Monday, December 31, 2018

Blog Tour: Die Back by Richard Hacker (Fantasy Thriller)

DIE BACK by Richard Hacker, Fantasy/Thriller, 332 pp., $4.99 (kindle)

Title: DIE BACK (Book One of the Alchimeia)
Author: Richard Hacker
Publisher: Del Sol Press
Pages: 332
Genre: Fantasy/Thriller

In 272 AD Egypt, an enemy thwarts an attempt by League Inkers, Thomas Shaw and Nikki Babineaux, to obtain the Alchįmeia, a document holding alchemical secrets. Sensing his impending death, Thomas secures Nikki’s promise to keep his son, Addison, from the League, an organization defending the time continuum. After his father’s death, Addison inherits a mysterious pen, accidentally inking himself into the consciousness of a man who dies on a muddy WWI battlefield in France. Hoping to make sense of his experience, he confides in Nikki, his best friend and unknown to Addison, an Inker. Keeping her promise to Thomas, she discounts Addison’s experience.
Fixated on the pen, Addison inks into a B-17 bombardier in 1943. The pilot, whose consciousness has been taken over by someone calling himself Kairos, gloats over killing Addison’s father and boasts of plans to destroy the League. As Kairos attempts to wrest Addison’s consciousness, Nikki shocks Addison out of the Inking. She confesses her knowledge of  the League. When Kairos threatens to steal aviation technology, she she sends Addison and his partner, Jules, to an Army test of the Wright Flyer in 1908. Believing they have succeeded, they return to find the continuum shifted and Nikki knowing nothing about the League.

Inking back to his father’s mission in Alexandria, Addison and Jules hope to get his help in returning the time continuum to its original state. Instead, Addison’s father gives him the Alchįmeia to hide in a crypt at the Great Lighthouse on Phalos. On their return to the present a Kairos agent murders Jules, her consciousness Inked into the past. Addison follows the clues, Inking into Pizarro in 16th century Peru. He finds Jules in the child bride of the Inca emperor. His plan to find the technology and save Jules without destroying the Inca civilization is thwarted by a fleet of Inca airships. Captured, he is taken to Machu Picchu. With Jules help, they find the stolen schematics, but are confronted by Kairos. He stabs Addison, forcing Addison’s consciousness back to the present and traps Jules in the 16th Century. Addison returns to another altered world. Nikki no longer exists, the world is at war with the Inca, and Manhattan lay in ruins.

Addison Inks his father, learning the origins of the League. Thomas urges Addison to uncover their enemy with the help of his colleague, Maya. Putting suspicion on another inker,  Cameron, she insists he must be killing Inkers and acquiring Pens. In a final attempt to stop him, they entrap Cameron, only for Addison to discover Maya is Kairos, his enemy.  She kills Cameron, also wounding Addison.  He chases Maya, who intimates that she holds his mother’s, Rebecca’s, consciousness. Confused he delays, giving her time to scrawl a name with her pen before shooting her dead.

Inked away when Maya died, Kairos finds himself, not in his intended host, Hitler, but in a German infantry soldier POW in the Ardenne during the Battle of the Bulge, WWII. Hoping to repair the shift in the time continuum, Addison brings the League Pens together with the fate of the world and everyone he loves at stake. He awakens to a dissimilar world, but Jules and Nikki exist. And with life there is always hope.

