My best friend Carol and I have roamed the OF CATS AND DRAGONS world for over three decades, creating our stories in the telling — from our high school Dungeons & Dragons games to a private website where we’ve posted over three hundred stories and story fragments for each other alone. But now we are getting ready to share what we’ve conjured up.
It wasn’t easy, sorting through generations of characters, plots long and short, episodes half-forgotten and threads of tales never completed. From the moment Carol and I decided to write that first OF CATS AND DRAGONS novel, it took nearly a year of combing through storylines, weighing character arcs, before we arrived at a starting point.
Other decisions had to be made as well. While our stories range from Grimdark to slapstick, we had to pick one path. Ultimately we had to go with what the core really was — heroic fantasy with a touch of whimsy. A GAME OF THRONES without the naughty bits.
And while we had literally dozens of possible protagonists to choose from, we agreed that Omen and Tormy were at the center of our fantastical universe.
And from where should we launch the tale of their beautiful friendship? After a couple of false starts and at least another year of trying to figure it out, we decided to begin — at the beginning.
NIGHT’S GIFT is the pilot to our new series, one we hope to renew book after book for as long as we can still put word to page.
I have a few favorite Halloween stories. Ray Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE tops the list. This wonderful tale follows a group of children who plunge headfirst into all sorts of trouble one Halloween night.
On the surface a kid’s story, THE HALLOWEEN TREE has great depth — exploring both Halloween traditions and cultural rituals surrounding death.
It’s tale of bravery and friendship.
I like that.
In one way or another, I suspect that I have been significantly influenced by Ray Bradbury’s themes.
When Carol and I wrote LILYTH’S HUNT, we knew we wanted to focus on the new friendship between Lily and Sable. The girls meet for the first time at the Melian Harvest Festival, and the stage is immediately set for mischief — even at her young age, Lilyth Daenoth comes with all sorts of baggage.
LILYTH’S HUNT isn’t exactly a Halloween story, but it’s set around the same time of year and has some Halloween/ harvest time flavors. So, as a Halloween treat from us to you, please grab yourself a free ebook copy of LILYTH’S HUNT, and enjoy the adventure.
“Camilla and I are hard at work on book 6 of our series. And I am working on multiple art pieces . . . the image you see here is my first attempt at a ‘storybook’ style. For the subject, I chose the cat Oblique (from Lilyth’s Hunt) on her quest to find a ‘raisin’ costume to wear to the Harvest Festival. Unfortunately, there were no raisin costumes to be found in all of Melia, and she had to settle for being a pumpkin ghost.”
My husband wrote a memory, a moment we shared in New York on top of the World Trade Center before the world changed:
Even having grown up in NY, I have a handful of unusual personal connections to the World Trade Center. The very first time I stepped foot in the city (I grew up on Long Island), I toddled — as you do as a toddler — along with my family to the observation deck; I also spent an entire surreal day there in the smoke and mayhem of the 1993 bombing. But my fondest memory is my last, and what would be my unwitting farewell to the iconic landmark. In late summer 2000, at the dawn of the Twin Towers’ final year and during our first year together, I wanted Camilla to see the view from the top. After dinner in the Village, we made the trip up…
Several people have asked questions about what or who this little guy is, so I thought I’d write a brief
bit about him. Along the way, I ended up painting another picture of him to show what he really looked like. No, he doesn’t live in the shell, and he isn’t a turtle.
One of the things that always fascinated me about fantasy stories and fairy tales was trying to imagine the microscopic world they co-existed in. Most fantasy stories are about the big things — the dragons, unicorns, griffons, goblins. We hear about the heroes and the gods of a land, and their great deeds and adventures. But I always wondered what was life like in those worlds for the simple farmers and shopkeepers — the people without magic, who didn’t know how to use swords. But who still had to exist in the world of giants and monsters.
I used to imagine being a child growing up in a world like that. In our world, children go off and have adventures in their backyards; they collect bugs and polliwogs, climb trees, hide in bushes, catch fireflies in jars. Or at least that was the sort of thing I did as a child.
Now imagine being a child in a world of magic — where the fireflies are actually sprites, and gnomes hide in your bushes. And if you wander into the woods, you might find a faerie house built inside a toadstool.
If you live in a world where horses are actually unicorns, then what might lizards and grasshoppers actually be? If the macroscopic world is magical, then the microscopic world has to be magical as well. Magical plants, birds, insects and trees.
As a child I used to make tiny little creatures out of yarn and cotton balls — I’d give them names and magical powers and would tell myself all sorts of stories about them. Mostly I just told my stories to my cat — she was quite appreciative, and would happily chase my little yarnball monsters around my room.
Now, I can draw them. I imagine a place like Melia is filled with all sorts of amazing little things. In Lilyth’s Hunt, Lily tells Templar about the magical squirrel that lives in one of their oak trees.
Templar stopped short. “Squirrel gardeners?”
“The squirrel ones don’t garden. They just watch over things.” Lily pointed to an ancient oak tree; its leaves had turned the color of rubies to suit the season. “There’s one living in that tree. He wears an amulet and flies.”
“He wears flies?” Templar said, studying the tree. “That’s unusual.”
She wasn’t sure if he was joking. “No, he can fly. The squirrel. He flies like a bird. He soars. He lives in that tree. They say his name is Kiblet.
So when I first created this little creature I was imagining a back story for him as well. He’s called the glintstealer. They’re a tiny race of creatures who live in the Melian woods and steal shiny objects. They’re distantly related to dragons — notice the six limbs. And while they never developed wings like a dragon, they do grow little feathery appendages from their heads that might be feathers or might be antennae. They’re quick and mischievous, but mostly harmless.
