Coven of the Worm

Book One: Estranged Earth

Linda Caldwell attends Putty Hill Senior High with her friends Jane and Candy, where she meets and falls in love with an intriguing young man named David Yeng-Chi.

David seems perfect for her, but he has a dark secret. His father Hamaki had trained him to use a deadly mix of martial arts and magic in the service of his god—Chai'Huon Ju, the Defiler. David is a descendent of the Worm Clan of a long forgotten prehistoric nation called Hunjan. There were other gods and different beliefs among these people, but the Worm Clan had believed in Chai'Huon Ju's legacy of evil.

As the relationship between David and Linda grows, Linda begins to have prophetic dreams warning her to stay away from him. The visions are so insistent and frightening that she surrenders to them and breaks up with David. Enraged, David resolves to have revenge by conjuring his god to Earth.

Linda has a secret too, however—one that might help to save her soul from the Defiler. Prophecy was merely the first of her abilities to develop and—she soon discovers—there were more powers to come.

Book Two: Mystic Moon (in progress)

Eric is the son of David Yeng-Chi, who had unleashed Pure Intensity and wreaked havoc on a Maryland town in 1995—all in the name of revenge. When Eric discovers his true identity, he sets out to fulfill his destiny, which is to assemble a Coven and use it to release his evil god on Earth.

Daniel is an Avatar of the gods, and only he knows how to find the others like him. It is his destiny to gather the Avatars and lead them to battle against the Defiler before he can wage war on Heaven. Together with Dawn Lu, Linda Levinston, and FBI agent Carl Timmers, Daniel searches for Eric and his coven—hoping to find them before they can succeed with their diabolical plans.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Called to His Work

(I believe this still needs work, and so far the response for it from magazines hasn't been favorable anyway, so I thought I'd post it here - especially since I haven't posted anything in forever! Any feedback, criticism, etc., would be greatly appreciated. Most likely, since it's planned as a chapter in the third book of Coven of the Worm, it won't need quite so much exposition, but I thought it would be necessary in this medium. Unfortunately, the exposition is one of the reasons it hasn't been received very well.)

A farm, thought Carl, and the monsters stay away from it. Just like she said.

Carl had not quite believed her when Ju’Xai returned from scouting over the nearby hills and told them. No one could survive on that homestead in this new world created by the evil god Chai’Huon Ju—at least, not without magic. What he saw now indicated that the people here did indeed have some kind of magical protection.

There were monsters everywhere, even in daylight. Carl and his companions had already encountered several since breaking camp early this morning, but none ventured onto the cultivated land in the valley below.

Amazing. Simply amazing.

He gazed downward at the neat rows of corn that spread outward from the house, and the small apple orchard beyond that. There was also a chicken coop and a barn closer to the house, cows in the pen and chickens pecking the ground for sustenance or flapping their wings in agitation. The sun was low on the horizon but it was still daylight, and Carl saw people working in every area of the farm.

Most of them were children.

Linda—only now she called herself Psyche—appeared beside him and stared at the anomaly. He couldn’t really take his eyes away from the valley, but he wanted to look at her all the same. Her dark hair, green eyes, and fair skin inspired him with a desire he could not fully explain, and had done so since the time they were reunited—not long before the Defiler manifested on Earth and left his ugly, red stain across the sky.

It hadn’t been that way when he’d first met her thirteen years ago. Back then she was still a senior in high school, and Carl had been a 30-year-old FBI agent. It had never occurred to him to think of her then as he did now.

“What do you think?” she said, although she did not turn her head.

Carl grunted. “I think we’re in for more surprises.”

Ju’Xai moved off to the left and squatted in the grass—as observant and vigilant as ever, Carl noted.

“I think you’re right,” she said.

The youngest and, ironically, the wisest of the group—Shaman—remained a little behind them as he attempted to inscribe an Ogham on Carl’s shotgun. He said the mark, which was some kind of ancient letter, would add a magical effect to the buckshot. Shaman was a Hedge Witch, raised by a Traditional Witchcraft family. His healing spells and magical enhancements had come in handy several times since this expedition began.

Carl suppressed a nervous laugh. He was the only one among them who did not have mysterious powers, and it still made him uncomfortable to think about it. Psyche was a Witch, with inherent psychic abilities as well; and Ju’Xai was a War Witch, who excelled in martial arts and simple, easy to cast spells of short duration.
At one time the only Witch he’d known of was David Yeng-Chi, and he had tried to kill Linda—Psyche. He had killed all of her friends and changed her life forever.

Oddly, Ju’Xai’s magic was more like David’s than Shaman’s or Psyche’s, since it had the same cultural origins. She was a descendent of the Tiger Clan of Hunjan—the prehistoric land that the minions of Chai’Huon Ju had destroyed long before civilization arose in the Middle East. The sword she carried, now strapped to her back, had been forged by Hunjan War Witches and passed down through many generations of her family.

