Visiting C.S.Boyack to Chat about the Astral Conspiracy Series

Ciao, amici! I’m going on tour. Sadly, not an actual “get on a luxury bus and go” kind of tour, but the next best thing—a virtual tour.

My first stop is at Entertaining Stories, the blog/site of C.S. Boyack.

Frequent visitors here and/or at Story Empire should know his name. If you don’t, I’m not sure how you missed it, but let’s take care of that right now. Craig is a talented author, a stalwart friend, and a super-supportive blogger. If you’re not already following him, I highly recommend you do so.

Craig has also been busy with new and upcoming releases. Book two (HMS Lanternfish) of his pirate adventure saga came out in August. His latest short story (with fan favorite Jason Fogg) is in a new mystery anthology, Murder They Wrote, which also dropped last month. And I understand he’s got something special planned for October, which is just around the corner.

I hope you’ll take a moment to check out my post at his site, and while you’re there, explore what Craig has to offer, too. Hope to see you there! Saluti!


Ciao, amici! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—I absolutely LOVE hosting people on my site. It’s so exciting when someone is launching a new book and I get to talk about it.

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting fellow Story Empire author John Howell, who’s here to talk about his new book, Eternal Road: The Final Stop. Without further ado, I’m turning things over to John. Please help me give him a warm welcome.

Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Staci, and thank you for helping me launch this book. I know you are involved in launching five of your own books, so I really appreciate that you could help with this launch.

Speaking of my book, let me describe it. Eternal Road is the story of two people finding their way through the selection process leading to the place where one will spend eternity. Yes, it is true. They both have passed away. James Wainwright just died in an auto accident. Samantha Tourneau died seventeen years before. Sam is James’s guide to help him decide where to spend eternity.

This is not your usual thriller or paranormal romance. It is a piece of fiction that is a combination of inspiration, adventure, time travel, sci-fi, a touch of erotica, and a dash of spiritual. In short, it is a lot of things, but hopefully, a story that will make you happy to have read it.

It is now available on Amazon in paper and Kindle.

The Kindle edition is introductory priced at 99¢ until October 15th.

Here are the universal links:

Kindle  |  Paper


James Wainwright picks up a hitchhiker and discovers two things:

1. The woman he picks up is his childhood sweetheart, only seventeen years older.
2. He is no longer of this world.

James began a road trip alone in his 1956 Oldsmobile. He stops for a hitchhiker only to discover she is his childhood sweetheart, Sam, who disappeared seventeen years before. James learns from Sam falling asleep miles back caused him to perish in a one-car accident. He also comes to understand that Sam was taken and murdered all those years ago, and now she has come back to help him find his eternal home.

The pair visit a number of times and places and are witness to a number of historical events. The rules dictate that they do no harm to the time continuum. Trying to be careful, they inadvertently come to the attention of Lucifer, who would love to have their souls as his subjects. They also find a threat to human survival and desperately need to put in place the fix necessary to save humankind.

The question becomes, will James find his eternal home in grace or lose the battle with Satan for his immortal soul and the future of human life with it? If you like time-travel, adventure, mystery, justice, and the supernatural, this story is for you.


James opens his door as if his next step would send him out onto the moon. He gets out of the car and shields his eyes as he looks toward the mission. Already, Sam has climbed out of the passenger’s side, and the slam of the door makes James jump. “Geez, take it easy on the Olds.”

“You nervous?”

“Maybe a little. How about you?”

“Think about it: We’re both dead. What do you think can hurt us?”

James shrugs. “I just have a funny feeling, is all.”

Sam waves her hand. “Don’t worry. We’re okay.”

The pair take a moment to look around. Away from the car, the scenery comes into full focus. They pause at the entrance to a compound. To their right and left, walls stand twelve feet high. Men on horses and with wagons pass through a large door.
Someone calls to them, “You down there. What business have ye here?”

The two look up to see a man at the top of the wall pointing a rifle at them. Sam answers, “We’re travelers, seeking some rest at the mission.”

The man waves his rifle. “Best be gone with you. There’s a whole Mexican Army headed this way, and we don’t think they’ll be too kind when they ask us to leave.”

Sam raises her hand. “I understand, but we have nowhere else to go.”

The man shoulders his weapon and shakes his head. “Pass through the gates. I’ll see ya on the other side.”

Sam grabs James’s arm and drags him through the entrance of the mission. Inside, they have to leap out of the way when horses and wagons dart through the gates after them. To the right of the big door, they find refuge. The activity inside the mission appears frantic. Men rush this way and that. Women carry buckets and rags. Suddenly, it dawns on James that the cloths are for bandages, and the women are busy preparing for battle causalities. He turns quickly to the voice behind him.

“Allow me to introduce myself. The name’s Travis. William Travis, but my friends know me as Bill.”

James follows Sam when she takes a small step forward. “Mr. Travis. Thank you so much for allowing us to enter. We won’t be much trouble.”