In the original picture, he’d just found himself a pretty pink shell, and desperately wanted to get it home. But he couldn’t carry it. So finally he just stuck it on his butt, and wore it home. Happily, he does eventually make it back to his little hoard with his new prize.
The Alpha & Omega 99c deal is only available at Amazon.com, but both books are available on Kindle Unlimited.
And now back to “The Raid”
“LAPD!” Gabe shouted as he and Lucy burst from the shadows.
Tuti, tilting a red plastic gas can, hunched over the injured pit bull. ”Down on the ground!” Gabe followed up. Tuti froze. An incredulous roar rose from the surprised Locos as Lucy rammed her full force into Tuti, taking him down and knocking the gas can from his hands. She jumped to her feet and buried her boot in Tuti’s midsection. He gasped and curled in on himself.
The crowd of Locos reacted with indecent speed, scrambling down the alley, climbing fences, grabbing dogs and cash as they fled.
A few took in the fact that all that was threatening them were two cops — alone, and one of them was a woman. Like pack predators they closed in, toothy smiles flashing in the glow of the streetlights.
The back door of the bar flew open. A skinny teenage boy wildly waving a handgun ran toward Gabe in a straight line.
“Manny! No!” A screech Lucy barely recognized as belonging to Xochitl Magaña rang out from inside the hallway.
Gabe clotheslined Manny effortlessly and sent his gun flying through the air. Hitting the ground it went off, prompting other frenzied Los Locos to fire blindly in return. The sound of feet running from both sides of the alley, the whirring sound of helicopter blades overhead, the sudden warning shouts of police and ACTF overlapped with the howling and barking of dogs and hollers from Los Locos escaping over the fence. Bodies in flight and pursuit, knocked over cages, men crashing or being thrown into the chain-link — the chaos all around made Lucy feel a weird calm.
She noticed Flaco holding up his phone, filming the entire scene, turning his narco-pop to full blast while tears flowed freely down his scrunched up face.
Near her, Gabe scooped up the injured pit bull and bolted towards the safety of the door propped open by Xochitl Magaña.
“You idiots weren’t supposed to grab the dog!” Xochitl sounded furious.
Men came at him from all sides, shouting and flailing. Gabe barreled through them as if they were nothing.
Screeching, Flaco raised his Browning to take aim at Gabe’s back. Lucy clocked the boy in the face with her Beretta. He went straight to the ground.
“You fucking weasel!” she spat and bent down to scoop up his gun.
Someone grabbed her from behind, but she twisted out of the way, losing her grip on Flaco’s 9mm. There was nowhere to go now but to follow Gabe and the pit bull through the open back entrance to Xochitl’s Cantina. Lucy sprinted ahead, tripped over the stoop and gracelessly crashed onto the cantina floor, cutting her hands and bruising her pride.
A shot rang out, and for a moment everything seemed to slow down. Lucy saw Gabe, who’d been in front of her and was already in the room, go to his knees on the blue linoleum. He bent forward unnaturally, releasing the pit bull who scrambled under a wooden table.
Lucy lurched forward on the floor to half push and half drag Gabe out of range of the shots that were continuing through the backdoor. From behind the bar, Lucy heard Xochitl scream, “Stop shooting, you assholes!”
The gunfire stopped.
“Lucy.” The deep rumble of Gabe’s voice took her complete focus. Something was very wrong. Gabe’s face had turned pasty white and glistened with sweat. Lucy locked onto Gabe’s eyes — normally deep chocolate brown, they now glowed a mesmerizing amber.
Before she could react, five Locos burst into the room, shouting and waving their guns. Gabe sprang up, knocking Lucy on her back, and crashed into the Locos with breathtaking force and speed.
Gabe’s already large frame now appeared monstrous, the muscles of his back and arms bulging and pulsing, his bones lengthening and cracking. Clean-shaven a moment ago, his face looked dirty with dark stubble. His hair, always cut high and tight — a remnant of his time in the service, now brushed his shoulders and rolled down his back like a messy lion’s mane.
Gabe roared like an animal in agony and ripped through one of the men’s throats with the startling long, curved claws of his bare hand.
He grabbed a gangbanger with the other hand, dangling the man off the floor and shaking him by the face like a rag doll.
Lucy started to black out as what felt like a massive shockwave rocked through her body. She fought to keep her eyes open. The small coherent part of her brain observed that Gabe’s Kevlar vest had a small rip in the back. Even if the vest had stopped a bullet from going through, it couldn’t have saved his ribs from being broken. Yet Gabe moved unencumbered, with the power of ten men.
She fixated on the shaggy black layer of fur that covered her partner’s head and arms. Just then he turned in profile; large pointed, fur-covered ears swiveled back like those of an aggressive dog. Razor-sharp teeth flashed in a tapered lupine jaw, and he bit down on the last gangbanger.
My partner’s a werewolf?
Lucy convulsed as hysteria shot through her like an electric shock.
“SWAT! Drop your weapons! Nobody move!” At that moment, the SWAT team burst through the front door of the cantina.
Gabe spun on the armed men, ready to attack.
“No, Gabe! Stop!” Lucy screamed the command, instinct trumping fear. Gabe hesitated and looked at her with curiosity.
Holy shit! He’s listening to me.
“SWAT! Get on the floor!” an officer roared as the team closed in.
“LAPD. Don’t shoot,” Lucy yelled out and lurched ahead to put her body between Gabe and the SWAT officers. “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.” Lucy’s voice gave out. Tears streamed down her face as she tried to squeeze sound from her throat, but her vocal cords wouldn’t obey anymore and violent coughs shook her.
