Urban fantasy versus supernatural thrillers

Writing urban fantasy as opposed to supernatural thrillers is a bit strange but it won’t be much of a stretch for readers, I don’t think. The largest difference on the surface is that I spent seven books in the Rankin Flats series dealing with people adjusting to the supernatural in their lives and coming to grips with it. In this series, it’s established that the people who matter to the story are all well aware of the weird. Without that limitation, the plot can go to some really goofy places. Good goofy.

There’s also not as much horror here. There are a couple of scenes that will probably make people squeamish, but I’m aiming for a lighter tone. Still plenty of violence and fun to be had with the fight scenes, but yeah, Seven Heroes is, at least in this early stage, far more accessible. And it’s just flat-out fun to write. Old lady goblins. Dirty cops. Redneck cultists. It’s a kick.

A Shot at Us is free through Christmas Eve (and a snippet)

Just like the title says, my literary romance novel A Shot at Us is free through Christmas Eve on Kindle here. A modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Shot at Us follows Gwen Irving, a loving mother and wife, as she battles the harsh reality that her illnesses have kept her family in poverty. Days before Christmas, she disappears into a cold Montana night contemplating suicide as her husband desperately tries to find her and convince Gwen her life is precious. It’s a somber look at the mental and physical costs of a modern life, but is ultimately a story about hope and the kindnesses we offer along the way.

Here’s a brief snippet to entice you (usual warnings about my strong language apply):

* * * * *

Gwen tried not to shout. She really did. They were in a hospital, after all, and she hated big emotional scenes in public. Even PDA sometimes made her uncomfortable in a crowd. But as she listened to Malcolm’s story about the bikes, she clenched her fists and felt the words boiling up through her throat.

“Are you nuts?” she shouted. Damn it.

It was late in the afternoon and Malcolm was just passing through on his way to his second job. Christmas Eve would be coming soon, and all she could think about even as she was yelling at her husband was the hair falling off the doll she’d gotten Roslyn from a dollar store. It had come out not all at once, but like a dog shedding its fur. By the time she wrapped it, Gwen realized the doll was completely bald. Glue hadn’t helped. Now it just looked patchy and sickly. A perfect representation of Gwendolyn herself.

“Look, I know it’s a bad time, but-”

“Bad time? Malcolm, even with you working extra hours, I don’t know if we can pay our rent. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact. We. Cannot. Afford. This.”

“It’s… we can maybe…”

And for Marley, a truck with wheels that didn’t aim quite true. She was also horrifyingly sure it was the same dollar store truck she’d bought for him last year. She could hear him screaming at her now. At least he’d have something good to eat at her parents’ house Christmas Eve and morning. That, he’d love.

“No. There are no more corners to cut. This is it. We are completely tapped out. Holy fucking shit, Malcolm. Did you not get the entire gist of what we were arguing about last night?”

Malcolm stumbled towards a chair. “But we had a thousand in the bank. We should be okay.”

It wasn’t the presents that mattered, but the continual, crushing disappointment in her children’s eyes about their meals, their hand-me-downs, their lives. They deserved so much better than this pitiable existence, stuck in their mother’s orbit of misery and shame and helplessness.

“With a rent check still out and a credit card payment that’ll be posted tomorrow!”

“Oh,” he whispered.

“Oh? That’s it? Oh?”

“I didn’t know. I thought… you know, we were both being dramatic, and…”

“You didn’t know? You didn’t know that times were tough and our kids are furious because we can’t afford anything better than endless fast food, spaghetti, and pizza your boss lets you scrape into a box? You’re not really this stupid, are you?” Gwen laughed into her hands, her fingernails digging deep into her cheeks. “Oh my God. I don’t know what to do.”

And Malcolm. Her sweet, silly husband who still tried to smile for her, who still tried to make her smile. Whose biggest crime was loving their children. And she was constantly, consistently dragging him down, cutting away at him with the bitterness she really felt towards herself. How much better would his life be without her? How would all their lives be better without her?

“I’ll talk to Dinah and Thea. Maybe… I can get paid an advance, or…”

“We ask my parents,” Gwen said, her voice thick.

