EXCERPT: Notna

I’m excited to share with you an excerpt of my upcoming novel Notna, which will be available sometime in late 2017 in both paperback and Kindle. Keep in mind that this is a first draft and there will likely be changes before publication. Enjoy!

The Not-Too-Distant Future…
Depending on the culture, the Underworld has been known by several other names. Gehinnom, Sheol, Hades, Hell, the Fire… seemingly every Western culture or religion has some version of a spiritual place full of torment and punishment for the wicked. A simplified version of what was actually the truth — and the Underworld was not latched to any particular religion. It existed on its own merits, a hellscape of eternal fire and bloodshed. This was not merely a place for the wicked; anyone could fall captive to the Underworld’s eternal prison. No one ever escaped with their life or their sanity intact; the few who would manage to cross back over were condemned to a life of solitude and mental degradation. The ones who died in the Underworld were, in all honesty, the fortunate ones. But even they were faced with futures full of little more than torment and bloodshed.

On this night, the Underworld doubled as a battlefield. The final battlefield, truth be told. Fresh blood pooled everywhere, severed limbs decorating the drab, lifeless landscape. Fires blazed skyward, flames reaching for a nonexistent ceiling. The constant roar of the fire provided the soundtrack for swords clanging together, sparks flying, and warriors crying at the top of their lungs. Those cries were cut short when a blade lopped off a head or rendered a battle-hardened warrior defenseless. One of the Divine’s finest sword-wielders looked on in disgust as his hands were severed from his arms, still clutching his sword. But before he had a chance to look up, the leather-skinned demon swiped just under the warrior’s chin. The blow was clean, and the blood didn’t flow until the warrior’s head slid off and fell to the ground in a fit of dust.

From atop his throne, built from the bones of those who had dared defy him over the centuries, Seraphus couldn’t help but grin. This was what he spent the last several hundred years working toward: breaking his realm’s stalemate with the Divine and finally gaining the upper hand in this never-ending war. His smile grew when his eyes glanced down at the body at his feet. The previous bearer of the Gem of Notna had been formidable, far more than Seraphus had expected, but in the end, he was just another human being. Snapping his neck has been satisfying, but not nearly as much as prying the gem from his cold body and taking it as Seraphus’ own. The crystal hissed in protest initially, but once it settled into the ruler’s chest, talons and tendrils slithering all over his pale frame, he knew he was worthy.

And now that Seraphus had the gem, the Divine was without hope.

But there was one Divine warrior who hadn’t yet given up. Seraphus watched with great interest as Josef cut a swath among his demon hordes. Josef had died in battle several hundred years ago, at the hand of the vampire Demostricus, but the Divine — in a fit of panic — had resurrected him to serve as an ally for the Chosen One. Though the Chosen One lay dead and broken at Seraphus’ feet, Josef continued his rampage. He beheaded Ornias with little effort, green blood splattering onto his brown cheeks, his shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail. Another armored demon got the jump on Josef, but a well-placed elbow allowed him to break free. One more sword swipe and another demon head fell to the ground.

Two more demons approached, one from each side. Josef grit his teeth and pulled a dagger from the small of his back. With a blade in each hands, Josef thrust both arms out to either side of himself. Both weapons plunged into the demons’ respective necks. Seraphus couldn’t help but cringe at the resulting bloodbath and the gargled screams of his fallen minions.

“Seraphus!” Josef called out from the bottom of the throne. He smashed one of the skulls with his sword. “This ends now!”

Rising from his throne, Seraphus kicked the body at his feet aside and curled his hands into fists. Black eyes turned red and began to glow, as did the ruler’s fists. He was shirtless, a scar running from his right shoulder all the day down, across his abdomen, and stopping near his groin. Of all the scars Seraphus had accumulated over the years, this was his proudest. It spoke to his resilience, his tenacity. His refusal to let anyone or anything stand in his way. He approached the warrior with slow, purposeful steps until they were level with one another.

“Does it?” Seraphus couldn’t help the chuckle that burst past his lips. “You are losing, nomad! Your numbers are few!”

“So I should just quit?” Josef twirled the sword, which was a foot taller than him, over his head. “You don’t know me very well, heathen.”

“I know enough.” Seraphus raised his right fist, a black tendril snaking out from the gem on his chest and slashing Josef across the cheek. The warrior responded by slicing the tendril in two, a loud hissing filling his ears and causing him to recoil. Seraphus used the opportunity to close the distance, sinews of lively black covering the ruler from head to toe like armor. He grabbed Josef by the neck and lifted him into the air. “I know your Chosen One has fallen. I know your numbers are few. I know you, valiant as ever, are weak.”