She felt Gabe’s hot breath on her neck and turned to face him, slowly and deliberately.
“Down, Gabe.” She pointed to the floor. “Down.”
For a split second, everyone in the room stood still and watched Gabe. The massive man swayed briefly and then dropped to the floor like a puppet that had had its strings cut.
“Officer down. Code 33. Echo Park. North Alvarado and Clinton. Officer down. Start me additional units and medical. Code 3. Officer shot. Approach from northwest.”
“On their way.”
Lucy heard the shouting but didn’t comprehend the words. She crouched down beside her partner, holding him tight as convulsions wracked his body. She saw blood drip to the floor. Gabe had been hit despite the Kevlar.
“Don’t die. Don’t die. You can’t die.” Lucy’s words ran together in an incessant chant. She was lost in his pain, unable to focus, oblivious to the pandemonium all around her.
ROAD TO PREDATION is a historical fantasy, written in collaboration with my husband P.J. Ochlan.
The core story has been rattling around in my brain for a few years, and I am thrilled to unchain its creation with this prequel origin story:
ROAD TO PREDATION premiered at the HEAR NOW FESTIVAL in Kansas City this past weekend as a live audio drama with a full cast.
Cast in order of appearance: Lauren Ezzo, Robert Fass, Suzanne Freeman, P.J. Ochlan. Bill Dufris, Eric Martin, Byron Wagner, Karyn O’ Bryant, Neil Hellegers, Lisa Flanagan, Ann Richardson, Delaney Cinnamon, and Jeff Hays.
Co-writer/director P.J. Ochlan and sound designer Bryan Lincoln worked out a spectacular soundscape that moved from quiet moments — the scratching of a quill on parchment — to the battlefield, complete with the bone-rattling barrage of thousands of soldiers, war horses, rockets, and canons. P.J. also assembled an all-Beethoven score with pieces that are specific to the time period and underscore the emotion of each scene.
I listened in stunned fascination from California as our devil’s dozen actors — along with the sound design, live foley performed by Tony Brewer, and haunting viola accompaniment by Jason Kao Hwang — seamlessly transported us from the victory at Waterloo to a chilling Germanic forest, from village to monastery, from reality to the supernatural.
ROAD TO PREDATION is the story of a young Prussian soldier, Sepp Jäger, who survives war only to discover that the home front is as dangerous as the battlefield.
Initially, the horror that befalls Sepp seems to be all in his head. His family and neighbors have little compassion for a young man who seems to have come back to them damaged, no longer whole.
But just as peace returns to his village, Sepp’s family and neighbors learn that they have deceived themselves. The monster was never in Sepp’s head. And now, the man they’ve tossed aside is the only one who can save them. Having nothing to lose, Sepp becomes what he was always meant to be — the Wolf Hunter.
This being a dark fantasy, the perceived evil is external. There is a monster. We don’t find out much about her in ROAD, except that she’s murderous and scary as hell. But, the beast has layers of motivation that are born out of pain, anger, loss, and the single-minded need for violent revenge.
Sepp’s internal agony is grounded in his inability to process his experience on the battlefield and the devastating losses that are a combat veteran’s reality. PTSD has become more recognized recently, but at the beginning of the 19thCentury, Sepp’s symptoms would not have had a compassionate reception.
At its center, ROAD TO PREDATION is about courage. Courage to stand up to external threats. Courage to wrestle one’s inner demons. Courage to walk the road alone.
While I couldn’t be there in person for the premiere, it seems that the audience was left with some pretty good chills on Saturday night. And if there were goosebumps in the house, I’m happy.
What could possibly go wrong with a midnight summoning?
Lilyth wants nothing more than her very own talking cat. Since she’s forbidden to venture beyond the city of Melia, or even her own house, she devises a subtler course of action. And when things go sideways, the trouble she anticipated is nothing compared to the trouble that’s coming.
This story has been clanking around in our brains for almost two years, and we are really happy to finally release it. We hope you enjoy this peek into Lilyth’s world. You’ll meet some familiar friends, and like Lily – hopefully – make some new ones.
“Magic isn’t hard. It’s just slippery.” Lilyth tilted the borrowed scroll a quarter turn and checked the stylized knots decorating the yellowed vellum. The young girl eyed the sweeping letters she’d painstakingly copied over the last two hours and bit her bottom lip. My penmanship is nicer than the original.
She studied the pattern she’d drawn alongside the letters. The tangled knot was the most complicated symbol she’d ever tried. You’re supposed to memorize it first! she started to scold herself. It’s mostly memorized, she argued back. I copied it down barely without looking at the original.
“But it’s also supposed to be internalized.” Lily chewed the inside of her cheek. Internalized, her magic became the physical sensation of movement — like the steps of a dance or the flutter of wind. But this new spell continued to feel foreign and unwieldy as if she were attempting to juggle massive boulders. This clunkiness was one of the reasons she’d copied the pattern down instead of relying on holding it in her mind.
“That’s pretty close.” She was pleased with her work but had erroneously hoped to finish well before midnight. I better not get caught now. Not after the hardest part is done.
Her canvas, a full-length mirror she had arduously placed flat on the manor’s attic floor, shimmered in the diffused candlelight.
The night breeze rattled the wooden shutters softly and slipped between the thick yarn loops of her cozy cable-knit arm warmers. Lilyth gathered her nightdress more tightly around her, crisply lifting the hem from where it had been touching the floor. Bits of dust twirled through the air in a fey dance and mingled with specks of the azurite she’d used for the required blue paint. The particles tickled her nostrils, and she tried to stifle a sneeze.
