Guest blog and excerpt by Michael F. Stewart
Do you like prologues? I am not sure I do. I am not sure most readers do. What the heck are they for then?
24 BONES has a prologue and it’s designed to set the scene, the mythology, and to provide some elements of back story regarding the two main characters. It kicks the plot mechanics into motion for chapter one to open decades later. It tries to do a lot. Whether it achieves it or not is for you to decide. I actually wrote it last after the book was complete.
In fact, 24 BONES had an entirely different prologue. It told the tale of how the original stele upon which is inscribed an ancient prophecy and more was discovered half a century ago before the events of 24 BONES took place. Here’s an excerpt:
Mohammad sweated in the noonday sun. His galabayya, smeared with dirt, clung to his shoulders, which ached as he shoveled sabakh, nitrogen-rich soil that served as fertilizer. He wished now he had waited for afternoon, when the red cliffs of Gebel el-Tarif would cast their shadows, but he was angered and had wanted the menial labor to cleanse him and his brothers, who labored as his side, of their rage.
Camels groaned as Mohammad’s rough-hewn mattock chipped at a pink slab of fired clay. The region was dotted with caves, once filled with ascetics; the desert littered with fragments of their pottery, vessels for eating and drinking. He would have struck it again had the camels not struggled at their hobbles. One rose on three legs, its fourth hoof strapped to its thigh; it fell over in its effort to escape. Mohammad’s brothers ran to calm the animals, pulling fiercely at their harnesses and beating them with sticks.
Mohammad knelt before the pottery and brushed at the sand, tracing its outline and slowly extracting the shape of an urn. He saw its unbroken seal and his mind raced to the possibility of treasure.
“Ahmed,” he called for his next eldest sibling, “come and see.” Ahmed abandoned his settled camel, which roared through its teeth.
“Do not open it, brother.” Ahmed’s eyes widened as his gaze fell on the urn. Mohammad smiled at his brother’s superstitious fear and smashed the pot with his mattock. Golden dust swirled in the sunlight, and Ahmed fled. The dust startled Mohammad as well, but he did not wish to appear cowardly and held his stance as his brother stumbled down the scree slope. Drawing a breath, he wiped the beaded moisture from his brow and then brushed away shards with the tip of his tool. The dust was no jinni, but rather, bits of parchment fiber from papyri sheaves bound in cracked leather. Pulling folios from the vessel, still half-lodged in the sand, he counted fourteen in all. One, however, was heavy, far heavier than parchment or leather, weightier than the mattock even. His brothers watched from their camels; two nearby Fellaheen also halted their digging to spy. Mohammad peeled the leather from the hefty folio to let the smallest corner of gold catch sunlight before hastily shielding the metal.
Gold, he thought, several kilos worth. Since the murder of his father, a week past, Mohammad’s heart had dwelled not only on his loss and of vengeance, but also on responsibility. The family’s life was difficult, and he was the eldest, the patriarch. Now he had secured their future and his heart soared. Not wishing to create further suspicion, he called loudly for all to hear.
“Paper and leather I wouldn’t use for sandals.” His wide grin was the only hint of his omission. “Gather what we have. I tire of this place.” Tossing his mattock down the slope, he drew the bundles close to his chest.
This is in fact a fictionalized retelling of how the actual Nag Hammadi library was discovered, these manuscripts contained many Gnostic writings and gospels. It would make a fascinating story all on its own, but unfortunately didn’t forward plot or character in 24 BONES. Out it went.
Most prologues disappear from manuscripts. I often wonder if they’re actually a product of the writer not being quite ready to start writing. Do you bother to read or write them?
Present day—Coptic Cairo, Egypt
“I want the tablet, Tara.” Sam pointed at her mother, the accusing finger tipped with a razor-sharp nail. Her other hand gripped a hound’s leash, and she heeled the dog to her hip when it threatened to lunge.
On the bed, a second hairless dog straddled her mother and slavered drool across Tara’s cheek and lips. She twisted her head away from the hound’s hot panting.
