He Who Controls the Pumpkin Spice Controls the World

Folks, there’s a war on our beloved holiday. Tinpot dict-haters are rising up and demanding we, the faithful, hate what they hate, despise what they despise. They’ll use subjective things like “science” and “facts” to point out that our great holiday love isn’t real, that it’s all artificial nonsense put forward by marketing execs looking to make a buck off the suckers. They sit upon their thrones of lies and slander and spew forth so much vitriol it’s hard to keep the faith. The faith…

…in pumpkin spice.

Well, true believers, I’m here to bring you the good word. Despite the hate, despite the armpit noises from those who thumb their noses and say, “Nyah, pumpkin spice isn’t even really pumpkin, nyah, so you shouldn’t enjoy it, nyah,” I am here to tell you the pumpkin spice spirit is here to stay if you’re just willing to believe in its goodness, its rightness with the universe. Not only is pumpkin spice alive and well in our hearts, but it’s in the stores on the shelves, in the cappuccino dispensers at your gas station that probably haven’t been rinsed out and properly washed in five years, in your drive-throughs along with a coked-out Charlie Sheen or an irate Jim Cornette (go look it up).

We’re not here today to bash our pumpkin spice hating brothers and sisters, though. The Great Pumpkin Spice loves us all, regardless of if we have good taste or not. Instead, I’m here to tell you about the 2018 Pumpkin Spice Cereal Extravaganza, in which I detail for you – yes, you! – just what the best pumpkin spice cereal is from the three I found at the grocery store.

PUMPKIN SPICE FROSTED FLAKES

We’re going to start things off with a winner. I don’t particularly dislike any type of cereal, but there are a great many I’m largely ambivalent towards, and Frosted Flakes is usually one of them. I’m certainly happy to have it if it’s on sale or it’s what there is, but I don’t particularly go out of my way to buy it.

Until now.

Pumpkin Spice Frosted Flakes are probably the strangest of the bunch, in that up front, it doesn’t have a distinct flavor at all. There’s a bit of cinnamon, but mostly it just tastes sweet. It takes a second for the pumpkin spice flavor to really hit, but when it does, it’s pretty fantastic. It’s neither as overbearingly strong as the Cheerios we’ll talk about in a minute or as understated as the Frosted Shredded Wheat. Of the three, the pumpkin spice flavor is probably the best in this one, though I do think the initial sugary taste can come off as a bit strong.

So is it good? Hell yes. And it makes the milk even better, so that’s a bonus. Also great? The smell when you first open the box. It’s sort of a musty nutmeg smell and it’s fantastic.

PUMPKIN SPICE CHEERIOS

Of the three I tested, I’m probably down on these the most. I’d rank the other two as great, but Pumpkin Spice Cheerios are mostly okay, and that’s thanks to an almost overbearing amount of cloves and a strange lack of blending of flavors.

It’s immediately apparent when you bite into these that they didn’t change the formula too much from pre-existing Cheerios and pretty much just tossed on the pumpkin spices as an afterthought. These still very much taste like Honey Nut Cheerios at their core, but now have been dusted in cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. None of it comes together very well until it’s had a chance to soak in milk a bit, but when it does, it works.

Along that same line, the milk it leaves behind is definitely the best of the bunch and it makes me wonder if we aren’t far off from pumpkin spice milk being a thing on shelves. I’ve seen it in egg nog form, so why not?

PUMPKIN SPICE FROSTED SHREDDED WHEAT

These were my favorite of the bunch. Both the other cereals were, by nature, based on already sweet cereals, and didn’t try to curb that in favor of the pumpkin spice, leaving some awkward mixing of flavors and overbearing sugars. Frosted Shredded Wheat has the advantage in that it’s normally a very subdued sweetness – sure, there’s sugar there, but it’s not as up front as Frosted Flakes or Honey Nut Cheerios.

Plus, the shredded wheat benefits from a certain understatement to its pumpkin spice. It doesn’t try to throw the spices in your face. Of all three, it seems to recognize that too much of a good thing is a hindrance, not a boon, and instead it goes for a classier taste. It’s the one that tastes the least like traditional pumpkin spice flavors, but in this case, that plays to the strengths of the cereal itself.

So there you have it. In the great Pumpkin Spice Cereal Wars of ’18, Frosted Shredded Wheat is your winner. I should also note that Wal-Mart’s pumpkin cream muffins are fantastic. That’s probably been my favorite pumpkin spice purchase of the year. The price doesn’t hurt either – you can get two for $2.50.

Thanks for reading, and have a happy, fun Halloween, everyone.

Cutthroat is now available for pre-order!

My latest novella and the season three closer to the Adamanta series, Cutthroat, is now available for pre-order! When a Beltine mining facility is found in the midst of an asteroid field, the Lady Contessa and her crew are tasked with destroying it. But they’re beat to the punch by an industrialist and a weapons designer intent on studying the Beltine. What should have been a chance for humankind to give the Beltine a black eye instead turns into a brutal rescue mission as something new and malevolent is unleashed in the mining facility, something even the Beltine are terrified of.

Pre-order your copy here for just $1.99! And if you haven’t, check out the rest of the series. The first episode is free, so hey, you’re not out anything by giving it a look.

On My Grandma’s Passing

I was not the grandson my Grandma Betty really wanted.

That’s not to say she didn’t love me, or that she even particularly disliked me. Grandma and I, especially between about 2005-2008 or so, were the very definition of friends. We went on road trips together. We helped each other out with the unpleasant crap in our lives just by keeping each other company. We tried and succeeded 95% of the time to be amiable.