Travis pushes his hat back on his head. “Ha, ha, ha. Young lady, you could not even be compared to trouble like you are going to see if you stay.”

“What do you mean?”

Travis leans against the wall. “In less than twelve hours, I expect the Mexican Army to attack this place. They have vowed not to take any prisoners, so if we can’t hold ‘em, it looks like we all could meet our maker.”


About John

John is an award-winning author who, after an extensive business career, began writing full time in 2012. His specialty is thriller fiction novels, but John also writes poetry and short stories. He has written five other books that are on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. The paperback versions are also available in the Indie Lector store

John lives in Lakeway, Texas, with his wife and their spoiled rescue pets.

Contact John:

Blog: Fiction Favorites | Facebook | Twitter 
Goodreads | Amazon Author Page 

John’s Books:

There you have it. Doesn’t this one sound amazing? And there’s something for everyone. Let’s all show John and his new release some love from the writing community. I know we’d both appreciate it if you used those share buttons and purchase links. And when you’re done, please take a moment to leave him a message of encouragement. Grazie!


Ciao, amici! It’s my pleasure to welcome Craig Boyack back to the blog today, and this time, it’s a two-fer. He’s here to talk about a new mystery anthology called MURDER THEY WROTE, in which he has a story. But in addition to his installment, our Story Empire colleague, Mae Clair, also has a piece in the collection. And there are several other talented authors’ offerings. So, I guess it’s really a three-fer. Or a many-fer. Whatever you want to call it, two SE authors and some of their writing friends have a new murder mystery anthology out, and Craig’s here to talk about it. Please join me in giving him a warm welcome as he talks about this release.

Staci, I’m honored to be back at your place to promote my newest project. Honestly, you have to let me pay some of this back if you ever want to push a few of your stories to my followers.

The newest project is an anthology called Murder They Wrote. The title kind of gives the game away, but it’s seven short stories by seven different authors with murder as the central theme. I’m excited to be among them.

Murder They Wrote

I’m going to take a little different spin on this post and talk about my main character. Jason Fogg has been with me for many years. His first appearance was in a trunk novel, that I’ll never show anyone. He’s been in several short stories, and appeared in a novel that involved a team up adventure.

I’m a speculative author, so all isn’t as it seems on the surface with Jason. He has the ability to dissolve himself into fog. Since he works as a private detective, that gives him a real advantage in being able to slip through keyholes and window screens.

Now for the different spin. When Jason first discovered his powers, he became a bit of a pervert, not to put to fine a point on it. Over the course of his stories, he eventually got together with, and married, the object of his lust/affection. Her name is Riley.

In this case, the Foggs are fixing up an old house that was payment from a previous case of Jason’s. (See Viral Blues for that case.) I really tried to expand on their relationship in this story. Jason’s work takes him away for long periods of time, but he tries to check in when he can, because he loves her. She gets stuck doing a lot of the painting and fixing, but Jason helps when it’s possible.

Riley makes him take the case, because they need the money more than the labor. Their struggles are the same as many young couples have, with a few extras related to Jason’s lifestyle. At one point she buys him a backyard sauna, so he can heal and relax in an environment that’s suited to his abilities. It seems kind of frivolous, but she’s doing something for him that he would never do for himself.

I’m kind of happy to see their relationship evolve inside Jason’s case work. It isn’t an easy thing to pull off in a short story without losing the plot. I think it came out well and hope some of your fans will give it a chance.

Like I said, there are seven authors involved, and anthologies are a great way to experience multiple authors. You might find a new favorite this way.


Murder comes in 7 different genres. By 7 different authors.

Are you a fan of courtroom drama? In the anthology’s first story, Abraham Lincoln defends a friend’s son against a charge of murder.

For lovers of speculative fiction, Jason Fogg dissolves into mist to sneak through open windows and snoop for clues.

How about a cozy? Jazzi, Jerod, and Ansel discover a dead body while renovating a kitchen, dining room, and half bath.

Have a craving for a Regency? Lord Peregrine and his wife, Elizabeth, use their sharp minds and quick wit to solve a murder at a garden party.

Need a bit of literary fiction? A young, lonely widow must deal with the theft of a valuable butterfly collection.

And what about a little psychological horror? Twin sisters discover that their attic is haunted by not one, but two ghosts.

Last, but never least, the anthology concludes with a historical mystery. A young, newly married knight is accused of murdering his obnoxious host at a holiday gathering in his castle.

Pick up your copy of Murder They Wrote.

About Craig:

C. S. Boyack

You can contact Craig at the following locations:

Blog | Novels |  Twitter | Goodreads | Facebook | Pinterest | BookBub

I’ve already grabbed my copy, read it cover to cover in one quick sitting, and wrote my review. There’s truly something for everyone in it. I hope you’ll consider reading it, too, as well as sharing this post and leaving Craig (and the other authors) an encouraging message below. Grazie!