Sam knew her jackal mask and assumed accent did not conceal her identity. She trembled at the look etched on her mother’s face. With most of their forces deployed elsewhere, Pharaoh, the leader of the Shemsu Seth, had honored Sam with the task of retrieving the Tablet of Destiny—her first important mission in which she was the commander. Sam thumbed the heavy gold ring on her finger, reminding herself of her goal. Her sentiment was a barrier to her mission’s success. She coiled her rage inward.
“Where’s the damned tablet!”
Tara flinched, then kicked the hound as she jumped upright. With a yelp, the dog slipped from the bed and curled underneath.
Sam’s canine headdress obscured her peripheral vision, but it also prevented her mother from seeing her face, the sweat on her brow, the strain about her green eyes. Sam’s emotions, like the veins criss-crossing her dark neck and cheeks, ran too near the surface.
The window framed Tara’s age-thickened body, the street light shining through her thin cotton nightgown. Outside, riotous cheers clamored. A procession wound through the alleys of Coptic Cairo.
The hound under the bed barked. Tara tossed back the mattress and snatched the dagger laying on the bed’s wire frame. She stabbed between the wires until the hound’s howls died.
Sam knew she should kill Tara—set the other dog onto her back and cut her throat. Sam’s knuckles were bone white. Her mother turned. Blood from her blade dripped onto the scorpion hilt and her fist. She blinked away angry tears and glared.
“Get out, Samiya.” Her lips barely moved. “The tablet isn’t here.”
“Where,” Sam insisted and let the dog take a foot of leash. Its front paws scratched at the air as the black iron collar dug into its scruff.
Tara waggled the dagger in the direction of the hound like a master readying to toss a stick. Sam had expected repentance, that age would have stripped her mother of stature. Sam shook her head and whistled to the men she led.
“Bring him in,” Sam called, watching her mother carefully from beneath the mask. The old woman’s eyes flicked from Sam to the door and back.
Two figures entered the room, each wrapped in black robes with deep cowls. From beneath the hoods poked the masks of a falcon’s beak and a baboon’s muzzle. Between them, they dragged Tariq, his silver-haired head bowed. The masked men dropped him to the floor. He groaned when he landed.
A squat dwarf followed the men and took the leash of Sam’s dog. He restrained another red-eyed hound that slunk ahead of him into the room. The dog rose to the dwarf’s broad shoulder, its eyes glowing with a whisper of Void and its hide rippling with muscle. The dwarf’s smile, nearly buried by his beard, vanished when calls for his third hound failed to bring him to heel. Whistle-like hisses shot from his lips. The two remaining dogs settled to sniff at the prostrate man’s buttocks.
“I ask once more. Where’s the tablet?” Sam repeated, her threat made potent by the quietness of her speech.
Tara looked from the dogs to Sam’s jackal mask and gritted her teeth. Sam spun and kicked Tariq. Ribs cracked. He cried out, rolling onto his back.
Tara flung the blade. Sam’s forearm deflected it to the stone wall. The dagger clanged to the floor. Sam smiled at her mother’s reaction. She did feel emotion, just not love for her daughter. That made Sam’s next task easier.
She concentrated, gripping the copper wire Tariq once showed her long ago like one holds the root of a tree when descending a riverbank, and then she reached into the chaotic energy of the Void. The primal well brimmed with dark energy, so near, so easily drawn. Filled with the Void’s rage, she raised her arms above her head. Tendrils of blue-black lightning crackled between outstretched fingertips.
Her mother stumbled backward, falling onto the bed frame. Mouth agape, her eyes reflected the snaking Void. Sam’s hands lowered as she bent toward Tariq.
“Stop!” Tara screamed.
The plea crashed upon the dispassionate Void. Worms of energy arced across Tariq’s back. Sam shook, her teeth clacking together with each shock. The old man convulsed. The room stank of ozone.
“How could you?” Her mother’s chest heaved, and her lips trembled.
Sam released the Void.
Stooping to retrieve the dagger, Sam drew a deep breath. “The tablet.”
Her mother remained silent. Sam loomed above Tariq and placed her foot on his neck.
