Happy Hallowe’en! A spooky story for those who liked Dark Clouds



As a Hallowe’en treat, I’m reprising here a little story I wrote as an entry in a writing competition about four years ago. The idea was to start with “Shadows crept across the wall.” Extra points were awarded for ending with “everything faded,” and using the word “orange.”

This vignette follows the action in Dark Clouds. See if you can guess where Matt and Helen will turn up next.

Helen’s prison

Shadows crept across the wall, then slithered across the floor. Their teeth reflected the orange sunlight that slanted through the dirty, narrow window.

Slumped on the floor, back against the wall, Matt watched it slide onto his thigh. It grinned at him. Its fangs tore wide rents through his jeans.

The shadow laughed, a sickening hiss. Its fellows joined it in shredding Matt’s pants. The lead shadow laughed again and sank its teeth into his skin.

Matt sighed and shook his head. Won’t she ever learn?

The shadow teeth did nothing to him. How could they? They’re just shadows.

All the shadows hissed, frustrated. They merged and faded into the gloom of the doorless cell. A new shadow appeared on the floor. It grew into Helen.

“So you are immune,” she said.

“Hello, Mom. Do you have anything to drink?”

“Wipe that smirk off your face…you’re no good to me here. And you are my son.” A door appeared in the concrete-block wall and swung open slowly.

“You’re letting me go?”

It was Helen’s turn to smirk as she faded back into shadow.

The last of the sunlight disappeared. Matt crawled out the door just as everything faded.

Dark Clouds: a cross-genre occult paranormal espionage thriller in the making.

Matt always knew when his mother was about to arrive: the wind would swirl from every direction at once and dark clouds would mass in the sky.

He and his pretty wife, Teri, try to get out of the way, but as the Witch’s Son, Matt is drawn into a spider’s web.

He has to use his special abilities to spoil the Witch Queen’s plans—but the price for that is to be paid in blood.

Fortunately, Teri has a few special abilities of her own …

Find it on Amazon or download it for free.

A Hallowe’en treat: A free short story



The Graveyard

A few years ago, I published a short story called “The Mandrake Ruse,” which is the first instalment in Dark Clouds, a novel that I would write as a series of episodes or short stories. The story of the witch queen and her son, the only man immune to magic, it became minor hit, which I followed with “What Made Me Love You?” This is the fourth chapter, which appeared on my old blog in 2012. For a Hallowe’en treat, here it is on this blog for you, my faithful readers.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Sundial Butte Medicine Wheel, Alberta,
photo courtesy travelingluck.com

“Did we have to arrive at sunset?”

“What’s wrong, Matt — afraid of the dark?” Julian turned off the ignition and let the clutch out at the same time, making the gears grind and the whole jeep shake.

“I have no reason to be afraid,” Matt said.

“I’m not afraid, either,” Teri said and got out of the back seat. Matt knew she had very good reason to be nervous about cemeteries, but she strode with long steps and swinging arms to the fenced graveyard, her ponytail swaying. The failing light made her brown hair look black. She pushed the waist-high gate hard as if she were picking a fight with it. Matt saw her jump just a little when the gate squeaked loudly, but she strode through, looking at headstones.

The driver’s door slammed shut much too loudly for Matt’s liking, and he scowled at Julian. But the pudgy warlock did not notice and followed Teri into the cemetery.

Matt twisted in the bucket seat and fumbled to get a flashlight from the bag in the back. Teri or Julian may not have needed one to see in the dark, but he did.

He pulled the satchel’s strap over his shoulder as he climbed out of the Jeep. He closed the passenger door as quietly as he could, but the clunk echoed off something he could no longer see. He felt tingly all over and walked as quietly as he could toward the fence.

The light was failing fast. He looked to his left, where the sun had left behind an angry red smudge along the horizon. He marveled again, briefly, at the prairie’s flatness. His thighs connected with something and he bit back a curse: he had bumped into the iron fence around the cemetery while admiring the sunset. He could now barely make out Teri’s slight form and Julian’s rounded silhouette among the headstones, but for a reason he could not express, he did not dare to turn on the flashlight. He groped until he found the gate and jumped, too, when it squeaked.

“What are we looking for?” he asked in as low a voice as he could when he came up to Julian.

“What?” said Julian, in a normal tone, which made Matt jump again. “Why so jumpy, man?”

“What are we looking for?” Matt repeated, a little louder. “And I’m not jumpy. I’m just trying to be careful, that’s all.”

“Careful? Careful of what? Who do you think is way out here in the middle of nowhere at dusk?”

“I don’t know, but neither do you. So let’s just be careful, okay?”

Julian shrugged. Just as Matt was about to ask “what are we looking for” again, Teri said, “I think this is it.”

Matt followed Julian to the darkest corner at the very back of the graveyard where a stand of trees, now almost completely bare of leaves, leaned over the back fence, casting a shadow that blocked out what little light filtered through the ragged clouds. Matt stumbled three times until Julian took his elbow.

Teri was looking at the trees. Matt had to shine his flashlight at the ground in front of her before he realized that there was no fence here; the trees marked the cemetery’s boundary.

Teri pointed to two whitish rocks on the ground in front of her. “Look at the inscriptions,” she said.

Even with the flashlight, Matt had to bend down close to see what she was talking about. On the rock on the right, he finally made out: “A bird?”

“A Thunderbird,” she said. “And look at the other.”

Matt moved the light. “A cross?”

Something about it bothered him. It was worn, yes, the way only crumbly century-old carved stone can be worn, but …

“Someone’s defaced the cross,” Julian said, his voice as low as Matt’s now. He was right: it looked like someone had scrawled some kind of carving tool across the symbol several times in an attempt to erase it from stone.