But the fact of the matter was simply that we were two very different people who shared an irritability and general owliness that could, at times, be a bit of a subdued powderkeg.

I’m going to back up a second and iterate that I loved Grandma Betty, and I admire her dedication to certain things. She had an absolutely amazing work ethic, and her frugalness is a bit of an inspiration in an era of over-indulgence, of which I’m particularly guilty. She lived simply, she cared deeply, and she always handled her business. Even in the end years of her life, when her mind was starting to go a little bit, Grandma tried to keep her bills and medical needs in order, and even if that wound up being a nightmare sometimes for the family (she insisted over and over again she needed to get down to the DMV for new tags, even when she’d been called and told she had permanent plates), it is still something I respect and admire.

But Grandma lived and breathed in a different world than me. She was raised on a ranch, living her days here in White Sulphur Springs. Certainly, she traveled to a few others places, but traveling with Grandma always felt a bit like she was being pulled back by a great big rubber band around her waist. This place was her home, her sanctuary, her fortress against a changing world she stubbornly refused to understand. Here, she fought against using computers or anything more complex on her land line than the answer or hang-up buttons. Cell phones and computers were nearly magic to her, and I can’t think of a single time in the last twenty years she knew how to operate her various cars’ radios, often times just leaving on whatever the grandkids had put on simply because she didn’t know how to shut it off. I never saw her pick up a book, and until the last few years of her life, she never cared much for television.

She loved local sports. Loved ’em. Cheering on the football team was her idea of a party. Going and watching the basketball games? Slightly less so, but still her jam. She lived for her kids’ and grandkids’ games. I can’t tell you a time I’ve seen my grandmother happier than when one of my cousins was running a football into the end zone.

Compare that to me. I am a technophile. My dream of traveling the world spurs not just my day-to-day existence but the work I do. I’ve lived several different places across the US and I plan on living in more someday. In terms of sports, I was a complete disappointment on every level. There’s not a physical game I’m good at, and so Grandma never really had the same kinds of highs with me. Even my brother, who generally gave as much of a wet fart about sports as I did, was a hell of a baseball stud and she could root him on when he was managing the football team or playing in the pep band.

I was none of those things to her. I was a geek, and she was a woman to whom geekery was completely incomprehensible. I read and read and read, and apart from a token attempt to get my interest in some old Louis L’Amour books that gathered dust in her spare bedroom, Grandma just wasn’t a reader or a conversationalist when it came to fictional stories in general, save for the Westerns she loved on TV. I played sports solely to piss off coaches (that’s no exaggeration). She attended some of my extracurriculars, and to Grandma’s credit, she was great at trying to support me, even if what I was doing obviously wasn’t her cup of tea.

The most important divide, and here’s where we start to dive into Grandma Betty’s greatest and most terrible character fault, is this – I never really needed Grandma in a way that a lot of my cousins or family members did. Oh sure, I had a temper on me, and more than once I walked down to her house from my parents to sleep off my mental poison. There were times I’d get so mad at my family I thought about running away, and she was there to patiently take me in, let me blow off some steam, and then talk me back down in the morning.

But apart from that? I didn’t get in trouble with the cops. I didn’t need money from her. I didn’t need to store stuff at her place, or crash at her house at any point while I got on my feet, or need her to take care of my kids. I was, pretty much, a boring, good kid who kept to himself. My grandma, on the other hand, was a woman with a very real psychological need within herself to take care of people. To worry about things.

I didn’t realize this until I was well into adulthood and beyong the point of being legally blind, but apart from when I was a very little kid, the happiest moments for my grandma when it came to the two of us were two-fold: one was when I’d travel with her to visit her nursing-home bound second husband Bob, a task few people really wanted to do for a lot of reasons. She was human, and having someone with her on those expeditions was something of a balm for her. Maybe that’s tooting my own horn but I do think it made it easier for her to have someone there with her, and she could rely on my regularly going with her. The fun we had on those trips was tempered by the situation – Bob suffered from a stroke and could be cantankerous at the best of times and downright mean to Grandma at his worst, as well as being wildly illogical at times and unrealistic as to his situation. But we did enjoy each other’s company, even if we drove the other a little bit nuts sometimes.

The second time Grandma was really content with me was when she helped me with rides or drives around town, something I’m not able to do by myself. I didn’t quite figure this one out until recently, but those trips weren’t for her. Not in her mind. The chance to help me out with something like going to the vet or getting groceries or whatever the case happened to be made her feel a connection with me she didn’t often get to have. I’m stretching there – she never said as much – but I think I’m right. She was a different person on those rides – happy in a way she generally wasn’t under other circumstances talking to me.

However, that came with an ugly price when it came to other family members. Grandma protected her own, always, and maybe sometimes when family shouldn’t have been protected. Sometimes blinders could go up, particularly when it came to her grandchildren, who she knew could do some serious wrongs and yet she still took them in, helped them out, and seemingly always took their sides until other family members interjected on her behalf.

It sounds odd, but Grandma needed that worry. She clung to it. If something wasn’t wrong, she’d invent something in her mind to worry about, and no amount of reassurances would convince her otherwise. It’s wrong to say that Grandma was blind to the drug usage, the alcoholism that fueled brushes with the law, or the general dickbaggery that comes with having so many family members. She was perfectly aware of what was going on and tolerated it because she thought by accepting those people in her life and taking them in no matter what, she was doing the right thing.

