DescriptionThe Lore of Efrathah in an unpublished epic fantasy. Below is an introduction to and excerpt from Book One, HUNTED:
But before he can explore all his options, he falls into a parallel world, finds an antiquated sword along the way, and teams up with exiles plotting to retake their land from the usurper ravaging it.
Their leadership council wants Jim to consult with a Lore Master about the sword they think is powerful. When Jim tries to give the weapon away, it shoots uncontrollable fire, but in his hand it’s a lot like California Ice.
Jim wants to go home. Some believe the Lore Master might help him find the way, so Jim agrees to meet with him.
All too soon, however, he discovers that getting back to his world won’t mean he’s home and that success isn’t about resurrecting his basketball career but about staying a step ahead of the Vacant Ones hunting him. He must figure out how to use the sword, or he’ll jeopardize himself and the people he’s beginning to care for—the girl he can’t stop thinking about.
- – - – -
Epoch of Lord Abador – 19 Cida to 6 Fenad, 4702
While most Efrathites suppose the old tales point to the Other Worlder as our nation's preeminent defender, is it not just as possible that he will be its greatest foe?
- from Rutad Jardan's Summations
Chapter I—The Fall
On the basketball court, Jim Thompson expected trash talk. Here in his parents' beach-side condo, not so much.
The jet-setting owner of the place next door crossed his arms over his puffed-out chest. "It's better you got cut, Jim. Now you can settle down and get a real job. Only exceptional athletes make it big in the NBA."
Jim waggled his head back and forth the way his favorite wide receiver used to do after taking a ferocious hit. His parents’ neighbor was nothing but a pompous cretin, and his comment a cheap shot, but it stung. Mostly because he might be right—what if Jim wasn’t good enough for the pros any more? But no. He’d dealt with this question already and settled it. He couldn’t let this guy goad him into doubting himself again.
When their voices died down, Jim parroted what he’d been telling his fans since his surgery. "I appreciate your concern, but this is only a temporary setback. I'm not done with basketball yet."
Mr. Pompous Cretin smirked. "Trust me on this, kiddo, you don't want to be one of those players bouncing around the D league, earning next to nothing. There's no future in it."
"I’ll keep that in mind." Jim flashed his photo-op smile, the best way to slam the door on the discussion. He couldn't listen to any more dreary predictions about his career. No matter what this jerk or anybody else said, he wasn't washed up. All he needed was a chance to prove it.
As the guy moved off, Jim checked the entryway for new arrivals. Thankfully no media, at least not yet. If the local sports reporters overheard talk about him leaving basketball, they would drop-kick him into the has-been pile before the eleven o'clock news. No telling if his career could survive that kind of bad press.
Jim stretched his tender knee. His best hope would be to give the reporters something positive to write, and for that he needed his brother's help. Eddie might be pigheaded about most things, but he was still family. Maybe Jim could corral him and wrangle a commitment about the golf tournament in time to make an announcement before the reception ended.
His older brother stood beside the food table dishing hors d'oeuvres onto a paper plate. Sidestepping through the afternoon crowd to minimize his limp, Jim made his way into the dining area. One guest after another patted him on the back and told him to hang in there. He thanked each, assuring them he'd be back on the basketball court in no time.
Confidence. That's what fans needed to see. That's what Eddie needed to see.
When he reached his brother, Jim bent toward him to keep from raising his voice. "Hey, Eddie, you have a minute?"
"It's your reception, bro. Here, have some food." Eddie pushed his plate into Jim's hand and gave him a paper cup. "There's punch with a little kick, ice tea, or coffee. Take your pick."
"I just wanted to talk to you for a sec."
"Talk away." His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, and a couple cauliflower clumps, then spooned dip into the center.
"Maybe someplace a little more private." Jim edged toward the patio.
"If this is about the golf tournament, my hands are tied."
As his brother added more food to his plate, Jim turned his back on the crowd and lowered his voice another notch. "Somebody in your office must have made a mistake. I confirmed with the steering committee months ago."
