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Lych (now in revision)

Finished Lych this past Wednesday, so this is the official re-opening of my blogging. I’ll be revising the novel starting in May, but right now I figure I may as well whip up a rough query describing the thing to anyone interested. With luck, you’ll see this book on bookshelves someday.

Med Student Sam Coast knows Dr. Vitaly Khostov has been stealing body parts from cadavers. What Sam doesn’t know is that Khostov is not who he says he is. If Sam were smart, he’d mind his own business and keep his head down in anatomy lab; Sam, though, isn’t all that smart.

The more Sam snoops, the worse his life starts to get. Khostov isn’t just creepy, he’s downright dangerous. He might be ex-KGB, he might be a sorcerer, or he might not even be alive. Whatever he is, Sam has accidentally blown Khostov’s cover and, in the process, made himself a target. Next thing Sam knows, he’s being threatened by Khostov, followed by the FBI, and chased by monsters. Sam has to decide whether he can trust the creepy little Russian ‘sorcerer’ in the old suit: Is he a monster? Is he a friend? Is he even human? Whatever he is, Sam knows that sticking to Khostov, for better or for worse, is the only chance he has to survive.

Lych (85,700 words) is a supernatural thriller currently under revision that follows both the exploits of Sam Coast and chronicles the plight of Vitaly Khostov that led him to America, taking the reader from the Battle of Stalingrad to the gulags of Siberia to the streets of Boston’s South End.

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The End of the Tunnel

Note: the forest on the other side are the wilds of Revision

Note: the forest on the other side are the wilds of Revision

For the past few months I’ve been closing in on the end of a complete draft for my latest novel. As of yesterday, it hit the ‘tipping point’. There’s less than fifty pages left in this sucker, probably closer to thirty, and that means I am probably going to bury myself in it and finish it in one go.

All of my novels hit this point towards the end. Traditionally, it means that I cocoon myself in my office and write non-stop for a couple days, forgetting sometimes even to eat, until the thing is finished. I’ve completed four novels to date, and its happened with each of them when I get to the end of the initial draft. I’ve heard this happens for other authors, too.

While I can’t speak for anybody but myself, part of why I believe this happens is because writing a novel is a lot like solving a labyrinth. You know, ultimately, where you want the whole thing to go, but getting there often involves twists and turns you didn’t anticipate, dead ends that turn you around, and the occasional spot where you find yourself going around in circles. Then, though, in a fit of inspiration, you see the whole damned thing – the path from where you are now to the finish line in perfect clarity. At that point you are no longer lost. You’ve got it. It just remains to write it all down. The feeling is exhilarating, and you feel an almost physical compulsion to finish it, no matter how long it takes.

Of course, this tipping point has coincided with the end of the fall semester, which means stacks of papers to grade as well. That complicates things somewhat, but I should be very surprised if I don’t have Lych done by Christmas, one way or another. So, what I’m saying here is that my blog will be neglected, one way or another, for the next 2-3 weeks or so. Sorry. I’m sure the internet has other ways to distract you, anyway.

Then, of course, I’m going to have to face the infinitely harder task of revising the novel I have now, which is nothing like a labyrinth and everything like a CIA interrogation at a black site. Anyway, wish me luck, and I’ll see you all on the other side!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, too!

The Year in Review (2012-2013)

WordPress has just informed me that it’s been another year of me writing this blog o’ mine. Seeing how I don’t have anything else pressing to discuss, this anniversary is fortuitous as it gives me something to write about, if only briefly.

I have pretty consistently posted about twice a week on this blog: almost always on Monday, and then again on either Wednesday or Friday, depending. I’ve doubled the number of followers I have and views on the site have varied from several hundred to fifty. This summer it has been around fifty pretty much consistently. This puts me behind the 2011-2012 view numbers, but that’s okay. I barely promote this blog and fifty views a day is enough for me to know that somebody is reading this thing and that I can be found if someone is looking.

While I enjoy blogging, my purpose here isn’t really to blog, per se. I don’t want to be a ‘blogger’ by trade or affectation. I’m a writer, and writing a blog is a way to establish that I exist to a digital world that is barely aware of me. This is, in essence, my digital office, wherein I make small inroads into making sure my name pops up in a Google search. I’m trying not to invest too much of my time into it, since the more time I spend here, the less time I spend actually writing. Of course, as somebody who has difficulty doing things by half measures, two posts a week are my minimum standard for maintaining this thing. If I’m going to write a blog, I’m going to write a blog; it isn’t something I’ll abandon on a whim. If I intend to quit updating for a while, you’ll hear about it.

On the subject of my professional aims, this has been a pretty good year in terms of writing. As of this moment, I have four stories accepted to various publications. Some of them haven’t supplied me with contracts yet, so I hesitate lauding them, but one of them is a really big publication credit to my mind (*cough* Analog *cough*). When I have a fixed idea of when these four stories are going to be released, I’ll be certain to let you know and prod you to buy/read them.

On the novel-writing front, things go well there, too. This summer I wrote the first third of the sequel to The Oldest Trick (mostly because I love Tyvian Reldamar, and for no greater professional purpose) as well as more than half of a new novel, which is currently titled simply Lych – it’s urban fantasy, which is a bit more saleable in the current market (I hope), and I hope to finish a rough draft by the end of winter at the latest.

This is me, kicking ass and taking names. You know, if I were a female war-angel and not a 30-something year old white nerd.

