I have learned not to form preconceived notions when it comes to Aaron Rosenberg’s writing. He is nothing if not versatile and creative. Yeti Left Home is no exception, a quirky and exciting urban fantasy, this book takes monster-of-the-week to a whole new level. Filled with cryptids and other assorted fae, it will keep you turning pages long into the night. Settle back and enjoy this sneak peek of Aaron’s cryptid-in-the-city adventure, which is funding right now as a part of our eSpec Books Fantastic Novels campaign (which is ending soon!), along with Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Phoenix Precinct and Ef Deal’s Esprit de Corpse. Still no cover, but enjoy!

Chapter Six

Wylie’s first instinct, born from his early years, was to go completely still. Of course, that had worked a lot better when he’d been clad in only his fur and was hoping to blend into the equally white snow all around him!

“I said stop!” the shouter continued in a deep, strong voice, which puzzled Wylie further. He had stopped! What was the man on about?

Heavy footsteps thudded on the sidewalk—someone his own size or perhaps even bigger, from the sound of it!

Wylie glanced behind him. And stared.

Because what he saw simply made no sense.

First off, the pounding was coming from a small figure he quickly recognized as the boy street artist. How was he making such a racket when he was so small and slight?

Second, the boy was running away from Wylie, not toward him.

Third, he was not the only one running.

A man was fleeing, or trying to—despite the differences in their size, the boy quickly caught up with him. He looked familiar, and after a second, Wylie realized it was the same guy he’d just bumped into over by the trash can. Maybe he’d been littering? If so, they were really strict about that around here!

“Hand it over!” the boy demanded, and the deep voice proved to be his as well. The man resisted—and the boy grabbed him by the front of his jacket and hoisted him up into the air like an empty sack until his feet dangled off the ground, kicking uselessly. “I said hand it over!”

The man fumbled something out of a pocket, which the boy accepted before tossing his captive aside like so much trash. Evidently, the impact had not been severe, however, because a second later, the man stumbled back to his feet and hurried off, limping slightly. The other people around quickly turned away, acting as if they hadn’t seen any of that but giving both of the figures involved a wide berth.

And the boy had now turned and was heading toward Wylie instead.

“Here you go,” the little youngster said as he reached Wylie. He was holding out—Wylie’s wallet. “I saw him nick it. Can’t be having that, not on my watch.”

“Oh.” Wylie accepted the wallet back. It didn’t have much in it, really—his driver’s license and fishing license, a single twenty-dollar bill for emergencies, an old silver coin he’d found in a fish a few years back and had thought was neat—but still, he appreciated the gesture. “Thanks.”

Up close, he quickly revised his impression of his savior. The “boy” was older than he thought, definitely an adult, albeit a small one. His face was clean-shaven and did have a boyish look, which was only added to by the long reddish-blond hair that flowed free from his cap, but his gray eyes were older and far too worldly to be those of a youth.

The cap drew Wylie’s attention next. It was sort of a newsboy style, he’d guess, rounded in back and peaked in front, and it was a bright, vivid red that looked almost wet, it was so glossy. Otherwise, the boy—man—wore jeans, a T-shirt, a hoodie, and a lined denim jacket.

And the biggest boots Wylie had ever seen.

They looked like ski boots, those big, puffy things that resembled an entire layer of bubble wrap—Wylie had seen those advertised before and occasionally on tourists passing through town. Only these had a dull metallic sheen to them—not bright like chrome, more like old, heavy iron or lead, something like that. Were they actually made of metal? That and their size would explain the tremendous footsteps, at least!

The little man was examining him right back. “So, what’re you, exactly?” he asked, tilting his head to the side and leaning back to peer up at Wylie properly. “Sasquatch? Ogre? Troll?”

“What?” Wylie frowned, shaking his head and wondering if he’d heard correctly. “I—don’t know what you mean.”

In response, his interrogator winked at him. “Oh, sure you do,” he said with a grin. “Come on, lad. No need to be bashful—you’re among friends here. I’m just curious, is all.”

Suddenly very aware of the other people around—who were clearly listening in on the conversation even as they pretended not to be—Wylie held up his hands, the wallet still enfolded in one, and backed away. “No, sorry, I think there’s been some mistake. Thanks again, but I need to—I’ve got to go.”

And he turned and ran.

He wasn’t entirely sure where he was going, of course. He didn’t know this city at all. But he had to get away from this odd little man with his even odder questions.

Sasquatch? As if! But who here in this metropolis even believed in such things?

Wylie had on occasion encountered adults able to see him for what he was, of course, or at least enough to make them realize he wasn’t quite normal. Not quite human. “Second Sight,” a cousin had explained once when he was young, and they’d heard about a woman who’d seen another of their kin, seen them clearly. “Not many have it, and those who do, most don’t realize what it is. But the few who do, they’re dangerous. Steer clear if you can.”

Well, that was exactly what he aimed to do now!

So, he ran, shoving past people with muttered apologies, squeezing through groups and small crowds, turning down streets at random, rushing across them to the honks of cars and the screech of brakes, until his heart hammered in his chest and his breath came in great, rasping gasps. Then he finally skidded to a halt, ducking around a building to shelter in the alley beside it, where he could lean over, resting his hands on his knees as he struggled to breathe again.

But at least he’d lost that stranger.

“You’re pretty fast on your feet for such a big fella,” a voice called from above, and Wylie straightened, peering up.

At the red-capped man, who dangled from a nearby fire escape.

“How?” he managed as the man grasped the railing and flipped forward, dropping gracefully to the ground.

“Parkour,” the stranger replied. “A lot faster going over buildings than around ’em.” He eyed the alley they were in. “Ah, gotcha—a more private place for such talk, am I right? No worries, man. I hear ya. Shoulda been more circumspect, you’re right. My bad.” He shrugged. “Anyway, Knox Adair’s the name. Red Cap, obv. And you are?” And he held out his hand.

Wylie accepted the proffered handshake purely on reflex, which is also why he answered, “Wylie Kang. Uh”—he faltered under the other’s steady gaze but finally mumbled—“Yeti.”

“For real?” The man’s—Knox’s—eyes widened. “Nice! Never met one of you lot before. New to the city, then?”

Wylie nodded, his brain still dazed by this strange turn of events. “Got in last night. You—sorry, did you say ‘Red Cap’?”

“Yep.” Knox pulled off the cap and twirled it on his finger before setting it jauntily back atop his head. “You know, Red Caps? Goblins from the English-Scottish border? Short, strong, big iron boots, caps dipped in the blood of their enemies?” He must have seen Wylie’s horrified expression because he let out a laugh that sounded far too light and cheerful for such a gruesome description. “Naw, no blood here, mate, don’t worry. Oil paint, dontcha know? Gift of the gods, that is—never truly dries out. Amazing stuff.”

“I—” Wylie didn’t even know what to say to that. On some level, he’d known there were other supernaturals in the world. After all, his father had talked about Hunters as going after all of them, not just Yeti. And some of the shows he’d watched over the years, they’d featured such creatures—vampires and werewolves, mostly, but here and there a few others, like Goblins or Ghouls or Bigfoots. Plus, of course, he’d seen those movies with the elves and dwarves and orcs and so on.