The sword was one thing that distinguished Hunjan War Witchcraft from Western disciplines. Shaman said that Western practitioners did not use anything forged with metal; they were more likely to wield a staff or a bow.

As he passed the shotgun back to Carl, Shaman sucked in a deep breath.

“What?” said Carl.

“There’s a magical shield surrounding that farm,” replied the young man. He pushed a lock of reddish hair away from his eyes.

“I’d already guessed as much, or there’d be no one alive to work it.”

“No ... I mean, I should have sensed something that big a while ago. It’s ... different, somehow.” He turned toward Psyche and asked, “Can you see it?”

Psyche frowned in concentration for a moment before answering. “Yes. But just barely.”

“I see it too ... now,” said Ju’Xai. “You’re right. There’s something different about it. It’s not Witchcraft.”

“Is it Magecraft then?” Psyche looked at Shaman expectantly.

Shaman shook his head and said, “I don’t think so. It’s something less ... complicated ... than either, but still very powerful.”

“Well, I guess we’ll find out what it is soon enough,” said Carl, nodding toward the farm. “We’ve got company.”

An old man wearing jeans and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up had emerged from the barn, after a small boy had run in, and now headed straight for the group at the top of the hill. He stopped about ten paces away and appeared to inspect them closely.

He was old—maybe about sixty or so—but he seemed healthy and clearly strong. His forearms were muscular and he had the look of someone that had worked hard all his life.

He looked at Carl, apparently pegging him for the leader—which he was, sort of. They all turned to Shaman for spiritual guidance, but in everything else they followed Carl.

“Well, come on,” said the old man. “You don’t want to be caught out here after dark, and Shawna’s prob’ly got supper on the table by now.”

The statement puzzled Carl, if only for its obvious familiarity. Being out after dark was something they were used to by now, but here it was even more important to take shelter where they found it. The monsters might not venture onto the farm, and Carl did not see any at the moment, but all three Witches had assured him they were more numerous in this area than any place they had traveled so far. It seemed as if they were somehow drawn to the homestead, eager to find a weakness in its defenses. But Carl had not expected the man to welcome him and his party like old friends.
He was about to speak when Psyche voiced exactly what was on his mind.

“Aren’t you concerned about our intentions?”

The man shifted his gaze from Carl to Psyche and his eyes gleamed with amusement. “Your intentions? Young lady, I worry about many things, ‘specially these days, but your ‘intentions’ ain’t one of ‘em. I can see you for what you are clear as day. I don’t understand it but I ain’t denyin’ it. God has opened my eyes more than ever since the world changed.”

Shaman cleared his throat and asked, “Are you talking about magical senses?”

“Well, I wouldn’t call it that myself, but you can if you want. It’s as good a description as any, I s’pose. Now, like I said, we’d best be gettin’ to the house before the sun goes down. I don’t much like being this far away in daylight.” Without another word, he turned around and trudged carefully down the hill.

Carl understood the farmer’s reluctance to leave behind the safety of his home. The sun’s brilliance had diminished over the past few weeks and had developed a sickly greenish hue, its corona a dark red by contrast. Inky blotches that dotted the sky seemed to throb like virulent wounds on flesh. The shadows were long and deep at noon, and often obscured things that preyed on humans.

These thoughts reminded him that he’d had enough of fighting today, and he’d be glad to put it behind him for once. And a hot shower would do much to ease his growing tension.

“Come on,” he called over his shoulder when he began to follow the sturdy old man.

Before long they passed between the cornfield and the barn to be greeted by a mob of young boys and girls, ranging in age from six to seventeen by the look of them. Carl counted fifteen of them altogether. He would have thought they’d be hesitant to approach the group of strangers and was astonished when they weren’t. Some held back with shy smiles and uncertain gazes but otherwise did not seem afraid. Sad, perhaps, and possibly even broken-hearted by secret trauma, but not frightened at all by the newcomers. Yet, whatever their experiences before coming to this place, they had apparently adjusted to a new life.

“Josh,” the old man called, gesturing for a tall young man with light brown hair. “I take it the work’s all done?”

“Yes, sir,” replied the boy with a slight air of confidence.

“Very good, young man. Glad to hear it. See that the little ones get washed up and settled in for supper then, and let Shawna know we have guests.”

Josh nodded and began to herd the crowd toward the house.

“He’s a good kid,” said the farmer. “They all are really, despite what they’ve been through.”

“They’re ... they’re not your relations, are they?” said Carl.

The farmer shook his head sadly. “No. None of them are.”

Carl did not want to imagine what these children had experienced to end up here—most likely something horrifying and ... evil. The world was bad enough before; but now that Chai’Huon Ju ruled, it might as well be the lowest plane of Hell itself.

