World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories ~~ Warrior

Crald shoved the spade deep into the soil, hitting the root of the stubborn plant for the tenth time.

Whoever said gardening was the path to happiness should be buried alive in their own garden, Crald thought, and growled with bared teeth. After the words crossed his mind, though, he closed his eyes and sighed.

He’d been out here three days, clearing land for a…Well, he wasn’t feeling charitable enough at the moment to call them a friend. It was bad enough the gnome was more stubborn than the large weed in front of him, but that trait was coupled with a perpetual optimism that made Crald’s tusks ache.

That’s the last time I complain to Fixza about being tired of fighting, he grumbled, and stabbed at the root with a little more force.

“Crald! I got the wood, just like you asked!” the squeaky voice rang out over the now bare ground.

Speak of the demon and it shall appear. Crald turned around.

He didn’t know what went into gnomish engineering, or any engineering for that matter, but Fixza was a genius with all the little gizmos. She could craft just about anything from things most would consider junk. Of course, basic things, like raised garden beds, were apparently beyond her.

One of her little robots was pulling the wagon behind it, full of an assortment of wood. Crald wasn’t exactly a master carpenter, but his father, a blacksmith, had taught him how to work with his hands. He glanced over to a pile of assorted metal plates, bolted together in a haphazard manner. Well, I can’t do much worse than that, anyway.

Fixza and Crald had been friends since they were both children, and kept in touch throughout the years via a robot parrot she’d made. She liked to make little recordings for the bird to screech out for all the world to hear. Good thing Crald didn’t give two coppers what the other soldiers thought about him. Though, if anyone were close enough to him when the parrot, Pollary, showed up, they’d catch sight of the green skin on his cheeks darkening from an emerald green to juniper. Crald, on the other hand, simply wrote letters.

Crald held back another sigh. The last letter was what got him into this mess. She’d been talking about starting a garden, since supply lines weren’t reliable at the moment, what with all the war going on. Crald, in turn, had spoken of how his term of enlistment was over, and he was just old enough that no one would look sideways at him not continuing among the ranks of the Horde. So, in typical Fixza fashion, she suggested he stay with her for a while to mull things over.

He got a break from blood, guts, and a glory that tasted more of ash than victory, and she got a garden. Win-win for them both. Crald snorted. That had been the idea, at least.

When he’d arrived at her workshop in the Lower Wilds of Feralas, tucked into the side of a hill just off Wildwind Lake, the place had been in shambles. The metal plates, now in a heap, had been jumbled together, as though all the shelves in a multi-story building had tried to fall into some semblance of garden beds.

“Fixza?” he called. Dread wormed its way through his stomach at the sight. He sent a prayer to whatever being happened to be listening, that she wasn’t at the bottom of this mess.

“Crald!” she called, from the bottom of the mess.

 Crald sighed.

That had been the start of a full two days of dismantling and moving all her ‘hard work’ off to the side, and for Crald to start clearing and leveling the hill above her house. She’d tried to get some of her robots to help, but after the fifth time Crald’s face was hit with a clump of soil and grass, he’d firmly told Fixza the little demon machines had to go. He’d rather deal with the Broken Shore imp infestation again, than have to work with those mechanical monstrosities.

“Good work. Bring them over here,” he said, and motioned to the edge of the cleared ground.

Her eyes, which were the tropical blue of the waters near Booty Bay, widened as she took in all the work he’d done.

“Wow! And you didn’t even need my robots!” she exclaimed, her tiny body seeming to vibrate with suppressed excitement. Even though her robots had likely done most of the heavy lifting, her face and hair were wet with sweat from the humidity. Of course, nothing could keep her hair, which was the pink of a child’s confection and seemingly styled with lightning, from sticking out every which way.

“No, I did not,” Crald agreed. He headed over to her wagon, and shoved the spade deep into the earth to keep it upright. Fixza set the robot to removing the wood from the wagon, and Crald began sorting through it.

“We can either go into one of the nearby outposts, and find a blacksmith willing to make nails for us, or we can just make notches in the boards, and keep them steady with wooden stakes and supports,” Crald said, his mind busy with a making a plan.

Fixza didn’t answer him. That alone should have put his hackles up, but he blamed the heat for his lack of awareness, as well as five days of work not seeing another person or creature around. He’d grown complacent.

“Crald,” Fixza said, her voice strained and squeakier than usual.

That got his attention, and his head snapped up. Fixza’s back was to him, and not far from her was a poison green and shiny black wasp that had no business being outside of Silithus. It was easily four or five times her size, and its stinger matched her height. The low buzzing of its wings finally hit his hearing, and its head twitched side-to-side as it considered the two of them.

Fixza was trembling. One of her greatest fears was made large and put directly in her face. She’d been stung by a whole nest of the much smaller versions when they were kids, and the fear of wasps had been embedded deep in her mind. As a result, one of her first successful inventions had been a bug-swatting robot.

Crald cursed his lax behavior, and the fact that his sword was in the house with the rest of his stuff. He hadn’t thought gardening would be that dangerous. His mistake.

Before Crald could reassure Fixza, the giant bug darted forward, stinger at the ready to impale the tiny gnome. Fixza let loose a shriek that by all rights should have made Crald’s ears bleed, but he didn’t flinch.

He’d already started moving, snatching the shovel up from the dirt, jumping over Fixza’s frozen form, and charging to meet the wasp. He parried the stinger on its body, ducked the ones on its mouth and arms, and swung the shovel upward in a two-handed grip to try and chop its head off. He missed as the wasp darted backward, but one of its arm blades managed to scratch along his forearm. As his blood welled, his vision went red, and he roared at the bug, charging forward again, but this time his swing caught the bug right on a wing joint. Once the flying menace was grounded, it was over. He made quick work of it with the spade, which was dripping with green goo and carapace bits.

He’d have to bury the body nearby if he didn’t want other creatures, or worse, its friends, sniffing around Fixza’s workshop. He blew out a breath at the prospect of more digging, but when he turned to see his still-shaking friend, he found he didn’t mind all that much.

He put the shovel down and knelt in front of her, her eyes still glassy and wide. He put his hands on her shoulders, engulfing them, and gave her a little shake. “Fixza? It’s okay, I killed it,” he said.

She looked up to meet his eyes, and her lower lip trembled. “You were supposed to get away from killing! I ruined it!” she said, and wailed with despair as tears ran down her face.

Crald’s eyebrows went up in surprise, but he pursed his lips before the words, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ left them. She was trying hard to help a friend, and he didn’t want to undermine that. He scratched at the shadow of scraggly black hair on his cheek, and then tugged on the long braid of his beard in thought.

“Bugs don’t count, though,” he said, trying to think quick on how he was going to spin this.

Fixza stopped crying just enough to gasp between sobs; “What—do—you—mean—bugs—don’t—count?”

Crald snorted, and smacked a mosquito that landed on the bare skin of his scalp. “See? Same thing,” he said, and showed her the squashed bug on his palm.

Her lip still trembled, and the look in her eyes told him she wasn’t completely convinced, but her voice was small and hopeful when she said; “Really?”