Josef, struggling for breath, grit his teeth and kicked Seraphus in the stomach. The ruler loosened his grip and Josef swung his sword. Sparks shot from the tendrils as the blade bounced off with no damage done. Josef tossed the weapon aside and bumrushed Seraphus, tackling the ruler to the ground. They both grunted when Seraphus’ back slammed into the ground, dust kicking up around them.

“I know you talk too much,” Josef muttered, backhanding Seraphus across the face. Something black spills from Seraphus’ nose and mouth.

More tendrils shoot out from the gem, wrapping around Josef’s neck and pulling his arms away from Seraphus. The warrior struggled with every bit of strength he had, but the sinews only tightened their grip as the hissing grew louder. Josef found himself hovering several feet in the air, the living armor surrounding him growing thicker and more voluminous. It began creeping onto his face, and as Josef bit back as scream, he felt one of the sharp points poke him in the side of the neck. A drop of blood fell onto Seraphus’ foot.

The ruler grinned, the glowing around his eyes almost blinding by now. Both fists unfurled and Seraphus raised his arms above his head. “Enough!”

Seraphus’ voice echoed throughout the Underworld, a large tendril shooting from the gem and piercing Josef’s neck. The warrior gagged when the weapon came out the other side of his neck, blood pouring down his chest. His eyes widened for a moment before all of the breath left Josef’s lungs. He fell slack, now dead, hung upright and in the air by nothing more than the gem’s living armor. With a snap of Seraphus’ fingers, the tendrils disappeared. Josef’s body fell to the ground in a heap, and he watched as five angels followed suit, having fallen in the heat of battle.

At last… at last, Seraphus’ moment of triumph was nigh.

When the war was at its peak, Hermes found himself terribly overwhelmed. Grabbing Cassandra Federov, the blue-haired woman who had been The Chosen One’s partner from the beginning, he had hidden behind one of the many mountains decorating the otherwise barren landscape. There were bloodstains and burn marks littered throughout the surface, but it provided the Wise One and Cassandra the cover they needed. Cassandra, predictably, had resisted the urge to hide, but considering how many of the Divine’s soldiers were helpless in this battle, Hermes wasn’t about to let a mere mortal run into the line of fire.

But that was before the Chosen One had fallen. Minutes later, the image of the Chosen One’s neck being snapped in half was vivid enough to turn Hermes’ stomach. He closed his eyes and raked a shaky hand through his white hair. The scar on his cheek throbbed, and for the first time since the Primordial had informed him of the prophecy coming to pass, Hermes was at a loss. The Primordial had failed. The balance within the universe had shifted with this new development, the centuries-old stalemate between the Underworld and the Divine over. Seraphus had his army ready, and no matter what the Divine had done — aligned itself with the Chosen One, resurrected its most decorated warriors, nothing was going to stop Seraphus.

Especially now that he had the Gem of Notna.

As soon as Josef’s lifeless body landed, Hermes sank down to his knees. He cradled his face in his hands for several heartbreaking seconds, letting the emotion of the moment overwhelm him. His impossibly blue eyes, once the picture of clarity, were now clouded with tears. Tears of loss. Tears of mourning. Tears of failure. The Chosen One was supposed to be Earth’s salvation; instead, he suffered the same fate all mortal men did — albeit in a far more violent and destructive way. The screams of the dying filled Hermes’ ears, drowning out the roar of the hellfire. This truly was it. This was the night he was finally going to meet his end. For real this time.

“Josef is dead,” Hermes whispered with a shake of his head, staring skyward. A dragon roared by, one wing twice his size. Were the beast focused on Hermes, it would have itself an easy meal. Instead, the dragon swooped down low, gathering two Divine warriors into its mouth and ending their lives with its powerful jaws. The red spray made Hermes flinch; hundreds of years of war, and he still wasn’t used to the bloodshed. Perhaps this was why he never actually fought.

Hermes glanced to his left to see Cassandra where she had been ever since Seraphus had snapped the Chosen One’s neck. She was on her knees, practically catatonic. There was a distant, not-even-hear-here look in her green eyes. A scratch on her cheek trickled blood, but she didn’t notice it. She didn’t even blink. None of her muscles moved. Not even a twitch. So many times in recent months, Cassandra had been the one to insist on soldiering on, fighting the battles that needed to be fought. More than once, Hermes had wondered if the Gem of Notna had gotten it wrong. Jack Corbett had been a fine Chosen One, no question, but Cassandra had proven to be even bit as worthy as he… if not more so.

