogues soon enough. Meanwhile, remain close to them, so that once you get the go-ahead any collateral damage is minimized.”
Pol walked across the dorm room, his passing causing not a wisp of movement from Joshua’s white, shirt-sleeved robe. Absently, the SoulChaser wondered if his nervous pacing would wear a hole in the room’s tight-weave gray carpet. The administrators for the Mahogany Desert Defense facility hadn’t cared about much beyond basic comforts and amenities when constructing the Collinglory dorms. ‘One of everything’ had seemed to be the order of the day: gray carpet, a bed, a built-in desk large enough to allow someone a useable workspace, a free-standing closet and drawer unit done in a faux-wood finish and one window to look out on the bleak, sand-strewn base.
A sudden knock on the door startled Pol motionless. Glancing quickly behind him revealed Joshua had already faded away. “Come in,” he called, glad that his voice held none of the edginess he felt.
A young man, one of the academy’s other Elite students, opened the door and peeked in. “All clear, Draek?” he teased. He may have worn the host, Tommy, like a finely refined liquid metal, but Pol recognized the teasing glint from Brenden’s ancient gaze.
“What kept you?” Pol demanded. He grabbed the jacket to his black school uniform and the two SoulChasers left the nondescript room.
Brenden shrugged and replied, “Sorry, running late.”
From his retrieval partner’s vague reply, Pol suspected there was more to the story, but a public hallway was no place to discuss mission objectives. Though his patience wore a bit thin tonight, Pol forced a smile and said, “Tonight, twenty-thirty. I need a complete update.”
Brenden nodded and they walked on in silence, Pol’s memory slipping into a quiet replay of the conversation with Joshua.
“Head’s up. There she is,” Brenden whispered and elbowed Pol in the side. His words brought Pol right back to the present. His gaze shifted to the trio of young women waiting at the hallway’s glass doors that emptied outside. The afternoon sunlight beyond created a silhouette of the three young ladies. “Great,” he muttered. “They’re all together again.”
“You know what they say about ‘trouble coming in threes’,” Brenden reminded him with a wide smile as the two slowed to a stop before the female trio.
The young woman that Pol’s host, Draek, had been romantically involved with peered up into his face with intense blue eyes. New to the military school, the rigors of the intense lifestyle didn’t show on her face yet. Pol found her beautiful. His piercing gaze didn’t seem to intimidate her.
“I didn’t see you at the gym earlier,” Danae mentioned to him, even as Brenden and one of the other young women, Claudia, exchanged a touchingly innocent kiss.
The third girl in the trio, Beverly – the one the SoulChasers had determined now hosted the rogue soul, Helann – shook her head. The escaped soul wore the body as a living disguise, but seemed to be having difficulty mimicking the dead girl’s behavior. Pol knew little of Beverly; she hadn’t talked much – easily the quietest of the three girls. Beneath the blond locks and silver, wire-rimmed glasses, Pol found Helann’s host pretty… in a “girl next door” kind of way.
“Um… Tommy and I were sparring in dojo four,” Pol replied, barely remembering to use Brenden’s host’s name. Internally, he smacked himself for letting his guard down and almost slipping up.
“That figures, doesn’t it, Danea?” Helann decided, poking her glasses up further on her nose. The adjustment made her eyes suddenly appear to take up the top half of her face.
Pol managed a smile, standing there with his hands in his jacket pockets. Even as he looked from one girl to another, the SoulStar clenched in this right hand thrummed only mildly, indicating the presence of a rogue soul, but giving him little else to work from. He scowled inwardly, wondering why the Devine relic never seemed to respond to him they way they always had for Kiah.
The trio of young women led the way as the five students vacated the dorms and headed across the school’s open central quad. With a student body of almost two thousand, it didn’t take a large turnout to create a scene.
“Have you ever done a female retrieval?” Brenden asked, pitching his voice low enough it wouldn’t carry and be overheard by the others.
“No,” Pol replied as discretely. “Kiah and I only ever got assigned the most extreme cases, which hardly ever meant female retrievals. I always thought they had female teams to handle those.”
The quintet almost made it halfway across the expansive social venue, before the large group of students gathering excitedly near the Physical Education building drew them into their swelling ranks.
Straining against the flood of bodies moving against her, Helann tried hopping a couple times to get a clear view over the heads of her classmates, which seemed to have reversed their movement en mass. “I can’t tell what’s going on,” she called back to the other four in the group, all of whom preferred to linger several steps back from the crowd’s main throng.
Before anyone could offer an opinion, the sea of humanity parted to their left and a small group of teachers emerged from the pulse of students, carrying a ramshackle stretcher between them.