Crald nodded, internally sighing in relief. “Really.” Then he stood up, brushed some of the carapace bits from his pants, and headed toward the workshop. He’d start burying the body in a moment, but he needed to grab something first. Gardening or not, he wasn’t going to be caught with his proverbial pants down again—his sword would remain within arms reach at all times.

“Where are you going?” Fixza called after him, her voice gaining some of its usual cheer back.

Without turning around, he responded; “Grabbing my bug swatter.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories ~~ Monk

(This one isn’t so much a micro-story because it’s almost 2k words, but we’ll fudge a bit for the sake of the series’ title)

 

 

So-Ra knew Zheng was in trouble. Again. She knew it the same way her yehyeh knew the rain was coming when his knees ached. Except with Zheng it was a churning in her gut like a hundred snakes coiling around each other, and she bit her lip to keep a nervous laugh from escaping.

When she’d woken from her afternoon nap, he was gone, and though he’d left no note there was only one place she was likely to find him: the bar. Before heading out of the room she grabbed her staff, not knowing what she’d encounter when she found Zheng. When she got to the door of their room, the raucous noise from the downstairs and upstairs drinking areas made her pause. However, it was a particularly loud voice that caused her white and grey ears to twitch.

It was nearing dusk, and as she made her way across the plank bridge to the second floor of the Salty Sailor Tavern, she found the bar full to capacity with pirates. So-Ra didn’t have any particular issues with pirates, per say. However, when the barkeep in Orgrimmar suggested this place to Zheng, she didn’t believe he’d done so from a kind, helpful place. Zheng had, to be fair, annoyed the orc with all his talk of pandaren brews. Zheng, oblivious to the orc’s growls and bared teeth, had jumped immediately on the idea, and So-Ra reluctantly followed him out of The Broken Tusk.

“Pirate brew, Ra! I can’t wait!”

Zheng was excited to hop on one of the zeppelins on the middle rise of the Horde city, and then grab a couple of wyverns from Grom’gol down to Booty Bay. If So-Ra was being honest, she enjoyed flying over the lush jungles, as the salty, humid wind made her nose twitch and eyes water. It was a vast improvement over the smell of ale she swore would never leave her nostrils, but all too soon it was over.

After all the travel, the two agreed to a nap before he’d drag her down to the bar. Apparently, the excitement had been too much for him, and he’d left her upstairs. While she’d been snoozing away, there was no telling what kind of trouble he was getting into.

She nimbly made her way through the first set of tables, avoiding patrons who were already well into their drinks, and stopped dead in her tracks at the top of the stairs that led to the main floor. Zheng wasn’t difficult to find, being the only pandaren, but even if they’d been in a bar back home, she’d be able to pick him out. His onyx black and ash grey fur wasn’t too terribly common among the black and whites and reds. His short hair was pulled back with a spring blue tie that matched his eyes, one of which had a black marking that made him appear as though he perpetually had what furless races called a black eye.

“—and I only managed to make it away from the hozen with nothing but my staff. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing.”

So-Ra rolled her eyes. If there was one thing Zheng enjoyed almost as much as new brew, it was new people to tell his stories to.

The tauren next to him, whose fur closely resembled Zheng’s in color, threw his head backward in an uproarious laugh. His steel nose ring glinted in the cheery lantern light, and his one, ivory horn gleamed dully. The other was broken close to his skull and capped off. When he brought his head forward again, he raised one of his large hands and clapped Zheng on the shoulder.

This was where it all went to pot.

When the tauren hit Zheng’s shoulder, it caused him to take a step back and knock into a goblin sitting on a stool. When he hit the goblin, the goblin’s face was knocked into his drink, and he came back up, spluttering and coughing. While coughing, he knocked his drink over, which spilled all over the back of the dwarf next to the goblin. The dwarf shouted and jumped back, knocking into the table closest to the bar. The wood of the table against the wooden floor let out an unholy screech, and the jarring motion knocked every single drink over onto the group of human pirates.

It was like So-Ra was witness to the worst-luck game of dominoes, and with each event her horror and panic grew like a balloon ready to pop.

There was a moment of silence from all who witnessed the event, and then the brawl started.

So-Ra made her way down to the main floor, dodging and slipping through a crowd full of jabs, kicks, and elbows. More than once she used her staff to deter anyone foolish enough to square up on her, and one hit was usually more than enough. When she finally made it within sight of Zheng, she stopped in her tracks and clenched her fists around her staff.

Back-to-back with the tauren, the two of them were laughing and throwing punches as though this were all part of some grand game. However, before she could get through the rest of the crowd to Zheng, there were cries of genuine pain instead of the grunts of a brawl, rippling from the front door. So-Ra turned just in time to deftly avoid the spiked mace of one of many of the town’s bruisers pouring through the door.

Zheng and the tauren hadn’t noticed yet, though, and both managed to take a hit or two that had So-Ra cringing. Not just from the imagined pain, but from how much work it was going to be to heal the two fools.

The bruisers went about their work, sussing out what happened with practiced efficiency. In short order, Zheng and the tauren were thrown from the tavern without so much as a by your leave. So-Ra, though, had started upstairs the second after the first mace hit landed. She gathered their things, since she was reasonably sure they’d be asked to leave, anyhow, and made her way outside after not finding them at the bar.

Despite the smell of fish and seawater, So-Ra’s keen nose managed to follow the scent of blood from outside the tavern door to one of the ramshackle shops. The sign on the door proclaimed; ‘Closed! Go Away!’ in a way that came off as very goblin, and she shook her head at the general lack of manners the race possessed.

When she ignored the sign and knocked, a grumpy voice called from the other side; “Go away! We’re closed! Don’t you know how to read?”

“I’m here to help,” So-Ra said, just loud enough for her words to travel through the door.

“It’s So-Ra!” Zheng said, his words slurred. Though if it was from drink or injury, So-Ra wouldn’t know until she could see him.

There was some scuffling, and as she waited for the person on the other side of the door to open it, she shifted the heavy packs on her back. After more time than she deemed necessary, the door finally opened.

In the doorway, and backlit by the lantern in the room, was a grumpy goblin face to match the grumpy voice.

“Yeah? Whatdya want?” the male goblin asked, and tilted his pointed chin up so he could meet So-Ra’s blue eyes with his black ones.

“To heal these two idiots, unless you have another trained healer at your beck and call. If so, I’d be more than happy to leave them to you,” So-Ra said, biting the words off in clipped tones. Then she smiled wide, meeting his sharp-toothed scowl with her own set of sharp canines.

“Oh, cousin, please don’t be that way,” Zheng mournfully slurred this time.

Probably drink instead of injury, then, if he was sounding that put out at her.

The goblin growled, but then moved aside to let her in.

The sight in front of her made her grimace inwardly. There was blood, of course, but pandaren, and apparently tauren, had tough hides. So, despite the maces being spiked the damage was minimal. Still, it wasn’t the busted knuckles, swollen faces, or cuts that had her frowning.

It was the fact the two of them were leaning on one another and giggling. Like two sprites who managed to get into some brew and set about causing mischief in town.