Just as obvious, though, had been Cassandra’s love for Jack. The devotion she felt to him was so strong, not even a war for the fate of the Earth could turn her away. But now, that devotion had led to her worst fear: the man she loved dying, right in front of her, and there was nothing she could do about it. Were the situation not so dire, Hermes would not begrudge Cassandra her moment of stasis; in fact, he felt the urge to go catatonic himself. But they couldn’t afford that. Not yet.

“Cassandra,” Hermes said, gently placing his aging hands on her shoulders.

No response.

The dragon returned overhead, its roar a blood-curdling shriek that vibrated in Hermes’ bones. He cringed and shook his head, making sure the monster wasn’t coming for him before turning his attention to Cassandra once more. “Cassandra, are you here? Are you with me? Say something!”

At first, Cassandra was as still and as silent as she had been. But without warning, her eyes turned red and began to glow. She lifted her gaze, chin held up high. The moment startled Hermes so much that he let go of her, watching in awe as Cassandra got back to her feet and began to float. She went from inches above the ground to several feet, until Hermes had to crane his neck to get a look at her. The energy surrounding her eyes was now encasing her entire body. Her hands had curled into fists. Hermes opened his mouth, but there were no words.

Instead, she looked down upon him.

We are here, O Wise One. There was an echo to Cassandra’s voice, as if she were no longer the only one occupying her mind. The Bearer has fallen. The Nomad has fallen. The Primordial was wrong not to interfere.

Hermes didn’t disagree, though this wasn’t exactly the time for an I told you so.

Returning to the ground, Cassandra grabbed one of Hermes’ hands and gave it a squeeze. When his eyes met hers, Cassandra nodded. Consider this our apology.

Cassandra pushed herself skyward, as if flying were something she had been doing for years. A force field of red energy surrounded her and she made a beeline for Seraphus, who was now back on his throne with Josef’s severed head in his lap. Seraphus! She called out, and Hermes couldn’t help the self-satisfied smile that spread across his face when Seraphus jumped to his feet, the head careening down the staircase back to the ground.

The Primordial has always acted in… indirect ways, Cassandra began, grabbing Seraphus by the throat and squeezing until black blood oozed out from under her fingertips. She lifted Seraphus into the air, almost reaching the same height the dragon had just moments before. But even we were helpless to stop this. Well… not so much helpless as stubborn.

Cassandra released her grip, and Seraphus plummeted several hundred feet back to the ground. He landed with a stomach-churning thud, several bones snapping in the process. Seraphus did not immediately return to his feet, barely able to get back to his knees. His nose was broken, a fountain of black spewing from his nostrils down his face. He grit his teeth and snarled before Cassandra landed behind him, grabbed a tuft of his dark hair, and smashed him face-first into the ground once more.

You will not win, O Terrible One. We will not allow it.

A tendril shot out from the gem still embedded in Seraphus’ chest, impaling Cassandra in the stomach. She doubled over with a grunt, her free hand reaching down to grab the strand of sinew buried in her gut. With another grunt, this one almost a scream, she yanks out the tendril and snaps it at a ninety-degree angle. The resulting hiss of anger and pain is sudden, before the strand recoiled back within the ruler. The red in her eyes was now white hot, and Cassandra flipped Seraphus onto his back before straddling him and choking him with both hands.

“I will take back what is mine,” the echo was gone from Cassandra’s voice, “and end this war!”

Reaching into Seraphus’ chest, Cassandra grabbed the gem and began to yank. The ruler’s skin was molded into the crystal itself, and the harder Cassandra yanked, the more Seraphus cringed and writhed in pain. Eventually, the skin began to tear away. Seraphus grunted and bit back several screams, but once Cassandra finally managed to pry the crystal from his chest, her fingers coated in black blood and the tendrils that had swiped at her disappearing, the ruler could hide the pain no more. His scream echoed throughout the abyss, catching all of his undead minions off-guard.

Hermes watched on in awe. Becoming a vessel for the Primordial had actually been her idea. Seeing everyone around her so supernaturally inclined had left Cassandra wondering if there was anything she could do to change that — and seeing as how she wasn’t going to abandon Jack any time soon, Hermes thought it wise to at least investigate the possibility. Gaia and the rest of the Primordial hadn’t been happy — Hermes long thought they were nothing more than lazy do-nothings who hated to be imposed upon — but given the gravity of the situation had reluctantly agreed.

Upon meeting Cassandra, Hermes had underestimated her. What she had lacked in physical strength, she more than made up for in cunning, intellect, and heart. In many ways, she surpassed even Jack, and Hermes felt that she would’ve been just as deserving of being the Chosen One. Even now, he had to chuckle at the memory of something she had once said: Why is the Chosen One always a he?

Well, because the world was an unfair place.

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