And at times, that hurt to watch. And it happened over and over and over again. I wish, just once, I hadn’t listened to her when she turned down my offer to stand up for her. I wish I’d done what I almost certainly would have done for anyone else and just gone full asshole on people. I didn’t. I watched, as she requested. And lo and behold, the age-old adage of “give a person an inch” kept coming true.

That was Grandma for you, though. She took care of us even when she probably shouldn’t have, when she should have thrown up her hands and said enough. She loved and loved and loved, for better, for worse.

The rest of this blog is going to be rather sort of scattershot. I apologize – it’s late, I’m tired, and I’m working on a huge undertaking that’s left me mentally exhausted. But I wanted to share some minor tidbits that maybe aren’t so minor to me.

  • Grandma was ornery and frustratingly stubborn – unless you happened to have genitals and had “M.D.” behind your name. She was gaga over several of her male doctors, and would listen to their advice even when it went against the grain of her insanely hard-held beliefs. For example, her dislike of anything even remotely spicy went bye-bye for a day when her doctor in Great Falls recommended Chili’s to her as a place to eat. Another doctor here in town received a treat every day he was around unfailingly because she was such a big fan of his. Not another soul in town could claim that (apart maybe from my dogs).
  • I don’t think I realized until I was fourteen or so that Grandma actually knew how to fart. In an elevator visiting family in the hospital, someone squeaked one out, and it wasn’t me. She looked down slightly, and this big, dopey grin spread across her face like she was a little girl again – and she giggled. Every time afterwards, and it wasn’t often, when I’d catch her farting again, she’d get that same grin and giggle fit. Seriously, it was adorable.
  • When she had earwax, Grandma wouldn’t just jam her pointer finger in there like a normal human being. This is going to require a demonstration, so follow along at home. Hold up your hand next to your ear, your thumb splayed out, your palm facing forward. Now pop your thumb into your ear and start waving your hand down and up repeatedly.  Again, this woman was damn adorable.
  • Grandma was the worst driver I’ve ever known. Worse than me. She didn’t know how to turn on her high beams, and on a trip home from visiting an uncle in Livingston, I had to have her pull over so I could show her how to work them. This wasn’t when I was a kid. This was only about ten years ago. Same with her turn signals. She spent the better part of her adult life not knowing how high beams worked or how to kick on the turn signals in her car. She also never parallel parked, opting instead to just park on the street. I am utterly mystified as to how she passed a driver’s test.
  • I will miss her baked beans and her mashed potatoes. I will miss her calling Yoda “Yoga” unfailingly and insisting he was a she. I want to forever remember being a kid and riding under the carts when she worked at Circle V or Mathis Food Farm. I want to remember the Christmas Eves I could spend at her house and learn to let go of the ones where I couldn’t due to other familial issues. I want this town to forever remember her as the one who took care of their elders in the nursing home and who always made sure their kids had an Easter Egg hunt at the park or at the hospital.
  • Perhaps most of all, I want to repeat the words Ryan said to me when I asked him if he wanted to pass on a message to Grandma when she was in the hospital for her last hours here. He told me to tell her thank you for giving us the best mom in the world. This whole post I’ve stayed dry-eyed, but this one hurts the most to admit it. I wasn’t able to say those words. I choked. But Ryan meant it, and Grandma knew it in her heart, that she had, through her love and compassion, provided the world with an absolutely amazing daughter and mother.

I miss you, Grandma. And I love you. Thank you. God bless you.

 

Book Bubbin’ 07/15/18 – Last Night in Montreal

Today’s entry is going to be super brief – my grandmother is in the hospital and I’m in a hurry to get back there to visit. Please don’t think that this in some way is a comment on the quality of the writers I’m about to talk about, because all of them are top notch.

My highlight for the week is Last Night in Montreal ($2.99 on Amazon), written by Emily St. John Mandel, she of Station Eleven fame. If you’re new to my blog or haven’t heard me shout it from the rooftops yet, my heart thumps a little bit faster thinking about that book and its gorgeous writing, heartfelt characters, and its beautifully haunting plot. It’s the sort of book I look at as a writer and I’m humbled by the sheer amount of talent on every level that went into it. Have I thrown enough hyperbole her way? No? How about the ability to make a viral apocalypse somehow a bittersweet, hopeful thing (at least for a few of its characters)?

I haven’t read Last Night in Montreal, but judging from the blurb, it’s a more traditional literary piece about a girl abducted by her father and who now lives a life on the move as a woman. That’s a solid premise, and it’s a book I look forward to reading soon.

I’m just going to say it one more time – Emily St. John Mandel is well worth your time.

Other books worth mentioning this week:

Floating Dragon (Peter Straub, $1.99 on Amazon) – Straub is one of those horror greats I chewed up in junior high and high school. Ghost Story was a seminal book in my quest to read everything ginormous and horror-related, one I really ought to revisit sometime soon. I haven’t read Floating Dragon (I wasn’t aware Mr. Straub was still writing, and I should have been), but it looks like one of his traditionally solid horror novels. I look forward to seeing if it has the same sort of delightful ichoric feel of Ghost Story.

The Afghan (Frederick Forsyth, $1.99 on Amazon) – If you’ve never read Day of the Jackal, Odessa File, or Dogs of War, you owe it to yourself to check out Forsyth. His political thrillers hold up well under modern scrutiny. I haven’t read his more modern novels like The Afghan, but if it’s anything like the ones mentioned above, you can expect a punchy, well-informed thriller with a lot of forward motion.