“Monag and this fluffy monstrosity busted through my door not a few minutes ago. They’ve done nothing but cackle like drunk witches since. I’m guessing the state they’re in has to do with all the bruisers running toward the tavern?” the goblin asked So-Ra.

So-Ra nodded, and set her packs down. She didn’t want to know how the goblin knew what a drunk witch cackled like, but she’d take him at his word. She was sure stranger things happened across the lands outside of Pandaria.

“He is not a fluffy monstrosity, Syxkes. He’s my new friend. Zheng!” Monag said between breathless laughter.

The goblin, Syxkes, snorted and shook his head.

“You got anything to put them under?” Syxkes asked, his tone pleading.

“I do, but it will have to come after the sobering potion. Combining a sleep potion or magic with drinking is a good way for someone to never wake up again,” she explained, and started pulling vials from her pack.

Her ears twitched at the goblin’s grumbling, which sounded an awful lot like; ‘Well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing if it shut them up,’ but she ignored him.

After she gathered the correct vials and administered the sobering potions, the two males were far less amused and groaning in pain.

“Oh, So-Ra, you’re so cruel,” Zheng said, leaning forward in a sitting position on the floor, holding his head between his hands.

“Hah!” she said, her voice sharp enough that the two males’ ears flattened against their skulls.

“Please, not so loud,” Monag whispered, his deep voice rumbling through the small room.

She simply harrumphed at this, and went about healing them. After the worst of their injuries were seen to, she handed them their sleeping potions. A wry smile crossed Zheng’s face as the two of them lifted the vials to clink them together.

“Here’s to new friends and good brew,” Zheng said.

Monag lowed his agreement, and the two of them downed the potions. Not long after the two were fast asleep, their snores near to rattling the windows from their panes.

So-Ra shook her head. “Males,” she said in a long-suffering voice.

“Hey, not all of us are idiots,” Syxkes said, affronted.

So-Ra graced him with an apologetic smile. “You’re right. My apologies. Do you mind if I sleep here with them?” she asked, not wanting to impose on the goblin any more than they already had. Though, she wasn’t sure where she’d go if he said no.

“Nah, go ahead.” As Monag let out a particularly loud snore, Syxkes shook his head. “Better you than me, anyway. I’ll be here in the morning to open shop, though, so you’ll all need to be out by then,” he warned.

“Of course, and thank you for your hospitality,” So-Ra said, and bowed.

Syxkes waved her off. “You shut them up. That’s payment enough.” Then he took a set of stairs behind the counter up to the second floor.

So-Ra pulled out her mat and laid it down in front of the door, just in case she didn’t wake up in time to avert whatever disaster Zheng would try to get himself into next. As she drifted off to the chorus of familiar and new snores, though, she was smiling.

Christmas Comepetition Winning Entry!

I couldn’t be more excited to type that headline in! I entered at Christmas writing competition on the Writer Writer website, and I won! The story was posted yesterday on Christmas, which means I can now post it here for all you lovely people to read.

The story was originally posted here on the Writer Writer site.

Enjoy!

All I Want for Christmas

There was nothing special about the sight in front of him. In fact, the very same scene could be found across the country, if not the entire world. The dull roar of the crowds blended with the cries of children and a contemporary holiday track. Dazzling decorations glittered from every conceivable surface, and the large, fake tree stood watch over the large, fake Santa beneath its boughs in the center of the mall.

He’d given a small shake of his head at the merry, “Ho, ho, ho!” and moved along to find the bench he’d been using since the mall had opened thirty years ago. It was tucked away in a corner, out of direct line of sight, but with a perfect people-watching vantage. The years he managed to circle back to this particular part of this particular country, he was always amazed they hadn’t commandeered the spot for a vending machine or trash can, but luck was with him again this year.

He sat down, getting himself settled for however long he needed to be there. It varied from place to place and year to year. At times he’d sit for hours on end, while others he needed less than an hour. Once he was comfortable, or as comfortable as one could get on the benches in a mall, he started watching the crowds. People were bustling along, trying to get the rest of their shopping done in the last week leading up to Christmas. Others were strolling through, having completed their holiday tasks and were out enjoying the atmosphere.

There was a certain magic in the air around Christmastime, and most people fed into it, and were fed by it. There was only so much one man could do, and though magic was surely a powerful force, it was far more efficient than people were led to believe. Reinforcing an idea that was already present—parents buying gifts for their children by proxy for Santa—was far more plausible than a man riding around the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.

As he sat, he smiled kindly behind his long white beard and curled mustache at the children who walked by, their eyes going wide as they tugged on the sleeves of their parents’ jackets. They’d point at him and whisper, and the parents, catching sight of him, would smile. He’d play along and wave, sometimes throwing in a little wink for the kids who didn’t get the attention of their parents, as though to say; ‘This is our little secret.’ He wasn’t wearing the traditional Santa garb like the one sitting under the tree, but the red plaid and black buckled boots were enough to set the tone. People saw what they wanted to.

Or what they didn’t want to.

Some people were jaded, seeing only the commercialism, when in reality the holiday season was about giving, and helping fellow beings on the planet all shared. Others were never up to feeling the holiday cheer, no matter how much he tried to encourage it with his presence.

“I don’t know why we’re here.”

“Because you promised your son you’d take him to see Santa. I don’t want to be here anymore than you!”

The snippet of conversation caught his attention. Away from the main thoroughfare, not far from where he was sitting, a couple were arguing. It wasn’t an uncommon scene this time of year. Holidays were stressful, he knew that, with people pushing themselves and their budgets to try and make the holidays the best they could for their children. However, that wasn’t the case here.

“He can’t hold me to things I’ve said while I’m drinking, I told him that. He did this on purpose.”

“You shouldn’t be drinking any—”

“Not this shit again—”

There was a tug at his sleeve. Startling just a bit, he looked down at a small, thin boy with large, somber brown eyes. His clothes were worn, and barely enough to keep the cold air outside from cutting through them. His head was covered by an old, grey beanie, and there was a smudge of dirt on his left cheek.

“Hello,” he said, smiling kindly to the boy.

“Are you Santa?” the boy asked, his quiet voice trembling but serious.

“What do you think?” the man asked, his eyes twinkling as the corner of his mouth was tugged almost into a full smile.

The boy considered him for a moment, looking him over from head to toe. After a long moment, during which his parents were oblivious to anything except their argument, he nodded.

“I know I’m not supposed to ask for things,” the boy said in a tenuous whisper that broke the man’s heart, “but if you’re Santa, then it’s okay, right?”

“Of course,” the man said immediately. “It’s the rule. Anyone can ask Santa for anything, no matter who they are.”

The boy looked down at his feet. “Even bad children?” The question was meek and fearful, as though he expected the man turn him away for admitting to such a thing.

“May I ask you a question?”

The boy looked up from beneath his lashes, not able to make direct eye contact, and nodded.

“Have you tried your best to be good this year? Your very best?” he asked, his gentle words slowly coaxing the boy to look him in the eye.

The boy hesitated for a moment, considering the question, but finally gave the man a slow nod. “I have tried my hardest, yes.”

“Then that is all I can expect. No one is perfect; everyone makes mistakes,” he said, wanting nothing more than to give the boy a hug, but refraining. “Now, what did you want to ask for?” he asked cheerfully, getting back to business.

