It’s out! Willow in the Desert, the sequel to award-winning The Willow and the Stone can now be purchased from Amazon, Barnes &Noble, and Smashwords. You can get it in paperback too. Read on to find out about the book and enjoy the first chapter:
Six years ago, an alien invasion nearly decimated the human race. Carli Dixon and Leo Black Elk lead a small band of survivors against the insectoid extraterrestrials, determined to win Earth back for mankind. In between attacks on their enemies, they rest in the tiny desert village Freetown, one of the last outposts of human civilization. Here, people have realized some semblance of the lives they knew prior to the invasion.
But the seemingly lifeless Black Pyramid that sits in nuclear-blasted San Francisco isn’t as harmless as they thought, and death is heading east to Freetown. A new menace has been birthed in the dark, dead pyramid, one that could finally finish off humans once and for all.
Royce Cummings sat on a splintered park bench, eating a slab of ham and a small pouch full of grape tomatoes with his bare hands. The ham was pure salty goodness, plenty to be grateful for. He was happy to be eating meat, meat not scavenged from another animal’s kill or gained at the risk of life and limb. Royce made sure to be grateful, because superstition warned if he wasn’t, he might go hungry again. Maybe downright starved like he’d been only a year ago. Nope, a slab of ham and a couple handfuls of tomatoes were something to celebrate, thank you Jesus.
Still, a part of his brain that always felt the glass was half empty refused to adopt the good manners going without should have taught it. That traitorous part of Royce’s mind couldn’t help wishing the ham nestled between two slices of pillow-soft white bread. That it might be topped with a couple of squares of Swiss cheese and some spicy brown mustard slathered on thick. Six years hadn’t cured his craving for store-bought white bread, for Swiss cheese, for spicy brown mustard. For that matter, any kind of mustard. Hell, he’d settle for that Dijon stuff they used to make the funny commercials about; the ads with snooty men in the backs of limos sneering over sandwiches.
Six years ago. Was that all it had been? His life before the Black Pyramids landed, before the Old Ones came and put mankind on the endangered species list, seemed to have belonged to someone else. A different Royce Cummings whose biggest bitches had once been as mundane as missing condiments. A Royce who had never laid awake at night, wondering if that creaking sound was an insectoid alien, come to sip his blood like some monstrous mosquito. A man who had never pissed himself in the shelter of a dumpster, while the foul creatures stalked past, blessedly unaware of his presence.
At least things had gotten a little better since the invasion. Out here in the Nevada desert, one could relax a little. Here the glaring sun made things inhospitable to the majority of the night crawling aliens. A man could make a new life, even. This was exactly what he and about 300 other humans had done in their little town called Gander’s Gulch.
If you were someone weary of the constant fight to stay alive and Providence had put you on old Highway 762 near Cyrus Air Force Base, Gander’s Gulch was an oasis in the bleached desert. Hell, it was paradise, lack of mustard notwithstanding. Its prior inhabitants had been wiped out in the first wave of the alien attack. All the pre-Pyramid Gulchers were presumed lost, having been harvested for food or slave labor by the creatures that looked like the progeny of mythical giants crossed with praying mantises.
Royce was one of the people that had taken the small, abandoned town and made it viable again. A high fence surrounded the heart of it. Its gates were closed and locked up tight during the fear-filled nights with armed guards patrolling just inside. Fruits and vegetables were grown in the vast greenhouses at the west end of Gander’s Gulch, and animals were raised for food on the northern edge. The tiny settlement got its water from an underground spring. Today Royce and several of his fellow Gulchers were laying down new irrigation pipes from the spring to siphon water more easily to the town. Little amenities went a long way towards contentment.
It was a life of hard work, of harsh climate, of few conveniences. But it was life, and not a bad one at that. Unlike their eastern neighbors in Freetown, Gulchers were content to defend their little bit of land from the occasional marauding Old One and live out their existence pretending the world hadn’t changed so much after all. Royce had no interest in journeying a day’s walk down old Highway 762 and another day’s walk on the even older Route 14. He didn’t want to live among warriors and shamans. Let the Freetowners wage their crazy war against the Pyramids, shedding more human blood against the might of a greater alien technology. People like Royce would take what enjoyment they could from what was left of their lives.
Yeah, a world without mustard wasn’t so bad, comparatively speaking.
Royce turned from his ruminations on what had been and what was. He munched on ham, thank you Jesus, and listened to two younger men discuss the merits of the McClonsky sisters. Spare and tanned and weathered at the ripe old ages of 26 and 29, the women in question were prime examples of what Gulchers looked like. On post-Pyramid Earth, a sense of humor and willingness to work for the good of all were the new barometers of attractiveness. The McClonsky sisters possessed both attributes in spades, and Royce had already had the pleasure of entertaining the elder one in an intimate manner several times. She liked him too, and it had only been a few weeks since they’d decided to make their pairing a permanent arrangement. He smiled to himself as the young men, Sam and Cal, plotted their schemes to lure the women into their clutches.