Buck Fever (Ben Rehder, free on Amazon) – In the interest of transparency, Ben is an online acquaintance, but since his novel’s free today, it’s not like you’re out any great sum by giving it a shot. Ben is a terrifically funny guy, and while I haven’t read Buck Fever, judging from the Look Inside feature, this looks to be proof of that. A texan comedy sounds like good medicine to me. Give it a shot!

And that does it for this week. What are you reading?

Book Bloggin’ – 07/10/18

Great! My second entry in, and I’ve already missed a deadline on a new blog feature.

Since I didn’t get around to checking my Sunday edition of the BookBub discounted books for the day, I’ll be discussing a bit about what I’m reading. On a bit of a small vacation last week, I managed to read a goodish chunk of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I’m pretty impressed with. I like the simple, basic prose combined with the more elegiac interludes and dream sequences. There’s a lot of striking imagery in those spots of the novel, while the rest is focused on crisp momentum and progression, as well as character development in some small doses.

I’ve also been listening to The Rooster Bar by John Grisham. It’s my first Grisham novel since… oh hell, 2000 or so, and it’s a surprisingly good one. I generally tend to prefer his work to many of his peers – he doesn’t generally talk down to readers, and weaves the courtroom specifics in a pretty entertaining manner. I did get a little burned out on his samey characters, but Rooster Bar so far has introduced some likable, fascinating characters that seem pretty interesting so far.

I’ve also been catching up on John Sandford’s Prey novels, and I’m up to Mortal Prey (roughly halfway through the series). I keep waiting to get burned out on them, but truthfully, I’m not. They’re all generally perfectly entertaining novels, leaning more on the side of entertainment than procedure. I’ve mentioned before my own style is influenced in a lot of ways by his – I love his dialogue – nut purely from a readerly perspective, his earliest novels still hold up.

All right, sorry for the brevity of this post, but I’m in a writing blitz at the moment, a rarity after a recent hospital stay. Thanks for reading!

Book Bubbin’ 07/01/18 – Already Dead

Welcome to the newest feature I’ll probably forget to update and let slide for months on end. In Book Bubbin’, I’ll be taking a weekly look through BookBub’s featured novels and talk about one or two that I’ve read and recommend. Alternately, if I haven’t read any, I’ll talk about which ones look interesting to me. It’s going to be a fun way to pass the time in between releases. Feel free to chime in with whatever you pick up yourself, whatever you’re reading, or the like.

This week’s biggest pick for me is Charlie Huston’s Already Dead (featured on Amazon for $1.99 here). A pulpy, hard-boiled suspense series about a PI-type vampire named Joe Pitt circumnavigating various undead gangs of New York, the Pitt novels are lean, angry, and brilliantly written. Charlie Huston eschews a lot of the conventions of writing in favor of fast delivery and action, often times switching between first and third person and doing without quotation marks. If that sours you, think about giving it a once-over with the Look Inside feature. It’s something you learn not to notice remarkably quick.

I’ve mentioned it before, but Charlie Huston’s lean, pulpy style is one of the biggest influences on my Rankin Flats novels, outside of John Sandford. I love that he takes what is a traditional PI story and runs with it to some wild extremes, letting the genre evolve as his characters continue to get drawn into the world around them. I’m also a huge fan of his punchy, to-the-point dialogue.

Already Dead is the first of the series, and arguably the best. It’s a great jumping off point to introduce yourself to Charlie Huston’s work, and if you like it, I highly recommend his Hank Thompson trilogy (a non-supernatural suspense/action series) and Sleepless (a suspense novel against the backdrop of a massive plague inflicting – you guessed it – sleeplessness on the population).

Other books of note this week include Savage Season (Joe Lansdale), the first Hap and Leonard novel and the basis for the first season of the terrific TV series. I haven’t read this one yet but I did love the TV show, so I’m looking forward to diving into it sometime soon. My acquaintance Meghan Doidge also has I See Me, the first in her paranormal romance series Oracle on sale. I haven’t read it, but I mention it for fans of the more romantic aspects of my own novels. Plus, it’s free, so hey, it’s worth a shot for fans of the genre.

And that’s it! Reading anything good?

A rough look at the first chapter of Journey of the Caged

Working on the rewrite of Journey of the Caged, and I figured I’d share the new introduction with you fine folks. Keep in mind, this is unedited and rough, but it will give you an idea of what I’m going for. Be warned – violence and bloodshed ahead.

Chapter 1:

The soft crunch of snow was the only mark of Scale’s passing. She slipped through the trees like a phantom, contorting her body to dance with the branches and the trees. There was no need for light by crystal or torch. Hundreds of yards beyond the copse of evergreens, the village of Dovanya burned.

Even this far away, the reek of cooked flesh reached Scale. It disgusted her, but it was not the first time she’d smelled fire-lit bodies. If she lived through this, she doubted it would be the last. Her stomach churned, as it always did, but she dismissed it with ease borne of her training.

There was only one reason for the attack on Dovanya, and that troubled her. The village held no particular value and none of its loggers and trappers were anyone of note. The screams of the remaining handful of its inhabitants had to be a trap. Its creator knew Scale would understand this, just as she understood Scale would have no choice but to spring it.

Behind Scale, four other Executors fanned out among the trees in a rough wedge. All of them grizzled professionals, they made as little sound as her, Singer and Pen crept along carefully at her flanks, watching for anyone coming for them in the darkness. Sleet and Boulder took the rear. True to his name, Boulder was as big as a mountain and struggled the most with the silence their work necessitated.