“What? No. We agreed. We do this ourselves.”

“Baby, we don’t have the luxury to be proud anymore. We have to ask them.”

“What about my parents? We could talk to them first.”

“Your parents are stretched as thin as we are.”

“We’re not asking your parents,” Malcolm said, his voice near a shout. “We’ve gone this long without it. We’ll figure something out.”

“You’re right. We’ll figure something out. Maybe we’ll run into a leprechaun or we’ll find a winning lottery ticket or something. Jesus, Malcolm, stop being so blind!”


“Yes, blind! You keep getting us into these idiotic jams and I can’t fucking be sick and deal with it. Taking care of you is ten times more work than taking care of the kids. ‘Oh, here’s a wall, I’m going to ram my head against it.’”

“Yeah. Keep calling me stupid. That’s… wow. Thanks, honey.”

“Well, if the shoe fits…”

Malcolm shook his head. “My fault.” He said it as a statement, not a question.

The door to the hospital room popped open, and a nurse poked her head in. “Hey, guys, we can hear you down the hallway. Um, please try to keep it down, okay?”

“Fine,” Gwen snapped at her, and the door closed hurriedly.

They stared at one another for a long, long time, until Malcolm looked away, ashamed. Gwen thought back to a long-ago argument they’d had about him going to work on time and taking it seriously. He’d looked so whipped then, she thought, but now he looked… broken. And with that, her anger vanished and was replaced by a caustic, deep self-loathing. Oh, no, what had she done? Why had she said all this?

“I’m sorry,” Malcolm said. His hands fell in front of his lap and his back had never seemed so stooped. He looked fifteen years older than he actually was in that moment. So much weight on their shoulders. On his. Gwen wanted to throw herself out the window.

“No,” she said finally. “I’m sorry. This is… drama aside, it really is all my fault.”

“No, Gwen…”

“It is, though, isn’t it? I’m the one that’s always sick. Always here. Think about how much gas money we’d save alone if you didn’t have to drag me here, what, every other week?” She laughed bitterly and it turned into a cough as if to prove her point. “And that’s not even touching the hospital bills.”

“We apply for more financial aid.”

“There is no more,” Gwen said. “We’ve accepted everything we can. I did the math today while you were at work. This whole argument, it’s pointless. I don’t think… the bikes matter. There was no way we were going to make rent next month regardless.” She blinked at him. “We can’t climb out of this one, honey.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He came to her, held her. All the energy left to Gwen disappeared. So tired. But the self-loathing disappeared too, replaced by…. warmth. Not a healthy warmth, not the warmth one would feel near a cozy fire, but a false one, the kind a person gave into just before succumbing to the cold.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” she whispered back, her scratched and battered heart swelling. “I love you so much.”


“Please. Just let me hear the words.”

“I love you.” He wrapped his arms around Gwen and kissed her. They stayed like that for a while, him staring at the window, thinking, her trembling with the effort of staying upright. “I want to stay with you, but I need to go.”

She nodded, smiling again. She couldn’t blame him for wanting to get away from her. Malcolm deserved peace. They all did. “Hey. Tell the kids… tell the kids I love them, okay?”

“I will. I’ll bring them by in the morning before work.”

“Okay,” she whispered, but she didn’t think she would see them. Because an idea had formed in her mind, an awful idea, and she thought of Hugh in that bathtub again.

I fucked up.

It’s all your fault.

This is the way the world works.

Journey of the Caged launches tomorrow

…and you can grab it here on Kindle. Paperbacks will be available very soon.

A dark fantasy novel in a brand-new series, this one follows Gavrien Kelwind, knight-magister in the kingdom of Ariama. Tasked with escorting a prisoner to his judgment in the nation’s capital, Gavrien and his companions are hounded by the Sheriff, out to avenge the death of his brother. It’s a lean, violent book, and the best part is, it is an entirely standalone novel. Each book in the Forever Lands will feature a different cast of characters in a new setting. I’m planning the next for release in 2020.