He’d just never thought any of it was real. Not truly. He’d figured they were just stories, myths, tall tales, and the like. After all, the only creatures he’d ever seen that weren’t human or regular animals were, well, other Yeti. But evidently, that was just another result of his sheltered lifestyle.

“So, you live here? In the city?” he asked now. He’d expected to see all kinds of new sights here, of course. But another supernatural hadn’t been one of them!

“You betcha,” Knox replied. He flung his arms wide, and Wylie noted that the little man’s hands were dusted with bright colors, presumably from his art. “Welcome to the Twin Cities! Best place in the whole world! What’s your pleasure? Music? Art? Food? Sports? Ladies? Gents? We got it all!”

“I—” Wylie frowned. “I’m just—I just need a place to lay low for a bit,” he admitted slowly, not used to explaining himself to others. “To hide out and be safe.”

“Safe? From what? Big strong guy like you, what’re you afraid of, huh?” Knox elbowed him in the side. “Is it a jealous ex? I’ve had plenty of those, let me tell you! That ain’t fun, can’t blame you for running from something like that!”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Wylie shook his head. “Look, I should really— thanks again. About the wallet. I don’t want any trouble. Just looking to keep to myself for a bit.” He turned and started out of the alley, his heart rate almost back to normal now despite the strangeness of this conversation.

“Oh. Hey, yeah, no worries. If you’re sure.” From the lack of footsteps, Knox wasn’t following, for which Wylie was grateful. “You change your mind and need a local guide, though,” the little man—Goblin?—called after him, “you know where to find me! That picture ain’t gonna finish itself!”

Wylie held up a hand in a vague wave, acknowledging the offer, as he stepped back onto the main sidewalk and quickly marched away, trying once more to lose himself in the crowd.

He didn’t look back.


First sighted in the wilds of New Jersey, the cryptid known as “Aaron Rosenberg” or “the Gryphon Rose” has been seen as far afield as New Orleans and Lawrence, Kansas, but for the past twenty-five years has been primarily found in and around New York City. Though a sociable creature, Rosenberg has been known to unleash cutting wit and biting sarcasm, often upon those pulled into his expansive social circle. When not utilizing such weapons on the unwary, or camouflaging himself as the web content manager for a financial trade organization (previous disguises have included “college professor,” “animation studio creative director,” “film studio script supervisor,” and “children’s book publisher desktop coordinator”), the Gryphon Rose can most often be found pounding the keys of a battered laptop or equally dilapidated desktop, engaged in his most beloved activity—writing.

Over the past thirty years, Rosenberg’s particular brand of storytelling has been traced to more than two hundred publications, including roughly four dozen novels in a variety of imaginative genres, from horror to comedy to action-adventure to mystery to various shades of science fiction and fantasy. His unique approach has been conclusively linked to the bestselling sci-fi comedy series The Adventures of DuckBob Spinowitz, the Anime-esque epic fantasy series the Relicant Chronicles, the space-opera series Tales of the Dread Remora, the period cryptid mystery Gone to Ground, the pirate fantasy mystery adventure Deadly Fortune, the historic dark fantasy Time of the Phoenix, and, in a rare collaboration with unsuspecting human David Niall Wilson, the occult thriller series OCLT. Rosenberg is also believed to be responsible for the award-winning Bandslam: The Junior Novel, the bestselling Finding Gobi: Young Reader’s Edition, the #1 bestseller 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, and the original children’s book series STEM Squad and Pete and Penny’s Pizza Puzzles.

Nor has this strange and prolific creature limited himself to original work. Rosenberg has also inveigled himself into various tie-in worlds, producing novels for such properties as Star TrekWorld of WarcraftWarhammerStargate: AtlantisShadowrunEureka, and Mutants & Masterminds, and short stories for The X-Files, James Bond, Deadlands, Zorro, and many more. The Gryphon Rose has even made his mark on roleplaying games, writing the original games AsylumSpookshow, and Chosen, and doing work for other games by Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Pinnacle Entertainment, and many others—he won an Origins Award for the book Gamemastering Secrets and an ENnie for the Warhammer supplement Lure of the Lich Lord!

When Rosenberg is not writing at breakneck speeds, working alongside regular folk, or deploying snark against those who call him friend, he can be found reading, watching TV and movies, eating, and spending time with his mate “Jenifer” and their two offspring.

To follow more of this strange creature’s adventures, monitor him through his site at, observe him on Facebook at, and watch his antics on Twitter @gryphonrose. Just be prepared for frequent dad jokes and daily writing updates.



Here’s a sneak peek of Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Phoenix Precinct, which is funding right now via our eSpec Books Fantastic Novels campaign, along with Aaron Rosenberg’s Yeti Left Home and Ef Deal’s Esprit de Corpse. This is the latest installment of Keith’s long-standing Precinct series of novels and short stories following the Cliff’s End Guard.

We don’t have a finalized cover yet, so we’re going to jump right in!


As Torin entered the Old Ball and Chain with Danthres following their shift, he found himself remembering the day seven years ago when a guard named Urgoss was nearly killed.

A guild hall in Dragon Precinct had collapsed in the midst of a Tavern Guild meeting, and the Castle Guard was tasked with rescue operations. It was all hands on deck, as it were, and Torin, Danthres, Linder, Iaian, Karistan, and Nael were all tasked with helping pull people from the wreckage, alongside guards from all the precincts. Urgoss, a dwarf, had been pulling a woman from the Tavern Guild from underneath a pile of bricks that had fallen on her and shattered her leg. A support beam gave way, and the ceiling collapsed. Urgoss barely managed to avoid it, but it was a near thing.

The week before, Urgoss had reached his twenty-fifth year in the Guard, but declined the pension to continue in the job. After nearly having a ceiling fall on him, he reversed that position and filed his retirement paperwork. Iaian and Geff Linder had been assigned to investigate what happened at the guild hall—it had been sabotage by the Blacksmith’s Guild—and, at the two lieutenants’ urging, Urgoss had been the one to arrest the guild leader who had ordered the job done.

That was Urgoss’s last task as a member of the Castle Guard, and he used his savings and his pension to purchase a tavern, which he renamed the Old Ball and Chain, after his grandfather, who was a general in the dwarven army who carried a mace that he always referred to as the Old Ball and Chain, and his father, who had always said he was going to open a tavern with that name after his Dad, but drank himself to death instead of doing so.

Their shift having ended, Torin and Danthres worked their way to the back corner where the detectives usually sat in the evenings. It was Iaian and Linder who had first claimed that table after the tavern opened seven years ago, and it had been their table ever since. (Some guards from Goblin Precinct had tried to claim it once, but Urgoss himself had made it clear to them that they weren’t to sit there—mostly by watering down their drinks and messing up their orders until they finally changed tables.)

As he moved with Danthres through the long tables and the bar back to the corner table, Torin thought back to how completely the detective squad had changed since Urgoss opened this place. Linder and Nael had both been killed, with Nael’s partner Karistan maimed, losing her arm, in the same assault that killed her partner. Iaian had retired, as had their boss Captain Osric, during Lord Blayk’s brief regime, both taking early retirement. Others had come and gone. Hawk, killed during a bank robbery. Dru, promoted to captain. Amilar Grovis, who left to join the family business of running the Cliff’s End Bank. Horran, brutally injured during the Gorvangin Rampages.