“I-I just want my parents to be happy,” the boy said, and looked over his shoulder at the two, who were now screaming at each other and attracting quite a crowd.

The man’s mouth curved down and his eyes lost a fraction of their sparkle. The boy’s request caused his heart to clench, and he had to swallow against the tears threatening to overtake him.

“Do you know how to keep a secret?” he asked the boy. The man already knew the answer, of course, otherwise the child would not still be with the two ‘adults’ he came here with.

The boy’s face was serious as he nodded, his eyes alert and ready.

The man motioned for him to come a little closer, and he whispered; “Well, did you know one of the stories about Santa got something wrong?”

The boy’s eyes went wide. “What story?” he asked, curious and eager.

“Well, I don’t actually have elves working for me,” he said, his voice grave as he conveyed this groundbreaking information.

The boy gasped. “Really?”

The man nodded. “Really. Have you ever heard the story of Peter Pan and Neverland?” At the boy’s nod, he continued; “Well, my workshop is something like that. I take special little boys and girls to the North Pole, and they help me make toys for all the children in the world, and they stay young forever. That’s why they think they’re elves: they never grow up!” he said, and grinned.

The boy let out a small, surprised burst of laughter. “That’s so cool!” he said.

The man nodded. “Yes, it is. Now,” he paused, and looked around. The parents were still going at it, now with a large crowd who had their cell phones out, recording the whole fiasco. “Each year I choose a new boy or girl to come and join me at the North Pole. Only one a year. If you’d like, I think you just might fit in very well at my workshop with the other boys and girls.”

The boy’s eyes went wide again, and his mouth dropped open. “You-you’d pick me?” he asked, incredulous.

The man smiled, his eyes warm as fresh gingerbread. “Of course.”

The boy opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, and looked back over his shoulder. “Do you think it would make my parents happy if I went with you?” he asked, his hesitant whisper back.

The man pondered before he spoke. “Some people are never happy, no matter what. I can’t say whether you leaving would make them happier, but if none of you are happy now, maybe knowing that you’re safe and happy with me would help them,” he said.

The boy turned back to the man. “You’d let them know where I’ve gone?”

“I can’t tell them that, exactly, but I can let them know that you’re safe, and in a better place. Would that work?”

“Yeah, I think that would work,” he said.

Mall security was coming to the scene, trying to break things up, and one of them was calling over their walkie talkie for someone to contact the police.

“Are we leaving now?” he asked the man.

The man stood up, and held his hand out to the boy. “I think that would be best.” As they walked away the man spoke again; “There’s something I have to do with you first. A kind of magic, to make sure your parents don’t get in trouble for you running off, and to make sure you can go to the North Pole, but you have to trust me. Okay?” he asked the boy.

The boy nodded and smiled wide. “Okay. I trust you, Santa.”

The man smiled back. “Good.”

<****>

Daily News Chronicle

25 December 2018

Christmas Tragedy: Missing boy found, deceased, in park near mall

Five days after missing boy, Ethan Taylor, disappeared from the Governor Square Mall, police K9 units found his body in Hall Park. Though the police aren’t sharing many details at this time, they did disclose that foul play was involved, and would be launching a full investigation.

Though he’d been missing for five days, a delay in his search occurred due to the arrest of his parents, followed by a freak blizzard that shocked the local weatherman and residents alike.

An investigation is also being put in motion regarding complaints against the parents and the boy’s home life, as many who knew the family are leveling abuse allegations their way.

“It’s such a tragedy,” the boy’s grandmother said, through tears. “To have to live like he did, and then to be killed.”

When asked how the family were doing, all she had to say was; “All we can hope is that he’s in a better place.”

THE END

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Death Knight

 

The rattle of bones churning in the dry ground offered a hollow, delicate melody, like a wind chime caught in a breeze created by the damning sighs of the many people she’d killed. “Such sweet music,” she crooned. Her glowing, ice blue eyes flashed in anticipation as she pondered the grave before her.

The tombstone was so old no one living would be able to decipher the weather-worn stone, and for the first time in years she smiled. It cracked her bloodless lips and revealed a set of sharpened teeth, which were almost as startling as her exposed bones and minimal skin.

“Rise,” her raspy voice called, and the one in the grave before her had no choice but to do as she commanded. “Rise,” she urged, “and obey.” The final word held power like thunder, and was like the cracking of a whip.

As the rotting, putrid ghoul heaved its way from the earth as though it were being spat out, it quivered at the feet of the creature in front of it. “Come,” she said, her voice full of compulsion like lightning striking at what was left of the ghoul’s brain. “We have much work to do.”

Book Review ~~ Dave vs. The Monsters: Emergence

 

 

They say the only two things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. Dave Hooper has managed to avoid both, though the IRS and recent events in Dave’s life are doing their best to cash in on his debts. Dave is a father in a self-destructive, downward spiral who is currently fonder of hookers, blow, and booze than of taking care of or seeing his kids—or paying taxes. Though, who can really blame him about the taxes?

He was heading back a day early for his shift on an off-shore oil rig, hungover and hating life in general, when his world crashed down around his ears. Monsters were attacking the rig and eating his guys. What’s a safety manager to do? Piss your pants and kick monster ass, of course.

Art by: Concept Artist and Illustrator Ray Lederer for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Emergence is the first book in John Birmingham’s Dave vs. The Monsters series, and it follows our, (as per the back of the book), ‘unworthy champion of humanity’. Apparently, humans learned nothing from Tolkein’s Dwarves of Moria and they dug too deep, releasing monsters not seen on Earth since humans thought caves and mud huts were high class living.

Overall, the book is an enjoyable read and an interesting take on what would happen if your average Joe Schmoe were thrown into a monster madness situation. I do have a few issues with it, but not enough to keep me from reading more into the series.

First, the pros:

  • As I said above, it feels like a more realistic take on the average person being thrown into one of these situations. Whereas in similar books with comparable concepts, (Monster Hunters International comes to mind), the person has some special skill, are blessed by Fate, or have been training all their lives to fight the adversary, whoever or whatever that may be. It’s a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer syndrome for main characters. I’m not saying these special people have it easy because of their powers, only that they do have them right from the get-go, and generally know how to use them.

Dave, on the other hand, is not the first thing that comes to mind when you picture a ‘hero’. I won’t spoil anything about the book here, but let’s just say that Dave’s rise to herodom is both awkward and not a little painful.

  • The military stuff in the book is mostly accurate. I really enjoyed the fact there wasn’t some government agency that crawled out of the woodwork having expected something like this to happen. As Heath, our Navy officer in charge, points out, “All you’ve got is JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).” And Heath isn’t some super-commando, he just happened to be the closest military presence to the oil rig when all the bad stuff went down, hence he’s put mostly in charge.

It also takes time to mobilize military assets, especially during unknown encounters and in a situation where there is no Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for what’s going down. Because the monsters aren’t following a pattern that a typical terrorist organization would follow, and the fact they have no idea where they’ll show up, it’s impossible to adapt procedures that quickly.

  • I liked the monster descriptions and concepts, as they weren’t based on anything from myth or legend on Earth (for the most part). It felt like it pulled from various fantasy worlds, like the Drow in Forgotten Realms and some Vord from the Codex Alera for their hierarchy and hivemind-type stuff. The different clans and abilities of clans were also interesting.
Found at: http://codexalera.wikia.com/wiki/Vord

Now, the cons:

  • My biggest gripe with the book is the endless exposition that could have been done through interaction with the monsters and other characters. I got more than halfway through the book and there were only two interactions with the bad guys at that point: the initial one, and a very brief one after Dave gets out of the hospital.

It felt more like an alternate history book than a fantasy novel. I wanted to see more interaction with the monsters to get details on how they worked, instead of Dave just constantly doing his thing. (Not going to tell you what it is, you’ll just have to read for yourself). Dave’s thing should have been used as an addendum to the interactions, not the primary source. Which brings me to my next issue…

  • The monster viewpoints in the book added almost nothing to the book overall, and even less to the plot. In fact, you could probably skip the ones that are chapters by themselves and not miss out on much. While it could be interesting, and it gave us a look into their hierarchy and how they function, it got incredibly tedious to have to basically translate their way to a human understanding/concepts.

Everything we learned from their viewpoints could have been done in Dave interactions with the monsters. In fact, the little bits woven in where the monsters interacted with Dave and we were getting information from their point of view were great—in small doses.

  • Compton isn’t filled out very well as a character, and as a result his actions at the end of the book had the plot fall on its face right at the finish line. In fact, some of the characters we meet for only a few pages leave a more lasting impression than Compton.

It might have to do with another character explaining Compton’s motives instead of Dave (especially), Heath, or Ashbury having any real confrontation with him. He just doesn’t come across as anyone willing to throw their weight around enough to do what he does at the end of the book.

  • The main character can be hard to connect to for some people. For people who haven’t gone through any self-destructive behavior in their life, Dave can come off as an emotionally stunted, major scumbag, and incredibly unlikable. He’s very: Work hard. Play hard. Damn the consequences. Even to the detriment of his family. So, there might be a majority-ish of people who can’t understand his motives and actions.

The nitpicks:

  • I have never met a woman who says they have, “good breeding hips,” so J2’s comment made me cringe a bit. Perhaps it’s a regional thing, and I just don’t ‘get it’.
  • Some of the emotional reactions of characters didn’t track for me, and left me scratching my head as to why they reacted the way they did. There were times people got pissed off at Dave for something he said, that left me wondering why they reacted to him like that. I’m putting it in the nitpicks because that could just be a failing on my part, and not the author’s.

The tl;dr:

Concept: Good. Execution: Shaky.

All in all, I give it 3/5 stars.

As I said, the cons won’t stop me from reading the rest of the books, but I’d like to see more plot and character interaction, and less exposition. Where it ended for the first book had the feeling of the middle-point in your average novel with good pacing and plot.

I’d relegate the series to something you could read between waiting for your favorite authors to release their next book, and I don’t think I’d ever buy a hardback if the rest of the series is similar.

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

 

It turned out that Celinwel called the owner after she was released, and quit. So much for saving her to make my life easier. The night wasn’t that bad, though, since I forgot to account for Thea. She was efficient, quirky, though decidedly chatty about anime. I mean, I wasn’t sure how she was getting internet out in the Middle of Nowhere, Creepy Ass Woods, U.S.A., but it was probably highly illegal and I didn’t want to know.

As a weird speck of normalcy in the weirdest week of my life, I went to my nephew’s birthday party. They were lucky I showed up at all. Between sleepless days, working nights, and trying to solve a goblin murder to keep my brother’s tail out of the fire, I was dragging ass like a pug across a carpet. My only saving grace was that Saturday was my day off, and I’d managed some decent sleep before the party on Sunday. Slies had been conspicuously absent, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and start to question it. I really didn’t want to wade through a pack of screaming children, but I needed to talk with my brother about a fair few things, which may or may not end with me yelling at him.

What kind of brother keeps the existence of the supernatural from his sister, and as a result she ends up beholden to a goblin leader to keep him from whatever terrible fate said goblin could concoct? A lame one, that’s who.

“Holly!” Candy’s voice cut across my nerves like the steel on steel squeal of a car collision.

If there was one word to describe Candy, it was ‘bombshell’. She was curvy, blond, stylish, and her eyes were a deep blue that almost seemed to flash indigo at times. Honestly, she was so perfect it was unreal. If she hadn’t had four kids with my brother, (and how unfair was it that she still looked that good after four kids?), I’d have guessed she was a robot.

She wore what I called ‘rich mom chic’, with a flowing, gauzy navy-blue shirt, black slacks you couldn’t call slacks because it was supposed to be ‘casual’, and silvery high heels. Her perfectly curly hair was swept into an up-do with a few artfully placed loose strands, and her various pieces of jewelry that could feed me for at least six months flashed in the low light of the entryway. The fact was, I was jealous, no two ways about it. She exuded grace like she was born to it, and the best I could manage on a good day was, ‘at least I’m not wearing sweat pants’.

“Hey, Candy,” I choked out without sounding too incredulous. I was getting better with time. It’d only taken me how many years to manage that? Still, point to me.

When I gave her a little wave her eyes widened at the soft cast on my hand.

“What happened to your hand?” she asked, some of the shininess in her voice wearing off. I should punch goblins more often.

“I, uh, lost my temper,” I said lamely.

She raised an eyebrow in expectation of more, but I simply smiled my most guileless smile, letting her know that was all I was going to say on the matter. I couldn’t very well tell her that a goblin healer had wrapped my hand, stating it was all he could do because goblin flesh was far too different from human for him to use his abilities. He said it was just fractured, but that I should still go to the hospital. I respectfully declined. I could barely pay for food let alone a medical bill.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where my dear brother is hiding, would you?” I asked, going for innocence, but probably not managing it very well.

“Oh, he’s—”

“Aunt Holly!” The unholy screech was my only warning before I was attacked by a pack of beasts, also known as my nieces and nephews. In total there were four of them: two boys and two girls, and they were all elementary and pre-school age.

At the moment I was only being accosted by three of them: Brielle, 7, Owen, 5, and Evelyn Rose, 3. Jason, the birthday boy, was turning 9 and likely commanding his birthday guest minions in some game of mischief or another. The child could wage a full-scale war from his tree house against the best military strategists out there, and I’d still bet on my nephew. If I hadn’t seen the birth certificate I would have sworn ‘Devious’ was his middle name.

“Hey, you three! Not causing too much trouble, are you?” I asked and hugged them close. Their behavior and my opinion of their mother’s name notwithstanding, I did love my nieces and nephews.

“Nope, just the right amount,” Brielle said, giving me a smirk to match her cheek.

I laughed, and turned at the insistent tugging of Evelyn Rose. She held her arms out to me in the universal toddler gesture of up, and I melted in the face of her forget-me-not blue eyes. Her hair was the white blond of small children, fine, and softly curling. It sat loose to her shoulders, because if anyone got near her with hair ties she threw unholy fits of rage.

I handed Candy the gift for Jason, and she tried to protest on my behalf since my arm was injured, but I waved her off with my good hand. I picked Evelyn up with one arm and she cuddled close to me, tucking her head beneath my jaw and resting on my shoulder. She took in a deep breath, and then stilled. Her sudden lack of movement made me freeze in response. Toddlers were naturally squirmy things, and any behavior outside the norm with them was cause for concern.

“Aunt Holly?” she said, her childish voice questioning and with an edge of confusion.

“Yes, Evy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice relaxed.

“You smell funny,” she said, and sat up enough for me to meet her eyes.

My breath caught in my throat at the sight: no longer blue, her eyes were the shade of mulberries, and the sensation of falling forward despite not moving threw my brain into full-out panic mode.

We’re falling! Primal Brain choked out, half in fear for us and half with instinctual fear for the potential to hurt Evelyn. Or maybe because of Evelyn.

We are not, but it’s unsettling, Rational Brain noted queasily.

“Evelyn Rose Bell—you will control yourself this instant, or you will be sent to your room!” Candy’s words rang out in the front hall, louder than they should have been but not in the sense of sound, and the reverberations made my bones ache.

Evelyn let loose her famous pout face, and I made to protest on her behalf, but Candy pulled her from my arms.

“Young lady, you know better. Now, go up to Nanny until your father and I are done speaking with Aunt Holly. Brielle, take her up. Owen, head out to play with your brother,” Candy said, issuing commands to each of the children in clipped tones I’d never expected from the perky woman.

As I shook what felt like fog from between my ears, I watched my nieces and nephews move quickly to do as their mother said. Apparently, this is what they meant by whipping out the ‘Mom Voice’.

When they were all gone Candy turned to look at me, and her eyes weren’t flashing indigo this time: they stayed that color. She stepped into my personal space and inhaled deeply right in front of my face, closing her eyes slowly as her lungs filled.

“Oh, Holly,” she said sadly, and opened eyes full of sorrow. “Come on, Joel is in his office. I think we all need to have a chat,” she finished, her voice soft.

When she turned and headed deeper into the house, I stumbled along behind her, my mind clearing more with each step. The newfound panic I’d discovered this week along with the existence of the supernatural was screaming and raking claws along my nerves, making me jumpy. I’d thought I’d already tumbled over my line of tolerance and found an equilibrium with co-workers, but this was family. Whatever was going on here was pushing me toward an edge in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back over. Even I had my limits.

Candy knocked softly, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door.

“Dear, I said I’d be down in time for the cake and presents. I’m alm—”

“Joel,” Candy said, her voice still soft.

I stepped into the room in time to see my brother’s head snap up and his brows furrow with concern at his wife’s tone. Then his eyes turned to me, and his head tilted in question. My brother and I shared the brown sugar colored hair, hazel eyes, and need for glasses, but in everything else we differed. He was tall like everyone else in the family, while I was short, and I took more after our mother in looks and he our father. Typical genetics. My brother was clean cut, no facial hair, and if he hadn’t hated the thought of traveling he might have followed in our father’s military footsteps. He cut a nice figure in his business suits when he was working, but here at home he was dressed in the same artful casual as Candy.

Candy closed the door behind me, and remained standing a little back and to my left.

“Hey, Buttface,” I said, trying to defuse the tension with my affectionately dubbed nickname for my brother, and waved my injured hand at him.

He snorted, and gestured to my hand. “Getting into trouble still, Stumblebum?”

I harrumphed and tried to cross my arms without jostling my hand. “Technically, this trouble found me.” Then I scowled at him. “In fact, I’m holding you partially responsible for this.”

He raised a single eyebrow, leaned forward on his desk with his elbows, and steepled his hands in front of him. “Oh, really? Do tell.”

“Well, it might have something to do with someone named Gozuk,” I spat acidly at him, yearning for a reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Joel jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger as he strode around the desk. When he started toward me I did my best not to take a step back in surprise or fear, I wasn’t sure which, and then his hands were tightly gripping my shoulders.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” he asked, his voice hoarse and low with fury and concern.

My eyes burned with the start of tears, but I knew if I started I might not stop, and I didn’t want to be a blubbering mess at my nephew’s birthday party. The fact was, though, that my brother and I might pick on each other to the point where we didn’t speak for months, but no one was allowed to lay a finger or level an unkind word in our directions. Making each other miserable was our prerogative and no one else’s.

“Not directly, no, but he put me in a situation, or a few, to be injured,” I said, my voice going soft like Candy’s. Then I turned my face up to search his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me about…them?” I asked, hesitating on the last word.

Joel sighed and loosened his grip. He shoulders slumped and he looked anywhere but at me when he spoke. “We’re not allowed to. There are rules and governing bodies in the various supernatural factions that prohibit it. I wasn’t even allowed to say anything when I was questioned about having you as a manager at that fast food place. They thought since I was…tolerable, for a human, that you might be as well. If you had reacted poorly they would have simply wiped your memory and sent you on your way.”

He picked up my injured hand in his and ran a finger over the rough material of the cast. “Now I wish I had just told them you wouldn’t be able to do it.” Guilt was rolling off him in waves, and I sighed, exasperated.

“It’s fine, Joel. You didn’t know Stribs was going to get murdered and that Gozuk was going to drag me into it,” I said, and did something rare and unexpected: I hugged my brother. It was awkward, but we both needed it.

Candy cleared her throat, and when the two of us parted we both looked at her. Her eyes darted between us and then she broke out into a genuine smile.

“You two are more alike than you let on,” she said with a little laugh. It died almost as quickly as our hug, though, and her mouth turned down in a frown. “Joel…” she said, nervously, biting her lip. Her eyes darted to me, and the panic from earlier was back.

Joel sighed again. “Holly—”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” I said, interrupting him. My eyes were wide and panicked.

No, no, no, no, no, Primal Brain said in a sing-song voice, covering their figurative ears.

It would be better to know, Rational Brain said, not unsympathetic.

“It’s not about you wanting to know. It’s about needing to, to keep you as safe as we can. I expected at your job you’d stay in the shallower end, given the, uh, rabble that works there, but you’ve been thrown into the deep end, and we both know you’ve never been a great swimmer,” he said, his voice firm. He scanned my face, but whatever he saw there didn’t reassure him.

“How about you tell us what’s been going on, and then we’ll move on to more personal matters?” Candy suggested.

I didn’t know why, but her words calmed me. I wasn’t sure recounting my week would help me with whatever bomb they were going to drop on me, but it couldn’t hurt. We made our way over to the pair of couches that faced each other in front of a fireplace. His office was large, the walls covered with bookshelves filled to the brim with law books and accolades. Honestly, the whole room was probably as big as my small apartment.

After we settled, I told them about my very busy week. Joel’s eyes narrowed in parts, in particular when I mentioned Knight and Thea. The former I could understand, he was law enforcement and my brother was a lawyer. Not to mention Knight was a grade-A asshole. Thea, however, was a surprise.

“Please don’t drive her home again,” Joel requested, the words holding an edge of pleading to them that set the hairs on the back of my neck to attention.

I gave him a hesitant nod. I wanted to know why, of course, but I had a funny feeling I was going to get more information than I wanted in short order. I didn’t need to overload on it.

When I finished, Joel leaned back against the couch, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“I might be able to give you some directions to go in, or suggest some people that could help, but I’ll need some time to make some calls. Your, uh, association with certain people will make getting you help difficult. But I’ll try to get you something before you leave from the birthday.”

My brows furrowed at his words. “What associations? The people I work with?” I paused. “You called them rabble earlier. That’s rather rude, Joel,” I scolded.

Candy cleared her throat, and Joel deferred to her with a tilt of his head, which was the most shocking thing so far today. There was more to my supposedly airheaded sister-in-law than I thought, and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at the realization. I hadn’t treated her like someone who had two brain cells to rub together, and based off current evidence I’d been somewhat uncharitable in doing so.

Still can’t get over her name, Rational Brain noted, with a sniff.

I silently agreed.

“The Owner of the Infamous Chicken isn’t only known for his talent with food; he also tends to collect outcasts. No one that would cause anything overt as a war with a faction, but those who were no longer welcome with their particular group.” At my frown, Candy continued, “Like Odella. She killed her Master, and though she was within her right to do so based on Code Sanguis, or vampiric law, no one willingly associates or invites vampires that kill their Masters to be around them, or join their Clan. It would be like inviting someone who assassinated the President to live with the newest President, or another world leader. They are seen as pariahs. Hence why The Owner took her in.”

I wasn’t sure I was comfortable hearing about Odella’s life, or rather undeath, from anyone but Odella herself, but Candy was simply trying to give me an example. I couldn’t fault her for that.

“So, you’re saying that everyone I work with, in some way, is an outcast?”

“Yes, and you working with them gives you an unofficial outcast status, too. It limits how much I’ll be able to help, given my position,” my brother said, his lips pressed into a thin line.

I sighed. I was never very good at politics—that was always Joel’s deal—but it sounded like I had indeed ended up in some deep garbage just by trying to be gainfully employed. Fate was having a laugh at me, She had to be.

“Okay,” I said, and took a deep breath. “While I don’t understand all of it, I’ll appreciate whatever help you can give me. They were so sure it was Celinwel, but that theory is trash now.”

Joel nodded, and tapped a finger to his chin as he thought. The silence between us stretched to the point of uncomfortable, and I squirmed a bit.

Just bite the bullet and get it over with, Rational Brain prompted.

I took a shaky breath and met both of their gazes with a pointed look. “Tell me.” The words had tumbled from me before I could think anymore on it.

Candy licked her lips and Joel grimaced.

“Do you remember how Candy and I met?” Joel asked tentatively, as though feeling out my mood.

Wow, apparently, we were going way back. I shook my head and pursed my lips. “At some work party, or something, right?”

Joel gave a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, that was the story we told. The truth is that Candy was…kind of…a reward for something I did for some…thing,” he said.

With each long pause between his words my eyebrows climbed higher and higher.

“Are you telling me someone gave you a person as a reward?” I spat, disgust thick on my voice, and I looked at Candy. I was expecting her support in my revulsion, but I was shocked to find a soft smile on her face as she looked at my brother.

“It wasn’t the best of circumstances, at least not in the eyes of humans, but our world doesn’t work the same as yours. Even the beings who ape humans closely, or were humans before, have very alien customs in the eyes of humans. It’s why we tend to avoid them. That, and the fact that humans tend to destroy what they fear,” Candy chided.

It was still a struggle for me to reconcile what I was seeing with their words. If what they said was true, she was basically a slave and she had no choice in the matter.

“So, he didn’t—” I made a waving gesture with my hand between the two of them.

Her eyes softened at my display of concern. “No, he was very gentlemanly. Despite what he was told about me and my disposition, he refused to do anything until we’d courted properly.” Then she laughed, the sound happy and warm. “It was the first time in my very long life anyone had treated me like a person instead of an object. I would do anything for Joel and the children,” she said, and took his hands in hers.

Watching them, I had to let go of my misgivings. It didn’t sit well with me how it had happened, but at the end of the day it was none of my business. And if they were truly happy, who was I to try and kick over their jubilant little sandcastle of love?

I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. “Okay. I can’t say I’m completely okay with this, but obviously my hang-ups are my own thing, and I’ll get over them. Or, I won’t, but I’ll keep it to myself.”

Candy’s eyes filled with tears, and Joel pulled her into a hug, whispering soothing words to her as he rubbed her back.

At my expression, Joel pulled back from Candy as she pulled an honest-to-goodness handkerchief from up her sleeve to dab at her eyes.

“She’s been fretting how you would react. Though I treat her as she should be treated: with respect and care, not everyone believes she deserves that. Your reaction means a lot, Holly. Ever since you took the job, we’ve been discussing how we were going to tell you everything.”

Something relaxed in my chest that I didn’t know had been tense. “You were going to tell me at some point, then?”

Joel and Candy nodded. “We decided on today, after Jason’s birthday, but then everything with the goblins happened and we were going to postpone,” Candy said. “But then…”

“But then Evelyn’s eyes changed and she said I smelled funny,” I prompted her to continue.

She nodded, but my brother laughed at the face I made when I stated what Evelyn said.

“Don’t worry, she says that about me whenever I come home from meetings with anyone except…her kind. Children, of any sort, are not known for their tact,” Joel said wryly.

My heart was in my throat and I tried to swallow around it. “You have to stop beating around the bush. I’ve already been lectured on asking a certain question,” I said, remembering Lia’s words with a blush of embarrassment, “so please, just tell me.”

Joel and Candy’s expressions were pained. “We just don’t want it to change how you act around the children,” Candy said, fear written plain in the way she held herself still, as though with one move she might break.

“Well, I already call them little hellions, what could be wo—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. When I’d said the word ‘hellions’, Candy flinched and lowered her gaze.

I clenched my hands, my breaths were coming out in quick, shallow pants, and chest was tight. It had been years since I’d had an honest to goodness panic attack, and though this week had pushed me pretty close, this had done me in.

“You-you’re demons?” I asked. The final word came out much harsher than I’d intended, but I’d had to push it out, or I wouldn’t have been able to say it at all.

Candy nodded, still not looking at me, and Joel gave me pleading eyes. Begging me to understand.

I stood up suddenly. “I-” I snapped my mouth shut against whatever was about to fall gracelessly from my mouth, and looked at the door. “I need a moment.”

Then I rushed from the room like a coward, and pretended I didn’t hear a soft sob right before I closed the office door behind me.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Writing Prompt ~~ The Truce

Music: Bad things – Jace Everett

 

Depending on a person’s proclivity for nocturnal activities, it was either far too early or far too late for what walked through my kitchen door at 5 am.

I’d been minding my own business, getting ready for the day by drinking tea and reading some news articles on my phone before heading out for some off the clock, weekend training, when I heard the front door open and close. I barely managed to stop myself from rolling my eyes. My roommate/partner was dragging themselves in at an ungodly hour, yet again, after being out all night. It was unnatural, even among superheroes, for someone to get so little sleep and still be so incredibly…perky. My lip curled at the word.

Perhaps it was a byproduct of her power: energy absorption. She could pull energy from anything, ranging from solar rays, to sticking her finger in a light socket, to pulling calories directly from a living being. As a result, she was always on this rather strange, but natural for her, high. In all honestly, I believe it has scrambled her brains a bit, but there was no denying she was a good person, and utterly pure in her intentions and actions. Though she didn’t always make the best decisions.

I sighed and shook my head, turning my attention back down to the article on my phone. I was a few lines in before I realized the steps I heard coming toward the kitchen were too numerous and oddly staggered to just be the footsteps of one person. I sighed yet again, and did my level best to not succumb to the rising annoyance at the fact my partner had brought yet another acquaintance home.

I was vacillating between my two choices of interaction: no eye contact and only making noncommittal noises in response to her questions and exclamations, or the third degree, complete with scowls and sneers. Deciding on the latter, and putting my tea down on the table, I turned my attention to the doorway just in time to catch Felicity Kist—a.k.a Voltra—walk into the kitchen with the biggest, brightest smile.

She was light and goodness wrapped in a short, curvy body, graced with thick, flax-golden hair cascading down her back like a shining waterfall, with jewel-bright blue eyes, and dimples that could make men and women swoon at a hundred paces.

I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth to admonish her when the second person came in behind her. At this point, my mouth dropped all the way open and my eyes widened to their limit.

Trailing behind her, seemingly willingly and at a level of unconcerned edging on boredom, was Lucas Trex—Nightmare—our archnemesis. He was what you expected from a villain: dark hair, dark eyes, lean and long-limbed, and devilish good looks that could tempt a saint with the smallest curl of his lips.

The only similarity between us was our height, both above average tall, but that was where it ended. I was bulkier, my eyes a washed out grey, hair the color of a good butterscotch pudding, and a square jaw.

“Felicity!” I exclaimed, and jumped to my feet, knocking over my tea and dropping my phone to the floor with a loud clatter. “You will explain yourself this instant!”

If anything, Felicity’s smile grew even wider instead of being tempered by my shock and anger. “I won him in a poker game, Asher!” she exclaimed, and even clapped her hands with joy. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“You. What?!” My eyes darted to Lucas, who merely shrugged and started looking around the kitchen. “That’s not a thing, Felicity. You don’t win people in poker games. Has he used his powers on you? Are you under his spell?” I asked, panic welling in my chest as I curled my trembling hands into fists.

My stance was wary, ready to grab Felicity to draw on her tremendous energy and manipulate it into a shield to protect us from his attacks. Or to blast him from the face of the earth. There was a lot we could accomplish partnered up that we couldn’t do apart. She could somewhat manipulate the energy she gathered, but she didn’t have my finesse or skill for it. On the other end, I was unable to draw vast amounts of energy from my environment the way she could. Without her, I could maybe gather enough to shoot a few energy darts, with just enough power to sting but not really injure. And without me to help balance and direct her energy she’d be bouncing off the walls, or in the worst-case: explode.

Lucas scoffed. “Not likely. The girl’s brain is such a mess and runs at a ridiculous rate of speed. I’d be lucky not to go insane spending any time in there.” He was probably right about her brain, and his voice was smooth like sin and wrapped in chocolate. “Plus, I don’t do magic or spells—I’m no wizard or mage. I manipulate psionic waves to produce the most terrifying nightmares or most exquisite dreams,” he said, sounding almost offended that I’d called what he did magic.

“Completely beside the point,” I ground out, shaking off the way his words and voice conjured images in my mind with the words ‘exquisite dreams’. “You are our enemy, and you must have tricked her in some way to get in here!” I declared, finally reclaiming my scowl and jabbing my finger in his direction.

He simply raised an eyebrow. “Pointing is rude, you know. Do they not teach you manners at that sorry excuse for an academy you attended? Or the agency you joined?” At my growl he shook his head and sighed. “Pity.”

“You-you—” I sputtered, but gave up on interacting with the infuriating man. “We are taking him in now, Felicity,” I said, hissing her name.

She pouted. She actually pouted at me. “But Lucas said we could have some fun if I won him,” she said, turning her lightbulb bright and innocent smile to the man.

There it was. The curl of his lip that turned my knees to jelly and made my mouth so dry I could swear I’d swallowed sand.

“Yes, I did,” he purred, gently trailing a finger along her jaw. I thought I was going to have heart palpitations, and then he turned a sly glance my way and I knew I was. “Would you care to join us…Asher?”

In a moment of weakness, between sucking in a shocked breath and exhaling, he crippled me not with his namesake—Nightmares and terrors—but with the other, softer side of his power.

Candlelight, silk sheets, and tangled limbs. Soft touches, smooth skin, and throaty moans. The scene played behind my eyes as though I was there, amidst them. Then, as my real vision was peppered with black spots, I realized I’d stopped breathing.

I let out a strangled sound and my knees couldn’t take it anymore. I collapsed into the seat, panting, and holding on to the edge of the seat as though it was the only thing keeping me from disappearing into the dream vision.

“I’ll take that as a tentative, ‘yes’,” he said, and chuckled, the sound deep and wicked.

“Isn’t he lovely?” Felicity sighed in delight, and then turned her attention to me. “Don’t look so worried, Asher. We’re bound by a magical truce woven into the rules of the game. For 24 hours we can’t harm each other, in body, mind, or soul. For the span of a single day we can just enjoy-” She put one hand on his chest, “-each other’s-” Her other hand snaked to the back of his neck, “-company.” She gently pulled him down for a long, deep kiss.

For what seemed like an eternity, the only sounds in the kitchen, (aside from the blood rushing through my body with such force it made me lightheaded), were gentle sighs, the rustling of clothing, and the slow drip of my tea leaking to the floor.

Heat pooled through me like fire roaring through my veins, and I let out a barely audible, “Okay.”

At first, I thought they might not have heard me, but then they broke apart and turned my way. I wasn’t prepared for the both of them to level all their respective and considerable charms my way. I exhaled weakly at the magnificence of them, their lips full from kissing, eyes dark with lust, and bodies pressed together as though they were two halves of a whole.

As though they were of the same mind, they both held out a hand for me at the same time. I gulped, but stood, and walked on shaky legs around the kitchen to take their hands. Lucas licked his lips hungrily and Felicity smiled a small, secretive smile.

“I told you he’d be perfect to balance us out—the grey between light and dark,” she said, not taking her eyes from mine.

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Lucas agreed, or at least his version of it. Then his eyes traveled over the two of us. “I hope no one planned to rest for the next 24 hours,” he said, his voice going low and purring again.

I nearly melted right there. The effect of being so close to the two of them and hearing his words was heady and intoxicating.

Felicity laughed, the sound of it delicate and pleased, while I just stood there, trying to catch my breath and calm my wildly beating heart.

Instead of answering, she let go of our hands and turned around, heading to the stairs that lead up to our bedrooms. Lucas gave me another turn-your-brain-to-mush smile before turning on his heal and following her up the stairs, looking like nothing less than a sleek, dark predator seeking out his prey.

I let out one last shaky exhale and followed them.

Today was going to be a very long day.