“By the way,” continued the old man, “my name’s Mark, and my wife is Shawna. We’ll get around to introducing all the kids at supper, I s’pose.”

Carl extended his hand for a shake. Mark’s grip was surprisingly gentle for so strong a man.

“I’m Carl,” he said, then indicated each of the others in turn.
Mark laughed. “How come you have such a normal name when theirs are all so odd?”

Despite himself, Carl laughed with him, and he noticed Psyche giggle into her hand. Shaman smiled, but Ju’Xai’s expression did not change. She was always serious.

His laughter was short-lived, however. In the back of his mind, Carl knew why he hadn’t changed his name as they had. He hadn’t quite accepted his role in this ... this quest—that he, of all people, could be so important. Sure, he’d been good as an investigator, and his instincts for combat were sharp, but how could he be an Avatar? He refused to believe that he was the hand of an invisible yet benevolent God, wielding divine power for the benefit of humankind.

They reached the porch of the farmhouse then, and Carl was impressed. The house was more than large enough to accommodate its numerous occupants, and the porch extended from corner to corner in front. It was painted blue and had black shudders on each window that he could see, and the windows looked new. Benches and other outdoor furniture arranged about the deck appeared comfortable and inviting, and potted plants hung from the wooden canopy by wires near each corner. He had no doubt that Mark had built much of it himself over the years.

Mark opened the door and ushered in his guests before him, and they entered a large foyer.

“I’ll have to ask you to leave your weapons with me,” said Mark when they were all inside. “I’ll put them away someplace safe, where curious children with idle hands won’t be tempted to play with them. You won’t be needing them here, anyway.”

Carl wasn’t sure he agreed with that assessment, but he didn’t argue. He handed over his shotgun and the Browning nine-millimeter. Ju’Xai reluctantly pulled the sword harness over her head and then, after Mark took it from her, assembled the shuriken she had stashed in various places of the deer hide outfit she wore—which she had made herself and dyed the garments black during their travels. Mark took those as well and hollered for Josh, who was apparently the oldest and most responsible of the troupe, to come help.

Shaman and Psyche didn’t carry any obvious weapons, but Carl knew they would not surrender what they did have.

A tall, stately woman with gray hair and shiny blue eyes appeared under the foyer arch, which led to what Carl guessed was the living room, and cast the party a friendly smile.

“So these are our guests,” she said. “I’m Shawna, and you are welcome in our home. I hope you’re hungry, because there’s plenty eat.”

After all the introductions were out of the way, they followed Shawna to the wash room. Mark and Josh took the stairs off to the left, hauling their burdens with extreme care. The party cleaned themselves—and they were very dirty—the best they could, and then let Shawna lead them to the dining room.

The other children were already seated at the table, some of the younger ones fidgeting in the chairs, but most seemed remarkably patient. They were not eating, although a fat, roasted chicken, a large glass pitcher of milk, and an abundance of corn and other vegetables covered the table.

Shawna gestured for the guests to take the remaining seats. Carl noticed that the table seemed newly made and was larger than any that he’d seen for such a setting. Once he and his friends were comfortable, Mark and Josh shuffled into the room and took their places—the farmer at the head of the table, of course, with his wife beside him.

Mark directed all assembled to bow their heads and then said a prayer. It was refreshing, Carl thought, to hear a prayer that was more familiar to him for once. Shaman seemed to call on a dozen names or more sometimes, as well as what he called the “All God,” while Ju’Xai always prayed to her goddess. Carl didn’t want to think too much about Psyche’s prayers, since they made his brain do somersaults; although she was learning Witchcraft from Shaman, she still considered herself Catholic.

“In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” said Mark at the end, “Amen.”

“Amen,” replied all the children.

The meal was even better than Carl expected, and he’d assumed it would be good. He savored the taste of the chicken with relish, and sighed in contentment. Shawna seemed pleased by his reaction.

At first, there was some conversation that included the children, with Mark and Shawna reminding them of different chores and other responsibilities, until Shaman broke in with the subject Carl knew was foremost on his mind.

“I can’t help wondering,” he said, “about you and this place. There’s strong power here, but it doesn’t feel like Magecraft or ... anything I’m used to.” Carl suspected the Hedge Witch had intentionally omitted the word “Witchcraft.” Under the circumstances, that was probably a good idea. “Everyone here, down to smallest child, is layered in shields at least as strong as my own, and the farm ... well, I couldn’t accomplish something like that on my own. Even with plenty of help it would take a week or more.”

Mark nodded. “I know. It’s God’s work. It’s what He’s given us in answer to our prayers since the change.”

After dinner, some of the children helped Shawna to clear the table, and Mark led the rest into the living room. The room was cozy and warm. There was a small fireplace, surrounded by modern furniture in earthy colors, which Josh loaded logs into and stoked. Mark settled into a large recliner and picked up a Bible from the end table beside it, while Carl and his companions sat on the couch. The children arrayed themselves in a semi-circle on the floor facing the farmer.

