Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Greatshadow Preview: Bone-Handled Knife

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel Greatshadow, due out January 2012 from Solaris Books.

Greatshadow is the primal dragon of fire, spying upon mankind through every candle flame, watching for any moment of carelessness to strike and feed by burning barns, houses, or even entire towns. To confront this ancient evil, the Church of the Book assembles a team of twelve battle-hardened adventurers to seek out the dragon his his lair. Half of the team regards killing Greatshadow as a sacred duty; the other half dreams only of the beast's priceless treasure horde. Will these warriors learn to put aside their differences and slay the monster? Or will a weakened force merely wound the dragon, and trigger a world-wide inferno?

Greathshadow Preview: Bone-Handled Knife

When Infidel grabbed me by the seat of my pants and charged toward the window, I didn’t protest. Partly this was due to the speed of her action, but mostly due to my inebriation from the sacramental wine we’d stolen. Plus, it wasn’t the first time I’d been defenestrated by her. Of course, this window was five-hundred feet up, in a lava-pygmy temple carved into the sheer cliff face of a volcano

In my semi-drunken haze, I admired the view as I departed the temple, surveying the landscape around me. The night sky was bright orange as the bubbling caldera above reflected against belching steam. Far below, the dark, vine-covered canopy of trees draped like a casually tossed blanket down slopes stretching to the moonlit ocean. A lovely tropical night, one might even call it serene, save for the steady pulse of war drums and the nerve-jangling pygmy battle cry. It’s difficult to relax when five-hundred waist-high men are barking in unison, “Yik-yik-yik-yik-yik!”

I reached the apex of my arc and began to fall. The pygmies were drowned out by the whistling wind and a deafening, high-pitched shriek tearing from my throat.

I don’t know why I was screaming. If experience was any guide, Infidel had aimed me toward a particularly bushy looking patch of forest. While my brain had faith in her, my vocal cords had doubts. I quickly saw that my brain was correct as I fell toward a living net of blood-tangle vines. I threw my hands over my eyes. My leather gauntlets spared my face from the worst of the thorns as I punched into the canopy, the vines popping and snapping beneath my weight. I bounced from branch to branch on the trees below. Even with my leather armor, the beating was as bad as anything I’d ever received at the hands of a mean-spirited bouncer.

Seconds later I jerked to a stop, completely tangled. I spread my fingers and found my face inches above a jagged obsidian boulder. The sobering realization I’d just escaped a messy death negated the effects of the stolen wine. I reached for the steel flask in my back pocket and took a quick gulp to restore myself. As much as I wanted to hang in the vines until my nerves calmed, I knew that the pygmies wouldn’t need long to find me. I reached for my bone-handled hunting knife and chopped at the tendrils, my body lurching, until I slid onto the boulder and tumbled to the ground.

I looked up at the hole I’d punched in the canopy. Far above, a dark speck shot from the window through which my hasty exit had been facilitated. The speck quickly took on the shape of a woman as she hurtled toward the gap in the trees.

Infidel was laughing. She had both hands wrapped around the dragon-skull, hugging it to her chest like an oversized watermelon. Her long blonde hair trailed out behind her. She was still wearing the loose-fitting white blouse and navy breeches from her recent stint as a mercenary in the pirate wars. She was barefoot, the soles of her feet black as coal. The orange light caught the string of yellow beads around her throat, a necklace of human molars that she’d kept as a sort of diary while she’d served aboard the Freewind.

If she’d been aiming for the hole I’d left in the vines she missed, overshooting by several yards. I lost sight of her but heard curses and grunts as she bounced from branch to branch, the blood-tangle snapping as it slowed her fall.

I managed to find my feet as she stumbled out of the darkness. Her blouse and breeches had been torn in a dozen places, but there wasn’t a scratch on her enchanted skin. She had blood red flowers jutting from her hair, and thorny vines draped over her shoulders. She held the dragon skull above her head one-handed, as if it was carved from balsa. With her other hand, she used her cutlass as a machete. Her lips were pressed together tightly as she spotted me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Nothing’s broken,” I said, my voice trembling. I took another swig from the flask. “Your aim’s still good.”

She giggled. “I’m glad you’re fine, because I’m looking forward to teasing you for the next ten years about that scream. Even I can’t hit a note that high.”

I held a finger to my lips and whispered, “You can laugh later. The pygmies won’t be far behind.”