And now only Danthres and Torin were still with the squad.

Danthres said, “I’ll get the drinks—ale?” Urgoss never hired waitstaff—he felt that you should come to the bar to get your drink, and if you were too drunk to manage that, then you should go home.

“Please,” Torin said, and he proceeded to the table.

While Captain Dru hadn’t joined them—he only did occasionally—the rest of the squad was all present. Manfred and Kellan were both nursing ales, while Dannee was throwing back a flagon of the fruity drink she loved that Torin could smell from here. Aleta had a shot of that purple elven drink she favored.

Manfred grinned at Torin’s approach. “And now the gang’s all here!”

“Well,” Kellan said, “once Danthres comes with the drinks. She couldn’t’ve come by and asked what we wanted?”

“You all have drinks,” Torin said as he sat next to Aleta. Doing so meant that he’d be a buffer between Aleta and Danthres, which was sometimes a dangerous place to be, but generally things went more smoothly if the elf who used to murder halfbreeds as a matter of course wasn’t right next to the halfbreed.

Danthres came back with two flagons and sat next to Torin, placing the flagons down on the wooden table with a satisfying thunk.

“Good,” Dannee said, “now we can ask them, too.”

“Ask us what?” Torin queried while Danthres just started chugging her beer.

Aleta asked the question. “How well do you know Rob Wirrn?”

“I encountered him a few times,” Torin said. “Good guard, always seemed to know everyone.”

After finishing her gulp of ale and letting out a very loud belch, Danthres said, “I served with him in Goblin when I was a rookie. Torin’s right, he always knew everyone on the street he walked past.”

“He’s one of the ones Blayk talked into retiring, as I recall,” Torin said after sipping his own ale.

Aleta said, “Well, apparently he’s started a security force to keep order down Jorbin’s Way. It’s called Ankh Security.”

Torin frowned. “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be for?”

Dannee pointed at Torin. “That’s what I said!”

“Are you sure about this?” Danthres asked.

“Our victim mentioned it,” Aleta said, “and Hobart confirmed it.”

Danthres winced. “Hobart’s not exactly a reliable source.”

“He is for me.” Aleta smiled proudly. “He’s convinced that if he ever lies to me, I’ll break his clavicle.”

“And he hasn’t lied to you once?” Torin asked.

“Not that I’ve discovered,” Aleta said.

“Well, it works out either way.” Danthres grinned. “Either you get good information, or Hobart suffers great pain. Win-win.”

Manfred gulped down his drink, then said, “We haven’t heard anything about this, either.”

“Have you talked to Wirrn?” Torin asked.

Dannee shook her head. “We haven’t had a chance. We got the confirmation about this Ankh Security while Boneen was doing the peel-back of our crime scene. Then we had to go try to find the people who trashed the stall, but we didn’t have much to go on.”

“Why, was the peel-back interfered with?” Torin asked.

“No, they wore masks.”

Torin’s face fell. “Please tell me they weren’t hobgoblin masks.”

“How’d you know that?” Dannee asked, sounding incredulous.

Exchanging an annoyed glance with Danthres, Torin answered the question. “The quartet who committed our murder last night were all wearing hobgoblin masks.”

Dannee and Aleta exchanged a similar glance, though theirs was more shock. “We also had four people,” Dannee said, “and the masks were all different colors.”

“Red, yellow, orange, and green,” Aleta said.

“Same as ours.” Danthres pounded a fist on the table. “Dammit. I take it your victim was from Barlin?”

Aleta nodded.

“We should go to Dru tomorrow,” Torin said, “and figure out how to proceed. Since the perpetrators are the same in our two cases, we may need to join forces.”

“Joy,” Danthres muttered. To Torin’s relief, that was all she said.

Dannee said, “The captain may want us to look more into Ankh Security, though.”

“Somebody should,” Kellan muttered.

Chuckling, Danthres said, “I wish you’d told us this sooner, then we could’ve made you two talk to the Fansarris.”

Manfred visibly shuddered. “Not the Fansarris…”

“You know them?” Torin asked.

“About a year and a half ago—when Gan Brightblade and his elven wizard friend were killed? I was working Unicorn then, and I got called to the Fansarris’ house because a dimensional portal opened up in their back yard. A hobgoblin came out and nearly killed me.”

Torin recalled the incident. “Wasn’t it the Fansarris’ son who conjured the portal?”

Manfred nodded.

“Interesting, as Elmira Fansarri said she had no children.”

“If I remember right,” Manfred said, “the Brotherhood of Wizards recruited him. The Fansarris hate magick, so it doesn’t surprise me that they disowned him if he went off to apprentice to some wizard.”

“Something the Fansarris and I have in common then,” Danthres said with a chuckle. Her disdain for magick was legendary. “I wouldn’t have believed it.”

“Oi, ban Wyvald, Tresyllione!” came a voice from behind them.

Turning, Torin saw Tuchera, who was one of the veterans who was transferred from Dragon to Phoenix when the latter was opened. She always insisted on working the night shift, from her time as a rookie in Unicorn. “Sun hurts my eyes,” she always said.

Kellan laughed at her approach. “Shouldn’t you be working, Tuchera?”

“I am workin’, Arn. Came ’ere for these two. Got us a bahrlan who got hisself beat up by the boulder by four shitbrains in hobgoblin masks—an’ we know that ’cause this one lived and described ’em.”

Torin’s objection that they already had a case died on his lips. He looked at Danthres. “Same method of attack, same attackers, same type of victim, same location.”

“But the victim lived.” Danthres gulped down the rest of her ale, let out a particularly loud belch even by her high standards, and then got up from the table. “Let’s go.”

Keith R.A. DeCandido

Keith R.A. DeCandido is a white male in his early fifties, approximately two hundred pounds. He was last seen in the wilds of the Bronx, New York City, though he is often sighted in other locales. Usually, he is armed with a laptop computer, which some have classified as a deadly weapon. Through use of this laptop, he has inflicted more than fifty novels, as well as an indeterminate number of comic books, nonfiction, novellas, and works of short fiction on an unsuspecting reading public. Many of these are set in the milieus of television shows, games, movies, and comic books, among them Star Trek, Alien, Cars, Resident Evil, Doctor Who, Supernatural, World of Warcraft, Marvel Comics, and many more.

We have received information confirming that more stories involving Danthres, Torin, and the city-state of Cliff’s End can be found in the novels Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, Goblin PrecinctGryphon Precinct, Tales from Dragon Precinct, and the forthcoming Manticore Precinct and More Tales from Dragon Precinct. His other recent crimes against humanity include an urban fantasy series taking place in DeCandido’s native Bronx (A Furnace Sealed and the forthcoming Feat of Clay, with more threatened); the urban fantasy short story collection Ragnarok and a Hard Place: More Tales of Cassie Zukav, Weirdness Magnet; the Systema Paradoxa novella All-the-Way House; the graphic novel prequel to the Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness TV series, The Beginning; short stories in the anthologies Devilish and Divine, Three Time Travelers Walk Into…, The Fans are Buried Tales, and in the Phenomenons and Thrilling Adventure Yarns series; and nonfiction about pop culture for, the Subterranean Blue Grotto, Outside In, and Gold Archive series, and on his own Patreon. Among his known associates are collaborators in his crimes against humanity: Dr. Munish K. Batra (the serial-killer thriller Animal), David Sherman (the military SF novel To Hell and Regroup), and Gregory A. Wilson (the award-winning graphic novel Icarus).

