Artifice: Episode Two Free Sample!
Here’s a short teaser excerpt from Artifice: Episode Two. If you enjoy it, remember that it’s still available for free at almost all major ebook retailers.
Artifice: Episode Two Excerpt
John rubbed at his sore shoulder.
“That was for scaring me half to death just now!” Sophia exclaimed, her fist still tightly clenched.
John didn’t even want to think about what Melissa’s reaction to the portal would have been. Chances are that it would have involved a heavy object and his head. He decided that it was best to count his blessings for now.
Sophia seemed to be gathering her wits as she plopped herself down on the nearby couch with a heavy sigh. Her eyes closed, she groaned, “You’ve got just under ten minutes to explain what’s going on before Mel gets back. Else, I’ll hold you down while she hits you with the frying pan.”
With a noticeable wince, John then took a deep breath, then tried his best to give her an extremely condensed and partially censored account of the past few days.
After about two minutes of non-stop talking, he could see that this attempt at an abbreviated explanation was a quest destined for failure. Plus, it looked like Sophia was constantly restraining herself from chiming in with questions. Just as he was realizing the futility of trying to finish his tale before Melissa returned, there was a beep from one of the desks in the living room.
Still with a look of mild bewilderment in her eyes, Sophia managed to say, “I… hang on a sec. Let me see what Carol wants.”
She got up and made her way to the desk. Pressing a button on the telephone, she spoke to her assistant, “Yes, Carol?”
The speaker on the device piped up, “A message from your sister, ma’am. They’ve requested her help down on the eighteenth floor. She says she may be there for a few hours, and that she’s asked Mr. McGarrett to handle the meeting with the Japanese contingent. She does request that you-”
“Sit in to make sure Pete doesn’t trade the company for some magic beans?” interrupted Sophia.
“Not her exact wording, ma’am,” replied Carol with a laugh.
“Very well, let Melissa know that I’ll be there,” said Sophia. “Also, give me a heads up about fifteen minutes before the meeting.”
Pressing the button again, she turned to John. “Looks like you’ve got a reprieve, and I’ve got just over an hour. Start again. Now.”
Making a mental note to thank whichever deity was responsible for luck, he started again with a more detailed, but still partially censored, version of the story.
Director Rinard slouched in an effort to keep his head low. Despite the ever watchful eyes of the Nebar Cluster marines, he wasn’t taking any chances. Unfortunately, that meant the back of his head would occasionally collide with the metal chair every time the small patrol boat crossed over a large wave.
More than once, he winced and wished he was travelling aboard the Midnight Dawn. However, the incredibly shallow area surrounding the swamps made it impossible to navigate even a small warship there. Besides, he was hoping that the presence of the Midnight Dawn in the harbour would fool any spies into thinking that he was still in the town.
Fleet Admiral Krane chuckled and said to him, “You might as well sit up. If they’re after us, they’ll probably try to blow the entire boat out of the water with those new weapons of theirs, rather than risk getting lucky with a single shot. In any case, considering how far out we are from shore right now, I doubt even their best marksman could make that shot. So, no sense in throwing your back out, or giving yourself brain damage. Not while we’ve still got that nice hike ahead of us.”
The marines were well trained enough to pretend to not hear the conversation. None of them cracked a smile or pricked an ear.
Sitting up and sighing, Rinard replied, “Don’t remind me. I guess I might as well try to get as comfortable as I can for the next little while.”
Krane laughed, “Besides, no offense, I would think that I’m a more high profile target. Militarily speaking, of course.”
That managed to get a laugh from Rinard, and he visibly relaxed.
He did start to look a little downcast as he commented, “Well, let’s just hope the enemy’s not near sighted.”
Rinard looked at the herd of orgots grazing. The semi-domesticated creatures were allowed free reign in the swamps, as there was no danger of them straying. Their sheer bulk made them at home when partially submerged in water, and nothing short of a nearby battle would encourage the apathetic creatures to wander off on to the surrounding plains. Furthermore, the swamp was massively overgrown with kelweed. While a nuisance to fishermen, the incredibly prolific seaweed seemed to be a delicacy for orgots.
“They’re pretty far north,” he idly commented.
Krane replied, “You keep forgetting how many orgots there actually are. I’m sure Iathera’s also supplying many of the neighbouring towns with meat as well.”
“Who’d have thought a swamp to be a good real estate investment?” laughed Rinard.
“I’m sure it wasn’t unintentional. It was probably designed to help grow the town as quickly as possible. At least, I assume that’s what happened when the old man helped them plan the institute. Speaking of which, have you decided what you’re going to tell him?”
“The truth. I don’t think I’m in any position to offer advice at this point. On second thought, maybe I should have just sent a message with our large friend here,” he said, gesturing to Garh, who had been lying asleep in the gunwale for the entire trip.
“I’m sure the old man would have loved that.”
“Let’s not forget I’m the only Director in history to have something even remotely close to this happen on their watch.”
“Honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. I get the feeling there’s something else at play here. The best we can do is to make sure he’s fully briefed, and hope he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve.”
“You’ve a lot of faith in his abilities, Krane. Despite my respect for him, I’m not sure he’ll be able to do anything.”
“I’m sure there was a reason he chose to remain nearby to us,” Krane said. “In any case, speculation about his capabilities is irrelevant right now.”
“I understand. I just can’t help but feel like a schoolchild on his way to the headmaster’s office.”
Half of the marines jumped up on the rickety dock and ran to take defensive positions, while two others climbed out to secure the boat.
“Clear, sir!” shouted the marine furthest away.
