Black Gate Online Fiction: An Excerpt from Mad Shadows II — Dorgo the Dowser and The Order of the Serpent
By Joe Bonadonna
This is an excerpt from the novel Mad Shadows II — Dorgo the Dowser and The Order of the Serpent by Joe Bonadonna, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Joe Bonadonna, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2017 by Joe Bonadonna.
I guess a little introduction is in order. Since the 2011 publication of Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, a lot has happened, including writing three other novels, a number of short stories, doing some editing work, contributing to Black Gate magazine, and writing for Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell series.
When I finally completed Mad Shadows II — Dorgo the Dowser and The Order of the Serpent in November 2016, I decided to self-publish this one, as I did the first volume, but taking a different route this time. However, I couldn’t do it all alone. I needed a little help.
Enter the very talented author and artist, Erika M Szabo, who writes and illustrates children’s books such as her Metoo, The Annoying Little Sister; Pico, The Pesky Parrot; and Look, I Can Talk With My Fingers. She also writes Young Adult, Historical Fantasy, such as Protected by the Falcon and Chosen by the Sword, among others. What Erika also has going for her is Golden Box Books, her own publishing outfit, offering everything from design and editing, to marketing and promotion.
I worked exclusively with Erika, who held my hand and basically did everything for me: book cover, interior design, ISBN numbers, formatting for Kindle and paperback versions, and taking my very amateurish-looking map, which I had drawn for the first volume, and giving it a very cool make-over. All I can say is thank you, Erika . . . you are truly the Godmother of Dorgo the Dowser. If any of you out there are looking to self-publish and need some help, I highly recommend Erika M Szabo and Golden Box Books.
Now . . . back to Mad Shadows II — Dorgo the Dowser and The Order of the Serpent.
Whereas the first volume consisted of six stories linked together by the main character of Dorgo, this time around there are three novellas linked by a common thread: three different cases in which Dorgo finds himself involved, all with clues and ties that set him on the trail of The Order of The Serpent. Here then is the opening of part three of my novel. Thank you!
The Order of the Serpent
Her name was Jivvy Trenovis, a pretty young woman in her early twenties, with sienna-hued skin beginning to turn blue from the cold. She was lying naked in the snow of a small clearing, stretched out as if she were about to be crucified. A circle of nine candles surrounded her; black candles, still burning. Her eyes were fixed and open, not blinking or squinting from the glare of the sun, but she wasn’t looking at anything in this world. She was still breathing . . . just barely. In her left fist she clutched a crumpled piece of parchment.
Naked trees swayed in the gentle breeze like dancing skeletons. Icicles dripped cold tears from bony branches. Fresh snow covered the ground like a burial shroud. Somewhere off in the forest, a banshee howled at the morning sun. Not a good omen.
Nine black worms slithered in an endless circle around Jivvy. They were as long as my cavalry saber, and each had human arms and a face that would have looked perfect on a mummy. Although I wanted to snatch the paper from her hand, I didn’t — not with those ghastly fat worms in the way. I’d never seen creatures like those before.
“I was on my way to Valdar when I found her,” Captain Mazo told me. “Her brother’s not home. I found her clothes piled near the back door.”
I stared at the tall, muscular black man. He wore black leather boots, gloves and leggings, as well as a shiny metal breastplate, greaves and helmet. A purple cloak hanging from his shoulders swayed gracefully in the soft breeze. Mazo’s property bordered the land owned by Jivvy and her brother; their cottage wasn’t far from the clearing where the good captain had found her. He had wasted no time in dragging me out of bed afterward.
“You can probably find her brother at Kortono’s Cave or the Hungry Hyena,” I said, handing him the blanket he had used to cover Jivvy.
Mazo frowned and pointed. “What’s that in the snow, over there?”
I looked to where he pointed.
It was the charred remains of a small book, lying like a discarded afterthought beyond the rim of the circle. The bizarre worms watched me walk over and pick it up. The book looked as if it had been struck by lightning. The front cover bore an embossed sigil of a winged serpent swallowing its own tail, and there was a scorched hole in the center that had burned straight through to the back cover. Every page had been seared black, every word obliterated.
There was something else I noticed: two sets of cloven hoof prints in the snow, one set led to the outer rim of the circle, the other set led away from the clearing. Too small for a cyclops, the prints could only have been made by satyrs, fauns or some form of demon.
I stuffed the book inside a pocket and scratched the scar on my left cheek. Being curious about those strange worms, I waved my hand back and forth, just beyond their reach. The creatures took turns snapping at my fingers with their tiny, human-like teeth. They even tried to grab me with their gnarled and twisted hands. I snatched back my hand.