Sorry boys, but Shelly McClonsky is off the table. We’ve already been assigned a private room.
Now there was a thought to make him beam, if Royce had been the beaming type. A room all to themselves, just him and Shelly. Sure they’d still be in the same building they already lived in and near the safety of all the rest of the Gulchers, but their new quarters would be out of the dorms. Nice and private. They could have been already moved in three days ago, but Shelly was making the room nice and wanted to surprise him. Tomorrow night, she’d promised, and worth the wait.
Fuck the mustard. He, Royce Cummings, had Shelly McClonsky for a bedmate. Life was damned good. The glass was half full. Maybe even three-quarters full.
He finished his ham and tomatoes and washed them down with a canteen full of water. A breeze lifted, sending nettles of stinging sand against exposed skin. The now-familiar grit in the tightest of bodily crevices hardly registered anymore. If Royce noticed it at all, it was the slightest of discomforts, one a man got used to quick if he didn’t want to go crazy. It didn’t matter he was covered in loose clothing. His long pants, sleeves, and floppy hat left only his hands and face exposed, but Royce would have a coating of sand on every inch of his body when the day was done. Probably already did. The fine particles got everywhere, even in places where a man wasn’t aware he had places.
The dry voice of the desert breeze was joined by a strange whir of scraping against shifting sand and the asphalt of the cracked Main Street . Royce didn’t recognize the sound. He was aware that the new noise had been there in the background for some time now, growing so gradually that he was only just becoming cognizant of it on a conscious level. He frowned but felt no alarm until a high-pitched scream sounded from far away.
With the alacrity that comes from being prey for so long, he and the dozen other men on the irrigation detail were on their feet and feeling for their guns. But it was daylight, the safe time. No one was armed. Instead, hands gripped the hammers and wrenches that were holstered in the low-slung tool belts many wore.
Cal’s lips skinned back from his teeth in an unconscious snarl. “What the hell was that?”
Pierce Thomas answered in his dry croak of a voice. Pierce was the eldest Gulcher in residence, ancient at 52 in this harsh day and age of the Old Ones. “Sounded like someone screamed in the direction of the greenhouses.”
Shelly was working the greenhouses today. She’d promised to pick a few strawberries for a special treat tonight. “We’d better go check,” Royce said, hearing a tremor in his voice.
But there was nothing to fear. Nothing came from the ruined west anymore, where radiation from a failed nuclear attack on the San Francisco Pyramid still made the area unlivable. And it was daylight. Neither the Old Ones nor their progeny the Becoming could be about.
The men started towards the western end of town. Royce saw a wall of dust devils spinning in the air from that direction. Sand storms were not rare here. With irrigation no longer used to keep up artificially green lawns and gardens, the desert had worked hard to reclaim its landscape. Even the highway disappeared for stretches of miles under layers of sand and scrub. But this was no dust storm, not with the breeze only an occasional breath. This was more like the blowup from the one stampede Royce had witnessed when the Gulchers’ cows had gotten loose and panicked in the middle of town.
There was something moving within the dust, and the whirring sound grew steadily louder. It wasn’t the heavy thuds of cow hooves at all. This was a finer, lighter sound, like the pad of children’s shoeless footfalls.
It made Royce’s throat close with anxiety. He halted, noticing out of the corner of his eyes his fellow Gulchers doing the same. “What the hell is that?” he asked.
No one answered. He wanted his gun, lying under his thin pillow in the dorm where all the windows were boarded up. Whatever made up those shadows that shifted in that cloud of whirling sand was probably nothing of note, but he wanted his gun anyway. And he wanted to be in the comparative safety of the blockaded dorm building, which had once been an elementary school in the pre-Pyramid world.
The shapes within the dust became clearer as they neared. There were many of them. It was impossible to tell how many in that roiling soup of sand, but there were a lot. A shitload, as Royce would say had he the voice to speak.
Then Royce got his first glimpse of what it was kicking up the dry landscape.
Someone spoke, maybe Cal. “Oh shit. Those are aliens!”
Pierce answered, his voice climbing high on the register in terror even as he refuted the declaration. “Don’t be stupid. Aliens can’t come out during the day.”