If you see DeCandido, do not approach him, but call for backup immediately. He is often seen in the company of a suspicious-looking woman who goes by the street name of “Wrenn,” as well as several as-yet-unidentified cats. A full dossier can be found at


This might be Ef Deal’s debut novel, but she is by no means a novice! Esprit de Corpse displays much of the literary prowess she has already established in her short fiction. It is funding right now though our eSpec Books Fantastic Novels campaign, along with Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Phoenix Precinct and Aaron Rosenberg’s Yeti Left Home. We’ve already met our base goal and are working our way through bonuses and production goals. Here is an excerpt from Ef’s French Provincial steampunk adventure, Esprit de Corpse. Again, no cover yet… but that would be part of what we are funding, so let’s jump in!

Esprit de Corpse by Ef Deal (an excerpt)

Angélique grew restless, confined to the little coach in the stifling mid-July heat. Jacqueline could scarcely blame her. If they had taken the road coach from Paris, her sister would have been free to run about on the frequent stops. Never mind the trip would have taken two days and would have left them both filthy with road dust. Of course, Angelique and her antics held the blame for their manner of transport. Not that Jacqueline minded, as a polytech and master of the forge, she felt it her duty to give her patronage to the industrial marvel that was the new Paris-Orléans Railroad, particularly since she made frequent clandestine use of its rails.

“At least we’re not locked into a compartment car, like the unfortunates in the Versailles disaster last year,” Jacqueline said to her sister.

The man looked up from his sketch pad. “Indeed, madame. What a horror, unable to free themselves as their train caught fire. These new coaches are much safer and a relief to my rheumatic bones.”

Jacqueline turned her head and chewed the inside of her cheek. She had meant her comment to reassure Angélique, not initiate conversation with a stranger. Angélique pawed lightly at her leg, teasing her for her social inhibitions. Jacqueline ignored her and returned to her nap.

The locomotive suddenly lurched with an ear-piercing squeal. Gasping, Jacqueline pitched forward as the brakes dug in. Angélique yelped as she fell to the floor, growling her displeasure as she climbed back up on the cushion. Cries of alarm rose from the adjacent first-class coaches, the Versailles tragedy uppermost in everyone’s thoughts. Jacqueline peered through the dissipating smoke. The train had halted in the middle of a vast meadow. Frightened goats darted forward, charging the invader, some stiffening and dropping to the ground, others bounding to hide behind the stolid cows. Off beyond the fields, a simple church spire rose above gray roofs.

She looked at Angélique and shook her head. “Not yet.”

“Probably cows on the track,” said the man seated across from her. He set his sketchbook down and stood stiffly. “Just in time.” He opened the carriage door and peered about. “I could do with some fresh air.”

He turned back to retrieve his fez from the corner of his seat. As he set it on his head, he turned to Jacqueline to offer a hand. When she recognized Eugène Delacroix, she suddenly realized why Angélique had found their situation so amusing. Delacroix counted among the coterie of artists whose salons Angélique frequented. Jacqueline demurred, looking away.

Delacroix turned and stepped down, then jumped the remaining meter to the tracks through hissing billows of steam. As he descended the rail bed, he drew a silver cigar case from his vest pocket and placed a panatella to his lips.

Jacqueline chuckled. “Fresh air, indeed.”

Angélique growled.

Jacqueline stroked her sister’s brow. “If you didn’t have half the Paris prefecture looking for the notorious Angélique Laforge, you could have ridden in your human form, so you can very well quit your growling. And no, I have no wish to engage with your friend.” She rubbed Angélique’s ear to calm her. “Patience, mon Ange, we’ll soon be there. And I wired ahead for a diligence to convey us to Bellesfées, so it will await us. We should be home in time for supper.”

Her smile turned to a determined pout. “Time for some new designs.”

Thinking of her draughting board, Jacqueline leaned over to see what the artist had been sketching. To no surprise, she saw her own face in several casts of repose or gazing out the carriage window, along with various poses of Angélique, maw to paws or head resting on Jacqueline’s lap. Delacroix had focused on Jacqueline’s curls and the roundness of her eyes, but she wasn’t happy with his depiction of her wide cheeks or her strong jaw and mouth. The sketches accentuated her less-than-feminine features. He had also insisted on portraying her bosom rather décolleté, despite the fact she wore a travel coat. Thank goodness he hadn’t seen her without her coat: Her arms, large and firm and muscular from years at the forge, would have made him wonder if she were a woman at all.

“Delacroix is probably on his way to Nohant to referee the bouts between Madame Sand and Chopin.” She chuckled drily. “Shall we demand payment if our likenesses end up on display in a certain someone’s salon?”

Angélique’s ears perked up and flickered; she pawed at them and whined. Sliding from the seat, she panted her sudden anxiety. Jacqueline stood to leave their coach, watching as several second- and third-class passengers, mostly men, passed the forward first-class cars to see what had stopped the train. None of the other first-class passengers seemed curious enough to leave their coaches. Angélique leapt from the car. Jacqueline was about to step down but halted when her poised foot knocked a tall grey hat off a gentleman hurrying past below the rail bed. She managed to catch the hat.

“I’m so sorry,” she cried.

“Your pardon, mademoiselle,” he said at the same time. “I didn’t see—” 

He broke off his sentence with a dazzling smile as he looked up into her face. “Madame Duval? What a pleasure to meet you!”

Jacqueline didn’t recognize him and could not fathom how he would know her. She turned her head and mumbled, hoping to avoid conversation.

“From the Brussels Exposition last year?” he pursued. “Forgive me, we haven’t met, but I found your presentation on the conservation of engine emissions fascinating.”

Jacqueline looked again to assess his features. She was never good with names unless they came attached to commissions for her engineering designs, but she considered making an exception for this man. He was older than she, probably by at least ten years, and his wild, curly blond hair suggested he was of that fashion called “Romantic” by the effete. He stood tall and muscular, with a long, earnest face, clean-shaven, bright brown eyes, a Greek nose, and a bow to his upper lip that fascinated her as he smiled hopefully. Jacqueline curtsied with a slight nod, and she couldn’t help returning his smile with equal warmth. “Please,” she said, “just Duval.”

“Alain de Guise,” he returned. “I work with the railway. Your designs are quite revolutionary, if you don’t mind my use of the word.”

She smiled even wider, blushing. “At least two investors thought so as well.”

“Ah, that explains why the prefect was so interested in you,” he said. “I let him know his error. Imagine France’s foremost engineering genius stealing some bauble from a Moroccan prince.”

Jacqueline’s breath caught. Angélique whined and circled. Embarrassed for her sister’s sake, Jacqueline curtsied again and excused herself, but de Guise stayed where he was and extended his hand. “Please allow me.” 