Another scream split the air. Shrill. Feminine. Pain at first, then agony as the scream became a shriek. Whatever Whimper was doing to these people, Scale didn’t want to know, but she would have to, and soon.

A voice at her ear murmured, “We have to move in or she’ll kill them all.”

Scale fought back the urge to punch Pen. The man knew better than to speak until she broke their silence, and he was ten feet off his position. Her fist rose, but not to swing at him. Instead, she gestured to her left and jutted out two fingers. Take your position, that gesture said, and without another word, Pen moved, knowing he’d just been silently chastised.

They circled the village at a distance. Scale wanted to find the right angle of approach, but Whimper had scouted this place well. The dense trees might have looked as though they crept right to the village’s edge, but the loggers kept a quarter mile circle of land free from any foliage directly around the village, no doubt with plans to build a wall at some point or another. Too late now. A few might survive this night, but Dovanya itself was finished. Not a house or shop remained that wasn’t sending plumes of oily black smoke in the air.

The survivors had been gathered in the center of the village in the husk of what had once been Dovanya’s gathering hall. The mass of flesh blocked whatever was going on.. Every now and then one of them was plucked from the line to replace the last victim. They weren’t killed quickly, either. Some of the townspeople returned to the group missing fingers, eyes, ears. At least three tried to run while Scale and her Executors circled the village, only to be brought down by one of Whimper’s mad band. Fourteen of their number stalked Dovanya’s cobblestone streets, following no discernible pattern that Scale could figure out. All of them carried bows or crossbows, but beyond that, there was no consistency to their armor or weapons. Some wore full suits of chainmail tarnished by blood, gore, and soot. Leather and furs adorned others, and a few walked with no protection save the cloth on their back. Much like the Executors hunting them, not all were human, either. Three giants made the others look like children, and a pair of bony-scalped Noreem kept their gleaming, jewel-like eyes fixed on the forests around them. Those two would need to be taken out first, or else their innate psychic senses would feel new presences among their group. The range wouldn’t be a problem for any of the Executors, but once the Noreem were down, they would have to advance quickly on whoever was left, or the bodies would risk being discovered.

Finally satisfied she had a lay of the village, Scale stopped to issue an order to fall back to a predetermined point a quarter mile back into the forest. The others melted away into the darkness, but she hesitated, watching the village burn as the latest victim’s screams cut short. Act soon, and they might save a few more villagers from what would be a horrifically gruesome death, but Whimper would almost assuredly have traps in wait. Act slowly and plan, more would suffer, but the lives of the innocent were secondary to capturing or killing the madwoman at the center of all this. If Whimper lived, many more than just those in Dovanya died.

A new scream ripped through the air. Scale turned away, and though every part of her wanted to run to the meeting point, to hurry, she kept her calm and eased through the ancient woods.

The five met in the hollows underneath an ancient, huge tree. Snowfall and rain had washed away the earth under her gnarled roots, leaving a six-foot-wide cavern where the five could speak quickly and quietly. One of them waited beyond the tree. Anyone else might not have noticed, but Scale’s body had been forever altered by the Executor transformations. Focused as she was, Scale could hear someone draw a breath and release it.

“Boulder,” she murmured, and the man stepped out, his bow in his hands. He nodded and hurried down the side of the embankment to join her and the others under the tree.

Singer held a heat crystal, already lit and hooded by a treated pouch. The others held their hands around it, warming themselves before the fight ahead. Boulder joined in, and after a sip of water from her waterskin, Scale joined them.

“Your counts,” she murmured. “I had fourteen.”

“Fourteen,” Boulder agreed.

“Fourteen,” Singer and Pen said, but Sleet shook her head.

“Fifteen. One of the crowd had a knife,” Sleet said.

“Could be hiding it away until the time was right to escape,” Boulder said.

“Can’t take that chance,” Sleet said. She quickly outlined the description – a man of indiscriminate height, salted black hair, a gold loop through one ear. Easy enough to single out thanks to the jewelry. That was an extravagance few in this village could afford.

“Orders?” Pen asked, frowning as if he were tasting something rancid. He’d wanted command of this, but their Preceptor had chosen Scale for her determination and cold, calculating nature. To kill a monster, they needed someone capable of seeing the grand scope of things. Pen was clever, but brash and tended towards impatience.

“We divide up by road,” Scale said. “I’ll take the northernmost road and the first Noreem. Pen, you have the northeast. Singer, the southeast and the Noreem on that route. Boulder, the south, Sleet, southwest. Singer, your mark crossed by a hut twice. It’s the best cover you’ll have for concealing the body. Stay there. If you find a shot on Whimper, take it, but do not let yourself be seen until the rest of us are openly engaged. If that happens, choose your targets and bring them down. Sleet, you’ll have a line of sight on me. When I’ve taken my Noreem, you will advance first with me. Find a target and take them silently if you can.”

Boulder’s sleepy yellow eyes closed to slits, and he frowned. It was unsurprising he wouldn’t want Sleet out in front first. The duo had been fucking most every night this trip. The old laws said that Executors should not mate, but no one was left in this dying part of the world to care. Only six Preceptors remained on the continent, and of the Executors themselves, their numbers would maybe hit triple digits if they were all gathered within the same conclave. Civilization was continuing its slow, hungry shuffle westward, as it had for hundreds of thousands of years.