Lilyth had spent days preparing the mineral pigment in secret, grinding lump azurite into a fine powder to produce the desired delicate blue and mixing it with water and honey. She’d tended to the paint containers like a mother hen caring for her clutch of eggs, returning to her room every half hour to pour the solution into new vessels, examining the sediment until it looked clean of impurities.
“If I can’t go get a cat, then I’ll just have a cat come to me.” She checked the spell scroll again. “Arratairimaltpurratundescaramous.” She took in a sharp breath. “Un-des-car-a-mus,” she corrected herself, hoping that Scaalianspells weren’t too exacting. Scaalianwitches are rare, she reasoned. I bet there’s a lot of leeway. Anyway, it’s all about the want, not the pronunciation.
She recalled her mother’s instruction on the importance of the will of the caster. The want.
Lily tried to clear her mind, fearing that her careless recollection could carry an echo back to her mother. She imagined the transgressions her mother would list: Larceny. Secrecy. Casting spells without permission. Sneaking around the attic in the middle of the night. “But what am I supposed to do when they won’t let me have a cat?” she murmured crossly. “Omen always gets everything.”
You don’t ask permission to cast cleaning cantrips, do you? The thought was fleeting but she latched onto it, following the logic. And technically since I learned that cantrip on my own, I learned it in secret — Mother was pleased. So how is this any different? And Mother never really said I couldn’t go into the attic in the middle of the night. She dismissed the idea that she was shoring up arguments for when she actually did get caught. I’ll have a cat by then, so it won’t matter!
Lilyth lit the last candle, an amberand oakmoss pillar, and visualized the cat she wanted.
“A little cat, black as night. A cat who talks and charms and knows a lot of things. I want a city cat, a cat who can get around and tell me all sorts of secrets.”
Carefully opening one eye, she peeked at the pilfered Scaalian scroll again. The summoning sentence was long and convoluted, so convoluted in fact that she’d made small notations on the vellum to remind herself how to bring meaning to the complicated structure. She had — brilliantly she thought — even scratched out the name of the creature the spell originally summoned and replaced the long appellation with the word cat.
“That way, I can’t make any mistakes. Cat is a noun and a name just like—” She could barely make out the many consonants of the word she had scribbled over. “Whatever is a noun and a name. So, it should all fit grammatically.”
Lilyth nearly squealed with joy. By breakfast, she thought, she’d be holding her new little black talking cat on her lap, and her mother wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. No way would she make a cat go away. And even if she tried, Tormyand Tyrin would surely have something to say about it. Lilyth felt quite pleased with her foolproof plan.
She let out a deep breath, the anticipation swelling inside her. Here we go! She tried to put the pattern in the forefront of her mind. It thudded heavily through her body, ungainly and alien. Use the pattern on the mirror — that’s what it’s for!
The girl fixed both eyes on the swirling pattern and letters of the complicated spell and firmly and clearly spoke the words. Her heart stuttered with the heavy, lumbering swath of energy that pushed through her limbs.
The last syllable had barely left her lips when a gust of wind whipped around the attic and blew out each of her candles. The amber and oakmoss scent lingered, but the area, crowded with stacked crates and dusty items from faraway places, was plunged into darkness for a breath-taking second. Then the attic walls sparked as the web of her mother’s protective sigils, which decorated every panel, came to life. The abundant but usually unobtrusive patterns brightened with a steadily pulsing light. Lilyth even thought she heard a low hiss coming from the intricate hex marks.
That can’t be good. She jumped up, leaving her scroll, paintbrush, and ritual gear in place. “Where is my cat?” she managed to spit out. “If I’m going to be in heaps of trouble, I better have summoned my cat!” But she was alone in the attic, no feline companion having manifested.
The sight and sound of the sigils did not diminish, but rather seemed to grow by the second. Worry gnawed at her. It will wake everyone in the manor if it gets any louder! Do something! Mothermust have a counterspell in one of her books!
She rushed to the attic door, which she had closed and locked before starting her preparation. Lily grabbed at the door handle with one hand and struggled to turn the key with the other. The key heated up as she closed her fingers around the bow and stem, and she turned it hurriedly to avoid being burned. Throwing the door open wide, she rushed to escape the attic and the sigils whose very glimmering seemed to scold her for her misdeed.
“I’ll counter the spell and come back in the morning to clean up the attic,” she sputtered as she fled down the hall. They’ll never know what I did.
But to her alarm, the hex marks covering the walls of the long hallway shimmered and hissed as well. It’s not just the attic! As she ran, the sea of glowing marks spread out before her like an unwelcome beacon announcing her passage.
What do I do? I can’t hide this!
Lilyth veered down the hall, taking the backstairs to avoid being discovered. Please everyone, stay asleep. Flickering sigils fanned out before her in sparkling rays. Her slippered feet hit the long, thick rugs of the main floor, and — panicked — she dashed toward the giant double doors of her mother’s office. The walls and imposing doors blazed with tangled hex marks.
Without pausing to knock, Lilyth pushed the great doors open, her mind fixed on reaching the spellbooks kept safely locked in the cabinet by the window.
Crushed into her dark leather wingback chair, stone-faced, sat her mother, hands clutching the top of her great desk, knuckles white.
She’s really mad. Lily’s heart seemed to do several backflips.
“Lilyth,” Avarice’s voice was low and deliberate. “What did you do?”
