"The Shepherd's Trials" Chapter One

Not open for further replies.


Well-Known Member
Dec 16, 2010
Hello, all. The project I'm currently working on is one that I have every intention of turning into a respectable debut novel. It's an urban fantasy (with smatterings of horror and a few hints of comedy) that draws on Christian mythology, of course with my own expansions and spin on it.

I often have a hard time sitting back and looking at my work from the perspective of a reader, so I'm curious about what others (especially some more well-versed than me) think of it. Any and all critiques or advice is more than welcome, and much appreciated. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks much in advance!


He stands alone at the window of a third-story apartment, staring silently through the clear pane of the sliding glass door. It is a beautiful day, the shining sun painting the sky in brilliant shades of orange and yellow. To the west, wisps of pink-hued clouds glide gracefully closer, carrying the scent of a much needed summer shower. Nature's beauty is lost on him, however, as he stares beyond the smattering of buildings that make up the apartment complex to the sprawling city surrounding it.

He has been here before, he knows, though he cannot say when. This place is familiar, yet foreign, the memory of it lost somewhere within the swirling river of his mind, buried by the memories of countless battles and horrendous hardships that rush to the forefront of his subconscious and fester there. A sigh escapes his lips as a feeling of self-pity comes over him. It is a position he finds himself in much more frequently now, searching in vain through an endless chasm of pain and sorrow for those moments in his life when he had walked away in triumph, in happiness. So many sacrifices...so many years...even those horrific events which shaped him into the man he is are no longer as clear to him as they once were, merging together in his mind and charging through his soul in a merciless sea of agony and defeat. He is a mere shell of the man he once was, his soul stripped from him bit by bit, each battle tearing away what precious measure of sanity and humanity he still possessed. For a moment, he wonders how his life would have gone had he been given the opportunity to remain ignorant, though he quickly forces it away. Wondering what might have been is a luxury he cannot afford. There is much work to be done.

His thoughts are interrupted as something along the horizon catches his eye. Scanning the area, he focuses on a sphere of light, roughly the size of a basketball from his perspective, hanging just above the clouds to the west. For a moment he believes it is a star, thinking it unusual that it should be visible at such an early hour. Then he feels an all too familiar lump rising in his throat as the light suddenly begins to grow in size and intensity, his dread quickly evolving into sheer terror as within minutes the foreign disk outshines the sun. The sound of squealing tires and crunching metal draws his attention as motorists in and around the complex take notice of the strange phenomenon and pour out of their vehicles to look on, none of them paying any heed to those around them.

Suddenly a deafening sound, like the blaring of a trumpet, rings throughout the afternoon air. He winces and grits his teeth as others scream and cover their ears, some searching frantically for the source of the thunderous tone. His mind races uncontrollably, the ear-splitting pitch making it impossible for him to gather his thoughts. The sound of shattering glass surrounds him, and he can feel his teeth beginning to crack under the pressure of his clenched jaws. It continues for several moments, the intensity of the noise shattering glass windows in buildings and vehicles all around him. Then, as abruptly as it came, the blaring pitch subsides and there is silence. His eyes narrow in thought and anticipation as others slowly remove their hands from their ears and turn slowly, several climbing to the hoods of their vehicle and staring up at the sky, clearly just as dumbfounded as he is. Many are screaming and crying, others pacing the road and shaking their heads, all the while keeping their eyes glued to the mysterious orb looming above.

Seconds later, a thunderous explosion sounds in the heavens, shaking the very ground with its ferocity as the light flares once more, bathing everything in a blinding sheet of white. He screams in horror as he falls to the floor, turning his head and shielding his eyes from the onslaught. Then the light fades and it is gone, and everything grows still once more. He opens his eyes slowly, standing and turning to face the window, terror tightening its grip as he tries to steel himself against the scene he knows he must survey, struggling against the horrific revelation slowly creeping into his mind as the event unfolding triggers a series of long buried memories from somewhere in the depths of his thoughts.