Carl noticed that there was no kind of entertainment center here, not even an old style television or DVD player. Although he doubted this “family” would own a television or any kind of broadcasting equipment—besides a radio—even if there were anything other than snow to watch now.

When Josh finished with the fire, Shawna and the others trailed in and found seats of their own—Shawna taking the rocking chair opposite her husband. Then Mark launched into a Bible study, followed by a prayer session. They all knelt on the floor and raised their arms overhead, weaving back and forth as the old man prayed aloud.

Carl understood this. At one time this kind of prayer disturbed some people who weren’t used to it, but now it seemed mundane compared to what he’d become accustomed to recently. It also explained the lack of an entertainment center.

These people were Christian fundamentalists, and they had somehow retained their faith in the aftermath of what appeared to be a pagan apocalypse.

And it had paid off. Even now, as Carl joined in the prayer, he could feel his skin tingle in the presence of power—something at least as strong as Shaman’s magic.

Despite all that had happened, he suddenly felt rejuvenated.

He noticed that Shaman also participated. Carl wasn’t surprised, since the Hedge Witch’s belief was eclectic—regardless of his traditional education—and he maintained that all religions shared a common bond. Mark might consider Shaman’s belief unacceptable, but the young Avatar embraced anything that served the good.

Soon after, all the children were in bed and only the adults remained by the fire.
Mark eyed each of his guests carefully for a moment, then said, “I’d like to get one thing straight before we talk about anything else. You know by now what kind of religion we practice here, and I hope you understand that I aim to keep it that way. We have to accept that your...” he winced, almost as if he were in great pain, “...your pagan deities ... are somehow real. It helps us to think of them as God’s servants—something like the angels. But I can’t have you talking about it in my house. If you were anyone else, we’d try to convert you, if God hadn’t told us that you need to be who your are for your mission to succeed.

“Yes, we all hear God’s voice here, and we know all about you, so don’t look so surprised. Please don’t bring pagan influences in my home. If you can’t respect that, then I’ll have to ask you to leave—now.”

Shawna’s mouth opened in shock. “Mark, these people are our guests.”

“I know that, Shawna,” he sighed, “and I know it’s the Lord’s will that we help them. If it comes to it, I won’t make them leave empty-handed.” He returned his attention to the strangers. “Any of you have objections?”

Shaman and Psyche each shook their heads in compliance, and Carl said “No.”

Ju’Xai, however, seemed to have a knack for injecting dissension when there should be peace. “I assure you, Mark,” she began, “that my goddess—”

Mark glared at the young woman in frustration. At the moment, Carl couldn’t blame him.

“I really don’t care about your ‘goddess,’” said the farmer. “Now I don’t mean to be disrespectful to you ... or to her, for that matter. I just don’t want anything like it in my house. God wants me to help you, because you’ve been called to His work, and I will. We’ll even give you supplies for your journey before you leave. But please—please—don’t talk about pagan belief around the children and, if you must, pray or whatever it is you do outside. You don’t have to leave the farm to do it, as long as you don’t bring it inside.”

Apparently, Ju’Xai wasn’t satisfied. She tried to make the man understand her point of view, that there was nothing wrong with paganism. Carl agreed with her to a point, but they wouldn’t be here if Mark thought they were evil. Instead of greeting them on the hill, he and the oldest boys would have lined up on the edge of the farm armed with rifles.

“Ju’Xai,” said Shaman, interrupting her, “don’t you understand? He needs to do this. The protections around the farm might weaken if he does anything differently.”

The War Witch looked at Shaman and her shoulders sagged. She was tired, as they all were, and they were so used to fighting that it must be second nature to her by now.

“I’m ... I’m sorry,” she said then. “Mark, I will honor your request.”

“Thank you,” said the farmer. “Shaman, I thought you might understand. And you...” he continued, looking at Carl now, “’re different, aren’t you?”

Psyche didn’t say anything, which was a relief to Carl. She wasn’t exactly pagan, but Mark might have even more objections to her belief.

“I’m ... I mean, my Grandmother was Southern Baptist,” said Carl. “I don’t know what I am.”

Mark smiled intently, and he glanced at his wife, who grinned back. “If you’re not Baptist now, I have a feeling you will be before much longer.” He laughed hard then, and almost toppled the chair backward with the violence of the motion. When he settled down, he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and said, “You people are the most unlikely group I’ve ever met—a Catholic, two pagans, and an agnostic together, on a quest to save the world. The Lord really does work in mysterious ways.”

You can say that again, thought Carl, only he wasn’t smiling. He kept thinking about an uncertain future, and about a world lost to insanity that would not end in his lifetime.