FREE to Download this Friday-Saturday: The Count of the Living Death

This Friday-Saturday you can download my second novel for FREE, a comic gothic-fantasy novel following the exploits of a pampered count, an eccentric magician, a no-nonsense countess-to-be, a mysterious half-brother, and a menacing chest which hides unspeakable terrors under three magic locks. It's not quite as serious as it all sounds (or is it?), and it makes for a quick, enjoyable read, especially for those who enjoy books like The Hobbit, The Princess Bride, and the great comic-Gothic book that started it all, The Castle of Otranto.

Click on the link to download the book on your Kindle or Kindle app:

Or, click "read more" below to sample the first three chapters...

Chapter One

The coach shuddered down the road, the frame rattling, the wheels wobbling, the traveler clenching his teeth. Road? Who called this a road? True, at one time it had been cleared, a few markers had been set down and traffic was generally encouraged. But obviously no one had taken the trouble to travel it and the forest had reclaimed its dominion. A sudden bounce and the traveler found himself suspended in mid-air; when he landed he was upside-down with both feet out the window. He flipped over and leaned out to scold the driver—only to have his wig snatched off by the winds. What a disgrace! In this day and age, to lose his wig, his comfort, and quite possibly his senses to investigate these preposterous goings-on. He knew he should have refused. That, or asked for more money. A few more fobs would have paid for his wig and a new road on the return journey.
“Are we close?” the traveler yelled over the din.
“Not…far…now…sir,” the coachman shouted, his teeth rattling.
“Wonderful,” he said, crossing his legs. “The sooner this nonsense is over the better. I told them this would happen, how many times have I warned them? Well, only once…but once was enough. Didn't I tell them to throw it in the ocean and be done with it?"
The coach lurched violently and lost its bearings, catapulting the driver into the thickets and the traveler head over heels. The horses bolted, screaming down the road with the coupling bouncing behind them. The coach, nearly cracked in two, settled against a tree, its wheels spinning—rather smoothly, now—in mid-air. The traveler gave a groan and hoisted himself out the window. Nothing the worse for wear, it seemed. Just a firm conviction never to travel ten miles away from his door in any direction ever again!
He dusted himself off and looked from left to right. The road continued into the woods a fair distance, but even through the trees he could see the tops of the distant castle…a few miles at most.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to walk, I suppose,” he muttered. “Coachman? Where are you?”
After a difficult search, he found the coachman ineffectively clawing his way out of a thicket. He made a few gestures before the bushes and they unceremoniously vomited him out.
“My head…” he groaned.
“Pah! Your head is fine; it’s your leg that’s broken,” the traveler said. “Now come along.”
The traveler stooped down, hoisted the coachman on his shoulders and started off in the direction of the castle.
The guards spotted him a few hours later, though they didn’t know who or what he was. A large, hulking mass approached stealthily in the moonlight, too large to be a man, but too slow to be anything else. A ghost? The guards warned it to stop (it didn’t)…swore they would Count to ten (they couldn’t get past five)… announced that they were prepared to shoot—
“Fire away, gentleman, but I think you’ll find I’m expected,” a voice demanded. “Hildigrim Blackbeard, at your service. Please announce me at once.”
As the figure approached the torch lights, details of his face danced out: a prodigiously long beard, black but flecked with sparks of white; two fiery eyes, bubbling like a disturbed volcano; waves of thick hair sprouting in all directions, like the fingers of a nervous ghost. Without a word they opened the gates.
“Don’t let anyone else in or out without my explicit order,” he commanded. “Starting this moment, the entire castle is under quarantine.”
The guards nodded with terror, unwilling to comment. They knew the stories about Hildigrim Blackbeard, legendary Conjurer-Magician and Sorcerer of the Sixth Circle (whatever that meant). They heard he had walked on the moon. That he had talked to the dead. That he…that he had once been a corpse himself. Things must be in a terrible state indeed to call him here. How terrible they could scarcely imagine.

