EMPIRE OF RUIN: New release, coming to Kickstarter soon. Get a sneak peek here!
Empire of Ruin: Illustrated Special Edition Hardback
Romeo & Juliet meet Norse mythology in this YA fantasy where the world is invaded by mythical dragons, hunting for their lost queen.
For fans of Cold Mountain and Winter's Bone and stories with a Southern voice, for those who love strong women characters who can survive against all odds and who will do whatever's necessary to save those they love.
What is Kickstarter?
For many authors, both independent and traditional, Kickstarter has become a great place to launch new books and special edition books. When I run a campaign, backers (readers) can purchase a digital book or a print book before these items go on sale in other retail outlets. Also, there are often extras like bookmarks, stickers, digital character cards, digital maps from the story, and PDF coloring books. If you want, you can check out my previous campaigns for Valiant here and Fathom here.
EMPIRE OF RUIN is a new book and the launch will be done on Kickstarter in 2024. Look below for a sneak peek preview of the first chapter and some of the color illustrations that will be in the hardback. Stretch goal for this book include: Gold foil on the dust jacket, 2-page color map, select 2-page color illustrations, and a 2-page color spread of character cards.
LEFT: Charlotte Buchanan, the main character and the narrator in EMPIRE OF RUIN. She lives in a small village in the Appalachian Mountains and the book is told in her unique Southern voice.
Chapter One Excerpt
There should have been a warning—a crow perched outside our door or a strange color in the sky. My sister should’ve known it the moment we woke up. She’s the one who reads signs in the weather and makes healing potions. But none of us knew this was the morning everything was going to change.
Smokey fog clung like spider webs in the hollow, the sun bristled through stands of red spruce and balsam fir, and the fragrance of oatmeal and molasses filled our cabin. The three of us sat quiet at the table, listening for any news on the radio. On a good day, we could pick up an AM station in Wheeling, West Virginia. This was back when you could still get batteries at the general store, and when there was still enough people alive to broadcast the news.
Static crackled. Voices from far away spoke in short sentences, then faded out. That was all we ever got. Bits and pieces of what was happening.
“The sky above Atlanta has been filled with smoke for three days and the fires are spreading—”
“Dust storms are sweeping across Kentucky and Virginia and already two cities have been lost—”
“Captives are being taken in Knoxville. There are rumors they’re being tortured—”
“Chicago and Los Angeles are ghost towns—”
“The president is rallying our troops, trying to gather up the remaining Army, Navy, and Air Force, but communication is becoming increasingly difficult. And there are rumors that we have no way to fight against the Invaders—”
“No one has heard from anyone in Europe for two weeks—”
You could only stand to hear so much bad news at a time, so Daddy turned off the radio, then scraped the last of the oatmeal out of his bowl. He glanced at me, gave me a grin, and said, “You ready to check our traps, Charlotte?”
“‘Course I am,” I answered with a nod.
My younger sister Liza set our dishes in the sink. I knew she didn’t want to come with us. She hated to see anything die. But at the last minute, just as we was about to head out the door, she grabbed her satchel and caught up with us. “Can we stop at the store?” she asked. “We’re almost out of molasses.”
I knew she was lying by the way she held her head and the fact that she wouldn’t look me in the eyes. I knew what she really wanted. Daddy probably knew what was on her mind too, because his eyes shadowed and the expression on his face became unreadable.
“Sure, sweet pea,” he said.
Like most of our Appalachian neighbors, we had a truck but rarely used it. Instead, we walked almost everywhere, a habit that was paying off now that gas was next to impossible to get. The hike to the store took us near an hour and led down one hollow and up the other side. We passed Aunt Rachel’s place on the way and saw her outside hanging laundry, all five of her dogs barking a greeting at us. I was hoping to see one of my cousins, but they must have all been out fishing for their dinner.
“Those dogs might cause her a problem later,” Daddy mumbled.
I stopped to scruff the neck of Beau, her big yellow lab, wondering how dogs could be a problem. Far as I was concerned, they was one of the few animals that was essential. They helped you hunt, warned off strangers, and protected you from wild beasts. On top of that, they kept you warm on long winter nights. About the only problem I could think of was fleas.
Unfortunately, fleas was part of life here.