First Chapter

I am an Inker. Without death my job goes undone. Like other Inkers, I plan for it, yearn for it while never loving it, but this time, death might well prove to be my doom. Alchemic algorithms placed my partner Nikki and I at the historic burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt, in 272 AD. We had inked ourselves into the consciousness of the right people—an arthritic librarian and his slave boy—and stole the Alchi̱meía papyrus scrolls for their rare alchemical formulas.
Our plan should have worked without a hitch. Instead, we are now faced with a severe obstacle: a massive Roman centurion in heavy scale armor, a member of Aurelian's legions currently sacking the city in an effort to defeat and demoralize Queen Zenobia. The centurion stands at least six foot three, his armor smeared with Egyptian blood, his mouth open and yelling at me, not in Latin, but with a voice oddly reminiscent of twentieth century New York:
"Stop, Inkahs!"
He blocks a narrow passageway of the library, holding an infantry gladius, a short-sword with a golden hilt, sunlight from the open courtyard glinting off his blade. There is no way forward or around him. White limestone walls on my left, stonework railing and black marble pillars on my right, and a long drop over those rails into the quadrangle. We are so screwed. I speak in the librarian's Coptic dialect.
"You must be mistaken, brave centurion." I nod to my partner, Nikki Babineaux, an athletic twenty-something woman present-side, but a small, twelve-year-old boy in this passageway. In our robes and sandals, an old man and a boy, we define defenseless. "I am a librarian and this boy is my slave."
American English with a New Jersey accent. Who is this guy? I feign confusion, continuing in Coptic, hoping to buy some time. "What is this word you use? Are you a foreigner?"
"Enough, Inkahs. Gimme the satchel!"
Nikki drops the pretense, shifting to twenty-first century English, "You know killing us won't do you any good."
"The satchel, ya little prick!"
Before I can stall, the New Jersey centurion surges forward, scale armor clattering against leather, his short sword poised to strike. Nikki dives to the right while I hurl myself toward the son of a bitch. His powerful forearm catches me in the chest like a cinder block, slamming me back against the wall. My vision blurs, but I see the boy jump to his feet, the satchel hanging from his shoulder. He tries an evasive head fake, but the centurion proves too quick in this narrow space, his blade piercing Nikki's side. The crack of breaking ribs echo down the passageway. Nikki sprawls to the floor with a shriek, and lies there moaning, crimson blood spreading from the wound. No, this was not going well at all.
"Goodbye, Inkahs." With a clean sweep of his blade, the centurion cuts the satchel loose. He rips the bag from Nikki, turns, and runs.
Who is this guy working for?
Whoever he is, I hope the bastard runs face first into a flaming arrow for his die back. I’m still winded and dazed, but I crawl over to Nikki. The boy opens his eyes, color draining from his face, the savage wound foaming with blood.
"Thomas—" He coughs a red mist. "We failed."
"We'll get another chance." I tear a piece of my robe away, placing the cloth under the boy's head. "We didn't expect a fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Roman centurion gear. I thought Aurelian's men were still out in the harbor burning the docks."
"Merde." The boy closes his eyes, grimacing. He swallows, opening his eyes again. "Wrong time, too."
An early die back is always a potential problem for Inkers, especially if the premature death alters the temporal flow. "You're supposed to get run over by a cart later today, but this will do."
Nikki manages a smile, a rivulet of blood dripping from the boy's mouth. "Bummed 'cause you won't get to throw me," he grimaces, taking in several quick breaths, “…under the wheels, mon ami?"
We always die, but I never get used to the final moments. "You're still pissed about me garroting you with a string from one of Puccini's violins? Thought you'd be honored. It was Puccini's string. Of course, you're the one who shoved me in the path of the Starlight Express."
Nikki, in the boy’s body, labors with each shallow breath. Reaching with a weak hand, the boy touches my arm. "Mind yourself, Thomas Shaw."
"I'll do my best." I lean in, the boy, just a few years younger than my own son, dying in front of me. I thought I would pass my legacy on to my son, but now I know differently. I can't let him walk into this hell. "Nikki, there's something you need to know, just in case."
"What are you talking about?"
"Just a hunch, but be on your guard present-side."
Nikki fought for another breath. "Compromised?"
I hold his gaze. "Someone I trust told me I'm dead."
"Does it matter?" Dying back into a dead body equals dead. Permanently dead.
“Who…kills you, Thomas?"
"My friend didn't know. But keep an eye on Cameron."
Nikki winces, blood oozing between lips thin with pain. "I know…you have history, but Cameron?"
Yeah, we definitely have some history. "I'll never forgive him, but the League sanctioned his actions, so that's the end of it. Besides, I don't even know if he's the threat. It could be anyone. But Cameron has…well, he's killed before. Just watch your six. Five bucks says we'll be drinking a beer together, laughing about all this, in a few minutes. And if not…"
Nikki tugs at my sleeve. "No, mon ami."
We lock eyes. "If not, I made some arrangements. Renascentia is safe, but…my son. I've changed my mind. Find someone else. He's been through enough already."
"He's stronger…than you think."
"No. We assumed we were just dealing with a rogue, but our enemy is proving far more malicious than we thought possible. Addison would be risking everything. His very existence. You have to promise you'll keep him away from all of this, Nikki. Promise me."
Nikki glances at the wound, sucking in air through clenched teeth, then exhales. "I don't know, Thomas… Ahhh.” The boy moans, squeezing my hand with his remaining strength. "Doesn't know League. When he does…" His chest rattles with each breath.
"Addison's strong, but he's in pain. If I'm gone he'll need you, Nikki. I'm counting on you. Keep him out. Got it?"
"Copacetíc…," he chokes up more blood, "mon…ami."
“There’s a letter. You’ve got to get it from my lawyer.” A hiss of breath leaves the boy’s blue tinged lips. “Nikki?”
His grip slackens and I’m looking into vacant eyes. I stop talking.
Nikki has died back. I should have held her after we'd made love on her favorite red chaise lounge last night, her scent still a precious memory. I should have stayed the night with you, Nikki.
"Forgive me, my darling."
Footfalls echo around me. I rise turning just in time to see another Roman soldier close enough to smell his sour sweat mixed with blood. Without a word, he drives his blade through my heart. A savage pain explodes in my chest, dissolving to nothingness as my mind leaves the old man’s body.