Pol, Brenden, and their girls had a perfect view of the body on the stretcher. It was the mangled corpse of a fellow classmate. The amount of rich crimson drenching the body easily drowned out his pale blue school uniform. Gutted from navel to his throat, at first glance the jagged edges and viciousness of the act suggested an animal attack.
“We think it may be a pit-boar attack,” one of the teachers explained as they pushed through the crush of newly arriving students.
Brenden ignored the groan of feigned astonishment from Helann and managed to block out the more subdued reaction of Danae. As Claudia turned and pressed her cheek against his shoulder, he automatically put his arm around her. Something about the way the young man’s ribs were spread wide open, exposing a hollow torso, as well as the empty, oozing eye sockets struck a chord inside him. “What do you think? Animal attack?” he asked Pol, who also seemed distracted by the torn, savaged body.
Shaking his head, Pol replied, “Looks more like ritual murder to me.”
Nodding, Brenden stepped up beside his team leader. “I think we’ve got the proof we’re looking for. How much longer do we have to wait, before we can make a move?” He didn’t even try to mask the anxiousness he felt.
Pol turned, catching Brenden’s attention and nodding for him to follow. “No idea,” he replied, leading the five of them into the sprawling school’s main hall.
In an attempt to keep the students from panicking and gloss over the tragedy, the academy administration made the students adhere to their regular daily schedules.
An hour later, Brenden and Pol were walking in silence with their fellow students down the hall of one of the large ancillary buildings used for combat training. Before they reached the exit, the entire building shook from the deafening concussion of a massive explosion going off nearby.
Brenden found himself slammed against the wall, Pol only managed to keep his footing through luck. Most of the others were tossed around the confined space like scattered chess pieces.
Meeting Pol’s knowing gaze, Brenden stated the obvious, “That can’t be good,” and the two SoulChasers rushed for the exit as fast as circumstances allowed.
Pushing through the metal door frames, tempered glass crunching beneath their feet, Pol and Brenden made it outside and surveyed the pandemonium of panicking students that raged across the quad. Off to their left, thick, roiling flames enveloped the main gymnasium. Before either could comment, both SoulChasers ducked as three secondary explosions rattled the gym’s lightweight entryway roof, belching thicker black smoke and adding to the orange inferno.
Then, amid the cacophony of chaos and destruction, a bright light suddenly appeared before Brenden and Pol. A moment later, the image of a man seated in a throne-like chair carved with intricate runes thrust forward from the center of the light. It only took him a heartbeat to become completely visible to the two SoulChasers.
“Pol, Brenden, the time has come to proceed with your retrieval,” said the man, who may have been looking right at them, but it was hard to tell given the dark spectacles that shaded his eyes.
“Understood,” Pol agreed, even as the Chronologist retreated back into the light, chair and all. Then the light itself paled out.
Pol yanked the small auto-pistol from the waistband at the small of his back. “You heard the man,” he said, sliding the upper rail back on the pistol to make sure it was loaded. “You check the quad. I’ll check ground zero, see if she’s there. If you find anyone, radio me on channel 7.” He pulled two earpieces he had swiped out of the Communications room from a pocket and handed one to Brenden. The other he fit into his right ear, tapping it to activate it.
Brenden nodded. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll be together.”
Without hesitation, Pol struck out across the quad, dodging students, teachers and Security alike.
The vast wave of students fleeing from the raging flames engulfing the gymnasium and its adjoining annex building, caused a flood of humanity that Pol struggled against. Trying to get as close as he could to the tragic scene, he wasn’t sure where he was going or what he may find. Through the crush he pushed, relying on the steady pulse of energy of the SoulStar in his pocket.
When he finally stood before the burning wreckage of the gymnasium, something instinctual urged him to turn and begin circling the smaller structure annex building; a power greater than he now guided him.
The chaos surrounding the burning buildings kept anyone from noticing Pol as he ducked and wove his way around to the skeletal remains of tall, metal scaffold stanchions. In his two weeks on this planet, Pol had never understood the purpose of the scaffolding; his best guess, the leftovers of some abandoned renovation or expansion to the gymnasium annex. Teetering and swaying now from the heat and damage they had sustained, at the moment they served no other purpose than as a danger to anyone nearby.
He found her there, mostly buried by brick, mortar, and some of the heavy scaffolding.
Blood coated Danae’s lips, dribbling down both cheeks to the asphalt ground where she lay. In her hands, she gripped the silver goblet, still encrusted with the blood of their most recent sacrifice.
In astonished silence, Pol worked his way through the debris, careful not to dislodge anything that could harm him.
“Draek?” she called out. Her voice gurgled from the blood caught in her throat. This caused a round of coughing that wracked her entire body, spraying crimson streams across her school uniform and red mist into the heat-saturated air.
