is an excerpt from his newest novel, Ghosts of the Asylum:
Taljintus shuffled down a slime-covered step and raised
his torch high, staring into the blackness beyond, the bottom of the
stairs ending in water as dark as ink.
He couldn’t help but grimace as the outline of a body
floating face-down glided into view at the edges of the torch’s
light. The corpse was that of a man, as all of them would be, this
one still wearing the river-soaked garb of one of the guards.
Not for the first time, Taljintus asked himself if he
truly needed this job. Unfortunately the answer was always ‘yes.’
He hadn’t traveled all the way from Trode after losing his young
wife to the pox just to wallow in misery and indebtedness. He had
sought a new beginning in the city of Bond far from his homeland, and
being an experienced stonemason he had hoped to find steady work here
in the West. But he had arrived in the middle of Winter, during the
off season for construction. Tough months had followed, the
stonemason forced to scrounge as a day laborer just to survive.
Now the Spring had arrived, and Taljintus had put in a
bid on the first major job he could find. Fortune had been with him
and he had landed the bid.
But standing there in the cold and dark, one hand
rubbing at the last dark curls surrounding his balding head, he was
beginning to wonder if he should have passed on this project.
Wincing, he stepped down into the black water, the cold
soaking through his thin moccasins and chilling his flesh to the
bone. Another step brought the water up to his shins, and the Trodan
shivered as the cold ate away at him.
Taljintus cursed at not having the coin to purchase a
proper pair of oil-cloth boots, or perhaps even waders layered by the
gum of a rubber plant from a southern clime. He promised to add that
to his list of needed tools and other items he would purchase as soon
as he received his first full payment for this job.
Stepping down further, he came to the floor of the dark
tunnel extending before him. The water now rose to his knees.
Taljintus continued to shiver, though he could not be
sure if it was the cold water which caused him to do so or the body
gently bobbing up and down ahead.
He had known there would be corpses, perhaps lots of
corpses. Some kind of magical accident had apparently occurred here
last Summer, flooding the Asylum with river water. Other than city
workers dragging away the dead on the ground level above, no one had
yet to clean the place nor get it into working order. The news
Taljintus had managed to overhear on the street was that ownership of
the Asylum had changed hands several times during the Winter months,
none of the owners seemingly interested in spending the gold it would
take to bring the main building and the basement level back to a
The current owner was of a different mind, and had
wanted the Asylum restored to its former state.
The short Trodan grimaced further as he waded nearer the
body. He continued to quiver, but now it was at thoughts of the
Asylum’s current owner. The young man had eyes as dark and
foreboding as the water leaking into Taljintus’s leggings. At least
he had promised to pay well, and his down payment had been enough to
secure the stonemason a place of residence in the Swamps for the next
few months as well as enough money for daily needs.
But was it worth it? Growing closer to the floating dead
man, the Trodan’s feelings on the matter were beginning to shift.
Yes, he needed the coin, but there had to be other jobs available.
“Stop it,” Taljintus whispered to himself. It’s
just a job, like any other job.
Except there were dead bodies, perhaps as many as a
hundred or more if the rumors were true.
Why couldn’t there have been a nice church that needed
a new cathedral? Or a new building for the university on the east
side of town?
Taljintus shook his head, driving away all negative
thoughts. It was a job. He was being paid well, enough to hire a
sizable crew and keep himself in business at least through the
Summer. Clearing out the basement level, of water and bodies, was
simply part of the job. Then there would be the new roof that had to
be constructed for the Asylum, then the main floor had to be rebuilt
The Trodan’s face turned white.
There was another body. Floating ahead there. Just
beyond the dead man he was almost touching.
The new body wore no clothes, its naked skin wrinkled
and as pale as a dead fish’s gullet. The corpse floated on its
back. A pair of dead, white, flat eyes stared up at the bricked
ceiling of the basement tunnel.
Taljintus stopped moving. He had come down to the lower
level to take in what kind of damage the river water had caused, and
to see the extent of the dead, but he had seen enough. His new crew
could take care of the bodies. That was part of their job. Taljintus
had other things to do, like beginning the drawings for the new roof.
Yes, the new roof. He would get started on that. Let the
laborers clean up the mess down here.
He turned to leave.
A wind sprang up from the direction of the steps leading
above, a wind so strong tears sprang to the stonemason’s eyes and
he was forced to blink.
During one of those blinks, his torch died.
Taljintus almost panicked. Almost.
Here he was, stranded in near pitch blackness with the
corpses of dead man floating about him. It was not a good place. It
was not a place he wanted to be.
At least there was some little light ahead of him there,
from the stairwell. A touch of the sun’s glow had worked its way
through the large hole in the Asylum’s roof and had found its way
to the top of the stairs. Taljintus could just make out the bottom of
the landing above his eye level.
Now all he had to do was work his way over there.
As his feet began to slowly, agonizingly slide along the
slick bricks of the tunnel toward the stairwell, the stonemason’s
own mind began to play tricks on him. Had he just heard something
move behind him? And how had any wind down here been powerful enough
to knock out his torch?
A strong chill grew over the Trodan’s skin, raising
bumps on his flesh. For a moment he even believed he had seen his
breath misting before the light of the steps.
“Stop it,” he repeated to himself. No reason to
spook myself. I need this job. What with my own problems and the
riots and --
Taljintus paused. That had definitely been something in
the water behind him.
Though not a superstitious man, the Trodan had had
enough of snooping around in the dark and the wet with dead bodies.
He plunged toward the exit.
And slipped on the floor, falling face-first into the
For a moment there was nothing but blackness, even the
light from above being denied to the stonemason. He couldn’t
breath. He tried to suck in air, but murky, muddy water flooded his
mouth. Then Taljintus panicked. He could help it no longer.
He thrust up his arms, reaching for the air, and found
cold, cold, cold. It was a cold so icy it caused the wet joints of
his fingers to ache.
Then his feet found the bottom once more and Taljintus
pushed, launching himself with a splash above the water level.
He spit out nasty muck and inhaled, glad to feel the
cool breaths rushing down his throat to drive away the burning
sensation in his lungs.
That had been close. He had nearly drowned himself, and
why? Because of fear and impatience.
Taljintus rubbed at the black little mustache beneath
his bulbous nose and leaned against the wall to rest for a moment. He
had to get a grip on himself. Whatever noise he had heard, it had
probably been a rat, nothing more. In his line of work, he had run
across many a rat. Nothing of which to be afraid.
Okay. His breathing normal again despite the chill that
had invaded the tunnel, Taljintus pushed off the wall and slowly made
his way toward the exit. Yes, let the workers come down here in the
dark and clean up the mess.
His right foot touched the bottom step, and he could see
daylight flooding into the hallway above, when the skin beneath the
Trodan’s collar felt as if it were standing up, as if someone had
breathed an arctic, bitter mist down his back.
His eyes went wide.
But still, he did not panic again.
Until the cold, wet,
clammy flesh of claw-like fingers grasped at the back of his neck.