Friday, March 30, 2012

Muffy Morrigan's The Sail Weaver: Release Day!

I last chatted with Muffy about her Custodes Noctis series back in October (read the interview here), but now she's back with a new announcement! 

Muffy!!! *waves* hi! It’s great to have you back here for a bit of a chat. I know you’ve been busy, I’ve been following your convention exploits with your amazing costumes and even more amazing book stalls. Did you want to talk about your convention presence a little bit? Let people know where they can find you! Weren’t you in Denmark recently?

I love the conventions, it’s a real opportunity to mix and mingle with just about everyone in the science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk… well you name it, they are there. It really gives me a chance to talk to people about what they love about the genres they read, why they are fans and what keeps them coming back. In fact, I am off to Norwescon April 5-9 in Seattle. I’m really excited about this one because it’s the cons that is launching my new book The Sail Weaver.

I was just in Denmark. It was my third trip in fact. I was there not only for research, but for a bit more ink on my left arm and the chance to visit many bog bodies, stone circles and pastries.

You recently had The Summoning released, a Custodes Noctis novella – how’s the gang doing now? More shenanigans in the works? Flash behaving himself?

The gang has been busy, in fact they are part of the reason I was in Denmark. The next book in the series, The Berserkers, will take place partially in Denmark and I was looking at the various sites in that country to use them in my book. Flash of course is in love with the idea of going to a country that makes Mead.

But the reason you’re here is (very exciting), because you have a new book coming out! Tell us a bit about Sail Weaver. 

  The Sail Weaver is one of those things that has been stewing in bits and pieces for years. All those bits came together in this book. It’s a blending of science fiction and fantasy with a few other ingredients in the stew as well. It brings combines my love of the genres with my passion for tall ships. Yes, I know that seems an unlikely combination.

The story itself focuses on Tristan Weaver and the launch of the ship the Winged Victory. When he is asked to weave the sails for the ship he has no idea of how involved he is going to become with the ship. With his friend, Lokey Fenfyr, the dragon, he ships out on the Winged Victory for her first trip. What happens after that could upset the balance of the galaxy.

 I had the pleasure of reading the first chapter in preparation for this interview and I already want to read the rest. Did you want to share a bit about how it starts?

The story begins when Tristan, Master Weaver, is first asked to create sails for the ship the Winged Victory a ship like no other. He comes close to refusing until the dragons step forward and ask him to be involved in the project as well.

What inspired the story?

As I said bits and pieces have been floating around for years—a short story here and there, but always just one piece. Then a couple of years ago I saw a challenge to combine the elements of classic science fiction—the future, aliens, space ships, space stations—with classic fantasy—magic, dragons, wizards and I added my love of tall ships and The Sail Weaver was born.

Like Custodes Noctis is this a series you have planned?

I certainly hope so. I have fallen a bit in love with Tristan and his world and I want to return and write there many times.

Any characters we should be watching out for in this novel? In other words, anyone Flash should be jealous of for hogging some attention?

The character that surprised me the most was Riggan. I’m not sure Flash is in danger, but I know that as I wrote I was continually surprised by Riggan.

Finally: the details of its release! Where can people find it?

It’s available today!!!! It can be found on Amazon and other internet retailers and on Kindle—the Kindle version is $3.99.


When I sent Muffy the questions, I'd only read the first chapter - I'm now a couple of chapters in and the story is really fascinating. I`m really enjoying it!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Long Time No See!

Hi! I've missed you guys :) It feels like a really long time since I checked in just to spill all my thoughts in some vaguely coherent jumble but, as you probably noticed, this is been a really busy place! There was supposed to be another exciting announcement today, but it was a bit delayed. Expect another bonus post this weekend.

Do you have a minute to catch up? Pull up a chair! I'd offer you tea, but you'd have to get it yourself and that just seems rude, so instead I'll fill you in on all the behind the scenes goings-on.

Part 2 of Greylands will be posted on Monday. It shouldn't be surprising that I'm in love with this project I'll admit when I first threw the idea out there, I thought I'd be lucky to get a few extra readers, but the project got off to a great start. I already know a few people working on subs for next month, as well as continuations of the ones posted already. This amazes me! That people are so willing to contribute their time and such great quality work. So far the reactions have been very positive and I want to thank everyone that's supported it: contributors, editors, readers, brainstormers, etc.

To the artists out there: Greylands may be a writing project, but if you read it and are inspired, then feel free to sub with your media of choice. The Shadows wouldn't be the same with only one type of criminal. It takes all sorts to form the gang ;)

I've also been playing around with Raven's Quill blog, and the big reveal will be on Monday. I'm very happy with it - something I've been thinking for awhile and finally got round to doing. I look forward to hearing your opinions.

Otherwise, April is crack-down editing month. Not only on my own stuff, but a few other projects as well. The trick will be finding a chance to write in the quiet moments - which so far has been my lunch hour. But hey, you use the time you have, right? Thanks to a random prompt on Twitter yesterday, I ended up with a flash fiction piece that turned out kind of neat - a really fun exercise in spontaneous storytelling. I might even post it after some edits and tweaking.

But I've gone on enough. What have you been up to?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Submission - Greylands, Part 1: Old Bones

by Chris Henry

Cold rain fell from a steel grey sky and ran down the shattered faces of old skyscrapers, collecting in the cracked streets below. The city of Kroeper used to be home to Dieb, where he’d lived years ago in relative comfort. It was once home to hundreds of thousands. When the aquifer ran dry and the lights went out, the citizens fled to the surrounding cities, and when they were turned away, they formed settlements that now dotted the country side. After the exodus, the city fell into ruin and the remaining locals rechristened it The Corpse. Few people still lived here and most of the city was bandit territory. Now Dieb crawled through the ruins relearning the streets; learning which buildings were shelter or trouble.

A short, lithe man of some 30 years, Dieb was an experienced scavenger. He’d spent a decade crawling the Corpse, picking through its bones and finding the precious treasures: unspoiled rations, medicine, and occasionally a bottle of clean water. Stagnant rivers crept through the countryside, and water was worth more than its weight in gold in Greylands. Outside the walls, many would eagerly kill for it.

Picking through the streets, Dieb spotted a man on a rooftop a block away. He crouched behind a rusting car and pulled his binoculars from their canvas bag. He peered at the man through smudged lenses and studied him. It was a man in rags clutching his own pair of binoculars. Bandit? he wondered, they usually don’t come out this far. They both sat there and watched each other for a while. Eventually, the man in rags gave a meek wave. Dieb waved back, and the Ragman shrugged, but when Dieb drew his thumb across his throat the Ragman got the idea and disappeared. Dieb quickly got up and ducked down an alley. If that was a bandit, he thought, he’ll have friends. He hoped their brief conversation would give them pause. The bandits in The Corpse were armed, but their weapons were in such disrepair, and ammunition of such poor quality, it only gave them the advantage at close range.

“This looks promising”, he whispered to no one as he spotted a crumpled storefront shutter. Masonry from above had fallen and came to rest against the shutter; the stone’s weight had pushed it in slightly, forming a narrow gap. He unstrapped his rucksack, fished out a crowbar, and went to work to widen the hole. The shutter groaned as he bent the slats. He shoved his rucksack inside, followed by his crowbar, then clutched a flashlight in his teeth, and squirmed into the dark. Once inside, he pulled a grenade from his bag and ran a length of fine wire across the entrance.

Dieb slid his machete from its sheath, and swept the flashlight across the darkened store. The shelves were mostly barren, like the rest of the Corpse. Some canned meat sat on a far shelf. He was pleased to see the tins hadn’t rusted, and only one of them was bloated. Carefully he packed them into the rucksack. A bottle of cooking oil, rice, and a box of stale crackers went in beside the tinned meat. At the back of the store stood a heavy freezer door with a padlock. A slow smile crept across Dieb’s face as he went to work with the crowbar. It didn’t last though: the lock proved too strong. He went back to the front of the store and checked around the register, searching for a key. In the register, he thought. He pressed a few keys before prying it open with the crowbar. It popped open with a chime that echoed in the empty store, and he cringed. The key sat there in the drawer next to a few bills. He pocketed both and turned to leave.