Jacqueline gathered her skirt and petticoats and accepted de Guise’s hand to guide her down the steps. He caught her as she jumped from the bottom step, holding onto her waist until she regained her balance. Unaccustomed to such intimacy, Jacqueline pulled away. De Guise then offered his arm.

She considered it with a growing sense of discomfort. “Thank you, but I need—”

Angélique nosed between them and pushed Jacqueline forward. De Guise stared in astonishment as Jacqueline set her hand on the wolf’s head instead of on his arm.

“Thank you again, Monsieur de Guise,” she called as she took her leave of him.

Mud pulled at her short boots and spattered her stockings and hem as she hurried forward. De Guise followed, which made her worry she had offended him, for he had been nothing but charming for those brief moments. Surprisingly, she rather enjoyed his attentions. But for the nonce, she was more concerned with the annoyance of the delay.

“If I’m eating supper at midnight, I shall be very put out.”

Angélique snorted an agreement.

Jacqueline’s complaint was mollified somewhat when she came around the front of the great green locomotive and saw what had halted the train. The men who had gathered formed a wide circle beside the track, ignoring the engineer’s admonitions to keep back. As she pushed her way forward, they parted to allow plenty of room for the she-wolf at her side. Jacqueline smirked, sensing their dilemma in deciding which was the more bizarre sight, the girl and her wolf or the metal form lying across the tracks, clanking almost as much as the locomotive. Its legs jerked and twitched as if an interior engine had caught somehow.

“A mechanical man?” she said, puzzled.

“Please, madame, return to your coach.” The engineer turned to de Guise, “Just came barreling up the rails, sir. I couldn’t avoid it. It fairly threw itself at the locomotive.”

“That’s all right, René. We’re all safe. That’s what matters.”

At this exchange, Jacqueline took a second glance at de Guise, evidently someone of status in the railroad. She thought she knew everyone associated with the Paris-Orléans, from executives to designers to coal-stokers. Still, his name was not familiar, and surely if they had met, however briefly, she would have recalled that lovely smile. 

The automaton hammered its fists into the rail, refocusing Jacqueline’s attention. As the engineer continued conferring with de Guise, Jacqueline ventured closer to examine the clockwork mystery. 

A suit of armor but cast in something far heavier. Not iron. Bronze perhaps? That would make for an incredibly heavy machine for any delicate clockwork drive, yet the form was too refined to contain a full set of mechanical engines. A full two and a half meters in length—or rather, height when it stood—with a barrel chest and well-defined limbs of burnished metal, the machine probably weighed a bit more than a hundred kilos.

Jacqueline knelt beside the figure to feel the armor.

“Careful, mademoiselle,” a conductor warned, blocking her with his arm. “It’s very hot. You’ll burn yourself.”

Jacqueline moved his arm aside. The calluses on her fingertips protected her from much of the heat, and her gloves, though trimmed in dainty lace, were thickly padded with insulation, a precaution she’d devised to protect herself from her own impulsive curiosity in cases such as this. Nevertheless, she tested warily. Bronze indeed, and extremely hot.

The arms and legs were cylindrical and articulated, attached to the metal torso in cogwork designed to regulate speed. The torso seemed surprisingly slender for so ambitious a machine. She could not figure out how any system of steam or coal fuel could be tucked away in so small a confinement. The head resembled a helmet similar in construction to a diver’s casque, with a hinged faceplate riveted shut. Three dials notched by degrees sat positioned where the left ear would be, with two gauges in place of the right ear. The needle of the upper right gauge hammered emphatically into the red, while the lower gauge’s needle sat idle at zero, but since they lacked marking, she had no idea what they indicated. To Jacqueline’s shock, no vapors hissed from the rivets along the body’s seams.

“The pressure is tremendous. No regulators? That’s insane. But what powers the boiler?” she muttered. “I hear no pistons, no engine. It will explode at any moment without some system to…”

She tried to turn the form over, to the gasps and protests of the gathered crowd.

The engineer spluttered. “Mademoiselle, the danger! Come away now.”

But Jacqueline remained intent on the automaton. “Help me, monsieur. It’s far too heavy for me alone.”

“Please, Madame Duval,” de Guise argued. “Let us worry about this machine.”

“But I’m not worried,” she replied. “Won’t someone help me?”

Three dashing fops came forward to help, one wrapping his hands with his cravat, the others using riding gloves. Over the engineer’s protests, they rocked the massive body until it finally heaved to its back with a violent clatter. The fops backed off again, congratulating one another’s masculine show even as they skittered away.

Jacqueline wiped the glass faceplate and tried to peer into the suit to find the secret of its workings. White vapors swirled about inside the casque, but just as the train’s billowing smoke had obscured the countryside on her ride, the vapors confounded her view.

“There’s nothing here. Nothing I can see. Perhaps lower? Behind the breastplate? If I could open…”

Her voice trailed off as the vapors suddenly coalesced to the image of a face, deathly grey sunken flesh, like one recently dead. The shifting vapors obscured any details of its features except its eyes, wild and terrified, pleading in an awful expression of agony and anguish. They met Jacqueline’s gaze in wordless communion. As their awarenesses connected, the erratic clanking of the bronze suit eased. She caressed the glass, half in fear, half in consolation. The figure’s taut lips moved, but Jacqueline couldn’t make out the silent words.

“A pry bar,” she cried. “Please, we must open this casque at once.”

At the urgency in her voice, the crowd backed even further, fearing the machinery would indeed explode as she had said. The engineer folded his arms and shook his head.

De Guise came forward to stand behind Jacqueline. “A pry bar, please, René.”

The engineer glared, but he stomped back to the locomotive and returned with the large tool, which he grudgingly handed to de Guise.

“Will this do?” de Guise asked, offering it to her. “Or shall I?”

Jacqueline grabbed the bar from him and placed its claws at the seam of the faceplate, catching a rivet. The figure within began to thrash, desperate to be freed from the confining helmet. The entire form rattled all the more.

Behind her, Angélique gave a low moan. Jacqueline ignored her sister’s warning, intent on the eyes behind the glass. She tried leaning to the pry bar, but her corset, with its steel-and-bone stays, prevented her from bending enough to gain leverage.

“Such a stupid fashion,” she grumbled.

She threw off her travel coat and reached around to untie the lacing knot, fumbling through the fabric of her skirt to undo it. The few women in the crowd cried out aghast and moved away from the scandalous scene, dragging their escorts with them. The younger men laughed, catcalling.

Again, de Guise came close and assisted her, unknotting the laces and loosening them. “I only wish to help,” he reassured her. He even took up her coat to cover her again.

Jacqueline didn’t answer, too engrossed with her goal to be embarrassed. She drew a deeper breath, braced her stance, and pressed to the pry bar once more. This time she succeeded. The rivet popped, and the faceplate flew open.

A high-pitched scream more ghastly than the locomotive’s whistle burst from the bronze mechanical man. The compressed vapors billowed from the opened mask in an explosion of steam and sound. As the others fled with echoing cries, de Guise pulled her closer. Jacqueline covered her ears, keeping her eyes fixed on the surreal sight before her. The pressure gauge dropped to five hundred, two-fifty, and finally zero as the vapors within cleared, revealing nothing. Literally, nothing. No face, no form. No more than a shriek fading on the summer breeze.