Tara’s eyes shut. “I don’t have it.” Her tone appealed. Tariq gurgled as Sam applied pressure.
He signed with his hands and fingers. Say nothing, Tara. This is no longer your daughter.
I will kill him. Sam gestured in reply. She had not forgotten the language; she’d practiced it for years in secret, in the dark, in wait for her mother to return for her. But she never came. No one ever came.
Sam leaned farther on to Tariq’s neck. His fingers clawed with pain.
Tara’s hand slashed. Stop! Creases radiated from her tear-filled eyes. “It’s gone, but we have a copy,” she gasped.
Sam didn’t smile. Her mission was unsuccessful, and she had lost a hound. Its death required blood sacrifice. Tara indicated a rectangular box, lying on a dresser. On the box lid were a series of squares, some of which were marked with hieroglyphs, while others were blank. It was the game Senet, an ancient Egyptian precursor to backgammon. Sam had a dim recollection of playing it. Her good memories were all dim.
She snatched the box from the dresser and snapped back the lid. She found not white and black chips, but a sheaf of parchment. The scroll crackled as it unfurled. A poor rubbing from the original, the hieroglyphs were distorted. She rolled the paper and banged the box shut with her fist.
“Where is the gold?”
For the dog’s death, the dwarf expected a sacrifice, and his pale eyes glinted. Sam looked from Tariq to Tara. Once more, her mother was expressionless.
Sam bent back over Tariq, who wheezed where he sat on the floor, clutching his side. With the hilt of the dagger Sam struck him on the temple, and he thumped to the stone. Tara lunged, but the masked men caught her and held her by her armpits. The dwarf grinned.
Sam opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it. Signing three quick movements, she accented them sharply. Forgive me, I must.
The tip of the blade traced across Tariq’s chest and hovered over his heart. Sam’s vision blurred with tears. Tara writhed in the grip of the men.
“May Seth, god of chaos, accept this sacrifice,” Sam said.
She drove the blade downward until it scored rock.
Tara choked for air as Tariq shook in spasm.
They both fell limp.
Sam knelt beside the corpse. Energy coursed from her fingertips to her spine. Tariq’s murder expanded her access to the Void. The charge raced, permeating each cell of her bones, muscles, and blood, arcing ageless and gnarled. Each caress of the Void changed something, took something, replaced something.
Sam motioned for the men to drag her mother from the room. As she passed, Sam struck Tara’s head against the wall to ensure no surprises as they made their escape. Sam stopped her tears, embarrassed by the show of weakness. She stood and took a deep breath before she, too, strode from the bedroom.
“Place her in the bier,” Sam ordered the men. Two long handles protruded from each end of the white-draped, rectangular litter squatting in the centre of the living room. The men turned up its curtain and revealed a bed of gold and silver stitched pillows.
Sam couldn’t know if the tablet rubbing was authentic, but she could take her mother and keep their link to the tablet intact. It was the only excuse Sam could find not to kill her.
Sam studied the surroundings. The living room had not changed in a quarter-century: pale green couches draped in embroidered fabric, books, everywhere books, candles, and blown-glass vases. Unconscious, Tara slipped from the litter’s plush confines, and her head hit the floor. Sam winced.
Tucked into the corner of a shelf was a small case made of leather with brass clasps, covered with stickers of flowers and fish. She squinted at it, then jerked it from the shelf. When she opened the case, a strangled moan escaped her lips. It was the bag she had packed before her delivery to the Shemsu Seth.
The lid snapped shut on the dolls and dresses of her childhood. One of her doll’s legs, a ragged favorite, stuck out of the suitcase seam. Her mother had been right; Sam had needed none of it.
Sam backed away and then spied a computer tower wedged between two bookcases. She tossed it in with her mother. Its files would be scoured for the tablet’s translation and potential location. Sam’s hands left red sticky fingerprints on the casing. Her stomach rolled at the sight of Tariq’s blood. The tiny kitchen, complete with miniature stove and fridge, held no tablet, nor did Tariq’s closet-sized room. Sam whistled to the sentry.