Xochitl Magaña paced nervously behind the bar of her cantina, anxiously waiting for the cops to arrive. ¡Santa Maria, reza por mí! Turning in her gangbanger boyfriend Memo was dangerous at best. I’m gonna be in deep shit if this doesn’t go down right…And Miguel, Memo’ll… “No,” Xochitl hissed, squashing the sprouting thought before it could ripen. “This’ll work.” She snatched a towel from its hook and began wiping down the individual liquor bottles that lined the shelves behind the bar. El Gallo’s done. Memo Morales preferred the moniker “El Gallo” and fancied himself Tony Montana. ¡Híjole! What’s with vatos and Scarface? And like an over-glorified, self-obsessed crime lord, El Gallo had exploited his relationship with Xochi, using her bar as his headquarters — his command center for the gang’s illegal operation. And I let him. But El Gallo gave her protection — something Xochitl desperately needed after her papa had died. And she had to admit, just as Memo liked having the only fair-skinned, light-eyed, natural blond ruca in the neighborhood, she’d initially liked the attention he’d given her. It had been hard growing up a “güera” in the barrio — a place, despite being Mexicana, Xochitl had never felt she truly belonged. School had been her refuge, and she’d even won an academic scholarship to UCLA. I was so close to getting out. Then everything changed. Her father had a stroke. His health rapidly deteriorated. She dropped all her classes. Moved back home. Took over the bar. Took over care of Miguel. Back in the hood, back in the life — with Memo. But Memo went too far. Gun running. There was no way Xochitl could live with herself knowing she had let this thug take over the business her papa had worked so hard to build. God, what would Papa think of me now? I just wanted to keep the bar going and Miguel safe. Xochitl hated all of it: the dogfights, the guns, the East Los Locos — Memo. She shook off the flutter of nerves vibrating up and down her spine and noticed she’d been wiping off the same fifth of tequila. As she carefully placed the Cuervo Goldin its proper slot between the Don Julio and Patrón bottles, she caught the reflection of her cantina in the mirrored glass that backed the liquor racks lining the wall. Wood and leather tables filled the space. A ’50s style jukebox, her papa’s pride and joy, played only vinyl from the ’60s and ’70s. “Mija, there’s no other music.” He would tell her whenever she’d begged him to update the playlist. Various paintings of matadors and bullfights attempted to lend a Spanish flavor to the rugged bar. Xochitl’s Cantina had been Xochi’s home since she was six when her father, Carlos, had left the Marine Corps, following her mother’s death. And in its heyday, her papa’s bar had been the favorite local hangout. The barrio Cheers. By the time she was eleven, Xochitl had a stepmother she couldn’t stand and a new baby brother she adored. ¡Híjole! In one shot, Anita went from barfly to mother. What was Papa thinking? But Xochitl remembered how sad and lonely her papa had been after her mom had died. He was honorable and would never have considered not marrying the mother of his child. Carlos Magaña was the finest man Xochi had ever known. Biting back tears, Xochitl clenched her eyes. Her papa’s warm and inviting spirit echoed within every element of the cantina. I miss you, Papa. For what seemed like the millionth time, Xochi looked up to the neon DOS EQUIS clock hanging over the bar. 2:37 A.M.? They’re late. The fights’ll be over and Memo’ll leave soon. He’s gonna wonder why I’m still here and not waiting for him upstairs. “Where the hell are they?” she mumbled. “Where the hell’s who?” Memo Morales asked. Startled, Xochitl whipped around, knocking over several liquor bottles. She barely registered the clamoring rattle of glass hitting glass as Memo, who had come in from the back without her noticing, stood behind her. Shit! Despite the frozen crush of heart-stomping anxiety, Xochi couldn’t help admire Memo’s movie star looks and how his white T-shirt and jeans emphasized his strong, lean build. His big, hazel eyes always took her breath away. Tonight was no different. Still the best-looking guy in the neighborhood. “Who’s late?” Memo asked again, grabbing a beer from the cooler under the bar. “Huh, what?…Uh…no one. I mean, Miguel. He’s late.” Memo wrapped his arms around Xochi and tugged at her rose embroidered peasant blouse. “¡Ay, mamí! Let the boy be. He’s almost eighteen. A man.” He began kissing her neck. “Why don’t you go upstairs, put on that sexy slip thing I got you? I’m all wound up. You can help me relax.” Wrinkling her nose at the smell of stale beer and dog, Xochi shrugged Memo off her. “What do you know about it? He’s not one of your boys.” Xochitl knew she shouldn’t be flippant with Memo. He had a short temper and could be aggressive with her when he didn’t get his way. But she couldn’t help herself when it came to her little brother Miguel. She hated it when Memo thought he had any say in how Miguel was raised. She wanted to yell in Memo’s face, “Stay away cabrón! He’s mine!” Instead she whispered, “I’m tired.” Xochitl walked around to the front of the counter, trying to put distance between herself and Memo. She could see in his eyes he was losing his patience. Where’s la chota already? Undeterred, Memo closed the gap between them and grabbed her arm, yanking her to him. “I said go upstairs and get in that pinche slip, bitch.” Xochitl pulled her arm back and without thinking threw a right hook to his jaw. Instantly, she felt pain shoot from her fist straight up her arm. “¡Ay carajo!” Shaking out the sting from her hand, Xochi looked up and saw Memo stunned, holding the left side of his face. Oh, fuck! What did I do? Instinctively, she began backing up toward the bar’s front door to make her escape. As she turned from Memo, Xochi heard a menacing laugh and the distinctive clicking sound of a gun being cocked. “Not bad for a little güera bitch. Daddy teach you that?” Xochitl grabbed for the door. “Don’t you fucking move, puta.” Naked fear blasted through Xochitl’s body, leaving her feet bolted to the floor. She had nowhere to go. If she moved, Memo would shoot her. He’s gonna shoot you anyway. Taking a chance, she slowly turned back to face Memo. He stood at close range, his gun pointed at her chest. Oh, God. Xochi raised her hands in the air. “Please, Memo,” she tried to placate him. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean—” “¡Cállate!” Memo growled, pacing back and forth in front of her like a wild beast about to pounce on his prey. An odd bubble of calm enveloped Xochi, and — as if locked in stasis, she stood immobile, waiting, contemplating her next move. “You think you can do this to me and not pay, bitch? I’m El Gallo!” Xochitl stole a glance at the bar. Behind the counter. Papa’s shotgun. If I’m quick enough… “I run this—” Memo raged on only to suddenly cut himself off. Xochitl brought her attention back to El Gallo. He stared past her at the frosted glass window. She slowly craned her neck to follow his line of sight. A shadow moved swiftly by the front of the bar. ¡Híjole! About damn time! She turned back to Memo. His eyes again fixed on her. Xochitl could see by the amazed and — hurt?— look on his face that he’d puzzled out she had betrayed him. Why Memo hadn’t made a move on her yet she didn’t understand. She wasn’t about to ask. Keeping him in her sights, she began inching her way to the bar. Xochitl had almost reached the end of the counter when Manny, a fourteen-year-old boy, one of Memo’s lookouts, sprinted into the cantina from the kitchen. “¡Jefe! ¡La chota! ¡Afuera!” Memo regained his senses. “¿Dónde?” “Everywhere. I came from the dumpsters out back,” the boy answered. ¡Carajo! The cops didn’t find the kitchen entrance! The side alley door was hidden by the dumpster enclosure. Xochitl’s produce vendors constantly complained about the difficult access. If I get out of this alive, I’m gonna move those pinche dumpsters. “Did anyone see you?” El Gallo asked the boy as he moved toward the kitchen and peeked through the swinging door. “No, Jefe,” the boy replied, pulling out a 9mm handgun stuffed in his pants like a gangster out of a movie he’d probably watched a million times. “The cops will find the kitchen door soon.” Memo stepped back into the bar. Xochitl eyed El Gallo, as he searched the room for another way out, revulsion churning her guts. How did I ever get mixed up with this monster? What am I gonna do if he gets away? Memo glanced down the hall toward the restrooms. His mouth turned up into a sly grin, and Xochi knew he had figured out his escape. ¡Hijo de puta! Where’s pinche Xena warrior cop? Unsure, Manny took a tentative step closer to El Gallo. Memo put up his hand, halting the boy. “Stay here, homes. Pinche cops can’t touch you.” The gang leader beat his chest with his fist and shouted in salute, “¡Órale! East Los!” “East Los!” The dutiful boy soldier mimicked. Someday this kid’s gonna get himself killed by these pendejos. That will not be my Miguel. El Gallo turned back to Xochitl, “I’ll deal with you later.” Then he ran down the hall toward the women’s restroom. Xochi stood next to the bar, staring after Memo. There was nothing she could do now except hope the cops would nab him crawling out the bathroom window. She looked over to Manny, who appeared lost now that his leader had ditched him. Poor kid. Doesn’t even know Memo could give a shit what happens to him. Shouting and gunfire blasted from the back lot. Officer Lowell. Xochi darted behind the bar, grabbed the Smith & Wesson 12-gauge, checked it was loaded and readied herself. Looking up, she watched Manny cock his gun. “Wait,” she hissed. Manny smiled at her and ran for the back exit. “Shit!” Xochitl, shotgun in hand, took off after the boy…
Tune in next time when all hell breaks loose in “The Raid” Part 3!
Lucy Lowell tucked into the shadows behind the white cinder block wall of Xochitl’s Cantina and listened. Coarse Spanglish curses pierced the night, accompanied by loud cheers and snatches of Tijuana narco-pop. Vicious barking and short, pained shrieks lacerated the seedy revelry.
Through holes in the camouflage canvas stretched over the parking lot’s chain- link fence, Lucy counted thirty East Los Locos gangbangers crowding around a shallow dogfight pit. Strewn around, discarded like trash, lay lumps of fur and flesh Lucy didn’t have the stomach to focus on. Through the wall of men, Lucy caught a glimpse of a blue nose pit bull turning away from its opponent, a muscular pit mastiff mix.
“Handle your dog, güey!” a paunchy man yelled from just outside the ring.
Accompanied by loud taunts, men from each side of the pit dragged their dogs back to the scratch lines. The mastiff’s handler fussed at the dog’s mouth, unfanging the dog’s lip from its teeth. Clearly dead tired and hurt, the blue nose pit bull started toward the line of cages against the opposite fence.
“Whoa, Puta.” A young man with a baseball cap turned backwards yanked the dog’s collar hard, causing the pit to drop to the ground as if taking cover.
From her hiding place, Lucy could see deep scratches on the pit bull’s face, bite wounds bleeding on the shoulder and old burn marks seared into the fur.
Lucy’s stomach cramped.
The dollar tacos she and her partner Gabe had devoured on their way to Echo Park threatened a hasty exit. Cabra Blanca, their favorite late night food truck, had been parked close to the raid at Montana and Alvarado. Eddie, the owner, always included extra mango guacamole with Lucy’s order.
Guacamole! Shouldna eaten. The dogfighting makes me sick enough. Why’d I chance it with the cabeza quesadilla on top of those goat tacos?
Lucy breathed in slowly and directed her gaze from the hurt dog to the few stars blinking in the murky L.A. sky. The lights of an airplane outshone the sliver of the waning crescent moon. She could make out the distant roar of jet engines.
“Bitch won’t fight no more, jefe.” The young man with the cap delivered a kick to the blue nose pit’s side. An ugly curse cut through the tumult as a man in a formfitting white T-shirt and dark designer jeans parted the crowd.