On a more personal note, this one is a strange release for me. I’ve had the basic ideas of Morton’s Rock (the primary setting), Bekol (the prisoner), and the Sheriff in mind for… hell, over a decade. It’s a novel I’ve tried to write over a dozen times, and I finally came up with a draft that works. I think the core idea – a world without end – has the potential to be a lot of fun, but ultimately, that’s up to my readers to decide.

I am tired, but in a really good way. This one took it out of me, hard.

This is basically going to conclude my writing year, at least in terms of published stuff. I’m deep in the guts of planning out the next supernatural thriller series Seven Heroes. The first in the series will be called Savor the Wicked, and I think you’ll find it an intense, fun romp through Rankin Flats with a funky cast of characters. Look for that (and its two sequels) in the spring of 2020.

For those of you who picked up A Shot at Us, Fundamental Obsession, or Journey of the Caged this year, thank you. I’m coming out of this year making less but also spending less. I’ve figured out a lot of things about my advertising this year, what works, what doesn’t, and I feel confident coming into 2020 I’m on my firmest footing yet. And with two new series coming, I hope you’ll be entertained.

Hit me up in the comments with what you’re reading to close out the year.

Paperback pricing in 2020 and beyond

This is going to shock you, but I like money. And I like getting my name out there. Unfortunately, one of the things damming up the works on both those accounts has been my reluctance to go with expanded distribution with my paperbacks.

Well, the time has come to change that, but unfortunately, that’s going to mean some painful changes to my pricing. For all books released in 2020 and beyond, my paperback prices are about to jump significantly – from about $9.99 per book to what I believe will be $13.99-14.99, depending on my costs.

This is NOT (at least for the foreseeable future) going to affect any of my books out now or Journey of the Caged, though the latter may see a price increase when I have more books in the series out. I’d love to keep the Rankin Flats and romance novels I have out now as cheap as possible as an introduction to my writing. But I am a business, whether I like it or not, and I don’t want to say these prices are going to stay super low like they are now.

The new pricing will suck, I know. I’m not thrilled about it. But in order to get my books to libraries and retailers, this is a step that needs to happen. It’s painful, but it’s also progress.

And if you’re really hurting for money, go to your public library. My books ARE in circulation in the library system. And if your public library can’t get them, contact me with the name and address. If it’s in my power and I’m not terribly strapped for cash, I’m always happy to donate a book or two to a library in need. And that’s something that’s never going to change.

That sweet special sauce

Get your mind out of the gutter. You know who you are.

Every book while it’s being cooked has to have a special sauce moment. Everything we write needs that little extra flavor to it, or otherwise we’d all be making the same staid cheeseburgers. And that’s fine in its own way – cheeseburgers are pretty damn delicious (insert a Randy from Trailer Park Boys reference ehre) – but readers and writers alike would get tired of it awfully fast.

See, most of the great concepts of writing have already been developed. We tend to rely on old recipes to come up with our daily creations, because those recipes have been around forever and they’re popular for a lot of reasons. Plus, it’s damn near impossible to just go and invent a whole new food – or book. So instead, we have to flavor it, to spice it up or do something a little different and memorable. It really doesn’t have to be much, just a little something unique in the blend of herbs and spices to make the book your own. Say, maybe it’s a different perspective, or a unique character, or a bit of dialogue that blossoms into this wondrous strip of bacon of a character. Something like that.

With all my books, those have been relatively simple things. The Ghost at His Back is different thanks mostly to that first line – ghosts are assholes, and not at all perfect or necessarily evil or good. With Forever and Farewell, the spice was Lauren, perhaps my finest culinary creation to date. With A Shot at Us, it was dropping the Clarence character from It’s a Wonderful Life (who I absolutely love, don’t get me wrong), and focusing on the trials of a modern couple whose own goodness was their spiritual savior. With Fundamental Obsession, it was the idea of an inherently good and sweet character who never means to hurt anybody, and yet tears his friends and loved ones apart.

Truthfully, it’s something I’ve been struggling to find with Seven Heroes, not for a lack of ideas, but because I’ve been trying to add too many spices to the soup. I want it to have more of an urban fantasy feel to it while still existing in the world of the Rankin Flats supernatural thrillers, and to that end, I thought maybe I needed to add more fantasy archetypes. I kept having this fantastic idea of an ogre-ish type character as a taxi driver, but I couldn’t figure out how that would work with the concept of the Rankin Flats world, which does have very special creatures in it, but most of whom are in hiding or disguised.

