Post Mon Nov 07, 2016 4:56 am

First Look at "The Alchemist's Gambit" (and then some)

Hey PS & steampunk fans! Been awhile, eh? Well, here's evidence I'm not dead. Enjoy this sneak peek at The Alchemist's Gambit, book two in the Alchemist's Trilogy, set in Ullera. In this story, our heroes, Bigby, Marlby, and Poppy, venture out across the Disputed Lands and ultimately into Rausch, evading threats new and old, and seeking answers to unsolved riddles.

*****

Chapter 1, or, “A Dispute in the Disputed”

“Lookee there! His head’s liable to pop like a ghuldurn tick’s! Reckon he can’t take much more, hey?”

The man with the crooked grin pawed at his gnome captive’s ears and regarded the speaker. “Naw, Spook.” Then back at the captive, “We ain’t done with you yet, is we?”

Bigby Dolan hung by his ankles—just enough to keep him touching anything or righting himself, despite his best efforts at trying—from the hangman’s noose, dangling several feet off the ground from the lowest branches of a gumroot tree. The fugitive alchemist’s brow and cheeks were beet red: not from any kind of recent beating—though that was sure to come!—but from all the blood rushing to his head.

Spook’s eyes lit up and he danced a tight jig, clapping his hands like a child.

“Whutchu so fidgety for, Spook?” a fat-snout, six-foot, brown scaly-skinned humanoid—Mesocine, Bigby thought, a manrik by all accounts—grumbled in the shade of the tree, arms crossed.

“He’s always fidgety when it comes to vi’lence,” a tattooed and tanned half-breed hissed through a lisp somewhere out of Bigby’s view. The sheath wisp of a blade being drawn and scraped along a hard edge followed. Bigby half-imagined the creep at his back sharpening that damn knife on his tongue.

“Hell’s bells, the way you two think!” Spook shouted, pointing. “We weren’t for hanging ‘im like that if’n we’s to just stare at ‘im all day,” Spook paused then looked at his manrik companion, drawing courage from the gathered silence, “ya fat blubberpuss!”

Fat-Snout’s pudgy grimace held firm as he seemed not to take offense.

Crooked Grin raised a quiet hand, smiling through his eyes at Bigby. “That’s plenty. You three know why I done this, and that’s that. But, time is a-wastin’!”

Bigby, desperately trying to look away but too afraid not to, held Crooked Grin’s eyes with his own. The man was unpredictable, that much was for certain.

Spook antsied up to Crooked Grin’s side. “B-b-but, boss! The others ain’t here, and they ain’t got to be. I-I dunno if’n I can stand! We done wronged his girl. Course, this’un here’s gonna take the fall for it, right? Right, boys!”

“I didn’t do any—”

But Bigby’s words were lost in his throat as Crooked twitched and took grip of his hair at the scalp. One false move and…! It wasn’t the grab that made Bigby stop. No. It was that horrible grin, and the way the man’s mouth hung open all-the-while—a dark hole full of yellowing stalactites and stalagmites, a hole reserved only for whiskey, flies, and quiet, hateful words. Ironic how astringent Crooked’s whole face smelled now. Only the gleam in Crooked’s puffy eyes really seemed to indicate a change in his manner. This wasn’t the kind of man you wanted to cross. Course, a simple apology at this stage wasn’t going to cut it.

Tattoo’s knife kissed the whetstone again, and a tingle ran down (now up) Bigby’s spine.

Everything was topsy-turvy, and Bigby could start to feel himself fading away.

A sharp slap across the face brought everything back into focus.

“Heeheehee! Hit him again, boss!” Spook squealed.

Crooked sighed with his eyes. “Shush, you. That was just to keep him sober.” Without taking his eyes off Bigby, he reached back and produced a cowhide flask from his belt, guzzling for a few seconds before setting it at his feet and wiping his slick chin with the back of his sleeve. “Alright, now. Hand me that knife there.”

Tattoo’s sunburnt skin leapt into view as Bigby watched the curved knife with its green silk handle pass into Crooked’s possession. Bigby had been close to those with elf blood before, but never one quite like this. Nothing much of the topography of Tattoo’s face jumped out at the viewer; his eyes sunken well into his evenly baked complexion, and sharp, flat nose all long lines and cruel curves, a look that spoke of pain and pleasure mixed.

The green silk disappeared beneath Crooked’s grip as that curved edge stabbed skywards and Bigby’s focus was stolen away. “I oughta introduce you two, seein’ as how you’re all trussed up like you is.” The man straightened. “They call her, Standing Elk.”