Sleet caught her man’s arm and squeezed it. The White Ink in her veins flared momentarily with even that minute flexing of her muscles. She shook her head, and Boulder finally nodded, but he still didn’t look thrilled. Once this was over, Scale was going to have to address the little flares of disobedience. It was getting out of hand.

Her orders to the rest were simple. Wait for an opportunity to draw one of Whimper’s people out, take them silently, and creep forward. They all knew the odds of this being successful were slim, but the rest agreed without a flicker of emotion, even Pen. There were no final rousing words from Scale, no last message to her Executors. They were killers, and they’d been told to kill. The machinery was ready. Now all she had to do was set it loose.

The five slipped away into the darkness, each ambling slowly towards their positions. Scale’s was the furthest away from the tree, so she kept far away from the village and circled around in nearly complete darkness, her Ink-enhanced eyes picking out roots and brambles just moments before she potentially stumbled into them. Come spring, those roots would hang like tentacles from the bases of the tree, knotting and curling in intricate, wild weaves stripped of dirt and foliage. But for now, that winter, they were little more than dusted nuisances, and had there been another foot of snow, even Scale might not have been able to navigate them without a better light.

But she did, and in the darkness as she twisted towards her position, she passed first Singer, then Pen. Singer never noticed her. Not a surprise. Of all of them, Singer was the best shot but a terrible woodsman. Give her a city to haunt and she was in her element, dashing from rooftop to rooftop or swirling amidst the masses of people, not an easy feat for anyone marked with White Ink. Here in the woods, Singer was second only to Boulder for the amount of noise she made in the brush, and she was far more apt to lose her way.

Pen noticed her passing, tensing as he heard her approach. To his credit, he kept his eyes on the village, an arrow in hand but not yet nocked. His approach would be the trickiest, given the lack of viable cover. The three houses in front of him were little more than piles of rubble at this point, but if Pen went low and stayed there, he stood a good shot of reaching the next line of buildings. As much grief as he might be giving her, there were few others Scale actually wanted on her side in an out-and-out fight. Pen might be hotheaded and too quick to action, but his skill with his longsword more surpassed any in their band save for Scale herself, but that wasn’t the weapon of choice for her, not that mission, not for Whimper.

A few minutes more of careful traversal and she slid into position behind a massive tree, easily five feet wide, its branches loaded with snow. She stared around the edge, making one last count. Her heart didn’t beat any faster or slower with the knowledge of the violence to come. Live or die, she allowed no excitement or fear to cloud her mind as she counted Whimper’s people.

There, her Nareem was strolling down the street, idly swinging a sword in a full lazy circle. The gray-skinned creature was a full head shorter than Scale, and practically emasculated. Bony knobs jutted out of his skull in every direction, and he reached up to fondle one as he strolled. No one else was coming. The nearest of the rest of the brigands knelt by one of the burning houses, digging through the remains of a pantry.

Without consciously realizing she was going to even act, Scale drew an arrow from the quiver at her back, nocked it, brought the bow up, and fired. The arrow punched into the Nareem’s neck, a splash of crimson hitting the snow behind him. He fell backwards, dropping and clutching the arrow. It was no use. His long, thin fingers fell away as Scale darted forward to move the body into the nearest building. The Nareem was as light as a child, and when she dragged him, his mouth lolled open to reveal his slightly forked tongue. The burnt-out remains of the building still smoldered, but she found a path to a mostly intact cabinet and jammed the Nareem inside, listening intently.

No alarm. Good. She hoped Singer was having similar luck.

But as Scale finished concealing the body, at the heart of the village, someone strummed a guitar. A fast, jaunty tune started up, and within a moment, a pair of heavy drums joined in. Scale snapped a glance behind her, but no one was coming. She drew another arrow and ran through her options, her mind a whir of calculations. Stay here, Scale was as good as dead. There was no visibility and if she was pincered between the burned-out house’s two doors, she was finished. The home across the street offered her some protection and a better vantage point. Scale ran for it, keeping low, her white shrouds hopefully acting as some sort of camouflage to hide her black skin and the White Ink of her veins. She slid into place around the open door, peeking out just far enough to watch what unfolded.

The three musicians were spaced in front of the entrance to the meeting hall. Whimper leaned against the doorframe. Like Scale and her Executors, the Ink ran through her veins too, but along with the alchemical changes to her body, every inch of Whimper’s skin was disfigured and scarred, leaving her looking like one of the gnarled roots Scale had just passed by. As Scale watched, she pushed off the doorframe and began a slow, shuffling dance, her limbs jerking as though they were being controlled by a puppeteer. She gyrated in wide, lopsided ovals, eyes cast up to the sky. Closer and closer to the townspeople Whimper drew, the three long braids atop her otherwise bald head whipping around as she whirled faster and faster. A blade blurred in her hands and one of the townspeople fell away screaming, clutching the spurting ruin of her ear. Just as fast, Whimper drove the blade across a man’s throat – not horizontally, but vertically, ending with the knife buried up to its hilt in the meat under his jaw.

One of the townspeople leaned forward and vomited noisily, and Whimper grabbed this one by the back of her hair before… kissing her forehead. She danced away again, laughing, and shouted to the sky, “Come on, then, brothers and sisters! Come for me!”

The drums nearly drowned out the guitar player. The townspeople’s heads turned towards something, and it didn’t take long to figure out what. One of the giants dragged Singer through the snow, leaving behind a trail of crimson. Scale almost drew and fired, but there was no saving Singer. The giant’s axe was still stained with the gore of having split her head nearly in two.