The solution was terribly simple, but I wanted it so hard to work for Seven Heroes that I refused to see it any other way. I wanted my recipe to work, damn it, and only just this morning realized the stock I was cooking with could make for two culinary creations – and that I already had some ingredients in the fridge that would make for an excellent, separate soup. See, I’ve also been thinking for roughly a year or so how to update and make special my YA idea The Extraordinary Ordinary, which despite its title, felt kind of… well… ordinary. I think I can split off most the concepts I had for the urban fantasy world I wanted to implement in Seven Heroes and drop it into the world of Extraordinary Ordinary.

TL:DR – I’m shaving off portions of my delicious roast cooking in the oven right now to make literary au jus and French dips later. Also I’m hungry. Someone bring me cookies!

Journey of the Caged is now available for pre-order!

You – yes, you, you lucky so-and-so – can make sure your digital copy of Journey of the Caged arrives on your Kindle doorstop on day one by pre-ordering today. Just $4.99, this dark fantasy follows Gavrien Kelwind, a knight-magister in the kingdom of Ariama. Tasked with keeping a murderer safe across thousands of miles of territory, Gavrien faces the wrath of a vengeful Sheriff, brother to one of the murderer’s victims. This is a fun, fast-paced tale, perfect for fans of Joe Abercrombie or Richard Morgan’s fantasy novels. Give it a shot. It’s out on October 31st!

Click here to pre-order now!

Legally Blind – An embarrassment of riches

Today was a bad day.

Losing my sight in general isn’t something I can mark with big occasions. Sure, there was certainly my detached retina back in 2003 or so, but by and large it’s a long, incremental process. The last four years or so, I’ve begun losing my small reading vision. It’s not always possible for me on a day-to-day basis to read cooking instructions, dietary details, or pill bottles. I still have workarounds, thankfully – taking pictures with my phone helps a ton, and my family is great about assisting me when they’re around – so I don’t tend to notice or think about the loss of reading vision.

That has to change after today.

I went grocery shopping with my mom today. Nothing major, just our usual out-of-town shopping at Super 1 Foods, which is usually one of my favorite stores. I brought my cart full of stuff to the front, not really thinking about much as I ran my card through the machine. Nowadays I have to practically press my nose to most those machines to see the screens. It’s just a thing I have to do. Today it asked for my PIN. I entered it. And when I looked up to take my receipt, the clerk was holding out quite a large amount of cash and a fistful of change.

“What’s this?” I asked, smiling pleasantly.

The woman, sweet and extremely helpful, looked puzzled. “It’s the cash back you requested.”

The machine did not, in fact, ask me for my PIN.  It asked me how much cash back I needed.

Now, thankfully, this month has been an okay one financially. I could transfer some money around and get it covered, and I did – plus we made it home in time to deposit the money I withdrew back into the account, and it only cost me double humiliation of the pity on the clerk’s face at the store followed by the utter bafflement of the ladies I dealt with at the bank.

I’ve had a few drinks tonight. Some beer, some vodka. It’s the first time I’ve tied one on in a while. My poor mom thinks I’m angry at her or upset because she wasn’t around to help me with the debit card reader. She’s asked me, no joke, probably eight times tonight if I’m okay. And honestly, I don’t know how to comfort her on that one. I will be. Of course I will be. But I am humiliated by something completely out of my control. I am angry, not at her or anyone else, but at my condition, especially because this is just another day. There will be more unexpected humiliations like this. There already have been, stuff that makes me ill to think about. It’s one more thing I have to ask for help with. And you know what? That fucking sucks. There’s no way to sugarcoat that. Today was an absolute crap day. Tomorrow will be better and I will adapt. I always do.

But today, I get to feel alone in a spectacularly shitty way. And there is nothing to do but grit my teeth and take the beating.

Screw you, eyes.

