Friday, December 6, 2019

New Story: Invitation

I will absolutely apologize for this if you want.

000

Invitation

by Jenniffer Wardell

Santa's workshop had a dick drawn on it.

Matt snorted at the markered graffiti, poorly hidden by a cardboard Christmas tree someone shoved in front. Next to him, Abbie immediately looked up in interest. "What's so funny?"

He looked down at his little sister, instantly sure that he would rather stand on a lunch table naked than admit what he'd actually been laughing at. Unfortunately, his usual response to questions he didn't want to answer was to mouth off, and that wasn't going to work here. "The elves' shoes are stupid," he muttered finally, caught without a better answer.

She curled her hand through his, careful not to pull on his aching shoulder. "It's the bells," she said easily. "Boys don't like shoes that make music."

Well, now he felt guilty. "Sorry." He squeezed her hand, resolving to try harder to fake this whole Christmas spirit thing. Maybe he could steal her some lights or something. "I know how much this means to you."

Abbie beamed up at him. "Which is why you brought me." She leaned against him, hugging his arm with her free one. "Mom's always busy at work, and Dad..."

Her voice trailed off, uncertain, but Danny didn't need her to finish the sentence. Little kids shouldn't know the words for stuff like that. "You know you should always go to me for stuff like that, right? We don't want to worry Mom if we don't have to, and I don't want you talking to Dad at all."

She shot him the most loving "you're an idiot" look he had ever received. "Of course I always go to you. I know who takes care of me."

"And I always will." He cleared his throat, trying to pretend it didn't have a lump in it. "Now, why don't you tell me more about whatever new animal you've been reading up on this week."

As Abbie launched into an excited recitation of all the new things she'd learned about elephants, Matt scanned the line. The mall wasn't in the rich part of town, but they'd come early enough that it was mostly the moms who could afford not to work. A few of them were complaining that this Santa didn't do photo ops, and one of the brats they dragged away pointed and laughed at the duct tape wrapped around one of his sneakers.

Matt flipped him off, earning a scandalized look from the mother. His teachers would be so proud.
But even the most annoying lines moved eventually, and after enough people cleared out Santa finally came into view. Abbie leaned forward to get a better look, eyes wide with awe, but Matt was sure he'd seen better. The beard was more old wizard guy than Santa, for one thing, though he did give the guy points for it being real. He also wasn't quite fat enough to fit the usual standard, but the padding mall Santas had to wear probably stunk. He couldn't blame the guy for going without.

Of course, there might be other things to blame the guy for. One of the boys ahead of them was one of those kids who said "why?" every other word, and he had a whole list for the poor mall Santa. Matt might have had some sympathy for the guy – those kids could be super annoying – but the Santa's answers were weird. Like when the kid asked if Santa really ate all the cookies kids left out for him, any normal person would have just said yes. This guy, though, had a whole thing about how it was really the spirit of Christmas that kept him alive.

Even worse, the kid looked appalled. "So you don't like the cookies?"

"I do like the cookies," he said, using that same big, cheerful voice that should have been grating. Instead, seemed to have a relaxing effect on everyone, from annoying kids to their pinch-faced parents. "But what I really like about them is the love with which you put them out. There's so much emotion in the air during the holidays, and the nicer emotions are sweeter than any cookies. And with so many people in the world, I get so much sweet emotion during the holidays."

This time, Matt managed to keep his snort just inside his head. The guy would probably have a blast talking to his English teacher about chakras and healing crystals.

Finally, it was Abbie's turn. She ran up to stand just in front of Santa, but waited until he held out his arms before crawling into his lap. "Did you know that elephants are smarter than any animal except for big monkeys?" She leaned closer, voice also dropping to a whisper. "We also count as big monkeys."

He laughed, a big, booming sound. "I had not known that." He smiled down at Abbie. "Now, little one, what would you like for Christmas?"

Abbie's shoulders fell, voice turning wistful in the way that always broke Matt's heart. "You can't bring me anything. Dad told me that the reason we don't get Christmas presents is because he'd shoot you if he ever saw you on our property."

Matt, standing slightly to the side, swallowed back a fresh rush of rage at the man. He promised himself for the thousandth time that he'd get both Mom and Abbie out of there the second he turned 18. No matter what he had to do.

Santa had gone still, the same way adults always did when they were thinking a lot more than they were saying. "That wouldn't stop me, child. Bullets can't hurt Santa Claus."

"We probably shouldn't risk it." Abbie leaned forward, wrapping her arms around him. "I just wanted to give you a hug and make sure you were okay."

Santa hugged her back tightly, meeting Matt's eyes over the top of her head. Matt braced himself for questions he didn't want to answer, but in the end it didn't matter. DCFS was worse than useless, and even if the guy tried to call he didn't have either of their names.

When Abbie pulled away, Santa smiled down at her. "How would you like to be an honorary elf? My friend over there needs help handing out candy canes, and I think you're just the person to do it."

Abbie happily agreed -- big surprise there -- and ran off to help give candy to strangers. Once she was out of earshot, the guy put up a "Santa on break" sign before turning his attention to Matt. "And what do you want for Christmas, young man?"

Matt tore his gaze away from his sister's beaming expression, focusing on the old man. Shock, he'd found, was sometimes enough to distract people looking to do their good deed for the day. "Unless you're down for murdering my dad, I don't think there's anything you can get me."