Restrained by de Guise, Jacqueline leaned closer to peer inside the casque. From the depths, a gleaming skull peered back, gleaming white, polished, as it were, affixed atop a copper pipe that disappeared down into the cavern of the chest.

“Did you see that?” she cried. “Did anyone see that?” 

She looked to de Guise, but he shook his head, confused. 


eSpec Books is trying something new that we’re hoping you will like. We have two new books releasing on February 1 and each author has recorded an excerpt. Using the following links you can click to be reminded when the videos go live. We will have a live chat with the authors during the readings. We hope you will come and help us celebrate these brand-new book babies!

Scheduled for 10am

Michelle D. Sonnier reading an excerpt from her new novel The Clockwork Solution, sequel to The Clockwork Witch.

The Legacy of the Sortilege Line

Treated with disdain by her family her entire life for not living up to their expectations—or prophesy—Arabella Leyden forges her own path and attains her greatest wish: to join the Sisterhood of Witches, doing so in a manner no one ever anticipated. As the first-ever technomancer, the way before her is fraught with peril.

Can she survive the machinations of her order, or be ground between the gears of reluctant progress? More important yet, can she succeed at her first assignment: find the root cause of the famine sweeping through Ireland? And end it. A task that has already claimed two witches of the Sortilege line.

Her future hangs in the balance… perhaps even her very life…

About the Author

Michelle D. Sonnier writes dark urban fantasy, steampunk, and anything else that lets her combine the weird and the fantastic in unexpected ways. She even writes horror, although it took her a long time to admit that since she prefers the existential scare over blood and gore. She is the author of The Clockwork Witch and Death’s Embrace and has published short stories in a variety of print and online venues. You can find her on Facebook (Michelle D. Sonnier, The Writer). She lives in Maryland with her husband, son, and a variable number of cats.

Scheduled for 10:15am

Danielle Ackley-McPhail reading an excerpt from chapter 19 of her novel Daire’s Devils
Give the Enemy Hell!
At the ass-end of the galaxy, Allied Forces—including the 142nd Mobile Special Ops Team, better known as Daire’s Devils—stand ready to defend the contested colony planet Demeter from military invasion and corporate exploitation.
But when the ranks are infiltrated by those determined to secure the top-secret designs of AeroCom’s new prototype flagship, the Cromwell, the newest member of the Devils, Corporal Katrion Alexander, finds herself facing off against an unexpected menace, synthetic operatives indistinguishable from living beings.
She and the Devils must neutralize this new threat, but how when the enemy wears a trusted face?
About the Author
Award-winning author, editor, and publisher Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for longer than she cares to admit. In 2014 she joined forces with husband Mike McPhail and friend Greg Schauer to form her own publishing house, eSpec Books.
Her published works include seven novels, Yesterday’s Dreams, Tomorrow’s Memories, Today’s Promise, The Halfling’s Court, The Redcaps’ Queen, Daire’s Devils, and Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, written with Day Al-Mohamed. She is also the author of the solo collections Eternal Wanderings, A Legacy of Stars, Consigned to the Sea, Flash in the Can, Transcendence, Between Darkness and Light, and the non-fiction writers’ guides The Literary Handyman, More Tips from the Handyman, and LH: Build-A-Book Workshop. She is the senior editor of the Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series, Gaslight & Grimm, Side of Good/Side of Evil, After Punk, and Footprints in the Stars. Her short stories are included in numerous other anthologies and collections.
In addition to her literary acclaim, she crafts and sells original costume horns under the moniker The Hornie Lady Custom Costume Horns, and homemade flavor-infused candied ginger under the brand of Ginger KICK! at literary conventions, on commission, and wholesale.
Danielle lives in New Jersey with husband and fellow writer, Mike McPhail and four extremely spoiled cats.
“War is tough, so is writing about it. Danielle Ackley-McPhail’s Daire’s Devils rises to that challenge and comes away triumphant.” David Sherman, Marine and bestselling author of the Starfist, Demontech, and 18th Race series
“A hard-hitting military science fiction with plenty of action, mystery, and intrigue—where do I sign up?!” Maria V. Snyder, New York Times best-selling author of the award-winning Navigating the Stars
“Plenty of action along with corporate and political intrigue in the finest tradition of Elizabeth Moon’s Familias Regnant novels, with just a dash of Blade Runner-esque mystery to add a little spice to the mix.” Dayton Ward, Marine and New York Times bestselling author of The Last World War and Star Trek: Agents of Influence
“Once again, eSpec Books delivers another thrilling glance at future military action […] Ackley-McPhail shows an acute awareness of military terminology and command structure [as] the complex, multilayered plot of Daire’s Devils unfolds.” Bud Sparhawk, Air Force veteran, multi-Nebula finalist, and author of Shattered Dreams


Welcome to another sneak peek at what we are up to! Today we have an excerpt from David Sherman’s recently released Demontech: The Last Campaigns, a collection of reprinted DemonTech shorts including “Surrender or Die”, “Delaying Action” and the novella, Get Her Back!. Our excerpt is specifically from the latter.

Also, for those of you with NetGalley accounts, this book is available for review copy request this month: DemonTech.



 “What did you say?”

Startled, the newly arrived refugee jerked around to look toward the demanding voice. He blinked at the sight that met his eyes—a magnificently beautiful woman, golden from crown to toe. The spun-gold color of her hair, the amber of her eyes, and the honey-sunshine glow of her copiously exposed skin combined to deceive the eye into seeing her clothing as golden as well, although she wore nothing of gold. The fillet that held her hair in place was a simple leather strip. The short vest that didn’t quite close between her breasts, and the pantaloons that hugged her hips so low as to leave her entire midriff open to the air before billowing gracefully about her legs were all a parti-colored patchwork.

“L-Lady!” the refugee stammered. Even though no lady he’d ever caught a glimpse of dressed so like a houri, this woman’s bearing was such that she could only be a lady. He snatched his cap from his head and held it crushed in his hands. “I said—I said that I heard the music of a sothar before I escaped from the Desert Nomads’ camp.”

The golden woman thrust her face close to his. “Did you see the musician? Was he with a dancer?”

The refugee took an involuntary step backward. “N-No, Lady.I only heard the music.”

The woman stepped forward to keep her face close to his. “Did you see a dancer with this musician?” she repeated.

“N-No, Lady. As I said, I only heard the music.”

“Then how do you know it was a sothar that you heard?” she demanded, staying close to intimidate the man.

“I-I’m a merchant seaman, Lady. One time my s-ship made port in Frangeria. I saw a Djerwolh dancer, and heard her musician.  Sh-She,” he took two brisk steps back so he could look more widely at this woman, “she looked a lot like you, only her clothes were gold.” His face reddened as he contrasted the lady’s splendid patchwork with his own seaman’s rags.

The woman stood erect and stared hard at the refugee. After a short moment she demanded, “Where is the Desert Nomads’ camp that you escaped from?”

The refugee swallowed. “In the High Desert. Three or four days walk from here. Maybe more. I wasn’t keeping track of how long I ran.” He swallowed again. “I ran and walked, and napped when I found safe places to stop.” He shook his head. “I can’t even say how many times I ate, I only ate what little I could grab as I ran.”