This is me, kicking ass and taking names. You know, if I were a female war-angel and not a 30-something year old white nerd.

The two novels I have finished and am shopping around (The Rubric of All Things and The Oldest Trick) are still under consideration at Harper Voyager books following their open submission call, which is a good thing. At last check, the editors told me they were both ‘very much still under consideration’, which I am taking as a hopeful sign one of them will be picked up. The Rubric of All Things, by the way, was the one that made Quarterfinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. All good news!

Finally, on an ‘actually pays me money’ professional note, I have been promoted out of adjunct professor-hood to a full-time lecturer/faculty associate of English at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University (whew! some title – I know). I start that new position tomorrow, which is very exciting as it will be the first time in my professional life I will have an office of my own (it may even have a door!). Go me!

So, in closing – thank you all for reading, and please continue to do so. This blog has been a great way to get the creative juices flowing and to share some of my ideas with whoever wants to listen. As a writer and a teacher, I do so enjoy hearing myself talk. I am glad there are at least a few people out there who do, as well.

The Lych of Stalingrad

Author’s Note: What follows is an excerpt of a project I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own work, so I figured I’d toss this one out there. The novel itself is in a state of severe ‘take entirely apart and put back together again’ revision, so whether this scene even stays is on the ropes. I think it makes for a pretty sweet opening, anyway. Hope you enjoy it and, of note, it is *rough*, so please excuse the occasional typo/awkward phrase. Thanks! ~AAH

Prologue

November, 1942

Stalingrad

 

snowy_tiger_by_radojavor-d4jkpl5The men moved like hunting dogs in the dying light – heads cocked, ears pointed to the sky, every step made with ruthless caution. The ruined city looked as though cloaked in snow, a thin layer of white coating the blackened remnants of apartment buildings, machinery, and lampposts. It was not snow. It was ash.

Somewhere not very far away the frenetic pop and crack of rifles would start up and then stop and then start again. This was a time of peace for the city; in an hour or so, when darkness filled every empty doorway and rubble-choked trench, the real dirty fighting would begin again. Face-to-face, toe-to-toe, Stalin had ordered his soldiers as close to the Germans as they could get, hugging their lines in a masochistic embrace. The dead were piled in every alley, Russian and German alike.

Then men creeping down the ash-white street knew this. They were all veterans who had invaded the city with Hitler’s Sixth Army and had been here ever since, painting the masonry of Stalin’s city with the blood of its defenders. Hard men in chalk-grey coats, their eyes a thousand miles away, their fingers never far from the trigger. They moved quickly; they knew the way.

None of them looked at the officer who was with them, striding down the street as though this place were the corridors of his private library. His black trenchcoat was spotlessly clean, his peaked cap, which had never known the touch of dirt, sported the silver eagle of the Reich, and his leather gloves still shone. He had arrived in the city just yesterday, with a signed order from the Führer himself. He said his name was Hoffstadt, and that ten men were to take him behind Soviet lines and into an area of the city known to be abandoned and avoided by both sides for reasons no German officer had been able to adequately explain to his superiors.

No one had dared to argue with him; the men simply hoped Hoffstadt would catch a sniper’s bullet and then the ten of them could ditch his body and head back to their own lines. He had not. Not yet.

Stalingrad had been so ravaged by the battle that it was difficult, at times, to tell where a street ended and a ruin began and vice versa. Hoffstadt got the sense that they were crossing streets and slinking through ruins rather than following the map he’d been given; he found himself passing through the devastated remnants of kitchens and sitting rooms, bullet-riddled bedrooms and bathrooms. He felt like an archaeologist of sorts, passing through the living spaces of people long since dead and gone and for whom there would be no eulogy save their bathtub, shrapnel cracked and smoke stained, that had once served as a crucial machine gun nest.

The sergeant called the men to a halt with a silent hand gesture. They were at the base of a stairway that led to nothing – a building whose top floors had been removed by some work of explosive destruction – peering through a half-open doorway with the tangled concrete rubble of the rest of the city block on two sides. Not bothering to duck, Hoffstadt stepped beside the sergeant and whispered. “What is the matter? Why the delay?”

“Please, mein Herr, lower your voice.” The sergeant hissed. “The enemy could be anywhere.”

“We haven’t seen or heard a Russian for blocks now.” Hoffstadt said, brushing dust off his epaulets. “You men have become overly cautious. This area is devoid of enemy activity.”

“And yet, mein Herr, those who go in do not come out.”

“That, gentlemen, is why I am here. Trust me – I am prepared for what we face.” He patted the satchel at his side. “Is it just over there?”

The sergeant poked his head out of the door in the direction that Hoffstadt pointed. “The Russians claim the koldun lives in that church across that plaza, yes. Allow my men to secure the area, though, before you…”

Hoffstadt stepped through the door and into the open.

The church was not a church, of course. Not anymore – the communists had repurposed the building, torn down its iconography, and made it into a shrine to the Russian Worker, instead. Iron murals of taut-muscled young men working hammers and scythes flanked the entryway; posters with red stars and the mustachioed face of Comrade Stalin were plastered across fat stone pillars. The front of the church had taken a direct hit from an artillery shell, leaving a ragged hole in the upper façade, like a mouth wailing at the sky. Hoffstadt walked toward it, and when he was not shot, the soldiers followed, hopping from cover to cover as they crawled in his wake.