But they were aliens. Not like Royce had ever seen though. These were different from the Old Ones with their smooth, creaseless, nose-less faces, their mouths replaced by long, thin siphons that punched easily into skin and vein and sucked one’s blood out. These were movie monster horrors, their once-human faces running downwards as if they’d been partially melted and hardened again that way. Sores erupted all over the reddened skin of the mostly naked creatures. Many possessed misshapen versions of the Old Ones’ praying mantis arms, though a few had stumps with rudimentary hands instead. None had siphons. Instead they had great, grinning mouths, mouths filled with dagger teeth that gnashed as they came on, like they anticipating biting into Royce and his fellows. The teeth, which would have made sharks proud, were made for tearing flesh and bone and gristle.
As if in a nightmare, Royce turned from the oncoming monsters. His numb legs started a jerky, sluggish run for his gun, sheltered impotently in the dormitory three blocks away. He didn’t have to consciously tell his body to move, though it seemed the air had turned to thick, sticky molasses that dragged every step out for hours at a time. His feet slapped the sand-covered road in slow motion. His heart boomed in his ears, a bass drum in the sudden cymbal crash of yells and screams behind him as the men scattered in different directions. His breath sobbed in and out, screeching like a badly tuned violin. Beneath the hellish symphony whispered the dry whir of the mutant alien creatures gaining on him.
The buildings of Gander’s Gulch crept past, reluctant to fall behind as Royce ran for his life. The old brick City Hall building where they held town meetings was the first to drift back. Next he passed the post office, where three white trucks tinged with rust sat forever in its parking lot on cracked, flat tires. Then the Episcopal Church, where so many had taken shelter to pray during the invasion and were captured by invaders who did not acknowledge the power of God. The town library, its children’s section still festooned with faded posters that cajoled little tykes to read a book every day. And at last the yellow painted brick school, now the Gulchers’ dormitory. It beckoned to Royce to hurry, its boarded and barbed wire windows promising protection.
A million years might have passed, or so it seemed to Royce, as he fought to reach the dorm. The sand-buried asphalt caught his booted feet with every step and sucked them into its surface like quicksand. The pair of glass doors never came closer no matter how many steps he took. And yet the screams of other people and the triumphant inhuman cries of their pursuers remained behind him. At last he was on the cracked sidewalk, veering right to get to the school’s entrance. The doors receded in the distance even as he ran and ran and ran towards them. Then an age later his boots thudded on the brick steps, three of them, to the concrete slab just before the doors. His hand closed around the metal handle of one and he concentrated on narrowing his gaze on that, terrified to look at the glass before him for fear of what might appear in the reflection behind.
Then he was inside, within the blessed confines of the building he called home. Royce raced into the darkness of the dorm. He grabbed his flashlight from his belt, switched it on, and ran for the gymnasium that most of the single men slept in. It never occurred to him that the flashlight, fitted with rechargeable batteries kept alive by a generator run on rendered pig fat, might attract the monsters he attempted to elude. Royce forgot that the monsters were out in broad daylight. Six years had taught him light was life, a weapon against the sensitive eyes of the Old Ones. Light was every human’s friend and defender. He wasn’t able to unlearn that in the three and a half eternal minutes since the new threat’s appearance.
When he reached the former gymnasium which housed one hundred seventy men, Royce went straight to his bed. There the gun waited, ready and loaded under his pillow, its metal somehow cool even in the desert heat. Royce sobbed his gratitude to feel it in his hand, more comforting than any child’s teddy bear.
He could now get to one of the shelters, the easily defensible places where Gulchers had hidden days’ worth of supplies in the event of an emergency. The closest one was in the basement of the school’s gym, down the stairs at the end of the hall. It wasn’t far. If he was careful, he’d make it okay. He turned, his gun clasped close to his chest.
A sore-blistered alien pincer came out of the darkness, knocking the gun from his hand. The firearm disappeared in the darkness beyond his flashlight’s beam, lost.
Royce’s brain operated as sluggishly as his run to the school had seemed. It was still planning the best route to the shelter as the monstrous creature attached to the pincer loomed over him and shoved him down on his bed. He was thinking how the steel barricade on the shelter’s door would not bow to the strength of a hundred Old Ones as the hideous thing tore his shirt open, displaying the double ladders of ribs on his whip-muscled frame. He slowly realized his gun had gone missing, and he decided he would have to find it again before he went in search for Shelly. At least he hadn’t lost the flashlight. While his brain still refused to absorb what his senses said, he saw the thing leaning over him, its shark’s teeth flashing in the illumination as it bent to his abdomen.
His mind was just beginning to catch up with the here and now when the monster took its first bite of him. Fortunately for Royce, disbelief had driven away his body’s ability to tell the rest of him it was in pain. He only felt a slight tugging and a curious warmth as blood began to flow heavily, escaping its flesh cage. He didn’t even scream as he was eagerly fed upon, the mutant Old One swallowing his flesh in unchewed chunks.
It doesn’t hurt because I’m in shock, he thought and died.