An horrendous chorus of screams halts the summoning of his courage, and his heart sinks as his eyes are drawn to the carnage around him. People are running and stumbling out of their apartments, looking around frantically and calling out for what he can only assume are loved ones. Many run to other doors and pound on them furiously, crying and screaming for help. His eyes pan over the parking lot to the adjacent street and he slowly realizes why the people are in a panic: piles of clothing, scattered watches, rings, and jewelry litter the ground. It is as if their bearers had simply vanished into thin air.

Vanished into thin air...

* * * * *

His eyes snapped open as the droning buzz of the alarm clock mercifully beckoned him from the realm of dreams. He looked around frantically for a moment, unsure of where he was. As the dressers and computer desk lining the wood-paneled walls slowly came into focus, he fell back into his pillows with a sigh of relief. A dream...another damn dream. It was always the same. He stood in some vaguely familiar place, dreary and full of self-doubt, a hardened veteran of battles that haunted him in his sleep, yet which he could never recall upon waking.​

The continuing cacophony finally drew his attention and he pushed himself up groggily, taking a moment to rub the feeling back into his numbed arm before reaching over the form of his sleeping wife to turn off the alarm.​

“Dammit, James. I'm not in the mood.”​

Gail's mumbled objection brought only an angered sigh and rolling eyes.​

Yeah, like you'd say that to Jon. He wanted to say it aloud, to lash out at her, but quickly thought better of it. Beginning the morning with yet another heated argument was a thought he did not care to entertain. Instead he sat up, climbing out of bed and wiping the sleep from his eyes as he stumbled across the room, picking up a pair of crumpled gray sweat pants and pulling them on. He stepped out of the bedroom and through the kitchen, shaking his head at the pile of dirty dishes adorning the sink, making a mental note to take care of them later. Just like I always do. He stepped through the adjoining hallway and turned toward the bathroom on his left, walking into the closed door.​

“Son of a bitch.” His voice echoed through the empty hallway as he clenched his fist. Stepping into the bathroom, he reached for his toothbrush, pausing to gaze at the figure staring back at him from the mirror, not at all caring for what he saw.​

James Arklin was a fairly young man. Just past his twenty-sixth birthday, his angled face had a smooth, almost boyish look to it, which he tried vainly to hide with the thinnest of beards. The deep set eyes glaring beneath rather bushy eyebrows were a light hazel color, betraying just a hint of the kindness and intelligence within. He sighed as he began brushing his teeth, unable to pull his eyes from the reflection of his torso, yet disgusted by the sight.​

Once, he had been a dedicated martial artist, competing in tournaments across the country and even achieving a handful of championships. He had lived and breathed his art, and while lacking the definition of many athletes, his body was in excellent condition. But with the years came love and marriage, and a need to find more profitable work elsewhere, causing the focus of exercise and health to slip further away. Now he saw only a broad frame hindered by an unsightly collection of stored fat shaded by bristly hair. It depressed him greatly to look at what he had become. Perhaps that was the primary reason for his marriage turning the way it had.​

He shook his head sharply, forcing the thought away. The time for pity-parties was long gone. His focus should be on the here and now.​

He finished brushing his teeth quickly, grabbing his blue flannel robe from the hanger on the door and pulling it on. He walked back through the kitchen, picking up a pack of cigarettes from the table as he stepped into the living room and toward the front door, nearly tripping over a pair of Gail's shoes along the way. Cinching the belt on his robe, he stepped onto the front porch.​

The morning which greeted the city of Murfreesboro was cool and gray. The lingering chill of the previous night was intensified by the stiff wind blowing in from the east, sending torrents of leaves swirling down the street. The ground was damp with residual moisture from the steady drizzle of rain which had shrouded the city since before dawn. He shivered slightly and pulled the collar of his robe snugly around his neck as he lit a cigarette, taking a long drag of it and coughing harshly as he exhaled.​