“Aren’t you going to use your hoodoo wand?” asked Mazo.
I reached behind me with my left hand and drew the dowsing rod from the quiver slung across my back. The rod is a Y-shaped branch carved from a yew tree, three boots long and as thick as three or four arrows lashed together. Unlike dowsing for water, where you grip the rod by its two upper forks, I held the bottom stem in my hand and pointed the forks at the worms.
They hissed and gnashed their teeth at the dowsing rod. One of them even made an attempt to seize it. I stepped back and lowered the rod, surprised by my findings. I felt and sensed nothing supernatural or demonic about the creatures; whatever magical power they possessed was inherent to their natural state of being. They were not something conjured or summoned from one of the Otherworlds of the Echoverse. No, they were real, earthly creatures, part of my world. Exactly where they had come from, I had no idea. Tanyime is a big world.
Time wasn’t my ally. I had to get to Jivvy, but with those worms in the way I didn’t want to chance getting bitten or even scratched. They might have been poisonous. So I unsheathed my saber and lashed out, lopping off the mummified head of the nearest worm. Purple ichor oozed from the butchered creature as it crumpled in the snow. The two worms closest in formation to that one then flung themselves upon me. I yelled, dropped my sword and dowsing rod, and struggled to keep the things from chewing and clawing at my flesh. I stumbled backward.
Mazo rushed in, using his dagger to stab both worms and pry them from me. They fell to the ground and tried to scurry back to the circle, but I picked up my sword and hacked off their heads. The remaining six did nothing but continue their circular march, slithering around the twitching bodies of their fallen comrades.
Then a strange thing occurred.
The bodies of the vermicular vermin I had decapitated wiggled across the snow and reattached themselves to their heads. Without missing a beat, the black worms crawled back into line and resumed their slithering vigilance. They reminded me of a group of madmen I’d once seen at the local bedlam in Valdar: nine old men, their wits long gone, constantly marching in a circle around a stone pillar. I’d have to use more stealth in dealing with these bizarre things.
Tethered to the tree next to Teedo, my new chestnut stallion, Mazo’s huge, black-furred unicat pawed the ground. The great beast’s spiral-shaped horn jutted from the center of its massive skull and gleamed like a bronze javelin in the sunlight. My horse whickered nervously.
“Cham, do me a favor. Go back to Jivvy’s house and get me two torches,” I told him.
Without a word, Mazo handed me the blanket and ran back to the cottage while I continued to watch the worms moving in their circular pattern. It was an odd sight, to be sure. Watching the worms crawling in a circle around her, never attempting to get at her, made me believe they were there to defend her. But how could this be? These worms weren’t of demonic or supernatural origin. These worms were trained . . . but by whom? And how could such earthly creatures reattach their bodies to their heads like that? It was uncanny. It was unnatural.
I realized that in order for me to pull Jivvy free and take her someplace where someone might be able to help her, I saw no other choice but to destroy the creatures.
A few more moments passed before Mazo returned with a blazing torch in each hand.
“Thanks,” I said, tossing the blanket aside and taking one of the torches from him. “Now, when I cut the head off a worm, see if you can keep the others at bay with your torch.”
I raised my sword and hacked the head off the nearest worm. Mazo shoved the torch at the others as they gnashed their human-like teeth and clawed the air with their tiny human hands. One even managed to hurl itself from the circle, but I sliced it in half and burned it with my torch. Then, while Mazo waved his torch threateningly in the faces of the other worms, I torched the head and body of the first worm. Once that monstrous maggot had been reduced to ash, the captain and I dealt with the others.
“That was too easy,” Mazo said when it was over.
I shook my head, knelt next to the circle again and cautiously reached out to Jivvy. I touched her neck first, then her face and finally, her hands. She was colder than the air, colder than the ice and snow. I pried open the fingers that clutched the paper, removed it from her hand and smoothed it out. There were only two words written with red ink on the paper:
Mazo tapped me on the shoulder. “Do you have any idea what those words mean?”
I turned to stare at him, a thoughtful frown slowly wrinkling his brow. “I’d be lying if I said I did. Sounds like a name doesn’t it?”
“Yes. But whose?”
“I guess that’s something one of us will have to find out.”
“I have great confidence in you, Dowser.”
“Thanks a lot.”
Folding the paper, I shoved it inside a pocket and picked up my dowsing rod. I pointed the two upper forks at Jivvy and walked in a slow circle around her. The irony that I was doing exactly what those worms had been doing did not escape me.