“Hear that?” came a muffled voice. The tone was hushed and urgent, almost like a hiss. Dieb killed the flashlight and sank behind the counter. Instinctively he reached for his machete, only to realise he’d left it back beside the locked door. Dieb backed away from the counter slowly, moving towards the back of the store and his knife.

“Over here”, called a gruffer voice, “The shutter here. This is new.”

“I can’t fit through there,” replied the muffled voice.

“Neither can I.” The shutter rattled, and Dieb held his breath.”It won’t move. Help with this gap.” The shutter rattled again. Died grabbed his things, slung the rucksack over his shoulders and gripped his machete tight. He had to hide in the locker, there was nowhere else to go, no other exit. The key fit the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. Rust had taken hold, or maybe it wasn’t even the right key. A light filled the small store, and Dieb froze with his heart in his throat.

“Hey!” came the voice, “Whatcha got in that bag?”

Dieb turned to see a man squeezing through the widened gap in the shutter, a lamp in one hand, a pistol leveled in the other. He thumbed back the hammer with a click, and before Dieb could say a word the room filled with thunder.

Dieb scrambled to his feet and started to run. The grenade had blown most of the shutter clear of the storefront. The man who’d triggered it was a shattered mess; he barely looked human anymore – bits of meat and clothing peppered the walls and floors. He’d taken most of the shrapnel, and left Dieb unscathed. He could feel blood as it ran down the side of his face and his ear rang from the blaste. The man’s lantern had gone up as well, the kerosene now scattered and burning. Inky, black smoke filled the store, and spilled out into the open air. A battered pistol lay near the burning oil, which Dieb snatched greedily.

As he exited the store, Dieb found the other man in the rain, legs torn. A large bent piece of the shutter protruded from his shoulder like some grotesque limb. The blood slowly spread out around him like a fan, and he struggled vainly to move with his one good arm. Dieb couldn’t stop to help him; he looked too far beyond the help of anything but a bullet. As he stumbled through the city, Dieb was keenly aware that darkness would soon take the Corpse. The Ragman had probably sent the men to find Dieb, and the explosion and smoke would surely bring others. There was little chance of safe shelter in the Corpse that night.

The sound was barely audible through his ringing ears, but the muffled pop and startled stones in front of him were enough to know someone had shot at him. Dieb began to run clumsily through the ruined street before he found a car to duck behind. He peeked around the corner and saw them: a half dozen or so motley men clamouring through the rubble in pursuit. Dieb pulled one of the round tins from his rucksack and pitched in their direction. They’d heard the first blast, he reasoned, maybe... The gamble paid off; when they saw the metal cylinder in the air, they dove for cover.

Dieb was up on his feet again before they could realise his bluff. If he could widen the gap between them, they’d have to give up before it got too dark. His lungs burned as he ran through the streets and alleys towards the aqueduct. He slipped through the hole in the chain link fence and slid down the slope into the dry concrete riverbed. From here he could follow it to the dead lake and maybe find a place to sleep before he began the long walk back to Greylands.

Very Pulp Fiction - I want to know what's in that locked freezer! >:-[ Next installment, I hope!

Read more!

Greylands: Adopted - by Krista Walsh
Greylands: Firefly - Chelsea Miller
Greylands: Fletch - Kathi L. Schwengel

Next week: Part 2: The Shadows

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Devin O'Branagan's Show Dog Sings the Blues: a review

Talisman, a pampered show dog with attitude, has a play date with her sister Maddie, who is a hardcore cowdog. Through an unfortunate mixup, the two dogs are switched and Talisman has to cowdog-up for the day.

It is an Australian Shepherd Freaky Friday!

A hilarious spinoff from the RED HOT series of comic novels, told from the dog's perspective.

A portion of the proceeds from this novella will be donated

An uplifting, inspiring tale for humans of all ages!

Show Dog

A bonus post! Why? Two reasons: a) Red Hot Liberty and Show Dog go hand in hand, so I didn’t want them to get separated by too many posts, and, more importantly, b) Show Dog is a novella in a class of its own and deserved its own spot. Plus, I have a feeling that Talisman would enjoy having a special day all about her. She’s that kind of dog.

Reading Show Dog Sings the Blues conveniently coincided with this month’s flash fiction contest on Devin’s forum (I’ll take a moment to plug – go, read, vote! I’ll wait until you get back), where the prompt was to write from the point of view of an animal. I decided to contribute and realised it's not nearly as easy as I thought it'd be. To get into the head of a being we don’t really understand and make them real without taking away their innate animalness.

This is not a cheesy story. It’s not a children’s tale where the characters just happen to be animals. Tali explores the world exactly the way a dog would. The decisions she makes are based on instinct, on training, and on her understanding of her purpose as a dog. She demonstrates the importance animals have in the human world, the healing power they possess when we need it most.  I experienced her fear, her intuition, and was rooting for her from the moment she was cast out to work for the day. 

Both Red Hot Liberty and Show Dog follow the same theme of choosing what you want to fight for, but Talisman grabs hold of this theme even better than the characters in Liberty. Through her decisions and actions, she really brings to life the words of her heart person, Val DeMitri: "Courage is a choice". 

This novella is worth the read. Especially at the end of a really hard day (and let's face it, that usually sums up most Mondays - Fridays, right?), when all you want is to lose yourself in something fun, something that will make you laugh and make you feel warm. Does it need to be read with the others in the Red Hot series? Not necessarily - it holds up as a cute story in its own right - but when taken as part of the whole, there are so many more layers to it. It offers a better understanding of what makes Tali who she is. Honestly, though? I don't think Red Hot is what holds up Show Dog. I think it's the other way around. Tali always does steal the show. 

For more information, click here

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Devin O'Branagan's Red Hot Liberty: a review

Molly O'Malley's new assistant, Robin Knight, is a sexy Englishman with mysterious psychic abilities and the gift of animal communication. This comes in handy when Molly's dog becomes depressed over romantic problems, and when she wants to tell her humans the details of a haunted dog show event known as The Twilight Bone Incident.

Robin's mission is to help Molly learn that it is an enchanted world where all things are possible. However, the men in Molly's life are threatened by his powerful presence and pressure her into making difficult choices.

Further complicating her life is new client, Liberty True—a tin-foil-hat-wearing, conspiracy-theory-believing, rebel patriot—who invites Molly to a different kind of tea party and drags her, kicking and screaming, into the revolution. Soon, Homeland Security is following Molly and she receives death threats.

Coming to her aid? A Goth colleague who lives on the dark side, a charismatic cowboy preacher who lives on the light side, a quirky psychic who lives between the worlds, and the departed spirit of her best friend.

A sassy tale about a woman on the verge of losing everything, who undertakes a quest to slay the dragon of fear and become her own hero.


Sequels often go downhill. My suspicion (and experience) is that the author spends so much time plotting out the first one, falls in love with the characters and wants to do more with them, but doesn’t spend nearly as much time plotting out the second, so it becomes a series of random events made up for the sake of keeping characters alive.

Occasionally, an author gets it right, and the second book lives up to the first. Even more occasionally, the second surpasses the first. That is the case with Devin O’Branagan’s Red Hot Liberty. Perhaps an example of how more time with a character leads to the author knowing her better, Liberty goes deeper into Molly O’Malley’s character, giving her more dimensions as a human being. New people are introduced, old favourites come back for a visit, and once again it becomes a matter of fighting what you believe in, or playing it safe to protect the ones you love.