“Ah, the beauty of morning ritual,” he chuckled, shaking his head as he stared at the death sentence in his hand. Yet another thing he should never have started. After nineteen years of chastising others, he had given in to the rather expensive addiction himself. Compounding the disappointment he felt for himself, he lacked even a frivolous reason for doing so. He had simply decided one day to give it a try, and as the saying went, that was all she wrote.​

The howling of the wind kicked up once more, breaking his thoughts. He took another drag of the cigarette, watching the smoke drift almost gracefully toward the sky. It was far from a pleasant day for jogging, but he knew better than to put it off. Willpower was not exactly his forte, and he knew himself too well to rely on it. If he skipped his run today, it would easily be another week before he could talk himself into it again. Besides, he thought, Gail would just nag at him all day if he broke his promise. So he finished his cigarette quickly, wheezing horribly with the final puff and flicking the smoldering butt into the grass before stepping back inside.​

He crossed back through the living room and kitchen to the laundry room at the end of the hallway, pausing for a moment to see if Gail was awake. He caught himself smiling as he spotted her sprawled across the bed under a heap of blankets, snoring rather loudly. Minutes later, after digging through the clothes in the dryer to find a t-shirt and retrieving a gray hooded jacket from the bedroom closet, he sat in the living room sipping at a jug of water and searching his iPod for a song that would help him get up and get moving. Finally, with a compilation of classic rock songs blaring in his ear, he pulled the hood of his jacket over his head and stepped back into the chill morning air.​

He walked gingerly toward the street, stopping for a few minutes to stretch the muscles in his legs before starting off down the road at a slow jog. The road weaving around the perimeter of his neighborhood measured just over a mile, and as he let his mind focus on that fact, fatigue began to set in quickly, and his breathing was labored before he had reached the end of his street less than a hundred yards away. There was a time when such an exercise would have posed no problem for him. That was back when he and Gail had first met.​


His mind began to drift then, following the driving guitar riffs playing in his headphones to a place in his subconscious littered with anger and near malice. He would give his life for that woman, and yet when he had given up his dream so that he could support her, she had betrayed his trust. The sanctity of their marriage had been soiled two years ago. No, he corrected himself. It had been **** upon. The woman who had vowed to love him unconditionally and to forsake all others had instead forsaken him when she brought another man into their home, laying with him in their bed while James was working. In their bed!​

He was moving faster now, not fully aware that he was doing so, riding the wave of hatred as it crested in his mind and carried him away with it. He had done nothing to deserve what she had done to him. Had the fact that he had stopped taking care of his body really been the reason for her choices? That simply made no sense. She had reassured him repeatedly in the past that his appearance was not a concern of hers, though he had never believed her. Still, assuming it was the truth, what had driven her, then? And what had caused her to repeat the same decision just four months ago? A kind of desperate determination came over him and he pushed forward, swearing to himself that he would give her what she wanted. He would shape his body into what it had been when they first met. He would force that skinny *******'s physique from her mind completely.​

A wave of nausea washed over him as the thought entered his mind, and he fought desperately against the memory of the day Gail had revealed her most recent debauchery.​

She had begun to spend more and more time on the telephone with Andrew, a mutual friend living in Texas whom James had gotten in touch with through an online message board. When the arguments had started, he had the suspicion that there were fighting over more than a simple women's religious event in Florida. For weeks he had lived with the feeling that he was losing his wife to a man she had never even met. She had spent that time wrapped in lies and deceit, taking care to ensure that James never discovered the money she was hiding to finance her trip or her intended destination. She had hidden her feelings well, for despite his rather strong suspicions, he never believed that they were anything more than his imagination coupled with the residual heartache and mistrust of her previous affair. Then one morning she left. Leaving him with nothing more than a kiss on the cheek, she had met one of her girlfriends for a ride to the bus station and to the waiting arms of her soon-to-be lover. After spending eight days wallowing in his own loneliness, the relief James had felt at her return was overwhelming, though that relief was short-lived as it quickly became apparent that all was not well. Less than a week later, he finally learned the truth, and words did not exist to describe what it had done to him.​