My left hand suddenly began to grow numb and turn green. I stepped back a few boots, and both the numbness and discoloration faded from my hand. I moved closer to Jivvy, and my hand went numb and turned green again. Not only was her body cold, but her soul was cold, too. It felt as if part of her had left her body . . . as if she already had one foot in another world.
Through my dowsing rod, I sensed no trace of malefic Odylic Power; no spell from any magic of which I was familiar had been cast over her. There was no ectoplasmic residue of any supernatural entity having attacked her. Neither was there any lingering miasma of some demonic presence. And yet some form of power had been unleashed in that clearing, something eldritch and so ancient that it had been all but lost and forgotten in the mists of Time.
It was obvious that Jivvy had been attempting some ritual either to protect herself or to attack someone else. But without the proper training and guidance, she’d been like a child who’d been burned playing with fire. Something had gone horribly wrong.
Jivvy moaned wordlessly. I looked at her lying there so frail and helpless in the snow. She reminded me of a broken doll some child had discarded.
Mazo covered her gently with the blanket and then looked at me. “Take her to the Hoof and Horn Club,” he said. “I’ll go look for her brother.”
Jivvy screamed in terror. Faint wisps of green smoke curled from her mouth.
The sky exploded with thunder and a freezing rain began to fall. A sudden chill that wasn’t related to the weather crawled inside my belly like one of those strange, black worms.
The Hoof and Horn Club is a sprawling villa near Valdar, the chief port and capital city of the kingdom of Rojahndria. Fir, pine trees and a twelve-foot wall of stone surround the estate, and two young minotaurs always guard its massive iron gates. In the courtyard stands a great fountain with a towering statue of a cyclops urinating into a pool of water.
The club is basically a private refuge for the centaurs, satyrs, minotaurs and other Muthologians who had come from Khanya-Toth to live in Valdar. But it’s also a rest home for retired or disabled veterans of the Crimson Sand Arena, both halflings and humans, and a hospice for the sick and dying, as well. Other than gladiators, charioteers, physicians and nurses, few humans ever see the inside of the club. I’m one of the privileged few.
Because of my friendship with Praxus Odetti, who owned the Hoof and Horn, Jivvy was given a private room in the infirmary. The physician on call was someone I knew and had dealt with on previous occasions, a centaur named Lukanius. His hair and beard were steel-gray, both short-cropped, and he wore a long white smock over the human half of his torso. Thick, white cotton slippers covered his massive hooves. I stood off to the side while he examined Jivvy. But my eyes were on her brother Vaddo. Mazo had found him eating breakfast at the Hungry Hyena, told him what had happened to his sister and where she’d been taken.
Vaddo’s braided locks of black hair drooped to his shoulders, reminding me of a willow that had wept itself to death. His chestnut eyes and sepia-toned face bore a shadow of fear, and maybe guilt, too. He had quit the Academy of Alchemy in Tolmarinia shortly after his and Jivvy’s parents perished in a storm at sea, about four months earlier. Now he seemed unusually distant and preoccupied. I wondered where he’d been when Jivvy had ventured into that clearing.
When Doctor Lukanius finished examining Jivvy, he joined us. “Your sister is in a state of shock, triggered by whatever happened to her, Mister Trenovis,” he told Vaddo. “Do you have any idea what she’d been doing out there in the cold?”
Vaddo shook his head and clung to the blanket Mazo had used to cover his sister.
I glanced at Jivvy, lying so still and quiet in the bed, her eyes open but unseeing. Her skin was still tinged a pale shade of blue, but the discoloration had begun to fade once the doctor took over and gave her some kind of potion. I reached out and gently touched her brow. Her body was slightly warmer, too. But not much.
“My guess is that she was trying to perform some sort of defensive magic,” said Mazo.
The centaur nodded and looked at me. “Do you have any idea what type of magic she was using, Mister Mikawber? Sorcery? Wizardry? Witchcraft?”
“No, I don’t.”
“When will she be able to go home?” Vaddo asked.
“I can’t say for certain at this time,” the doctor replied.
The look on Vaddo’s face made me wonder if his mind wasn’t visiting another reality.
“Are you going to be all right?” I asked him.
He blinked several times, as if waking from a trance. “Yes, I’m fine. I was just wondering how I’m going to tell Erula about what happened to Jivvy.”
“Erula Sarforn? Your old flame?”
“Are you seeing each other again?”
“Yes. We plan to marry.”
“I’m very happy for you, Vaddo. Your parents would be happy, too, I’m sure.” I turned to Mazo. “I wish Praxus and Heegy hadn’t gone off on their little treasure hunt in the Knuckleback Hills. I hate to go this one alone.”