“Here comes the fun part of the journey,” groaned Rinard.
“Cheer up,” said Krane. “At least it’s not raining.”
Garh opened his eyes, and with surprising nimbleness, sat up and hopped out of the boat.
“How does something that big move so fast?” commented Rinard.
“Well, at least he won’t get slowed down carrying you if you twist your ankle this time,” laughed Krane.
“You’re never going to let me live that one down, are you? Is it my fault that I don’t usually go traipsing through swamps?”
“Come on, let’s get going before it starts getting dark,” replied Krane, still laughing.
As they walked to the end of the dock, the remaining marines also disembarked carrying several large bags of gear.
Like the well trained team they were, the marines immediately began construction of a small basecamp. Six marines were erecting a large canopy for shelter, while others began clearing the area of brush, foliage, and small trees. Small but sturdy barriers were strategically placed around the canopy to provide cover in the unlikely event of an ambush, while potential spots for pits were marked on the ground.
Krane watched their handiwork for a few minutes, then spoke to the leader, “Well, you know the drill by now, Commander. Keep the fires burning until we get back.”
“Metaphorically speaking, of course,” Rinard added quickly. “We don’t need a beacon drawing any more trouble to us.”
To his credit, Commander Nuretz didn’t crack a smile when he answered, “Don’t worry about us, Director. I’ll make sure this lot’s still alive to greet you when you get back.”
“Are you sure you’d rather not accompany us?” asked Rinard, a slight note of eagerness in his voice.
“I appreciate the offer, sir, but I think I’d better stay here and keep an eye on things. I don’t want you being welcomed back by Kierdans when you get back. Besides,” he added with a chuckle, “I doubt the old man would even remember me.”
“I think he might just remember the only person to ever make it to his front door unaided,” laughed Krane.
“There is that,” Nuretz replied, returning the laugh. “Plus, I do believe that I’m still technically under contract to kill him.”
“Just make sure no Kierdans try to finish the job for you.”
“We’ll keep a sharp eye on the coast. I’m sure the old man’s guard dogs have the interior covered. Just remember to signal if you run into any trouble.”
“Same goes for you,” replied Krane
“I just hope the flare can make it through that tree canopy,” commented Rinard.
“I’d be more worried about it starting a fire up there,” remarked Krane cheerfully. “Be a real ironic tragedy to burn to death in a swamp.”
“You’re a real bundle of joy and inspiration, you know that?”
Krane let out a small laugh and turned to Nuretz, “Well, you know what to do. If we don’t return by noon tomorrow, assume the worst and head back to Iathera. Report to the Intendant and follow her orders.”
“Will do, sir. Good luck in there.”
Turning back to Rinard, Krane asked, “Ready?”
Resigned to his fate, Rinard replied, “As much as I’ll ever be.”
Krane then turned his head to the silent giant, “Garh?”
Garh grunted what Krane assumed to be an affirmation.
With that, the three of them set out north into the Foggy Swamp. Though not a particularly original name, the moniker did a creditable job of describing the area.
While the Orgot Swamp to the south of the dock was mainly water and contained sparse above-ground vegetation, the Foggy Swamp seemed to be a strange hybrid somewhere between a rainforest and a marsh.
It contained similar vegetation to its southern neighbour, but it also played host to massive trees that resembled nothing more than enormously overgrown mangroves. Over time, the above-ground root systems allowed for large amounts of silt buildup, which ended up forming a series of natural passageways arched by the giant roots. Looking up, hundred foot canopies blotted out almost all sunlight that tried to make its way in.
The entire area was also perpetually blanketed in a layer of fog that only served to compound the visibility issue. Furthermore, the fog increased in density the further one went into the swamp, until one could barely see their hands in front of their face.
Kelweed wouldn’t even grow in the area due to reasons unknown, and no one particularly cared enough to bother investigating the matter. Fortunately, that meant no orgots ventured there, since not even the bravest of herders would care to venture far into the swamp to round up the creatures.
Also, on top of that, there were rumours of vicious half-man beasts that called the swamp their home. Every so often there would be a tale of some poor traveller who had wandered too far into the swamp and met their fate at the hands of these creatures. No one had ever produced decisive proof of such a creature though, so most folks blamed the disappearances on people simply getting lost.
As such, while most sane individuals still stayed clear of the area, such stories were relegated to the realm of tall tales told to children to keep them from idly wandering into the Foggy Swamp.
“I hate this place,” Rinard said.
“Tell the old man. I’m sure he’ll move on your account.”
Commander Nuretz surveyed the camp. Fourteen marines patrolled the area, while the remaining sixteen were essentially off-duty until their watch.
The question had come from Captain Harker. Despite his rank, he was a relative newcomer to Director Rinard’s personal retinue.
“A question, sir.”
“Don’t be shy. Spit it out.”
“With all due respect, why did we just let the two most important people in the cluster wander blindly into a fog laden swamp? Shouldn’t we have sent an escort with them?” Harker seemed genuinely perplexed and concerned.
Nuretz smiled. “Not as blindly as you might think. Besides, there are things in that swamp that don’t welcome strangers. Which, by the way, is what you’ll be if you go roaming around in there.
“Anyway,” he continued, “from what I understand, if Garh can’t keep them safe in there, we wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“I see…” Harker trailed off, hesitation still in his voice.
“I hate to pull rank, Captain, but let’s just say it’s above your pay grade. For now, our main concern is just to make sure that we’re still here when they get back tomorrow morning. Concentrate on your work, and maybe when this is over, we’ll all get an explanation of what exactly happened.”