Ciao, amici! Today, I have a book review for you. But it’s a real bargain, as you get seven stories for the price of one! Here’s my review of Murder They Wrote.

Who done it? Where? And with what?

Those are the questions we ask when we play Clue, and those are the questions we ask when we read these seven mystery stories.

The answers are as varied as the authors themselves.

This anthology has something for everyone. There’s an author known for speculative fiction, an author who writes cozies and urban fantasy. One who loves horror and one who loves cryptids. Literary, legal, regency… The list is truly varied. Some of these authors stuck to their areas of comfort, others branched out. All delivered.

It’s hard to pick a favorite, as they each offered something appealing. Of special note to me would be:

  • Mae Clair (A Winter Reckoning) who always delivers a clean and creative story 
  • C.S. Boyack (From the Files of Jason Fogg) and Judi Lynn (The Body in the Kitchen) who give us more of characters readers already love
  • Kathleen Palm (Within the Plum Attic) who played with two favorite themes of mine: twins and ghosts

I read this anthology in one evening. (It’s not an hour-long read; it does take some time. But the stories are easy to consume.) With Halloween right around the corner, this is a great choice to start easing us into the season. Nothing too macabre, but it definitely sets the mood. Hard to pass it up.

Purchase Link

Have you read this anthology? Is it in your TBR list? Are you a mystery fan? We’re easing into October soon, and this is a great intro to the Halloween season. Let’s get the conversation started!


D. Wallace Peach’s #bookrelease LIARS AND THIEVES

Ciao, amici! Today I have a real treat for you. It’s my pleasure to welcome to the blog for the first time (and hopefully first of many) D. Wallace Peach. You’ve probably seen her in the comment threads. I hope you’re a follower of her blog. Once you read this post, I know you’ll be a fan. Please help me welcome her as she discusses her new release, Liars and Thieves.

Diana, I know you’re busy traveling all over the blogosphere with this release tour, so I’ll only ask one question:

Which character was the most interesting to write?

Probably Kalann il Drakk, the First (god) of Chaos. He’s not my favorite character at all, but I had to do a bunch of research on theories about chaos and how it impacts human life. The only thing I researched more than chaos was all the science-ishy details of mass and energy. Einstein, I am not! Anyway, it was interesting to write a character who is totally amoral, unpredictable, brutal on the innocent, and yet ultimately forces civilization to fall or grow. Chaos is a component of creativity, and chaos pushes people toward change and a new order. Il Drakk is horrible, but he forces choices on the characters that make them responsible for the outcome.

Fascinating! Let’s take a look at the trailer:

And how about that cover and blurb?

Behind the Veil, the hordes gather, eager to savage the world. But Kalann il Drakk, First of Chaos, is untroubled by the shimmering wall that holds his beasts at bay. For if he cannot cleanse the land of life, the races will do it for him. All he needs is a spark to light the fire.

Three unlikely allies stand in his way.

A misfit elf plagued by failure—

When Elanalue Windthorn abandons her soldiers to hunt a goblin, she strays into forbidden territory.

A changeling who betrays his home—

Talin Raska is a talented liar, thief, and spy. He makes a fatal mistake—he falls for his mark.

A halfbreed goblin with deadly secrets—

Naj’ar is a loner with a talent he doesn’t understand and cannot control, one that threatens all he holds dear.

When the spark of Chaos ignites, miners go missing. But they won’t be the last to vanish. As the cycles of blame whirl through the Borderland, old animosities flare, accusations break bonds, and war looms.

Three outcasts, thrust into an alliance by fate, by oaths, and the churning gears of calamity, must learn the truth. For they hold the future of their world in their hands.

Global Purchase Link

About the Author:

D. Wallace Peach started writing later in life after the kids were grown and a move left her with hours to fill. Years of working in business surrendered to a full-time indulgence in the imaginative world of books, and when she started writing, she was instantly hooked. Diana lives in a log cabin amongst the tall evergreens and emerald moss of Oregon’s rainforest with her husband, two dogs, bats, owls, and the occasional family of coyotes.

Website/Blog | Website/Books | Amazon Author’s Page | Facebook | Twitter

Doesn’t this sound awesome? And I can’t stop admiring that cover.

It was such a pleasure hosting Diana and assisting with announcing her new release. I hope you’ll help spread the word by using those sharing buttons, and I know she’d appreciate you clicking the purchase link and leaving your best wishes below. Grazie!

Introducing Astral Conspiracy Book 4: THE TWINS

Ciao, amici! I promised quick releases, and I’m keeping that promise. Today, I’m delighted to share with you book 4 of the Astral Conspiracy Series: THE TWINS.

They took the world’s best hope. Took the father of her children. Now she’ll take revenge.

Landon Thorne was abducted by the Astrals. If there were still newspapers, that definitely would have been a front-page headline. But Reverie Sterling doesn’t have time to dwell on his absence. She has twins to raise in this dystopian world.