The small town of Ridgecrest opened up in front of us a few minutes later, trees giving way to houses, the trail becoming a narrow street. Despite everything that’s been happening in the rest of the world, our mountain community has remained almost unchanged. Sure, we lost electricity about six months ago when all our solar panels failed. Dust storms didn’t reach us up here, not really, but apparently there was enough dust in the atmosphere to stop almost all of our machines.
It took us a while to get used to that.
Some of the richer folks had to figure out how to build outhouses, we all get our water from wells or springs now, and none of us have refrigerators, but we’re managing. Daddy and me trade game—mostly rabbits, squirrels and fox, plus Liza’s herbs and potions—down at the General Store for sweet potatoes, corn, and molasses. From what I’ve heard, the rest of the United States has been living on scraps, looting grocery stores and stealing from each other, and about half the people in the North done froze to death last winter, since there wasn’t enough fuel. Jake Blackburn told me that the few people left alive have resorted to cannibalism, but I don’t believe him. He was just trying to scare me and it didn’t work.
Only one thing scares me.
I usually go in the other room whenever people start talking about them. I’ve been having nightmares ever since the first reported sightings was announced over the radio. Mainly because that was back when we still had electricity and I stopped by Aunt Rachel’s and she had her TV on. I haven’t been back inside her house since.
I saw the Invaders. Somebody in South America managed to take a video when Rio was invaded, then posted it on the Internet. A day or so later it was on all the newscasts, on every channel.
They wasn’t human.
They stood a little taller than we did, had two arms and two legs—just like us—but their skin was more like that of a chameleon. Rough and lizard like, it changed color depending on the environment. One minute it’d be gray, when they stood in front of a building, and the next it’d be a mottled brown and green, when they stood beside a tree.
Nobody knew where they came from or how they got here, ‘cept for the fact that they didn’t come in spaceships. Best explanation I heard so far came from some scientist on NPR. He said they’re creatures from another world and they found some way to get here by traveling through dimensions, instead of space. His theory was there are invisible doorways that lead from their world to ours, and they just walked right through, like they was invited. Nobody knows how to close the doors or how many there are or why the Invaders even came here in the first place. The only thing we know for sure is that they’re here now and they want us dead.
Well, ‘cept for the few humans they want to torture and eat.
That was all I knew, because that would be when I left the room.
Liza jostled into me, drawing me back into the present. The store was just a short distance away, my hair was hanging heavy down my back, and I was glad to be out of the forest for a few minutes, away from the mosquitoes. I missed the song of the birds though. I could never live far from the forest. Even the short amount of time I spend in the village felt too long. Daddy stopped to talk to Mr. Kooper and Old Man Miller and Reverend Jackson, so Liza and me went inside the store by ourselves.
I wanted to come here. I had to keep reminding myself that. Meanwhile, I stayed close to the door.
Clusters of people was gathered throughout the room, all of them chattering away in low tones, saying things I didn’t want to hear.
“My cousin used to live in Atlanta. He lost an arm to the Invaders last winter, when they came a-feasting—”
“Ain’t no more troops coming. The folks back in Washington done gave up on us. I heard they went and hid in some underground bunker—”
“The president’s dead, I knowed it. That’s why we’re in such a god-awful mess here—”
Liza pushed her way through the people—there was always a lot of people in the store nowadays—until she stood before the wall on the far side of the room. I was hoping that if I watched the expression on her face that would be enough. But I didn’t have to wait for that, because she let out a small cry.
“Who is it?” I asked. I began elbowing my way closer to her.
She shook her head, not speaking.
The board appeared before me, a whole wall of notes and maps and lists. This was where everyone posted what they heard, since we only got our information in bits and pieces. Could be nobody else had heard what we heard on the radio this morning. Could be somebody from two villages down the mountain found out something. A map of the United States spread across the middle of the board, ripped on the edges from being touched so often. You could barely tell where the boundaries was between the states, because so many of us been writing things on it in marker.
Invaders spotted here, April 28.
Jocelyn Barnes died here, November 1.
Six thousand people done froze to death here on February 10.
And all the cities that had fallen had a big black X over the top.
But my sister wasn’t looking at the map, so I didn’t either. She stared at the list of people who done gone missing—it was half a page longer than the last time we was in here two weeks ago. Then I saw it, right at the end of the list, a name that made my skin turn to ice. Jeremy Francis. The boy Liza’s had a crush on since grade school. A short note, probably written in his mother’s hand, followed his name:
Jeremy and Luke Francis—gone missing. Last seen on Tuesday. They was both heading towards the river and said they was gone fishing. Neither one of them done come home yet.