Team Chug and the editing process

Here’s a funny Team Chug story for you.
I do my edits in two phases. The first is on the computer, where I edit for story content and add in whatever I think the novel needs to round it out. I try to do grammatical edits along the way, but due to my vision, black on white writing isn’t usually the best way for me to go about this.
So when it comes time to focus on grammatical polishing, I run through the book on my iPad, where I’ve got the Kindle app set to a black background with white writing. It’s much easier for me to read, and I catch probably ten times as many errors this way. Now obviously I don’t need to be sitting at a desk to read on my Kindle, so I allow myself the comfort of reading from my big recliner or from my couch.
My dogs love this. They get to cuddle up with me – usually with Yoda sleeping on my shoulder and Sadie curled up on my man boob. We do this probably for a week or two – I read the book at least six or seven times before it’s released.
Well, since I’m also working on a short story collection at the moment, I’ve been doing edits in the morning and afternoon, interspersed with some writing runs when I get the itch to take a break. My Chihuahua Sadie is fine with this. Sadie is fine with everything. She is, straight-up, the most independent dog I”ve ever seen and wouldn’t really give a damn if the house crumbled around her. Yoda, my sweet fussy pug, on the other hand, believes he’s being tortured. He thinks we need to cuddle every day all day. So when I finish up up an editing jag and swap out for a writing one, he’s right there, sitting beside me, crying his little pug self to sleep in his bed next to my desk.
Poor little guy. It’s a rough life not having a meat pillow around for you twenty-four seven.
Team Chug

The worst timing for a gut punch

In every book I’ve written, there’s generally a scene that gets to me, hard. Usually the waterworks don’t turn on, but every now and then I might be cutting a few onions in this house when I write certain scenes. When I was writing Journey of the Caged, there were two such moments, and I think it’ll be pretty obvious when you read it which two I’m talking about (no spoilers here).

The first one I got through pretty okay. I had to stop for a while, do some dishes, mop, and get my mind off the project. The second, I was on a freakin’ roll, just slamming down words until I hit this part and then… bam. I have to stop and deal with it. And in this case, we’re talking full-on waterworks. I’m bawling like a three-year old who just had his favorite Transformer taken away.

And right then, my mom calls me.

Now, mind you, my mom has seen me moody about my books before, especially For All the Sins of Man and Plague of Life. I regularly have lunch with her just about every weekday so it’s inevitable that some of the emotions necessary to what I write seep through. But she’s never hear or seen me full on choked up from writing.

So here I am, about two sentences from finishing a scene, trying to type with already trembling fingers, and my mom calls me. First thing I say into the phone, with a throat about as squeezed as you can get without choking, is, “Mom, I’m writing one hell of a scene at the moment and I’m a blubbery mess, so don’t worry about me.”

Of course she did, but I think she got it, too.

Writers, any scenes ever get to you when you wrote them? Readers, any one particular scene in something you’ve read nab at your heartstrings?

Here’s the first chapter of Journey of the Caged, coming soon!

Just like the title says. Enjoy!

– – –

Their guide beckoned them to follow him with fingers writhing like worms.

His whole body moved like that, boneless, fluid, the skin hanging off him in sheets. What had been a stiff gait they thought born of injury was instead some sort of illusion. It sickened and terrified both Will and Marion but still they continued on. They knew who they were going to meet, and they expected much worse than this liquid-bodied creature.

The moss clinging to the trees around them gleamed like rubies when it should have been mottled green and brown. Vines as thick as fingers recoiled from the path. At first they thought it was a trick of the mind, but no, the vines swayed away from the four of them. Snow still packed the edges of the deer trail, as wrong a shade of mucus green as the moss was red. Even the occasional burble of snowmelt running in small streams down the slopes sounded oily and wrong.

Something cracked in the darkness beyond the reach of the glowing bell crystal affixed to the tip of Marion’s walking staff. She and Will jumped, and Marion nearly tripped over a snarled root poking out of the muddy earth.

“Daddy,” Soto whined. Will carried him the last few miles up the trail, and now their child clung to his father as best he could manage with his shriveled left arm. His good eye, the one not covered in incestuous milk, flicked every which way as he stared out into the darkness.