Twins with psychic powers.

She was trained to rise to any challenge, so that’s what she does. Vowing revenge against the Astrals, she partners with an unlikely ally — the Nine, the mysterious organization that’s been thwarting the Resistance since Astral Day.

The tenuous alliance converges on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Or rather, what’s left of it. There they wage a war against local zealots and Astral warriors. For some, it’s the last stand.

Reverie thinks she’s protecting her children. Too late, she realizes the twins have more power than anyone — and she’s the one who needs protecting.

Purchase Link

You can also view my website’s book page. In the meantime, I hope this has sparked your interest in the book, and on the series itself. You can expect The Lab, fifth and final installment of the saga, soon. Saluti!


Ciao, amici! It’s been a while since I posted any book reviews. Mostly because it’s been a while since I had a chance to read for pleasure. I know, I know… an author who doesn’t read? Blasphemy!

Believe me, I feel the same way. It’s just been crazy. But that’s no excuse, and I’ve started to carve out some “me” time to get lost in books again.

Today, I want to share my thoughts about my two most recent reads, HMS Lanternfish by C.S. Boyack and I Wouldn’t Be Surprised by D.L. Finn.

My review:

★★★★★ I I I I ! The root monsters are back! And the rest of the gang, too.

When I read the first book in the series, Voyage of the Lanternfish, I fell hard for the root monsters. They’re like the Minions, but on the ocean and a lot funnier. And who doesn’t love humorous antics in the middle of an action-filled voyage across the high seas?

James and his crew pick up where we left off—they’re pirates-turned-privateers in a global battle for power. And the stakes keep getting higher. This installment focuses on religious factions, nefarious despots, mythical creatures, greedy con artists, noble warriors … and the Lanternfish is trying to navigate all of it as they navigate the treacherous waters between the warring lands.

Boyack is, as always, wildly inventive. The creatures, the mythology, and the characters all weave together into a fascinating, fast-paced plot that kept me guessing and kept me turning the pages. I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in the series and highly recommend the entire saga for fans of pirate adventures, or frankly, well-told stories of any genre.

My review:

★★★★☆ Evildwels and Ghosts and Crazed Killers… Oh, My!

Be prepared for your pulse to start pounding and not slow until… well, not until long after you finish this fast and fear-inducing read. D.L. Finn packs a lot of tension into a short space, and believe me, the creep-factor lingers.

Anyone who’s ever said, “I wouldn’t be surprised…” is going to think twice about uttering that phrase again. While enjoying a quiet evening in their new home—a secluded sanctuary in the middle of the woods—Janice turns her musings into a little game, always trying to one-up her last statement.

It’s a benign way to pass the time. Until her statements start to come true. Cue an escalating series of events that gives new meaning to “things that go bump in the night.” You may try to guess what’s going on, but your imagination probably isn’t that fertile. Finn delivers a surprising and frightening tale that will have you racing to the end to see what happens.

So glad to learn this is part of a series. I’d love to read more. And I suspect anyone else who reads this will feel the same.

One last review, though it isn’t mine. Yesterday, I was honored and humbled to find a review for The Stones, one of my new releases (as D.L. Cross) on Mae Clair’s blog. I can honestly say I’ve never received “5 honking big luminous stars” before on anything, and I was blown away by her comments. If you’d like to read her thoughts, you can find them here. And if (by some unfathomable possibility) you don’t read her posts, make sure you click the “follow” button while you’re over there. You’ll be glad you did.

That’s it for me today. Two reviews long overdue plus a surprise review of one of my own works. Don’t be like me; make some time to read! There are lots of great books out there. I’m looking forward to digging into another (hopefully tonight)!

Have you read HMS Lanternfish or I Wouldn’t Be Surprised? I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

Until next time, saluti!

HMS Lanternfish #newrelease

Ciao, amici! You know how happy I am to open my blog to people who want to share their good news (or even just to chat). Today, I have the pleasure of welcoming a return guest to the site. I’ll give you a hint… he’s a fan favorite. I’ll give you another. He’s a colleague at Story Empire. For the two of you who haven’t guessed yet, I’ll just tell you.

Craig Boyack’s here again! And he’s going to be talking to us about the first trilogy he’s ever tackled. More specifically, his new release—book 2, HMS Lanternfish—and a specific kind of character.

Take it away, Craig!

Thanks for inviting me back, Staci. It’s always nice to visit friends, but almost a requirement when you have a new book available.

The new title is HMS Lanternfish, and it’s the second book of a planned trilogy. I’ll drop a cover and blurb at the end of this, but I want to get to our topic of the day: Con Men.

Lanternfish is loaded with fun deceit and larceny, including the original book, where the crew posed as a naval vessel from another country to pilfer an order of bronze cannons from a foundry. They made off with the goods before the rightful owners appeared.

As pirates, they occasionally fly the wrong flag to slip past obstacles or fool their enemies.