“Why would someone carve these two symbols in rocks on the ground, then deface one?” Matt said. He raised the light to see a gap in the trees, an opening to a path lined with a row of white stones on the ground on each side.

Together, Julian and Teri walked down the path marked by the white stones, drawn by something that Matt did not feel. He followed, afraid for and exasperated by his wife at the same time.

He shone the flashlight left and right. As they walked down the path between the white stones, the trees became more and more stunted, more and more twisted.

“These trees aren’t just bare for winter,” Teri whispered. She had to force the words out. She felt her throat constrict until it was hard to breathe in the chill air. “They’re dead.”

Julian snapped off a branch. “They’ve been dead for centuries.”

“Then why are they still standing?” Matt asked.

Teri had to stop and drag breath into her lungs. Julian was having trouble breathing, too.

“It’s a spell making it hard for you to breathe,” Matt said. He took his wife and Julian by the arms and pulled them along the path until their breathing became normal again.

Julian stopped suck air into his lungs. “It was a gateway spell,” he said. “Put there to convince anyone who’s not serious about coming here to turn back. We’re through the gate, now.” He tilted his head slightly. “Do you hear that?” he whispered. He started down the path again, a look on his face suggesting he was following a sound that Matt could not hear.

“What language are they speaking?” Teri whispered back. A sibilance drifted by her ear, words at the edge of hearing and comprehension. She followed Julian.

“Well, I don’t hear anything, so they’re not natural,” Matt growled. Julian and Teri didn’t slow down, so he added, “They’re supernatural.”

Teri and Julian still ignored him. Somewhere, far away, a coyote’s howl made the skin on the back of Matt’s neck tingle.

The moon disappeared behind a cloud and the flashlight dimmed. “Damn. I just put in fresh batteries,” Matt muttered.

Teri did not the same light to see that Matt did. She saw the trees shrinking, being replaced by dead bushes that merged into the prairie. She could see that the grass was dead, too.

Matt shone the dying flashlight around. White stones on the ground receded on either side in curving rows. “We’re in a circle.”

“It’s a medicine wheel,” said Julian. “I didn’t think there were any this far north.”

“What’s a medicine wheel?”

“They’re rings or circles marked in stone on the grasslands,” Julian said. “They were made by the Cree thousands of years ago on sacred or important sites all over the prairies. As I recall, there are more in Alberta than anywhere else. But I thought the northernmost was well south of here. I’ve never heard of this one.”

“How do you know so much about medicine wheels?”

“Shut up, you two,” said Teri. In the centre of the wheel was a cairn of grey stones, as high as Matt’s head, set on a patch of gravel and sand.

Matt caught her arm just before Teri touched the cairn. “Haven’t you noticed that everything here is dead?”

The flashlight went out completely. The wind whispered in Teri’s ear again, but she could not make out the words. It was maddening — she felt like she should understand them, as if she once had, but could not longer remember. The sound faded like a dream in the morning, then circled her head to come at the other ear.

“Can you understand what the voices are saying?” asked Julian.

“No.”

Matt fought to keep his voice down. “I told you, they’re not real!”

“They may not be natural, but they’re definitely real,” Teri said sharply. “Look, there’s another Thunderbird inscription on the rock.”

Without the flashlight, Matt could not see any inscriptions. “Just don’t touch anything,” he said.

Teri walked around the cairn, Julian at her side like a dog. “I’m afraid…” he said.

Teri stopped. “Me, too.” An unaccountable fear chilled her from the inside out. Both Teri and Julian began to tremble.

Julian fell to his knees. “Yes, yes,” he whined. “Just stop whispering.”

“It’s a trick,” said Matt. He pulled Julian to his feet. “It was one of my mother’s favourites. She used to do it to my dad all the time.” He put his arm around his wife’s narrow shoulders to quell her trembling. “Don’t worry. Nothing here can hurt you.”

“Nothing here can hurt you, maybe.” The weight of Matt’s arm chased some of the fear away. At least her hands weren’t shaking anymore.

“I won’t let anything hurt you.”

Teri shook his arm off her shoulders. “Matt, you may be immune to magic, but you’re not invulnerable.”

A gust revealed the moon and at the same time brought a new sound that did scare Matt: a deep growling that came from all around them, all at once, rising up from the hostile ground itself. The sound woke memories deep in the ancient, back of his brain, memories he never imagined he ever had, ancient, undeniable. His skin was suddenly covered in a thin layer of sweat from his scalp to his toes.

His eyes had adjusted to the moonlight. He could now see rows of small white stones radiating out from the central cairn to the stone ring, like spokes of a wheel.

“That’s why it’s called a ‘medicine wheel,’ said Julian.” Then he caught his breath as he looked beyond the ring. “Oh my, are those coyotes?”

Matt could not see past the rock ring, but the ancient part of his brain knew: “Those are wolves.”

Unconsciously, Matt crouched a little, feet seeking security on the dead grass, muscles loose, every sense alert. He felt as if he was confronting an ancient enemy.

Then he saw them with senses adrenalin-sharpened: wolves standing just beyond the ring of white rocks—at least a dozen, big, calm. None of the grey shapes had bared its teeth, but a constant growl came from the pack, steady as surf on a beach. Matt, Teri, Julian and the wolves all knew: there could be no escape for three humans from their oldest competitors.

“It’s time to get out of here, Teri,” said Matt.

“You’ve always said that wolves don’t attack people,” she answered, but she wasn’t looking at them — she seemed to be studying the cairn.

“What if these wolves don’t know about that,” said Matt.

“Look: something is missing,” said Teri, pointing at a spot on the north side of the cairn.

“Come on, Teri.”

“No, look — there’s a place for something there. This cairn, this whole medicine wheel, was made to hold something, and now it’s gone.”