Mazo frowned at me. “So what am I . . . invisible?”
“Cham, we both know how much you hate getting involved in situations where magic is concerned. But I know I can count on you if need be.”
“Damn right you can. Keep me informed of Jivvy’s condition and let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Mazo left to go about his duties and I returned my attention to Jivvy. I couldn’t stop thinking about those worms, however . . . and the two sets of cloven hoof prints in the snow.
Jivvy suddenly screamed — and then vomited a monstrous cobra formed of green mist. It floated about the room and huddled in the air, hissing and snapping at us. Jivvy writhed and twisted as if she were having a seizure. The cobra reared back, fangs bared as it swayed in the air to the music of some unseen snake charmer. But it didn’t attack. It seemed to be there for only one reason: to watch us.
Doctor Lukanius raced to the door leading to the outer hallway, shouting, “Sahlyra! Sahlyra, come quickly. We need you!”
Vaddo stared at me, looking like a deer caught in a hunter’s sight. “What’s wrong, Dorgo? What’s going on?”
Before I could answer, the centaur came trotting back into the room, the clip-clop of his hooves on the flagstones somewhat muffled by his cotton slippers. Behind him followed a tall, attractive woman I’d known for years: Lisera Icari. She was a healer who specialized in the magical arts; what the Muthologians of Khanya-Toth call sahlyri . . . Spellbreakers.
Lisera glanced at me with her big, piercing blue eyes. “Out of the way, Dowser.”
Pushing me aside, she removed the blue, hooded cloak she wore over a green jerkin, matching boots, and brown leggings. Next, she pulled three clay, turquoise discs from one of the pouches hanging from her jade-colored belt. Then, while that cobra of green mist hovered over us like a sentry straight out of Hell, she stuck the discs to the stone wall above Jivvy’s bed. Finally, Lisera stepped away from the bed, one hand resting on the hilt of the curved tamuzai sword dangling at her hip. Her skin darkened by a few shades and her sparkling blue eyes turned black as she stared at the cobra.
The cobra hissed at us but didn’t venture any closer.
Jivvy thrashed about wildly, moaning incoherently.
Reaching into another pouch, Lisera pulled out a small piece of blue kyanite used for cleansing and protection, and threw it at the vaporous serpent. When the mineral struck the cobra, it exploded in a ball of dust that enveloped the apparition and absorbed it until nothing was left but a thin film of ash that drifted lazily to the floor like so many turquoise dust motes.
“Easy, lass,” Lisera said soothingly, touching Jivvy’s brow. “Go to sleep.”
Jivvy let out a long sigh, closed her eyes and fell asleep. Lisera straightened the bedclothes and nodded to us, giving me a long, almost chastising sort of look.
“She’s safe, for now,” she said, her skin and eyes returning to their normal color. “I set up a defensive Ward, but I’m not sure how long it will last. I’m not even sure if it’s powerful enough to protect her.”
“What’s wrong with my sister?” Vaddo asked.
Lisera’s blue eyes burned into his. She didn’t bother to mince words. She never did. “Your sister is being assaulted by some form of dark magic.”
Vaddo shook his head and sat in a chair beside the bed.
I’d first met Lisera some years earlier while I was on business in Chattamoor, a hamlet just a few hours’ ride south of Valdar. She lived on the outskirts of the village, on a small farm surrounded by dense, wild woodland. She was a single woman with a grown son teaching theology at the University of Fallambria. Though born in Valdar, she’d spent most of her life studying at the Ministry of Healing in Kyenshua, a country so far to the east that many believed if you sailed any further east you’d fall off the edge of the world. While living in Kyenshua she met Valuta Jefoor, who later emigrated to Rojahndria and eventually settled in Widow’s Fell.
“What the devil was that thing? That cobra?” I asked her.
“A Sentinel,” she said. “Someone or something is watching Jivvy — and not for her own protection, that’s for damn sure.” She gave me a long, hard look. “What have you got?”
I told her that my dowsing rod had detected no trace of anything supernatural or demonic when I’d examined Jivvy in the clearing earlier that morning. I was certain that some form of Odylic Power had been used, but whatever Jivvy had been attempting to do had failed and maybe even rebounded on her. Then I told her about the strange black worms.
“They’re called vermicupoids,” she told me. “Easily trained and highly intelligent creatures, you know. They can regenerate new limbs and even reattach themselves to their decapitated heads, if they’re quick about it.”
“So I discovered.”
“The vermicupoids are often used to guard against anyone using the Dark Light of Odylic Power,” she went on. “They come from Dasheeria, near Mount Seleni. You may have found it easy enough to destroy the worms, but if you had tried to use dark magic against them, they would have eaten you, body and soul.”