Memo Morales, cock of the walk. Nice of you to join us.
Teeth clenched, Lucy drew her sidearm and looked back down the alley. Officer Gabe Torres of the LAPD Animal Cruelty Task Force quietly crouched down next to Lucy, indicating with a nod that he too had spotted “El Gallo.”
Her partner for five years, Gabe was as fierce an animal rights protector as Lucy had ever met. Both she and Gabe had risked both badge and incarceration many times, as they rescued dogs from backyard dogfighting with or without departmental approval.
Tonight’s raid was another point of contention with their ACTF lieutenant. When the confidential informant had approached Lucy and Gabe about dogfighting behind her cantina, it had been just the break they’d been looking for. These East Los Locos had been brokering dogfights for years, but their slippery leader Memo Morales, a.k.a. “El Gallo,” always managed to ensconce the events with aggravating efficiency.
Distressingly the CI, Xochitl Magaña, had given Lucy and Gabe much more than they’d hoped for. El Gallo and his Los Locos were running guns. The dogfights, while generating tens of thousands of dollars on their own, were a mere front. Lucy and Gabe’s supervisor Lieutenant Heckman had turned their information over to her superior, Captain Burch. Burch had taken the lead on the raid, called in SWAT and only allowed the ACTF along as a courtesy after Lucy had begged to be involved. Lucy and Gabe had been virtually cut out of the planning despite their relentless pursuit of the East Los Locos dogfighting ring.
“Get rid of it, Tuti!” El Gallo spat, prompting Lucy to inch forward. She could see El Gallo throw a fistful of cash at another man and stalk into the cantina through the backdoor.
The gangbangers laughed and joked as more money changed hands. Pushing the baseball-capped banger away, the man named Tuti threw a chain around the bloodied pit bull’s neck and dragged her clear of the wall of men. The exhausted dog cowered from Tuti as he tightened the chain around her neck. Small whimpers reached Lucy’s ears.
“Just shoot it.” A thin teenage boy in baggy jeans and an oversized white T-shirt approached Tuti with what looked like a Hi-Power Browning 9mm.
Nice gun. A detached part of Lucy’s brain noted the semi-automatic. ”¡Cállate, Flaco! Let’s have some fun.” Tuti yanked the chain, smashing the pit’s chin into the asphalt. The sharp yowl caught the attention of the other attending Locos who turned to watch Tuti’s show.
Gabe’s hand settled on Lucy’s arm and held tight. She would have bruises in the morning.
“Wait,” he hissed.
Lucy tilted her head to look directly into her partner’s dark brown eyes. In a split second a struggle resolved between them. Burch’s words, “You two hotheads are on thin ice,” echoed in her memory. She knew Gabe remembered it too.
“X the bitch, Tuti!” Drunken hysteria pitched the Locos’ voices higher. “¡Fuego! ¡Fuego! ¡Fuego!”
Her eyes still locked on Gabe, Lucy knew what was happening in the parking lot. Having investigated the sad aftermath of the East Los Locos games, she knew what inevitably came next. Slowly she nodded her head, and Gabe released his grip. It wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t even smart.
Lucy rose to her full height. Her Beretta clutched firmly, Lucy shot a quick smile to Gabe. Easily on the taller side of six feet, muscled like a professional bodybuilder, Gabe Torres looked scary as hell.
Glad you’re on my side, good buddy.
Lucy felt calm wash down from her head to her toes. This was what she was made for…
This month I want to share a few selected pieces of Carol’s art from NIGHT’S GIFT, book one of our fantasy adventure series OF CATS AND DRAGONS. The pictures are captioned with short quotes from the story. If this looks like a book you would enjoy, check us out here. And if you’ve already read NIGHT’S GIFT, I hope you enjoy this little trip down memory lane.
A tall, thin figure in long grey robes stood near a cauldron emitting a billow of greenish smoke. He’d been a man at one point, the broad bones of his face distinguishing him as human. But the rest of his features were impossible to discern within the mass of lumpy grey skin, which spread over desiccated muscle tissue.
Gack. Looks like a snake’s slough. Cast-off. Putrefied. Omen swallowed down the sick rising in his throat at the sight. The smell in the air was almost unbearable to his heightened senses, and the silk kerchief only vaguely lessened the impact.
The alchemist had two eye sockets in approximately the right place, but they were filled with glistening gelatinous material that boasted pale green irises with black pinpricks in the center.
Omen took an abrupt step back, bumping into Templar.
“The prinssssessss,” Gerdriu hissed through squared off ivory teeth yellowed with age and far too visible. Part of Gerdriu’s lip had long ago fallen off, and the words that came out of him were difficult to understand. The alchemist prolonged the final “s” so much that the word sounded like princess.
“Run, walk, crawl, won’t much matter boys,” a low, harsh voice informed them.
Both Omen and Templar spun around. An old woman stood behind them, clutching a gnarled wooden staff in one hand and a goblet of wine in the other. A small hummingbird flittered about her head, pulling at strands of her long white hair. It landed on her shoulder and perched calmly there, tiny eyes peering intently at Omen.
“Ma’am?” Omen nodded his head politely to her — his Melian-bred manners at the forefront. He’d been taught to speak respectfully to the elderly.
“They’ll eat you if you go near them,” the old woman continued with a chuckle that sounded remarkably like a low rolling cackle.
“Who will?” Templar and Omen asked in unison.
The old woman pointed her staff toward the red sector and the group of women sitting in the center of it. “The Feast Seekers of course!” she said.
“I thought Mer folk were supposed to be beautiful maidens,” Omen whispered to Templar as they approached the strange, scaled man.
“There are more different types of Mer folk than there are land folk,” Templar said. “This kind is frequently seen around the bay of Hex. They’re mostly harmless, but they’re strong and extremely long-lived.”
As they approached the strange man, he turned toward them expectantly. Omen could see thin slits in the man’s neck. Though the Mer’s features were mostly human, his gills suggested that he could breathe underwater. He was dressed in long blue robes that hid his form. His hands, folded upon his lap, were unusually large — his fingers extremely long and thin. Omen spotted webbing between each digit.
Templar stopped beside him and inclined his head politely. “Greetings old one,” he stated clearly. “We are here to ask for Miss Cornelia’s pearl back. She has sent us to retrieve it.”
The Mer blinked slowly. His eyes, blue as the sea, were enormous and bulbous, lending him a wild, wide-eyed expression. The smile that accompanied that look only added to the unnerving effect as it revealed tiny needle-like teeth behind his pale blue lips. “Delightful,” the Mer replied, his voice soft but clear. “But if you want the pearl, you’ll have to play for it.” He motioned with one webbed hand toward the Battlefield board next to him.
“You’re saying you’ll give us the pearl, if we play a game of Battlefield with you?” Omen tried to clarify.
The Mer’s smile widened. “I’m saying I’ll give you the pearl if you win a game of Battlefield.”
“And if we lose?” Omen pressed.
The Mer rubbed his chin thoughtfully, looking the two of them over. The webbed plume on his head raised upward as he studied them.
Standing in the center of the pit was a most curious-looking creature. Tall, with fine sharp features and long dark hair that hung about his shoulders in curls, he might have passed for human were it not for his glowing yellow eyes and the fact that his legs below the knees looked like they belonged on a goat. His goat legs stuck out from beneath his calf-length velvet breeches. Covered in fine black fur, his fetlocks and pasterns ended in glittering black hooves that clicked and clattered upon the marble floor.
Dressed in a flowing black coat and a tall black silk hat, the goat man swept the hat from his brow and elaborately bowed to the audience all around him. He gestured to the crowd with grand over-exaggerated motions and waved the hat in the air several times before setting it back upon his head. Then, he cracked the long whip clutched in his other hand. The sharp sound of the thin piece of leather snapping in the air drew all attention toward him.
“Welcome back gentle lords and ladies!” he shouted to the crowd. His voice was deep and rich, and easily carried throughout the cavernous arena.
Team Luciene, the champions, were towering, androgynous entities that, while humanoid in shape were anything but human. Tall and well-muscled, they bore enormous leathery wings upon their backs like giant bats. Their hands ended in long vicious claws, and their feet were shaped like the talons of raptors. Black beaks sprouted from the front of their faces as if a dark triangle had been shoved over an unsuspecting human’s mouth and nose. Their beady bird eyes flashed yellow and bright over their beaks, while their thick, scaly tongues flicked out over their long incongruous fangs and rows and rows of sharp teeth.
Beaks and fangs. Hardly seems right.
As team Luciene entered the ring, their wings beat fiercely, carrying them over the marble floor in great bounds. They landed near the ringmaster, and Omen could see their claws digging down into the surface of the stone as if it were made of sand. Each let out a series of vicious caws that cut right through Omen. While their bodies showed signs of minor injuries, they did not seem even slightly fatigued from their previous matches.
From the other door the two challengers . . . slithered. Not remotely human, these two players were mostly reptilian — their lower bodies curled into enormous serpent coils. Their long, wide upper torsos were covered with glistening scales. They possessed four arms each, heavily muscled and thick with ropy sinews. Their scaled hands flashed with sharp claws.
Nightmare snake things.
As the snake creatures approached, both hissed, showing off long dripping fangs. Team Islid swayed menacingly in front of the ringmaster, who cracked his whip in warning.
Two furry white shapes caught hold of the edge of the box. The fuzzy shapes were white as snow, white as cream, long fluffy tendrils of fur catching in the air. A larger shape pulled itself upward. Omen saw a flash of orange, a gleam of gold, a shimmer of gossamer, and a moment later he found himself staring into the face of a . . . kitten.
Omen blinked. The music in his head grew utterly silent. The patterns vanished. He blinked again and stared hard, trying to make out exactly what he was seeing.
The kitten was large — perhaps the size of a herding dog. But it was still a kitten, a kitten with a too-large head and gangly legs. The kitten was covered in long fluffy orange and white fur patterned in glimmering stripes that caught in the air currents and shimmered with a silken sheen. The kitten’s ears, long tufts of white fur sticking up from them, the insides as pink as sea coral, were perked forward. Enormous amber-colored eyes shone with curiosity. The pink nose, twitching as it tried to catch the scents all around, seemed almost lopsided due to the small smattering of dark freckles on one side of the velvety skin. Incongruously there was a slender golden crown perched upon the kitten’s head, held up by one ear.
To Omen’s shock the kitten opened its mouth and proclaimed in a loud voice for all to hear, “I is only three weeks old!” And then the little creature yawned as if exhausted. The words — not meows, not growls or some vague approximation of speech — were spoken in clear, unmistakable Sul’eldrine, the Language of the Gods. The kitten’s voice was sweet and lilting and perfect for the holy tongue.
Hope you’ve had a good start to the new year and are enjoying fun times and good reads. If you haven’t had the chance to download our new OF CATS AND DRAGONS short story, SOLSTICE THYME, please click on the link below to collect the tale from Bookfunnel. It is our gift to you.
Carol and I are currently working on the next Omen and Tormy adventure, which should provide more travel, more magic, and — hopefully — old and new favorite characters.