Chapter Two

The Count paced before the fire, thinking endless, empty thoughts. With each second that passed the situation became more dreadful. What a fool I’ve been! He told me—he warned me—I even told myself! Zounds, I should have listened
But in general he listened to no one. As a Count he didn’t have to. He had been born to all the advantages of a title, which viewed the world as an elaborate chess game, where people, armies, even nations were so many pieces to be shuffled about. Consequences? There were no consequences, other than occasionally losing, of course. But this was far worse than losing a single match...and this was more than a casual opponent.
In a rage he tossed his wine goblet in the fire. The wine hissed as it sprayed against the flames, imitating a sinister response to his racing thoughts. It’s too late now! The game is up!
“Your Grace, he’s here—just arrived!” a servant announced, having run up the stairs so quickly his wig was on sideways.
“Excellent!” the Count shouted, racing toward the stairwell.
Minutes later he encountered Hildigrim Blackbeard himself, legs crossed in impatience, fingering a cup of tea. Steam danced out of the cup and shrouded his eyebrows. He didn’t seem happy to see the Count. And why should he? His father, the former Count of Cinquefoil, had warned him about the box. Specifically, not to go near it. Or even open the door to the armory where it was kept. And of course, it goes without saying, never to unfasten the locks. From his earliest childhood he had heard stories of the box. Not what was in it…no, they never spoke of that…but simply that it existed. An existence that planted a seed in his mind, which grew year by year, watered by his dreams and the occasional nightmare.
“You profound and prophetic buffoon!” the sorcerer shouted. “You’ve done it, haven’t you? When your father told you, when I told you, when your own common sense should have told you! Don’t you read fairy tales? The ones where curious little boys go prying in dark places that are hungry for the light? So? What do you have to say for yourself?”
The Count said nothing, his voice dry and his brain scrambled. What did one say to Hildigrim Blackbeard, especially when he already knew the answer? Of course, he didn’t know the entire story, which was worse.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he said, head downcast.
“Of course you’re sorry; sorry for getting caught,” he grumbled. “Well, what’s done is done. Tell me what happened.”
The absolute last thing the Count wanted to do was think about it. Strange, considering it was typically all he ever thought about. His mind turned somersaults trying to penetrate the mystery behind the box. What could be so terrible, so unspoken? You couldn’t tell anything from its appearance. True, one side had been burned, and the top looked as if someone had beaten it for several hours. But otherwise, it was a simple, unremarkable box—or at best, an undersized chest. The first time he had peered in at it was twelve years ago. Like a thief he stole after his father, who had come down to the armory on some errand. When his father opened the door—only quickly enough to catch a single glimpse—he saw it. That single image lived in his imagination until last night. The night it spoke to him.
Leopold…I’ve been waiting for you, Leopold. Come and unfasten my locks!

Chapter Three

“It spoke to you?” the sorcerer said, eyes widening.
Leopold nodded, the voice still in his thoughts. Like no voice he had ever heard. Human—but only just. It sounded like the voice of a child swallowed up in a howling rainstorm.
“And…?” Hildigrim Blackbeard insisted.
“I didn’t mean to go there…I rarely ever go down there,” he said.
For some reason, he found himself strolling down the damp stairwell to the armory, long after everyone in the palace was asleep. In the faint flicker of torchlight he saw the door. He paused at the handle, knowing it was a foolish impulse. Surely nothing good would come—
It spoke. It asked him to open the door. Pleaded, even begged him to listen. After a moment’s hesitation he turned the handle. And there it was. Besides its battered appearance, three locks of various sizes stood at attention. A symbol was engraved on each one, unreadable to him…undoubtedly magic. Then it greeted him by name. Asked him if he knew what it was.
“I don’t know anything—no one ever told me,” he protested. “I don’t even know what possessed me to come down here…I just wanted to see…”
In a tearful, almost frightened voice it said it was scared; that it had been trapped long ago. No one would listen, least of all those who knew its secret. It said he could help…that he, alone, could hear its cries swallowed up in the darkness of human thought.
“Me? How can I help? I know nothing of magic, of the secrets my ancestors kept hidden. I’m not even married.”
It replied less in words, but in a kind of melodious sing-song that promised him great rewards if he would only listen, if he would right the terrible wrongs of the past. It was such a simple thing, it suggested, to do the right thing. In fact, it would even help him.
He wanted to trust it, whatever it was. He could almost see it in his mind, a small, powerless thing. Practically a child.
“What can I do? I’ll do what I can…within reason.”
It asked for only one thing: undo the first lock. Let the rest remain fastened for now, it suggested; but the first, if unlocked, would allow it space to breathe…to think…to speak with candor.
But where was the key? His father had never spoken of such matters, nor had he uncovered any keys in his adolescent snooping. As if reading his thoughts, it said the key was hidden in the Hall of Portraits, behind the ancient portrait of the one-eyed king.
“King Stanislav, yes,” Hildigrim nodded. “Right where I left it, all those years ago.”
“What—what happened? I still don’t know,” Leopold pleaded.
“You think this entitles to you knowledge, your act of pernicious sabotage?” he snapped, spilling his tea. “No, no, not before I know the rest of the story. Go on.”
“There’s not much else to tell,” the Count shrugged. “I retrieved the key—which was right where it said it was—and returned to the room. It begged me to continue, just one lock, a simple flick of the wrist. And so…I did it.”
The sorcerer hissed. It was just as he thought. But there was more. Once the lock was unbolted, the voice became louder, more sure of itself. It began speaking with a different accent, one Leopold couldn’t place in any specific region. But whatever it was, it sounded old. Still childish, but old.
“It told me a strange story about the movements of the stars, how they’re always watching us, guiding us, even though we can’t understand,” he continued, waving his hands. “Frankly, I didn’t understand a single thing…but I enjoyed listening. It made me feel…protected, somehow.”
“Naturally,” Hildigrim muttered. “And then?”
At the end of it all, the voice asked him to undo the second lock. One was all very well, it explained, but two…now that would show it could trust him. It wasn’t that the voice wanted out of the box, exactly. No, it just wanted certain pressures released. The locks somehow stifled it, constricted it, made it difficult to move as it wanted. The Count took pity on the creature inside the box—whatever it was—and unfastened the second lock.
Both locks!” the sorcerer gasped. “The first and the second? I thought you merely tampered with one and ran away!”
“It was the way it asked me…like I was doing it the greatest favor in the world. It sounded so desperate. I knew it was wrong…but then again, I wasn’t sure why it was wrong. Maybe if someone had told me—”
“It’s not for you to know all the ins-and-outs of the thing, just to follow instructions,” he snapped. “Given time, and a certain maturity, you might have been told. But you couldn't wait! Well, continue.”
After the second lock, the voice changed again. It sounded even older, even stranger, but no less reassuring. Still kind, like someone he had known all his life and was simply playing a role. It told him another story, this time about the beginning of the world: how the first trees were planted by a wandering flame in order to satisfy its hunger and consume them. Very strange, and he certainly didn’t follow a word of it. And yet…
“I know you didn’t unfasten the third lock, otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here now, would we?” the sorcerer said, arching his brow. “So what did happen?”
“The same as before…it asked me to consider, just consider, turning the key in the third lock. It said we could be friends. That it could offer me anything I wanted. It even knew about…Mary.”
Mary?” Hildigrim repeated, uncertainly.
Somehow, it knew everything Leopold thought or felt. It seemed to know all about her, and it said, in a strange, roundabout way, that she could be his. But not without undoing the third lock. Only then could the box open and all his dreams come true. Come closer, it begged him…come closer and open the box. What good friends they would be if it could only see him and take his hand.
“That’s when I saw it,” the Count said, trembling with emotion. “With the first two locks off the lid could move just a hair—only so much. But even so, as I approached to unlock it, I saw…this eye, this terrible eye peering at me. But not human! It wasn’t human at all!”
“No, it isn’t,” the sorcerer nodded.
“My hand froze. I had already inserted the key in the lock. But I fell backwards and ran out of the room. It called after me, shouting my name. But I couldn’t listen. I just ran upstairs and hid in my bedroom.”
“And you left the key there?”
“Yes. Still in the lock. Is that bad?”
The sorcerer didn’t respond. Instead, he drained the rest of his cup and puckered his lips.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to go down there and find out,” Blackbeard said.