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.
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.
Read what happens when Tokara and Caia take their new friends Tormy, Kyr, and little Tyrin to Wood Frog Pond. This story takes place toward the end of AUTUMN KING (book 5 in the series), and while we don’t think there are many *spoilers*, you will probably enjoy the tale more after you’ve finished at least Chapter 12 of AUTUMN KING (Calculations).
“Do you think the giant kitty will play with us today?” little Caia lisped through the wide gap created by a missing tooth. Tokara tried not to giggle at the extra th in us. Her six-year-old sister was still struggling with her s sounds.
Tokara peeked through the wrought iron pickets of the bedchamber’s small balcony, edging herself closer to where Caia was kneeling, small hands gripping the iron pickets, head poking out between them. Both girls set their eyes on the horse-sized orange cat prancing up and down the castle’s courtyard.
“He sure looks ready to play,” Tokara replied longingly. Though she was already ten years old, Tokara too was enamored with the enormous cat. He’s just so fluffy!
“I don’t see that little Tyrin.” Caia leaned forward, squinting hard to spot the tiny kitten in the gathering below.
“He’s probably in Kyr’s pocket.” Tokara pulled her sister back from the railing. “Careful,” she said automatically.
Caia huffed and shuffled backward on her knees to what amounted to less than a half step. “I’m almost ready to go.” She pulled a cap from her pocket and started cramming her long, tangled hair under it.
“Momma won’t let you wear a cap all day.” With so much company in the castle, Tokara knew her mother would want them to present themselves properly attired.
“But it’s a big rats’ nest,” the little girl whined. She scrambled up so she could stomp one foot expressively. “It hurts to comb it!”
“I’ll help.” Tokara, well used to her sister’s hair troubles, stepped away from the balcony and took a few aimless turns around Caia’s room while reflecting on both their playtime and the tangle of locks. She picked up a sandalwood comb from the carved side table. “Come here, Caia,” she beckoned. “I’ll fix it for you.”
Caia touched a snarl above her ear with chagrin. “Guess I’m not so good at braids.” The little girl turned her back to Tokara, hands on the balcony railing, eyes on the goings-on below. She did, however, tug off the old cap.
Tokara returned to the balcony. Nothing is prying her away from the sight of Tormy.
“This is a braid?” Tokara poked her finger at the tangled knot in her sister’s baby-fine blond hair. She could hear the murmur of conversation in the courtyard below, as she carefully unwound the knot and then ran the wide-tooth comb through the tangle of her sister’s hair. “I can always braid it for you before you go to sleep,” she suggested, her brain still working on their lack-of-cat problem.
Caia held very still, hardly breathing as Tokara combed through one section of hair at a time.
“I bet,” Tokara’s thoughts spun as she spoke, “Tormy would want to play with us if we asked real nice.” She considered the obstacles, her tongue pushing against her cheek as she finished straightening Caia’s hair. The blond locks shone golden in the morning light. “Momma said Omen is busy and we shouldn’t bother him.”
“She said that?” Caia sounded mildly outraged even as she ran both palms over her now straight and sleek hair. “Thanks. I can’t ever get it to do that.”
“Mm-hmm. Just got to go slow.” Tokara thought about the chain of command as she handed the comb back to Caia. “We’d have to ask Omen’s permission to play with his cat, but if he’s too busy we can’t ask. And then we can’t have Tormy go down to Wood Frog Pond with us. But—” Figure it out, Caia, the solution is obvious. She didn’t want to suggest the idea herself.
“But we could skip Omen and just ask Tormy.” Caia caught on right away. “We shouldn’t bother Omen when he’s so busy.”
Both girls poked their heads over the railing again and looked down at the figures practicing hand-to-hand combat in the courtyard below: Omen, Templar, Liethan, and the girls’ grandfather Yoshihiro.
The night before at dinner, Omen had asked Yoshihiro if he’d be willing to train him and his friends in the Shindarian fighting arts. The table had grown very still, all aware that Omen’s naive question skirted close to outrageous disrespect. A highly traditional Shindarian sword master, Yoshihiro lacked the outgoing, generous nature of his son Diatho — the girls’ beloved father. The old man grumbled something unintelligible over his plate, but his tone was that of an unmistakable, unequivocal, no.
Tokara felt uncomfortable at once, but she greatly respected her grandfather and had been taught that his side of the family lived by a code of rules that reached back to his native land’s millennia-old history.