My stomach did a little sailor’s jig just thinking about that. “Jivvy isn’t a trained adept. So how would she get her hands on those creatures, here in Valdar?”
“She could have purchased them from some mage selling spells, potions, and grimoires.”
The mention of books made me think of something. I showed her and Vaddo the charred remains of the book I’d found in the clearing. “Could this be one of yours, Vaddo?”
He glanced at the book and shook his head. “I left my books at the academy when I quit.”
“Maybe Jivvy acquired the book the same way she acquired the vermicupoids?” Lisera suggested. “It wouldn’t be too difficult, if you had the money and knew where to look.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “Now all I need to do is find the right mage.”
“Good luck. In Valdar, that’s like trying to find one particular snowflake in a blizzard.”
I laughed softly and stared into her marvelous blue eyes . . . eyes that glittered and twinkled like the eyes of a mischievous child. Her long, brown hair was soft and fine, with nary a strand of gray. Her unblemished skin was the color of sand on a tropical island beach. She wore hooped earrings made of pure silver that glistened in the lamplight. When she smiled, she looked only half her forty-odd years.
“Are you still gazing into your crystal balls?” I asked.
“Still scratching yours with that mojo crutch you carry?” Lisera had taught me many uses for my dowsing rod; she called it a divining wand. We laughed for a moment and then she grew serious. “It broke my heart to hear what happened to Valuta,” she said quietly. “She was a very special lady and a damned good friend.”
“I know,” I replied. “What happened to her . . . it was a nightmare.”
“You liked her, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I liked her. I liked her very much.”
Lisera scowled and punched me in the shoulder. “I thought you liked me?”
I was caught off guard. “I — I do like you.”
She shook her head with disapproval. “Trouble with you is that you like all women, period. You just can’t make up your mind on which one of us you like best.”
“You really know how to hurt my feelings, you know that? But the truth is . . . I fell in love with Valuta.” She squeezed my hand and nodded. “So, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“I recently accepted a consulting position.”
I whistled. That was a great honor. “I’m impressed, Lisera.”
“Thanks. I’m only here a few days each week. I was getting ready to go home when Doctor Lukanius called me. Jivvy’s condition has him and his colleagues baffled, and it’s not easy to baffle centaur physicians.”
“Well, I’ve baffled them before.”
Lisera laughed softly. “I’m not surprised, knowing you.”
“Excuse me, Sahlyra . . . do you think you can help my sister?” asked Vaddo.
“I am certainly going to try.”
I pulled out the scrap of paper and showed it to Lisera. “I found this in Jivvy’s hand.”
“Ophidious Garloo?” She shook her head. “You think it’s someone’s name?”
“I think so.” I returned the paper to my pocket and rubbed my crooked nose.
Lisera frowned thoughtfully. “What are you going to do?”
“Guess I’ll nose around and see what I can dig up.”
“Be careful, Dorgo. Your nose is way too big to be shoving it where it doesn’t belong.”
Jivvy tossed and turned, moaning in her delirium.
“It’s like she has one foot in the grave already,” said Vaddo, his voice a whisper of fear.
Mad Shadows II — Dorgo the Dowser and The Order of the Serpent
Copyright © 2017 Joe Bonadonna
Published by the author through CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Available in paperback and Kindle editions. Book cover art, illustrations, book
formatting and book interior design by Erika M Szabo
Joe started writing songs and stories in 1970, and sold a few short stories in the early 1980s. So far, he’s published four books: the sword and sorcery collection Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, published by iUniverse; the space opera, Three Against The Stars, published by Airship27; Waters of Darkness, a sword and sorcery pirate adventure, in collaboration with David C. Smith, and published by Damnation Books; and Mad Shadows II — Dorgo the Dowser and The Order of the Serpent, published in trade paperback and digital formats in January 2017.
His first sword and soul story, “The Blood of the Lion,” appeared in GRIOTS 2: Sisters of the Spear, from by MVmedia.
Joe’s Dorgo the Dowser novelette “The Moonstones of Sor Lunarum” appeared in Black Gate in December 2011, and it has proven to be one of the most popular stories we’ve ever published. Another novellas featuring Dorgo, “The Book of Echoes,” appeared in the 2013 anthology Azieran: Artifacts and Relics from Heathen Oracle, and the novella “The Order of the Serpent” is scheduled to appear in a special sword and sorcery edition of Weird Tales online magazine.
Joe has also written a number of articles and book reviews for Black Gate online magazine.
Photo by Erin Lynn Ransford.
Click on the photo for a large version.