“I don’t care how many times you ate,” she snapped. “I want you to tell me where the camp is!”

The seaman swallowed. “I think th-three or four days w-west of here.”

“Then you will guide me to the place. Prepare to leave at first light.” The woman, Alyline, also called “the Golden Girl,” spun on her heel and strode toward the wagon that held her belongings.

The refugee looked after her, gape-mouthed, for a long moment, then spun around and ran, looking for a hiding place. There was no way he was going to return to the camp of the fierce nomads of the High Desert.


The long column compressed as it stopped for the night. With close to eight thousand people together on the move, fleeing before the invading Jokapcul army that had already conquered half the continent, it took time for the column to telescope closed. And for those who had them to erect tents. That meant the end of the marching day had to come correspondingly early. Spinner, one of the two Frangerian Marines in charge of the refugee train, fretted over the lost marching time. He knew that the enemy forces had to be getting ever closer behind them; those forces would be marching faster than the refugees were moving. He didn’t want the train caught before it reached the safety that was offered by the city of Handor’s Bay.

Well, the early halt did give time for a commander’s call before dinner, which was a benefit.

Spinner had spent the day as was his want, riding a horse up and down the length of the column, seeing and being seen in his familiar double-reversible, four-sided cloak, which he wore red-side-out for increased visibility as he moved along the column. Spinner didn’t simply see the people and be seen by them, he talked to them as well. “Do you have enough food?” he asked. “Do you have enough to drink?” “Do you have clothing other than what you are wearing?” “Is anybody in your group ill? Injured?” Everybody knew him by sight, not only from his red-side-out cloak, but also by his slightly taller than average height and his dusky complexion.

A time or two he had to settle a dispute, but not as often as he had when the column was much shorter. Now the people were too tired from the long trek to fight among themselves.

When Spinner returned from his final circuit of the day, the tent he shared with Haft, with whom he shared leadership, the largest and richest-looking tent in the train, was already set up.

Spinner, as always, shook his head when he saw the tent.  He thought it was far too grand for use in a refugee train. But the others in the command group thought that he and Haft, as the leaders, needed symbols to make it clear to everybody that they were in charge. The big tent was such a symbol.

In recent weeks the command group had grown too large to meet inside the tent, so a circle of campstools was set up in front of it. Fletcher, Zweepee, and Xundoe the mage were already there when Spinner reached the tent—they must have set out the stools. He saw the company commanders arriving. There was Captain Geatwe, who still wore the blue tabard of the Zobran Prince’s Swords; Captain Mearh in the yellow of the Zobran Light Horse; Captain Phard wore the bear fur-trimmed maroon-striped tabard of the Skraglander Bloody Axes; and Sergeant Rammer, the training commander, distinguished by his Frangerian Marine reversible, double-sided cloak, worn mottled-green-side out, with its gilt rank chevrons on its shoulders.

Alone among the company commanders, Rammer had refused to accept an officer’s rank. He had been the commander of the Marine contingent on the ship Sea Horse, and Spinner and Haft had been part of his unit. They were separated when the Jokapcul attacked the port of New Bally; while Rammer was captured, Spinner and Haft managed to escape. By the time they were reunited on the north side of the Princedon Gulf, Spinner and Haft were leading several thousand refugees, many of whom either were soldiers or were being trained. Everybody knew that under the circumstances, Sergeant Rammer had to be subordinate to the two men who had been under his command.

Spinner knew it would be a few more minutes before Haft showed up; he had to come all the way from the rear guard where he spent most of his time on the march. And he knew that Silent, of the giant nomads of the Northern Steppes, was, as he usually was, ranging far afield on a reconnaissance.

As soon as Spinner dismounted a hostler took the reins of his horse and led it off to be curried and fed. Spinner suppressed a grimace—he thought that a horseman should see to his own mount. But this was another instance where the rest of the command group thought that the leaders needed the symbolism of having someone else take care of mundane matters. He stifled a groan when he eased himself onto his campstool, one of only three that had a back. The other two were currently empty. Haft would sit in one when he arrived, and the other…

“Where’s Alyline?” he asked. “I haven’t seen her all day. And where’s Doli? She’s usually one of the first here.”

The others looked questioningly at each other. But none of them knew where the Golden Girl was, or could recall having seen her that day.

“Here comes Doli,” Rammer said, nodding in the direction of the column’s end. “And it looks like she’s bringing someone with her.”

Doli was indeed bringing someone, dragging him along by the scruff of his shirt collar like a disruptive student being hauled by his teacher to the headmaster’s office. The man may have once been a seaman, if the cut and colors of his ragged clothes were to be believed.

Doli marched with an unaccustomed firmness to the center of the circle and halted in front of Spinner. The man whose collar she clutched dropped to his knees and whipped off his sailor’s cap to twist between his hands.

“Are you aware that Alyline is gone, that she has left the caravan?” Doli demanded of Spinner.

“What?” Spinner shouted, leaping to his feet. “Where did she go? When did this happen?” He looked about for his gear, ready to take off after the Golden Girl. Doli slammed the flat of her palm into the middle of his chest and he plopped back into his chair with a startled expression on his face.

“We were just talking about that,” Rammer said dryly, “wondering where she—and you—were.”

“This one claims to know.” Doli sniffed, nudging the one-time sailor with her knee. “Tell him what you told me,” she ordered.

“L-Lord—,” the man began, tugging his forelock and bobbing a bow at Rammer.

“Don’t tell me,” Rammer interrupted, “tell him,” and jerked a thumb toward Spinner.

The man was briefly confused, he’d sailed enough to have seen the uniforms of the Frangerian Marines. He didn’t understand why the older Frangerian with the sergeant’s rank insignia deferred to the younger one, whose only insignia was the trident-bearing merman riding on the waves that held his cloak closed at the neck. The lack of any other insignia indicated that he was very junior indeed. But he quickly recovered. It wasn’t up to him to wonder why the man who looked most like a commander deferred to someone who clearly looked to be his junior.

“L-Lord,” he began again, this time addressing Spinner. “Last eve a woman most beauteous and golden accosted me. She had me repeat what she’d overheard me say about hearing a sothar being played. Then she demanded that I take her to that place.” He averted his eyes while speaking, and hung his head at the end.

“But you didn’t take her?” Spinner growled.

“N-No, Lord.” The man cringed, not sure admitting that he hadn’t done the Golden Girl’s bidding wouldn’t get him into trouble.

“Good,” Spinner said with a whoosh of relief, thinking that Alyline must be somewhere nearby.

“How do you know she went without you?” Fletcher asked.

“L—, S-Sir,” he said hesitantly, unsure how to address this third person, “I hid last night so the lady c-couldn’t find me and make me g-go with her this morn. But I hid in a p-place wh-where I could see her leave.”

“Now for the most important question,” Rammer said, looking directly at Spinner.

“Where did she go?” Spinner asked, needing to know, but unsure that he wanted to. “And did she go alone?”

“She went to the High Desert, Lord.” The man paused to moisten his suddenly dry mouth and throat. “Seeking the camp of the Desert Nomads.”

Rammer grinned wickedly and leaned toward the man. “That’s why you hid, isn’t it,” he said. “You escaped from the Desert Nomads, didn’t you? And you’re afraid to go back to their camp. Now, tell us who was with the Golden Girl. Surely she didn’t leave by herself.”