“I’m here,” Pol called out to her as he reached her side. Her eyes didn’t seem to track properly, scanning the sky, the destroyed building nearby, anything but him. “Danea!” he called out to her. “I’m here!”
Hearing her name, Danea brought her gaze to bear on the SoulChaser and saw him truly for the first time. “You’re not Draek, are you?”
Understanding how close to death she was, Pol could only shake his head. Inside, he pressed down on the rising despair he felt toward her. His compassion warred with his common sense.
“What’s your name?” she choked out.
Meeting her gaze, Pol gave her his name.
A nod from Pol…
More coughing ensued and Danea tried to speak at the same time. “Helann said… you’d come for… her. Didn’t be..lieve her.”
Gauging that Danea’s injuries wouldn’t allow her to stay lucid much longer, Pol gently – yet firmly – guided her chin in his direction so that he could make complete eye contact. “Where is she, Danea?” he asked, hardening his voice to give it a bit of an edge. “I need to find her before she can hurt anyone else.”
Danea tried to shake her head, but Pol wouldn’t let it move. “Didn’t want to hurt anyone. She promised…”
“I know what she promised, but she lied. And now you’ve killed at least one person… probably more.” His voice now held no compassion or pity, despite her obvious pain.
A shimmering off to his right, beyond the fallen gridwork, caught Pol’s attention. From nowhere a beautiful, exotic looking woman walked into existence. Her black hair was pulled back in a severe queue at the nape of her neck; her dusky skin peeked out from beneath a tight, black, shapely body suit and leggings that fit from her waist to her knees, shrouded by a billowing black cloak. Cradled in her left arm rested a six-foot-long wood staff, engraved with intricate runes, each connected by stylized carved ivy. The engravings on the staff pulsed with an orange and red luminescence, as if the staff burned inside with a flame even hotter than the one destroying the buildings behind him. But it was the object that adorned the top of the woman’s stave that caught his attention. A curved silver blade, gleaming as if with a life of its own, left no question in Pol’s mind about the woman’s Calling.
“Madam Reaper,” Pol greeted the beautiful woman.
With a slightly tilted nod, the Reaper replied, “SoulChaser. I didn’t expect you to still be here.” Her voice seemed to echo in his mind as much as in his ears.
“I’m not quite done,” Pol explained, suddenly feeling like a little boy caught playing outside before finishing his chores.
Taking a slightly higher tone, like crystal chimes in a light breeze, the Reaper said, “Get what you need, then be gone. There are many here that require my attention, thanks to the SoulStar in your pocket.”
A flicker in his peripheral vision drew Pol’s attention. A second exotic woman stood there – shapely, with skin like fresh cream and hair more brilliant than the sun on the horizon. One Reaper didn’t worry Pol, but two – possibly more – couldn’t be ignored.
Pol returned his attention to Danea, who seemed captivated by the presence of the woman with the scythe. “I see you,” she managed to gurgle. Her wheezing breath now sounded like she breathed through water.
“Danea, I need to know where Helann went,” Pol demanded as firmly as he dared.
Her eyes fluttered for a moment, then Danae turned her gaze to him. “I never could deny you anything,” she whispered and despite himself, Pol blushed. The intimacies that Danae and Draek shared had nothing to do with him, and yet he felt his own secrets exposed by her simple declaration. “She took the girl out to the graveyard,” the young woman replied. With a flop of her right arm above her head, she managed to point in the direction of the military facility’s mechanical junkyard.
Despite the terrible atrocities he was sure Danea had participated in since being spiritually seduced by Helann, Pol couldn’t help himself… he leaned down and kissed Danea softly on the forehead.
Standing, he turned to the Reaper. “She’s all yours,” he said, then made his way out of the cramped space.
Without looking at Pol as he passed, the Reaper agreed, this time with a voice hard as granite, “Yes, she is.”
The unforgiving tone in the Reaper’s voice almost caused Pol to shiver as he struck out across the browning grass field between the school and the “graveyard”.
In his time here he hadn’t taken the time to find out what the administration officially called the many, many acres of discarded military equipment left out to rust away into oblivion. He and Brenden had searched the graveyard once, as part of their area recon in the early phase of this retrieval, but he found his own memories lacking and the host’s lingering memories woefully inadequate. All he could do now was let the SoulStar be his guide as he navigated through the stacks of old communication equipment, scrapped automobiles, and hulking shells of abandoned aircraft. It didn’t take long before he felt hopefully lost, yet he persevered, the SoulStar urging him forward. The path he traveled took him further and further from the military academy and deeper into the winding maze.