Will shifted him, and murmured as firmly as he could manage, “It’s all right, Soto, it’s all right.”

“Yes, all right, all right,” their guide repeated, turning and waving towards the trees. “Almost there, little one.”

“Not little,” Soto said. His voice was always stuffy like he was ill. It was only through the village doctor’s care as an infant that he could breathe through his nose at all, and the surgery Soto required left his voice later scratchy and muggy.

“No, you’re very brave,” Will said, and pecked him on the cheek.

Marion stiffened at that. This had been Will’s idea after he heard the sugary words of their guide. He had been the one to push her towards this. Now she wondered if he wasn’t too soft to see it through.

The thin path vined its way through the trees as though the creatures making it had been confused as to where they were going. Little surprise there. Even without this corruption, Ter Caymore rarely seemed the same forest twice. Giants nestled in caves could clear out groves of trees in one afternoon. Kelpie, irate at the Daughter and Mother having locked them in ice for the winter, would flood the paths of human and beast alike. Other natural devastation like fire or the howling winds would destroy vast swaths of Ter Caymore, leaving the landscape alien to those familiar with it even weeks before.

Soto’s snuffling turned into wails again. Every cry from her son only made Marion’s resolve stronger. All their children bore the mark of incest in one shape or another. Evina’s eyes didn’t match and her mouth turned up on its left side. Martin grew the beginnings of a patchy beard when he was only ten, and could do no more than the simplest arithmetic. Henton, their oldest daughter, crossed her eyes until a mancer healer cured her when she was about Soto’s age now, and still spoke with a lisp, though thankfully not enough of one that it stopped the neighboring farmer from striking a deal to marry her off to his son for five head of oxen.

Soto though… Soto was their great shame, the son they could not take to the village with the rest of their children to sell their meager vegetables. To bring him was to incite whispers about Will’s first wife, long ago offered up as ash to hasten her journey to the Boughs. The village mayor attempted to convince the brother and sister not to act on their desire to wed. But for Marion, Will was the only one. The only one who defended her against their parents, themselves cousins. The only one who understood her urges. The only one who she would allow to come to her in the night. They burned for the decision in the bent and broken children they bore. And Soto? Soto was the peak of that terrible shame.

Light ahead.

Not a healthy light, like the bell crystal, which even in this mutant gloom could not be dimmed, but a flickering, mad red and yellow swirling together like liquid, not so much rising like a flame should, but rolling.

Beyond was a simple hut built from mud and branches, anchored by two ill-formed trees bent as though desperate to be chopped down. A creature sat at its entrance, and at first, Marion thought it was an enormous dog, or perhaps a small, sickly bear. But as they neared and it rose to attention on two legs, she could see now it was not quite beast, and not quite human. Short, as short as a dog standing. Its legs bent at several different points, and its rough, leathery feet bore claws, as did the five fingers on its one remaining arm. Only the shoulder of the other arm remained, covered in rough, jagged scarring as though it had been gnawed off. The creature was naked and covered in patches of rough, bristly fur. But almost none of that registered to Marion or her husband. Instead, it was the face they both stared at, human, but all the details were wrong. Its huge eyes bulged from their sockets, only barely dimpled by a hint of color save for the sickly yellow where there should have been white. Its teeth, what few were left, hung at odd angles, and a long, dripping tongue flicked out. The ears were nonexistent save for a pair of bare nubbins, and the neck flesh hung in rings.

An abomination.

The mancer of Ter Caymore kept abominations. The bile building in the back of Marion’s throat threatened to spill out, and behind her, Will muttered, “Yakiv, save our souls.”

Their guide whirled as easily as a tornado on his sloughed heels. “We are here,” he said, his eyes gleaming.

Soto’s tears dried. He stared at the abomination, then slowly reached a hand out towards it, as though he wanted to pet it. Father, Mother, and Daughter above, but that would have solved so many problems if the beast killed him. But Will clutched Soto harder, taking a stumbling step backwards until a voice cut through the angry crackle of the fire.

“What do you want?”