HMS Lanternfish has much of the same flavor. We have a princess who has no real standing. James, the pirate captain, has to pass her off as the Western ideal of what an Eastern princess might be. As the seventeenth child of the emperor, she is more of a burden than a child of value as far as the throne is concerned. James acquired her as a backfire to one of his own acts of deceit. It’s kind of convoluted here, but as it plays out over a sequence of chapters, it’s not that hard to follow.

Then there are the Palumbos. He sells curses in a coastal village, she sells the cures. Together, they milk their patrons for all they’re worth. They narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose and wound up aboard Lanternfish. They don’t seem to have much value aboard a sailing vessel and caused a few problems involving gambling. On the other hand, they have a unique skillset and could have value in the war zone Lanternfish is headed for.

For fans of the root monsters, they’re back, too. These guys are always pilfering and plundering something, yet somehow they manage to remain helpful to the cause.

It’s hard to talk much about deceit and con games without spoiling part of the story. The fun of those is in watching them unfold as you read. I expect to weave in even more as the trilogy comes to an end next year. I need to come up with a big one and already know what it’s going to involve. I’m in the planning phase right now and hope to start writing by the end of the year.

I have HMS Lanternfish priced at 99¢ right now to draw some early sales. Take advantage of this and grab your copy. The price will go up once I finish this blog tour.

About the Book:

HMS Lanternfish

The Lanternfish crew completed their original mission but got exposed to a more global problem. An entire continent is at war, headed up by a head-strong young king with dreams of power,and pushed from behind by a mysterious religious order known as the Fulminites.

Rather than let their country fall under the iron boot of conquest, James and his crew set sail once more to see what kind of muscle Lanternfish can lend to the war effort. Acting precariously under an unofficial charter as a privateer, even his allies aren’t always his friends.

HMS Lanternfish explores new worlds on its way to war and drifts considerably off course. It features an international crew of characters, and for fans of the first book, the root monsters are back, too. Tall ships, a few con games, martial arts, and everything you loved about the original book is all returning.

Hoist the colors and wheel out the guns. Lanternfish is taking to the high seas once more.

HMS Lanternfish: 99¢ for a limited time.

Voyage of the Lanternfish: Book one of the trilogy.

C. S. Boyack

You can contact Craig at the following locations:

BlogMy NovelsTwitterGoodreads | FacebookPinterestBookBub

How about that? I’m over the moon that the root monsters are back (I I I I !). And the rest of the gang, too. If you haven’t already grabbed your copies of books one and two, get ’em now while the deals are hot. And as soon as you do, come back here to share the post (if you don’t mind) and leave Craig your best wishes. I’m tipping my glass to him, and I hope you’ll join me.


Introducing THE NINE #newrelease #scifi #aliens

Ciao, amici! I told you the books in this series were going to start dropping quickly once they started. And they are.

Today, I’m happy to announce Astral Conspiracy Book 3, The Nine, is now available!

So far, this is the third of five books plus a short story prequel that have been released. If you’d like more information, you can:

  • view the product page on my site (here), where you can also see a slideshow of pull quotes from the book
  • view the product page on my publisher’s site (here), where you can navigate to other Invasion Universe offerings
  • go directly to Amazon to get your copy (here)

The Nine will be available at other vendors soon.

I’m so excited to share this installment of the Astral Conspiracy Series with our little corner of the universe. I hope you’ll join me in my celebration. Saluti!

Jacqui Murray’s AGAINST ALL ODDS #NewRelease

Ciao, amici! Today, I’m delighted to host for the first (but hopefully not the last) time, Jacqui Murray. If you read the comments on my site, you’ll recognize her name. And if you keep track of talented writers, you probably already follow her blog. If you don’t, you need to. But not yet!

First, let me share with you her latest release, Against All Odds, book three of her Crossroads series (prehistoric fiction genre). She’s even graciously agreed to share chapter one!

Please help me give her a warm welcome.

Xhosa’s extraordinary prehistoric saga concludes, filled with hardship, courage, survival, and family.

A million years of evolution made Xhosa tough but was it enough? She and her People finally reach their destination—a glorious land of tall grasses, few predators, and an abundance that seems limitless, but an enemy greater than any they have met so far threatens to end their dreams. If Xhosa can’t stop this one, she and her People must again flee.

The Crossroads trilogy is set 850,000 years ago, a time in prehistory when man populated most of Eurasia. He was a violent species, fully capable of addressing the many hardships that threatened his survival except for one: future man, a smarter version of himself, one destined to obliterate all those who came before.

From prehistoric fiction author Jacqui Murray comes the unforgettable saga of a courageous woman who questions assumptions, searches for truth, and does what she must despite daunting opposition. Read the final chapter of her search for freedom, safety, and a new home.

A perfect book for fans of Jean Auel and the Gears!