Liberty also brought into my life another great character to laugh with and love: the goth chick Babylon (I really seem to have a thing for O’Branagan’s goth characters…). She’s tough, dry as sandpaper, knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. With her extreme kick-ass ability, she and Molly bring out the edgy side of women that never fails to appeal to me.

Once in a while sliding into the more paranormal, Liberty for the most part stays grounded, focusing on real problems of relationships, politics, grief, and puppy love – literally.

Again I laughed, again I cried, but this time around it was with characters I already knew and have laughed and cried with before, which made the experience that much sweeter. Summer is just around the corner, ladies and gents, and this book should definitely be added to your "summer reads" list.

And of course one of the best parts about this book is that it gave O’Branagan the opportunity to write her novella Show Dog Sings the Blues, which I will be reviewing on Saturday, so come back!

Find more information about Red Hot Liberty here

Monday, March 19, 2012

Submission - Greylands, Part 1: Fletch

by Kathi L. Schwengel
Please note: some strong language

Fletch stood with one shoulder against the wall, and his arms folded across his chest as he watched Mosh escort his latest stray across the camp. The boy had a thing for waifs. This one looked to be in her late teens, slight, blond, and with that guarded, dirt-smeared look on her face so common on the streets. Desperation mingled with determination. Still, she seemed . . . different some how. Fletch couldn't put his finger on it, but she set his nerves tingling.

"Watcha doin'?"

Fletch slid a narrowed glare at Pipsqueak as the boy sidled up beside him. "Baking a fucking cake, Squeak. You?"

"You're spying on Mosh."

"And if I am it'd be your business -- why?"

Pipsqueak shrugged and Fletch turned his attention back to the little parade on its way to Jack's quarters. Maverick had his tour guide hat on, playing it to the hilt, and no doubt scaring the crap out of the girl in the process.

"What do you know about her?" he asked, jutting his chin in the trio's direction.

Pipsqueak sat on an upended crate, his feet dangling above the ground. "Her brother got his brains splattered by the coppers trying to lift some groceries."

"And you guys rescued her?"

Pipsqueak grinned. "It's what we do."

Fletch snorted. "What you do is bring us closer to getting found."

"Jack doesn't mind. Why should you?"

"Jack's an idiot."

Pipsqueak's eyes rounded in shock, and he launched off the crate. "You'll be in for it when I tell Maverick what you said!"

Fletch grabbed him by the shoulder before he could get away. Pipsqueak yelped as Fletch yanked him back and, lifting him off the ground by both shoulders, slammed him against the wall. He resisted the temptation to hold the boy there by his throat.

"You're not going to cause me any trouble, Squeak," he said, his voice deadly soft. "Because if you do, the rats will be picking their teeth with your bones. You understanding me?"

Pipsqueak's eyes, tears brimming at their edges, took on a whole different kind of round. His chin began to quiver.

"Lose your voice, kid?"

Pipsqueak shook his head. "No," his voice hit the notes of his namesake.

Fletch cocked his head. "Well?"

"I got ya," he said. "Loud and clear."

"Your two pals even look crossways at me, I'll think you told them something. You understand that?"

"Crap, Fletch!" The boy squirmed in his grip. "Won't say nuthin' to nobody. I swear it."

Fletch held him a moment longer, then nodded. "Good boy," he said. He lowered Pipsqueak to the ground. "Now make yourself invisible."

Fletch waited until Pipsqueak angled toward a group of kids before he turned and left his vantage point. There were quicker ways to Jack's private quarters than through the shock zone Maverick had taken, and Fletch knew them all.

He didn't knock when he reached the door, and Jack didn't turn when he entered the room. Their fearless leader stood in front of a large fireplace, hands clasped loosely behind his back. Not for the first time Fletch considered the chances of success in a quick knife throw.

"Careful, Fletch," Jack said, and his low voice slithered across Fletch's nerves like an icy-hot finger. "Thoughts like that can get a man strung up and left for the rats. I hear it's an unpleasant way to die."

"I'm sure there's worse."

Jack turned and the smile on his narrow, clean-shaven face held not a bit of warmth. "I know there are," he said. "I invented them."

He walked to an antique sideboard and poured himself a drink, then took a seat in the only leather upholstered chair in the room. Fletch remained standing, his arms folded across his chest. Compared to what existed beyond his door, Jack's quarters were downright opulent. Unlike Jack, they actually gave the impression of warmth and sincerity.

Jack crossed his legs and took a swallow of the blood red liquid in his glass. He surveyed Fletch with eyes so dark they appeared black. "What are you after, Fletch?"

"Mosh's latest stray," Fletch said, without a moment's hesitation.

"Since when are you interested in training?" The dark gaze narrowed. "You're not thinking of building your own little army and taking me down, are you, Fletch?"

"We both know an army wouldn't work on you, Jack. I believe holy water and a sacred ritual are more in order."

Jack laughed. "Your sense of humor is what keeps you alive. There are only two reasons a street rat would pique your interest. You're either horny, or up to something." He took another drink, savoring the liquor. "Since I'm well aware you take care of your carnal needs above ground, I'm betting on the second reason."

Fletch shrugged. "So long as she gets trained and doesn't bring the roof down on your head, I figured you wouldn't give a crap."

"I don't trust you," Jack said. "There's no disputing your skills, but your motives are always a bit foggy."

"No more foggy than yours."

Jack tipped his chin up and Fletch fought to keep the flinch from being obvious. Jack didn't scare him, like he did the rest of his fawning subjects, but Fletch had a healthy dose of respect for what the man could do to him. He forced his breathing steady, kept his stance neutral, and his hand well away from the small of his back where one of his five knives was sheathed.

Jack placed his glass on the table beside the chair and stood. He crossed the five feet between them with measured steps, and stopped well within Fletch's personal space, but Fletch kept still. They were the same height, nearly the same build, though Fletch probably had a little more by way of lean muscle. In a fair fight he could've taken Jack.

In Jack's world the term 'fair fight' didn't exist.

"One of these days," Jack said, "I'm going to take you apart and see what kind of snake you are. Then I'm going to kill you."

"No doubt you'll try." How Fletch managed to keep his voice level, he couldn't say. It took every ounce of self control just to stop his fight response from kicking in full gear.

Jack's thin lips pulled up at the corners. "I'll do more than try."

A knock on the door broke the tension, and Jack turned back to his chair, flicking a gesture that swung the double doors inward. Fletch let out the breath he'd been holding as Maverick led Mosh and the girl into the room.

"What're you doing here?" Maverick grumbled.

Fletch looked sidelong at him. "Stand down, Scotty," he replied. "I don't want your job."

"Like you could ever have it." Maverick stepped in front of him and tipped his head to Jack. "Mosh has a new one for you."

Fletch moved behind Maverick's bulk to get a better view of the girl. She had to be about seventeen, he guessed, only slightly older than the over-sized sweatshirt that disguised her figure. Both looked to be covered with an annoying amount of grime.

She turned to look at him. The depth of her blue eyes pulled him in, past the guarded street look and the fear and uncertainty, to that little spark he had felt all the way across the camp.

If Jack didn't give her to him, Fletch would take her. Either way, the treasure would be his.

When Kathi told me she'd created a new character to add to the Greylands cast, I was excited to see what she'd do with him. Now that I've read it, plot pieces are suddenly falling into place for the rest of the story Read, enjoy, comment and then check out the rest of the story! 
Greylands, part 1: Adopted , by moi
Greylands, part 1: Adopted (cont'd), by Anonymous
Greylands, part 1: Firefly, by Chelsea Miller

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Submission - Greylands, Part 1: Firefly

by Chelsea Miller

Firefly watched longingly as Mosh walked away with Alexis. She hated when he brought new girls to the Shadows. Pipsqueak nudged her from her gazing, “Are you forgetting something?” Firefly sighed and ripped off a wing from the bird she was roasting and handed it to him a little roughly.