Unbendable. But we’re not in Shindar and some of his ancient rules are so silly. Like how he won’t train me and Caia because we’re girls. But then he’ll watch and help when Reeve and Rask teach us the lessons he just taught them.
A Shindarian sword master chooses his pupils; they can’t ask to be trained. Guess Omen didn’t know that rule.
Tokara’s mother had never directly spoken against Yoshihiro, but she blatantly ignored any of the Shindarian rules she disagreed with.
“What’s that, Omen?” Kadana had broken the dinner table silence with laughter in her voice. “Are you really going to ask a creaky old man to teach you to fight, when you could learn so much more from me?”
Tokara’s grandfather had merely clicked his tongue.
“I can’t believe Momma called Baba creaky to his face,” Caia had whispered.
“Don’t draw attention.” Tokara had given her sister a soft kick under the table, and both girls had simultaneously refocused their big-eyed attention to the entertaining back-and-forth.
Kadana had made a show of shaking her head — slowly, dramatically. “I’m deeply offended, grandson.”
Omen had flushed with embarrassment, and Tokara had started to feel sorry for him. She knew how her mother always teased, and she also knew that her mother took little offense at any perceived slight.
Momma’s just goofing on him. She’s always even-tempered, laughs at everything.
Yoshihiro had cleared his throat. “Perhaps, Kadana-sa,” he’d said with appeasement in his voice, “young Omen means not to study the swordplay that bashes and cuts. Perhaps his interest lies in the natural laws. Perhaps he is ready to learn not just the how but the why.”
Kadana had played at seriously considering his words, brows knotted. “You are so wise. The boys certainly would enjoy learning the throws and holds from you. A joint-lock or two could come in handy, I bet.” She’d turned to Omen. “What do you say, Omen? Will you take Yoshihiro up on his generous offer to train you?”
Tokara had tried not to giggle as Omen’s and Yoshihiro’s surprised expressions mirrored one another.
I wonder how long ago Momma set that in motion. She wants Omen to study with Baba, but she knows Baba would never take him on as a student. So, she tricked him. Tricked both of them.
The training had started early the next morning, and Tokara now watched intently as Baba flipped Omen over his head time and again. She could clearly hear the OOMPH of Omen’s large frame hitting the makeshift straw practice mat. Omen thought his size and strength would be a match for Baba. The old man had quickly proven that guess incorrect.
“Omen does look busy,” Tokara told her sister, the dinner’s events inspiring a ploy in her brain.
Caia leaned over the balcony a little farther. “Sure does. And Kyr and Tormy look like they’re just waiting around. I bet they’re getting bored.”
“And hungry,” Tokara added. “How long before they head over to the kitchens?”
“Not long,” Caia said with a smirk. “But shouldn’t we—”
She’s going to chicken out, Tokara thought with alarm.
“It’s finally summer,” Tokara started carefully. “If Momma won’t let us go down to Wood Frog Pond by ourselves—”
“She won’t let us go down to Wood Frog Pond by ourselves,” Caia said in a manner that felt entirely unhelpful to Tokara, “because of what happened last winter.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Tokara said, instantly defensive. The search-and-rescue mission to Wood Frog Pond had been her idea when Caia’s puppy had gone missing. “Momma never let us go into the woods without Rask and Reeve before that time either. And since the boys are on the Corsair Islands with Papa, we’re stuck in the castle.”
“All summer long?” Caia asked, furrows of concern on her forehead.
“All summer long,” Tokara said lightly, hoping her sister would go with her on this.
“What if we just ask for someone else to come with us?” Caia considered, thoughtful. “Niadh, Neylie, and Zennie would go with us.”
“I already asked,” Tokara grumbled. “I wanted to surprise you. But Momma said that with all the company staying at the castle, everyone is too busy.”
Caia’s shoulders slumped.
“And Momma said that there could still be orclets or other critters running around the woods. Which means we’d need someone who is a good fighter to go with us.”
“Like Tormy?” Caia’s eyes lit up with excitement.
Tokara looked down again to where the giant cat now lay sprawled on the ground, fluffy belly exposed. The enormous orange and white feline snored so loudly the sound reached all the way up to the balcony.
WINTER TITHE takes us to another corner of the world OF CATS AND DRAGONS. We find ourselves in the land of Kharakhan on the eve of the winter solstice. This time our hero is ten-year-old Tokara, one of Omen’s young relatives.
