Category: fiction

Young AdultUndead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson …

What makes a five star read? For me, it is a book that moves me– makes me laugh out loud, makes me cry, makes me think. I read so many books, so quickly, that I often consume without pausing. A five star book stops me in place and makes me pay attention. 

Here are the 5 star reads of 2018:

Fiction

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

This is a surprisingly tender, heartwarming, charming book! Told from a mix of POVs and across timelines, it manages to be both an interesting exploration of family life and a page-turner. I wanted to know the characters better while also being heavily invested in the plot.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

First, let me tell you, the narrator’s voice is so strong, I didn’t realize she went unnamed until I read a review pointing it out. It’s not necessarily a trustworthy voice, but it is honestly confrontational, sometimes cruel, very funny, and wickedly sharp. The narrator does not spare you, when she is talking about others or herself. Sometimes, I cringed at the text, and sometimes– maybe even more upsetting– I nodded in agreement.


Horror

There’s a Giant Trapdoor Spider Under Your Bed by Edgar Cantero

Funny, entertaining, and just scary enough to get your pulse racing. A perfect short read.


Memoirs & Nonfiction

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir of near-death experiences, I found it sometimes frightening, sometimes so stressful that I had to put the book down and walk away from it, and then, deeply moving. 

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer

Tefler doesn’t sensationalize. She interrogates and asks questions, digs deeper. She embraces the horrifying facts of each case while also drawing out deeper themes, showing a side of women’s lives not often explored in the media. 


Romance Novels

A Scot in the Dark by Sarah MacLean

A Beauty and the Beast re-telling, with scandalous art and giant Scotsman and so. many. feelings. MacLean really delves in there and grabs your heart, squeezing it for all it is worth.

Burn for You by JT Geissinger

Jackson is a beast on the outside, and a real emotional mess on the inside. He’s crusty and short tempered and quick to snap. He’s damaged by his past and not willing to let anyone in. Until Bianca. She takes him to task for his behavior, sasses him back and let’s him have it when he pushes her too far, and god bless him, he loves it.  

The Governess Game by Tessa Dare

It’s perfectly delightful in the way of the best romance novels. Funny and also poignant, light-hearted and also deeply emotional. The book is really about how we build our hopes and desires, and how we see ourselves and our worthiness to achieve those hopes and desires. It’s heavy stuff wrapped up in fluffy bow of will-they-won’t-they tension, stolen kisses, clandestine meetings, and overwhelming desire.

Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean

Are you worthy of love? Can you find someone worthy to love? These are big questions that Felicity and Devil grapple with even as they plot and scheme both with and against each other. Both are lost souls, desperate and lonely, but also convinced that love is not for them. And that story, of finding and determining your own self worth in order to better love the person meant for you, so totally resonated with me. It brought me to tears.

Young Adult

Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson

Yes, this is a story about witches and magic and bringing the dead back to life, but it is grounded in very real emotions. Mila’s loneliness, her loss, really overwhelmed me. And then the difficulties she faced after getting Riley back broke my heart all over again. Mila is an outcast and a loner– Riley was truly the only person who meant anything to her. Watching their friendship sputter and stall, struggling as Mila struggles to try and understand what is happening to her and her friend, is hard. I felt very moved by the love and devotion present in this book, by the weight and meaning that Anderson gave to friendship and companionship.

We’ll see if that female-presenting nipple is …

We’ll see if that female-presenting nipple is too much for Tumblr.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

When I finished the book, I immediately went in search of reviews and articles about it. Truthfully, a part of me was afraid that maybe I didn’t understand it– maybe the book was smarter than me. 

A woman in her mid-twenties, nameless, decides the best way to transform herself and her life is by sleeping through it. So she finds a quack psychiatrist (just by luck) and gets prescribed pills upon pills upon pills. And then she embarks on a year-long quest to remain asleep. 

First, let me tell you, the narrator’s voice is so strong, I didn’t realize she went unnamed until I read a review pointing it out. It’s not necessarily a trustworthy voice, but it is honestly confrontational, sometimes cruel, very funny, and wickedly sharp. The narrator does not spare you, when she is talking about others or herself. Sometimes, I cringed at the text, and sometimes– maybe even more upsetting– I nodded in agreement. 

Also the premise! To numb yourself so sufficiently from life, that you actually spend a year asleep… Am I alone in saying how tempting that sounds? Of course, the reality of it, at least in the book, is much more visceral and savage and heartbreaking. The narrator is an enviable character in many ways – she’s rich, she’s pretty, she’s thin, etc., but never did I once wish to trade places with her. This is a book that embraces alienation and isolation, but never moralizes. It’s not a fable with a lesson learned at the end. It quite possibly is smarter than I am, but I still really enjoyed reading it. 5 stars.

Regular

(WP) Hair of the Dog

               She was sitting in history, her least favorite class in school, when it happened.

Someone got up to go to the bathroom and reached for the knob, but the moment his fingers met the metal, she heard the lock click closed, and red lights began to flash, washing the room in bloody light.

“They’re here,”

Their teacher, Mrs. LeCroix, was standing at the window, quickly closing metal bars over them, her white dress turning pink in the light; to Diana, it looked garish, almost grotesque, and a taste like metal, like blood, coated her mouth and throat.

“Who is here, Mrs. LeCroix? What do they want?”

At Diana’s questions, the rest of the class waited for the answer with bated breath. No one knew what was going on, but they were clearly in danger. Their instructor slammed metal, too, over the vents, the snap, snap, snap making several people jump with each repetition.

“The werewolves, children. They’re invading, and out for blood.”

**

One student stared at her with his mouth open, and he let out an incredulous bark of laughter.

“Werewolves? What are you on? There’s no such thing! They’re just stories! Folktales!” The guy, named Freddy, was openly scoffing at their teacher, arms crossed.

Mrs. LaCroix’s eyes narrowed. “Haven’t you heard that old expression, that all stories contain a grain of truth? Those threads didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. You’d do well not to laugh.”

While this acidic exchange was happening, Diana was listening intently; down the hall, she could’ve sworn that she heard footsteps.

Could it be that this wasn’t some crazy dream and that this was real life? Werewolves were coming for them. And if she was hearing correctly, they were right down the hall. She turned to her classmates and put a finger to her lips, and everyone, even Freddy, went silent.

Diana heard female laughter, and the heavy clop, clop, clop of footsteps on the polished floor. The doorknob rattled, and she heard a muffled word in a language she didn’t understand; perhaps it was a curse.

“It’s locked,” A deep, raspy voice sounded, and Mrs. LaCroix went white, her lips a thin line in her face.

“When has that ever mattered?” Someone else retorted; there was a heavy thump, as if the person had shoved their shoulder against it.

“Move out of the way! I’m hungry, and you’re holding up lunch.” Another voice piped up; to Diana’s surprise, it was high-pitched and breathy, as she imagined a little girl would sound. There was another thud, and a hole—an actual hole—punched in the door, and the scrap of steel fell inward with a hollow, metallic clang.

The woman leaned down slightly and grinned, her smile full of sharp fangs.

“Peek-a-boo!”

She reached in the hole and jiggled the knob again; this time, it gave, and the door swung open, revealing Mrs. LaCroix, Diana, and the rest of the nonplussed students.

After that, it was total chaos, and since all the vents and windows were barred, the only path to escape was through the door, and past the monsters.

Mrs. LeCroix stepped in front of them all, waving her hands to indicate that they should all get behind her.

Diana was frozen, gaping in shock. Their teacher had been right. But then, the world did not make sense any longer. How was this possible?

But Freddy, ever the skeptic, refused.

“Mrs. L says you’re werewolves. But I don’t believe you.”

“Did you not just see that stunt with the door, child?” The woman with the high voice asked, eyebrows arched.

“Oh, well. Shall we see if we can convince this boy of the truth?” She asked, and without further ado, she stepped forward, holding out an elegant hand tipped with long, dirty claws. With another step, she growled low in her throat and there was an awful, nasty squish sound as she relieved him of his heart, blood spurting from his chest.

With another wicked, fanged grin, she asked, “Any more questions?”

**

(WP) The Violet Stone and the Mysterious Man

(WP) The Violet Stone and the Mysterious Man

               The cool night air brushed his cheeks as he strolled home, hood hiding his face and snow crunching under his boots, still lightheaded after indulging in his cups a little bit too much.

               His feet carried him toward home, but he was abruptly startled by a hand in his pocket. Was he being robbed? Pickpocketed? But much to his surprise, as quickly as he felt the touch, it was gone, replaced by a heavy weight in his pocket. Paranoid and jumpy from drink, the man slipped inside his house, closing the door behind him with a sound thud.

               His wife was sitting in a chair next to a merrily crackling fire, one of the children asleep on her chest, humming a dreamy tune. At her husband’s arrival, she looked up, eyes reproachful.

               “Please don’t wake the baby, Elijah,” She mouthed, shaking her head, then she went back to humming, stroking their son’s hair.

               Tiptoeing past his family, he went down the hall from the living room and peeked in on their daughter, who was fast asleep, a book lying open on her sheets. Elijah smiled, his heart warming; days at the tannery were hard and made him filthy, but coming home to this, to his wife Rhea, and his children, were what made it all worth it.

               Breaking his back was a small price to pay for supporting his family as best he could.

               Elijah was startled out of his thoughts by a sharp knock at the door; Rhea, who was putting Jael to bed, looked up, a question in her eyes. He waved her down the hallway and walked to the door, making sure to close the door to Megara’s room before he did so.

               As he approached the door, a quiet male voice sounded, seemingly from inside his own head, halting him in his tracks.

               Don’t open that door, or we are both dead, Elijah. Heed my words.

               There was a rush of warmth from his pocket, and his hand moved of its own accord. His fingers closed around the stone, and he pulled it out, looking at it for the first time. It was a large purple stone the size of his closed fist, with a dusting of pink quartz around the edges, and its heart glowed a dark magenta, throwing bright lights on the walls when he opened his fingers.

               He found himself wondering if the voice came, from all places, the stone. Maybe he’d had just a bit too much to drink. Everyone knew that stones couldn’t talk, even he, with what little schooling he’d received before adulthood. But he couldn’t ignore the urgency in the voice, whatever its source.

The knock came once more, louder and more insistent.

“Elijah? What is going on?” Rhea demanded in a whisper, her eyes darting between him and the door.

“What do you have there?” She stepped toward him, eyes narrowed and hands outstretched.

“I don’t know, Rhea,” He whispered in return, and he supposed she must have seen the sincerity of his words in his eyes, because she stopped short, looking at the door.

Elijah, trust me. Do not open that door. Or it will be the death of us all. You must take your family and run.

Elijah found that despite his speculation, he could not doubt the voice’s words. But he didn’t dare answer aloud; this was already pure madness, and he didn’t really need to be locked up in the village asylum on top of everything else.

“We have to leave,” He said quietly, in a voice softer than a whisper. “Get Jael and Meg and pack what you can. I just… I have a really bad feeling about this.”

“What about the person at the door?” She hissed back, alarmed, and he shook his head.

“We can’t answer it. Or we’ll die.”

**

Elijah, Rhea, Megara, and Jael slipped out of their little stone house, out the back door, all of them crowded on a strong, young warhorse, the stone safely stowed away in Elijah’s pocket, the mysterious voice sighing in relief in his head.

The last sound they heard before they departed the village was a high, keening scream of rage and frustration, and the trees in the forest swallowed them up.

**

(WP) The Ghost of Christmas Future

(WP) The Ghost of Christmas Future

The ghost hovered above the
graveyard slightly, so sheer that the pale winter sky shown through it.

Another day, another job. But to
say that their job had become monotonous was an understatement; it was all the
same. Visits to people who took people they loved for granted, warning of
loneliness and emptiness to come; some heeded their words, others scoffed and
passed the incident off as a mere hallucination, a vivid side effect of too
much food.

But it hardly mattered. Everyone
paid their price, at the end.

The graveyard was empty, and a
cold, harsh wind buffeted the spirit; if it had been human, it would have been
bowed over by the force. A storm was coming, and the spirit wondered if there
had been an error in being sent here. There was no wayward soul for it to
direct onto the right path, at least, not right now.

As it was turning away to prepare
to leave, a flash of color caught its eye.

A young woman with a shock of
short, bright red hair stood in front of one of the graves, its etching all but
erased by time, and she was cradling a small bouquet of sunflowers in her arms.

The spirit felt a bright spark
ignite at the sight of her; when the woman looked up, the spirit saw that tears
were streaming down her cheeks in crystalline rivers.

The spirit realized that this was
the human that it was meant to guide; almost immediately, it felt an unfamiliar
kind of protest flooded it; this was not the kind of human that was typically
visited.

But the sooner the job was done,
the sooner it could return, left only to its memories, the bitter and the
sweet.

So, with silent reluctance, the
spirit appeared at the woman’s side, taking the form of a young woman, clothed
in black, holding an umbrella over them both. At the spirit’s sudden appearance,
the young woman jumped, her lips parting in a shocked O shape, and the flowers
fell to the ground, bright, buttery petals stark against the cold gray day.

“Who are you? Where did you come
from? You weren’t here before! Or, at least, I didn’t see you.” Her voice was
thick with unshed tears, and she hurriedly wiped them away, cheeks flushed.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” The spirit
replied, bowing its head. “But I am the Ghost of Christmas future, and I have
come to guide you.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, and her
mouth pinched tight.

“Is this a joke? Because if so, it
isn’t very funny.” She sniffed, kneeling down to retrieve her flowers, though
most of them were missing their petals.

“No joke,” The spirit rejoined, and
she put a hand on the woman’s shoulder, gripping it slightly. The touch of skin
to skin made the human shiver.

“How did you become the Ghost of
Christmas Future, then? Surely you were human at some point?”

This time, it was the spirit who
was caught off guard. No one had ever asked about them before, and until now, it
had been fine that way. Never before now, either, had a human taken the spirit’s
existence with so little resistance. Something inside of it seemed to lighten,
and it took its true form.

This time, the human just watched
it, quiet, patiently waiting for the answers to questions that hadn’t been
thought about in years.

“It’s been so long, I barely remember,”
The spirit murmured, and as it thought back to all those years ago, it
unconsciously took the form of when it was human: a young woman with long dark
hair streaming down her back like spilled ink, olive skin, full lips, and
bright amber eyes.

“Please, tell me. I’ve never met a
spirit before, much less the Ghost of Christmas Future.”

And so, the spirit and the woman
told tales until the storm came. By the time it had washed away, revealing the
sun, they had both vanished.

**

(IP) Hunger

(IP) Hunger

              He wasn’t supposed to be here; it was forbidden. It belonged exclusively to the royal family. It was one of the most sacred places in the country. But with all this opulence and wealth, there had to be food somewhere. And death seemed too high a price to pay for something as inevitable as hunger.

               The boy crept along the shadowed path, using the shade provided by the trees to hide. The heat of the late summer day made his threadbare clothing stick to his skin, and he shuddered, making a note to take a trip to the river for a long, cool bath later.

               If he made it out of here, anyway. He shook the thought away like a particularly bothersome fly. He couldn’t think like that, not when his ailing mother and his smaller siblings were depending on him. Gods knew that he knew better than to steal, but the hunger pangs had gotten to him, and his sisters seemed to shrink more with every passing day.

               A hot flame of rage and resentment burst to life inside of his chest, and if his self-preservation instinct wasn’t so strong, he would steal into the palace of the widowed Empress and burn it to the ground. For what ruler was happy while her people were starving to death?

               The death toll continued to climb, people dying quietly in their sleep, begging for the slightest morsel, anything to save them from the cracked lips and empty stomachs. Some didn’t bother to wait for death, choosing to take the lives of their families instead of waiting for the goddess of Death, Kasmira, to bring them peace. The thought made him ill.

               The Empress had all but sentenced the peasants in her prospering country to death, choosing to keep all of the profits for herself and her household, all the while, her people were dying. The bitterness that coated his mouth and throat was an all-too familiar sensation, and with thoughts of his family and village spurring him onward, he at last made it inside of the temple.

               The stone temple was silent and dark, surprisingly cool after the immense heat he’d just come out of. Statues of gods, goddesses, and idols adorned pedestals around the room; there was the cool scent of stone and the spicy aroma of incense. The boy felt a slight twinge of fear and regret; he wouldn’t have dared defile the temples of The Old Ones if he’d had any other choice.

               But he couldn’t just let what family he had left die. Perhaps the gods would forgive his transgressions, he thought as he knelt in front of Lapis, The Blue Lady, murmuring thanks for offerings that were not his to take in the first place. But he could not resist the bounty of jewel-bright fruit resting in her lap: mangoes that looked like bright, round sunsets, tiny orange goji berries, bloodred pomegranate seeds spilling out of a juicy melon, tiny buns filled with ground meat, thin strips of beef and vegetables layered over rice, scarlet cubes of tofu in a spicy, black bean sauce tiny squares of glistening coconut ice candy; it was all a veritable feast, and everyone knew that the gods did not eat, not unless they had taken a vessel on this plane, and that hadn’t happened in more than five hundred years.

               He got as much food as he could carry in a small, makeshift bundle crafted from an old, clean work smock, and he began to creep out of the temple, hoping that no one saw him.

               When he reached the door, he just barely avoided crashing into a tall figure with glowing sapphire eyes.

               “And just where do you think you’re going with my offering, child?” A musical voice broke the silence of the empty building, accusatory though not raised.

               He’d been caught with the offering of a goddess. And, so it seemed, that same figure from all the stories had somehow descended from the sky to confront him for his theft.

**  

(IP) Star Patrol

(IP) Star Patrol

               The vast expanse of the galaxy spread out beyond them like the most colorful painting, the bright, dazzling sky belying the dark mission that lie ahead.

               The pilot sat at the front of the ship, thin lips set in a white, grim line. Her voice streamed out in a garbled sentence.

               “I don’t know about this, Captain. Something seems fishy to me. It seems… too quiet.”

               “We have our orders, Pilot McKeene,” The captain’s sharp, quiet voice broke the stale silence of the ship. “And they were to go on until the light disappears.” Her tone brooked no argument, but it did nothing to silence the sudden chorus of unease firing in the back of McKeene’s mind.

               Orders or not, this felt wrong. They weren’t allowed, by law of the Galactic Peace Union, to go past the Celestial Fields, into Dark Space and beyond. But their mysterious benefactor had offered quite a hefty sum in exchange for what the Captain called ‘a quick trip across the universe, nothing out of the ordinary’.

               McKeene had known that was a lie; the captain had been grinning at her over a neat whiskey, challenge gleaming in her bright amber eyes. Her Captain never took a job that wasn’t difficult; anything too easy tended to bore her and send her packing. But, what with the need to eat and survive and all that, even on the fringes of society, she’d ignored her misgivings and gone along with the Captain.

               Never mind that they’d hired a bunch of green new recruits, for medical purposes and protection; it was clear that none of them had ever been on an actually functioning spaceship, but McKeene was certain that the Captain had taken them on out of sheer desperation, not that she’d ever admit it.

               The doctor stood at one of the wide windows, hands clasped behind her back, eyes narrowed against the many pastel lights of the sky.

               “It’s so beautiful,” She breathed, raising one hand and putting it to the glass.

               “Enjoy the view while you can,” The Captain growled quietly, and McKeene bit back a sigh. This was exactly why she hadn’t wanted to hire a couple of greenies, but regardless of her opinion, the Captain was going to make her own choices. It was what had drawn McKeene to her in the first place; she hadn’t wanted a life where she could not choose her own path.

               Space had offered many things for her, but freedom had been most effective in swaying her. She had little use for the gilded trappings of her family’s nobility. And the Captain had offered her a way out.

               ‘It won’t be easy, kid, and it’s nothing like anything you’ve experienced before. You gotta be willing to get your hands dirty, to go for what you really want. And you’re a great pilot; haven’t seen anyone fly like you in years. So, you coming or not?’

The young chef, the only man on their ship, came up front, leaving the galley to see how close they were to the boundaries. His apron and toque were already, somehow, stained, and he’d brought with him the fragrance of coffee and fresh bread.

“How close are we, Captain?” He asked, eyes on the windows, a toothpick between his lips. In his gaze, McKeene saw the wonder, that shocking punch that always came, sooner or later, that accompanied living this far into the star systems.

“Nearly there, as long as we don’t have any problems,” She replied, shooting McKeene a sharp look.

Something was still bothering her; normally, by now, they’d be running into something dangerous: asteroids, scavengers, space debris, hostile humans or aliens; that feeling of unease clamped down on the back of her neck, and she inhaled sharply.

“Someone should be watching the back of the ship,” She said, not daring to take her eyes off of the darkening landscape in front of her.

As if in response to her words, the ship rocked, and there was a high, crunching sound of metal meeting metal. Alarms began to blare warning in high, keening peals, and the chef clapped his hands over his ears, eyes screwed shut tightly against the sound.

“What in the universe is going on?!” The mechanic came running out of the cockpit, hair pulled back in a bun and a smudge of grease on one of her cheekbones.

“I think something hit us!” The Captain snapped, and she walked to the seat next to McKeene, eyes narrowed.

“There’s another ship, we bumped into it.” She said, her voice hushed even under all of the distress sounds.

Behind them, the door opened, and a tall figure stepped through it: A young woman with a shaved head, half of her blue locks shaved close to the scalp, and she was wearing an eyepatch.

               “Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Captain Georgina Delalo, and my fine crew and I will be taking over this fine vessel. Surrender everything, or die.”

**

(WP) Child of Steel

(WP) Child of Steel

               It happened when she fell down and cut her knee; the skin had torn off, and she’d been expecting dark, thick oil streaming down her leg. But instead, bright blood dripped like liquid rubies down her leg.

               She didn’t understand it; their entire society had weeded out humans, more than a century ago now. There were no persons that had any human left. But this was what she knew as blood, the facts speeding through her brain, and her pain receptors firing.

               How was it possible that she had human blood? She looked around her; luckily, this area was so far away from the capital that hopefully no one had seen. But even as she turned away from the barren, rocky wasteland and began to power up to go home, her mind would not quiet.

               Being human—any trace of human culture at all—was a crime, in this day and age. After the bloody wars between men, machines, and the union of both, resulting in the birth of the cyborg race, the humans had all been eliminated. Their blind emotion had led to the slaughter of thousands, and so the robotic government had taken action, quietly and swiftly.

               Every human had been slaughtered, and the cyborgs took their place. But the highest in the pecking order (XS-12 had been studying up on human idioms, out of curiosity and boredom.) were the ones that lingered, that were all machines. They were as gods in the here and now.

               Their word was law, and the first one was no humans. Even what knowledge she’d gleaned was illegal, and somehow, through what reasonings she couldn’t understand, she’d always been resistant to the routine brain scans throughout the day. It hadn’t been anything alarming when she was a child; everyone had hoped that it was just a glitch.

               She felt something connecting, clicking and whirring and coming together like puzzle pieces. Something about her was not normal, not routine, not if she was bleeding anything but the standard motor oil. She wiped it up as best she could, pocketing the handkerchief and beginning to run back toward the city, toward home.

               In order to distract herself from this startling revelation, she concentrated on running, on moving her feet, one after another. She enjoyed physical exercise, even if she didn’t actually require it to function. Too soon, she arrived at her home, a sleek steel and glass structure that was in the middle of the Capitol, where she lived with her caretakers.

               Every robot not of age was by law required to have a pair of caretakers to usher them into adulthood, and take care of their needs before they grew old enough to be independent. XS-12 was fortunate to have two pure robots as her parents, YG-07 and MB-14. They’d taken her in when she was still a young child, the memory of her real parents difficult to recall; every time she’d tried, she’d received nothing but blurry, black and white static for her efforts.

               Had it been possible that her parents had been lying to her? Keeping secrets from her? The thought made her dizzy, and as she stepped through the door, she’d had to put a hand to the wall next to it to hold herself upright.

               The little apartment unit was empty, the whirring and clicking sounds of her parents absent. She didn’t know where they were, and right now, she didn’t care.

               She just wanted to know the truth, about who she was, and why this was happening.

**

(IP) An Invitation

(IP) An Invitation

               The
young woman knelt before her, one hand held out in invitation, long silver
tresses turning pink in the dying evening light. The sacred symbol inked onto
her forehead glowed faintly, pointed ears twitching.

               “Isn’t
this what you wanted?” She inquired, tilting her head to the side. “An escape from
everything you’ve never wanted? I can’t promise that this will be easy. But
surely it’s better than not having a choice.”

               The
other girl stared up at her, brow crinkling slightly. “You can’t be serious.”

               At
first, she’d thought that this young woman—this sly, beautiful fey girl with
pointed ears, a secretive smile, and the most impossible of it all, a way out—had
been a dream, a figment of an overtaxed mind after a long day of working in the
village. She’d been sitting on the riverbank, resting her hands in the cool
water. Then she heard twigs snapping behind her. She’d whirled, only to find a
lovely girl staring at her, a basket of herbs in her arms.

               Immediately,
Matilda had been entranced; she hadn’t had a chance. And it appeared that the
girl, whose name was Rin, was just as fascinated with Matilda. After that, they’d
met in that same spot, every night, to share their days, or at least their
evenings.

               Rin
hailed from a land that for Matilda only existed in stories and fairy tales,
and even in her own language, it was practically forbidden to discuss. But for everything
she’d heard, Rin was nothing like she’d imagined, and now here they were, with
Rin inviting her into her world.

               Rin
blinked, and she smiled, her whole face glowing when it stretched across her
face.

“Why would I not be, Matilda?”

“I couldn’t,” She replied, shaking
her head and pulling away before she could think through her response. “I… I
should stay here.”

“Is that what you want, Mattie?”
Rin asked, and Matilda’s heart fluttered at the nickname. “Do you wish to stay
here? I’ll support your decision. It’s just that… You seemed so unhappy.”

Matilda’s eyes filled with tears,
and she put her head in her hands; she could not deny the truth of that
statement, not to herself or her only friend. Her first friend.

What awaited her if she stayed
here? A life of drudgery, a miserable marriage to one of the men in the
village, inevitably followed by offspring, and then working until she was old,
and finally died. The bleakness of the future that lay ahead of her made her
heart weep.

She might not have known what lay
ahead, but Rin was offering a way out, an escape she hadn’t dared to dream of.
A future in which she had a choice, and had a chance to make her life into
something that she was proud of. She would never get something like this again.

When she turned around, Rin was
beginning to walk away, the faint rose glow of the portal painting her in soft
pastels.

“Rin! Wait!” Matilda cried, and she
ran after the other girl. She grabbed Rin’s hand and clasped it tight; Rin
smiled, delighted, and kissed her fingers.

“Come, my love. Come home.”

**

[TT] Hunters’ Folly

[TT] Hunters’ Folly

The first one to disappear had been
the one bringing up the rear.

One moment, their merry rogue had
been laughing and joking, knives held loosely in hand, and then, when they’d
all turned around, she’d vanished like a puff of smoke, silent.

Then things really began to fall apart.

Fear had become a near-constant
companion, hovering over them like a dark storm cloud through their paltry
meals and watch shifts. There had been five of them, and now there were only
four.

The leader, Leander, was the first
to lose his calm; his eyes darted through the tree branches, searching for
something; one hand was raking through his hair, and the other was on the hilt
of his blade; when Gladen snuck up behind him to retrieve something, she’d
nearly been skewered.

And the man’s paranoia only
worsened come nightfall. He claimed he could hear branches snapping, distant
shrieks of pain and fear, hysterical laughter and inconsolable sobs that broke
the quiet of the night like glass.

They’d been sent by the Crown to
hunt for and dispose of a kingdom-wide threat, about which they knew little.
But all of them had been desperate for money, fame, glory. Backed into a corner
and blinded by the fruits of this toxic expedition, all of them, one by one,
had agreed.

And now, Leander was certain that
they were all in line for the block.

Death had never scared him before;
he’d been a mercenary and soldier before this crazy mission. But the thing that
terrified him the most was the unknown. How, exactly, would he and his allies
die? There was no way of knowing, for no one had ever returned to tell tales.
Night was beginning to fall, and all he wanted was to get somewhere safe.

**

Gladen looked at Leander from her
position on her mare, struggling to hide a frown. It was true, that Samara had
disappeared, but being a rogue, her vanishing was not something so out of the
ordinary. But their fearless leader was convinced that something much more wicked
was at hand.

As they found a clearing to bed
down in, Gladen found that she was tired of the endless litany. She would never
admit that she was frightened, even if at times throughout this job she was so
wired that she felt like she was going to jump out of her skin.

They had a simple meal of bread,
cheese, and thin rice porridge, and went to bed; at least, everyone except
Tessa, who sat next to the fire, a book open on her knees and her staff close
at hand.

Gladen fell asleep quickly;
sleeping on the ground with little warmth was nothing new for her.

**

She was awoken by a harsh, guttural
screech, and before she was really conscious, her fingers closed around her
weapons, a razor-sharp set of chakrams, and she dressed as quickly as she
could. There were the sounds of heavy footsteps, heavy breathing, and the drip
of something thick and wet. It hadn’t been raining when they’d gone to bed.

What in the gods’ names was going
on out there?

The screams came again, and Gladen
steeled her courage, throwing herself out of her tent and letting loose a
battle cry of her own. But she was utterly unprepared for what awaited her
outside in their campsite.

**

Blood, bone, and limb lay scattered
on the cold, hard ground, the pieces of her friends staring up at her like some
grisly, grotesque joke; all the fight had left her body.

Who, or what, had done this to her
friends? Why had they left her?

“Who did this?!” She roared into
the night, and she heard a low, hoarse chuckle that deepened into a growl.

She spun around, chakrams raised.

“I do hope, for your sake, that
those are silver, pretty girl,” A female voice floated over the trees like
music, and then there was a pair of luminous violet eyes in the dark. Blinding
agony, like she was being ripped apart, and then nothingness.

**