Rather than look offended, or even horrified, the guy only looked more kind. "It must be dire circumstances indeed, for a son to want his father dead."

Matt's throat tightened at the sheer compassion in the man's voice. Knowing he was being stupid but not able to stop himself, he yanked down his collar to show the ugly purple bruise spread across his shoulder. He'd gotten good at popping it back in the socket, all on his own.

The man looked more solemn now. "I see," he said quietly. "And your mother?"

Denial came hot and fast. "Last time she tried to leave, Dad beat her so black and blue she couldn't go to work for a week." He swallowed. "She could probably leave, if it was just her. But she won't go without us, and one of Dad's old Army buddies is a lawyer."

"I see." There was no judgment in the words, and he stayed silent long enough to let Matt's heart to settle a little. Then he took a deep breath. "You know, your sister didn't make a request of me."

Matt blinked, thrown by the sudden change of topic. Maybe the guy was just desperate to stop a really uncomfortable conversation. "It was really nice of you to let her help with the candy canes, though."

His expression softened. "Your sister is a delight, but that isn't what I meant." He leaned towards Matt, intent. "The visits to Santas, as well as the letters, are invitations welcoming me into the homes of the children I visit. I have no invitation into your home."

Matt held his breath, feeling like all his hair was standing on end. It would be easy to do what he was asking -- a few simple words, said in his most sarcastic tone -- but he couldn't look away from the guy's eyes. They were too old for his face, like he'd seen firsthand all of humanity's biggest screw-ups for the last thousand years. Like he could give you all the gritty, horrible details, but he was too kind and too tired to try.

In pure defense, he grabbed for the first thing he could think of. "You should change your story about surviving on Christmas spirit. The world's such a dumpster fire there can't be much of that, these days."

He sat back, thoughtful, and the weird electric feeling was gone. His eyes just looked like everybody else's, now. "There are plenty of other emotions around the holidays. Not sweet, no, but you need more than sweets to keep you alive." He smiled. "And if I leave a little peace in my wake, then so much the better."

He had no idea what to say to that, which meant his instinct to mouth off kicked in. "It's still a weird way to answer the kid."

The guy laughed. "Probably. But I've found that children want honesty more than they do pretty stories." He cocked his head as if he heard something. "I believe your sister is about to join us."

Matt looked back at his sister, who was just now hugging the elf lady. Then she turned, running back to him with a glowing expression. "I love being an elf! They're so nice, and I made this little boy smile just by making the candy cane dance! Thank you, Santa!" She waved at him, who waved back even though he was just now accepting another little kid onto his lap.

Matt kept his eyes firmly forward as he hurried his little sister away.

000

The guy was a wackjob.

That was what Matt told himself, over and over again, in the days following their visit to Santa. He was just some New Age-type who took out his frustration at the hoardes of ankle-biters he had to deal with by saying weird crap to them. Hell, there were worse hobbies out there.

So he tried to forget. Abbie actually helped, careful not to say anything about it where there was a chance their dad might overhear. She got this glow in her eyes, sometimes, like she had a secret she was cuddling close to her chest, but he could pretend that was about anything.

There were some things, though, that he'd stopped pretending about a long time ago. The sound of his dad shouting could wake him up out of the deepest sleep, and even if it didn't the feel of Abbie burrowing into his bed would have done the trick. They lay there, listening, Matt's arms tight around Abbie and eyes squeezing shut against the urge to go in there. He'd sworn to his mother he wouldn't, no matter what he heard, but when a thump rattled the walls it was only Abbie's arms locked around him that kept him in place.

Finally, it had been quiet for long enough that Abbie's breath had slowed into sleep. He eased back, careful not to wake her as he slipped out of bed. Then, with practiced, silent feet, he made his way into the kitchen.

His mother was sitting on the floor, a ratty bathrobe around her shoulders and a pack of frozen peas pressed to her eye. He'd seen that package a lot, over the years, even though he didn't think they'd ever actually eaten peas.

When she saw him, she smiled. It looked as tired as she did. "Hey, kiddo."

Matt sat down beside her. That way, if his hands clenched, she wouldn't see it. "What was it this time?"

She sighed, the smile disappearing off her face. "It doesn't matter."

His fingers curled, mirroring the tight ball of rage in his chest. "He shouldn't do it at all."

She looked solemn. "No, he shouldn't." Moving the bag, she leaned over carefully and pressed a kiss against his cheek. "But I would rather it happen to me than you."

His eyes burned with all the tears he'd never let himself cry. "There has to be something I can do."

His mom looked like she was about to cry herself. "Just keep protecting your sister. Please."

Over the next few days, Matt thought long and hard about a lot of things he'd told himself not to think about. He stole a soda and a mini-pack of sandwich cookies from the convenience store on the corner, hiding it in his secret stash spot. They never had a Christmas tree, but he cleared off a spot on top of the cardboard box next to the bed.

On Christmas Eve, after his dad had safely passed out, Matt got one of his mom's coffee mugs from the kitchen. He carefully filled it with half the soda, then set it next to the unopened package of cookies. Then he sat back on his heels, looking at his meager offerings.

It was stupid. He was stupid.

Still, Matt closed his eyes. "Dear Santa," he whispered into the darkness, "please make sure he can't hurt us anymore."

He made himself go to bed after that, staring at the ceiling and trying hard not to think about anything at all. He had no idea when he went to sleep.