Go swiftly into the Ether and the After, Scale said silently.

The drumming and the guitar stopped, as did Whimper’s dancing. Her face a mask, she stepped forward delicately and ran a finger along the ruins of Sleet’s skull.

“I am sorry, sister,” she said, her voice clear and shockingly melodic. She lifted her finger to her mouth, tasted it, and nodded at the giant. Carelessly, he hefted up the body again and started to carry it towards a stack of others they’d killed that night, but before he could finish unloading Sleet, someone cried out, and three arrows punched into the giant’s chest. The huge creature glanced down, laughed, and looked up just in time to catch the fourth through his eye and into the back of his skull. He fell backwards, still holding Singer’s body as he died.

No, Scale wanted to shout. This is what she wanted.

Steel clashed against steel and someone screamed. Not one of Scale’s, thankfully, but another brigand roared in that direction. The snow crunched near Scale and she tensed, drawing the knife at her belt, but whoever rushed by didn’t see her and she didn’t see them. Another bellow, this one deafening. No doubt from the other giant. More steel clashing. Whimper turned for the drummers and the guitarist and twirled a finger. They started up another tune, and she danced along merrily, gripping the sides of her pants as though she were wearing skirts as she kicked out her feet. Quick as a snake, she was back among the townspeople, her aim no longer torture, but murder. There was no saving them either, but she was drawing close now, so close Scale could almost fire.

Three more arrows found their marks. Two brigands went down, another stumbled to his knees before a second arrow joined its brother, this time finding his heart. That would be Sleet, and Boulder’s titanic roar matched that of the giant’s somewhere further to the southeast. If Whimper was concerned, she didn’t show it, and continued her bloody massacre, drawing down on the last cluster of men and women, licking the edge of her blade.

Another clang of steel, and there was Boulder, fighting two of Whimper’s people at once, his huge longsword crashing down against their blades over and over again. He didn’t need to vary up his attacks. Unlike Whimper herself, her men were just that – men. Under Boulder’s onslaught, they stood no chance, and though one of their swords bit deep into the treated leather faulds protecting Boulder’s gut, he took the blow without faltering and buried the edge of his blade in the man’s neck. Boulder snarled as he yanked the blade free and kept going with the motion, nearly severing the other brigand’s arm at the elbow. That man screamed and screamed, and Boulder laughed in his face right up until a spear punched through his back and out through his guts.

His longsword falling, Boulder glanced down at the giant’s spear, surprised more than pained, and gripped the edge with his enormous fists. He pulled another foot of the spear out, then snapped off the edge. The giant behind him gurgled its pleasure until Boulder whipped around with the foot of spear in his hand. Reciprocating the giant’s mortal wound, Boulder stabbed the creature in the gut with the hunk of sharpened wood, once, twice, three times, four times. The rest of the spear still protruded from his back, and as the giant fell, Boulder fell too, clutching the creature’s shoulders for support as long as he could manage until he toppled, blood streaming out of his mouth as he stared up at the snow silently.

Sleet shrieked her rage out of sight. An arrow buried itself a foot from Whimper’s head in the blackened walls of the meeting hall. The brigand’s leader danced and danced, seemingly uncaring about the next four arrows that all missed their mark by mere inches. Though she was firing too wildly, Sleet had the right idea, and Scale took the opportunity to slide out of the building she’d been hiding in and rushed towards the next one.

What few members of Whimper’s band formed a line around her. A twang of a bowstring’s release caught Scale’s ear, and she very nearly jumped, realizing how close it was to her. Someone had fired just a half a block away, and her eyes scanned the streets, looking for the newest of Scale’s people. Someone sprinted between houses, bow at the ready, an arrow in hand. Pen. Scale breathed easier until she heard Sleet’s soft whimpering.

She was dragged before Whimper’s band and dropped unceremoniously on the ground. The arrow jutting out of her back was not a fatal blow, but it looked as if it might have severed her spinal cord. Sleet pushed herself up on her hands, staring up at Whimper as she tried to hold back her cries of pain. The music fell silent again.

“Whichever one of you did this is going to get your wish,” Whimper called out. She no longer danced but stared out among the houses curiously. “Horace? Tollen?”

“Even crippled, she’s still a threat,” Pen called.

“Ah, a brother,” Whimper said. She sounded neither delighted or surprised. “Come out so I can thank you properly.”

Pen did, and Scale fought down an urge to bury her quiver in his guts. Traitorous bastard. Sleet had been the best of them in more ways than one and he’d offered her up for… what? He could have slipped away. Could have left them all behind.

Unless…

“I want a wish,” he called out.

Yes, there it was. The wishes from the Wish-Giver. Whimper had many names besides her self-picked Executor one, and Granter and Wish-Giver were chief among them. Anything you wanted that she could provide, and she’d give it to you – if the deal was right.

Whimper’s scarred lips twitched in a gross approximation of a smile. “Well, let’s start with a name.”

“Pen.”

“I’ll fucking k-kill you,” Sleet gasped, crawling towards Pen.

“A writer?” Whimper said, ignoring Sleet as she snickered. “A poet?”

“No. I killed another trainee with one.”

There was a dark chuckle at that from the guitarist, and Whimper smiled even brighter. “A good name, then, and evocative of my own. Brother Pen, if you’re so inclined…” She gestured at Sleet. Pen hesitated just a moment, then drew his sword. “Ah. Not that.”

“What then?”