Her voice bore no anger, no curiosity. Instead, she sounded weary, and given the late hour, perhaps they had interrupted the mancer’s sleep. Marion swallowed hard. Best not to piss on the shoes of those who could draw out the Resonance, their mother taught Will and Marion, and she instinctively bowed low, sweeping her tricky leg out and grimacing when the old throb in her knee hummed.

“I did not ask you to bow. I asked you what is it you want?”

A pair of blood-orange eyes gleamed in the darkness of the hut before a woman stepped out. Her dress of badly-sewn rags and thick leaves did little to conceal her body. Her sex and one of her nipples were clearly visible through several holes and missing patches. The same could be said for the rest of her. Dried blood crusted near several fresh scabs and scars probably brought about from wandering among the brambles and branches of the woods. She didn’t seem to notice the cuts, or care about the twigs and leaves stuck in her long, graying hair. The eyes were the only truly terrifying part of her visage, but given how human their guide had appeared at first glance, this woman could be hiding her freakish nature under the surface.

“I brought them, I brought them, can I rest now?” their guide pleaded, ending in a whine of desperation.

“You may rest. Come when I call you again.”

The guide burst into tears moments before he simply burst. His skin ripped apart, and thousands upon thousands of fat red bugs covered in tiny, jagged prongs dropped to the gray earth. The bugs burrowed and disappeared like rainfall on parched soil, and Will yelped his fear. Marion was too terrified to say or do anything.

Will found his voice first, and asked, “You… are Emisha?”

“I am,” the woman said. She flicked her fingers and the abomination came to her. She scratched it atop a series of scarred ridges on its head.

Marion swallowed hard. “Your guide, he told us things. How you help those who need it. Always for a cost.”

Emisha stared at Soto, one of her hands curling and uncurling. “He told you the truth.”

The child gurgled, “Baby baby baby,” at the abomination, and the thing’s tongue lolled out to his mad giggles.

Emisha strolled to him and reached out for his milky eye. She pried it open despite his batting hand and her teeth gleamed like broken mirror glass. “Someone tasted fruits they shouldn’t have.”

“Foot!” Soto said, trying to say fruit.

“Our farm,” Marion said, trying to ignore that. “The crops are sickly and we been barely getting enough copper to feed the family.”

“Soil’s bad,” Will agreed. “Oxen’s getting sick. Unless things turn around, we won’t last till Father retreats again for the winter.”

Emisha took Soto’s bad arm and squeezed it. He gave a squawk of pain and indignation, and she ignored him. “And he’s your offering.”

The choice that had seemed like such a relief just hours ago now roiled in Marion’s belly, and she wanted nothing more than to run with Will and her child into the forest. But the same thoughts that led her to listen to the guide with growing need in her heart emerged again. Changing Soto’s cloth diapers every day. Trying to spoon feed him gruel, the only thing he would eat. Wiping down the drainage from his nose and his eye constantly, lest he get yet another infection.

Free. They could be free.

“Yes,” she said, and Will echoed her a second later, his voice trembling.

“Put him down,” Emisha said.

Will hesitated one last time, and Soto grabbed at his ear. He pulled his son away from his favorite toy and stared him in the eyes. “I love you, Soto,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. But you’ll be helping your sisters and your brother.”

“Evie!” Soto said, grinning when he heard “sisters.”

“Yes,” Will said, and kissed his boy’s forehead. He held up his five fingers, splayed out wide in the sign of the Boughs, and whispered, “Forgive us.”

Marion mimicked the sign too. She was not as religious as her husband and did not believe the spirit went anywhere after death, let alone to the arms of the great trees of the afterlife, but in case she was wrong and her son waited for them after their time, she did not want to risk making her journey decades or even centuries longer.

Soto tottered towards the fire, going to it as instinctually as a moth. He held his good hand out. Emisha knelt beside him, and turned his face towards hers. Finally, their child seemed to recognize the strangeness of the situation, and his humor vanished.

“Yes,” Emisha said, pressing her thumbs to Soto’s temples. “Yes. I will help. I accept your terms. Your son for the health of your farm.”

Marion gasped her gratitude and closed her eyes. Will raised a hand to his breast and said nothing, but drew a deep, shuddering breath.