The plaza before the church was strewn with rubble and threaded haphazardly with razorwire, but these things did not catch Hoffstadt’s attention. He stepped around and past them, his eyes fixed on a spectacle spread out across the base of the wide stairs leading up to the church’s front doors. It was a row of wooden stakes, each over six feet long, set into the ground at regular intervals. Impaled on each was a human head, severed at the neck or perhaps torn from its moorings – it was difficult to tell. Flies buzzed around each stake, and as Hoffstadt grew closer, he could see that each was sticky with blood. He stopped just shy of crossing the line. The soldiers, weapons ready, crouched in the half-darkness behind him.

“Hello in there!” Hoffstadt yelled in Russian. The deathly silence of the plaza seemed to swallow the words. He raised his voice. “Is anyone at home? Hello?”

As one, the eyes of the severed heads opened. Hoffstadt’s breath caught in his throat. “Is that you, Khostov?”

The bloodied, lipless mouths of the heads moved in unison. The soft, rasping whisper of a dozen severed vocal chords awkwardly vibrating filled the air. “Who are you?”

Hoffstadt smiled and looked back at the soldiers. Their faces were as pale as those of the heads. They looked at him with wide, panicked eyes. He motioned for calm and, just for fun, gave them a wink. He then planted his feet and faced the heads again. “So it is you, isn’t it?”

Who are you?”

“I am Ernst Hoffstadt, special advisor attached to the Führer’s SS. I am looking for the Russian sorcerer named Vitaly Khostov. Is there anyone by that name here?” Hoffstadt grinned. “Perhaps it is one of these heads, eh?”

“You are not welcome here.” The heads moaned. Their fish-white eyes rolled in their blackened sockets.

“Yes. I had gathered that.” Hoffstadt reached into the satchel and drew out a small pewter flask embossed with a golden swastika. He casually unscrewed the cap.

“Sir!” The sergeant had his MP40 trained on the heads; his hands shook. “What…what is this? Is this real?”

Hoffstadt looked down at the man and thought about it. No, there was no sense in explaining. “It’s electronics, Sergeant. A theatre show, yes? Remain calm – all is well.”

“You are not welcome here.” The heads repeated.

Hoffstadt chuckled. “And yet, here I am.” He stepped forward a full pace, up to the very edge of the line of stakes, and poured a fine white powder out of the flask. It collected in a small pile at his feet; he began to walk, drawing a white line against the scorched, blackened earth in a large circle about two paces across and then took up a position at the center of it.

“Begone.” The whispers from the dead lips lacked inflection, but Hoffstadt felt he could detect something behind the words—frustration, perhaps. Annoyance? All the better.

“I will not leave until I’ve completed my mission, Herr Khostov. My mission is to speak with you, in person. If you will come out of your little ruin and have a conversation with me, I will gladly go away. Until then, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.” Hoffstadt smiled and folded his hands behind his back. He waited for the counterstroke.

It came from one of the soldiers. He was a simple private – a youngish man with an uneven yellow beard. His blue eyes were transfixed on the heads, his face locked in an expression of mute horror. Out of the corner of his eye, Hoffstadt saw him slowly stand up, Mauser rifle gripped tightly in his hands, eyes still glued to the heads. Hoffstadt could see their lips moving, but they made no sound. Whatever they said, it was for the soldier alone.

“Gerd!” The sergeant barked, “Get down! What is the matter with you.”

Hoffstadt smiled and drew his nickel-plated P38 from its embossed holster. “Do not worry, Sergeant. Gerd isn’t himself at the moment.”

The soldier turned his rifle towards Hoffstadt, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, his veins bulging from his neck. Hoffstadt waited just long enough to make certain the young private couldn’t snap out of it, and then he shot him once through the heart. Gerd dropped his rifle, fell to his knees, and then collapsed, face first, into the ash. The soldiers were utterly still; some of them looked to the sergeant.

“You acknowledge, Sergeant, that young Gerd over there was about to shoot me, yes?”

The sergeant was looking at Gerd’s body. His face was as gray as his coat. “Yes, mein Herr. Yes, but…”

Hoffstadt turned back to the heads. “A very good trick, Herr Khostov, but you must agree that it is inefficient. I can shoot down any man you seek to dominate, and then where are we, eh?”

The heads regarded him with their empty eyes, their mouths quivering in unison. It took Hoffstadt a moment, but he realized that they were laughing.

“Mein…mein Herr…” The sergeant managed to croak, his voice labored as though he were carrying a great weight. Hoffstadt looked – the sergeant was slowly rising, his eyes fixed upon the dead gaze of the heads, just as Gerd’s had been. All nine of the remaining men were doing the same, all of their faces frozen with terror, all of them slowly, inexorably turning their weapons towards Hoffstadt.

Seven rounds left in the magazine, nine men. Hoffstadt kept calm, taking careful aim. The pistol barked seven times, and seven more bodies dropped. The last two were the Sergeant and his corporal. Hoffstadt could see them fighting the compulsion, their bodies trembling as though they might shake apart at any moment. Hoffstadt fell to one knee as the corporal fired, the rifle shot zinging past his head close enough to blow off his hat. He ejected the P38 magazine with one hand as the other fished its replacement out of his satchel. The corporal’s trembling hands reluctantly worked the bolt on his Mauser.