“We’ve got a good head start,” she said, looking up at the temple. She plucked a few flowers from her hair and flicked them away. “You worry too much.”

For most of my life, I’ve earned a reputation as a man who doesn’t worry enough. It’s only around Infidel that I play the role of responsible adult. She’s been magicked up to be as strong as ten men, with skin as tough as dragon hide. Her supernatural gifts have left her fearless, an aspect of her personality that draws me like a moth to a flame. Like many a moth, I sometimes get singed.

She held the dragon skull toward me, admiring it in the dim light. “The Black Swan’s going to slip in her own drool when she gets a look at this.”

Since I was presently in hock for a life-endangering sum of money to the Black Swan, I hoped that would be the case.

I whispered, “Let’s get going. The pygmies know this jungle better than we do, and –”

There was a tapping sound, like raindrops hitting a leaf. Infidel looked over her shoulder, stretching out her long, slender leg. Three porcupine quills were caught in the torn fabric of her pants. Suddenly, the air around her was thick with flying quills, some tangling in her hair, some bouncing off her impervious forehead. My own armor sprouted a dozen of the missiles. None made it through the leather, which was good. Lava-pygmies tip their darts with poison.

“Follow me!” Infidel shouted, slicing at a wall of vines with her cutlass and leaping through, the dragon-skull balanced on her shoulder. She could have stayed and fought without risk. By running she was protecting both me and the pygmies. We’d come out here to rob them, not to kill them.

I ran as fast as I could, slashing out with my bone-handled knife to better clear the path. In the darkness, I focused on Infidel’s bright hair bobbing before me like a ghost. The pitter-patter of pygmy feet echoed in the canopy. Darts tapped across my shoulder blades as they continued to fire.

I kept falling farther behind. I was only a week away from my fiftieth birthday, too old for this profession. Once this was over, I swore I would find a safer, more gentlemanly way of earning a living. My breath came in ragged gasps. A stabbing pain ran up my side. I could barely raise my knife to chop away the remnant vines Infidel left in her wake. I felt sure that if I pulled off my boots, sweat would pour out like stale beer from a pitcher.

I wiped the perspiration from my eyes and when I pulled my hand away, Infidel was gone. I kept running. The darkness in front of me had an Infidel-sized hole torn from it, and beyond I could once more see the rolling clouds of the eerie orange sky. There was a bass rumble ahead, a sound like a waterfall. I skid to a halt on the lip of a cliff and looked down into a deep scar in the earth. Infidel dangled from a mass of roots just beneath my feet. She was still carrying the dragon skull, but her cutlass was nowhere to be seen.

“I know where we are!” she yelled, her voice nearly drowned out by the rushing water beneath her.

I knew as well: the southeast slope of the volcano is cut through by a whitewater river that cascades all the way to the sea, about ten miles distant.

“We’re practically home!” she shouted.

I was of a different opinion. Many years ago, a palm-reader in Commonground told me I’d die of drowning. More poetically, she’d told me, “The sea will swallow your bones.” It had been one reason I hadn’t joined Infidel on the Freewind. I extend my caution by never imbibing anything weak enough for a fish to live in.

“Jump!” Infidel yelled.

“Let’s weigh our options!” I shouted back.

Of course, arguing was pointless. Infidel pulled herself up on the thick root she held, clamping onto it with her teeth. With her now free hand, she punched the cliff wall. The root-draped stone beneath me crumbled.

As I dropped, Infidel grabbed me by the shoulder, pulling me toward her. She wrapped her arm around me, pressing me tight against her unbreakable body. Her breasts flattened against my back as she spooned me, curling us into a ball with her powerful legs. Her breath was hot against my neck. We fell through darkness, weightless.

I couldn’t breathe. Partially because Infidel’s arm across my belly was as gentle as a python, but, even more, because I so often dream of Infidel’s embrace. She’d been a mere teen when I met her; I a worn-out drunk twice her age. I’d watched as she’d ripped the arm off a bold warrior two feet taller than her who’d pawed her lithe body as she’d stood at the bar of the Black Swan. I wasn’t the only man to witness this that quickly decided an attempt at seduction wasn’t worth the risk.