“What has you so fired up?” Bull asked her with a suspicious look.

“Nothing.” A sideways glance to where Alexis and Mosh had disappeared gave her away.

“You got a thing for the new girl or somethin’?” he joked and leaned his shoulder into hers with a chuckle. Fly growled and shoved him back.

“Don’t be stupid, Bull.” Her face reddened, lips a tight line. Pipsqueak sputtered a laugh, bits of meat flying from his mouth.

“I get it, she likes Mosh!” Pipsqueak said after swallowing the escaping food. Bull rolled his eyes, “Thanks for coming out, Squeak.”

Firefly bristled and peeled some of the bird meat into her hand. She stood suddenly and strode away from the boys, as they burst into laughter behind her. Tears threatened as she pulled back the curtain that acted as a door to her room.


Not everything has to be dark in the Shadows ;) Thanks to Chelsea for her lovely submission! 

To read more Greylands:
Greylands, part 1: Adopted , by moi
Greylands, part 1: Adopted (cont'd), by Anonymous

Monday, March 12, 2012

Robert Chazz Chute - Sex, Death & Mind Control: a review

This is perilously close to a how-to book about your favorite things: sex, death and mind control. This collection of eight short stories twists into a deliciously dark warning of how dangerous seemingly ordinary people can be. You might even be one of the dangerous ones. Each tale of psychological horror packs a gut punch of surprise every time. (Two award-winners are included in this collection.)

You're thinking about buying this book, but you're not sure. Look behind you. Make sure you're alone. Now look again, because the truth is, you're never alone. They're watching through the keyholes and your computer. They use the pipes under your toilet for antennae. Let them know you're on to them. Make them think you're one of them. Click "BUY."

No? Bad news: I'm the grim-faced man standing behind you with something behind his back. And I am not happy.

Yes? Welcome to the revolution, friend.

When I picked up Robert Chazz Chute's “Sex, Death and Mind Control (for fun and profit)”, I braced myself for strangeness. This is, after all, the author of a book called “Self-Help for Stoners” and, from the little contact I’ve had with him, is a quirky and hilarious guy. I was prepared for humour, for the absurd, and indeed the introduction, the preface, even the dedication made me laugh, giggle, or roll my eyes.

Then I hit the stories.

On a recent post, I talked about my aversion to horror. It prevents me from sleeping and usually leaves me a bleary-eyed mess in the wee hours of the night. Perhaps I should be more specific. It’s physical horror that gets to me. Bugs, ghosts, masked people with chainsaws. *shudder*.

Psychological horror, on the other hand, I love. Hannibal Lecter is probably my favourite “villain” of any thriller film/novel. The way he gets in your head and twists around thoughts until the irrational seems rational. Sure there was the physical element too, but it was secondary.

That’s the best comparison I can make to Chute’s collection of short stories. Fortune tellers, psychiatrists who master in hypnotic suggestion, PTSD victims, these shorts are full of manipulation, powerful suggestion and psychological disturbance. In some stories you’re on the side of the mind-bender, wanting his words to sink in, wanting the other character to be twisted around to his will. In others, you take the place of the victims and suffer along with them, just wanting it to be over. While all of the stories kept me reading, some caught me off guard with how powerful they were. “End of the Line”, “Jack and Diane”, and “Sidewalkers”, grabbed my attention and even (prepare yourself) made me think about the message behind him. Thoughts about human nature, my own perspective of the world around me, whether I would ever answer a telephone again – the important questions.

These stories involve very little sex and a fair amount of death, but by the time you finish reading them, you're left wondering if the mind control was something that happened to the characters...or to you.

I’m not sure if the author is working on any other projects of a similar ilk at the moment, but when he does I will be there to read them.

Find it on Amazon
Learn more about the author

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Submission - Greylands: Adopted (continued)

I've received two submissions now for my short story series, and I'm thrilled to show you the first of them. Read, comment, show your support! Interested in participating? Read the original story here, write your own (any word count, any genre - art included), email it to me at theravens.quill (at) gmail (dot) com.


Greylands: Adopted [continued]
by Anonymous
Please note: Contains some strong language, intense violence, strong sexual content and alcohol/drug use

Alexis hesitated, but the man was persuasive: “Y’all right, lass? It’s not that high a staircase. C’mon, Mosh, hurry her up these parts if you got to.”

Mosh forcefully but smoothly guided Alexis up the steps. The three of them marched towards the even darker top of this space. Meanwhile, the crackles and hums of the countless city dwellers faded from her psyche like the very flames that kept materializing and extinguishing inside of her. She had a feeling this underworld was where she was supposed to be, or she would have felt the rumble of Jake’s familiar ghost instructing her to run—it didn’t matter where, just as long as she ran.

“So what exactly are these ‘Shadows’?” she pressed, after what felt like far too much breathing time between her and the two men.

“See for yourself, young lady,” quipped Maverick once they arrived at the top. Mosh, taking a break from the manipulation of his shirt hole, kept sudden guard behind Alexis in case she was so shocked from the sights that she tumbled back. Shocked she was, but slack and disbelieving at the same time.

If the ground level was a city, she thought, then this upper level was some kind of a cross between an apartment complex and a jungle, with compressed one-room cells in the filthy walls, bordered by slime and hanging twigs with leaves. There were some pitiful strings of malfunctioning light bulbs, which made this whole forward-stretching abyss resemble some kind of nightmare factory. She could not see beyond the first several rooms on either side; everything far ahead was pitch-black, but she assumed there were simply more of these rooms ahead, since Maverick, ruddy-faced and smug, was now leading her in a very careful way through the deeper darkness. Mosh remained behind them all the same, and swept his black hair out of his eyes—not that it would help much, since one could barely see anything in the hallway, anyway…but in every room was a different story.

“Those piggy authorities on the outside, they say we are the evil ones, the uppercased ‘Shadows’ living in these secret slums,” explained Maverick, his arm increasingly secure around Alexis’s terrified body, “but we took that shit name and turned it ’round by applying it to this particular sector: this hotbed of decadence where many of our inhabitants can come and go as they please, cool off, engage in the kind of nastiness that wouldn’t be too comfortable down in the main grounds, even though the condition is goddamn near the same as ’tis up here…”

She could feel that small but precious chicken frothing in her stomach and threatening to shoot back up, when she witnessed the kinds of images and acts that she had vaguely seen before in her childhood, but was more protected from in her family environment: old, badly-scarred and bloodied men beating each other to bony pulps in a mud pit, while their significant others watched on in admiration; a young woman being straddled by another woman atop a concrete block, both with disfigured faces and with foul oils slathered all over their naked bodies; two teenagers—they looked to be around Alexis’s age—pricking each other constantly with needles and injecting their sweet heroin into the other’s veins, all while crack-headed obese people in the background sat naked on pillows, their bodies drenched in discoloured beer and wine, with saliva and vomit messing themselves and the walls; people loudly snorting cocaine, their sweat and hyperactivity like blinding, bleeding heart twitches in the darkness; people playing dead while their partners violated them with the help of others, often taunting them with dangerous tools like knives and sparking wires for more dominating; older people taking gleeful advantage of their young counterparts by rolling around on them, and with them, in apparently raw sewage, whipping each other hard with vines and howling over each other’s oozing wounds, while smoke and exotic dance music seeped from the unseen vents of the wide, echoing black corridor…

“I’m going to throw up,” Alexis belched; she threw herself into Maverick’s arms, and no longer cared what could possibly happen. Maybe this is the ultimate trap. What if Jake had warned me away from this place but I was ignoring him unconsciously in my sadness?

Mosh cleared his throat and tried unsuccessfully to coax Maverick more quickly through this area, even bringing up the tragedy that had recently happened to the girl, to sharpen the man’s senses.