The sergeant’s MP40, though, was unlikely to miss at this range. The submachine gun roared to life, spitting a half dozen rounds into Hoffstadt’s chest, ripping apart his fine trenchcoat and throwing the SS operative onto his back.

The sergeant’s weapon jammed, but the compelled German soldier could not stop holding down the trigger. Hoffstadt rolled to knees and stood up, chuckling. “You are not the only one with secrets, Herr Khostov.” He chambered the first round in his pistol and shot the sergeant in the face, then the corporal in the throat – his aim was a bit off.

The heads had fallen silent.

Hoffstadt took off the trenchcoat. His uniform beneath was likewise riddled with bullets, but the effect was less noticeable. He shook himself and the flattened slugs clattered out from underneath his shirt. “The Green Draught – surely you know it, yes? My, but it tastes terrible. The effects, though,” Hoffstadt pointed to his chest. “They cannot be argued with.”

“It only protects against some things.” A figure in a dark cowl stood in the doors of the old church. Hoffstadt could see nothing of his features, but his voice was somehow still and cold, like a pond in winter.

“Herr Khostov, I presume.”

The figure did not move. “What do you want?”

Hoffstadt holstered his pistol and picked his hat up, brushing the ashes off its brim. “It is not what I want, Herr Khostov, but what you want. I come with an offer from the Führer himself.”

The black-cowled form of Khostov came closer, seeming to float down the cracked steps. In the distance, an artillery shell exploded, lighting the sky. “And why would I accept an offer made by your Führer?”

“Do you think there is a future for you here?” Hoffstadt squinted in the dying light at the Russian sorcerer. He thought he might have seen something…glowing. Underneath the hood of the cowl, perhaps?

“You presume a great deal.” Khostov stood at the edge of the line of stakes, their grisly top-pieces now silent. Another shell brightened the waning light of day.

“The Russians are finished, Herr Khostov. When we have crushed them here, it will all soon be over. Even if it weren’t true, just how welcoming do you think Comrade Stalin will be of a man of your…peculiar talents? He will seek to enslave you; the Reich would seek to uplift you. We welcome you as a member of the superior race. This could be the beginning of your greatest triumph.”

“You would have me abandon brutes to work with butchers.” Khostov observed quietly. Hoffstadt could definitely see something glimmering beneath the cowl, now, as the night was falling faster and faster.

“We are but pruning the tree of humanity, Herr Khostov. We are paying the price for a better tomorrow—surely you, of all people, would understand the need for sacrifice to achieve greatness.”

Khostov, now barely visible except as a black outline in the dark, shook his cowled head. “No. I am no judge of such things and neither is Hitler. I reject your offer, Ernst Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer moved to come closer, but paused at the edge of the white powder the nazi had poured around himself.

Hoffstadt grinned. “Salt, Herr Khostov. The barrier your kind cannot cross, yes? We have studied, you see. We know more than you realize.”

Khostov produced a sound that Hoffstadt thought was some kind of cough or wheeze, but as it intensified, he realized that the Russian sorcerer was laughing. It was a thin, gallows-laugh, mirthless and chilling. Somewhere, far away, another bomb dropped, shaking the earth. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s so funny, Herr Khostov…”

Khostov’s hooded head turned towards him, and now Hoffstadt could see the two globes of pale green light hanging there in the depths of the cowl – the eyes of something wicked, something damned. “You have made a mistake only a Nazi would, Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer – the creature – stepped smoothly over the line of salt. “This salt is not kosher.”

Hoffstadt staggered backwards, but Khostov’s hands – little more than bony claws – seized him by the arm. There was the flash of a distant flare and, for a split second, Hoffstadt saw what was beneath the sorcerer’s cowl: A half-decayed human skull, muscle clinging in tarry strips across the face, and floating in the empty eye-sockets was that deathly green light.

Ernst Hoffstadt’s screams were muffled by the sound of Nazi bombs and artillery shells rending asunder that which, with utmost care and hope, Russian hands had put together.

The Koldun in the Wood

The air was hot and thick with ash; the shetl had burned easily, even without gasoline. Obersturmfuhrer Werner Stolik was pleased with this – the army was moving quickly through the wide open steppes of Russia, and gasoline was becoming increasingly difficult to replace. Bullets, too; he’d ordered the villagers to be bayoneted, to avoid further wastage.

All in all, things would be going smoothly and this little errand for his superiors would be resounding success, save for one small hiccup. It was a ridiculous thing, honestly, but the SS didn’t deal in loose ends and somebody somewhere down the line has screwed up. That person’s name was Untersharfuhrer Marcus Dantrich, and presently Stolik was off to fix whatever mess the idiot sergeant had gotten himself into.

It was amazing to Stolik how easy it was to lose men in the steppe. He didn’t mean casualties – he’d barely had any of those – but rather the literal meaning of “lose”. The broad, flat, open plains could somehow swallow you and, if you wandered too far and didn’t keep a keen eye on your compass, you’d be as lost as any sailor at sea. Stolik had sent Dantrich off on patrol with three men to try and round up any of the villagers who had tried to slip off. They hadn’t come back.

They were stormtroopers – SS – the Fuhrer’s finest. Stolik had every confidence they were fine, but they were almost certainly lost, and they needed to be found. Losing men in Russia reflected poorly upon one’s service record, and Stolik had every intention of keeping his record spotless.

Five paces in front of him, their local guide stopped walking. Stolik drew his Luger. “What? Why have you stopped?”

