The Judgment of the Sentinels tips the scales as the series heavyweight at over 90,000 words and brings to a satisfying close the epic journey of Albert and Brandy and friends that began two years ago when I first published The Box on Smashwords. I've collected a lot of reviews on Amazon, in that time (over 50!) and a sizeable majority of those reviews tell me that my readers really like my books! Hopefully, we will have a long and happy future together!
What follows is a brief excerpt from the book. In the past, I've simply posted the first chapter or two, but I've cut this one down so as not to give away too much of what happened in book 5, because the absence of my name on the New York Times Bestsellers List is a pretty decent indication that not everyone has read it yet. Of course, if you're really concerned about spoilers, you might still want to stop here and go finish the other five books.
The Temple of the Blind was more than any of them had ever dreamed. But all of it, from the first sentinel statues with their grotesque proportions and empty, featureless faces, to the tower with its vast belly full of fire, was only gray stone and shadow. What awaited them at the end of this final passage was far more.
A soft glow greeted them as they approached, like the first light of a new day. But it was no sunrise. They emerged from the labyrinth and stood beneath a sky that was as black and as empty as the tunnels they had left behind them. Rising into this pitch-black sky was a great, gray mountain. The light was coming not from the horizon, lending hope to some distant sun, but from the mountain itself. Columns of fire blazed from hundreds of unseen vents in the stone, illuminating its rocky face in an angry undulation of light and shadow, and from its highest peak spewed a towering inferno of orange and yellow flames.
More fires rose up from cracks in the ground on either side of them, scattering the shadows at their feet and lending a dreadful hue to the path on which they walked. It was as if they had finally descended all the way down into the blazing pits of hell.
“Where are we?” asked Nicole. “What is this place?”
“The Temple of the Blind,” Albert replied, still staring up at the burning mountain. It was the most frightful place he had ever seen, far more terrifying than any scene from any movie. “It’s inside there. All of it. This is what it looks like from outside.”
Brandy gazed up at the mountain, confused. “But the Temple of the Blind is underground…”
“In our world, maybe. Not here.”
Andrea turned in a circle, her wide eyes taking everything in. “We’re in a different world?”
“We’re in the Wood,” said Olivia, her voice edged with unmistakable anxiety.
“How can you tell?” asked Nicole.
“It has the same sky.”
All of them lifted their faces toward the darkness above them. It could have been nothing more than an overcast night sky, but it wasn’t. Peering up, they could somehow tell that it was utterly empty. An eternal abyss filled the heavens here, and looking into it was deeply unsettling.
“I don’t like it here,” Brandy decided.
“You don’t get used to it,” Olivia assured her. She recalled cowering beneath the fallen night trees, staring out into this perpetually empty darkness, trying to decide if a place this black could really exist or if she had been struck blind in her fall through the branches.
Last time she looked into this sky, Wayne came to rescue her. It broke her heart to know that he wouldn’t be coming again.
Albert scanned the landscape. A pool of rippling water stood between them and the rocky terrain at the base of the mountain. The smooth, right-angle edges of the temple’s interior were not apparent here. This stone was raw, rough, indistinguishable from any other natural formation except for the fire belching from it.
These flames also illuminated the road ahead. It surged from fissures in the stone, hot columns of fire reaching for the sky, lighting the way so that, for the first time since he descended into the steam tunnels the previous evening, he did not need a flashlight to see.
But Albert found little comfort in the light. Inside that mountain was coiled every passage they had traveled during the night, and countless more they never glimpsed. He thought of all that they’d already been through, all that they’d accomplished. And still there was no end in sight. How much farther would they be forced to go? How much more would they have to endure?
“What are we supposed to do next?” asked Olivia.”
“Good question,” replied Albert. “Follow the path, I guess. See where it takes us.”
“The Sentinel Queen’s doorway?” wondered Andrea.
“It’s a fair assumption,” reasoned Albert. “Somewhere on this mountain, I guess.”
Nicole groaned. “I don’t want to. I’m exhausted.”
Brandy checked her watch and saw that it was already lunch time. “I’m starving.”
“Me too,” said Nicole.