Thomas stirred, now removed from the “I” of the old librarian, after-images of Alexandria flashing in his mind: Nikki’s dying breath, the grand sweep of sunlight outside the Great Library, the intense burning pain of a sword tip thrust through his host’s chest. He took in a gulp of air, his eyes fluttering open. A moment of disorientation before the tumblers fell into place.
He scanned the desk of his study, pen still in hand, his eyes registering a figure across from him. Blue jeans, tee-shirt, Asian, leaning on the desk, his veined arms rippled with lean muscle. The figure spoke.
“Don’t you want to ask me who I am, Thomas?”
Their eyes locked on each other’s. Thomas suspected the mind behind those eyes belonged to another—an Inker from the past.
“Not really.”
The man laughed, stepping back from the desk as if he had dropped by for a casual visit.
“I’ll give you one thing, Thomas. You do have…what is the word…a man in Juarez begged me not to cut them off. What was it? Cojones! Yes, you have cojones.” He scowled. “Your feigned courage in the face of certain destruction. Very moving.” His eyes flashed to the pen in Thomas’ right hand. “Good, I see you’ve got your pen for me. Excellent.”
Thomas kept his eyes on the intruder, all the while inching his left hand toward the gun in his desk drawer. The man’s eyes flitted to Thomas’ gun hand as he swung the weapon up. With a speed Thomas didn’t anticipate, the man leaped on the desk, and with a violent swipe of his foot, sent the gun smashing into the wall, the knee of his other leg crashing into Thomas’ face, slamming him, chair and all, to the floor.
Thomas lay still for a moment, dazed. Then he rose with slow, deliberate movements, pain hammering his head.
“So, who do you think I am, Thomas?” His attacker had stepped off the desk and now danced like a boxer waiting for an opportune moment to plant a combination punch.
Nose broken, blood pouring down his face, Thomas maneuvered to keep the desk between them. “One of Cameron’s hired guns, I imagine. Been expecting you.”
The man stopped dancing, putting his hands on his hips, cocking his head. “Expecting me? Oh, you’re talking about the two dead sentinels in your back garden.”
Thomas had posted two Inkers at the house to prevent this very thing. Crap. “What did you do?”
He glared at Thomas. “Terrible how some people lose their heads at the first sign of trouble.”
“You didn’t?”
He smiled with a chuckle. “I’m afraid I did.”
“My…God. Cameron wouldn’t…Who are you?”
“My name is Kairos. I’m the one who is going to kill you and destroy your League.”
Kairos had been a threat in the past, but the League had stopped him. No, it can’t be. Too much has been sacrificed. Rage and grief exploded from Thomas. Crying out, he hurled himself at the man, but a fist slammed into his chest with an unexpected ferocity, the sternum fracturing with a loud, crack! Reeling back, his knee exploded in agony as he went airborne, slamming to the floor on his back with a forceful thud. He tried to move, but the grinding of his fractured sternum and the throbbing jolts of pain from his knee slowed him down. Kairos grabbed Thomas’ feet. He heard the sound of his own agonized cry of pain as something outside of his body. He took in a breath, willing himself to focus. Kairos dragged him down the hallway. Thomas’ head banging across the floor, he reached for door jambs, furniture, anything to slow Kairos’ progress. But each time he resisted, Kairos twisted the broken knee, causing Thomas to break his hold, screaming in torment.
At the open basement door, Kairos dropped Thomas’ legs. The world constricted to a small dark space filled with anguish. In the distance he heard his attacker.
“Stay with me, Thomas. I don’t want you to miss the finale!”
Kairos levered him up against the wall, each movement a hundred knife wounds slashing his broken body. He opened his eyes to his attacker’s dark, angry gaze. In a labored voice, Thomas spoke.
“You. Won’t. Succeed.”
“Oh, but I will, Thomas. After I kill you, I will kill every League Inker until I have possession of the five pens.”
Every League Inker? No! Through the pain, a panic crossed Thomas’ face.
“Not…Addison. Not…Inker.”
“The son of the great Thomas Shaw?”
He grabbed Thomas by the shirt, dragging him to the open door.
“Don’t worry another moment. Once I have your pen which you have so kindly left for me—” He shoved Thomas down the staircase. Slamming into a wall, Thomas’ ribs cracking against a handrail only for his battered body to flip, shattering his jaw against a stair tread, Kairos’ words taunting him as he fell.
He slid across several steps upside down, and rolled, the broken knee punching a hole with explosive force in the wall.
Thomas tumbled, limbs askew, the concrete floor rushing toward him…


