Work has just begun on a new series I'm developing tentatively called The Warrior Trials, a sword and sorcery adventure following Nanoc, a young prince who must overcome seven deadly challenges to ascend to his father's throne.
I have also completed the final draft of a new young adult novel entitled The Last Disciple about a 15-year old boy lured by a seductive, beautiful Goth girl into a cult set on destroying the world. The two-part first novel is the beginning of the Children of Chaos series. I also need a literary agent to represent this work. Here is opening prologue of Book One:
The Last Disciple (unpublished - seeking literary representation)
By J.B. Struzzi II
“We are the ones we have been waiting for,” The Elders of the Hopi
When the conflagration comes, the deafening sound is the roar and hiss of a thousand angry asps; a hushing suck as air is devoured by voracious, prejudiced flames. Some say fire can have a will, a purpose - striking with vengeance and fury, stealing the souls of little boys asleep in the night.
And sometimes, ashes are not all that remain.
The Ohio River, west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1914
The undulating currents move like a mesmerized serpent. Captain Henry Stokes curses his ill luck as he guides the pitching riverboat slowly through the murky, surging waters. A brief shimmer of moonlight cuts through the black storm clouds casting pale streaks of white over high crests of choppy waves breaking hard against the bow. He peers through the pilot’s window with mounting concern, coarse hairs on the nape of his thick neck rigid with instinctive apprehension.
He is not a man given easily to fear, but something about this night sends a chilling shudder through his bones.
A sudden gust of heavy wind, laden with rain, batters the riverboat. Navigational instruments crash to the floor. Stokes spins the wheel to counter the rocking ship against the storm’s increasing vehemence.
“A curse on the demons this eve should me eyes ne’r again see the mornin’ light,” he snarls.
The night is unnatural; above the river valley eerie banks of dark storm clouds move with uncanny purpose across the shadowed face of the moon making navigation difficult through the twisting channels and swirling eddies. The bell outside the wheelhouse rings though its chime is deadened by the forceful rain and harsh, shifting wind. A devil’s night for seafaring, old timers would say, when Mother Nature silences the bells.
Stokes rubs the gray stubble on his rigid jaw scowling at the unruly waters ahead again condemning his misfortune. He had made the trip before and though he frowned on coming this far north late in the season, the price offered for the delivery by the museum’s curator made it difficult to refuse. Travel along the entire route was challenging; berated by the elements, the boat was becoming more and more difficult to control in the swelling water’s fierce currents. Large rivers can be more arduous to navigate than high seas in a fall storm. Stokes’ experience tells him to dock or anchor for the night in a quiet bay given the imminent danger he senses like a cocked pistol within the focused storm, but the expensive cargo the boat carries must reach Pittsburgh by first light if he has any hope of collecting the other half of his payment.
Stokes studies the distant shoreline from the wheelhouse for landmarks and lights. An occasional break in the heavy clouds overhead allows the stars to shine through giving slender hope of promise, but the grizzled river man knows it will be a long night surviving the muddy, violent waters of the Ohio through dawn. He checks the navigation map; there is no way he will make Pittsburgh by morning if he doesn’t press on, consequences be damned.
A brutal fist of rain breaks forcefully against the wheelhouse windows. Stokes crosses himself, wondering if greed might soon be his undoing. He thinks back to a month ago when the deal was made, the payment offered by the curator illuminating Stokes’ surly face like the occasional break of lightning flashing overhead. The experienced captain knew a late season trip from the southern coastline to the north would be difficult, but he couldn’t refuse; any sane man facing the gambling debts he owed would make the same choice.
As he sat in his office weeks earlier watching the delivery trucks from the overseas vessel pull up to the dock near his boat, an odd flush like a hot breath of fire from an opened brick oven swept over Stokes. The cargo boxes the men loaded onto his boat were emblazoned with hieroglyphics. Stokes had seen the ancient Egyptian language when he served as a merchant marine many years ago. Seeing the strange cargo, something deep in his conscience told him to cancel the contract, give the first half of the payment back to the curator, and walk away. Instead, he shook it off as an old man’s paranoid superstition.
Staring out over the ravaged bow at the heaving waters ahead, Stokes eyes the mysterious crates strapped to the deck. The heavy load weighs the ship down, making it even more difficult to control. He purses his lips and twitches, muttering a sailor’s curse. With the rain beating down and the river continuing to bulge with brown water pouring in from tributaries, perhaps he should have trusted his instincts in New Orleans.
Stokes presses his knees to the wheel to keep it steady, freeing his hands to quickly rub the fatigue from his eyes. He readjusts his hat and sparks his pipe, calculating another two hours at least before he reaches the port in Pittsburgh. Because of his strapped finances, Stokes only hired two deck hands for the trip. Both men - boys really because he couldn’t afford experienced sailors - slept beneath the deck.