Olivia was hungry, too, but she didn’t want to say so. It hadn’t slipped her attention that she was by far the chubbiest person here. The last thing she wanted was to be the fat girl whining for food.
She hated that they had to be naked. Why? What was the reason? Was it just to torture them? Was everything just to torture them?
“I’m mostly thirsty,” said Andrea. “Do you think the water’s safe to drink?”
“I have no idea,” replied Albert as he took some cleaning wipes from the first aid kit. He didn’t think he’d want to drink the water here. Who knew what might be in it.
“The water is safe.”
All five of them turned at the sound of this new voice to find the Keeper standing with them, half-concealed in the shadows with its back to the rocks, as if it’d been there all along and they simply hadn’t noticed.
Olivia let out a startled scream and leapt to her feet, covering herself as if embarrassed to be caught naked out here. Andrea sprang to her feet as well, ready to run, although she somehow managed not to scream. Though they had both listened to Albert’s description of the strange little creature back inside the labyrinth, neither of them had actually seen the Keeper with her own eyes until now. There was simply no way to prepare for a sight as strange as this. Even Albert, Brandy and Nicole, who had already once weathered the shock of its creepy appearance, were startled to their feet by the abruptness of this unexpected visit.
Clearly, the Keeper wasn’t one to call first.
“How did you get here?” Albert asked the little creature. He didn’t think it was possible to go back the way they came, and he thought that was the only way out of the labyrinth.
Like before, its voice was clear, but broken and hoarse. Even its vocal cords did not seem to be human. “I didn’t.”
This reply caught Albert off guard. It didn’t make sense. “What?”
Also like before, its head began to rotate, its chin circling toward the black sky, the crown of its head toward the ground. “It’s unimportant.”
“Of course it is.” Brandy and Nicole crowded behind him, peering over his shoulders. Nearby, Olivia and Andrea stood side-by-side as well, ready to bolt should the unusual creature with the oversized skin and the strange little head that tilted on the wrong axis suddenly decide to bare vicious fangs and charge at them. All four remained silent, leaving Albert to address the Keeper alone.
“Why are you here, then?”
“I’m here to ensure that you finish your journey.”
Albert cocked his head, confused. “Oh. Okay. Well, we didn’t exactly think we had a choice in the matter at this point.”
“I had no doubt you would keep going,” the Keeper clarified. “What I remain unsure of is whether you can survive to reach the top.”
“So we don’t exactly have your full confidence, then. How reassuring.”
Brandy gripped his arm. Albert sounded angry and she was afraid for him. They still had no idea what this “Keeper” was or what its intentions might be. But at the same time, he deserved to be angry. This was all so frustrating.
“The path ahead is treacherous,” explained the Keeper. It now wore its face sideways. Its left ear was aimed at the ground. The loose flesh protruding from its jowls and forehead distorted grotesquely as it slid across its features, heeding the pull of gravity. The shriveled mass of dark flesh dangling from its chin jiggled with each word it spoke. “You will be tested.”
“Why?” asked Albert. “Why are we here? What’s the purpose?”
“The purpose is simply to reach the doorway at the top of the mountain.”
“Is that all?”
“You are the final pieces in an ancient design,” the Keeper explained. “Long ago, long before mankind ever set foot in your world, a race of creatures you now call ‘the sentinels’ passed judgment on all mankind. But they, Those Without Faces, did not share their judgment.”
“What kind of judgment?” Albert demanded. “Who were the sentinels?”
Now the Keeper’s face was upside-down, the flesh of its forehead hanging toward the ground, its black eyes staring at him. That hideous mass of wrinkled flesh lay against its left cheek. “The Faceless Ones were the last guardians of man.”
“‘Last guardians of man…’” repeated Albert. “What does that even mean?”
“The sentinels were the architects who made possible the survival of humanity beyond the expiration of their original world. They built the gateways and orchestrated the exoduses that allowed you all to be here today.”
“We really came from another world?” asked Andrea.
“Humans have made several worlds their own over the ages. You have no idea how ancient your species is.”
This was a lot to take in. Albert struggled to understand it all. Other worlds. Ancient races. Mysterious judgments. “So… We’ve outlived whole worlds?”