The man was a skinny, stoop shouldered Jew, shirtless, sweating, stinking of fear. He pointed ahead of them, where a small wood could be seen looming in the orange haze of the smoke-filled air; the trees were bare, straight and black, like charred bones. “Your men are in there.” He mumbled in imperfect Russian.

Stolik straightened his jacket and looked at the two men he had with him, grinning. “So this is where the fearsome wizard lives, is it?”

The guide nodded, clutching a pouch to his chest. “The koldun, yes. If your men did not come back, this is why.” He turned to the three soldiers. “Please, I have shown you – let me go now?”

Stolik chuckled; his men followed suit. Typical Jew behavior, he thought – trying to dodge out of a tough situation. “And be robbed of your fine introduction of this  no-doubt powerful and respectable old man?”

The man’s shoulders somehow managed to sag even lower. When Stolik motioned with his Luger, the man turned and kept walking.

Stolik glanced at his two men and gave orders in German. “Expect some kind of trick.” They nodded, and readied their MP40 submachine guns. The sound of them working the slides made their guide stiffen, but he kept walking, never looking back.

The forest swallowed them. In a matter of moments there was no sign of where it had begun or where it ended; just the silent, black trunks of the pines on all sides. It was so quiet that Stolik found himself clearing his throat just to confirm he could still hear. Their footsteps were engulfed by the loose soil at their feet, leaving only vague depressions behind them.  There was something dreamlike about it all; it was as though they were only partially there.

The guide stopped again, shuddering visibly.

“What is it now, filth?” Stolik barked. He came up behind the man, figuring the feeling of a pistol pressed against his bony spine might motivate him.

At the guide’s feet was a thin, white line, perhaps two inches wide, that was comprised of some kind of granular powder. It stretched off in either direction, curving away into the fiery haze of the silent, dead wood. “Is that salt?” Stolik asked, nudging it with his toe.

The jew convulsed, as though Stolik had touched a live electrical wire. He quickly stuffed his hand in the crude pouch he carried and sprinkled more salt atop the part Stolik has smudged. When he finished, he hung his head. “Please…please, do not touch the seal. For your own sakes. For all our sakes.”

Stolik scowled. He seized the man by the chin and pulled his face upwards until they locked eyes. “I am not the one in danger here, Jew.” Pointedly, and without looking away from the thin face of his prisoner, Stolik brushed his foot back and forth across the salt line until he’d made a substantial gap. “Your weakling superstitions do not concern me. Lead on or die here.”

The guide was corpse pale, but also too broken and cowardly to show any defiance. He stepped gingerly over the salt and kept going. His feet dragged, though – perhaps from terror, perhaps from emotional and physical exhaustion. He’d been digging graves most of the morning. Stolik imagined it would be easiest to shoot him here when their business was concluded. Whatever that business was.

The two soldiers with Stolik followed along, but he could tell they were getting nervous. “Herr Oberst,” one mumbled behind him, “This is supposed to just be a single old man, right?”

Stolik grunted. “Yes, yes, but so what if it’s half a dozen? Unless this rat is leading us to some idiotically placed Soviet tank or machine gun nest, I’m not concerned. Show a little backbone, soldier.”

They walked on a short way further before the little hut emerged, squat and black in the weird half-light. The guide stopped as soon as he saw it, frozen with some provincial, superstitious dread that made Stolik’s lip curl. He ignored the guide –  it was clear enough they were where they were supposed to be. “Don’t go anywhere.” He growled at the man as he passed him by.

The first thing Stolik’s eyes resolved out of the haze were the bodies – four of them. Three German soldiers, their bodies bent and warped into unnatural positions before the darkened doorway of the shack. Stolik didn’t need to check to see that they were dead; how he couldn’t guess, but now was not the time. His nostrils flared at the scent of blood. He was glad his pistol was already drawn.

The fourth body was that of an old man, naked. It looked as though it had been dead for some time or, possibly, embalmed at some point in the recent past. It was small, pale, skeletally thin, its mouth fixed into a rictus grin beneath milky white eyeballs. For reasons Stolik couldn’t quite justify to himself, this body was riddled with bulletholes. It was missing a leg beneath the knee, an arm above the elbow, and its chest was perforated with at least seven or eight other direct hits. There was no blood that he could see.

Stolik pointed at the dead old man and shouted at the guide. “Is that the sorcerer? Is that your koldun?”

The Jew was trembling uncontrollably now, crouched upon the ground, his fingers awkwardly pawing at the bag of salt he’d stubbornly clung to all this time. Beneath his breath, he kept muttering the words ‘eretnik’ and ‘nechistaia sila’ as well as a variety of things in Yiddish. Stolik’s Russian wasn’t good enough to translate.

He turned back to the hut. “Dantrich! Are you in there? Dantrich, it’s Stolik! Come out!”

“Dantrich isn’t here, Herr Oberst.” A man stepped out of the darkened doorway, clad in a heavy holocaust cloak with a deep hood. His voice was heavy, cold, and flat, like a piece of slate. He spoke perfect German.

Stolik pointed his luger at the stranger. “Are you the wizard?”

“I am the koldun. My name is Vitaly Khostov. You are tresspassing.”

Stolik opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by the piercing sob of the guide, who was now hurriedly pouring salt all around himself. He kept muttering ‘eretnik, eretnik.’ What did that mean? Heretic? Was this some kind of religious nonsense among Jews?