Kairos went down the steps to the body crumpled at the lower landing, his victim’s head and limbs twisted awkwardly. After checking for a pulse to be certain the deed had been done, Kairos returned to the study for Thomas’ pen. The League had five pens which, individually, enabled an Inker to transfer his consciousness to someone living in the past. But together… Ah, together the pens will create new continua. Imagine, the power to forge a new world at my fingertips! He expected to gather Thomas’ pen from his desk, but instead, he found a green puddle of melted acrylic, alloy, and ink.
The son of a bitch built a self-destructing pen?
Enraged, he tore through the study, pulling out drawers, ripping books off shelves, checking floorboards, but turned up nothing. Even in death Thomas had managed to be a thorn in his side. He considered scouring the entire house, but if Thomas had the forethought to create a self-destructing pen, he certainly wouldn’t leave the real pen somewhere vulnerable. Besides, he had a better idea.
His current host, Kwan, a martial arts instructor from San Francisco, had come in handy, killing Thomas and the other two Inkers. But now he needed a host with a bit more finesse. He got in Kwan’s car, driving the short distance to Seattle’s Sunset Park overlooking Puget Sound. With Thomas dead, surely his son would take up his duty as an Inker, which means, the young man would certainly have the pen. He pulled a Glock 17 from the glovebox, and dropped the sun visor to gaze into the vanity mirror, Kairos’ consciousness giving fire to Kwan’s eyes. He smiled at the thought of ripping the life out of Thomas’ boy, Addison, once he had acquired his pen.
Time to get to work.
Placing the gun’s muzzle over Kwan’s heart, he fired. For a brief moment Kwan’s consciousness rose to the surface, filled with the panic of a man who had no idea of where he was, how he got there, or why a gaping hole gushed crimson blood all over him and the dash of his car. His last awareness, a consciousness not his own whispering by, as his own life sputtered to darkness.

Richard Hacker is a longtime resident of Austin, Texas who now writes and lives in Seattle.

His writing has been recognized by the Writer’s League of Texas and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. In addition to his writing, he provides editing services to other writers and is the editor of an online science fiction and fantasy journal, Del Sol Review. His three published humorous crime novels ride the sometimes thin line between fact and fiction in Texas. DIE BACK, his first fantasy thriller novel, has been published by Del Sol Press.

When not writing he’s singing in a vocal jazz ensemble, cooking with a sous vide and a blow torch, or exploring the Pacific Northwest with his wife and his springer spaniel, Jazz.

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Twitter Link: @Richard_Hacker
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