Whimper tapped her lip, then gestured at a woodpile against one of the houses. “One of those should do, I think.”

Pen frowned, but he didn’t waste any more time, sheathing his sword again and going for one of the heavier logs. Sleet spat into the snow and bloody muck as he sauntered back, the wood in his hands.

“Coward,” she said.

He wasn’t looking at her, though, but the street beyond. To Scale. Pen’s eyes closed once, twice, three times, and if she was given to emotion, Scale’s throat might have hitched. Maybe it did anyways. Those three blinks were an acknowledgement, a message.

I am doing what I have to.

Message received.

The log came down, landing first on Sleet’s upper back. She screamed and fell forward, her nose mashing into the snow. Pen’s grin didn’t touch his eyes as he brought the wood up and down again and again. The transformations left all their skins as tough as hides, and Sleet’s bones did not shatter easily. Up and down went Pen’s arms, seeking out the vertebrae along Sleet’s neck. One of the drummers banged his instrument with every swing. He switched to Sleet’s skull, and her muffled screams and curses turned to gurgles and nothingness.

There was no better time to finish this. Scale nocked an arrow, drew a breath, and darted out around the corner, eyes only seeking Whimper.

But she was not there.

A massive form rocketed into Scale from the side, knocking her clear across the street and into a half-burned strut of a building. Bow and arrow still in hand, Scale rebounded, turned, and fired straight into the thigh of the third giant. It roared and grabbed at her again, but Scale was already ducking under its arms and dropping the bow, going instead for the morning star strapped across her back next to the quiver. As the giant came at her again, Scale buried the spiked mace in its knee, dropping the creature. It took another swipe, more to ward her away than cause any pain, but she dove for the bow and arrow, and came up with it just as Pen was turning to face three of Whimper’s people. He shouted savagely, dropped the wood, and raised his fists to the sky before the three edges of their swords buried themselves in his guts and neck.

Rising to her feet again, Scale nocked another arrow and spun. The giant finally managed to pluck free the morning star, but it was too late. Scale, just a foot behind him, drew and released, the arrow driving almost all the way through the great creature’s skull.

She grabbed at another arrow, turned, drew, and released into one of the men standing over Pen’s quivering body. He dropped too, as did the next man, but Whimper dropped from the exposed rafters of the house next to Scale, sword in hand. Scale didn’t hear her, not on a conscious level, but something tripped her instincts and she fell sideways. Whimper’s first cut sailed harmlessly overhead, and Scale brought the bow up to meet the second one. Wood and steel connected, and both the Executors’ arms shivered from the impact. The blade cut deep into the wood of the bow, and Whimper didn’t bother trying to yank it out. Instead, she went for the morning star, and Scale jumped to her feet, grabbing at an arrow from her quiver to stab her mark.

Except there were no arrows left. One of her tumbles sent the arrows spilling out of the quiver, and she grasped at nothing but air moments before the morning star’s spikes buried themselves in her shoulder.

Scale shrieked.

Whimper grabbed her throat with her free hand and lifted the other woman straight into the sky. “Thank you, sister,” she murmured. “This was a fine test. I would honor you with a wish, if you like.”

“S-sure,” Scale said. Her whole arm was numb, save for the shoulder. Something was wrong there too – a shattered bone, maybe, given how hard she’d been hit. “I wish Calos himself would fall out of the sky and incinerate you.”

“I’ll work on that one,” Whimper said, grinning. Black rot had taken over most of her teeth, and Scale saw her opportunity – a meager one, but an opportunity.

When Whimper jerked the morning star out of her arm again, Scale punched her. The blow didn’t have much force to it even for an Executor, but three of Whimper’s teeth shattered anyways. The brigand leader spat out the remains and growled something wordless, but Scale’s hand was at her belt, coming up with her knife. Whimper dropped her just in time to try to block the blade with the back of her hand. The knife sunk deep, the blade punching through bone, and Whimper screamed. Her men finally rushed to aid her, but Scale was already running for the forest’s edge.

An arrow whizzed past her shoulder. A second didn’t miss its mark, grazing her side. Scale cradled her ruined arm as she hit the edge of the village, not daring to look backwards. Another arrow scraped her leg, a fourth her scalp, and then she was in the tree line, dashing madly not for the rendezvous point along the snow-packed highway leading to the village, but the river running parallel to it. More arrows sought her out in the trees. She made no effort to lose them.

If the brambles had been dangerous for her before, now they were doubly so. She took only a moment to dig out a crystal and lit it with five hard squeezes. It bloomed to life, and she cast its light before her as she jumped over half-buried fallen trees and roots.

A quarter mile. A half mile. Another arrow, this one scraping her bad arm. She didn’t even feel it, but Whimper’s people were gaining on her. Maybe she was bleeding out, or maybe Scale just was in shock, but she wasn’t nearly as fast as they were and the river was nowhere in sight. Just as she thought about turning to make one last pitiful stand, Scale hit a sharp decline and skittered to a stop before she dropped down over the edge.

Yes, there, the river, barely caked over in ice. Scale put the crystal between her teeth, shimmied out of her quiver and the sheath at her back, and cast one glance behind her. She was there, she was right there, her hand dripping crimson on the ground, a sword in one hand, her White Ink veins glowing with the exertion.

“I’ll be seeing you again,” Scale promised her.

“I look forward to it… sister,” Whimper replied.

Scale grinned savagely, and as a bowstring twanged, she fell backwards, punching through the ice and into the screamingly cold water underneath.