The little creature’s head began rotating again, returning to its upright position. “That’s correct.”
“And the sentinels were the ones who moved us to new worlds each time ours died?”
“They were also the ones who decided if mankind should be allowed to survive.”
Albert considered this. It was all starting to fall into place. A little. “Okay. So… Those fourteen women the Sentinel Queen told us about… They were sent through this temple from our last world?”
Emboldened by the fact that the creature did not seem to want to drink their blood, Andrea took a tentative step toward it, trying to see it better. It was the strangest thing she’d ever laid eyes on.
Startled, Olivia seized her by the arm and pulled her back.
“The sentinels sent those women here,” said Albert.
“This was the doorway to the new world during the last exodus,” confirmed the Keeper. “And also the next.”
“This very mountain, this temple, that facilitated the journey of the mothers into the new world, is also the key that will ultimately open the way to the next world. Unless the judgment of the faceless ones deemed your race unworthy.”
Albert stood silently, considering this. Salvation or doom, all depending on the whims of a race of long dead, faceless freaks. It wasn’t entirely surprising. After all, he’d heard this argument already tonight. “The Sentinel Queen and that old man—”
“Yes,” interrupted the Keeper. “The Mother and the Ancient One. They both had their roles to play in bringing you here. But it’s not they who must decide. It’s you.”
It made sense now. The Sentinel Queen believed that humanity’s only chance at salvation was the opening of the doorway. The old man, the one she claimed was the devil, believed opening the doorway would only bring doom. This was what they were talking about, this judgment of the sentinels. “So what are we supposed to do, exactly?”
The Keeper’s face returned to its upright position and then continued rotating, its chin swiveling toward the sky in the opposite direction this time. “You are here to finish what the sentinels began. They passed their judgment on you long before you were ever born. Now you must pass your judgment on them long after they’ve died. You must decide for yourselves to open the door that awaits you atop this Temple of the Blind.”
“And if we decide wrong?” Albert asked.
“Even I don’t know that,” the Keeper replied. “Many people have tried to walk the road that you’ve taken to get here, people from all over the world. At first they were following the stories handed down to them throughout history, from the mouths of the mothers themselves. Later, when the truth had faded into myth and was eventually forgotten altogether, only those with the old gifts were able to feel the pull of the doorway, people like Wendell Gilbert and Beverly Bridger.” The creature’s head was upside-down again. Its stare was dull, but piercing. “Many have come over the ages. And all of them have died. Until now.”
Albert remembered the bones in the round room with the battered sentinels, the scattered remains of those who did not have the box to guide them.
“You are here…” the Keeper lifted one skinny hand and pointed up at the burning peak of the temple, its loose flesh dangling like the sleeves of an oversized shirt, “…to go there. Your entire world is balancing on the razor’s edge of the actions you’ve taken and will take on this journey.”
“No pressure…” grumbled Nicole.
“Your world could end today,” said the Keeper, “or it could live on for thousands more years. But it will end. Humanity may die with it. Or it may live beyond it. It depends entirely upon the judgment the sentinels passed upon you. And it depends upon the judgment you will pass upon them.”
“I don’t understand,” said Olivia.
“It doesn’t matter.” The Keeper turned its head ninety degrees and held it there, its ears pointing up and down. “You don’t have to understand. You only have to choose.”
Albert wanted to know more. He wanted the Keeper to explain these things that it had said to them, but it vanished before their eyes, withdrawing into the very rock behind it, as though sucked back into the darkness from which it came.
“Where did it go?” Andrea asked.
“I’m not the only one who found that whole thing weird, am I?” asked Olivia.
“What about that was weird?” quipped Nicole. “The freaky little Muppet thing just told us we have to choose the fate of the world.”
“That’s really messed up,” said Andrea. She walked over to where the Keeper had been standing, trying to figure out how it had come and gone.
Albert looked around at his four lovely companions and sighed. “Well, everybody, Brandy might have a broken tailbone, Nicole’s got a hole in her hand and I’ve got a broken arm. Who’s up for some mountain climbing?”
Look for The Judgment of the Sentinels at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and Amazon in May! And check back soon for more updates and to find out what I'll be doing once The Temple of the Blind is behind me.