Title and author: Against All Odds
Series: Book 3 in the Crossroads series
Genre: Prehistoric fiction
Available digitally (print soon) at:
Kindle US   Kindle UK  
Kindle CA   Kindle AU

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for  NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Laws of Nature, Book 2 in the Dawn of Humanity trilogy, Winter 2021.

Social Media contacts:

Amazon Author Page | Blog | Instagram
LinkedIn | Pinterest | Twitter | Website

Excerpt: Chapter 1

The foothills of the Pyrenees

They came out of the mountains, hair frozen in sparkling strands, hands and feet wrapped in shredded pelts, ribs etched against their skin under ragged hides white with snow, faces haggard with fatigue. Blood crusted scrapes and gashes, many recent, others almost healed, reminders of the violent struggles endured on their journey.

Though their steps flagged, not one of these upright creatures exhibited a hint of defeat. All males and a few females carried at least one spear, some two, many with warclubs strapped to their backs. Despite the anxiety and fear of entering this foreign land, hope energized them today, that their migration might be at an end.

All of them—Xhosa and her tribe, Pan-do and his, Wind, Zvi, and Seeker—had been chased from their homes by enemies. In their flight, they found each other. It took time to work through their differences but now they traveled side by side, respected ideas not theirs, and called themselves the People.

Their charismatic Leaders—Xhosa, Wind, and Pan-do—were known as reliable friends to those who earned their trust and dangerous enemies to those who opposed them. Two wolves—Spirit and Black Wolf—journeyed with them. Though the People lacked the animals’ sharp claws, dense fur, and piercing teeth, each considered the other “pack” and would defend them to death.

The exhausted group straggled down the gently sloping flank, feet shuffling carefully over the slippery scree. The ground changed from talus to stunted tufts of grass, sparse and brown which made walking easier. Optimism shone from their faces even as their tired eyes flicked side to side in search of unexpected movement, ears strained for out-of-place noises, and noses sniffed.

Rather than continue across the meadow, Xhosa led the People into the shade of the edging forest.

“Do you smell it, Wind?” Anticipation filled her gestures.

She and Wind, pairmates as well as Co-Leaders, stood quietly, absorbing their surroundings. Light filtered lazily through the canopy, the shadowed ground dappled with patches of warmth. She sniffed in the essence of wet earth and rotting leaves, the mustiness of moss, and something else much more enticing.

“It’s there.” She pointed and strode forward, lengthening her stride.

An icy gust whipped down the hillside through the shadows and raised bumps on her arms but she ignored it. The forest gave way to open sky and searing heat. It was too hot for her thin pelt but she didn’t stop to remove it. Green stalks swayed as far as she could see, edged on one side by more mountains and the other by some sort of leaves and branches. Sunlight glinted off the rippled surface of a distant river as it curled over the terrain.

“Dung!” The scent overpowered every other odor.

Wind huffed to her side. “It’s been a long time since we smelled dung that wasn’t frozen.”

“We did it, Wind.” Her eyes glistened with relief.

For most of a Moon, dread gnawed at her courage and left her wondering if following the guidance of Seeker—a boy barely a man—was a mistake. But Seeker assured her in his ebullient way that once out of the hills, their new homebase would welcome them. Xhosa wanted to believe him because she wasn’t sure what else to do. Nor did she know what to do if it didn’t work.

Wind motioned, arms inclusive, “It’s beautiful, Xhosa.”

Siri, Pan-do, Ngili, the wolves Spirit and Black Wolf, and the rest of the People gathered around Xhosa and Wind, eyes locked on what lay in front of them.

Pan-do whispered, “We made it.” His eyes were moist, mouth open.

Ngili, the People’s Lead Hunter, motioned, hands close to his body. “With all this grass, Gazelle or Mammoth must be nearby.”

Dust, the Lead Scout, trotted up, coming from a tall cliff far ahead on their forward path. “I think there are caves there.”

The People hadn’t slept in a cave since leaving Viper and the Mountain Dwellers. It would be a treat if true.

Xhosa looked behind. Shadows already stretched as far from the bottom of the rocky slopes as sunlight to the top. Daylight would soon end.

“We don’t have much time. Let’s rest and then see if those are caves.”

Ngili, the People’s Lead Hunter, motioned, fingers spaced out, palms up, “I’ll go with Dust to check.” He added a swift spread-fingered swipe with first one hand and then the other, followed by a quick bob of his head and a puff.

Xhosa brushed both hands down her sides. Go.

The People spoke with a complex combination of hand motions, facial expressions, body movements, and sounds augmented with chirrups, snaps, hisses, and whistles. By the time Ngili finished talking, Xhosa knew how many would join him, where they would go, and how long they’d be away. The People’s communication was sophisticated but quiet, a precaution especially in unfamiliar areas. Unusual sounds—voices, for example—stood out. All animals made noises but few as varied as the People’s. Why alert Others who lived here to their presence? Xhosa would do that in her own time, in her own way.

Dust, Ngili, and two scouts soon receded into the landscape, the only evidence of their passage a slight disturbance in the slender waving stalks. Despite the dung scents, the abundant plant food, and the glisten of a faraway river, Xhosa crossed her arms over her chest and paced.

Something is wrong.

She searched the forests and the rippling field that had swallowed up Dust and Ngili . Xhosa possessed the ability to see great distances in sufficient detail to find trails, footprints, movement, or the glitter of sun off eyes.

She saw none of those and that made her more uncomfortable.

With this wealth of food and water, Others should be here.

Wind motioned, palms flattened against his chest, “The mountains we crossed touched Sun. They’re cold and barren. Few can do what we did to get here, Xhosa. We are safe.”

Xhosa could hear in his voice, see in his gestures, that despite his bravado, Wind too felt uneasy about what they didn’t see and hear.

But she grinned. “I don’t know how I survived without someone being able to read my thoughts.”

She trotted over to a stream that fed into the river she had noticed. She stretched out on her belly, flat on the soft grass at the water’s edge, and took a long, satisfying drink of the sweet liquid. Thirst quenched, she collected handfuls of the tender shoots of new plants growing along the shore, ate what she wanted and tossed the rest into a communal food pile that would be shared with all the People. It was already filling up with fat fish speared from the slow-moving pools beside the river, tasty reeds and cattails, and even a handful of eggs plucked from nests not hidden well enough along the shore and in the roots of trees. The wolves snapped birds from the air and swallowed them almost whole, coughing up feathers.

Xhosa leaned back on her hands, sniffing the unique fragrance of each groupmember. Zvi was sweaty from wrestling with Spirit. Siri smelled sourly of hunger but she wouldn’t eat until Honey’s bleeding foot was wrapped in mulch and leaves. The females with new babies exuded the pleasant aroma of milk. Some scents jumbled together making them impossible to identify. When Xhosa became Leader of the People, before it merged with Pan-do’s and Hawk’s, the People had been small enough that she could recognize everyone by their odor. Now, she kept track of her tribe while Pan-do did the same with his. Wind helped everyone.

Done eating, the People sprawled on the warm ground, soaking up Sun’s remaining rays, chatting contentedly with gestures and the occasional sigh. Water dripped from their thawing bodies, soaking into the thirsty ground, as the remaining ice and snow on their pelts and in their hair melted away.

Xhosa and Wind sat apart from the others, on a log long ago softened by rot. She uprooted handfuls of grass and wiped the sweat from Wind’s body, as he did hers. The soft scratch felt good and the earthy fragrance reminded her of times long gone. When he finished, she harvested chunks of green moss from the log’s decaying bark and stuffed them into her neck sack. All the People wore one of these around their necks. Even the wolves did when they were migrating.

Finished, she leaned against Wind and closed her eyes. In a group of Others, her pairmate stood out. A Big Head, the People’s traditional enemy, the ones who drove Xhosa and her tribe from their long-established home, Wind had earned Xhosa’s trust by saving her life more than once and then, as a member of her People, sharing Big Head spear tricks and warrior skills with her Leads. Before long, each of them individually told her that thanks to Wind they could now defeat an attack which they couldn’t have done in the past. Whatever distrust her People harbored toward him faded away.

“Xhosa!” Dust panted up to her. “I found a cave. And we found trace of a herd. Ngili is tracking it.”

By the time Sun settled into its night nest, the People were ensconced in the cave Dust found. They had to squeeze together to fit but all were thrilled to sleep without waking to frozen toes and numb fingers. Stone and Zvi—the burliest of the People—lugged rocks in and Siri built a fire that quickly warmed the interior. The subadults gathered kindling to feed it and arranged who would be responsible throughout the night for keeping it lit.

Usually, the wolves slept scattered among the People but with Black Wolf close to delivering her pups, she dug out an opening in the back and claimed it as her den. Then she settled to her belly, one leg forward, the other bent back, eyebrows twitching.

Xhosa strode toward the nest she would share with Wind but stopped at the sight of Seeker, weight on his bottom, legs crossed in front of his body in the uncomfortable position he preferred. His pairmate Lyta curled next to him with their best friend, Zvi.

Xhosa approached Seeker. “You are not outside.”

Every night as long as Xhosa could remember, the enigmatic male lay on his back, gaze fixed steadily on the star-dotted sky, spouting what to Xhosa sounded like gibberish to whoever listened. Intermittently, he leapt to his feet and spun dizzying circles or bounced from one foot to the other, huffing and chirping. Lyta and Zvi would either join him or watch. He once explained to Xhosa that this was how he studied the changes in the night sky—the appearance and disappearance of particular stars or their movement in relation to each other—so he could guide the People accurately. This nightly process was how they had moved from the distant start of Endless Pond to this cave where Endless Pond seemed to end.

He didn’t respond to her statement, didn’t even acknowledge her. That worried Xhosa. She hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that danger lurked around them, somewhere. Seeker’s anxious look didn’t help.