000

He woke up to Abbie shaking him. "Matt," she whispered furiously, half trying to drag him out of bed. "There are people in the house. They look like police."

It said a lot about their lives that the words panicked him the way they did. Motioning for her to be silent, he snuck over and pressed his ear against the crack of the door.

"... probably died in his sleep, ma'am." The man's voice had that same "professionally soothing" cadence as every school counselor who'd ever tried talking to him. "We won't know details unless you want an autopsy, but we didn't even see the usual signs of a heart attack."

Matt's own heart stopped.

"He was an alcoholic." His mom's voice wavered, though Matt recognized it as shock rather than grief. "Could that have something to do with it?"

"Who knows, ma'am?" There was a pause, like he was writing something down. "Maybe it's best to just tell yourself that he ran out of energy."

Abbie crowded in around his legs. "What is it?" she asked, tugging on his t-shirt. "What's happening?"

He closed his eyes, heart pounding a million times a minute. "Dad's dead," he managed.

She gasped, flinging her arms around his middle. "Promise?"

Outside their room, the man -- an EMT, Matt guessed -- kept talking as if he was in the middle of a tragedy. "If you need help talking to your children about--"

"It's fine." His mom sounded kind of choked as she cut the man off. "I'll take care of it."

They waited, breathless, while they took the body out of the house and drove away. When it was quiet, when it was safe, Mom finally opened the door. She still looked utterly overwhelmed, numb with shock, but in her eyes Matt could see the first sparks of dizzying hope. "Kids, I need you to come in the living room."

Matt followed her, expecting a careful explanation of the fact that Dad was dead. She'd warn them they had to pretend to be sad, maybe answer some--

His thoughts came to a screeching halt when they entered the living room. There, right next to the TV, was a brightly lit Christmas tree about as tall as Abbie. Underneath it was a new pair of tennis shoes, a big bag of fancy-looking coffee, and a huge stuffed elephant wearing an elf hat.

Abbie shrieked and ran forward to throw her arms around the elephant. As she did, Mom handed him a small red envelope. "This was next to it," she said quietly, still staring at the tree.

Slowly, Matt opened it. Inside was a silver-embossed card with "thank you for welcoming me into your home" written across the front. Inside was a spidery, surprisingly refined scrawl. I know you didn't ask for any of this, but we all deserve something sweet to enjoy. I appreciated the hope that came with the cookies and soda.

He looked up to see his mom staring at him now, something a little desperate in her eyes. "Who did this?" she whispered.

Matt took a deep breath, knowing there was only one answer he could possibly give. "Santa Claus."


Friday, November 22, 2019

Don't tempt the universe

Pro-tip for any writers out there – never tempt the universe.

When I finished “Fighting Sleep,” I was trying to decide which of my plot bunnies I was going to try and nudge into my next novel (I always have more than one potential novel in the docket, and I imagine they fight when I’m not looking). My first one was actually the idea for a spinoff novel for “Fighting Sleep,” featuring Cameron’s little brother Robbie as one of the leads and based around my own spin on “Snow White.” (It’s still in the queue, I promise.) But that seemed big and complicated, with a lot of research I would have to do, and I’d just gotten through a really technical novel where I had to work out a lot of in-universe magic. I wasn’t looking for another complicated novel.

But another plot bunny right up at the front of the line was a spin on “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” I’d spent most of my life wondering what on earth the piper had done with all the kids, and since I’m not a horror writer I tried to come up with something quite a bit more hopeful than the story itself suggested. I didn’t have much of a plot yet, but it seemed like a simpler, more streamlined story that would give me a break from having to diagram everything I’d written in three dimensions. At the time, I believe I actually used the word “relaxing.”

Ha. Ha ha, ha ha ha.

The novel that eventually came out of that decision, “Piper’s Song,” is far and away the most difficult, complicated, messy time I’ve had writing a novel in my entire life. I broke the entire thing down to its bare essentials and re-structured it at LEAST four times, and that doesn’t include all the regular editing passes I had to do on the blasted thing. It got to the point where even I forgot sometimes whether a particular plot point or piece of dialogue had happened in the current version of the story, or in one of the 15 previous ones.

And in some of the earliest versions, it was BAD. Not just “not good enough,” but genuinely “this should probably go straight into the garbage” bad. I had three of my usual beta readers taking a look at the thing, and every single one of them was either completely confused or underwhelmed by pretty much everything I was doing. Sensing my distress at seemingly losing whatever shred of writing skill I possessed, each one of them tried to comfort me with (what they didn’t know) was the exact same phrase: “But I really like the characters!”

Which, I well knew, was code for “I don’t like anything else.”

So I tore it all down and started over again. I didn’t even know exactly what went wrong, not at the time, but I went back to the core things I knew about character motivation and coordinating plot and rebuilt the story. Every time I did it I would get a little bit closer, with the final lightbulb finally happening thanks to an unexpected revelation in the middle of an otherwise perfectly normal writing convention (a story for another blog post).

Now that all of that’s behind me, I love “Piper’s Song” desperately (enough to make it the first book in a trilogy, because I’m clinically insane and clearly a masochist). But never again will I announce that I’m going to start writing a particular story because it’s “easy.”

The universe is listening. And it’s got a perverse sense of humor. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Asking yourself why


There are so many guides out there that help you not give up when you’re trying to reach a goal. Article after article and blog after blog will offer all kinds of encouragement and advice on how to keep your courage up when the odds seem impossible. By this point in my life, I think I’ve read pretty much all of them.

The thing is, none of them work. Wanting to become a professional novelist is one of the stupidest possible things you could possibly do with your time, at least among the category of things that won’t potentially get you killed. Especially if you have any kind of anxiety or self-esteem issues, the idea that you would constantly put your heart and soul out there to get rejected seems mind-bogglingly insane. It’s like volunteering to be slapped in the face and pushed down the stairs over and over again, when literally no one is making you do this.

I’ve tried to ask myself why I do this a thousand times. On my good days, I have a whole, beautifully impassioned speech about hope, and passion, and how important it is to tell your story. On my good days, I could make you cry with how deeply I believe in the power of writing.

On my bad days, I get a single, bald-faced question in reply – “What the hell else are you going to do?” Because, like with any addiction, the only way you can be done with a game like this is to be 100 percent, slam the door done. I will have to accept with every fiber of my being that there is no possible way I could ever make this work, and I will have to let it go forever. I’ll have to put away the version of myself that I’ve lived with for the last three decades, and figure out whether there’s anything else out there I could possibly want to do with the rest of my life.

Even the thought of it terrifies me.

So I get up again, and I keep fighting. Because even if I die never having made it, it’s better than living the rest of my life accepting that I never will.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Revision bingo: Chapter 1 of "Piper's Song"

When you finish your first draft of a novel, you've still got a ton of writing left to do.

My current novel, "Piper's Song," has gone through at least five major revisions since I wrapped up the first draft and even more smaller ones. I've played with characterization, tone, pacing, and plot detail, and rewritten the opening scene more times than I could count. What that means for you is that the most recent version of the opening chapter I posted (which you can find right here) is considerably different than the final version of the chapter posted below. Comparing the two offers a sense of just how much a story can change from the first draft to the final, while still essentially remaining the same story.

Chapter 1: A Little Night Music

When you had an army of rats following you, people generally liked you better when you were walking away.

This was especially true when they weren’t your rats to begin with. Though Jess had gathered a few gawkers back in town, the houses out here at the edge were mostly shut up tight. She could only make out a few windows glowing in the rapidly fading light, the silhouettes of onlookers briefly appearing in each one as she passed by. Jess was never sure whether they were watching her or the rats, trickling out of the cracks in the houses and barns to join the army of them trailing behind her.

That didn't seem to be a question with the little boy standing by the side of the road, watching the rats with the kind of rapt fascination she hardly ever saw from anyone over the age of 12. She took one hand off the pipe long enough to wave at him, the song turning into random notes for a moment, but the kid didn't seem to care as he waved delightedly back. The rats didn't care either, pulled along by the magic Jess infused into every note.

The boy waved back enthusiastically, but not for long. His mother burst out of a doorway, hurrying over and snatching the child up as if he'd been about to follow the rats. The woman gave Jess her fiercest glare, as if hoping she could wither her on the spot.

It was hardly the worst look Jess had ever received, though she doubted the woman would appreciate the sentiment. That would also require her to stop playing the pipe, which would leave the aforementioned army of rats free to scatter and completely screw up any opportunity of her getting paid at the end of this. Telling rude people off could be deeply satisfying, but so was eating regularly.

Instead, Jess resigned herself to the most dramatic wink she could manage. The woman huffed, clearly displeased by the response, but her expression shifted away from murder and closer to “I'm going to send a strongly-worded letter to your supervisor.” Since Jess didn’t actually have a supervisor, she found that option infinitely preferable.

The woman turned to stalk back into the house, the little boy giving Jess one final wave over his mother's shoulder. Jess turned around, walking backwards for a moment so she could wave back at him.

That was the last interesting thing to happen before she made it to the empty field that marked the end of her journey. Or, more specifically, the flaming trench on the opposite side of the field. A man stood on one end of the trench, making sure the flames stayed high, but Jess’s target was the wooden bridge stretched across the middle. She’d checked beforehand to make sure they’d embedded it with the usual fire protection charm, the only thing keeping it from going up in flames along with the rest of the fuel.

(She had forgotten to check only once, a mistake that had ended up working out surprisingly well for her in the long run. Still, only an idiot expected something like that twice.)

Nodding at the man stationed at one end of the trench, she stepped fully onto the bridge and kept walking. She turned around while she was halfway across, using her foot to sweep the rats off the sides of the bridge and into the fire. They died silently, thankfully, but sometimes she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at what was happening.

When the last rat had finally tumbled over the edge of the bridge, Jess stopped playing as the man approached her. “That should do it,” she told him, flashing her best salesman’s smile as she stepped off the bridge completely. “I’ll stay long enough to make sure the fire goes out completely, so as soon as I get the rest of my payment you can go home and get to bed.”

He hesitated, looking back out into the darkness with a nervous expression. He was pale enough to have a desk job someplace, hair thinning and coat far too heavy for the relatively mild weather. “You sure that’s all of them?”

Temper rose up, stung by the implication, but she throttled it back. Keeping her smile firmly in place, she held out her hand for her payment. “If there’s a rat left in the entire town, I can promise you they’re completely deaf.” Then he shot her a skeptical look, and temper slipped past good sense to get a jab in. “Though if we don’t get this settled soon, I’m sure I can find more somewhere and bring them in.”

He narrowed his eyes at her briefly, as if he’d just processed who was speaking to him with such disrespect. Her golden brown skin was usually close enough to a farmer’s tan for people not to question it, but her black hair was just a little too dark to completely pass as a local in the more rural parts of the kingdom. Since that was also where the money was, she did what she could do adapt. She kept her hair short, told people she was a solid three or four years older than the 18 years she’d actually been alive, and knew how to use the knife she kept in her boot. She might not ever be one of them, but they were absolutely going to take her seriously.

She held the man’s gaze, careful not to show any hesitation or weakness. After a few beats of silence, his eyes dropped away from hers. He reached into his pocket, handing her the envelope of money with barely disguised reluctance. “I’ll let the mayor know we got everything wrapped up,” he grumbled, turning to leave.

Jess counted the money by the light of the fire, pleased to see it was all there just as promised. Money always did do wonders for soothing her temper. “Pleasure doing business with you!” she called out brightly, looking up in time to see him wave a hand vaguely behind him in acknowledgment.

As he walked off into the distance, she put her pipe back into the case strapped to her chest and tucked the money safely away underneath. “I still don’t know how you can stand waiting for me, T,” she told the empty air around her. “I’ve only been here a few minutes and I’m already bored stiff.”

A figure suddenly appeared out of the empty space, wearing a black cloak with the hood pulled up over his head. If you looked inside, you would only see an endless blackness designed to make you contemplate eternity and your own mortality.

The effect was immediately ruined when the figure spoke.  “Why do you think I always bring a book?” he asked, sounding suspiciously like a teenage boy only slightly younger than Jess herself was. He pulled a book out from underneath his armpit, tucking it back into one of the cloak’s many pockets. “There’s not enough light to do it out here, but in Reaper mode I can see just fine.”

Jess made sure to stop what she was doing so she could watch. She was one of the few people out there who got to appreciate the comedic value of an eldritch-looking horror being domestic, and she tried not to miss any opportunity to do so. “Remind me again why they bothered making the Reaper uniforms so creepy-looking?” she asked. “You said it’s against company rules for Reapers to let the public see them when they’re on the job. And when you’re in Reaper mode, they literally can’t.”

The eldritch horror, otherwise known as a perfectly average human named Thomas, sighed. “Do you know how many times I’ve tried to ask Management that question?” He pushed the hood back, dispelling the magic and revealing dark, close-cropped hair and warm brown skin burnished by the firelight. His wire-rimmed glasses were slightly crooked again, and the mere sight of him was enough to unknot something inside Jess’s chest. “All of them look at me like it’s the weirdest question they’ve ever heard.”

Jess shook her head in sympathy, bending back to her work so she wouldn’t think about how badly her fingers itched to fix his glasses. “Your bosses need to get out more.”

“That’s probably true.” Even though she wasn’t looking up, she could still hear the smile in his voice. “But since I would get into so much trouble if they knew you had any idea they existed, I’m not going to tell them you said that.”

She looked up, not able to stop herself from smiling at him. “But what a spectacular way to quit, hmm?”

Thomas made an amused sound, then his expression shifted as a thought occurred to him. “Oh, that reminds me.” He pulled out his pocket-sized magic mirror, handing it to her. “I should probably get to work, but you got a mirror message while you were on your walk.”

Jess winced at the reminder, taking the mirror from him as she straightened. “I swear I keep meaning to get a new one,” she said. “It’s not fair for me to keep using your work mirror for my work messages.”

Thomas shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I like being able to help you when you need it.” He smiled a little, calling up a rush of warmth in Jess’s chest, and reached for the I.D. hanging around his neck. Then he hesitated. “You want to skip following me around tonight, so you can focus on the message?”

He always asked her that, in one form or another, even though she’d never once taken him up on the offer. “What, and miss your rundown on whatever town it’s from?” Opening the message with one hand, she laid the other hand on his shoulder. If she let go of him, she’d immediately get dumped back into the regular world and Thomas would end up invisible again. “Seriously, if you ever want to quit being a Reaper I’m sure someone would hire you as a tour guide.”

Thomas made a rueful noise. “Only someone who was really interested in hearing an itemized history of the local plant life.” Then he slapped the flat of his hand against the I.D. hanging against his chest, and both the darkness and the fire disappeared in a rush of gray. The only spots of color left in the world were her, Thomas, and the cool blue light of the rats' discarded life energy floating in small clouds within the flames. Everyone's life energy stuck around like that after they died, according to Thomas, and when left alone it usually disappeared after about a week. Since life energy was an easy power boost for magic users with a more flexible view of ethics, however, hardly anyone left it alone.

Which was where Reapers came in.

Thomas's hand curled like he was holding a staff, murmuring a word that Jess could never quite catch. An instant later, a glowing, translucent scythe made of energy appeared in his hand. Jess watched him adjust his grip, remembering the explanation he'd given her once as to how the scythe had probably been made. She asked him questions about it sometimes, just to get him talking.

Tonight, though, she was content to just watch him carefully swing the tip of his scythe through each one of those small clouds of blue light. This sliced through the energy’s tie to this plane of existence – yes, Thomas had explained all of this to her, too – letting it disappear with a flash to somewhere beyond the reach of evil sorcerers. Technically, Thomas could use it to clean up any kind of energy, but he’d been officially assigned to focus on rats and mice.

Since that was how she and Thomas had met, Jess appreciated the assignment.

Still, she should probably focus on her job rather than his. Tearing her attention away from the reaping, she activated the mirror message from the potential client. When the smoke swirling on the other side of the glass cleared, the sender turned out to be an exhausted middle-aged man. He had the lingering trace of a farmer’s tan, despite the suit, and an expression that suggested he worked out a lot of stress by hitting people in his imagination. “Miss Tremeau, my name is Arthur Perkins. I’m the mayor of Kensford, a bustling, prosperous town that boasts—” He stopped, closing his eyes a moment. “But you don’t care about that.”

“If it’s the Kensford I’m thinking of,” Thomas cut in absently, his attention still focused on his work. “It’s only about a day’s ride from Hammelin.”

Knowing he wouldn’t have said anything if it wasn’t important, Jess briefly stilled the mirror message and wracked her brain trying to remember why Hammelin was relevant. “Wait, is that the city you said the witches were talking about? The one that’s been impossible to communicate with for the last day or two?”

Thomas nodded. “That’s the rumors they’ve been hearing, but no one’s worried enough to actually go investigate yet. It’s possible the city’s magical network is just down for the moment, but if nothing’s changed in a week they’re planning on sending an official society representative.”

Jess smiled a little. “Are they still trying to get you named an honorary witch so they can make you a member?”

Thomas’s sigh was both affectionate and long-suffering as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, and I don’t know why. Just because I’m really good at identifying different herbs and have a few work-approved spells stored in my I.D., that doesn’t make me an actual witch.” 

Jess squeezed his shoulder. “The rest of us don’t care so much about accuracy, T. They probably just want to say thank you for having to listen to all their stories 500 times.”

Thomas shook his head, turning his attention back to the rats’ energy. “If they want to say thank you,” he muttered, “they should send me some of their reference books.”

Jess activated the mirror message again, the frozen image of Mayor Perkins springing back to life. He cleared his throat. “We’ve talked to the leaders of some of the other cities and towns who you’ve done jobs for, and they all say you’re the most thorough piper they’ve ever worked with.” She had just long enough to feel a glow of pride before he ruined it by continuing. “We had to research a little more thoroughly than we usually do pipers, since we heard your name in an unusual way. We put up our usual posting for a piper, and a man named Crispin St. Clair responded. His—”

Alarm spiking, she jammed a finger down to still the mirror message again. Thomas suddenly stopped, looking back over his shoulder. “Did he just say—”

Jess’s jaw tightened. “Unfortunately, he did.” She hesitated, thumb hovering over the trigger that would delete the message.

After that hesitation had gone on a beat too long, Thomas turned to look at her again. “You might as well finish it,” he said gently. “If not, you know you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering what the rest of it said.”

Something inside Jess stilled at the painfully accurate assessment, which he’d made without even looking at her. It had been a long time since someone had been able to read her that easily.

Thomas gave her an amused look, like he knew exactly what she was thinking. “You forget, I was there when you officially declared Crispin your mortal enemy.”

Jess winced as the memory hit, embarrassing enough to wash away the vaguely unsettled feeling. “Rule for the future,” she muttered. “Never monologue when you haven’t slept for a few days.” Taking a deep breath – Thomas was right, it would drive her crazy not knowing – she restarted the message. “—reputation is such that nearby towns had already warned us against him, so we rejected his offer even though we were desperate. When we did, he began ranting about how you had somehow arranged the situation by spreading lies about him. Since putting up a general posting had proven so unsuccessful, we decided to research your name in the hopes that it would speed things.”

She stopped the message completely, far more tempted than she knew she should be. The idea of getting one over on Crispin and getting paid… “We’d still be far enough away from Hammelin, right?”

Thomas smiled a little as he turned his attention back to the reaping. “Far enough.”

“And think about it this way,” she wheedled, “it sounds like there are enough rats you’ll make your quota for the entire month with one job.”

“I always make my quota now that I follow you around.” The lightness in his voice was as much a ‘yes’ as if he’d said the word.  “Let me finish up here. Then we’ll get a few hours of sleep and set out for Kensford in the morning.”

Jess grinned. “I’m sure the rats will be excited to see us.” Then, after sending a quick return message accepting the job, she slipped the magic mirror into her pocket and went back to watching Thomas work.

#

Two days of hitching rides on various wagons and carts later, they arrived in Kensford. They stashed their things in a quiet stable near the edge of town, and after a quick change into a more impressive outfit they headed to the Mayor’s Office.

Before they went inside, Thomas lightly touched her arm. “Want me to go invisible?” he asked quietly. “I know they already gave you the job, but that doesn’t mean you want me in the way when you’re dealing with clients.”

The hesitancy in his voice made her turn to look at him. He’d hunched his shoulders slightly, just like he always did whenever he apologized for explaining something too thoroughly or basically being himself. Every time she saw it, Jess gave serious thought to tracking down the people who ran the Abernathy Home for Orphans and punching them in the face.

Instead, she grinned at him. “Not a chance, my friend. Today, I’m going to show you how to make an entrance.”

Slowly, his expression relaxed. “How about I just watch you make the entrance and take notes for later?” he asked, lips curving upward a little.

Recognizing her cue, Jess gave the appropriate dramatic sigh. “One day I’ll teach you the joy of the spotlight, T.”

His smile widened as he came back with his usual response. “But that day is not today.”

They announced themselves to the woman behind the front desk, who ushered them with gratifying speed back to Mayor Perkins’ office. Unfortunately, the office also included a sour-faced man with a beautifully tailored suit and a face like a lump of bread dough. He started speaking the moment they were announced, cutting the front-desk woman off before she’d even reached the end of the explanation. “Not so fast, Miss Tremeau,” he said, glowering at Jess. “The rest of the council chose to hire you while I was out of town on business. They’re all clearly prone to panic, but I’m not about to let myself get conned the same way they have.”

Jess bristled at the word “conned,” but held her silence for the moment. Mayor Perkins sighed, looking like a man in urgent need of a nap. “Edward, the city is in crisis. I know the situation hit suddenly, but the people are desper—”

“The people need to learn some self-sufficiency,” the man – Edward, apparently – snapped. “Now, Miss Tremeau. I know the previous cities you’ve worked with have spoken well of you, but I’m sure there if we actually take some time to examine the situation there are other, more experienced pipers out there who have been more thoroughly validated. If more people had kept an eye on sirens a century ago, I’m sure they wouldn’t have become the problem that they did.”

“Really, Edward, a comparison like that is just pure slander. Do you really want it to get—”

Unsurprisingly, Eddie continued ignoring him. “This is nothing more than fear-induced impulsiveness. I’m sure if I speak to them, the council will agree that—”

No, this wasn’t going to be at all useful. She glanced over at Thomas, wondering if he was going to try and be the voice of reason. Instead, he was busy glaring daggers at Eddie, intense enough in his dislike that he didn’t even notice Jess looking.

Well, that was a go-ahead if she’d ever seen one.

Pulling out her pipe while the mayor and Eddie were busy arguing, she called her power up into her throat and started into a simple children’s song. By the time she’d gotten three notes in, she could hear the click of rat claws in the corridor outside.

Smirking to herself, she walked over to stand at Eddie’s side. He shifted his glare to her. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, girl, but—”

Before he could finish the thought, four rats surged into the office. Jess stepped slightly behind the council member, and though he moved away quickly he was still between her and the rats. They went straight up his legs, prepared to go over whatever or whoever they had to in order to get to the music.

The esteemed council member’s shriek was loud enough to drown out the music.

Jess stopped playing, causing the newly released rats to scatter instantly. Eddie straightened his suit, shaking with offended dignity, and Jess shot him her best salesman’s smile. “It seems like you have a rat problem, Eddie. Are you sure you really want to wait?”

He lifted his chin, turning to the mayor. “Fine. I won’t argue anymore,” he snapped, then turned and stalked out of the room as if it had offended him personally. As he left, Thomas grinned and mouthed “nice job” at her.

Jess grinned back, feeling like she’d just played for a command audience as she turned to the mayor. “So, shall we?”

Things wrapped up fairly quickly after that. Mayor Perkins agreed to a healthy fee, but insisted she do the walk that evening in exchange. Jess sighed like she was making a serious concession instead of getting exactly what she wanted.

The streak of luck continued all the way to that evening, when she officially started her walk. A nice crowd had gathered, watching her with an eagerness that meant no one would give her funny looks or question her credentials. She even got a round of applause as the music started, which was always good for the ego.

Unfortunately, the luck lasted about half a block. The power flowing through her felt the same as it always did, but this time there were only a few rats following her. There should be at least 50 by this point, especially in cities with as big a rat problem as Kensford seemed to have, and the people lining the street would figure that out any moment now. No matter what the real reason was, they’d blame her for it.

She dug deep inside her chest, reaching for more magic to pour into the song. It resisted, far more effort than she was used to making on these walks, but frustration and embarrassment gave her the strength to yank it free. The power rushed through her like water through a burst dam, pouring into the song so suddenly that she stumbled a little.

It only took a few more steps before the rats started coming. She could hear the sound of their tiny claws on the cobblestones, flooding into the street the same way her power had into the song. She didn’t turn around, but she’d been doing this long enough that she couldn’t stop her brain from estimating the number from the sounds. One hundred… three hundred… five hundred….

She’d just used too much power, that was all. That was the reason they were coming so fast, pushing at her ankles with far more eagerness than she usually got from the rodents she called. This was just an overdose, a completely understandable error, and she’d make a note of this and never do it again. 

But they kept coming. More and more rats found her with every step, the sound of them loud enough now to be heard over the music. The townspeople were growing increasingly unnerved, and it was getting harder and harder to pretend she wasn’t feeling the same way. Jess told herself she should turn around, get an accurate count, but she could never make herself do it.

As the audience thinned, fewer rats appeared out of the shadows to join her. When the cobblestones gave way to dirt roads, the sound from the rats claws was muffled enough to stop sending shivers up her spine. It was easier to calm herself down after that, reminding herself one more time that she’d just used too much power. The trench fires glowed in the distance, the rats were still moving along behind her like an obedient little army. She was almost—

The thought cut off as Thomas suddenly appeared in the middle of the empty field, hurrying toward her at a dead run.

Friday, December 7, 2018

New Thea and Max Novel now available!!!!

It's out! It's finally out! "Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices" is finally up on all the usual formats (my site has Kindle, iBooks, and Smashwords, a DRM-free site that has a bunch of formats, but it should also be up on Kobo, etc.). I'm sorry it took SO long for me to finish this one, but I'm so glad it finally all came together. I hope you all like it! (Click on the "Books" link and scroll down to the "Novellas" heading, or just scroll down until you hit the novellas.)

https://jennifferwardell.wixsite.com/mybooks

Monday, November 26, 2018

Cover reveal for the newest Thea and Max novel!

After far, far too long, the newest Thea and Max novel is finally in the home stretch. While I finish up the final edits on the book and get it formatted to go live, here's a look at the cover and a few more details.

Dirty Deeds Done for Reasonable Prices

Getting too attached to a real-life secret agent has its consequences. When Max asks for some help on an assignment that's gotten a little too personal, Thea can't help but say yes. Soon, however, the chance to see her favorite spy again turns into a tangle of secrets and sabotage that could blossom into a full-fledged supervillain plot. As our daring duo struggle to save the day, Thea finally realizes just how high the stakes can get.

Chapter 1: Never Give Them Ammunition

Chapter 2: Potential Supervillain Plot

Friday, October 19, 2018

Teaser for possible new novel

When wizards fought, it was as if the gods themselves walked the earth. They poured their power into towering projections, huge clawed beasts made of light that could tear through the landscape as easily as if they were made of flesh. Their roars were louder than any thunder, enough that mere mortals quaked at the sound of it.

But at the heart of all this terror-inducing magnificence was a fragile human made of nothing more than blood and bone. They could break so easily, these humans, especially when they poured so much of themselves into their creatures they forgot to keep any for themselves. They gave their own hearts in the service of a power far greater than they could ever realize.

And when they fell, crumpling like a broken toy, all that power disappeared as if it had never been.

The girl collapsed to the ground, the sudden absence of her dragon's golden glow leaving the world so much darker than it had been. She tried desperately to draw a full breath, to get anything past the blood in her mouth, but the knives of pain in her chest made it impossible. She ordered herself to get up, to do something, matter how fiercely she tried her body refused to do anything more than leave her fingers scrabbling uselessly in the dirt.

And the magic.... Tears leaked uselessly out of her eyes, mingling with the blood trickling its way down into the soil. They'd drilled the magic into her for months, told her to cling to it in the midst of even the greatest pain and suffering. She'd done just as they told her to, held onto the warm glow until it started to seem like it was almost alive. That glow had kept her going through the worst of her training, and the fact that she couldn't even feel a flicker of it now was almost worse than the knowledge that she was dying.

The sky somehow became even darker, the blackness her gran had always told her would come at the end of things. But then she heard the sound of footsteps, someone running, and she realized that the Dread Sorceress's creature had vanished as well. She was coming closer, wanting to be up close and personal to see her enemy's death.

But when the swirl of dark robes stopped in front of her, there was no mocking comment. The Dread Sorceress instead dropped to her knees, and the girl felt a hand smooth back her matted, bloody hair. "A child," the Sorceress whispered, her voice full of a trembling rage that would have made her afraid if there'd been anything left in her. "They sent a child to battle me?"

She tried lifting her hand again, tried to reach for even the smallest flicker of light inside her, but there was nothing. The Dread Sorceress made a noise that sounded like the girl felt, her hand still stroking the girl's hair. "Shhhh," the Sorceress whispered, softer even than her gran's had ever been. "You fought hard and well against an opponent you never could have hoped to beat. There are wizards twice your age who could not have done what you did, but the battle is done. It's time for you to rest now."

Even if the words were a lie, there was nothing else to cling to. Carried along by their softness, the girl finally let the dark embrace of death take her.

000

Her next memory was of silk against her cheek. Her first thought was surprise -- the village priest had never mentioned fine fabrics in the afterlife -- but then the smell of dust filled her nose as she realized this couldn't be the afterlife at all. Then the fine spider's web of ache all over her body demanded her attention, and a far more startling realization slowly settled in. She wasn't dead.

It took more effort than it should have to open her eyes. She was in a richly appointed bedroom, dusty enough that it clearly hadn't been used in some time. Sunlight filtered in through the closed curtains, not nearly enough to give her a clue as to where she might be.

She tried lifting her head, wanting to get a better look, but managed only a scant inch of space between herself and the pillow before her body informed her firmly that it was working with limited resources at the moment and crazy things like lifting her head was not on the approved activities list. She rolled instead, finding only more of the dimly lit bedroom.

The impossibility of it all did not lessen in the slightest. The closest castles to the Dread Sorceress's territory had all been abandoned, all carefully locked so the villagers couldn't make use of the resources inside. Even if someone had broken in, how could they have healed her? She was weaker than a baby, yes, but out on the battlefield she'd been a breath away from death. No herbs in the world could provide that kind of cure.

The memory of the Dread Sorceress's soft voice came back to her, but she dismissed it as a hallucination. People imagined all kinds of strange things when they were dying. There was no--

The thought cut off when a twisted, misshapen creature appeared in the doorway, one of the Dread Sorceress's army of monsters. The girl screamed, or at least meant to -- all she had the energy for was a pitiful-sounding meep -- but the creature jumped back as if she'd been much louder. It inched back inside after a moment, shaking, and the girl realized that the creature was just as frightened of her as she was of it.

She stayed silent this time, waiting, as the creature wrung its hands. "Does the girl need anything?" it asked, voice like a hand moving through gravel. When she nodded, mute, the creature nodded with what looked like relief. "I will tell the Mistress you are awake."

Then it fled, leaving the girl staring after him in shock.