"Months ago you were the perfect fit for a celebrity golf tournament." His brother popped a stuffed mushroom into his mouth.
"I'll find another team."
"How many players get picked up midseason?"
"Iverson did, and Terry."
"Ancient history." Eddie bit into a cracker slathered with cheese.
Jim set his plate of uneaten hors d'oeuvres on the table. "If I'm scheduled to play in your tournament, people will know my knee is okay and—"
"But it's not."
"It will be." It had to be. Jim needed basketball. Whatever it took to get back in the game, he’d do it—hire a personal trainer, work out twenty-four/seven, anything.
Eddie swiped a napkin over his mouth. "I hope your knee will heal, little brother, I really do. But the committee can't wait. They want a star they can promote now. You know, somebody who's actually playing."
Jim took a strangle-hold on his paper cup. How could Eddie of all people talk about him not playing? This was the guy who had failed every attempt to make it to the pros, and now he wanted to pass judgment on Jim? If he didn't need his help …
But the truth was, he did need Eddie’s help. The situation required a little diplomacy, maybe a little begging. "You could use your influence to convince them—"
His brother held up a hand. "Only high-profile celebs bring in the kind of donations we need."
"All I'm looking for is some positive publicity." Jim crumpled his empty cup.
"Have you thought about doing something else? Maybe coaching?"
"I'm a player, Eddie, a basketball player." Jim slammed his wadded cup into the trash. Maybe event managers could switch jobs to advertising or PR, but basketball players—the gym-rat kind like he was—stuck with the game they lived for.
"Lighten up, little brother, I'm just trying to help."
"Great, then you can get me into the tournament."
"Yeah, okay. Thanks for all that help." Jim headed for the door before his sarcasm turned to something uglier. His parents had gone to a lot of trouble putting this reception together, and he wasn't going to spoil it for them by creating a scene.
As he hobbled past his sister, she caught his arm. "Can I borrow your cell phone, Jimmy-Jim? Mom wants me to find out when Kyle is coming, and I left mine"—grinning, Karen glanced around the crowded room and shrugged—"somewhere."
He drew his phone from a pocket of his blue jeans.
Staring up at him, she accepted it with her free hand but maintained her grip on his arm. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"I need some air." He gently lifted her hand away.
"You and Eddie again?"
"Just Eddie. Tell Mom and Dad I'll be back before dinner." Jim snatched up his navy blue hoodie and limped out the door, leaving the rising tide of conversation behind.
He slid behind the wheel of his Porsche, backed from the driveway, and accelerated onto the road heading south. Away from Laguna Beach, from Eddie, from the tatters of his career.
Briny air, February-cold, blew against his face, and he breathed deeply. If he had his choice, he'd head for a basketball court to shoot hoops until his insides stopped seething. Since his bad knee eliminated that possibility, he'd settle for option two. He'd visit his favorite spot overlooking the ocean, center himself, then figure out how to repair his public image.
After driving a mile along the deserted coast, he pulled into the familiar make-shift turnout. He climbed from the car, tossed his keys under the seat, then hobbled toward the nearby bluff. Ignoring the keep-out sign rattling against its rusty pole, as he had so many times before, he clambered over the deteriorating restraining cable and onto the protrusion of land where he could see the Pacific lash the cliffs.
Another wave churned the water. In the following stillness, something behind Jim cracked, louder than the thwack of a splintering baseball bat. He spun toward the sound.
A thin fissure zigzagged from the keep-out sign to the opposite edge of the protrusion.
The ground quivered.
Jim's heart leapfrogged into his throat. He limped toward the restraining cable, but before he reached it, the finger of land under him broke from the cliff. He slammed face down. An avalanche of rock and dirt slid beside him and over him and under him.
He flailed for something to grab. His left hand caught a jag of shale that sliced his palm as it splintered from the cliff.
Flexing his knees, he dug the toe of his good leg into the ground to anchor himself. His ankle popped. Pain exploded up his leg, and still he was falling.
He twisted in search of something else to grab.
A cluster of shrubs, coming up fast. Could he catch hold?
Not at this speed.
Dragging his palms against the rocky ground, he slowed.
His body slammed against the first shrub and caromed to a second. He wrapped his legs and arms around its branches. The bush bowed under his weight, then sprang upward. It bent again, recoiled, and still held.
Loose earth splashed into the water, then quiet. Bobbing in place, Jim clung to the prickly shrub. Below him a wave exploded against the cliff. He spat dusty grime from his mouth. "Help! Anybody! Help!"
Another wave thundered against the rocks, drowning out his words before rumbling away. Yelling was a waste. His ankle throbbed. His hands burned. He rested his head against his bicep. Everything had happened so fast …
His pecs contracted. Pain radiated into his chest, and he arched his back to reduce the tightness. His breathing came in shorter and shorter gasps. How much longer could he hold on? Not long enough for somebody to stumble on him and mount a rescue. He'd have to coach himself out of this mess.
His first choice was to climb back up. Tipping his head as far back as possible, he strained to see through the lingering dust. All he could make out was loose dirt directly above. He'd never get enough traction to hike up to safety.
That left choice number two. He scanned the bluff below the shrubs. Fifty feet of steep—all but that ledge no wider than a locker room bench just a few yards beneath him. Who knew if it would be strong enough to hold him, but he couldn't hang onto this bush much longer.
Ignoring the spines and rough-barked branches that slapped at his face, he lowered himself hand over hand through the shrubs until he dangled inches above the ledge. His body taut, Jim dropped.
The shelf accepted his weight, but his throbbing ankle buckled. Cursing, he collapsed to his side. As if having a bum knee wasn’t bad enough!
When the pain receded, he squirmed into a sitting position and peered down. White spray drifted up from another wave pounding the rocks. OK, so a messed up ankle wasn’t his biggest worry right now. He needed help.
Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn't in his pocket. Of course! He'd lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time. Besides whatever he'd done to his ankle, he had all these cuts and bruises, especially on his hands.
If he was going to survive this ordeal, he'd need to start with a little first aid.
As best he could, he elevated his injured ankle, then turned his hands face up. Blood seeped from under the dirt and bark slivers matting his palms. First priority, stop the bleeding.
Gingerly he tugged off his hoodie and set it next to him. As he wriggled out of his tee shirt, a pelican swooped past, diving toward the vacant ocean. Just beyond, a bank of dense clouds bulldozed toward shore. A blast of cold air off the water sent a shiver through him, goosing his tan arms and bare chest. He replaced the sweatshirt and pulled the warm hood over his head.
Using his teeth, he made three small tears in his tee shirt, then ripped the cloth into long strips. He tack¬led his left hand first, wrapping it as tight as he could and knotting the end of the bandage around his wrist, just below his watchband. When he finished, he repeated the procedure on his right hand.
With the bleeding under control, he pulled off his shoe. Already his ankle was puffy and thick. He flexed his toes. Pain exploded through his leg.
Breathe. He needed to breathe. The knives would stop digging into his flesh in a minute or two. He just had to get past this first wave of mind-numbing torture. At least he knew now what way not to bend his foot. When the pain was manageable, he imitated the count¬less train¬ers who had taped him up before games and wrapped his ankle to give it as much support as possible.
After finishing, he squeezed his foot back into his Nike, then leaned his head against the cliff. Okay, now he could cross "see to injuries" off his priority list. He'd done the best he could. From here on he'd have to forget the pain in his ankle and hands and figure out how to get down.
To his right the bluff was rocky and steep. In the opposite direction, the ledge he sat on stretched toward a spur that blocked his view of the beach. But where the two came together, the ledge widened as if it extended under the cliff and formed ... a cave. Tension seeped from his rigid back. He hadn't wanted to admit what a bad spot he was in, but seeing the cave felt like being handed the keys to a mansion. Away from danger and out of the cold, he'd have a chance to form a real plan.
With his back to the bluff, Jim climbed to his feet and shuffled toward the cleft in the rock. At last he reached the opening, steadied himself with a hand, and poked his head inside. Darkness engulfed him as though light had disappeared into a vacuum.
The clear sound of trickling water came from somewhere straight ahead. Maybe a cool stream. He ran his tongue over his crusty lips and swallowed. His throat felt as if he'd been drinking sand.
He hobbled forward, straining to see.
Without warning, the ground dissolved beneath him. His stomach flipped upward. He didn't hear rocks break away, and he didn't slide over the edge of a cliff. It was more like being pulled from shore by a riptide but downward, and not through water. Not through dirt either. More like he was drifting through air the way he would if he dangled at the end of a parachute. But how could that be? Maybe he was losing touch with reality. He'd heard that near-death trauma could have that effect on people.
His momentum slowed, and he jarred to a stop. As pain shot through his ankle, he stifled the groan that escaped him. He had bigger problems than the momentary agony of a bad joint. If he was going to make it out alive, he had to figure out where he was. Darkness enshrouded him. He stretched out an arm, and his fingers brushed a clammy wall, slippery as if coated with algae. He backed up a step, but nothing was under him.
He grabbed for whatever he'd been standing on, and his hand closed over a cylinder, like a pipe, but it pulled free. Once more he floated downward, this time like a stone drifting toward the bottom of the ocean. But did this ocean have a bottom? The journey seemed to last for hours. Or maybe only a few minutes. He wasn’t thinking straight. His perceptions had become scrambled, confused. Trauma induced, probably. Had he gone into shock?
Unexpectedly he banged onto a rough surface. Pain jagged his ankle as if shards of glass ripped at his ligaments and tendons. Catching his weight on the long object still in his hand, he swore. This time the pain was too much. He couldn’t take another one of these jolts. But at least the agony proved he hadn't lost complete touch with reality. "I hurt, therefore I am. Isn't that how the saying goes?" he muttered. "I hurt, I hear, I think, so whatever this is, it has to be real."
The throbbing in his ankle subsided to a dull ache, and he limped for¬ward, leaning on the metal object as a makeshift crutch. If anything, the darkness around him deepened. For all he knew, he might be inches from another pit. He stopped. Cocking his head, he listened for any tiny sound, any clue to where he was. Nothing, except his own rapid breathing.
"I can't stand here forever." His voice echoed around him, sounding out of place and far too loud. But wait a sec. If the sound was bouncing back at him, that had to mean there was something solid up ahead.
"Hello!" His cry reverberated against a barrier. He shouted again. Once more his voice rebounded. He let himself picture what he was hearing—a wall, most likely rock, not more than twenty-five feet ahead of him. Clanging the pipe thing back and forth like a blind man's cane, he inched forward.
At last the metal banged against the barrier. With a wavering hand, he reached out, the tips of his fingers bumping against a stone wall, not as clammy as the one he'd touched above.
He bent to investigate the ground. Dry bedrock. Not an ideal place to rest, but it could be worse. After easing into a sitting position, he leaned back. The cool dampness of the wall hinted that water was nearby, but he still hadn't found any. Well, a search for water would have to wait. He was too spent to explore another square inch of this … whatever he was in.
Jim closed his eyes to hide from the darkness. Maybe he'd fallen through some old mining shaft, though he didn't remember ever hearing about one around Laguna.
Without light, he had no visual reference point, which might explain the drifting sensation that seemed to go on and on …
His head nodded forward, then snapped up with a reflexive jerk. He must have dozed off. A short nap wasn't a bad idea. Getting this far had used up the little stamina he’d built since his latest knee surgery. He pulled his hoodie tight to his body, wrapped his arm around the mysterious object he still held, and curled up on the ground.
* * *
The sharp glare of a white light shining in his eyes startled Jim awake. He pushed to his elbows. His hands and ankle throbbed. The muscles in his arms, back, and legs had stiffened into tight knots. Moaning, he sank back against the rocky floor. He blinked at the whiteness, trying to look past it, trying to remember why he was so sore. "Where am I? What's happening?" The words came out as whispers.
From behind the glare someone gave a surprised exclamation. "An above-grounder speaking in Familiar. And he's hurt."
"Help." Jim worked to make his plea urgent, but his voice was no more than a croak.
"Be careful," said a second speaker. "This may be a servant of Vildoth-sadín."
At the sound of the strange name, a death-like cold ran through Jim's legs and arms, spread into his body, and filled his chest. He couldn't move, couldn't breath. What was happening to him? He strained to yell for help, but his lips would only form the word. A tremor ran through him, then uncontrollable shaking. His teeth clattered together.
"We must take him with us," the first voice said.
As strong hands lifted Jim onto a rough litter, he pulled in a breath of musty air. Someone threw a thick blanket over him, and the extra weight jolted him as if he'd taken a shot to the body. Every inch of his six-foot-five frame felt broken, but at least he could move and breathe again.
Shadowy figures bent to raise the stretcher. Good. Whoever these strangers were, they’d get him help, right? If not, they would have left him where they found him. Or worse. But what was worse? This long tunnel, twisting and turning as they followed the bright light; or sleeping in darkness, growing darkness, from now until forever. Jim’s eyes drooped shut. He wandered in and out of consciousness, too weary, too wounded, to care who these people were or where they were taking him.
At last they stopped. A vague scent of wood smoke drifted to him, and he opened his eyes. More strangers surged forward until a crowd of people, some speaking an unrecognizable language, encircled him. So these people were some different ethnic group he wasn’t familiar with, but still, they’d help him, wouldn't he? Get him to a doctor maybe. Or call his family at least. Again a bright light shone in his face. Instinctively he squinted and turned his head.
In a commanding voice, someone behind the glare hurled a staccato of questions at him. "Who are you? Where did you come from? Why are you here? How did you find us?"
Ironic that they thought Jim had answers. He cleared his throat and forced words past his thick tongue. "My name is Jim Thompson. I was standing at the edge of the cliff and fell. I don't know how I ended up in your tunnels." He waited for a response, but the conversations around him dwindled to silence. Apparently no one was going to volunteer to tell him where he'd ended up. "Is this some kind of mining operation? Where am I?"
No one spoke, and his own labored breathing rebounded against the stillness. What if he'd stumbled into some kind of illegal operation—drug smuggling or human trafficking? Why else would they be so tight-lipped? The intense beam shining in his eyes burst into brilliance, then just as suddenly, diminished to a softer light, allowing him a better look at his surroundings. His stretcher was on the ground near a campfire. The fading ray came from a crystal sphere the size of a softball. The burly man who held it passed a hand over top, and the glare sub¬sided to a dull glow. Faint silhouettes hovered in the shadows of the darkened chamber just outside the firelight.
"Where am I?" Jim repeated, glancing from one dark shape to the next. Were these people responsible for whatever happened to him in the cave? Had he just been kidnapped? "Who are you? What do you want?"
After an interminable pause, a large person, maybe a foot taller than Jim and weighing at least three hundred pounds, stepped forward.
The imposing figure pulled back the hood of a long, flowing bronze cloak and bent toward Jim, his black eyes glowering. "Tre-vene de Vildoth-sadín?"
Jim stared into an angular face covered in thick, dark hair. He brushed cold sweat from his eyes with his trembling arm. Was he hallucinating? His heart pounded against his chest like the reverberation of an amped-up car stereo. He propped himself on his elbows, ignoring the blackness that swirled behind his eyes and dimmed his vision. "Who … what are you?"
"Silence." The cloaked being lowered a long, tapered nose within inches of Jim's face and bared pointed incisors. "We will ask the questions."