I was, however, the only one who bought her a cider that evening and told her tales of the ruined cities hidden in the jungle. I’ve always been quick to make friends. Fate has brought me many fortunes over the years, and I’ve spent those fortunes making sure the patrons of the Black Swan never go thirsty. Yet, I’ve never had a friend quite so true as Infidel. Her lightness balances my darkness; her recklessness makes the ongoing foolishness of my life look like sage wisdom. The two of us laugh together freely, and trust each other with our lives. I’m the one person who would never betray her for the obscenely large bounty on her head. She’s the one person who never abandons me when my money runs out and I’m suddenly begging for drinks.

Never once in ten years of friendship has a night passed in which I didn’t fantasize about her touch. I’ve never spoken a word of my secret passion. She means too much to me. It’s not my arm I fear losing; it’s her company. Our time together is so much sweeter than our time apart.

As dreamlike as her embrace might be, there was the unfortunate reality that we weren’t in a bed, we were hurtling toward a dark, raging river. With a horrible jolt, Infidel’s shoulder cracked a boulder. We bounced into the torrent and her grip loosened. I inhaled, a bad move since my head was under water. We slammed into another rock and I slipped from her grasp. My face popped above the surface for a second and I coughed, water spraying from my lips. I sucked a cupful of air and croaked, weakly, “Infidel!”

She didn’t answer as I bobbed along, careening from rock to rock. In moments of panic, the mind can latch onto the most trivial details, and I noticed I’d lost my knife. Infidel either misplaced or broke her weapons on a daily basis, but I’d carried this knife for forty years; it had been a gift from my grandfather. For a fleeting second, finding the knife felt like a priority. Then, from the thunder ahead, I realized that I was about to be swept over a waterfall, and my new priority became not to do so. I clawed desperately at boulders, but my hands had no strength. I still could only gulp small mouthfuls of air. The rocks pummeled me like the fists of giants. The knife-sharp pain that had torn my gut while running sliced me from groin to gullet. The water pushed me under and I went numb.

I slammed into a rock face-first. Stars danced before me, changing to snowflakes as they showered down in the darkness.

I was swept over the lip of the waterfall. The drop proved to be the shortest distance I’d fallen that evening, a trifling fifty-foot plunge into a broad pool. The water at the base of the fall roiled. In the turbulence, I couldn’t even guess which direction was up and which was down. The shallow gulps of air I’d gotten bobbing in the river were exhausted in seconds. My leather armor was heavy as steel plates. The pounding water pinned me. Yet, the pain and pressure felt distant. The water was warm, heated by the volcano, almost pleasant. The polished gravel beneath me was as comfortable as a feather bed. I went limp, all my weariness flowing from me like bubbles from my lips. There were worse ways to die.

As I was about to discover.

Just as I was on the verge of sleep and surrender, a strong hand grabbed my hair. I was tugged into the air and tossed over Infidel’s left shoulder like a sack of sodden potatoes. She was still carrying the dragon skull, her fist shoved inside the base. She waded through knee-deep water as I draped across her back, my eyes at the level of her heart-shaped buttocks. Water poured out of my lips and nose, but I couldn’t muster the will to inhale.

Infidel laid me on a beach of black sand, dropping the skull beside me, then straightened, shaking her head to get the hair from her eyes. She looked as soggy as a drowned rat; her torn pirate blouse hung from her arms like flaps of skin on a once-fat man. Her hair was plastered to her scalp, knotted so horribly that she needed a razor more than a comb. At some point, her necklace of molars must have snapped. The only evidence it had ever been there was a single tooth wedged between her hip and the top of her broad belt. Despite her sorry condition, her waterlogged clothes revealed the magnificent paradox of her body, the sleek and sultry curves that sat atop angular, iron muscles.

I spotted something amiss on her flawless form. A dark red stain glistened atop her left shoulder. I sucked in a spoonful of air, the effort making me tremble, and whispered, “You’re bleeding.”

She frowned as she followed my gaze to the crimson circle that seeped out across her blouse in ever-lightening shades of pink. Her face turned pale as she pushed the remnants of her pirate blouse down her shoulder, revealing streaks of red across her ivory skin. She wiped away the blood with her fingers, leaving behind smooth, unblemished flesh.

She looked back at me, her face turning whiter still.

I looked down. I understood why I couldn’t breathe.

The good news was, I’d found my knife.


Darkond said...

Looks great!

James Maxey said...

Thanks! I'm really excited about this book. January can't get here soon enough!