Bigby’s blurred vision took in the bare, smoky-white bark of the tree that, given his perspective, seemed to grow out of his back from the waistline. Despite his predicament, Bigby imagined the tree did resemble an elk rising up on its hind legs, twisted antlers raking bloody stains across the sky. A dark rend in the trunk suggested that Standing Elk had been struck by lightning some time in the past, perhaps furthering to explain its colorless, bald state.

“Resident folklore has it a durn fool ranch hand went and broke the heart of his Mezoquan paramour, who happened to be a godsforsaken witch!” Crooked wiped the flat sides of the knife against his pants leg. “Curse-a-spittin’, crazy dryad went and transmogrified him into the shape you see before you. Course, them’s just stories is all.” He punctuated this by running the knife’s edge over his thumb, drawing blood. “Ho! Sumbitch, that’s sharp!”

Crooked sucked his thumb thoughtfully as the rope that hung Bigby groaned low in the breeze.

“I was thinkin’ to wait a spell ‘fore we … you know,” Crooked said, bringing the knife to hover in front of Bigby’s crossed eyes. “But, as my gran’pappy always used to say, ‘Once you get the gumption of doing something, you best get to doin’!’”

High overhead, a mangy vulture swept a lazy circle above Standing Elk.

Bigby held his breath.

For the first time in many minutes, Crooked blinked, then his eyes turned skyward. “Well, now. Not who I was expectin’, but why should I have all the fun.

“What say, boys! Let’s not let this beautiful country spoil on the likes of us folk. Let’s let Mister Dolan here take him a final gander at what he leaves behind!” Crooked finished with a laugh.

The others soon joined in the merriment, fanning out as Fat-Snout unwound the rope from the base of the gumroot and hoisted Bigby higher up into the tree’s bony branches. The not-so-patient buzzard seemed to acknowledge the charitable offering immediately and flew low to land on the uppermost perch. The scavenger craned its neck this way and that as it sought to piece together an easier path to its slow rising meal, or at least determine if it was ready for pecking.

Bigby saw the awful bird and, though a safe distance still remained between them, flailed his arms in a vain attempt to shoo it away. The buzzard opened its wings and steadied itself under the sudden shaking, but didn’t flee. Final death throes, it must have thought.

Down below, Crooked and his gang carried on in a macabre manner befitting their kind of villainy. The boss sat laid out on the grass resting on his elbows and picking his teeth with the knife. Fat-Snout chuckled stupidly and his knuckles showed orange as he held Bigby in place. Tattoo held an ornate fiddle and plucked a jaunty tune by its black strings as Spook pounded out a beat and sang:

“Gon-na eat’chuu! Gon-na eat’chuu! First-the-buzzards-take-a-bit, then we eat’chuu!”

Bigby breathed with some effort through his mouth and took in the vast scenery all around. It was the first day of the third week of autumn, and trees still clung to their leaves, even if they were turning a different shade. Bigby noticed not only how he was dangly helplessly, but that he was doing so from one of the few trees for miles around to be completely barren, for all the world a lightning rod that hung lifeless. He realized also how this did not bode well for his prospects, and that he would soon join the tree in lifeless decoration.

Throwing his gaze out farther, hoping to spy rescue on the horizon, Bigby saw dark rainclouds spilling over the foothills to the south and west. Miles west of that, Bigby spied a brown cloud rising up from the earth—a vast herd of cattle being prodded north as it fled from the chasing storm at its heels. A pair of rainbows bridged the turning leaves over the Mesarco plateau south. Rolling grassy hills pitted and rutted by weather and erosion concealed limestone caves to the east: land Bigby and his friends—Marlby and Poppy—had already traversed, he knew. If only they had paid heed to Bigby’s own spelunking mindset, he wouldn’t be in such a pickle.

Bigby’s eyes fell across a patch of darkened woods where he thought he spied the huddled shapes of onlookers hiding in wait. Just shadows! He cursed himself for hoping. Unless his luck changed right quick, Bigby knew he was a goner. Where in the damned dumps of the Dominion are you, Edgar Marlby!?

*****

And don't forget, if you haven't already, check out book one here (https://www.amazon.com/Alchemists-Run-L-James-Wright-ebook/dp/B00XWDKE08/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1478494369&sr=8-1&keywords=alchemist%27s+run) on Amazon! (Psst, and guess what! I wrote another book you thriller/history/modern fantasy fans might also like, Rogue Blood, found here: https://www.amazon.com/Rogue-Blood-L-James-Wright-ebook/dp/B01LXRMCEM/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1478494494&sr=8-10&keywords=rogue+blood)!
"With a clank-fist grip…," L. James Wright
Pure Steam™ Contributor, Writer/Co-editor