“You have burned the shetl.” Khostov announced.

“What happened to my men?” Stolik barked.

Khostov shrugged. “I killed them.”

Stolik glanced at the bodies. “How?”

Khostov’s laugh was mirthless. “Does it really matter?”

The wretch had a point. Stolik shot him in the chest; the pistol’s sharp report didn’t echo.

Khostov jerked with the impact, but he did not fall or cry out. He instead took a step closer to Stolik. “Your fellows did the same thing, you know. You Germans – utterly lacking in creativity.”

This time Stolik’s shots were joined with those of both soldiers, their MP40s rattling off rounds into the koldun’s chest, legs, and arms. Now, however, Khostov didn’t move slowly. In the blink of an eye, he was standing before one soldier, his body bending awkwardly from the ruin the bullets were making of his torso. He – it – seemed to convulse, and a gout of gore vomited from beneath the hood and covered the Nazi stormtrooper. The soldier fell to the ground, screaming and clawing at his face as though being burned.

The other soldier charged, swinging his weapon like a club. Khostov caught the gun by the barrel, wrenched it from his hands, and then struck the stormtrooper hard enough that Stolik heard his neck break from the impact. He fell to the ground like a sack of flour.

The clearing was suddenly quiet; Stolik realized that he was pulling the trigger on an empty pistol. Click…click…click.

The Russian wizard paused a moment to…straighten his broken body into something somewhat more upright. There was a couple visceral pops and a squelching noise.

Stolik couldn’t move. Somewhere behind him he could hear the jew, moaning some prayer in Yiddish. All he could manage was, “You…black… black sorcery!”

Khostov came closer, moving with slow, fluid steps. It seemed as though he were floating above the ground. “All sorcery is black sorcery, Herr Oberst. It is a power we inherit from God, but that we use without His consent.”

Stolik sank to his knees. “You can kill me, but we will crush you anyway. One panzer will crush your miserable hut; you will die screaming.”

“Do you know why you Nazis will fail?” Khostov stopped in front of Stolik’s paralyzed, kneeling body and crouched down. “You think that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person.”

One blood-soaked hand emerged from the holocaust cloak and pulled back the hood. Stolik found himself, eye-to-eye, with the smiling face of Marcus Dantrich. Stolik tried to scream, but something was choking off his speech. He clawed his throat, but there was nothing there. He was suffocating, but his body refused to breathe. The world began to dim.

“Do not worry, Herr Oberst, Mother Russia will teach your people about what is worst of all things.” Khostov/Dantrich smiled, his teeth a broken ruin of blood and gore. “And it will be a long, long lesson.”

The world narrowed to a tunnel around the koldun’s face. The last thing Stolik saw were the corpses of his fallen men, rising up from the earth.

Notes from the Red Necromancer

The following was excised from a KGB black ops facility by CIA deep cover operatives in the winter of 1971. It is an incomplete fragment of what is apparently a much longer work, and it is uncertain how, if at all, the Soviets intended to use or had used its contents or, indeed, who the author is. It is the advice of this translator that this file is some kind of fiction or the rantings of a lunatic. There is, however, far too much associated KGB and CIA documentation to discount it entirely. Something was going on here, though what is terrible to contemplate.

What is often misunderstood is this: all sorcery is black sorcery. There is no other type. The flashy tricks and dramatic swoops of the stage illusionist are charades, nothing more. Likewise, the mentalist and the so-called psychic are nothing but talented charlatans and liars. Sorcery—true sorcery—is dirty and abhorrent to so-called cultured men. This I know.

            The irony of black sorcery is that it is as old as God Himself. Its power derives from His own, at least in part. We may not cast back the waters of the Red Sea, nor may we transmute staff into snake; these miracles are beyond us, just as they were beyond Pharaoh. We know, however, a deeper secret. It is one more subtle and every bit as powerful.

            Sorcery is the power of Life and Death.

            The great Gift given to the world by the Almighty and wielded by Jesus over the body of Lazarus is the power which we manipulate, though to a much lesser degree. If Eden were the great bonfire that began it all, that which we toy with is but the sputtering embers and errant sparks of that great conflagration. Still, with sparks one may do much, if one is clever.

            Sorcery involves the viscera and fluids of living creatures to be enacted. If you are opposed to shedding of blood and disturbed by the touch of dead flesh, you will never be a sorcerer. Indeed, one should not wish to be a sorcerer at all; it is no blessing. Perhaps in the courts of ancient Egypt our skills were esteemed, but now we are reviled, abhorred, or simply denied. Only upon the tiny island of Hispaniola can you find members of our order practicing their art openly, and even then they are met with derision. The societies of mankind deny what they know is true—life is a power beyond the simple physics of anatomy. Were it not, every doctor could bring life where there is death; every scientist would have a Monster like Victor Frankenstien’s.

            I am one of the last, true necromancers. I write this to explain myself and my work, but I do not seek your forgiveness or pardon. I have done nothing wrong. Raising the dead is no crime if the cause for which they are raised is just, and I am a just man. Or I was a just man until recently.

            My captors—these wretched, drab bureaucrats who fawn in Stalin’s wake and worship the fiction of their Party—they have made me do what I would not have done otherwise. I have created things for them and I know that they will be misused. I have given eternal life to the unworthy and the vicious; I have raised the innocent to obey the guilty. These are crimes, but I will make amends. I have all the time in the world, though they refuse to believe it. I was old when Tsar Nicholas II was a boy, so what do they know, these children of Lenin?