A throbbing pain slowly began to seep into the muscles of his legs, drawing his mind away from the past. He was breathing heavily, his tar-ridden lungs burning horribly as they struggled to draw more oxygen. His eyes blinked rapidly in defense of the beads of sweat traveling slowly down his forehead despite the bitter chill of the raging wind. He wiped his brow as he slowed his pace, mildly surprised to see that he had already completed his planned run and was rapidly approaching the halfway point of another trek. Squinting against a new gust of wind, he turned and began walking back to his home.​

The surrounding neighborhood was a decent one, though far from being considered upper-class. It's location was rather convenient, as it was roughly three minutes from the campus of Middle Tennessee State University, just over a mile from the local video store, and five minutes from three grocery stores and seven or eight gas stations. The dozen or so streets that lined the area were dotted with modest homes; most of them single-story brick buildings with driveways less than ten feet apart. It was a model for those “back in the day” tales, when everyone knew everyone and neighbors were more like relatives. He thought of how much simpler times must have been back then, when a man's home was secure, before the internet had introduced a list of new horrors into everyday life.​

His thoughts were interrupted as he suddenly felt like he was being watched. He ignored it at first, forcing himself not to entertain the wild fantasies of random fights with nonsensical strangers his mind often sprang to life. The feeling had grown stronger just a few minutes later, and as he rounded the turn which would bring him to his house, he chanced a glance behind him, an eerie feeling beginning to creep over him.​

A man stood in the middle of the street perhaps fifty yards away, wearing a dark olive trench coat and holding an umbrella over his head. He was simply standing there, his free hand in his pocket, looking. As James turned the corner and the man began to fade into his peripheral vision, he turned his head toward the stranger, squinting to see him more clearly. He could just make out a thin gray beard shading a leathery face. Though he could not see the man's eyes, James could feel them upon him, as if they were piercing the surface of his flesh and peering into his very soul.​

He tripped over a large branch laying in the street and stumbled forward, nearly falling into a puddle. Quickly regaining his balance, he turned back toward the man in the street, only to find that he was nowhere to be seen. He stood there for several moments, scanning the street and adjoining yards. A slight chill ran the length of his spine, and he shivered from more than the cold.​

“That's down right creepy.”​

With that he turned back toward his home, looking behind him every few steps to see if the stranger would reveal himself again. As he walked up the front steps and opened the front door, he had the strangest feeling that he would see the man again before too long.​
Yes, it was me locked off this thread, and for two reasons. The first was the length; it was slightly more than double the accepted word count. The second is that "measured contribution" at the top of the page; it basically means you should PM the judge before posting something for critique. If you can't do a Personal Message (starts after fifteen posts), you can assume you haven't yet achieved sufficient contribution, however being able to doesn't guarantee your right. In the situation that the Judge is not answering (she, like the rest of us, is grudgingly allowed time off for real life) any mod can make the decision; (you'll find us down at the bottom of the "forums" main page, under "view forum leaders", Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums - Show Groups) but we'd normally check with her first, so as not to step on any toes.

Hard life, isn't it? First you get clobbered on the writing contest, now some unpleasant little 'rules is rules' comes and blocks your critique. Actually, this might be slightly less painful than my red-penning it.

In the waiting time, try looking at the other pieces for critiquing, and see if you haven't any suggestions yourself. Check round your favourite (or hatedest) authors, and tell us what you think of our opinions. Make yourself a recognised part of the community; you'll find plenty of company to grumble about me.

I'm sorry I had to do it, and sorrier that it took me so long to explain why I did, but you've got it; Rules is rules.

But congratulations on getting the formatting right first time; not everyone manages that.
Not open for further replies.