“Bloody hell, you waited until now to tell me this?!” hissed Maverick to him, “It’s too fucking late for me to speed through here, now that she’s seen more than enough of it!” He quieted down and was gentler in comforting Alexis now, as she sobbed and choked against his rough attire. “S’all right, sweetheart, there’s nobody here tryin’ to kill themselves, it’s nothing like that,” he half-whispered. Meanwhile, Mosh slipped and rushed over to the cell connected to the hall speaker system, and urged the moaning tenants to turn the music down, for the sake of their “guest.”

“No shit—we got another stray?! Mosh, you dumbass, when are you gonna stop being so friggin’ sentimental wi’ that crap…” growled the ugly, bearded, stringy-haired man in rags, spitting through broken teeth while his albino, shell-shocked partner lay curled up in the corner in a black sweatsuit, spent for now. Their cell was papered with old photographs of women and stocked with towels and sanitizing gels.

“Look, are you gonna be a bit more respectful, Toxman, or will I have to get Jack to come back here and straighten you out…?”

Toxman shivered into a hilariously alert state, his bone-rattling almost on par with the rhythm of the tribal soundtrack. “I-I’ll be good.”

Mosh then pulled a small shrink-wrapped sandwich from his back pocket that he had been saving for later, and handed it to the other man. “Here you go, Powell. I can always get one of these some other time. Looks like you need some nourishment now. Keep overstressing yourself with this mess, you’re gonna explode like a tangled mop one day like Toxy here—”

“Get out, man, this is our space!” bellows Toxman, in a surprisingly powerful belt.

“No it’s not, Tox. We’re all in this together—but by the same token, you get outta your place, and we’ll have to put you back in your place…or worse, if it has to come to that.”

He sauntered back out; Maverick had long since disappeared into the deeper Shadows with Alexis, past all these surrounding rooms—which was the better idea all along. He knew his way around, though, even in this more remote and cold end-section where it was literally pitch-black and nothing else. Even minor aids like cigarette lighters or flashlights would drown in the darkness of this spot. The only way one could navigate it was with tell-tale bumps and grooves in the ground that only the most experienced of the people could discern—and it was not a high number of people.

Soon enough he found some soft light ahead, illuminating a small and seemingly dead end; it was lit with a few torches on the cleaner, rocky walls, and the ceiling was surprisingly high and pristine-looking. Alexis looked sicker and whiter than ever, of course. Yet Maverick was smart enough to have found her some more nourishment in the form of a few candies and some water from a nearby fountain, rusty but reliable, filled with their own water that they had pilfered and preserved themselves. Also bordering the space were some narrow alcoves and boxes for more storage items, and Maverick was in the middle of patiently lecturing the girl on forms of courtesy and organization in these parts.

“…Well,” he could hear Maverick concluding, before nearing a half-hidden door, “we’ve gotten the worst out of the way for this little tour, I think. You ready to meet Jack?”

Monday, March 5, 2012

11 Questions - I've been Tagged!

Thank you to the ever fabulous Keri Lake for including me on the latest blogging game. I can't say what was more fun: answering Keri's hilarious questions, or coming up with my own. As per the rules of said game, I must answer the questions, come up with 11 of my own, and then tag 11 bloggers to answer them.

Keri's questions:

1. Your day has been riddled with one crappy event after the next, starting with the mounds of laundry your lazy-ass stepmom & sisters left for you, and ending with a phone call from prince charming that he’s canceling dinner plans…for the fifth time in a row. It’s enough to make you cry. In the thick of your pity party, a petite woman, looking like she’s had one too many face lifts, appears claiming to be your fairy godmother. Figuring you’ve had a day from hell, she offers to let you have 1 day as the MC in any book of your choice. What character and book would you choose to cast yourself in for a day?

Valancy Stirling from LM Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. After she leaves her oppressive family to go out on her own, of course. That woman knew how to live.
2. You decide to have a little fun and enter yourself in the Paranormal Dating Game show coming to town. Here are the three bachelors you have to choose from:

Bachelor #1 is a brawny guy who loves the outdoors. His favorite pastime is snuggling beside a campfire and running naked through the woods on a full-moon. He’s looking for an adventurous girl who doesn’t mind a bit of shedding from time to time. An incredibly loyal companion who loves a good petting.

Bachelor #2 is a lean and charming guy who lives for the night life. You’ll never have to slave over a hot stove for this one, his diet is simple. He volunteers regularly at the local Red Cross and is looking for a woman who won’t blow a gasket when it comes to sleeping in a casket.

Bachelor #3 is smokin’ hot and will show you one hell of a good time on the town. One night with him and you’ll sell your soul for more! He bakes a sinfully good lasagna and is looking for a sexy little angel who’s not opposed to relocating to a warm climate.

Who’s it gonna be??

As good as that lasagna sounds, I think I’m going to have to go with Bacherlor #2. I like my men suave and pale. Fangs don’t hurt either. At least, not in a bad way.

3. As an added bonus, the game show offers you an all-expense paid date to anywhere you’d like (I did say all-expense paid…feel free to book a flight). Where will you go with your smexy bachelor and what will you do?

Since sunny beaches are out of the question (I hate the sun, and he’s probably not a big fan either), I’d head straight to Ireland.

4. You take a once-in-a-lifetime cruise across the globe. And wouldn’t ya know it? The damn boat sinks and you’re left stranded on a deserted island. An enormous travel chest washes up on shore and you recognize it as the one that belonged to the old rich lady with the yapping Pomeranian who boarded in front of you at the port. You open it and gasp. What’s inside?

All the books I’ve been wanting to read and haven’t had the time for. And a bottle of water. And a parasol to keep that blasted sun away.

5. You’re given the opportunity to go back in time and redo any embarrassing moment in your life (without the consequence of affecting major events like marriage and birth). What moment would you go back and change?

Thirty-six ago when I made a boo-boo at work? I embarrass myself on a regular basis, it would be hard to choose…
6. In an effort to reduce obesity in the country, the government has decided to ban all junk food and candy from being sold in stores except for ONE single item to be voted on. What junk food would you vote to keep?

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Didn’t even hesitate on that one.

7. Your spaceship, that’s been wandering black holes for God knows how long, finally lands on a strange planet in the middle of some undiscovered galaxy. It’s a gorgeous landscape that makes Earth’s paradises look like post-apocalyptic disasters. Waterfalls, tropical breezes and sexy alien clones that think you’re their long-awaited gift from the gods. Funny, they all look strangely like a famous actor you’ve seen before…who?

My Hollywood crush? Much too personal a question. To answer, I will say Johnny Depp. Would not mind that one little bit.

8. If you could sit and collaborate with any famous author from any time period, who would you pick?

I’d like to say Shakespeare, but I think we’d argue too much. I’ll go with Jane Austen. We’d sit and laugh and be cynical about the world together.

9. The world is struck by some unseen force that manages to wipe out the internet for the day. What would you do to keep yourself from going insane?

After celebrating that my leash has been struck from the ever-absorbing world that is the web? Read.

10. Your slave-driving boss just claimed your last weekend off with a Monday deadline for a major project. Because you’re a writer, you decide to vent the only way you know how…you type up a nasty email to your BFF about all the twenty ways you hope he kicks the bucket over the weekend. But instead of selecting ‘Frannie’ from your list of contacts, you accidentally select ‘Frank’…your boss. Do you fess up right away and chalk it up to a brief moment of insanity? Or do you pack up your desktop pictures and decide not to come in on Monday?

Both? I’d be obligated to go and apologise and try to explain, but probably too embarrassed to ever show my face there again. OR, I could make use of question 5 and have it never happen….
11. If you were paid big money to do nothing but follow your favorite band around on tour, what band would you follow?

Florence and the Machine. I’d never lack for inspiration.