            It may come to pass, however, that they will somehow destroy me. If this were to happen, it would be unwise for me to leave this world without laying out the weaknesses of those things which I have created. Heed me well:

            Your enemy is not the servants—what the bokor of dark Haiti call zombi—for, while they have many uses, their power is brief and worthless without direction. No, it is the masters you must fear—those who have never passed the lychgate or similar after their deaths, those bodies that still live. They are the lych [editor’s note: this word originally written in the Latin alphabet; it is presumed the author was not satisfied with its Cyrillic equivalent for reasons I can only infer. It should be noted that the word is most probably derived from the Old English ‘lic,’ meaning ‘corpse’ or ‘body’ and nothing more], and they are the only ones besides our Lord and those who have passed into His Kingdom who have achieved eternal life. This life, though, is a shadow of its former self.

            The lych persist in this world in full possession of their mind and willpower (so long as the one can maintain the other), but they rest within a body that is physically dead. They are sorcerers almost without exception or, at the very least, they know something of sorcery otherwise they will not be long for this world. They should not be underestimated under any circumstances.

            You cannot murder a lych. They are already dead. Stab them and they will only bleed insofar as their blood is still present. Shoot them and you create a hole and nothing more. Cut off their head and their body and their head will seek to find one another. They do not feel pain, or at least not strongly—many come to miss the sensation; it drives some mad. Break their bones and you damage their vessel, but you do not harm their resolve or their intelligence.

            It has been suggested that the lych may be killed by fire or by utterly obliterating their body. This is only partially true. Destroy the body and you rob the lych of his vessel, but his spirit will not dissipate. He will lurk and fester in the place where he was struck dead—for an eternity, if need be—until he is either truly released from this life or a new vessel presents itself. This is most easily accomplished with another dead body. It may be accomplished otherwise, as well. Possession is a very risky endeavor for the lych, but bears with it proportional benefits. I digress, however—more about possession later.

            The lych is sustained by the captured essence of his life force. This is contained in his phylactery or phylacteries, known also as zombi to the bokor of West Africa, though this should not be confused with the servants the lych often employs. The process for preparing a phylactery is long and complex and requires much blood. It is a process I will not share with you, nor with my captors. What is important is that the phylactery or phylacteries are the only true weakness of the lych and their only bond to mortality. If it cannot be found and destroyed utterly, the lych can never truly depart this world for his final reward or punishment, as is appropriate to his actions.

            The weapons of the lych are numerous and mysterious, and vary according to individual. To list them all here would be pointless—there are always exceptions. I have mentioned their sorcery, and that is enough for you to know their power. They have spent many mortal lifetimes perfecting their arts, and they are more skilled in them than any other save another of their kind. In general, it is enough to know that the lych have power over the dead and the living, the spiritual and the physical, and can learn and do much with the simple application of certain rituals. Their intelligence is their weapon, and it is a potent one.

            Of their weaknesses, however, I can speak more directly. I have already mentioned the phylactery, but this is as much advantage as it is weakness—a lych may hide his phylactery anywhere on the Earth, even many thousands of miles from himself, and make his foes despair in hoping to defeat him. There are those lych who have buried theirs deep in the darkness of continental forests and jungles, never to be found again, and lived for ages without fear of compromise. The lych who wears his phylactery about his neck is a fool, but few of them are fools.

            The greatest weakness of the lych is his body. It is dead, rotting, and weakening with every passing day. If they sustain injuries, they never heal. If they contract diseases, their body falls away to rot around them. This is of great concern to the lych, as he is then less able to blend into society and also less physically capable of interacting with the world. The ancient Egyptians embalmed their immortal high priests so that this rotting process would slow itself, and most modern lych do so as well. This, however, leaves them gaunt and thin—very corpselike in appearance and physically weak—but enables them to live in relative stability for long periods. They will cover up their gaunt appearance with make-up and wigs (the lych loses his hair very quickly) and wear concealing clothing. They will also seek to avoid infection and exposure to bacteria with ruthless attention, as the simple germs common mortals encounter on a daily basis are sufficient to devour the lych’s body. They will need to moisten their eyes and tongues often to prevent them from drying out and withering (though it should be noted they do not need these organs to see or be heard). Finally, they will avoid bright sunlight, as even minor burning from the sun is irreversible and leads to further complications. The lych values his body, even though he does not need it to persist—it is his primary tool for interacting with the world, and he spends much of his time caring for it.

            There are those lych who seek to maintain some of their vitality through the consumption of fresh blood. This has its uses for a lych, as he is typically in need of fresh blood to engage in sorcery (which can, in turn, be used to delay his gradual decay). This habit among some is undoubtedly the origin of the so-called vampyr, but the lych is considerably more dangerous, if physically less potent.

            Another important weakness of the lych lies with purified salt. Salt is an element that connects humanity with God and is a symbol of His various covenants with the faithful throughout time. Salt, particularly if pure and consecrated, interferes with the connection between the lych and his phylactery. If you were to make a ring of pure salt around a lych, the body would fall inert and the spirit banished back to his phylactery, as the link cannot pass a barrier of pure salt. Likewise, a lych may not pass onto consecrated ground. It should be noted to the fanatical that this is not an indication of the wickedness of the lych, but rather a regrettable fact of their existence. Throwing salt on them does not hurt them anymore than it would hurt a mortal person.