The long shadows began playing tricks with his vision and he nearly balked at a turn that his mind told him would only end in a dead end; but denying the guidance of the powerful relic was something he couldn’t do, so he followed its prompting and turned to his right. He came to an immediate halt when he realized that the turn had brought him to the open clearing at the graveyard’s heart.
There, looking as if she had waited all day just for him, stood Helann, holding onto the right wrist of a young girl. The rogue’s casual demeanor set Pol on edge.
Still, he hesitated.
Since Helann held the girl’s arm in one hand and concealed her other arm behind her back, Pol could only guess what she held there. He was certain that had it been only the two of them, it wouldn’t have mattered. He could’ve charged in, taken whatever damage she had planned for him and inflicted enough of his own to force the rogue soul out of the poor young lady, Beverly’s, body.
The presence of the young red-headed girl complicated things for him. As if to aggravate the situation, Helann called out sweetly, “How does it feel to be standing before a General of the next Eternity War, SoulChaser?”
Caught off-guard, Pol replied, “What do you mean?”
“You don’t know, yet?” Helann took great pleasure in this revelation. “The Eternals think this is merely a flare up of rogue activity. What they don’t know is that this is only for starters.” She shook the girl’s arm, jostling her around like a rag doll. “Don’t tell me this little girl is going to keep you from doing your duty, SoulChaser.”
Before he could respond, Pol sensed motion beside him, immediately confirmed by a soothing, deeply resonating voice that said, “Worry not, SoulChaser. We are here. Jean Archer is under our protection.”
Without looking, Pol nodded his acknowledgment to the spectral Guardian, who then placed a gentle hand on the SoulChaser’s shoulder. For a brief moment, Pol glimpsed the mortal realm through the angel’s sight. Before him, haloed by near-white light, twelve persons stood, ringed around little Jean Archer.
“What’s wrong?” Helann demanded now, breaking into Pol’s reverie.
Throwing caution to the wind, Pol grunted in response, dropped Danae’s knife into his palm from where he’d concealed it in his right sleeve, and dove forward.
Anticipating the move, Helann tried to drag Jean out from behind her, intending to use the child as a shield, but to her immediate astonishment, the girl couldn’t be budged.
Two swift steps later, Danae’s knife was loosed from Pol’s hand and much to Helann’s astonishment it hissed forward and fully embedded itself in her left shoulder with a thump!
Without a word, Jean took advantage of Helann’s injury to wriggle free of the rogue’s grip and scamper on all fours into one of the many makeshift tunnels of huge machine parts that catacombed the graveyard.
The impact of Pol slamming into Helann threw her to the ground with a grunt, dislodging the small object she’d held concealed behind her back. It bounced and rolled several feet away; Pol only recognized it peripherally as a “biologicals only” grenade.
Pol rolled Helann onto her back and straddled her abdomen, one knee on each side of her.
“Enjoy your little victory, SoulChaser,” Helann spat at him. “It’s a hollow one. This won’t even pause the tide that is coming.”
Pausing despite his training, Pol said, “What do you mean, slag?”
But Helann just began to laugh, a cackle that looked surreal coming from the gentle face of the “girl next door”.
The rogue still laughed, blood spilling openly from the knife wound.
Filing her words away for later consideration – and hoping that Helann had set the grenade’s timer with enough seconds for little Jean to make an escape – Pol withdrew the SoulStar and placed it against Helann’s chest, one of each of the relic’s four pronged feet touching its corresponding point of upper and lower sternum and the inside edge of each breast.
Helann gasped as the SoulStar’s clear center stone began to swirl a luminescent green.
In the sky above, strange multi-hued lightning flashed and coalesced in the cloudless blue.
With a final shudder, Helann’s host’s eyes bulged for a moment, then went dim and lifeless.
A satisfied nod and grab for the SoulStar were the last things Pol managed before a yellow flash beside him caused the world to erupt with heat and a moment of intense pain.
When Brenden burst onto the scene several seconds later at a full run, the smoke and heat had already dissipated, revealing the original clearing in the center of the equipment graveyard, not a living thing in sight.
“SoulChaser #2: Heaven’s Eyes”
Now available in trade paperback!
SoulChaser, Earthbound #2: Heaven’s Eyes (trade paperback) – $15.00
SoulChaser, Earthbound #2: Heaven’s Eyes – $24.00
You can order the other books in both the “SoulChaser Universe” and “Starriders Saga” below:
Jean Archer #1: The Diamond and the Rough (paperback) – $12.00
Jean Archer #1.5: Sticks & Stones (ebook single) – $.99
SoulChaser: Earthbound (paperback) – $14.00
Starriders #1: The Eagle’s Talon (paperback) – $7.95
Starriders #2: Rebels Without A Clue (paperback) – $9.95