The cloud cover overhead intensifies. Chewing nervously on his pipe stem, Stokes suddenly finds himself navigating in coal black waters. The bow lantern provides little guidance, but the stalwart captain presses on. Slowing the boat to a crawl, he squints to see through the darkness as the boat shakes and shudders.
“Cursed saints,” he mutters under his breath as the angry river surges over the bow sending streams of frothing water rushing down the deck. Stokes shakes his head again, questioning his wits: He should have retired a few years back and sold the boat, the days of lucrative riverboat shipping were dwindling anyway.
The storm’s ferocity increases, dark waters swell, tossing the wayward boat like driftwood. Stokes turns sharply, a loud crack of thunder shattering outside the deckhouse window. Lightning strikes the river near his boat. Winds rise to hurricane force spinning and pounding the waters into a boiling frenzy as if agitated by a finger from the sky. Stokes clamps his jaw tight and grips the wheel hard knuckles bone white trying to keep the boat from crashing against the jagged rocks along the shallow shoreline. Black smoke pumps from the stacks as the boat resists the raging currents. Her engine can’t take much more aggression from the river.
Visibility becomes nearly impossible as wave after wave of belligerent rain batters the windows. Churning waters rock the boat like a child’s toy and every few minutes Stokes is forced into a desperate maneuver to avoid a fallen tree the storm has tossed into the river. The engine grinds to near collapse fighting the shifting currents. Forearms cramping against the strain of the wheel, Stokes musters every ounce of strength he has just to keep her afloat. But the captain knows his boat’s limit and is about to concede to the river’s will and steer the craft into safer waters when something occurs that would chill his bones for the rest of his living days.
A ragged, heavy bolt of lightning shoots down from the sky striking the river directly in front of the boat. Stokes watches eyes wide as the water where the bolt hit suddenly begins to rise upward, uncoiling like a twisted asp to a snake charmer’s flute. The roping tendril, sparking with electric current, spirals upward solidifying as it climbs high into the sky. Stokes’ mouth drops open, head moving side to side in disbelief, his mind playing tricks on itself unable to fathom what the eyes see. He has sailed the icy waters of the Arctic Circle, battled monsoons around the horn of Africa and braved dangerous channels in the south Pacific, but never experienced natural waters reacting like this. Captured inside the rising body of water fish and other river creatures flash by in the light cast by the boat’s lantern. Stokes is a simple, sturdy man who gives little concession to panic and hysteria, but for a brief second, as his sanity tries to grasp what he sees forming on the river, he wants to let go of the wheel and flee below deck.
The towering mass of water stands nearly fifty feet high, the fluid head of a serpent forming at its top. Two piercing eyes open, a fiery red glare raining down upon the boat.
“What devil is this?” Stokes shouts above the raging wind. He begins mumbling a forgotten prayer he hasn’t spoken for years as the giant snake formed of spiraling water looms above the riverboat. “Holy Mary mother of…”
The serpent strikes.
Stokes yanks the wheel starboard as hard as he can. The boat shows little reaction in the powerful waters, turning only slightly as the beast attacks. Stokes braces for impact.
The storm has finally woken one of the hired hands deciding at that moment to brave the deck. The mistake will be his last. Stokes grimaces as thick coils of water slam into the side of his boat. Chunks of wooden deck splinter and the metal railing collapses, the force of the blow instantly sweeping the stunned man overboard. But Stokes gives no pause for the loss of a deck hand; he is concerned for his cargo.
Attempting to withstand the impact caused by the attack, the boat tosses back and forth like an apple in a bucket. Stokes curses again as he hears a loud twang. One of the binding cords around the museum cargo has snapped. Growling under his breath, he watches a small crate loosened by the lost binding cord tumble over the side into the turbulent river.
As if a switch is thrown, the storm subsides the instant the crate hits the water. The serpent, or whatever it had been, is gone. The rain ceases and clouds part, soft moonlight shining down on waters still trembling from the odd storm’s impact.
Stokes has seen many strange things in his time as a seaman and now as a riverboat captain, but nothing terrifies him to the core like the scene just witnessed. He knows in his weary bones the creature he saw was raised straight from the depths of hell. Though not a churchgoing man, Stokes feels it might be time to pay the good Lord a visit.
As he continues downstream, the weathered old man contemplates turning the boat around for the lost cargo. But it is nowhere to be seen and he has already lost too much time. He’ll take the loss for his boat and sanity. The distant lights of city come into focus ahead. Whatever the box with Egyptian inscriptions contained, it is now sunk deep into the muddy bottom of the Ohio River.