Another robed man entered and stood at one corner of the bier. After lifting the body of the dead hound inside, the dwarf dashed aboard with his dogs.
“No,” Sam demanded, her voice cracking. “Leave one dog here.” The dwarf whistled, and a hound jumped from the bier, crouching when it landed, ready to leap again.
With the curtains of the bier drawn, Sam and the men each hefted a corner and shuffled out into the courtyard.
No moonlight filtered through the sycamore branches. A carving of Saint George mounted on an Arabian horse and spearing a dragon hung above the yard’s iron-studded door. They exited onto the streets and caught the tail of the procession. At this late hour, the parade had slowed but remained festive still, in celebration of some saint Sam could not recall.
She whooped as they joined the end of the train that snaked its way past the Babylon Fortress and the Convent of St. George. The Coptic revelers took up her cheer. Sam stumbled, awkward on the uneven cobblestone as they jostled amongst the partygoers, threading through the streets until they breached the walls. The procession continued into the next neighborhood, but Sam’s entourage slipped from the rear and turned toward the tombs.
As they entered the City of the Dead, she nodded to a man who lurked in the shadow of the gates. The bier’s handle chafed, and she switched shoulders for the tenth time.
They turned down a thoroughfare lined with windowless mausoleums. Family names rather than street numbers were inscribed on marble, granite, and limestone façades. Eyes stared from the safety of their sanctuaries. A propane lamp’s hiss was silenced. The Shemsu Seth ruled these people by fear and myth. Sam struggled to her full height, her chin high.
When they stopped in front of a large marble mastaba, they lowered the bier.
The dwarf and his dog scrambled out and clambered around the side wall, disappearing into another sandstone crypt, one of the many entrances to an underworld that stretched from the City of the Dead to the suburb of Heliopolis and the pyramids of Giza. Other dwarfs would return to take care of the hound corpse.
The baboon and hawk-masked men slipped Tara’s arms around their necks. She seemed smaller, but Sam felt no satisfaction in the change. She was glad she had been given this task; any other Shemsu Seth would have killed Tara. But as they entered the arched entry of the crypt, unease twisted Sam’s stomach. Death might have been a mercy.
She watched Tara—her mother—descend ahead of her into darkness.
Michael F. Stewart
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Supernatural Thriller
Publisher: Non Sequitur Press
Cover Artist: Martin Stiff of Amazing15
Every five hundred years the phoenix dies.
Samiya, born-into-shadow, is soon to battle her born-into-light brother. Abandoned by their parents, neither wishes to play the preordained role of beast and hero. When their loved ones are taken hostage, they are forced to follow the path laid out in myth, culminating in a battle first fought six thousand years ago in ancient Cairo. A mythic clash where one defeats the other and both become gods.
To break free from their fates, Samiya and her brother must unravel a mystery twisted by cults, greed, and magic. But myth is a powerful force and failure to live up to it may not only destroy their lives but the lives of the ones they love most.
When the phoenix dies, the only certainty is flames.
“Terrific! A successful blend of genres, complex and fascinating characters, and loads of suspense make 24 Bones a must-read.” Nate Kenyon, bestselling author of The Reach, Prime, Bloodstone, and The Bone Factory.
“'24 Bones' is a winning debut. It's well-written and well-plotted, studded with drama, action, history and mythology. There's even a little romance. The conclusion is thrilling with the final outcome of the battle between good and evil held over until the very end...leaving you guessing until that very last page.” SF Crowsnest.
After crewing ships in the Antarctic and the Baltic Sea and some fun in venture capital, Michael anchored himself (happily) to a marriage and a boatload of kids. Now he injects his adventurous spirit into his writing with brief respites for research into the jungles of Sumatra and Guatemala, the ruins of Egypt and Tik’al, paddling the Zambezi and diving whatever cave or ocean reef will have him. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and SF Canada, and the author of the Assured Destruction series, 24 Bones, The Sand Dragon, Hurakan, Ruination and several award winning graphic novels for young adults.
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