“I will let you both live, when I am through with his metamorphosis,” Emisha said calmly.

“His what?” Marion asked, one eyelid parting just enough that she could see the woman through a slit.

Soto and the mancer stared into each other’s eyes, and she drove her thumbs harder and harder into the boy’s temples. He whimpered, and as Emisha kept up the pressure, he cried out, “Mo… Mommy?”

Tendrils of the Resonance shot from Emisha’s fingers into the boy’s skull and he shrieked. There was no build-up. His pain was instantaneous and his scream even louder than the time Will broke his arm when he wouldn’t stop bawling.

“What’s happening?” Will shouted. He darted for Marion and grabbed her arm, too terrified to try to run to his son.

“Please, let it be fast, whatever you’re doing,” Marion begged, falling to her knees.

Emisha glanced at them both, her eyes narrowed. The abomination behind her gnashed its teeth, and as the ropes of magic blasted into their son’s skull, Marion finally understood, and she retched up a thin string of putrid yellow bile, getting it all over herself.

“No,” she gasped.

From the darkness at the edge of the forest, something crunched, and a man-sized figure emerged. Its back was bent and covered in finger-length spines. His face was wrong, all wrong, mashed together like a wood puzzle. In his hands was the remains of a meaty bone, stinking of rot. No. He wasn’t gripping it. It was buried in his hand, another part of him gone horrifically wrong. Another creature stepped out almost right behind Marion and Will and they clung together as a gaunt Handar slouched a full two feet taller than them, its stomach flayed and whipping open and closed on a collection of eyeballs and teeth. A winged creature didn’t so much drop from the branches of the trees as fall. Surely its misshapen body was too broken for flight.

Ignoring them, Emisha said, “The transformation never takes the same amount of time. If you would like to stay and watch, you may.”

Marion shot to her feet. “You… you…”

“I shall keep to my end of the bargain. Your soil shall be rich and forever easy to till. In time, such vegetables will grow there that they will become the envy of the nation.”

Marion turned and grabbed her husband’s arm. His lips tried to form words but none escaped his throat. She tugged him towards the forest. Will turned back once, his arm outstretched as though to take Soto’s hand one last time, but then the moment was gone, and they fled.

Emisha returned her attention to the boy as her abominations settled in around her. Magic once flowed through her like wine from the lip of a pitcher. She danced with the Resonance and it danced with her. But when she fell in the Glass Tower so long ago, her connection to the Resonance twisted and changed. Now it coursed over and through the jagged remains of her mind, grinding its way out of her to fulfill her one solitary command in this world. Corrupt. Corrupt. Corrupt.

She whimpered as the child whimpered, feeling every second of what she was doing to him. Through her, he felt her madness, the breath of a million worlds, and his mind, what little of it there was, shattered as hers had. The sorrow did not stop her. She would never stop, not until she walked through the Boughs and was returned to the Resonance.

How long she spent twisting the child she had no idea, but when she was done, he was unrecognizable. His first few steps were awkward, but he adapted quickly. There was little of the boy left. All that remained was monstrous, and despite the sickness in Emisha’s mind, her heart sang out to him, calling him with the same broken tune as her magic. He shuffled around, his new arm sliding across the forest floor, doing his seeing for him since his one good eye was now mostly obscured by the regrowth of his skull.

He was hideous.

He was beautiful.

Her hands twisted as she murmured the words, and the Resonance flowed through her. The abominations came to her, all of them within the pull of the fire. There were others in her thrall, but they hunted elsewhere. These would go southeast and haunt the fishing villages and farmlands.

Emisha would stick to her word. The boy’s family would live. She did not wish for revenge for the abomination. In fact, she could not think in any coherent fashion. Her conscious mind fled her when she began to change the child, as it always did. The horror of everything she wrought was too big, too overwhelming, so rationality fled when she worked, and might not crawl back for days and days.

The smallest abomination rubbed against her fingers, ready and at attention. She licked her lips, wondering how much death this newest creation would bring. It did not please her. It terrified her.

“Hunt,” Emisha said, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes.