The old world has ended, and the people who are left to survive forgot it long ago. In the absence of science, technology, and civilization, something old has become new again. An ancient power, older than creation, moves among the survivors of a deadly plague and seeks to remake the world into something that it believes will be better: a place where the struggle for power and survival will push humankind toward a greatness that the world has never seen.
After spending their entire lives barely surviving in isolation from one another, Athen, Paul, Henry, Brenn, Ansela, and Crow each find a new kind of life thrust upon them. A figure that they only know as the Man in the Woods (or, at times, the Woman in the Woods) changes their lives in powerful and often traumatic ways. A few of them believe that they have become powerful—others that they have become monsters.
Each of these people will try to escape the path that the Man in the Woods has set before them, but they’ll discover that freedom doesn’t mean making your own path—it means only what you do on that path. As they move toward the destiny set before them, each will have to choose between darkness and light.
Whatever their choices, each of these freaks will reshape the decayed world that they live in—for good or for evil.
Enter the word of Animus.
Here is a sample chapter from Little Gods, which is now available on Amazon.
Chapter 1: Alone
ANSELA HAD LEARNED to be fast; she had to be in order to survive Sandersville.
She ran along the mezzanine floor of the armory, keeping close to the outer wall and ducking when she passed the big windows to avoid casting a shadow on the lower floor. She kept her eyes on the people below––especially on the big man who sat atop five large crates stacked in a pyramid shape––to make sure that no one looked up and saw her scrambling in the dark.
She had waited until she heard the noise of a dogfight before she had climbed down from the roof to the shattered window in the northeast corner. The Hollow Men spent most of their time training feral dogs and betting on the dogs in fights, using women as prizes. The fights happened several times a week, and even across the city from the armory, Ansela always knew when there was a dogfight because of the barking and screaming.
Ansela had learned to skin and butcher an animal down on the lower floor of the armory. Her father, Ansel, had taught her. They would hang big animals like deer and calves from hooks that someone had put on the back of one of the parked Dragonflies––hoverplanes with four black folding wings like the insect’s––and let the blood fall into a small channel that crossed the armory to a drain in the middle of the floor. Ansela had cleaned several deer with her father’s help and a few smaller animals like squirrels and rabbits on her own.
As she ran the length of the mezzanine, the noise below covered the sound of her feet on the metal floor, but she had still taken off her boots and left them on the roof. Sometimes she stepped on a rock or a loose bolt, but these barely hurt her. For as long as she could remember, Ansela had been running wherever she went, often barefoot over rough ground, and the soles of her feet were hard.
The eyes of the big man on the wooden pyramid rose to the mezzanine on the other side of the building, so Ansela stopped and crouched next to the wall. The building was about a hundred yards long and twenty-five or thirty yards wide, and she had crossed two-thirds the length of it from the window where she had entered in the northwest corner. From here she could see her goal at the southwest corner: the opening of a metal chute that went from the mezzanine to a large metal bin on the bottom level.
She lay flat on the floor and eased over to the edge of the mezzanine until she could just peek over the side and see the face of the big man. That was the leader of the Hollow Men; she thought that people called him “Burl.” He wore ripped pants, but no shoes or shirt, and even though his chest, arms, and shoulders swelled with muscle, his soft belly hung over the front of his pants. He had no hair on his head or body that she could see except for his beard, which started halfway up his cheeks and hung down to the same level as his nipples. The light of several barrel-fires encircling his pyramid reflected from his bald head.
She tried to read his thoughts, closing her eyes and leaning her mind (that was the way she thought of it: leaning) toward him, but she could see little there except a glimmer of red light in the darkness. She rarely saw anything in any of their minds except darkness. That was why she called them the Hollow Men.
Burl’s eyes had almost drifted to where Ansela lay watching when the dogs suddenly stopped barking and two women screamed. Burl’s gaze fell to the floor at the northern end of the building. Ansela turned to look, too. In the middle of the warehouse stood a large, chain-link kennel between eight parked Dragonflies. That was where they fought the dogs. Ansela couldn’t see into the kennel because of the bodies gathered around it, but she could see two men pulling the screaming women away from the crowd toward the darkness at the far end of the building. Ansela wished she knew of a way to help them.
Watching Burl, Ansela crept along the mezzanine on her hands and knees, ready to drop if he glanced up. She wished that she had something to shoot him with––a crossbow, maybe––for what he and his men had done to Sandersville and for what the men who had dragged the women away were going to do to them.
The Hollow Men had come into the city three months or so ago like a February storm and killed or rounded up most of the survivors living in a group at the train yards and the Homeland Security station. They had set up their own camp in the armory, where they held their women, all the food in the city, and all the weapons that they could get their hands on. Nobody could get the Dragonflies running, and most of the guns were too rusty to fire, but they had bows and plenty of blades: machetes, axes, knives, even a few swords.
A shirtless man wearing a leather harness that held a rifle and a pair of machetes approached Burl’s crate-pyramid and said something to Burl that Ansela couldn’t understand. Now was her chance. Most of the Hollow Men were occupied with the aftermath of the dogfight, and Burl seemed satisfied with his perch on top of the pyramid. Keeping her head low, she stood and hurried along the wall the rest of the way to the chute.
When she got to the corner of the mezzanine, she lay flat and looked over the edge at the floor below. They had put an extra guard by the food. Two men sat on crates looking toward the north end of the armory. One of them had an axe propped next to him, head-down, while the other had a black compound bow by his side. She’d have to move quick and get the food rations while the crowd was still noisy.
She crept over to the chute, a black hole in the wall about three feet wide and four feet high, and climbed in. Pressing against the sides of the chute with her hands and feet, she descended into the dark. The chute went straight down for about four feet until it turned and angled down for about twelve feet to another four-foot vertical shaft. Then it angled again to an opening behind a large crate on the lower floor.
She reached the first turn and then slid on her butt down the long, angled section of chute. Then she crept like a spider down the second vertical section. Here the yells of the crowd, the screams of women, and the noise of dogs sounded muffled and far away.
At the bottom of the vertical section, she sat down and slid her bag from her back. Slowly she unzipped it at the top so that it would be ready for the preserved rations. Firelight shone orange and yellow up the shaft. She took a breath. She’d done this dozens of times in the last few months, and she could do it again. She’d slip in, take what food she could reach without being seen, and then she’d be gone. She was fast. She was small. She was quiet. They wouldn’t see her.
She had just slid one strap of the bag over her shoulder when movement below made her stomach lurch. Someone appeared at the bottom of the shaft, silhouetted by the firelight. The figure moved up the chute easily, pressing its hands and feet to the sides just as Ansela did.
As quietly as she could, she slipped her arm through the other strap of the bag and turned to climb the chute. She could reach the top before the figure got to where she was now. He hadn’t seen her yet.
But when Ansela took one last glance before she climbed, the figure had stopped about halfway up the shaft. She could barely make out a pair of eyes on a shadowed face. She was caught. Now she had to move.
She scrambled up the vertical shaft to the the angled section of the chute, waiting for her pursuer to yell for the others, but she heard no sounds except for the dogfight and her own hands and feet slipping on metal. When she reached the angled shaft, she glanced back down to the turn below her. The figure’s shadow appeared first, and then the figure itself, moving frighteningly fast. This was someone who spent a lot of time moving like an animal.
She hurried up the angled shaft to the last vertical section, and this time she didn’t bother to look back. Her breaths short and her heart racing, she climbed the chute and reached for the bottom of the opening, but her fingers slipped. As she fell, she thought of the dogs that would fight to decide which Hollow Man would have her, and of the things that the Hollow Men might do to her. When she hit the angled shaft, the noise seemed loud enough to shake the whole building down. Her head collided with the side, and for a second, she thought she had blacked out. But then she heard her pursuer’s feet and hands on the sides of the chute and a whispering voice that hissed, “Wait!”
Her mind began to retreat into itself, and she froze. Not now, she thought. Not. Now.
She forced herself to move, in her mind repeating the words her mother had taught her: Ansel and Martha, Isaiah and Angelique, Ansel and Judith, Mary and Jacob.
“You have to remember those names,” her mother had always told her. “If you forget, then they’ll be gone when Papa and me die. There aren’t any books left to remember them.”
After the names, she recited the words: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.
“Those are the most important words in the world,” her father had told her. “Never forget them.”
Without looking down the angled section, she got to her feet and scrambled up the last shaft. She fell head-first out of the opening onto the mezzanine floor, rolled, and then ran, almost losing her balance and tumbling over the edge. Below, the noise of the crowd had changed: it was still loud, but the sound was directed toward her now, and she could make out some of the words: “thief,” “kill,” “girl,” “mine,” “shoot.”
Arrows whistled as she ran, some of them passing close enough that she felt the wind from their feathers on her skin. A few of them bounced and twirled, two of their heads grazing her and cutting her face. Her speed might not save her now. One of them would hit her, and then they would leave her body to rot, or feed her to the dogs. Or were the Hollow Men cannibals?
She reached the window and jumped onto the ledge, groping wildly for the section of pipe that she used as a hold. Standing on the ledge right here, she was the perfect target. She found the pipe and hung onto it, letting her feet dangle and inching toward the corner of the building. An arrow flew past her into the night sky. She was hanging from the pipe with her back against the wall, her bag between her back and the building, and in this position, she could barely hold on. When she had moved out of the view of the window, she swung herself around to face the building. She found her footholds and crept around the corner to the east side of the building, where there were two more pipes that ran parallel to this one. She used these to climb up and grab hold of the roof edge.
The voices of men yelling echoed in the night. She pulled herself over the edge of the roof and got to her feet. She grabbed her boots and stuffed them in her bag before she ran toward the west side of the building where a catwalk connected the armory to a brick office building. When she reached the other side of the catwalk, she glanced back. The dark figure was on top of the armory.
Ansela ran, her heart pounding. If they caught her, she would kill herself. She had the switchblade that her mother had given her, and she had the courage to use it. Just draw the blade across her throat quickly and it would all be over. They might feed her to their pets, but the Hollow Men would never gamble for her in a dogfight.
She climbed down a pipe at the northeast corner of the brick building into an alley and ran toward the north. Here she would normally have gone south, but she couldn’t lead her pursuer to the office building where she had been sleeping since the Hollow Men came. She couldn’t give up her spot yet.
At the end of the alley she came to a street that led across the train yard to the main road into town. From here she could take the street and cross the road into the woods, or she could cross the train tracks and go to the river. She could hide there on one of the half-sunken boats.
Noise behind her. Her pursuer was climbing down the pipe into the alley. The woods on the other side of the tracks––she’d have to lose him that way. She started down the street toward the main road, but then she turned to cross the tracks suddenly. She could go to the other side of the train sheds and make her pursuer think that she had headed for the river, and then she could run behind the sheds to the main road and into the trees.
“There’s the little shit!”
The voice had come from somewhere close to the armory. Ansela glanced over her shoulder. Three men were running down one stretch of track, blades in their hands.
She ran behind the sheds and turned toward the main road. Back here the grass grew as high as she stood. Insects scattered all around her, flying in her face and biting her neck. She’d be lucky not to step on a snake in this brush. She could hear the footsteps of the men behind her. She was fast, but so were they.
In the back of one shed she spotted a door standing open and barely hanging from its hinges. She could slip through there to the other side and then make a run for it back to the south, using the train cars to hide her until she came to the end of the sheds. If she could trick the Hollow Men into thinking she’d gone through the woods to the east, then she might be able to make it to the river and wait it out on one of the boats until they all gave up on her.
She darted through the door into almost complete darkness and knew immediately that she’d made a mistake. This wasn’t a train stall. It was some kind of storage room, and she couldn’t see an exit on the front side. But it was too late to run back out the way she had come. She could hear the men just a few yards from the door.
Wildly, she felt her way in the blackness toward the other side of the room, stumbling over pieces of metal and boxes on the floor and knocking her head on a set of metal shelves. She found an empty space behind a stack of plastic bins and crouched there, fiddling in her pocket for the switchblade. This was it.
I’m coming to where you are, Papa, she thought. And you were right. You should have done this yourself.
From her hiding place she could see dim starlight shining through the door and the three black shapes that came into the room.
“Come on out,” said one of them. His voice sounded soft and higher-pitched than she had expected. “Just make this easy on all of us. There ain’t no need in you starving. You come live with us and we’ll treat you right. I’ll be sweet to you. It’ll be a lot better than out there on your own.”
Ansela took the knife from her pocket and fingered the button. She rose up slowly from her crouched position. They wouldn’t be able to see her, anyway. She pressed the button with her thumb and used her other hand to ease the blade out instead of letting it spring open. If one of them got close enough, she could stab him. Maybe she could get out of this, after all. And if not, she could at least kill one or two of them before she cut her own throat.
“Come on,” said one of the other men. He was closer than she had expected. She felt her mind wanting to turn back in on itself again, but she resisted. She had to function now. She held her breath and jabbed thin air with the knife.
The man laughed. “I’ve got her right here. Come on, honey. Don’t make this hard.”
In the dark of his mind she saw what he planned to do to her when he caught her, and she nearly vomited.
“I’ve got something for––” the man with the high voice said, but he was cut off by the growl of an animal and a scream from near the door. A tearing sound and a thump. Had one of their dogs come after them?
“Mercer?” said the man nearest to Ansela. “Charlie? What is that?” That was enough to tell her where he was. She jabbed the knife again and felt the blade slip into his belly. He let out a low breath, almost a sigh. His hands groped in the dark, one of them finding her left arm and gripping it tight. She jabbed him again two more times, higher now, driving the blade as deep as she could.
“Help,” his voice gurgled.
More growls filled the room, and the third man screamed.