Tokara’s strong curiosity and loyalty to her sister bring her face-to-face with a monster older than the stars. But our girl has a brave heart and an irrepressible spirit, and the longest night of the year may still hold many secrets.
We hope WINTER TITHE brings you joy.
Camilla & Carol
Read Chapter 1: Storybook here or download the whole story to your device.
Chapter 1: Storybook
Tokara Deldano eyed the leather-bound tome resting in her mother’s lap. The girl had seen the dusty book before, high on the shelf and out of reach. Is Momma going to read to us? She pressed her lips together, trying to suppress the squeal of joy building up inside.
They had retired to the castle’s solar, the place where the whole family usually spent winter evenings playing board games or cards. Unfortunately, her father and brothers were away for the evening.
Despite the early hour, it was already dark, and — even though it was well before her own bedtime — Tokara felt tired and chilled to the bone. Caia, who was four years younger than Tokara, had started yawning before the pudding had been served and was half-asleep by the time they had climbed the tower stairs to the solar. The relentless harsh winds and weeks of icy temperatures were taking their toll on everybody.
Tokara let her eyes drift over the solar, her favorite room in the castle. Intricate tapestries lined all four stone walls. Her mother had brought the hanging pieces from a faraway land only last fall. Enormous, they depicted faerie stories and tales of magical beasts that made Tokara’s imagination tumble.
The room’s chilly stone floors had been layered with plush rugs, which created a spongy cushion for her every step, but this evening she’d pulled on two pairs of knitted socks before cramming her feet into her sheepskin-lined house boots. Leaning slightly forward on the stuffed leather hassock, she wiggled her toes, grateful for the arched fireplace so big that it could fit a team of pack mules. Fed throughout the day and evening, the fire kept the solar toasty and drove away the dampness.
Tokara turned her back to the fireplace, enjoying the warmth that spread from her lower back to her shoulder blades. She was glad her mother would not be traveling again until spring. Home was always merry for the Deldano children but never as merry as when their mother returned from one of her long voyages. Tokara also noted happily that her mother’s tremendous desk was bare. The farmers’ tithes had been collected after harvest, and the annual review of the estate and the Deldano lands had been concluded in time for the midwinter feast. According to tradition, the family would soon bring solstice gifts to the inhabitants of the Chain and the farms that surrounded the villages. Tokara always looked forward to the village celebrations and the feast that would follow at the castle.
As an early present, her father had taken both of her brothers ice fishing on Garganey Lake. Tokara shivered to think just how cold her father and the twins would be on this long and starless night. While she liked fishing, she was happy to have stayed behind. Her mother traveled so often throughout the year that having her home was solstice prize enough for Tokara.
The flames in the fireplace jumped up and sent a pleasant blast of warmth up her spine. Tokara looked over at little Caia. The six-year-old lay contently curled on the thick lambskin rugs, nestled between the family’s five hunting dogs. Caia and the dogs were fast asleep; the youngest, a seventy-pound monster of a six-month-old puppy, snored in Caia’s tightly wound grasp.
“I think Howler belongs to Caia,” her mother said softly. “He’s taken to her.”
Tokara nodded firmly. She longed to pet the pup’s short velvety coat but kept her hands to herself.
“You don’t mind?” Her mother turned her bright and penetrating gaze on her.
“A little.” Tokara could never lie to her parents. “I thought Howler would be my special dog.” She shifted her body and leaned toward the leather chair to be closer to her mother.
Dressed in warm robes that brought out the green of her eyes, her honey-blond curls loose around her shoulders, Kadana Deldano looked far less commanding than usual.
Tokara loved these rare moments when her mother was relaxed and completely present. She admired her mother greatly, but at times like this, Tokara’s heart swelled with adoration as well. Momma is the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Why did you think that?” Her mother wasn’t searching for a specific answer; she just wanted to know the truth.
“Well, I thought, since Fergus and Liam and Becca and Rawley are twins, they obviously belong to our twins.” Tokara thought about how one of each of the hound twins had sought out one of her twin brothers to follow around and worship. “Fergus and Becca are always with Rask. And Liam and Rawley can’t wait for Reeve to play with them, even though they are really working dogs.”
“You noticed the dogs didn’t go ice fishing with the Rask and Reeve?” her mother pointed out with a smirk. “The dogs stayed here where it’s warm.”
Tokara nodded, aware. “I thought when Daddy brought home a puppy this summer, that it would be my puppy. Because I’m next in line.”