Teri pointed to a flat spot half-way up the north side of the cairn. Matt couldn’t be certain in the dark, but Teri and Julian could see clearly a flat stone, obviously chiseled, and other carved stones arranged on three sides: a kind of stone box, almost like a trophy case in a school.

“That’s very interesting, Teri, but something doesn’t want us here,” Matt insisted. “Those whispers were a warning, and now they’ve sent the muscle!”

“I thought you were immune to magic,” Julian said.

“I’m not immune to teeth and claws.”

“Give me the drumsticks,” Teri said, holding out her hand but still looking at the cairn.

“Teri, never mind that — we’ve got to go, now!”

Teri just held out her hand like a queen, eyes intent on the cairn. Matt fumbled with the satchel’s flap and pulled out the decorated Cree drumsticks. The wolves growled louder.

“Matt, Teri, they’ve crossed the ring,” Julian whined. He grabbed Matt’s arm in both hands, and even Matt could see his wide eyes darting. “Come on!”

Teri ignored them. Matt wondered if she had been hypnotized — no, enchanted by the cairn. She carefully put the drumsticks on the flat stone in the side of the cairn. Immediately, the wolves stopped growling. They stepped closer, but they did not seem as threatening anymore. Matt took the chance to look away from them, toward the cairn.

The sticks’ placement on the cairn seemed somehow just right. Despite the presence of a pack of gray wolves at his back, Matt felt calmer when he looked at the sticks on the cairn.

“Matt, Teri, can we get out of here? Now? The wolves are getting closer all the time!” Julian whined.

The wolves had formed a semi-circle and stepped forward, closer, deliberately and slowly. To Matt, they looked calm, almost … well, not friendly, he thought. How could a wolf look friendly? Not immediately threatening.

“I don’t want them any closer than they are,” he said, and pulled Teri by the arm around the cairn, away from the pack and toward the trees.

“The path is gone,” Julian said.

They had entered the medicine wheel by a gap in the ring, but where the parallel rows of stones intersected the wheel, the ring continued, unbroken, around the cairn as far as they could see.

Pulling Teri by the hand, Matt stepped over the stone ring toward where he thought the path was. Teri fell back as if she had hit a wall.

“Teri, what the hell?”

She rubbed her forehead. Julian held his hands in front of him and pushed like a mime at a make-believe barrier. “Matt, we can’t get past the ring. We’re stuck in the medicine wheel!”

Matt stepped back into the ring, then out again, unhindered. “This is ridiculous.”

Teri shook her head. “We can’t get out, Matt. That’s what the gap in the stones was for.”

Matt ran several steps along the ring in one direction, looking for a gap, until he could see the wolves near the cairn. He turned and ran back in the other direction until he saw the wolves from the other side; no gap either way. He wrapped his arms around Teri’s slim body from behind and pulled. He could step over the stones, but as soon as Teri’s shoulder came even with the stone ring, he felt something stop her. He pulled harder until she cried out.

“It hurts, Matt!” She pulled out of his grasp and rubbed her shoulder.

Matt stepped back into the medicine wheel. “Okay, Teri, get us out of here your way. Can you take us back to the Jeep?”

Teri pulled off her jacket and dropped her pants. “We all have to be naked.”

As she unhooked her bra, Matt looked nervously at Julian.

“Don’t worry about me getting a cheap thrill from this,” said Julian, already down to his boxers. Every inch of his skin was covered with dark hair, even his back. “Now get your britches off.”

Matt scrambled to take off his clothes, feeling the chill of the October night. Teri lifted her arms over her head. Despite the situation, Matt could not help but watch her breasts rise as if to follow her hands up. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the transportation spell. Minutes went by; clouds shrouded, then revealed the moon. Teri’s brow furrowed, but nothing happened. She could not find the energy, the place where she had found the power before. “It’s not working,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” Matt wasn’t sure whether he should be afraid or relieved; he hated traveling by Teri’s spell.

“I don’t know. I cannot see the Jeep, or anything beyond this … this place.”

“I can’t help you, either,” said Julian.

Matt looked at Julian, at his wife, at the cairn. Were the wolves coming closer?

There was no flash, no bang, no smoke. One moment, Matt was looking toward the cairn; the next, a woman stood in front of him. It was hard to see her features in the dark, but she wore a toque with long tassels on the sides and what looked like a shawl.

Teri and Julian could see better than Matt: the colours in her woolen shawl, the beads, four bands thick, around her neck. She was young, beautiful, with smooth skin and long dark hair hanging from under her hat.

“What the hell are the three of you doing out here in the middle of the night, naked?” she demanded in the flat tones of a First Nations accent. “Didn’t you see the No Trespassing signs?” A wolf nuzzled the woman and Matt, Teri and Julian knew what she meant by “No Trespassing.”

Matt’s hands went in front of his crotch and he shivered. But neither Teri nor Julian was embarrassed to be naked in front of the stranger.

“I was trying to cast a spell,” Teri said, as if it were as common as “I was looking for my watch.” “Something is blocking me.”

“Why did you come out here to cast a spell?” the stranger asked.

“Who are you?” Matt demanded. He wondered if he should pull his clothes back on. He could barely suppress shivers, but would that be a sign of weakness in front of a stranger? Would he be vulnerable with one leg in his pants and one out if the wolf beside her suddenly rushed him?

The woman held his gaze for a long pause. “Who are you?”

“We’re from the government,” he answered. It’s not really a lie. He tried not to be obvious about looking for his clothes on the ground.

“Canadian government has no say here. This is Grizzly Bend Nation land. First Nation land. Nêhiyawahk land.”

“We brought back the sticks for the medicine drum,” said Teri.

You shouldn’t have said that. Too late, now, Matt thought. He remembered that they had left the drumsticks on the cairn, where they looked so right.

The woman in the shawl looked almost impressed. “Really? Who told you to bring anything here?”

“We put them on the flat stone on the cairn,” Teri said.

The woman disappeared, just as she had arrived: no flash, no smoke. Matt blinked and stared at the spot where the woman had been standing.

“Where did you find it?” she said from behind him. “How did you bring it here?” Matt turned and stumbled over his own heaped clothes on the ground.

Teri stepped up to face the woman directly. Julian summoned all his courage and stood beside her while Matt tried to find his footing in the dark. “We took it from Ottawa,” she said calmly.

The woman turned to Matt. “You look strange. The other two, I understand why they are here. But I do not like you.”

Matt did not know what to say.

“Go,” the woman said.

“But we brought the drumsticks back,” Julian protested.

Matt could not believe what Julian and Teri did then: they stood absolutely still, staring at the woman in the shawl, mouths slightly open until Julian fell onto his bare butt.

But what Teri saw was very different. She felt as if she had no more control over her own body. She could do nothing but watch the woman change. The shawl became fur, thick and shaggy, the hat disappeared, the hair became a mane that reached over her head, animated by a will of its own. Her face morphed, jaw stretching into a snout, mouth gaping, long fangs drooling.

And she grew, legs and arms and torso lengthening and thickening. She grew until she towered above them, reaching toward them with claws that glimmered in the red light from her eyes.

Julian fell onto his naked butt on the cold ground. Teri’s knees shook, but she could not will her feet to move even as the claw came toward her and touched her bare chest. The tip traced a red line from her collarbone down to her navel, but all Teri could do was to look into the beast’s red eyes.

The beast’s head came closer. Its jaws opened impossibly wide, but Teri still could not move as it took her hand in its mouth and slowly closed its jaws. Pain flashed up her arm, replaced immediately by a blank numbness. The beast drew its bloody snout away and Teri saw her hand between its teeth. Blood, her blood, dripped from the beast’s jaws. She watched, unable to make a sound, as more blood spurted from the stump of her arm, bright red in the dark night.

Matt watched the strange woman step closer to his trembling wife, and realized they were the same height. When the woman lifted Teri’s hand in her own and lifted it to her face, Matt decided that was enough. To hell with the wolves, he thought. He stepped between the women. “What is the medicine drum for?” he demanded.

The woman stepped back, outrage on her face. Now that he was close, he could see she was middle-aged, with creases from her nose to the corners of her mouth and deep crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She was as short as Teri, but stouter, and there were strands of grey in her long black hair.

“Go,” she said again. She stepped aside and a wolf took her place, and Matt was suddenly conscious of its mouth at his crotch level. He backed away, pushing Teri farther behind him.

To Teri, the beast vanished, replaced by the familiar sight of her husband’s naked back. Beyond him was a huge gray wolf, teeth showing. Behind it were the rest of the pack and the woman in the shawl. She could hear the wind again, as if she had not heard it for a long time, or as if she had become aware of a different sound only after it had stopped.

Teri gasped when she looked at her arm: her hand was intact. She flexed her fingers, fascinated by the way the little scar on the back moved. She looked down: no scratch on her chest, no blood. “It was an illusion,” she whispered.

Matt wondered whether the wolves would really attack or were just putting on a show, a display to scare them. The question became moot as Julian scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could.

“Go away. Go now,” the woman screamed and the wolf snapped its jaws. Wolf spit hit Matt’s genitals. Matt grabbed his wife’s elbow and ran. She pulled out of his grip to pick up a piece of clothing from the ground. “Never mind that!” Matt snapped and hauled her away. He pushed Teri ahead of him to follow Julian as fast as they could go. Stones and twigs scratched their bare feet, but there was no more barrier at the stone circle for Teri.

Somehow, they found the path through the forest and tried to move their feet even faster. Teri stumbled but Matt held her up and willed his feet to move faster as they heard wolves growling at their heels.

This path was not this long on the way here, he thought.

Something sharp cut into Matt’s foot. He fell, gasping. Teri shrieked a little and stopped beside him, but Matt pushed her farther down the path. “Go!”

He pushed himself back up to his feet and tried a step. Pain shot all the way up his leg and out his mouth in a hoarse cry. He heard the wolf pack behind him and fear overrode pain. He ran at top speed, catching up with Teri. His foot felt like it was on fire, and flamed hotter every time it hit the ground.

If I’m immune to magic, maybe my blood will slow them down, he thought. The wolves bayed louder. Great. They smell blood, and now they’re excited.

Which means they’re real wolves, not magical.

His bare toe hit something and he went down again, hard, naked skin scraping over the rough ground.

Teri ran back to him, fumbling with something: his jacket, which she had picked up when they ran from the medicine wheel. She reached his side seconds before the first wolf and thrust Matt’s open knife at its snout. It yelped and sprang back. Hot wolf blood splattered Matt’s legs.

The wolf hesitated only a second and sprang, sinking fangs into Matt’s forearm. Matt screamed and thrashed but the wolf held on and Matt could feel its teeth sinking deeper into his flesh. The wolf shook its head. Matt hit the wolf’s head with his free hand and kicked with no effect. He could feel the fangs hitting bone. A deep fear filled him.

He felt a thud. The wolf let go and fell sideways with a yelp. Julian stood over them, holding a big rock. “Come on!” he panted. Teri helped Matt up and he stumbled behind them. His forearm throbbed and the sole of his foot stung with every step. Scrapes stung his skin on his legs, his side and his back. Blood tickled his skin as it ran down his arm. The smell of the wolf’s musk stuck in his nostrils and sweat stung his eyes despite the cold air on his naked skin. But Teri held his side and pushed him forward, and her hands warmed his skin.

Something scratched his shoulder, then the opposite side. “The path’s getting narrower,” Teri panted behind him.

“The trees are closing in on us,” Julian exclaimed ahead of them. “We have to move faster.”

Somehow, they made their legs move faster. Matt saw Julian hesitate, and then they were out of the little forest and back in the cemetery. They stopped, hands on knees, panting, searching for enough breath. Julian fell to his knees, then onto his back, chest heaving up and down.

Matt looked back. The woman in the shawl stood under the trees at the entrance to the path, a wolf on either side of her. “Never forget how I let you go,” she said in her flat tones. “Now leave and never come back.”

“Who are you?” Teri stammered. Julian was already across the cemetery, heading for the jeep.

“Tell your people that Jessica Piyesiw has warned them,” she said, and vanished as she had before. The two wolves looked briefly at the naked trio in the cemetery, then turned and disappeared under the trees as only wolves can.

Teri put her arm around her husband to try to support him as he limped to the jeep. “You always think so clearly, Teri,” Matt said as she fished the keys out of his jacket pocket. She and Julian helped Matt into the car; Julian checked for a first-aid kit while Teri took Matt’scell phone from his jacket pocket.

“Call Racine,” she said.

“And tell him what? That we’ve lost the drumsticks as well as our clothes?”

“Tell him you need emergency medical help.”

As usual, Matt could not argue with his wife. He pressed the speed dial button.

This is going to hurt, he thought. Julian brought out a bottle of peroxide and some cotton swabs. And so will that. But not as bad.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Author’s note:

When I first wrote Dark Clouds, I thought it would be the first chapter of a novel called The Mandrake Ruse, which would be the first instalment in the series called The Witch’s Son. Since then, I have come to understand that The Mandrake Ruse is the title of the first chapter of the novel, Dark Clouds.

So far, I have published five chapters:

When I have more chapters ready, I’ll publish all of Dark Clouds as a serial. Watch for it!

 

New cover: Dark Clouds



New cover Dark Clouds

I have updated Dark Clouds, Part 1: The Mandrake Ruse, complete with a new cover. I’m excited about it. I have to thank Quebec graphic designer Daniel Dufour for invaluable advice on typography and colours.

Original cover - Dark CloudsThe original cover wasn’t bad. I took the photograph in Venice, and while it’s a good image of dark clouds, when cropped and blown up to an image usable as a cover, the resolution was too low. Dots and artefacts were visible.

original Photo-clouds over Venice

In designing a new cover for my latest story, Palm Trees & Snowflakes (a Lei Crime short story), I bought some credits from a stock photo agency, and I had a few left over. So I found a really good image and reformatted the cover of Dark Clouds.

I also took the opportunity to revise the text itself. I took to heart a review that claimed there were some grammatical errors. I didn’t find any actual grammatical errors, but there were some typographical issues.

It’s interesting—I don’t think I’m the only writer who cringes over some of the sentences I wrote after a few years. I found some awkward or confusing passages in Dark Clouds, and fixed them. I then went on to fix up the second part of Dark Clouds: What Made Me Love You?, along with a new cover for it, too.

So let me know what you think. And if you want to buy a new copy, you can find it on:

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Deadly Company – a spooky tale that reveals an author’s darker side



By Rosa Storm
What does choosing your own name say about you? What about when the chosen name is a mirror of the given name?
 
One of my favourite indie authors is Cinta Garcia de la Rosa, who wrote The Funny Adventures of LittleNani for children. She has a distinct voice and style, and a sense of humour that bubbles through the text. She’s not afraid to break through the “fourth wall,” engaging directly and very effectively with the audience. No matter what the subject, when you read Cinta, you see that she is enjoying the art of writing.
 
Now she has turned to a subject very different from children’s stories, under the name Rosa Storm. Does moving her second surname to the front signify that she is bringing some suppressed characteristic to the fore?
 
And Storm: storms can be dark times. Rosa Storm’s newest story, Deadly Company, is dark indeed. And very bloody. As Rosa Storm, Cinta Garcia may be letting someone dangerous out to play.
 
Deadly Company is based on the Spanish Galician (as opposed to the Polish Galician) legend of La Santa Campaña, the Holy Company also known as “the night ones.” The legends tells of a procession of dead spirits wearing hoods and carrying candles, led by a living person dressed in a hood and carrying a cross and a cauldron of holy water. Their appearance means someone nearby is close to death.
 
The person leading the procession can only be freed from this duty if he or she finds some other living person to take over.
 
Deadly Company follows a well-worn path in reinvigorating an old legend like this, involving teenagers, graveyards and spooky woods. But what sets this story apart are Storm’s vivid descriptions, her realistic characterization and that irrepressible sense of humour. This writer understands children and young people, and I cannot help but think she must have a vivacious presence in person. Yes, even though this is a spooky and gory story, there are laughs as she describes her characters’ motivations and reactions. Little details, like an errant tuna sandwich and the way the characters interrupt a story-teller—breaking the fourth wall within the story—bring the story to life.
 
Deadly Company reveals two very different sides of this writer’s personality. But most important, it’s a story that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the last word.
 
4* (a few minor editing errors)
 

DEADLY COMPANYBased on the Spanish legend of La Santa Compaña (The Holy Company), this story talks about the unknown and unexplainable things that go bump in the night. When a group of teenagers decide to spend some time in their hometown’s graveyard, they didn’t know they were going to learn about one of the darkest periods in the history of their town. The souls of the dead, hooded figures, and weird deaths combine in this chilling story of ancient legends and facts.

Visit Rosa Storm’s 


 

Sample Sunday: a chapter from the spooky work-in-progress



Hallowe’en is coming up fast, and in honour of that auspicious occasion, I’m posting some spooky stories on the next few Sundays. 
If you’ve been to this blog before, you’ll recognize Dark Clouds. “The Mandrake Ruse” is the first chapter in what is slowly growing into a complete novel that I hope will cross the occult/paranormal-spy thriller genre boundary.
You can download Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse as an e-book for free from the tab at the top of the page.

What follows is a short chapter, this one focusing on “pretty little Teri,” the heroine of The Mandrake Ruse, What Made me Love You? and The Graveyard, and the wife of the Witch’s son and hero of the tale, Matt.

Dark Clouds: Teri and the river 

Photo of Dumoine River copyright Scott Bury

The water was surprisingly warm, swirling and dancing in the setting sun, dark where it was deep, orange where it flowed over rocks, white were it leapt and spun and rolled in joy.
Teri let herself drift. She closed her eyes to let her spirit see freely. She felt the river’s joy, its happiness in its own strength, in its ability to feed the life in it and around it. Teri saw the fishes and the other creatures below its surface, hiding under soil and rocks and among the trees that pushed their roots into the river to draw their lives.
Teri’s skin tingled with the energy of life, but she ignored the sensation. She could not even be certain she was breathing, whether she was above or below the surface, but she pushed those thoughts, those fears out of her mind. She opened her spirit wider, searched for every sensation and tried to contact the river’s spirit.
A riot of sensation shocked her and her eyes flew open involuntarily. She found herself lying on her back on the water’s surface. She let the river take her. Trees drifted past on either side. The current pulled her until she drifted downstream, head-first. She felt a tug to one side and saw a boulder slide past her vision. The river had kept her from injury.
Teri took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She opened her mind again, willing herself not to think of language or any human constructs so that she could communicate with the essence of the river.
There it was: the joy, the power of the river, constant motion, different in every second, eternally the same. Dark, alive, irresistible. The river acknowledged Teri’s attempt at communication, and her mind filled with a cognizance of a powerful, dark, living and curious presence.
She wanted to ask “Where am I?” but knew that forming human words in her mind threatened to break the communion she had with the river. She explored the edges of her consciousness and found she could not exactly see, but gradually become aware of the world beyond the river’s banks, of the trees and hills and other rivers and lakes and animals, the forest stretching across the world’s curves. Life buzzed and oozed until it twisted or cramped in pain, and Teri understood that happened where humans built their cities.
But there, to her left, no, now her right as the river turned her playfully, there, far but not so far for the river, was her home. And beyond it, her parents’ home. And over there, yes, she could tell where Racine was. She could feel his rancour, feel the stink of his fear.
And in the other direction, a malevolence that could only be Helen. The Witch Queen was looking for her, but she did not have a connection with the joyous river and could not see Teri.
Teri felt the river probe her spirit. Later, her memory would translate the deep connection she had into words.
“Do not fear, little one,” the river said.
“I am not afraid. Thank you for saving me. How did I end up in you?”
“I do not know. One moment, you were there. Perhaps you fell in? The banks, though, do not remember you.”
“The last thing I remember is being in a dark room, chained to a bed,” Teri told the river, careful not to make her thoughts too concrete. “How long have I been in you?”
“A full day. Do not worry, my child. I will keep you warm until I deliver you into the waters of my brother/sister.”
Teri realized she was naked, but not cold. She wondered, briefly, if the sun had set yet, but she did not dare open her eyes in case that would sever her communion with the river.
“Who is your brother?” she asked.
She felt the presence swirl under and over and around her, like an enormous otter or fish, playing in the water. “Some of your kind call her/him the Ottawa River,” said the presence. “I will carry you to him/her by the time the sun rises again. You are tired. I can tell. Peace, child. Sleep. Trust me to take you home.”
Sleep. How long had it been since she had slept, Teri wondered. Days? Weeks? She had no idea how long Helen had kept her in that windowless room. The time had dragged; she knew that Helen had drugged her, somehow, to bring her there, and had used drugs or spells repeatedly to take away her consciousness. She remembered opening her eyes to see Helen’s only inches away, or across the room, supervising Loretta or one of her other bitches as they humiliated her. Even the water’s warmth could not keep her from shivering at the memory of two of Helen’s coven, hands on her ankles, spreading her legs apart while Helen laughed and brought a small crystal vial toward her vagina. But it had only been psychological torture; Helen would never bring herself to actually touch Teri.
Teri let the river calm her, let the water caress her skin. Her thoughts retreated from the world around her, from the embrace of the water, from the presence of the river. And then she felt the presence within her, and she knew that she had defeated Helen.
She slept, and the Dumoine River carried her gently through the night until it gave her to the embrace of its great sibling, and Teri moved with the speed of the deep natural world toward her home.

Independent book review: Reckoning, by RS Guthrie



With Reckoning, RS Guthrie takes the fiction writer’s rule book, shreds it in mighty fingers and reassembles it into a new way of engaging audiences.
Reckoning is the third of Guthrie’s books to feature Denver Detective Robert Macaulay, also known as Bobby Mac and also known as the heir to the occult power of Clan MacAulay.

 

Busting through the genre boundaries

Reckoning, like Black Beast and LOST, the previous Bobby Mac novels, is a noir cop thriller, a police procedural whose villain just happens to be (spoiler alert!) a demon.
Right there, he’s broken the artificial boundaries imposed on genres. Guthrie’s Bobby Mac novels read like gritty cop stories, yet somehow the supernatural elements fit perfectly.
Another rule that he breaks: modulating between the first and third person perspective. Most of the book is narrated by Bobby Mac, and Guthrie’s command of the tough, no-nonsense cop dialect (ever notice how cops all sound the same, no matter where they come from?) is flawless. But where the story needs a third-person omniscient POV, Guthrie smoothly shifts for exactly as long as he needs to.
He has created his own style here. It’s as if Bobby Mac is sitting beside you on the porch, telling you what happened. No, actually, it’s more like he’s sitting across a campfire on a moonless night, telling you about what is deep in those shadows. At times, Guthrie gets a little too philosophical, waxing about the relationships between parents and children or mentors and protégés; occasionally, I started to lose patience. But for all that, Guthrie kept me flipping pages (or flicking my iPad screen, to be precise).

 

Plot

This trilogy is all about the battle between a demon, Samhain, who is opposed on earth primarily by the Clan MacAulay of Scotland. Today, that clan is represented by Detective Bobby Macaulay of the Denver police force, who has inherited the Clan’s ancient weapon against Hell, the Crucifix of Ardincaple.
Decades ago, Pink Floyd said “One day you find, 10 years have got behind you.” The story of Reckoning picks up where LOST left off, but 10 years later. Bobby Mac has remarried, had another family — triplet girls — and is starting to think about retiring from the police force. Evil returns in the form of a serial killer plaguing Denver. In a nod to noir thrillers of yore, the first case mimics the Black Dahlia.
Like any good police procedural, the story follows Bobby Mac tracking down clues and fighting against the awful realization that the enemy he knows best, and thought destroyed, has returned.

 

Best and worst

The best part of Guthrie’s stories are the relationships between the characters. They’re all combinations of positive and negative qualities, inconsistent and flawed. You never really know their motivations, because the characters themselves are never really sure just what combination of attitudes, fears, desires and blindnesses are driving them.
I have always enjoyed Guthrie’s descriptions of Bobby Mac and his son trying to communicate through all the layers of love and mistrust and history and baggage. However, as mentioned, this time it seemed to get a little long. The narrative seemed to keep veering off onto tangents.
Also, I felt that with this installment of the story, you really had to have read the first two books to understand what was going on.
For example, as the book approaches the final confrontation between good and evil, Bobby Mac explains “the whole story” to his partner, but not explicitly in the story. The book reads more like “I told him the whole story,” rather than recapping it, or describing some action that would encapsulate the conflict. While this technique is a good way to abbreviate another info-dump and avoid rehashing stuff that loyal readers already know, it also risks alienating those who have not read the previous installments. (Maybe it’s a clever way of boosting sales of the other books.)
Overall, Reckoning, the finale of the Bobby Mac trilogy (although Guthrie keeps saying he’ll have other stories about Bobby Mac) is an enjoyable, satisfying completion to the trilogy. It wraps it all up in Guthrie’s lean, aggressive writing style without missing a beat or leaving a loose end untied.
And it’s engaging, one of those stories you can’t put down.
If you want a good read that breaks all those worn out conventions of genre boundaries and unnecessary rules, read Reckoning. But you should probably read LOST first, and probably Black Beast before that.
To get the books, the best place to start is Guthrie’s website or his blog. Or visit his Amazon author’s page.
You can also get a signed copy of Reckoning directly from Rob.

Steven Montano: shaking up the genres



An independent author interview

Most authors strive to stay within a genre, occasionally mixing horror with romance or science fiction with mystery and throwing in a love interest for good measure. I’ve never before come across an author who aggressively tosses as many different genres into the mix as Steven Montano, whose Blood Skies series mixes military science fiction, war, occult horror, modern vampires and witchcraft, and animates the mix with supernatural energy. I had to ask him about it.

Steve Montano has published five novels, two short stories and a novella, all set in his fantastic, futuristic and horrific future timeline called Blood Skies, or the World After the Black; he released his latest, Book Five in the series, The Witch’s Eye, just last week (launched on this blog, among others), and he’s hard at work on completing the projected seven-novel cycle.

It’s a demanding self-imposed challenge for a man who is also a full-time professional accountant, a husband and a father of two. On top of that, he blogs regularly and maintains a presence on all the social media.

I had to find out more about his creations and his creative process.

Blood Skies is set in a post-apocalyptic world, but the apocalypse is different from any other I have read: a change in the physical laws that lets magic work and makes once-imaginary creatures like vampires and warlocks real. What was the inspiration for this unique, dark vision?

The idea originally began as a steampunk vampire novel, but I quickly grew tired of trying to write steampunk and instead searched for a way to make it so I could write an “anything goes” world and have it seem believable. Since the single most dramatic change I could think of in regards to how the world worked involved the presence of magic, I started with the notion of a magical apocalypse, and just built on that. I’ve enjoyed developing the setting, as it basically allows me to include whatever “real world” elements I want and just make up the rest.

 

Is there any aspect of your world that you hope readers will recognize in the current one? In other words, are you sounding a warning about anything in particular, or is this just whimsy, total imagination?

I use real-world war events and military history as inspiration for some of the horrors depicted in Blood Skies, and the way that magic is simultaneously feared and relied upon could probably serve as a sort of metaphor for nuclear power, but for the most part I try to play things straight. Maintaining some semblance of realism is important — perhaps even more important when dealing with an entirely fantastical world — so even though my stories deal with vampires and magic and fictional civilizations, I try to keep the characters and the way they behave in their insane surroundings grounded in reality.

 

Your books feature a lot of characters, and are told from multiple points of view. Tell us more about your favourite characters.

That’s difficult, because I’m fond of all of my characters (even the secondary ones) in some form or another. Eric Cross has always been the primary protagonist in the series, but it seems that in every book I come up with a new character I’m partial to, which is usually why I end up extending the narrative and making it so I can tell some of the story from their POV. Danica Black, a former prison warden turned mercenary, has always been compelling to me because she’s more of an anti-hero than Eric, and she comes across as heartless even though she struggles with a dark and tragic past. Mike Kane, a prisoner turned soldier, is a relentless smart-ass who blends heroism with comic relief. Ronan, a swordsman and former assassin, is my “hitman with a heart of gold” character, whose incredibly warped sense of the world is put to the test in The Witch’s Eye when he inadvertently finds himself in the unlikely position of holding what’s left the team together once they’ve all scattered to the wind.

Do you base your characters on real people in your life? If so, are you one of them?

I don’t make my characters exact duplicates of anyone I know in real life, but of course I take aspects of different people’s personalities and blend them into these fictional people. It’s safer that way…if I tell someone I based a character on them, I have to listen to how I got them all wrong. ;D

There’s no question Eric is the most like me (poor guy), but even he and I have our differences. Many of Cross’s insecurities bear a striking resemblance to my own, and he’s the easiest for me to write in terms of knowing how he’ll behave in any given situation, because I feel like he and I are pretty much on the same wavelength. Cross makes his fair share of stupid moves every now and again; one of the reasons I like writing him is because I know I probably would have done the same thing, whereas with some other characters, I’d be tempted to change things up to make it more realistic.

 

How do you handle the challenge of writing from multiple points of view? What makes it hard, and what makes it possible, at all?

Aside from the prologue of Blood Skies, I actually didn’t start writing from a second POV until Book Three, when Cross’s disappearance mandated a new character take over as the eyes and ears for the readers. For me the trick is to keep it simple: if you’re writing from multiple POVs, be sure to make them different enough individuals that the reader never gets confused, and try to use them in such a fashion that it makes sense to switch perspective — i.e. you’re still advancing the story by switching characters, not just re-telling every event from multiple viewpoints.

Blood Skies is the name of both the series and the first novel in it. Did you have such a good experience with the first novel that you decided to expand it into a series, or did you envision a long story arc and plan all the installments in it, first?

The former. The original draft of Blood Skies was actually quite different from how things wound up. As I mentioned before, the first version had strong elements of steampunk, and it was only about half as long as the finished novel. The original draft also had no survivors, so it definitely wasn’t intended to be an ongoing series. ;D

But as I revised and prepared Blood Skies for publication in early 2011, I got hit with a number of ideas for potential sequels, and decided I wanted to leave things more open-ended. Then, just a month before I released the book, I had an avalanche of ideas for Black Scars, so in the end I was very happy I’d decided to give myself the option for writing Book Two and beyond.

Can you describe the story arc? Where are you so far, and where will the next four books go?

Blood Skies (the series) at a glance is about the war between the humans of the Southern Claw and the vampires of the dreaded Ebon Cities, but before long the story turns to humankind’s struggle to protect their world from the dark powers behind The Black, a cataclysmic event that transformed the world into the wastelands it has become.

Blood Skies introduces Eric Cross, the protagonist of the series, and establishes many of the rules of the setting. Black Scars introduces Danica Black and Mike Kane and shows the formation of Cross’s team of mercenaries. Books four to seven (Soulrazor, Crown of Ash, The Witch’s Eye and Chain of Shadows Parts One and Two) chronicle the team’s struggles against the forces behind the creation of The Black. The final three books in the series (Vampire Down, The Ending Dream and Darker Sunset) will deal with the aftermath of the struggle, and show how the team’s victory was anything but complete.


All of your books seem to feature many of the same elements: witchcraft, horror, vampires and a damaged, changing world. Are they all based in the same alternate time-line, or are they different tales, entirely?

I’ve always tried to push the idea that the World After the Black is a conglomerate of multiple realities: the shattered remnants of different worlds, realities, times, or planes of existence having all crashed together with Earth as the focal point. The truth is, no one really knows where most of the elements came from originally — Earth and all of its disparate parts have been forcefully fused into a new paradigm. Part of the reason I did this, honestly, was to enhance the horror of the situation, for it means the world that humans are trapped in is all but impossible to break down and understand.

Do you ever find elements from your novels or from your life as a novelist have an impact on your other identity, as an accountant?

I do wish I had an arcane spirit with me at work, if that’s what you mean. ;D But seriously, the only real effect I find is that I wish I was doing more writing than accounting. With luck, I can continue to move toward that goal.

Do you have plans for any other types of stories outside of the Blood Skies world, or the genre?

This year I plan to publish City of Scars, which I wrote a few years back, the first novel in my epic fantasy Skullborn series. I’ll also eventually publish another stand-alone horror novel called Blood Angel Rising, about a pair of hit-men tracking down a fallen angel. On top of that I’ve written dozens of horror and dark fantasy short stories which I should probably allow to see the light of day at some point.



What is your favourite type of book to read?

I like dark epic fantasy, military sci-fi, and some horror. I enjoy some paranormal romance and urban fantasy, though it has to be taken in short doses. I’m also a sucker for a good murder mystery.


Who would you say are your major influences as a writer?

To this day my biggest influences remain J.V. Jones, China Mieville, Clive Barker, Tanith Lee, John Marco, John Meaney and C.S. Friedman. I’ll eat up pretty much anything those authors write. In the Indie field I’m a huge fan of Michael Hicks, Jon F. Merz, Jen Kirchner, Alan Edwards, Mike Berry, Candice Bundy and that Bruce Blake guy.


If there was one thing about your published work that you could change, what would it be?

I hate that it took me so long to produce those books. ;D I also know my first novel wasn’t as crisply edited as some of my later work, a fact that I plan to remedy as soon as I have some spare time. I’ve toyed with the notion of releasing an Omnibus of the first three novels of the Blood Skies series, and I’ll doubtlessly re-edit the lot before I do that.

Thanks for having me, Scott!


Thank you for coming, Steven.

Steven Montano’s books are all available on Amazon. For a full list, visit his Amazon author page.

And don’t neglect visiting his website, bloodskies.com, his blog, and grab the Ebon Cities Gazette.

Follow Steven on Twitter @Daezarkian