She squatted at his side and added a question to her declaration. “The stars aren’t talking to you?”

To the side, Lyta wriggled, not comfortable in the seated position Seeker preferred but determined to try because Seeker liked it so much. Zvi crouched on the balls of her feet, the more traditional pose. She’d tried to sit on her bottom, legs crossed in front, but kept falling backward. Besides, it took her too long to rise from that position which meant if Lyta needed help, she couldn’t respond quickly. Squatting, for her, made more sense. Seeker didn’t care. He expected all to do what worked for them. Both his best friend and his future pairmate were long accustomed to his eccentricities.

Finally, Seeker offered Xhosa only a confused frown.

That’s not a “Yes they are,” and that raised the hair on her neck. Before she could ask more, Ngili scrambled through the thistle barrier the youngsters had placed around the cave’s mouth to prevent the entrance of intruders and hurried toward Xhosa.

He motioned, “I lost the herd’s trace in the dark. I’ll try again tomorrow,” and then raced toward where the hunters had gathered. They were all tired. Some would mate before sleeping but not Ngili. He hadn’t given up hope that his pairmate, Hecate, would come back.

After a final glance at Seeker, Xhosa joined Wind in their nest. She squatted behind him and teased the dirt and debris from his long head hair, occasionally focusing on a difficult tangle until her fingers could move easily through his hair. When she finished, he did the same for her.

As he groomed, he said, “I’ll join Ngili tomorrow. If there are herds, we will find them.”

“Pan-do and I will continue with the People.”

They said nothing more, both enjoying the calming feel of nails scratching on their skin and the intimacy of someone they trusted implicitly. Done, both fell asleep.

The first rays of daylight filtered into the cave. Black Wolf was already outside, padding back and forth restlessly, huffing uncomfortably. Wind left with Ngili and a handful of scouts, knowing Xhosa would leave a trail to wherever they settled when Sun’s light ran out. Though Spirit usually went with the hunters, today he stayed with Black Wolf.

Xhosa and Pan-do led. Dust copied their pace and direction but a distance away. With Ngili and Wind searching for meat, Xhosa focused on finding a cave large enough for the People. They strode onward, gaze sweeping the landscape, everyone grazing on berries, roots, and worms as they walked. Sporadically, Xhosa heard a faraway squawk or glimpsed a covey of birds as they exploded into flight, fleeing an unknown threat. It was the direction Ngili and Wind had gone, and told her how far they’d gotten.

The People rested by a waterhole. They searched its shoreline for prints but found none. Wherever the herds lived, they didn’t drink here so the People moved on, through copses of young saplings and around a bed of haphazardly-strewn boulders. The air tasted of flowers, warm earth, and the mild tang of salt, but the dung they found was hard and old.

Xhosa touched Pan-do’s hand and both stopped, eyes forward. “Do you smell that? It reminds me of Endless Pond.”

He pointed to his strong side and the direction they were walking. “From there and there. How can it be on two sides?”

Xhosa tingled. One of her People—Rainbow—had abandoned them long ago, taking many males and females with him. Others she and her People ran into while migrating here told her Rainbow traveled the same route she did but along the opposite shore of Endless Pond. For him, as for her, this was as far as he could go without folding back on himself.

If they got this far. If any survived.

She pushed aside those thoughts. Before searching for whatever remnants remained of Rainbow’s group, the People must find a homebase. All they suffered to get here—the interminable walking, the loss of Hawk, the death of groupmembers, Nightshade’s treachery—was for naught if they didn’t establish a home.

Spirit bumped her leg. Black Wolf panted at her mate’s side, her belly almost touching the ground.

Xhosa motioned, “Your mate’s pups won’t wait much longer. We will find a den for her.”

Spirit took off, his movements graceful and fluid with Black Wolf lumbering after him.

Not much later, Pan-do squinted ahead. “I think Spirit found a cave.”

Xhosa leaned forward, narrowing her gaze, and finally saw where Spirit stopped. He sat on his haunches at the base of a cliff, facing her, nose twitching, tail swishing the dirt behind him.

It took the rest of the day to cross over the craggy scrubland, up and down the deep ravines, and around the occasional spot of slippery ice. The cave proved too small for the People but not for Black Wolf’s needs. With much scuffling and panting, she created a nest for her pups and disappeared into the cool dark hole. The People settled outside, under an overhang that would protect them from rain and predators, and far enough away to not bother the new mother. As soon as Ngili and Wind arrived, shaking their heads that they hadn’t found a herd, they left again to search for signs of a trail left by former inhabitants of this cave.

Xhosa’s chest squeezed and her stomach knotted. Spirit padded up to her side, hackles puffed, nostrils flaring. He agreed. Something about this area made her tingle but for now, until Black Wolf finished, they must stay.

I’m sure you enjoyed this as much as I did. Please leave Jacqui a comment of support and don’t forget to use those sharing buttons! Grazie!

%d bloggers like this: