FOREIGN DEVILS: An Interview with John Hornor Jacobs

Bram Stoker nominee and all-around good guy, John Hornor Jacobs is the textbook definition of a prolific writer. His seventh book, FOREIGN DEVILS, is the sequel to 2014’s THE INCORRUPTIBLES, both from Gollancz. While the sequel's eBook is available now, physical copies are only available in the UK until the US release on May 3, 2016. John shares my same area code, but he insisted on answering my questions via midnight séance.

-The Interview-

SG - When we last saw Fisk and Shoe, they’d gotten out of a few scrapes only to land in the middle of impending war. What can we expect for our two heroes?

JHJ - Foreign Devils finds Fisk and Shoe on the hunt for Beleth under the orders of the Emperor Tamberlaine and his governor, Cornelius. Beleth has other ideas and some new allegiances, though his first allegiance is, as always, solely to himself. In addition to narration, Shoestring becomes more of the focus of Foreign Devils, and we learn more about the dvergar and their unrest at the Ruman occupation of what they feel is their land. Also, we learn more about the vaettir, and how they’re not all as the people of the Hardscrabble think them to be.

SG - THE INCORRUPTIBLES was strictly from Shoestring’s point of view, but in FOREIGN DEVILS, we also follow Livia Cornelius via epistolary chapters. What inspired you to use this story-telling technique?

JHJ - I wrote The Incorruptibles and Foreign Devils concurrently while I was writing the last two books in my young adult series - The Shibboleth and The Conformity. All of these books are in first person, past and present tense. When you’re writing a teen, or a rough-and-tumble western character, you have to live in their head, find their voice, and over the course of several books, that can sometimes be tiring. Also, neither of those characters are well educated, though they both have panache with language, so writing from the point of view of a highly-educated noblewoman offered new challenges and pleasures.

Another more important reason is that the story took me in different directions, revealing more of this world I’d spent so much time crafting. I was somewhat locked into a first-person narration and didn’t feel that I could have Shoe tell Livia’s story convincingly. I had played with that some in The Incorruptibles, but it ended up being a lot of supposition on Shoe’s part, revealing more about him than it did about, in this case, Livia and Fisk. Epistolary letters to her husband made sense, though it offered some difficulties. Epistolary narration is a conceit, sometimes a good one, sometimes not so good. I think I pulled it off fairly well, but as a writer you’re never content with your work.

SG - The Ruman Empire in this series, of course, can be compared to Rome, the Hardscrabble Territories like the American West. Kithai, featured in FOREIGN DEVILS resembles a Chinese city. What modern setting did you use as an example to follow?

JHJ - Rume, while obviously derived from Rome, takes culture from its namesake but it’s really more like colonial England, on whose empire the sun never set. I did base Kithai on China, the China of the 19th century. The city of Jiang was very loosely based on Shanghai, though not in organization or geography. It was a stylized interpretation of that culture and I tried to remain respectful of the roots of its creation, and the people that culture came from, while not being slavish to facts. One of the things I love about writing fantasy is I can take inspiration from anywhere, but I can bend and change things to suit my story because fantasy is wondrously mutable while real world history is not. Still, readers can find fault, and racism, anywhere, even if you’re writing about a culture or race that has never existed. So, we respect our inspirations, we respect our craft, we respect readers sensibilities and triggers, and we try to respect ourselves, if that makes any sense.

SG - Can we expect more from Livia, Shoestring, and the rest?

JHJ - Yes! Livia and Shoe and Fisk, and Carnelia – especially Carnelia, who is, by far, my favorite character I’ve ever written. There are special things in store for Carnelia. The whole gang is back, doing stuff, saying things, shooting guns, chasing people, getting chased. People die, people live. There are new creatures, new histories. New devils.

SG - Like many professional writers, you work a day job and raise a family. How do you balance it all?

JHJ - Well, I haven’t been doing a very good job of balancing day work and writing. Recently – oh, about a year and a half ago - I became a partner at an advertising agency and that has monopolized all my time. We landed some big clients, the most notable being Twitter, and I’ve been working sixty to seventy hours a week for months on end. Consequently, I’m very behind on the last book in The Incorruptibles series. But things have slowed down some and we’ve brought in folks to help me – I’m the senior art director and I have to do a lot of animation, which I love but it’s time consuming – so my workload has decreased some. I feel lucky that both in my day job and this literary vocation, I get paid to be creative, which is all I really ever wanted since I was a kid.

I wrote around ten thousand words last weekend, five thousand on the novel this week, and vomited up a thirty-five hundred word short-story. The words had been building up.

However, I drop it all to spend time with my kids. They’re both in their teens now and they need my attention and whatever guidance I can give them or they will accept. I think a lot of parenting is just being aware and present and not checked out, like my parents were. They were focused on their lives and we knew, my sister and I, that we were not the center of their world. I became a miscreant latch-key kid, smoking and drinking and terrorizing the neighborhood and I’m not about to let my kids go the way I did. And that means I have to be present for them, every day. That’s what I focus on, that’s what’s important. I’ll have world, enough, and time to write in five years when they’re both off to college.

SG - Favorite moment in FOREIGN DEVILS you can talk about?

JHJ - I had a great time exploring the “technology” of Hellfire, especially in regards to transportation. I found I really enjoyed creating ships and trains and naming them and figuring out the daemons they carried within them to turn the screws or drive the wheels.  The Valdrossos, The Malphas, The Gemina – I don’t know, they just made me happy. As far as favorite moments in Foreign Devils? It would either be the widespread and titanic destruction I wreak as author (and that’s all I’ll say about that) or when we finally meet the Autumn Lords of Kithai. The Autumn Lords were a lot of fun to write.

But, as I said before, any time I spend with Carnelia, seeing what she’ll do or say, is time well spent.

SG - Favorite Fantasy or Horror archetype?

JHJ - I love possession stories, and tales of devilish things. Save one, all my books have dealt with the loss of identity at a spiritual or etheric possession, either by the infernal, or the telepathic. I don’t know why that fascinates me so much – probably the echoes of seeing The Exorcist at an age far too young to see it.

I also seem to fixate upon mangled or severed hands. All of my books have them. I don’t know why, except maybe because I got in a bar-fight back in the nineties and busted my hand. Maybe.

 

From the cover: 

The world is on the brink of war.

Fisk and Shoe - mercenaries, very much not wanting to get caught in the middle of a political whirlwind - must deliver a very important message, and find a very dangerous man. They have caught the eye of the powerful men of the world, and now the stakes are higher than they like.

And the Emperor has decreed that Livia Cornelius, pregnant with Fisk's child, must travel to the far lands of the Autumn Lords on a diplomatic mission. It will mean crossing half the world, and facing new dangers. And in the end, she will uncover the shocking truth at the heart of the Autumn Lords' Empire.

A truth which will make the petty politics of war and peace unimportant, and will change the world.

Order FOREIGN DEVILS now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Google.

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM: An Interview with Victor LaValle

When Tor.com announced their trek into publishing novellas, I was intrigued. When I saw that Victor LaValle’s THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM would be releasing February 16th, I fisted some cash, ready to slam it on the counter in exchange for some horror fun. Victor took a break from playing chess with Cthulhu to answer a few questions. 

 -The Interview-

 SG - THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM takes place in the Lovecraftian Universe, and Ole’ H.P. is certainly a controversial figure. What inspired this story, and what new angle did you want to take with the mythos? 

VL - I grew up on Lovecraft, he's one of my Big Four from early childhood reading. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson. But while I loved Lovecraft he was also a crazy racist. I mean even for his time the guy was on a fringe. More importantly, it showed up in some of his work and the work suffered for it. I wanted to take one of the stories that was ruined by his prejudice and see if I could write a counter-version that was just as good a story, but told from a new perspective. It was like doing a Lovecraft Remix. I had a great time with it.

SG - How does music play into this story?

VL - Tommy Tester (who eventually becomes known as Black Tom) is a bad musician. I mean a terrible singer and guitar player, but he makes a living by basically pretending to be a good musician. He dresses the part and he's got the confidence so some people actually get fooled into thinking he's good. Since he plays the blues, mostly, this was a chance to throw in a few songs by one of my all time favorite blues musicians, Son House.

SG - It’s safe to say you’re a New Yorker through and through. What does Victor LaValle’s NYC look like?

VL - The best thing about my New York is that it's always changing. You can't ever get used to what it looks like, what it sounds and smells like. There's always some new group of people--some new immigrants--entering a neighborhood and bringing along all their good and bad. It can be kind of dizzying, people and places are always in flux. That makes some folks uncomfortable. Lovecraft famously hated the wild immigrant mixes of Brooklyn. But if you have the right temperament it's downright glorious. And it's never dull.

SG - Tor.com has gotten into the novella game, and THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is one of their first acquirements. How different is novella writing, from novels and even short stories, and what made BLACK TOM the right fit for this re-surging art form?

VL - I love the novella because it's exactly the right form for a long night spent tearing through a tale. A short story might not let you settle in for a long enough and a novel, especially a big one, may take days to get through. But sometimes you just want to bundle up in bed, or on the couch, and go on a journey that will be over by the time you're ready to sleep. That's what novellas do so well. A few hours of reading then straight to bed where the whole story may invade your dreams. Who could ask for more?

SG - Favorite part of the novella you can talk about?

VL - Easy, I loved writing about the time period. I did a fair amount of research about New York City in 1924, and about Harlem in particular. Most of it never made it onto the page, but the stuff that was there really popped for me. The kinds of patrol cars the NYPD had back then, the types of lamps used on sidewalks, the secret social clubs of Harlem, that stuff was so much fun to use. And then, of course, there was all the killing. I liked that, too. 

SG - What future projects can you tease us with?

VL - The Ballad of Black Tom comes out February 2016 and I'll have a full length novel out in the spring of 2017. The simplest tease I can give for that book is this: posting pictures of your children on Facebook is going to get them kidnapped. But by whom? Or what? 

SG - Favorite Horror archetype? 

VL - I love, love, love the old person who explains the evil history of a monster or an evil place. Think of Donald Pleasance in the Halloween movies. When it's done right I could read, or watch, that character going on for fifty pages or fifty minutes.

From the cover:

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

Order THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM from Amazon, Google, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble.

The Brimstone Deception: An Interview with Lisa Shearin

New York Times Bestselling Author, Lisa Shearin has been dishing out novels since her first, MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND, in 2007. Three years ago, she introduced us to a new series, THE SPI FILES, and the third book, THE BRIMSTONE DECEPTION releases January 26th from Ace. Lisa was kind enough to appear as a pillar of fire to discuss the book. True, email works just as well, but is not nearly as cool.   

-The Interview-

SG - The SPI series has been called Men in Black with supernaturals instead of aliens. What else makes this series different?

LS - I’ve always loved the idea of mages, magic, and fantastical creatures existing alongside the world we know and live in. There’s just so much potential for fun and adventure-filled stories. I love movies like Men in Black, Big Trouble in Little China, and Ghostbusters. Nothing’s more fun to me than watching or reading about the chaos—and comedy—that ensues when people are faced with the reality that the creatures and things they didn’t believe existed are all too real. They’re sitting next to you on the subway, they’re driving the cab you just got into, and you found out this morning that your boss really is a troll. The story possibilities are endless—and so much fun.

SG - What inspired you to write the SPI Files?

LS - I mainly read paranormal thrillers or thrillers with an unknown element that could be supernatural. I absolutely adore James Rollins, David Golemon, Greig Beck, and Jeremy Robinson. And I’m a huge fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Agent Pendergast series. And I love the idea of a secret organization that knows that supernatural beings exist, and their job is to protect us from them—and them from us.

SG - How has Makenna evolved over the series?

LS - Aside from the ability to see through the spells, wards, or veils that supernatural creatures use to blend in with human society, Mac is a normal person. Other SPI agents come from military, espionage, or law enforcement backgrounds, Mac’s degree is in journalism. She came to New York to run with the big dogs at the New York Times or get a job with a web news site like the Huffington Post. But all she could get was a reporter job with a tabloid that ran headlines like “Donald Trump is a werewolf love child.” I wanted to make sure that she didn’t come across as the stereotypical “kick-ass heroine.” I think it makes her more relatable that she has to struggle on the job to learn the things that her fellow agents can do in their sleep and take for granted.    

SG - This third book deals with a hellishly addictive drug, Brimstone. What research did you do in exploring controlled substances, cartels, dealers, and users?

LS - Actually, I didn’t have to do any research at all. When reading for fun, I gravitate toward police procedurals, and mysteries and thrillers involving some branch of law enforcement. All of that reading has soaked in over the years, and what I needed for The Brimstone Deception was already in my head for the harvesting.  

SG - Favorite type of supernatural? 

LS – The goblins in my SPI Files series and my Raine Benares series. Most people think of goblins as short, gnarled, with a bad case of post-nasal drip. My goblins are tall, sleek, and sexy. Their hair is dark and often worn long, their skin is pale gray with a silvery sheen, and their human-sized ears are pointed at the top. But their most distinguishing physical characteristic is a pair of fangs that aren’t for decorative use only. Goblin politics is a full-contact and often fatal sport chock-full of seduction, deception, and betrayal. Their motives are next to impossible to figure out, and whether engaged in politics, business, or interpersonal relations, goblins make Machiavelli look like an intrigue dilettante.  

SG – David Bowie would be proud. 

 

Order THE BRIMSTONE DECEPTION now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Google.

 

From the cover –

 

It’s called Brimstone. And after the first few hits, you’ll see every supernatural beast sharing the sidewalk, train, or office with you. After that, you’ll start seeing the really scary stuff. 
 
I’m Makenna Fraser, seer for the SPI. And the collateral damage caused by Brimstone is something I’d like to unsee: dead drug dealers missing their hearts—and souls. Because your local pusher doesn’t stand a chance against the new cartel muscling its way into New York. And since the drug can only be produced with magic and molten brimstone fresh from Hell, that means a rift to the underworld is open somewhere in the city.
 
And when—not if—the cartel loses control of it, well...
 
It’s going to be Hell on earth.

The Pagan Night: An Interview with Tim Akers

Religion has been the source of conflict throughout history, in both fiction and the real world. Son of a theologian and purveyor of Fantasy, Tim Akers takes this subject into a brand new trilogy from Titan Books. THE PAGAN NIGHT releases January 19th, and Tim stepped into the confessional to pour out his soul…er…in regards to his book.

 -The Interview-

SG: THE PAGAN NIGHT deals with inquisitor priests, the dissolvement of paganism, and knights pledged to kill, all set against an Epic Fantasy backdrop. How much does your book parallel our own world’s history?

TA: The two largest influences from our own world are two historical events. The first was the slow cultural integration of the Angles and the Saxons following the Conquest, a period of history that served as the seedbed for a lot of our mythology and culture. The nobility was quickly Saxon, either by force or wise capitulation, and I imagine the tension that existed between the common folk, lesser nobility and their servants was pretty complicated. How quickly do grudges die? 

The second influence was a similar integration of paganism into early Christianity. Especially in Ireland, it became common practice to rebrand the local deities as saints, absorb whatever practices were extant into the church calendar, and tell everyone they were now Christians. In at least one case, St Brigid, the priests weren't able to get the locals to stop referring to their saint by her original pagan name, so they just canonized the goddess. Brigid was a river spirit whose icon happened to be a cross made of hay, so the integration was fairly simple.

 SG: There are many contrasting elements in THE PAGAN NIGHT: The Celestial Church vs. the pagans, Malcolm Blakley vs. his son, Ian. What is their relationship like, and how does it play out in the story?

 TA: Malcolm is the hero of the last war, a fight that united the two nations of the island of Tenumbra, Tener in the north and Suhdra in the south, against viking-like Reavers who were invading. Because of his role in that war, Malcolm is beloved in the north and one of the few Tenerrans the south will trust. As tensions between north and south rise, the church looks to him to calm things down. Malcolm will do anything to preserve the peace, having seen the horrors it can bring. His son, however, is impatient to gather glory. Ian is also tired of the constant mistrust of the north that both the church and the south express. While Malcolm will put up with the inquisition in their oppressive rule in the name of peace, Ian (and much of the north) is sick of it. The collapse of their relationship is a microcosm of the conflict that is tearing the island apart.

SG: Gwendolyn Adair is another main character, who is charged with the position of huntress for her family. What does a huntress do and how badass is Gwendolyn?

TA: She's tremendously badass. Each house of the north has a hunter or huntress. This person is charged with culling the feral gods of the old religion from the forests, leading war parties into the primeval forests to track and kill mad, rampaging gheists before they can do any harm. Gwen does this in conjunction with the inquisition, acting as a buffer between the church and the north, only calling in the priests and vow knights (an order of priestly warriors sworn to the goddess of summer, given magical power to slay gods and demons alike) in dire need.

Gwen does all this with heresy in her heart. Her family, house Adair, has secretly kept the pagan faith for generations. They are hiding a sacred grove from the church. The dual nature of her responsibilities, killing pagan gods while still worshipping secretly in the hallowed forests of her ancestral lands, will provide the spark that leads the land to war.

SG: You’re a big gamer. What’s the closest RPG to THE PAGAN NIGHT?

TA: Any game you play with me as the DM. ;-) Seriously though, the world of The Pagan Night shares bits of Call of Cthulhu set against the kind of epic fantasy setting of D&D or Pathfinder. There's some of the old World of Darkness in there, too, with a secret world overlaid the mundane. Most of the world is very low magic, but in the areas where magic manifests it's very high. The vow knights and inquisitors are epic warriors, but their powers are turned entirely against the gheists, so they can still be threatened by mundane blades. The gheists are massive monsters, only manageable because they function according to the rules of the old religion, bound to sacred places or days.

SG: THE PAGAN NIGHT is your fourth published novel and the first in a new trilogy. What was your path to publishing like?

TA: In some ways it was rocky, in others it was incredibly lucky. I went the traditional route of writing short stories and selling those, and then building that into a novelist's career. That was kind of silly, because they're completely different skill sets. I'm really not a very good short story writer. The main feedback I got on my stories was that it felt like I was trying to shove a novel-sized idea into five thousand words. I started going to conventions to network, and met my agent at a party during World Fantasy Convention in Madison. After a few minutes of talking he asked me to send him a manuscript. I was writing a YA fantasy, and it turned out to be good enough to at least keep him talking to me. But in the six months between submitting the manuscript and hearing back from him, I had sold a bunch of short stories in the world of Veridon, and had started the novel that would become my first novel, Heart of Veridon.

That novel went to Solaris, right before Solaris started to fall apart. They were a division of Black Library, and BL decided to sell the imprint and focus on their core GW business. Understandable, but it screwed up my debut something awful, and the next two books kind of limped along in the wreckage of that. It's been five years since the third book came out, which was an intentional gap. The Pagan Night is something of reboot of my career. That gap also gave me the time to write the best book that I could. I'm very happy with the result.

SG: Favorite moment in THE PAGAN NIGHT you can talk about?

TA: The first time you see a gheist fully manifest in battle. It's already killed a knight when Ian Blakley, seeking glory, leads a group of footmen into the fight. They think they've defeated it, and then things take a turn for the worse.

“Well, someone should get back to the camp. Let them know what we’ve done. Send someone out to gather Sir Grandieu and…” His voice trailed off. He looked over to the dead knight. A tangle of blackness was gathering against the man’s shattered chest. As Ian watched, the pale white of Grandieu’s ribs was eclipsed. With a sound like grinding marbles, Grandieu knit himself back together and rose again, knight and horse bound together with bands of night and heresy.

“Oh, seriously, what the hells?” Ian said. Exhaustion beat against his chest. He unfolded slowly, struggling to his feet. Doone and the survivors closed around him.

The body of the knight and the corpse of the horse wove together into a grotesque hybrid of armor and flesh. The broken length of the knight’s spear wrapped tight with the gheist’s strange ribbons, shattered and broke again, given life by the fallen god to become a prehensile limb, tipped with scything jaws of splintered wood.

The gheist turned toward Ian, snapping those narrow jaws together. It sounded like swords clashing.

“Well. We made a hell of a try,” Ian said.

SG: Favorite fantasy archetype?

TA: The madness that lurks in the night. Things that are ancient and sacred and utterly unknowable to mortal minds. And the kind of bright blades and equally mad heroes that are needed to stand against that sort of darkness.

 

Pre-Order THE PAGAN NIGHT now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Google Books.

From the cover:

The Celestial Church has all but eliminated the old pagan ways, ruling the people with an iron hand. Demonic gheists terrorize the land, hunted by the warriors of the Inquisition, yet it’s the battling factions within the Church and age-old hatreds between north and south that tear the land apart. 

Malcolm Blakley, hero of the Reaver War, seeks to end the conflict between men, yet it will fall to his son, Ian, and the huntress Gwen Adair to stop the killing before it tears the land apart. The Pagan Night is an epic of mad gods, inquisitor priests, holy knights bound to hunt and kill, and noble houses fighting battles of politics, prejudice, and power.

Unforgettable: An Interview with Eric James Stone

In the modern era of publishing, where most writers spread their talented tentacles through the more marketable medium of novels, Eric James Stone took the path of the old Speculative Fiction masters. After countless (okay, about 51) published short stories, a Hugo nomination, and a Nebula win, Eric’s first novel released January 5 from Baen Books, and looks to be something hard to forget.

Eric, unlike me, can totally pull off the beard look, and was kind enough to talk with me about UNFORGETTABLE.

 

-The Interview-

 

SG: Quantum mechanics and espionage play a large role in UNFORGETTABLE. How much research went into writing this novel?

EJS: Most of the research on quantum mechanics was just having read various articles in magazines and online over the years. I did look things up on Wikipedia for specific concepts, like the details of Schrodinger's original thought experiment about the cat. As for espionage, I must confess my research was watching the TV show ALIAS, along with watching various spy movies and reading spy novels.

SG: Who is Nat Morgan, and what makes him unforgettable for readers?

EJS: Nat is the protagonist of UNFORGETTABLE. Due to a fluke of quantum mechanics (detailed in the novel) he's a CIA agent who can't be remembered for more than a minute by anyone he meets. I hope that readers will remember him as someone who took that challenging situation and tried to make the best of it, combining resourcefulness with good humor.

SG: UNFORGETTABLE started as something you serialized for your blog readers. What did you learn from that experience, and can we look forward to any more stories this way?

EJS: I actually didn't intend to serialize it when I started writing. But the original version of the novel was far too short for agents and publishers. So after I gathered a bunch of rejections I decided to serialize it on my blog, while also releasing the full novel in self-published form so that anyone who was intrigued enough by the serialized parts wouldn't have to wait to finish the novel. However, before I had finished serializing the novel, I got an offer of representation from my agent, so I stopped the serialization and took down the self-published version of the book.  After some extensive revisions, I had a new version that was not only better, but also long enough that publishers were willing to look at it.

As of right now, I have no plans to serialize future novels on my blog. But you never know.

SG: UNFORGETTABLE is your first published novel. How many had you written before?

EJS: I had written one novel before UNFORGETTABLE, an epic fantasy. I looked at the prologue recently and felt embarrassed at how cliched it was. So it's unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon. Maybe after I'm dead, my family will sell the novel in order to capitalize on my fame. ;-)

SG: You made your name from short stories. How do you approach novels differently from your shorter work, and how does the writing experience differ?

EJS: I have found that I can successfully write a short story without an outline, but I need an outline for a novel.  I have several novels I've begun without outlines, and they've all fizzled out after only a few chapters at most.  I think the main difference in the writing experience itself is that with a short story, I try to be as direct as possible, while with a novel I feel at liberty to go off on tangents for a while.

SG: Favorite moment from UNFORGETTABLE you can talk about?

EJS: My favorite passage is the first scene I wrote. It was originally the first chapter of the novel, but in the process of revising, I added a new beginning. The scene involves Nat trying to demonstrate his talent to a CIA recruiter.

SG: Favorite SFF archetype?

EJS: I was going to say "The good guys win against overwhelming odds," but that archetype isn't found only in science fiction and fantasy. So I guess I'll go with The Chosen One, because my favorite TV show is BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

 

UNFORGETTABLE is available now at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

From the cover: 

Out of sight, out of mind.

In the near future, a fluke of quantum mechanics renders Nat Morgan utterly forgettable. No one can remember he exists for more than a minute after he's gone. It's a useful ability for his career as a CIA agent, even if he has to keep reminding his boss that he exists.

Nat's attempt to steal a quantum chip prototype is thwarted when a former FSB agent, Yelena Semyonova, attempts to steal the same technology for the Russian mob.

Along with a brilliant Iranian physicist who wants to defect, Nat and Yelena must work together to stop a ruthless billionaire from finishing a quantum supercomputer that will literally control the fate of the world.

Free Story: The Crow Wrangler

The Crow Wrangler

By Sean Grigsby

 

Here they were, red eyes staring from the woods. Pepito couldn’t believe they were there at first. They’d come with no sound, no warning. They’d faded into view just as slowly as the sun was burrowing into the dark belly of the trees beyond. The crows bobbed along, unalarmed in the patch of sand between the porch and the woods.

Pepito willed his hand to grab for Mister Segundo’s blunderbuss. It was leaned against the table to his right where a cup of horchata had grown neglected and warm. Slowly, Pepito rested the weapon against his lap.

The red eyes blinked. It was only once, but it was slow enough that Pepito had time to conjure the hope he’d only imagined them. But no. They appeared again, and that just made it all the more real.

He had the sudden feeling he was at the opposite end of a game board. His objective, of course, was to stop whatever it was in the woods from making off with one of the crows. It was something he’d prepared for all summer, but now that it had come…. His finger twitched near the trigger.

 

Two months before he’d been walking home along the Polvo road when he came upon a crow. Its feathers were clean, shiny black in the sun. The bird cocked its head and seemed to wink at him.

Pepito smiled. “Hello, grandpa.” He wasn’t sure why he’d called the bird that.

The crow must have taken offense. It flew off at shoulder height down a path through the baking grass. Pepito followed. He laughed the only way a boy in the summer can, running through unknown terrain and letting the air embrace him as the sun poked its glory through thick branches.

Pepito had begun to tire by the time the crow led him to the square patch of sand in the middle of the grass. It beat its wings and landed among its brothers and sisters who were pecking at the grains beneath their feet, every so often finding something worth eating.

“Hello, friend!” An old man in a large and weathered hat waved to him from the covered porch of a small house to match the man’s simple and well-worn attire.

“Hello,” Pepito said. He was unsure if he was trespassing. The man’s welcoming smile under dusty moustaches and that the man’s gun was against a post and not aimed at Pepito’s chest said that he hadn’t gone where he wasn’t wanted. But still, Pepito felt he was in a place he didn’t belong.

“Come, come. I have horchata to share.” The old man waved again. He turned and dragged another chair from inside the house.

Pepito took a step then stopped. “I’ve never had it before.”

The man raised his eyebrows. “No? It’s very good! Especially in the heat of the day. Please, please. It’s very nice to see you.” He waved again for Pepito to join him on the porch.

Pepito decided he liked the man, strange as he was. The crows paid the boy no mind as he walked to the porch where the old man directed him to a chair and filled two cups with creamy liquid.

“Tell me how you like it,” the man said, nodding to the cup closest to Pepito.

It was wonderful, cold. The horchata was sweet and nutty and the best thing that had ever passed Pepito’s lips. Not much to say since an occasional drink of milk was the only change from the well water his father made him fetch every other morning.

“I’d say it was good,” Pepito said, “but I don’t think that’s enough. I love it!”

The old man laughed, pleased to please. “Tell me, what brings you out to my little paradise today?”

“I followed the crow.” Pepito pointed to the one who’d shown him the way, surprised he could pick it out again among all the rest.

“Ah,” the man said. “He just got here. Like you.”

Pepito looked over the porch rail to the large square between the house and the start of deep woods. It could have been a garden if it hadn’t been covered with sand, and all those big, black birds.

“My name is Mister Segundo.” He held out a hand across the table.

Pepito took it. It was the first time in his life he’d shaken anyone’s hand. He liked it. It made him feel like he’d grown up in the two seconds it took to make Mister Segundo’s acquaintance. He gave his name.

“It’s wonderful to know you,” Mister Segundo said. “What do you think of my home?

Pepito looked through the front door and then at the old wood that made up the porch. He couldn’t find anything worth noting. So he said, “I like your crows. How do you keep them from flying away?”

“I don’t.”

 Pepito nodded, and for a few minutes without the man saying anything, Pepito searched his mind for something else to say, but then Mister Segundo said, “They come when it’s their time and they leave when it’s their time. I just spread seed in the sand for them and make sure they’re safe until they go.”

“Safe from what?” Pepito asked.

Mister Segundo shrugged. “I hope never to find out. Never seen anything in all the years I started this work. I just keep my eyes on those woods there for anything strange.” He tapped his fingers on the gun leaning against the porch. “I always keep it loaded.”

“You make money doing this?” Pepito never knew there could ever be such easy work. His father had always pointed a dirt-covered finger at him after a long day in the fields and told him how it was a man’s duty to work hard for his family. This crow business was a much better idea.

“I make enough to live,” Mister Segundo said. “No more.”

Pepito gulped the rest of his horchata and smiled. “This seems like the best job in the world.”

“And why is that, my friend? Because you think it’s easy?”

“Well, isn’t it?” Pepito looked around him, searching for any soiled tools or any other evidence that there may have been more to the job than Mister Segundo had let on. But he didn’t see anything besides the comfort of the porch and the happy hopping of the crows. “You sit here and drink horchata, watching the crows peck at the sand.”

Mister Segundo smiled and rubbed his chin. “Do you think you could do it?”

Pepito nodded furiously. Seeing that he’d grown up after climbing onto the porch, it was about time he began his career in crow watching.

“All right, then.” Mister Segundo stood.

“Where are you going?” Pepito asked, guarding his empty cup.

“We,” Mister Segundo said, “are going to talk to your parents.”

 

Night was falling by the time they came to Pepito’s home. He grew more worried about what his father would say. Mister Segundo’s lengthy legs kept him at a pace Pepito couldn’t keep up with, and so there was no conversation between them to put Pepito at ease.

Mister Segundo went straight away to Pepito’s door without thinking to ask if it was the right house. The tall man rapped against the door and turned back to Pepito with a smile that showed a tooth missing.

The door flew open and Pepito’s father stood on the other side. He took in the full height of Mister Segundo and then saw Pepito. “Where on earth have you been? Your mother was about to throw herself into the fire for grief!”

“Hello, my friend,” Mister Segundo said, sticking his hand out and seeming to ignore Father’s inhospitality.

“Thank you for finding him,” Father said with no enthusiasm. He forced himself to shake hands.

“In fact, Pepito found me. May I come in?”

Father looked back into the house and grumbled in his throat. “Yes, yes. If you like.”

Father wagged his head for Pepito to come inside and the boy hurried to do what he was told. Mister Segundo removed his hat as he bent down to enter. His hair was scraggly and white, just as clean as it could be. The hat must have protected his hair from the dust.

Mother ran to Pepito, crying. She wrapped her arms around him and wailed into his ears, kissed him and got his cheeks wet. Then, she slapped his arm and proceeded with a more heated line of questioning that resembled his father’s.

“Hello, dear lady,” Mister Segundo said. Although he was already bowing to prevent hitting his head against the ceiling, he bowed lower still to pay her respect.

“Did you find my Pepito?” his mother asked, wiping her cheeks. “Thank you so much. Please eat with us. We have very little in the way of taste but there’s plenty of it.”

Mister Segundo grinned, “I have to get back to my flock, but thank you. I was hoping to ask you and your husband something.”

“What?” Father asked.

“The food is the most we have.” Mother put her hands on Pepito’s shoulders.

“I’m not looking for payment in bringing Pepito home. I had a hand in keeping him out later than he should have, and he’s a very talkative young man. I am here to ask your permission.”

“For what?” Father had his arms crossed and he leaned against the wall.

“Yes,” Mister Segundo said, smiling, “I was getting to that.” He turned back to Pepito’s mother. “I was hoping Pepito could come and work for me. Just for the summer. I would provide him with a bed and food, of course. And he would learn a valuable trade in the process.”

“What sort of trade?” Father asked.

Mister Segundo still addressed Mother. “I aim for him to apprentice as a crow wrangler.”

Father barked laughter and Mother wrinkled her face. Pepito couldn’t help smile. A job and a fantastic title.

 “He’s crazy,” Father said. “Please leave, you old fool. Pepito has work to do in the morning.”

Mister Segundo spun and tossed something into the air from his pocket. It sang like a horseshoe as it twirled, small and glinting firelight. Father caught it and held it in front of his face to get a good look. Gold. A single coin, but more than Pepito’s family would make in a year.

“When does he start?” Mother asked.

 

They hurried through the night to Mister Segundo’s house. The man was determined to return as quickly as possible. This time, Pepito kept pace. He’d found an abundance of energy and could have run on, leaving Mister Segundo behind.

“I’d save that energy for the morning if I were you,” Mister Segundo said, chuckling.

Ha! Yes, more energy to sit back and drink sweet nectar under the shade. Pepito was looking forward to a very enjoyable summer.

“This is where you’ll sleep,” Mister Segundo told him when they’d finished counting the crows.

It was a small cot against a wall inside the little house with a tiny gray blanket thrown over. It was no king’s bed, but considering how well the rest of his time would be spent, he had no problem with it. It would be just like his bed back home.

“We will eat after I wake you,” Mister Segundo said. “And then we will get to work.”

Work, yes. Pepito couldn’t wait. “Where are you going?” Pepito asked after Mister Segundo darkened the house and stalked to the front door.

“I have to watch the crows,” he said.

With that, he closed the door behind him and Pepito fought for sleep. It was hard, seeing how excited he was. Probably the hardest thing he’d have to do all summer.

 

Water hit his face and soaked every part of the blanket covering him.

“Time to start!”

He didn’t know when he’d finally fallen asleep, but this wasn’t Mister Segundo’s house. This was not where he’d become a crow wrangler. He must have wandered off into some bizarre torturer’s garden.

But there was Mister Segundo above him, smiling. He held an empty, dripping pail in one hand.

“Here!” Mister Segundo shoved a tortilla at him. “Eat this quickly and meet me on the porch.”

Pepito chewed the flavorless thing out of habit. His mind was racing with confusion and picking over the short list of events that had brought him here. Had he said or done something to make Mister Segundo angry? Maybe it was some joke the old man was playing or perhaps Pepito had a particularly large bee land on his face while he was asleep and Mister Segundo was only being helpful in removing the insect with a full pail of lukewarm water.

The sun had only begun to crest over the woods when Pepito walked out onto the porch. Mister Segundo was sipping horchata and still holding the pail and the pail was still dripping from the lip.

Mister Segundo shoved the pail at Pepito. “Go around back and fill this from the well.”

Pepito started to ask what all this was about, but had fetched enough water for his father to know it was best to just do as he was asked. He stomped through the tall grass surrounding the outer edges of Mister Segundo’s home, wincing at a few stickers that managed to snag him along the way.

The well was small, almost undiscoverable among the weeds. One of the large stones from the top had fallen long before Pepito had come. He finished the job and brought the filled pail back to Mister Segundo on the porch.

“Now,” Mister Segundo said, bringing a chair over, “step onto this chair while holding the pail. Do it fifty times and we can move on to your next task.”

Pepito looked down at the water still sloshing and kissing the edges of the pail. “What does this have to do with watching crows?”

“Then you can do it a hundred times.”

Pepito dropped his jaw.

“You agreed to become my apprentice. You will not argue or question how I go about instructing you. Understood?”

Pepito nodded. He considered running back to his parents and leaving the crazy old man to his birds and horchata. But he knew Father would chide him for walking out on an agreement and, more so, giving up the gold coin for not wanting to fetch a bit of well water. He would have been doing the same thing at home anyway. No, he would stay, if only to spite Mister Segundo and his father. Some exercise wouldn’t hurt him.

“And don’t spill one drop of that water,” Mister Segundo said. “If you do, you’re going to have to fill the pail back to the brim and finish out your hundred chair steps.”

The man was insane.

But Pepito took as deep a breath as he could find and began the useless task he’d been given. First one leg, then the other. Pepito held the pail by its thin handle with both hands. It was much too heavy to only use one. Mister Segundo sat, sipping horchata, watching him. Pepito was about to complete his thirty-third step, legs burning and chest heaving breath, when he was careless with his footing and slipped from the chair.

The gush of water was at first refreshing when it ran down his shoulders and chest. But soon, the realization he was on his backside and would have to make his already-exhausted legs take him back to the well to refill the pail, came down like a landslide.

Pepito groaned.

“Back to the well with you,” Mister Segundo said.

Pepito spilled the pail three more times before he made it to a hundred. By then it was time for lunch and Mister Segundo came out to where Pepito sat on the floor of the porch, praying his legs would stop burning. The old man handed him another tortilla.

“I’m thirsty,” Pepito croaked.

“Does a dog have to ask to drink when there’s water near him?”

Pepito looked around for a cup but only saw the pail and the water he’d managed not to spill. Mister Segundo wrinkled his brow expectantly.

“I would love some horchata,” Pepito said.

“I’m sure you would,” Mister Segundo said, “but it will do nothing for your shriveling body. You need water.” He nodded toward the pail.

“You’ve given me horchata before.”

“Ah, when you were a guest. Now you’re my apprentice. Well, drink! You say you’re thirsty. Stick your head in if your arms are failing you.”

Pepito swallowed and found there to be nothing in his mouth but a dry and sticky film. He lifted the pail to his lips and drank.

“After you finish your tortilla, meet me by the trees over there.” Mister Segundo grabbed his long gun and marched down the steps. “And don’t walk through the crows’ sand. Go around.”

Pepito took as long as he thought he could in eating the tortilla. After a while, though, hunger took over and the thin morsel was gone. Mister Segundo was waiting for Pepito with his back to the house. The old man was staring out into the trees, either listening for something or he had very well fallen asleep, standing up with his gun laid across his shoulder.

Pepito’s legs wobbled and sang harsh songs of agony when he began to pull himself up. He had to limp, and slowly, to get around the crows and come to where Mister Segundo was very much awake.

“What do you think might be in those woods,” Mister Segundo asked.

“I have no idea,” Pepito said.

“Exactly. We have to assume any kind of evil, terrible thing may be lurking just the other side of those cedars.”

Pepito looked into the dark of the woods, unable to see much past the first few trees.

“There may be something watching us right now, just as we’re looking at the trees.”

Pepito gulped.

In a blur, Mister Segundo raised the weapon and fired into the woods, the blast sending Pepito a foot into the air despite his fatigue. Mister Segundo cackled and slapped Pepito on the back. Normally, Pepito would have grinned along, to be polite. This was not one of those times.

“I’m going to show you how to load, aim, and fire this blunderbuss.”

“I’ve never held a rifle.”

“Neither have I,” Mister Segundo said. “This is a blunderbuss. Not as accurate maybe, but much more devastating than your common rifle. Here.”

Mister Segundo tossed the blunderbuss to him as if it were paper. Pepito caught it with both arms and nearly dropped to his knees. The treacherous trips back and forth from the well, the chair steps, had whittled him down to nothing. But he fought to hold onto the weapon and straightened his legs.

“Well, maybe today we’ll just show you how to load it, huh?” Mister Segundo retrieved the blunderbuss, much to Pepito’s relief. “First, you cock the hammer halfway and prime the pan here.” Pepito hadn’t seen where Mister Segundo had brought out the bag of powder, but here it was. He poured it into the barrel. “Then you put your powder in, followed by your shot.” He plopped a handful of metal balls into the same hole.

Mister Segundo showed him the wad to put in next and the rod to push it all down. After pushing the hammer further back, the blunderbuss was ready to kill.

“Do you think you’ll remember that?” Mister Segundo asked.

“I think so.”

“You’ll have plenty of practice with it in the days to come. So, we’ve come to your day’s final task.”

Pepito sighed. There was to be more?

“Don’t look so glum,” said Mister Segundo. “I did say final.” He returned his blunderbuss to lean on his shoulder and turned to the patch of sand. “Catch a crow.”

“Pardon?” The blast of the blunderbuss must have damaged Pepito’s ears. Surely Mister Segundo didn’t expect him, with weakened legs and barely enough food in him, to catch a crow.

“Go over there to where those big, black, winged things are hopping around and seize one with your hands.”

Pepito attempted to convince himself it couldn’t be that difficult. After all, the crows hadn’t left the sand all day and were much fuller than he was on the food Mister Segundo had spread out for them. It could have been argued that the odds were even.

A quick rub to each leg and Pepito sauntered to the sand. None of the crows bothered to even give him a glance.

All right, you snobby, flying rats.

He picked one of the fatter ones to aim for and ran toward it with outstretched arms. The crow fluttered out of his way and went back to its monotonous pecking. Pepito rethought his strategy and shuffled along outside the sand square until he was behind his selected prey. None of the other birds gave warning or even acted as if they knew he was there.

Pepito pounced, aiming his chest for the crow’s head, ready to swipe it up in his arms. But again, the bird flew and Pepito found his mouth full of sand and the bitter taste of something he wasn’t familiar with. And then the birds descended.

“You fool!” Mister Segundo shouted.

The black of feathers and beaks swarmed him. Pepito covered his face as the crows pecked at every inch of his body. It was like being stabbed with a thousand tiny forks. He was too frightened to swat at the attacking birds, too afraid it would leave his eyes vulnerable to their sharp mouths.

A hand grabbed his arm at his bent elbow and pulled him through the sand. Pepito felt his feet trail through the rough grains and as soon as they touched grass he was let go.

“Tell me,” it was Mister Segundo’s voice, Pepito still covered his face, “when did you decide to become the hunted instead of the hunter?”

Pepito sat up and searched around him for any crow sneaking up for another round of pecking. But all of them were still in the sand, back to searching for food.

“I missed,” Pepito said.

“You don’t say.”

“I didn’t think they would hurt me. They don’t even care that I nearly died!”

“Any creature will defend itself and its own when attacked,” Mister Segundo said. “The threat was removed and now they’re back to what matters.”

“Hopping through sand and filling their bellies?”

“Waiting.”

“They can leave whenever they want. What could a bunch of scraggly birds be waiting for that’s so important?”

“Their turn,” Mister Segundo said. “In time you’ll learn how important it is. How significant all of this is.” He stretched out his lanky arms and turned to address his homestead.

“Now,” Mister Segundo said.

Pepito sighed and it came out like the beginning of a weep. More terrible work was coming his way.

Mister Segundo chuckled and leaned against his blunderbuss. “I think you’ve earned some proper supper. Don’t you think?”

Pepito widened his eyes and stared up to the tall, old man. The sun was at Mister Segundo’s back and put his form in shadow, a character from stories his mother told him before sleep.

“And maybe some horchata?”

Pain and weakness aside, Pepito scrambled to his legs and followed Mister Segundo back to the house.

 

After a meal of cheese, the most delicious warm bread, fruits, and vegetables, Pepito sat with Mister Segundo on the porch and sipped at a well-earned cup of horchata. It was strange. It all put him into such a place of comfort and pride. His throbbing legs and tight muscles were complimented by a full belly and sweet drink. He’d earned it.

As the sun began to set, two of the crows suddenly took flight and flew over the tops of the trees. The remaining birds were as apathetic as ever.

“Good bye, my friends,” Mister Segundo said.

“I guess they were done waiting.”

“Yes. But there’s always more.”

Not a few minutes later, two more crows flew in from the road Pepito had followed the day before. They were new crows, not the same ones who’d just flown away. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he just…did. Each of the crows could be distinguished as if they were distinct members of his own squawking, feathered family.

“Where do they come from?” Pepito asked.

“All places. Where they go is the real question. I hope to find out someday.”

It grew darker then. The woods became a blanket of black. If it weren’t for the sand, Pepito wouldn’t have been able to see the crows dance.

“Now,” Mister Segundo stood. “I think it’s time for you to get to bed.”

When the man said it, Pepito closed his eyes briefly and felt the sting of sleep there. The cot sounded as good as a soft cloud.

“Tomorrow we’ll do it all again.”

And they did. Each day was the same besides Mister Segundo showing Pepito in greater detail how to operate the blunderbuss. After a few weeks, Pepito began to shoot it himself. Mister Segundo said that he needn’t worry too much about his aim as long as it was straight.

“Just make sure there are no crows between you and whatever you’re aiming at,” he’d say.

The chair steps became easier, even though Mister Segundo kept the number at a hundred.

“No sense in going backwards,” he said.

It got to where Pepito could do them in one set without dropping a bit of water. The crow catching was a different story.

“I just don’t understand the point of catching them if they’re just going to fly off at sunset,” he complained one afternoon after failing for the thousandth time.

“If you truly think it’s about the act of catching the crow, you haven’t learned a damned thing,” Mister Segundo said.

After that, Pepito made it his goal for the summer to catch one of the fidgety flock. After all, if he couldn’t catch one of them, could he truly call himself a crow wrangler?

One morning Pepito woke before Mister Segundo could do it for him. He rose and grabbed a tortilla from the cupboard. The house was empty and Pepito guessed that Mister Segundo had once again fallen asleep on the porch as he guarded the crows. Pepito stepped onto the porch and found it empty besides the blunderbuss waiting beside the door and a newly arrived crow perched on the railing with an envelope in its beak.

“Hello, friend,” Pepito said, because he knew it’s what Mister Segundo would have done. “Have you seen the old man?”

The crow dropped the envelope and cawed. Pepito didn’t look to the floor where the envelope had dropped, not at first. He was too interested in the crow. None of them had ever left the sand unless they were leaving for good over the trees. Even when they arrived, they went straight for the tan square.

And none of them ever brought mail.

The bird spread its wings and turned, gliding to the sand in the time it took Pepito to exhale. Pepito looked down to the envelope on the porch. Its sealed side was up. On the other side was a note that read, “Don’t open until tomorrow.”

Was this some kind of test? Mister Segundo must have been watching from the woods, seeing how he would do on his own. Well, Pepito would show the old man that he could wrangle crows better than anyone else.

But he also thought he deserved a day without the annoyance of his regular schedule. For a time he sat on the porch, drinking horchata and cleaning the blunderbuss, watching the crows as vigilantly as he could. He stared at the envelope for several hours, wondering what could be in the mystery letter. He finally had to take it inside and put it on his cot to avoid the temptation to break the seal before its time.

After his lunch tortilla, he grew bored and found himself headed to the well, pail in hand, as he’d been doing every day for the last few weeks.

His chair steps done, Pepito practiced loading the blunderbuss like Mister Segundo had shown him, away from the crows. He became quicker and quicker with every load.

The day was fading by that time and Pepito decided not to try his hand at crow catching. The one that had just arrived was bigger than the rest and would surely have no problem flying off with Pepito in its talons. Unlike the other crows, Pepito thought he saw it more than once lift its head from pecking and watch him perform his chores.

Mister Segundo had shown him how to make supper and Pepito thought it would be rude not to go inside and make enough for two should Mister Segundo come back then from whatever place he’d gone. But Mister Segundo didn’t return and there was a good amount of food left over after Pepito had taken his fill.

Pepito took his usual spot in a chair on the porch, horchata neglected beside him. He tried to focus on watching the crows but couldn’t stop himself from looking over to Mister Segundo’s empty chair and thinking for the briefest moment, every time, that the old man would be there.

And that’s when he saw the red eyes.

He stayed his hand and took his finger away from the trigger. Don’t put the crows between you and what you’re aiming at. Another thought occurred to him. It was Mister Segundo out there, maybe with some special candles he could make to look like a beast was stalking him. This was a test. Mister Segundo was trying to see what Pepito would do under pressure.

This notion was crushed when the thing rushed from the trees.

It was big and steady in its stride, its black fur sleek under the small amount of moonlight. The body was like a wolf, snout and long tail, but two curled horns protruded from its head, like a ram’s. And Pepito had never heard of a wolf with such terrible eyes and such large, slobbery dagger teeth.

The urge to shoot came again. No! Not with the crows. The beast had stopped after escaping the cover of the woods and kept its glowing gaze on the offerings hopping across the sand.

Every muscle held Pepito in place. He knew he had to go to the crows, to scare off this intruding monster, but he trembled and tears stung at the corners of his eyes. It wasn’t just that he was afraid, but that he was utterly disappointed in himself for not being brave when it counted.

You didn’t grow up when you first stepped onto this porch. You were only fooling yourself.

It was then Pepito saw he’d gotten up from the chair and was now standing at the edge of the porch, blunderbuss in a firing position in his arms.

The beast darted for the crows.

It was easy to run after Pepito was already standing. His legs moved more swiftly than he knew they could, the muscles had been primed for it. But it wasn’t fast enough.

The wolf-thing leapt into the crowd of crows, scattering sand and snarling as it found an unlucky bird to bite. The new arrival, the big one. The rest of the crows assaulted the beast as it whipped its head to and fro with its kill between its teeth. It wasn’t until Pepito had reached the sand and swung the blunderbuss at the beast’s head that it let go of the crow and scampered off the square. With a snarl that made its eyes flare up bright red, fresh blood on its jaws, the wolf-thing disappeared into the woods.

The crows didn’t attack Pepito. They hopped away from him and their unfortunate brother. The big crow that had brought him the secret envelope lay in a tussled heap, its dark fluids seeping into the sand.

Pepito took the bird in his hands and cradled it.

A flash. For an instant, so fast he could barely comprehend, Pepito saw the ghostly form of Mister Segundo rise from the dead crow and vanish into the night like the last puff of a blown out candle.

Pepito cried.

But he knew if he stayed there crying in the sand, the thing that had killed Mister Segundo’s spirit would get farther and farther away and he wasn’t going to let that happen. He leapt to his feet and entered the woods.

A hill greeted him a few yards in. The beast stood at the top and turned in surprise when it heard Pepito snapping twigs under foot. Pepito readied his weapon but the animal scampered over the other side.

The hill was steep, so much you could have slid back to the bottom if you didn’t keep your feet moving. But Pepito kept pumping up the hill. His legs didn’t tire. His feet plowed into the mound and thrust him forward, up. Easy since doing all those chair steps.

Yes! That was it exactly. He’d been conditioned for something just like this. But how did the old man know?

Pepito reached the top of the rise in only a few strides and spotted the beast zipping through the maze of tree trunks.

I’m right behind you, you terrible thing.

He ran, dodging trees and fallen branches. The beast was always just ahead of him, although Pepito’s legs kept him close behind enough to catch a glimpse of the creature’s tail. It wasn’t just his conditioning that kept Pepito moving. He had an urge inside him he’d never felt before. I need for vengeance. I desire to kill.

The beast climbed another hill and when Pepito was halfway up he heard a thick, wet plop and the yelping of a dog. After he reached the top he saw it. The wolf-thing had fallen into a deep pool of mud, the sucking kind that would grab anything and pull it under.

Pepito raised the blunderbuss and aimed at the struggling animal. It whined and thrashed uselessly, only getting itself covered more in mud and deeper into the pit. The beast’s red eyes burned with the unyielding wish to survive as its whine cut through the dark of the woods. But no one was coming to save it. Not like Pepito had tried to save the crow, Mister Segundo’s soul.

The trigger was at his finger. He breathed in. Out. This thing would pay for what it had done. There had to be restitution. He’d blow the animal away and—

What was he doing?

The thing looked at him with pleading in its red eyes. Please, it looked to say. Help me!

This wasn’t a monster. It was just some animal come along and saw a chance to eat and live, if only another day. Monsters didn’t sink into mud pits. And even if they did, Pepito wouldn’t feel this unbearable sinking in his gut and the desire to save the ugly thing. This wasn’t right. He couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t.

Shoot. Don’t shoot. Minds could always be changed. He knew it. And he also knew Mister Segundo would have approved. Pepito squatted and grasped the slope with his fingers, steadying himself so he wouldn’t fall into the mud.

“Come on,” he said, stretching the stock of the blunderbuss to the beast. “Take it.”

The animal yipped louder and tossed with what little mobility it had left. The movement put its head under the mud.

“No!” Pepito slid further down. It couldn’t end like this. He’d get the beast’s head out and then the thing would bite the stock and he would pull it out, letting it run off to lick away the mud. As he scooted closer, Pepito’s foot dipped into the pit. It was stuck.

He pulled and pulled, keeping his eyes on what remained of the wolf-thing’s body that squirmed every other second until it was finally still. Pepito stabbed the blunderbuss into the dirt above him and used it to pry himself free. It was only when he’d clawed back to the top of the pit that he turned back and stared at the mud below.

The wolf-thing was gone, the mud undisturbed and blank as canvas. Pepito buried his face into his palms and again, he cried.

 

The sun was rising by the time Pepito stumbled back to the house. The crows were at their daily errand and there was no sign of the Segundo crow. Pepito would have wept, but there was no more in him.

He strained up the steps to the porch and set the blunderbuss beside the table where he grabbed the unused cup of horchata. It was another day. The house put back in order, Pepito chewed on a tortilla and stared at the envelope on his cot. “Don’t open until tomorrow.” And tomorrow had become today.

The envelope opened with little effort. Inside was a small piece of paper adorned with the scribble of a man who had little experience in writing, but the strokes were sincere. It was from Mister Segundo.

 

Pepito,

Do not be troubled, my friend. Go into my room. There you will find a small but comfortable bed and a chest below. Every Sunday morning in this chest you’ll find a single gold coin. From where this money comes, the man who came before me never said. Use this money to buy food to keep you and the crows strong, and shot to arm you. I will not be coming back. Know that I am proud of you and think you are a better crow wrangler than I ever was. I’m sorry if the training was hard, but you may discover some day that it has prepared you. Continue to practice like you’ve done with me. You’ll find your parents accepting of your new life and they can visit any time they wish. I’m off to see where the crows go when they leave our patch of sand. I will miss you dearly, my boy, but know that I am happy.

 

As Pepito grabbed a pail and headed for the well, he knew it was true. When he returned to the porch, a new crow flew in and landed upon the sand. The summer was near an end, and he still had one more thing to do for Mister Segundo. But there were plenty of crows he could catch.

 

END

City of Blades: An Interview with Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett has picked up a lot of steam in the world of SFF, snagging a handful of awards in the process. He also lives in one of the coolest cities on the planet, Austin, Texas, and has a golden voice that would make Don LaFontaine swoon. Lucky bastard.

His sixth book, City of Blades, releases from Broadway Books January 26th, 2016, and is the highly-anticipated sequel to City of Stairs. RJB was kind enough to field a few questions about this upcoming release.

-The Interview-

SG: CITY OF BLADES introduces us to a new city, Voortyashtan. What differences between it and Bulikov can readers look forward to?

RJB: Bulikov was a city that, in the old days, was shared by all the Divinities - it was the capital city of the Continent, belonging to everyone and no one. For the new book, I thought it'd be fun to visit a site that had originally been the main city of one Divinity, and thus would have been shaped by that individual Divinity's characteristics and domains - and it seemed like a city founded upon war, death, and domination would be fascinating to see. So Voortyashtan, the city of the goddess Voortya, was the natural choice.

Voortyashtan is much more remote than Bulikov was, and much more savage and barren. It's a tough place, the sort of city you try very hard to avoid if you can manage it, and very hard to leave if you can't. But it's also interesting to see the juxtaposition going on: the city used to be glorious, but its glory was founded upon mass murder and slavery. The current citizens wish to pay fealty to that glory, perhaps recapture it - but there's an unspoken general knowledge that it's tainted. They're not quite sure how to move forward.

SG: Did you base these settings on any modern day cities?

RJB: Not modern day. Bulikov was partially inspired by medieval Constantinople. It's fascinating to read accounts by French knights and such who journeyed to the city, which was far, far more advanced and decadent than anything they'd ever witnessed. Though some people these days tend to think of the medieval era in terms of grandeur, to Constantinople, medieval Europe was essentially a land of ignorant country bumpkins. 

Voortyashtan is mostly a military outpost at the beginning of CITY OF BLADES, built around a massive fort that Saypur constructed to keep an eye on the most dreaded of all the Continental cities. It's that aspect of a remote, beleaguered, and undermanned outpost that I found interesting. When you're all along together on the edge of the world, surrounded by unfriendly wilderness and unfriendlier locals, what do you do?

SG: This time, the story follows General Turyin Mulaghesh, who's been exiled to Voortyashtan. What inspired you to follow this foul-mouthed general?

RJB: Mulaghesh was something of an inspiration in CITY OF STAIRS. I had originally intended Mulaghesh to be a man, a sort of blustering old officer that Shara could dupe to her plans, not unlike Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes, but I found that dull - yet when I changed her to a competent, crudely practical, upper-middle aged woman that Shara needed to get on her side, suddenly her character came to life. 

It made sense to make her the main character of the second book, because Shara's story is largely over at the end of CITY OF STAIRS. She's made up her mind about who she is and what she needs to do, and she sets out to do those things. And as Shara had always been skilled at being a puppetmaster behind the scenes of everything, her natural evolution was to step behind the scenes of the larger story, steering the actions of the other characters. 

Mulaghesh, however, was going to be plunged into a state of doubt by the events of CITY OF STAIRS. As someone who's military through and through, someone whose outlook and character were forged during the hard days of Continental conquest, Mulaghesh - and Saypur itself - is now being asked a lot of questions about the future. Does she want to keep being an old warrior? Can she ever come to terms with what she's done in the past? And if she does want to change, is change even possible at this point? And of course, she has to figure all this out in a city heavy with brutal, martial history. 

SG: Many readers loved Sigrud in CITY OF STAIRS. Any chance we'll see more of him?

RJB: Definitely. Sigrud's daughter is a main character in CITY OF BLADES, and the man himself shows up and stays on scene not too long into the story. He will also be the main character of the third book, CITY OF MIRACLES. 

SG: CITY OF BLADES is your sixth published book. How many had you written before MR. SHIVERS, and what was your journey to getting published?

RJB: I wrote three books before I wrote MR. SHIVERS, and all of them were sort of an effort to find my voice as a writer. I was throwing things at the wall, and trying to see what would stick. In all honesty, I think I hadn't really found it by the time I wrote MR. SHIVERS, or maybe even the book after that, THE COMPANY MAN. I think I started to really figure out what I wanted to do by my third book, THE TROUPE.

As far as the journey to publication goes, the simple answer is - I got lucky. I think, really, luck is what it always comes down to, getting the right person to see the right stuff of yours at the right time. There are just ways you can make luck more likely: one is by persistence, trying over and over again, and the other is by adjusting what you're doing, changing your process or even what you're submitting. But at the end of the day, it's still chance and luck.

SG: Favorite moment from CITY OF BLADES you can share?

RJB: Probably when Mulaghesh fires an extremely large minigun, discharging several hundred pounds of hot lead over about thirty seconds.

SG: Favorite fantasy archetype?

RJB: Oh, ancient buried horror, certainly.

You can pre-order CITY OF BLADES from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Google Books, or your local independent books seller.

City of Blades

A triumphant return to the world of City of Stairs.
 
A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions. 
 
Now, the city’s god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.
 
So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh— foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister—has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten.  
 
At least, it makes the perfect cover story. 
 
The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world--or destroy it. 
 
The trouble is that this old soldier isn't sure she's still got what it takes to be the hero.

(From Robert's website)