“I see why you might think that.”
“But Caia loves Howler. Can’t sleep without him.” Tokara spoke from experience. “He’s a baby, and she’s our baby. So, it all does make a lot of sense.”
“You sound very grown up, my sweet girl.” Her mother put her hand on the leather tome. “The giants of the earth could learn from you.” She smiled. “Did I ever tell you the story of Straakhan . . . and Bumpus?”
Tokara leaned against the overstuffed arm of the chair. “I don’t know that story, Momma.”
Kadana opened the great book to the middle and began to flip pages, searching for the story. The leather binding brushed softly against her woolen robes.
Tokara held her breath. Her mother didn’t often take time to read to them. Far more often she’d take her children hunting or run them through sword drills or archery practice. Under her mother’s strict tutelage, Tokara had learned to ride a pony when she was only three. Story time was more the realm of her father and sometimes the Melian relatives on the rare occasions they visited.
Kadana carefully shifted the book, folding out a longer page to three times its length. The rustling of paper caught Howler’s attention. The puppy raised his copper head, looked around the room, bleary-eyed, and gave a hearty yawn. Then he settled back down and rested the full weight of his head on Caia’s shoulder. The little girl didn’t stir.
“In days long ago . . .” The story began the traditional way. “Straakhan built his castle in the impenetrable forest of—”
“Is it our castle, Momma?” Tokara thought she already knew the answer.
“Yes, this is the castle Straakhan built,” her mother confirmed.
Tokara sighed. “A castle built by one of the giants of Imlidral. . .” She let the mystery of it hang in the air.
“Straakhan wasn’t just one of the giants of Imlidral, you know. The blood of the faerie coursed through him as well,” her mother went on. “And once, when the days were short and the nights were long, Straakhan left his castle to search for a companion.
“He didn’t like spending time with the other giants. But he had grown weary of being alone. So, he sought new company.” Her mother looked up from her book. “What kind of companion do you think he found?”
“Wouldn’t he seek a human companion?” Tokara asked. “A friend?”
“Remember, this was in days long ago,” her mother said. “So long ago that there were no humans.”
Tokara considered. “Was it a cat?” she asked, finally. “A mighty, fierce cat like Tormy?” She’d never met the talking cat, which was rumored to be the size of a pony, but the stories told of Omen and Tormy’s adventures were fantastical and amazing. She wondered if they were all true.
“I don’t know if Straakhan knew about Tormy’s kin,” her mother said. “I’ve never heard stories of such cats before.”
“My third guess . . .” Tokara looked at the pile of dogs. “My third guess is that he sought the company of a dog.”
“He would have, my dearest.” Her mother flipped the pages of the book. “But in those days so long ago, there were no dogs.”
“No dogs, Momma?” Tokara set her lips to a pout. “Dogs have always been. Haven’t they?”
“Nothing has always been.” Kadana tapped the page.
The story wasn’t going the way Tokara had expected. Her lips trembled slightly, questions dancing through her head like snowflakes caught up in an unexpected gust. “Did Straakhan ever find a pet?” she asked finally.
“Not a pet,” her mother corrected. “A companion. There’s a big difference.”
“Did he find a companion, Momma?”
“Straakhan went out into the forest. In the deepest, darkest part of the woods, he saw a great beast. The creature was so large and so fierce, he dared not approach it, but he watched its movements for many days.
“It was mighty indeed: large jaws filled with fearsome, snapping teeth; fat paws round as stones with claws drawn out and sharp; a coat as brown as the earth and as thick and long as pine needles. When it roared, the trees trembled and the moon hid behind the sun.
“The creature holed up in a cave for a long time, and Straakhan lay in wait, his patience growing thin. When the mighty one emerged from the cave again, Straakhan knew the wait had been worth it.
“With her, for Straakhan learned then that the creature was a female, were four little ones of her kind. Three were brown like their mother, but one — the largest — was white as milk and had eyes blue as the sky at noon.
“Over many months of waiting and watching, Straakhan won the trust of the mother. He brought her food, watched over the cubs, and protected them from enemies. A season passed, and the cubs grew.
“One day, the family moved on while Straakhan slept. He woke to find them gone and the cave empty. His heart was broken, for he had come to love them all.
“But as he turned away, knowing he would have to return to his empty castle all alone, the snowy white youngling with the blue eyes came to his side.
“He named him Bumpus.”
“Bumpus is a funny name,” Tokara interrupted.
“Bumpus is a funny name, and Straakhan was delighted by his funny companion.”
“Was Bumpus a good companion?”
“The very best, most loyal companion. Bumpus grew to be incredibly big and strong. His long coat was white in winter and golden in summer. Bumpus followed Straakhan everywhere, like a puppy.”
“Is there a picture in the book?” Tokara asked impetuously.
Her mother stiffened slightly, but she turned the book so Tokara could study the folded-out page.
The parchment was brittle but the picture seemed fresh, nearly gleaming. A tall, handsome man in leathers stood next to an enormous creature Tokara thought looked like both a wolf and a bear.
“Is that Bumpus?” she asked, pointing her finger at the white wolf-bear. “His neck is thick; his legs are like tree stumps; his jaw is round like a bear’s, but everything else about him is like a wolf. And he walks on four feet.”
Her mother nodded. “And don’t forget, Straakhan was a giant. So Bumpus is much larger than a regular wolf standing next to a regular man.”
Tokara thought that Straakhan in the painting was nearly as handsome as her oldest brother. “Straakhan looks a lot like Beren,” she said absently.
Her mother chuckled softly.
“I don’t recognize this language, Momma.” Tokara tilted her head to look at the odd letters, which appeared to her as if a chicken had danced across the page.
“The writing is very, very old,” her mother said. “Don’t worry. You won’t have to learn it.”
Tokara wanted to hear more, but a powerful yawn took hold of her. She quickly flung her hands to her face to cover her mouth.
“Straakhan and Bumpus were the best of companions. They traveled the world and had many adventures.” Her mother closed the book, stifling a yawn of her own. “It’s getting to be bedtime, for all of us.”
“Were Bumpus and Straakhan companions forever?” Tokara hoped to draw out the tale.
“Not forever, my sweet.” Her mother returned the book to the side table.
Though afraid to hear more, Tokara couldn’t stop herself from asking. “What happened?” she whispered anxiously.
A sad smile played on her mother’s lips. “What always happens. When it was time for Bumpus to pass, Straakhan wouldn’t accept it. Straakhan, through his faerie blood, was immortal. He wanted his companion to be immortal as well.”
“And that couldn’t happen.” Tokara felt a lump form in her throat.
“Oh no, Tokara.” Her mother took a deep breath. “It did happen. Straakhan railed against the gods and nature. He found a way to make Bumpus immortal.”
“But then everything was all right.” Tokara didn’t understand why her mother had made it seem like the story’s end would be sad.
“Straakhan made a lot of enemies in his quest to make Bumpus immortal. He defied many powerful immortals and put worlds in danger. He cared for nothing but obtaining his goal. Straakhan got what he wanted. But not the way he wanted it.
“Once Bumpus was immortal like Straakhan, the powerful ones he had offended punished Straakhan. They banished him to a solitary realm, a place that could only hold one immortal at a time. If a second immortal joined him there, they would both be torn apart, splintered into the tiniest bits of energy and pure power. Destroyed for eternity.
“If Bumpus hadn’t been immortal, he would have been able to join Straakhan in his exile. The very gift of immortality held them apart, will hold them apart for all eternity.”
Tokara’s eyes stung. “What happened to Bumpus?”
“Bumpus was left all alone. His family long dead, none of his kind walked the earth.”
Tokara frowned. “This is only a story, right Momma?”
Her mother tilted her head. “This happened in days so long ago, it might as well be called ‘only a story.’ But I want you to think of the responsibility that comes with gaining a companion. Straakhan ruined himself for the love of Bumpus, and his heart breaks every day anew.”
Tokara looked over at Caia snuggling closer to Howler. “So, is it bad to have a companion? Does it always end in sadness? If it’s like that, I don’t think I want one.”
“My little philosopher,” her mother said. “You have to live and love wherever your heart takes you. And sometimes love of another takes you down a thorny path. That is life.”
Tokara looked at her mother’s smiling face and the cozy dog pile, her sister at its center. “Life is beautiful and cruel then.”
“Let’s get you girls ready for bed,” her mother said. She scooped Caia from the rug, lifting the sleeping girl as if she weighed less than a feather.
Howler, stretching and yawing, padded out of the room after them.
Tokara’s eyes fell on the leather tome. Impulsively, she picked it up from the table and followed her mother and sister to the sleeping chambers.