            As a final caution, those who would combat the unrighteous lych must be made aware of certain misconceptions about the living dead. Holy water and holy symbols are of no worth against them, except perhaps as psychological weapons. Running water does not stop them anymore than it stops another man (though the embalmed lych is a poor swimmer and usually too weak to cross any great breadth of water). Burning them destroys their body, but has no effect on their spirit (though it should be mentioned that those lych that are embalmed with certain alcohol-based chemicals will occasionally explode as much as burn—be warned). With proper sun protection, a lych has no compunction walking about during the day, and even direct sunlight, though bad for their body’s long-term duration, does not harm them. To rely upon these superstitions in your battle against the lych is to court your own death.

            That is enough for today. My captors are coming—I can smell them. I am interested in how they will choose to motivate me this time; they have given up on torture, of course. There are still things they cannot make me do. What evil they have compelled me to commit is only a fraction of my potential; I only hope they do not suspect this. I hope I am strong enough to endure longer than this new Union of theirs. I must be, even if I must live on as a spirit in this dismal place forever.

Where Have All the Wizards Gone?

The undead are in-vogue of late. Vampires, Zombies, Ghosts and so-on are all pretty popular in movies, TV, books, and so on. One thing I’ve found odd, however, is that more and more of these critters are the result of either technology or religion to almost the exclusion of all else, and I’ve been thinking about that idea vis-a-vis the undead, and I’m not sure I love the idea.

The Undead and Science

Apparently this is supposed to make you both dead and alive…right…

The science-creating-the-undead thing is much, much more recent than the religious angle and, for my money, also more ridiculous. Science – even pseudoscience – is poorly applied to things that are ostensibly dead. Just think about it for a few minutes and much of the scientific explanations for werewolves, zombies, vampires, and the rest of our popular monsters rapidly fall apart.

I’ve already explored why this idea is nonsense for zombies (if you don’t recall, check out my anti-zombie manifesto), but let’s take Vampires, instead. The Blade franchise, in addition to others, have maintained that Vampires are essentially people who (1) don’t grow old, (2) drink blood, (3) are ‘allergic’ to silver, (4) have poor defenses against sunlight, and so on. You watch Blade devising new technogadgets to combat them, they rationalize things like ‘UV light works like sunlight’ and ‘the vampires can wear sunblock, so…’ and on and on and on. Thing is, they very rarely take it all the way, which is what I find annoying. I ask lots and lots of questions like ‘why can’t the metabolize regular food instead of drinking blood?’ or, ‘if they can’t make their own blood, why don’t they get transfusions instead of drinking it – wouldn’t that be faster?’ or ‘if they’re dead, how come they don’t rot?’ and so on and so forth until I just get so frustrated with the damn thing and start yelling ‘why didn’t you just call it magic? MAGIC!’

The Undead and Religion

Help! We made poor life choices! Find Jennifer Love Hewitt!

The other common origin for the undead comes from religious or spiritual material. Now, this I don’t really have a problem with, per se, in that this is from antiquity. Usually used in reference to ghosts more than any other kind of undead, the religious/spiritual angle is a story with lots of dramatic potential and is firmly based in our collective human canon – everybody’s got their stories of demons, ghosts, vampires, and so on who had something terrible happen to them and they linger on in this world, waiting for something to either destroy them or show them how to ‘cross over’, so to speak.The only issue I have with this particular version of the tale is that it’s so, well, wishy-washy. There aren’t any rules, really, and it’s the rules that make monsters fun. Vampires are the most popular not because they are inherently the coolest, but because they have the most lore built up around them in the form of rules, laws, and ‘gubbins’, if you will, that give the protagonists in stories involving vampires more to ‘sink their teeth into’, if you’ll pardon the pun. Without these rules, we’re stuck with talking about our feelings and trying to ‘make things right’. This can be interesting, but it doesn’t lend itself to rip-roaring adventure, exactly.

The Middle Ground

What I’d like to see more of (and it’s out there, mind you, just I want more) are monster stories that (1) acknowledge we’re working magically here and (2) have set rules in place to keep things crunchy. Buffy/Angel tended to do this, I think Supernatural has done this to some extent, and of course their are Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but it hasn’t seemed to propagate.

Perhaps that’s just me, anyway, from my position on the periphery of the Urban Fantasy subgenre. Perhaps this is just my knee-jerk reaction to zombie mania, which I find aggrevating, and to the wussing-down of vampires from ‘fearsome monsters’ to basically plain old supervillains/heroes (if that). I want me some scary-ass new monsters, or old ones dredged up, preferably created by wizards or, better yet, are wizards themselves.

Yeah, I’m talking about the lich.

Liches, Bitches!

You know what I mean – the oldest, nastiest, most badass undead creature in Dungeons and Dragons, brought back into a new housing. The most recent incarnation of this fella was Voldemort, really, but I’d like to see more done with the idea. Heck, I plan on doing more with it myself, provided I ever get around to it. I want an intelligent, powerful, sorcerous monster who is neither attractive nor numerous to kick some mortal ass. I think much could be done with these wizards-turned-immortal undead, and I’m hoping it happens.

I’m also hoping I can contribute. Perhaps I’ll introduce the character I have in mind here on this blog sometime. Maybe I’ll discuss the Rules of the Lich. In any event, I really want to see fewer plots involving monster-making viruses or demonic possession.