My questions
1) That band you’ve been in love with for most of your life, that broke up and left you devastated is getting back together for a reunion tour. You stand out on the street in sluggish heat with a thousand other people, waiting in line to get your tickets. After three hours, you’re still well down the line and the manager of the box office comes out to announce there are only 10 tickets left. What do you do?

2) Your birthday is coming up! You’re more excited about this one than you have about the last five and you want a celebration to remember. Because of how completely awesome you are, a wealthy relative you didn’t know you have gives you a blank cheque to throw yourself the bestest themed party ever. Question is: what theme do you pick?

3) Your friend convinces you to go to a Saturday night séance. You can think of a million other things you’d rather do, but since you still owe her for going to that terrible movie last month, you decide to grin and bear it. Half-way through, the medium’s voice moves out of its false “trance”, into something real, and suddenly you’re communing with your favourite-now-passed-on author. You have time to ask one question. What do you ask?

4) You’ve just cleaned out the garage and are finally getting rid of some old stuff that’s been gathering dust since you stored it. You find a collection of antique teacups your grandmother left you and take it to the local pawnshop. The pawnbroker is impressed, but doesn’t want to give you money for them. Instead he wants to trade. He pulls out a chest, sets it on the counter and opens it. You agree without hesitation. What is it?

5) The opportunity has come up to be an extra in a movie. It’s the middle of winter and there are a lot of outside shots, but it’s totally worth it because of what movie it is. What movie is it?

6) You are on the starship Enterprise, and get to play around on the Holodeck. Set the scene.

7) You wake up one morning, but you’re not in your bed. You’re not in your house. In fact, you have no idea where you are. It doesn’t feel like you should panic, so you get up and start exploring. Soon, you bump into a complete stranger. After a few minutes of asking questions, you realise that somehow you’ve woken up in your favourite book! Which book and which character have you just met?

8) You’re ruler of the world for a day. What law do you impose/remove?

9) In the middle of the night your fire alarm goes off. It’s probably just a test or a false alarm because the neighbour burned his toast again, but it’s late and you don’t want to take that chance. What’s the one thing you grab before you bolt?

10) You’re walking down the street when the newsboy on the corner shouts “Extra! Extra! Read all about it – E-Readers have been discontinued!” How do you react?
11) You’re on a crowded bus happily listening to your tunes to drown out the noise of everyone else. Someone bumps you and your headphones get pulled from your mp3 player. Suddenly the song you were listening to fills the space on the bus and everyone can hear. Who is the artist you’re most likely listening to?


Sarah L Blair

Kathi L Schwengel

Julie Erwin

LW Mathias

Anne Michaud

Amy L Overley

Ren Warom

Sally Wolf

J. A. Campbell

Laura Diamond

Julie Anne Lindsey

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Greylands: Adopted

With fear and trepidation, I present the first part of the short story series. First of how many? That depends on you. I'll go based on feedback and submissions - and not just on the number of them, but also how the plot works out. I foresee a lot of changes based on what I get back.

I'm more excited to see what you decide to bring to the table in response. Can't wait to read it!
For the basic plot idea: click here. Quick run-down of how this works:
Have a blog and want to post it there? Email me the link and I'll post it here.
Don't have a blog and want the whole story posted here? Email submissions to theravens.quill (at) gmail (dot) com
Any genre, any word count, just give me a head's up if mom would blush.

Greylands: Adopted
Please note: Some strong language is used

Alexis kicked an empty soup can along the street. Her hands were shoved deep in the pockets of her grey jacket, hood pulled up against the rain. The jacket had once been green, faded over years of too much use. It had been hers since she was ten, and even then it hadn’t been new – a hand-me-down from her big brother Jake. Back then, the sleeves had fallen well past her fingertips; at least now she could say it almost fit.
“C’mon, Jake, will you just tell me where we’re going?”
“Shut up, loser, we’re not going anywhere,” he replied over his shoulder. A friendly wink took the sting out of his words and he fell back to throw an arm around her. “Why? Have somewhere you gotta be? Saying you don’t just want to spend the day with me?”
“I spend every day with you, loser,” Alexis replied in the same vein, letting a rare smile shine through the grime on her face. “S’why I know you’re planning something. We never go this way.”
They couldn’t afford anything this way. The commercial area of the city had become more of a wasteland than anything else over the last few years. Dilapidated signage, broken windows, glass-strewn streets – that’s pretty much all you’d find around here now.
Jake bumped against her and jerked his head towards one of the three shops still open along the street – a second hand clothing store, a second hand furniture store…and the grocer.
Alexis’s stomach grumbled at the sight of it. How long had it been since she’d eaten? Last night? No, yesterday morning. A sandwich of stale bread and slightly off lunch meat. It hadn’t done much to satisfy her then and now she felt it even more.
He leaned in close to her ear, his breath warm on her cheek. “What do you say, little sister? Feel like something more than wormy apples for dinner tonight?”
His meaning sunk in and her brow furrowed. They’d done it before: she’d go in and chat up the chubby grocer behind the counter while Jake went through and picked up the small items they needed. That was before, though, when there were still enough grocery shops that they could make the tour, never hitting the same place twice in a week. With only one left around here…and they’d just come last week…
“I dunno, Jake. This guy doesn’t seem as stupid as the others,” Alexis hesitated.
“You going to make me go in on my own?” he pushed, the teasing in his tone only slightly louder than the guilt-trip he was trying to pull. “You know I’m useless by myself.”
Her stomach grumbled again, conscience and hunger warring inside of her. As usual, her stomach won.
“Fine, but go for the boxed stuff, all right? He’s less likely to care about that then the fresh food.”
“Deal,” Jake grinned and took pulled her ahead.
The streets were crowded with people rushing to get out of the rain. Not that many of them had anywhere to go. Doorways were crowded with people who called the streets their home, and those with actual homes to go to hurried into shops to stare longingly at the food they could barely afford.
Alexis and Jake pushed through them all, Alexis feeling like a salmon swimming against the tide. In this city, she always felt she was going the wrong way in a crowd, pushing against instead of going with the flow of the world.
Outside the door, Jake zipped his jacket over his ragged t-shirt to appear more like he belonged in the store and Alexis mimicked him, running her fingers through her shoulder-length blonde waves and pulling it back into a ponytail. For a moment she was grateful for the rain; it washed some of the scum from her cheeks and made her hair look less like a grease-pool. How long had it been since she’d showered?
The door pushed open with a cheerful jingle, a complete contradiction to the glower of the shopkeeper behind the counter. Alexis put on her brightest smile and approached him. Jake followed behind her.
“Good morning,” she greeted.
The man – Chuck, his nametag read – grunted and responded to her smile with a sullen nod, eyes narrowed. Every time he was like this and it made Alexis’s stomach tighten. We won’t make it, not this time. He knows what we’re doing. But so far they had been lucky. She had to believe their luck would hold one more time.
“Crazy weather we’re having, huh?” she started, making sure to stand right in Chuck’s line of sight. “You’d think it was August or something with all this rain, not February. Where’s the snow?”
It was mindless babble, but weather was a good place to start. Usually. Today, Chuck just grunted. “Either way all it does is drive people into my store who can’t pay for anything,” he spat, eyes fixed on the mirror in the corner, angled to see the whole shop. Alexis was familiar enough with the place to know there was a blind spot near the granola bars in the back, right where Jake was headed. She knew when he disappeared from view because Chuck’s gaze moved back to her and she breathed a small sigh of relief. Now time to focus his interest.
“Have anything new come in this week? And, you know, cheap?”
He snorted. “Cheap? No. Got some apples come in, forty bucks a pound.”
Alexis let out a loud breath. That was double what she remembered her parents paying as a kid. “That’s a bit out of my price range. What about tomatoes?” They were local and sometimes she was lucky.
The bell at the door chimed again as someone else came in and Chuck’s eyes jumped to the door. Out of habit Alexis turned to glance over her shoulder and her heart raced to see two uniformed officers – one tall and skinny, the other short and fat, just like a bad nursery rhyme – strutting in towards the fresh fruit section. One of them hitched up his belt, weapon obvious in the holster at his hip. She worked to keep her face free of the terror inside of her, not wanting to show Chuck that the cops made her nervous.
“Not for a month,” the shopkeeper answered, returning his focus back to the tomatoes.
By now Jake should have grabbed whatever he was going for and another level of tension eased in Alexis’s chest.
She gave a disappointed shrug. “I guess that’s it for me this week then. You think you could keep some tomatoes aside for me next time they come in? I think I could pay for one.”
But Chuck was not one for sympathetic pleas. He crossed his arms over his chest. “You come in when there’s food, you can pay, you get it. I’m not saving anything for maybes.”
Alexis opened her mouth, whether to thank him or curse him she couldn’t be sure, but Chuck cut her off with a loud yell.
“You! Stop! Thief!” He pointed over Alexis’s shoulder and she whipped around to see Jake drop the fruit in his hands and run towards the door.
“Alexis, run!” he shouted at her, but her feet were glued to the ground. “Run!” he repeated, and this time his urgency moved her to action. He reached the door before she did and the first gunshot fired, the second a moment later. The jingle of the bell was lost in the ringing of Alexis’s ears. She screamed as Jake crumpled to a heap in the doorway, bits of brain and hair sticking to the glass of the door, a second pool of blood spread out beneath the second hole in his chest.
Her brother’s blank eyes stared ahead, met hers and as if from his ghost as he left the world, she heard him again in her head. Run.
So she did. She jumped over Jake’s body, shoved through the half-open door, blood from the glass smeared across her palms, and began to run. But just like before the crowds were moving against her, pushing her backwards into the waiting hands of the cops, who grabbed her wrists and wrestled her arms behind her back, snapping the cuffs on so tightly in pinched.
“Only thing worse than a good kid turned thief is a pretty one like you,” one of the men hissed in her ear – the fat one, Alexis guessed by the smell of bacon on his breath. His words suggested sympathy, but the way his nose brushed against her hair as he inhaled her scent made Alexis gag.
Her eyes scanned the crowds for someone who would help her, but it was like she wasn’t there. Everyone’s eyes focused blankly ahead, or on the ground. No one wanted to notice one more injustice they couldn’t fix. Their emptiness filled Alexis with bitter fury and she lashed out, struggling to get away from the strong grip on her arms. Jake was dead – these bastards had killed him, and now they put their hands on her?
She kicked and pulled, struggled and screamed, but the tall one only laughed at her efforts and landed a blow across her cheek so hard she saw stars.
“That’s enough of that,” he said, perfectly shaped nail poking in her face. “You come along quietly or you end up like your friend over there. Those are your options. I’ll give you five seconds to consider them.”
Alexis wanted to spit in his eye. She wanted to reach her knee high enough to get the pig right in the jewels…but she was starving. Her anger grew, but her rebellion died and she glared murder at his boots.  
Tears stung her eyes and she bit down on her tongue so hard she tasted blood. Jake was dead. It meant she was alone, but it also meant he didn’t have to live in this festering shithole of a city anymore. She would be happy for him for that. Even if she had to bite most of her tongue off to stop the tears from falling.
“Good girl,” the tall one approved, and squeezed her skinny arm tight enough to leave bruises. Alexis dragged her feet between them as they pulled her along the street.
“Get out of my way!” a shout reached them from ahead.
“How about you look where you’re going, asshole. Move!” came the angry reply.
The street congested with a growing cluster of oglers as the fight started and the cops exchanged a glance over Alexis’s head. The fat one let go of her to push through the crowd.
“All right, all right, let’s break this up, huh?” he called, grabbing one man by his collar to pull him out of the way.
The curses and shouting between the two people grappling on the road got louder as the fat cop reached them and grabbed one of them by the hair. In an instant chaos broke out as both fighters turned on the cop and started yelling and kicking him. Alexis wanted to cheer them on.
“Frank, help!” the fat cop yelled to the tall one. Frank maintained his hold on Alexis and began to move towards his partner.
Somewhere in the mass of crowd, something grabbed Alexis’s hand. She turned behind her to see a boy about ten give her a wink and smile, and nod for her to follow him. It didn’t take much to escape Frank with his focus so scattered, and in a moment she was running with the boy away from the crowds down the length of the deserted street. He took a hard left into an alleyway and only there did he stop to let Alexis catch her breath.
The boy disappeared behind her and a moment later she heard a click and her hands were free. She rubbed her wrists to get the numbness out of her fingers.
“Thank you,” she said.
The boy shrugged, as if he hadn’t just done something like save her life. His mop of brown hair fell into his eyes and covered the splash of freckles that covered his pasty skin. “We saw you needed help. Someone has to stand up to those coppers, right?” he squeaked. 
“We?” Alexis asked.
The boy’s smile widened, showing two missing teeth, and he glanced back towards the crowd. Alexis followed his gaze, her own eyes widening in understanding.
“The fighters?”
“Mosh and Bull,” he said. “That’s their thing.”
It took her a moment to realise he was referring to people. “Mosh? Bull? Strange names.” The boy shrugged again. “What’s your name?”
“Pipsqueak,” he answered. “Who are you?”
“Alexis,” she replied, and watched as Pipsqueak shook his head in disapproval. Maybe he thought her name was too boring.
“Squeak? You down here?” a familiar voice hissed from the edge of the alley. Pipsqueak let out a strange mouse-like call and a hulking shadow moved into the light. Alexis leaned closer against the wall, suddenly feeling that coming into an alley with a stranger, even a child, hadn’t been the wisest idea. She wished Jake was with her. He would know what to do.
Her chest tightened and once again she shoved her tongue between her teeth.
“You get her?” another voice asked.
“You got eyes, don’t ya?” Pipsqueak answered, climbing up on boxes of garbage and sitting down on top, letting his feet dangling over. “She says her name’s Alexis.”
“Strange name,” the smaller of the two – and not by much – replied. Black hair dripped with rainwater and blood ran from his nose, his t-shirt torn across the chest, yet an impish smile was on his face with no hint of discomfort or anger at his recent fight. “Mosh,” he said, using his arm to wipe his face.
“Bull,” said the other massive boy. These two looked to be around Alexis’s age, but easily twice her size. For being the larger of the two, Bull didn’t seem to have done much better in their skirmish. His left eye was already nearly swollen shut.
“Are you guys all right?” she asked, concerned.
Pipsqueak joined the other two in a laugh at her expense and Mosh clapped a hand on her shoulder that nearly brought her to her knees.
“Sweet of you to worry, but we’ve got this covered,” he said. “Glad we could help. Try to stay out of trouble, all right? These cops, they have no mercy.”
 Bull nodded his bald head, eyes grim. “Damn right. Think they own this place now. Forget there are still more of us than of them.” His expression softened. “I’m sorry about the guy you were with.”
“My brother,” Alexis said. “I’ll be fine.”
Jake would have been proud to hear the strength in her voice. He had trained her pretty well in what she needed to do to survive. She would be all right on her own.
“We’d better get going,” Pipsqueak said to Mosh and Bull. “Jack’ll be angry enough about what happened.”
Mosh groaned, lips twisted into a grimace. “Probably right. Better go and face the ringleader before his brain explodes.”
Alexis blanched and Mosh’s eyes widened. “Sorry,” he said. Alexis waved him away.
The three boys all gave her a nod as they walked past her, heading towards the opposite end of the alley – what appeared to be a dead end. She watched them, trying not to think about what she was going to do next.
Mosh, the first of them to reach the end, paused and turned back around. “You have someplace to go?” he called to her.
Alexis wanted to say yes, to not seem pathetic and helpless. But the truth was she really didn’t. She shook her head.
“Better come with us then,” he said. Pipsqueak’s jaw dropped and he looked from Mosh to Alexis to Bull. Bull grunted his agreement and pushed against the wall until something moved and he disappeared into it.
“Jack’s going to kill you,” Pipsqueak muttered.
Mosh shrugged. “He’s welcome to try. Worst that can happen is he kills her, but he’d at least make it quick.”
Alexis stared back at him, considering. He was right, a quick death by Jack would be better than a slow death by starvation, or rape and torture by Frank and his fat friend. So she followed them to the end of the alley.
Mosh stood by to let her go first and Alexis stepped through what turned out to be a makeshift doorway in the brick. Bull stood on the other side, waiting for them to pass and go down the crate-and-stone steps to the cement floor below so he could seal it shut again. For the second time Alexis wondered if she had made the wrong decision. Sure, these guys seemed normal and helpful, but where the hell were they taking her? Secret passageways behind buildings? Bricked up doorways?
Bull pulled the heavy door back into place and the cramped space was thrown into darkness. Unable to see, Alexis’s heart rate sped up again and her palms grew sweaty, feeling like she wanted to claw her way out of the nothingness. There was a click and light returned to the world as first Bull and then Mosh flicked on their lighters. Bull led the way, followed by Pipsqueak. Mosh gestured for Alexis to go next and he followed behind her.
“It took about ten years to build this place,” Mosh explained, reading her thoughts. “We’ve got exits all over this city.”
“Go ahead and tell her all our secrets why don’t you?” Pipsqueak snorted.
“Hey, little man, you volunteered to help with his. Keep your yap shut and don’t play the innocent bystander, all right?”
“If you guys don’t want me here, I’m happy to go,” Alexis snapped, tired of them fighting over her. She was used to not being wanted, but they didn’t have to rub it in her face.
“Ignore Squeak,” Mosh answered, eyes narrowed at the smaller boy. “He’s just afraid of getting spanked by Jack.”
“Who is Jack?” By what she’d heard of him so far, he sounded like a grumpy parent.
“The Jack of all Trades. He leads the way around here. Picks us, trains us, sends us out on errands.”
“You don’t like him?” It was a safe guess, based on Pipsqueak’s fear of Jack’s reaction to her being there.
“Are you kidding?” Mosh grinned. “We’d be nowhere without him. Don’t let Squeak’s cowardice fool you. Jack can be scary, but he only wants to protect us. Our secret is what keeps us safe.”
Alexis tried to keep track of the maze they were in as they walked, but after the fourth left-then-right, she gave up and accepted that she’d probably never see the sky again.
Another right turn and the tunnel opened up to a larger, more cavernous corridor. The flicker of lighter fire glinted off metal below and Bull grabbed the back of Alexis’ jacket as she nearly stepped over the edge of a five-foot drop. Her hand flew to her chest to stop her heart from bursting through her ribs.
“Subway tunnels,” he explained, nodding to the abandoned tracks, and she backed away from the fall.
“Thanks,” she gasped, and he, too, only shrugged in reply.
The squeak and scurry of rats made Alexis cringe. The transit system had shut down before Alexis was born, most of the tunnels and street accesses sealed. Large signs were posted outside of old depots warning people to keep out of the tunnels, warning that they were monitored 24/7. Clearly, that was a lie.
As they wandered farther down the tunnels, Alexis was able to see the domed ceiling more clearly, and echoes other than the sound of their boots on the pavement reached them. Voices.
Mosh and Bull extinguished their lighters and let the light of larger fires lead them around the next bend to what was nothing less than a little city. Tents, blankets and campfires scattered the area, forts built out of crates, rope, and plywood balanced on stairs into bunk towers for more people to find places to sleep.
Alexis gaped and she shifted closer to Mosh, staring in wonder.
“What is this place?” she whispered.
Mosh grinned. “This is home. I told you: Jack finds us, he trains us, he keeps us safe. This is where it all happens.”
“Trains you to do what exactly?” Alexis asked, her mouth watering at the smell of meat cooking over a fire. Her gaze fell on some sort of browned and crispy bird. Her stomach grumbled.
“Who’s the chickie?” demanded a girl no more than fourteen on the other side of the fire. She was tending to her dinner with lemon and the tanginess added to the flavours already building in Alexis’s mouth.
“Name’s Alexis,” Pipsqueak answered, sitting down next to her and making a grab for a leg. “Brother just got shot by the coppers topside.”
Alexis focused on the turning bird. She felt Mosh brace, as if prepared for her to attack, but as far as she was concerned, they hadn’t said anything. Her tongue started bleeding again.
“Huh,” the girl replied, swatting Pipsqueak’s hand away. That was the end to her reaction of the boy’s news. “Bring me the spices I asked you for, Squeak? If you did, you can share.”
Pipsqueak gave his gap-toothed grin and pulled a plastic bottle from his pocket. “Swiped it before the fight. I want a wing.”
“And a leg for Alexis,” Mosh spoke up, hearing Alexis’s stomach.
The girl’s eyebrow twitched. “What’s she done to deserve it?” she asked. “I never seen her hunt.”
“And if Jack had said the same thing when you first got here? Where’d you be, Fly?”
She grunted, her brow twisted. “Whatever.”
“This is Firefly,” Mosh introduced as he pulled a leg off and handed it to Alexis. She brought the greasy flesh to her lips and sank her teeth in glory. When had she last had fresh meat? Months? She moaned in pleasure as she chewed.
“Nice to meet you,” she said after swallowing. “You’re an amazing cook.”
Firefly’s eyes narrowed, but Alexis caught a glint of pride within them. “Damn right I am,” the girl replied, minus a bit of the hostility. “Jack lets you stay here, you bring me stuff to cook with, you get free share – same deal I got with Squeak.”
Alexis nodded her understanding.
If Jack lets you stay,” she repeated, amused. Her eyes jumped to Mosh. “Word’s out.”
“Of course it is,” Mosh sighed. “People here got big mouths.”
“Bring us food, at least then those mouths’d be full,” Firefly pointed out.
Mosh turned to Alexis who by now was ripping the last of the meat off the bone. “Come on. It’ll be worse if he thinks we’re avoiding him.”
Alexis thanked Firefly again, received another shrug, and then she and Mosh headed off, Bull staying behind with Pipsqueak and Firefly.
They hadn’t gone far when another voice stopped them.
“So it’s true. Mosh, when are you going to learn to stop bringing home strays?”
If the smell of cooking dinner had made her mouth water, this man’s voice turned her legs to butter. A heavy Scots accent rumbled through lips surrounded by unshaved bristles. Auburn hair swept low over his forehead and blue eyes sparked in fun. His arms were crossed over his chest and he leaned against the wall, one leg propped up behind him.
“Tell them to stop being so cute and I would. But come on, look at her.”
Alexis’s face flushed under the new guy’s closer attention, but she stared back, shoulders squared. He was older than she was by a few years. Probably a bit older than Jake, too – early twenties at least.
“You Jack?” she asked, thinking it likely based on his reaction. She was startled when he let out a guffaw and pushed himself off of the wall.
“Me? You must be joking, lass. I’m not a hard-assed demon like Jack.”
“This is Maverick,” Mosh introduced. “He’s second in command around here.”
“Aye, that’s about it,” Maverick agreed. “And who are you?”
“Alexis,” she said.
His eyes narrowed. “That’s a good name for a hardened lass, but you don’t strike me as the type. You’re the damsel in distress and no mistake – blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. I wouldn’t worry about Jack throwing you to the hounds. He’ll find good use for you round here.” He matched the new glare on her face with a grin. “You two follow me, and I’ll give you the tour before I take you to Jack. More to learn about this place than you’ll ever have time for, but this’ll teach you what you need to know.”
He gestured grandly to the wide staircase going up to the higher level. “Well, Damsel, welcome to the Shadows.”