Tears began to fall down my sister’s cheeks. I must have been in shock, because I couldn’t breathe. If you added these two boys to the list, it made a total of seven teenagers who’d gone missing from our community in the past month. First was Agnes Boone, then John Hurley. A week later, Will Sizemoor went to visit his uncle over in Beehive Hollow and never came back. Then just last week, Taylor and Tyler, the Walden twins disappeared in the middle of the night, without leaving a note. They didn’t even take jackets or food or a rifle. And both those boys loved to hunt. I couldn’t imagine either one of them without a gun in one hand and a slingshot in their back pocket.
A hand rested on my shoulder. At first I thought it was Daddy and he was going to tell us it was time to go home. I swung around, ready to leave this place and all the sadness it carried. I think some part of me hoped that one day I’d walk in here and everything would be normal again. I’d be able to go back to school, finish up my senior year and then get ready for college next fall. I’d get to spend the night at Violet’s house and we’d stay up late, laughing and whispering secrets, like we used to. But there wasn’t enough time to visit with Violet anymore. Now that Daddy wasn’t working in the coal mine—nobody was going to work anymore, nobody was getting paid and money didn’t buy anything anyway—I had to work the traps with him and try to get our fallow field to grow tobacco and corn and peas.
So, I was prepared to see Daddy’s face, all carved with hidden meaning after his meeting with the local leaders of the Mountain Militia.
But it was Rob Jackson instead.
I stumbled, just a bit, and tried to look over his shoulder instead of in his eyes, but it was hard since he’s so dang tall.
“Jeremy and Luke are missing,” he said, a heaviness in his words. Luke was one of his best friends. There was a time, awhile back, when Luke and Violet, Rob and me used to hang out together. We’d go down to the river and stretch our legs in the water, the boys teasing us about going skinny-dipping. Violet and I would just laugh and say, As if the son of Reverend Jackson’s gonna bare his backside in front of two innocent young girls. Rob would raise his eyebrows and then chase us down the riverbank, right past the spot where all the frogs hunker down in the mud.
By the time we was done, all four of us would be soaked to the skin and Rob would have his long arms around my waist. I’d lean in, close my eyes, and his lips would find mine, and I would forget about everything else.
That was last summer. So much had changed since then.
I swallowed stiffly, not sure what to say. My sister wouldn’t stop crying and I knew I had to get her out of there. I took her by the hand and pulled her toward the door. “Come on now,” I said. “Let’s get you some fresh air.”
Rob put one arm around her shoulder and helped me—for that I was truly grateful. But the moment we stepped into the sunshine and I saw that Daddy was still having a heated debate with the Reverend and Old Man Miller—well, then I wasn’t so glad that Rob was with me.
Reverend Jackson lifted his head, focused those ice blue eyes on me and he stopped their conversation in an instant. He had a way of always being in charge, whether he was in the pulpit at Free Will Baptist, chanting another one of his sermons, or whether he was in a crowd, dispensing his political views, or whether he was on a street corner, discussing the right way to win our country back from those Invaders.
“Did you get the supplies I sent you in there for, boy?” he asked Rob.
Daddy turned around, saw Liza in tears and Rob with one arm around her and he reacted near as bad. “Charlotte, you need to take your sister up to the Community Center and get settled in. Right now.”
“But I thought we had to check the traps—” I started to say.
“I can do it myself. You two are staying in town.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Blast it, child! Just do as you’re told.”
Liza hadn’t stopped crying and normally that alone would have melted Daddy’s heart. On any other day, he’d have left Old Man Miller, Reverend Jackson, and Mr. Kooper right there with their jaws hanging open. He wouldn’t have cared what they thought.
That was how I knew something really bad was going on.
“Hush, now,” I said to my sister as I led her up toward the center of town. I glanced back at Rob. He gave me a quick shrug, a puzzled expression on his face as he joined the group of men gathering in the street.
I had a feeling whatever was going on had something to do with either the missing kids or the dust storms or the Invaders. Or maybe all three. Whatever it was, Daddy must have figured the trail back to our homestead was a bad place to be. Small as our land was, at a mere seven acres, it sat right at the head of the Old Canyon Pass. There was no other way in or out of our valley.
Someone, or something, must be coming up the mountain.