“N-No, Sir, she wasn’t alone. There was small troop of mounted men with her.” He hesitated, then added, “They wore blue surcoats.”

All eyes turned to Captain Geatwe. There were blue-clad horsemen in his company.

Geatwe dropped his head into his hands. He sighed, then looked up. “Was their blue the same as mine, or was it a light blue?” he asked.

“It was much lighter than yours, Sir.” The seaman paused for a moment’s thought, then added, “They carried lances instead of great swords like the one you have.”

Geatwe shook his head and mumbled, “When I didn’t see all of them this morning, I thought they had gone ahead to scout the way.”

Rammer asked, “Are they in the habit of going ahead without letting you know?”

“Sometimes,” Geatwe admitted.

“We’ll have to do something about that,” Rammer murmured, “when we get them back. If we get them back.”

Spinner seemed to look inward for a moment, then looked at the sailor and said, “You wouldn’t guide Alyline, and that’s good because now you can guide me to that nomad camp.”

Ignoring the man’s wailing insistence that he didn’t think he could find the Desert Nomads’ camp again, Spinner stood up to make his preparations for going into the High Desert. Before he even got out of the circle, though, he had to stop because Haft arrived, and Spinner had to tell him what was happening.

David Sherman

David Sherman is the author or co-author of some three dozen books, most of which are about Marines in combat.

He has written about US Marines in Vietnam (the Night Fighters series and three other novels), and the DemonTech series about Marines in a fantasy world. The 18th Race trilogy is military science fiction.

Other than military, he wrote a non-conventional vampire novel, The Hunt, and a mystery, Dead Man’s Chest. He has also released a collection of short fiction and non-fiction from early in his writing career, Sherman’s Shorts; the Beginnings.

With Dan Cragg he wrote the popular Starfist series and its spin off series, Starfist: Force Recon—all about Marines in the Twenty-fifth Century.; and a Star Wars novel, Jedi Trial.

His books have been translated into Czech, Polish, German, and Japanese.

After going to war as a U.S. Marine infantryman, and spending decades writing about young men at war, he’s burnt out on the subject and has finally come home. Today he’s writing short fiction, mostly steampunk and farcical fantastic Westerns.

He lives in sunny South Florida, where he doesn’t have to worry about hypothermia or snow-shoveling-induced heart attacks. He invites readers to visit his website,


An excerpt from our newest Systema Paradoxa release, Devil in the Green: A Tale of the Montauk Monster, by James Chambers. This is volume 5 in the series and was featured in the July 2021 Cryptid Crate monthly subscription box. 

SP - Devil in the Green 2 x 3Chapter One

I never intended to hunt monsters.

That strange summer that found me combing Long Island’s south shore beaches and wandering through its nearby Pine Barrens forever changed my life. The resolution to every mystery I encountered during those hot and humid months only led to greater enigmas, each one branching, hydra-like, when I believed it resolved, sprouting new lines of investigation that led me farther from the certainty of the ordinary world into one overshadowed by phenomena few people ever encounter.

The events of that summer provided me a glimpse at the inner workings of the universe and awakened in me a deep dread and understanding of humanity’s cosmic insignificance, although with too little information to make any sense of it. Perhaps there is no sense to it. Perhaps chaos defines all existence, a string of random biological, chemical, and physical actions and reactions. Atoms and molecules colliding, binding, reinventing their substance. The ceaseless transformation of energy. Mistakes of awareness. Sentience nothing more than a glitch in space and time. I don’t believe these things, but if existence does possess purpose, it reaches far beyond mere human experience and comprehension.

All of this, I realize, sounds like something out of a century-old pulp magazine or the liner notes for some Sixties prog-rock album, but to this day, I still grapple with how to describe my experiences. I struggle to explain, even to myself, how opening a shoebox full of old bones knocked my entire world off its axis.

I wonder if Dr. Annetta Maikels, who brought me to that time and place, suspected what her investigation into an animal carcass more than a decade old might uncover. Did she seek to open Pandora’s box? Or did she, as she explained when we first met, mean only to debunk a local legend?

A quirk of chance brought Annetta to my door late that June. Ethan Scapetti, a college friend of mine and a reporter for a Long Island daily newspaper, introduced us after he broke his leg and four ribs in a car crash. Two days before his appointment to cover Annetta’s viewing of the remains of the so-called Montauk Monster, a black sedan sideswiped his car off the road into a telephone pole, a hit-and-run accident. I had freelanced for his paper, shooting photo features of local events for its website. Ethan hoped to throw the work my way, knowing I sorely needed it and hoping I’d take the assignment more seriously than any of the jaded staff reporters who might cover it for him.

After wishing him a speedy recovery, I brushed up on the lore of the Montauk Monster, finding blessed little to learn. The infamous photo from the 2008 sighting of its carcass at Ditch Plains Beach, Montauk looked to me exactly as most experts described it: the remains of a small dog or raccoon, grotesquely distorted by decomposition and several days floating in salt water. The remains vanished soon after the sighting, reportedly removed by a local resident who then buried them on their property or stored them in a garage. They were never seen again. Thanks to a headline, the picture went viral and sparked the imaginations of millions around the world.

The group of young women who snapped the photo offered little information. After first embracing the limelight, they later shied away from it and the Montauk Monster altogether.

That single image, however, birthed an unforgettable beast. Reports of similar creatures followed from around the world, as close as Staten Island and as far away as Asia. None of them offered proof of anything other than that a few days of ocean exposure could dramatically alter the appearance of a small, dead mammal. Still, something in that first photo, in the deformed body and more so in the sharp, unnatural lines of its muzzle leading to a sort of beak nagged at me enough that I couldn’t firmly close the door on the possibility of another explanation. That odd head and beak conjured memories of illustrations in childhood books about prehistoric giant mammals, so out of place in 2008 that I understood why it fascinated many who saw it. More than a decade later, a second Ditch Plains sighting reignited interest in the so-called Montauk Monster.

A couple walking the beach discovered the second carcass, which resembled the original creature in almost every detail, except that it retained a bit more of its fur, bleached gray by sun and salt water. They shot a photo with a composition similar to the 2008 image, but it failed to achieve the same viral popularity. With all the grim, depressing news in the world that year, perhaps no one had the heart for monster stories. But for those already interested in Monty, as Annetta liked to call the thing, it offered hope of validation, opening a new chapter in the legend. More importantly, it inspired Annetta, a biology and zoology professor at King’s College in Brooklyn, to use her summer break to indulge her infatuation with cryptozoology and investigate an enticing lead. For that, I am forever grateful—because it brought her to my door.

Chapter Two

Annetta arrived at my house in Hicksville early on a Saturday morning.

Her stature and confidence intimidated me from the moment I saw her. Close to six feet tall, she almost matched my own height. She wore hiking boots and khaki shorts, a green T-shirt under a light, short-sleeved jacket loaded with pockets, and a satchel slung across her torso. With dark, brown skin and close-cut hair, she looked smart, adventurous, and official. The sight of her immediately altered my impression of the assignment, and I regretted answering the door in faded college sweatpants and an old Adventure Time T-shirt.

“Benjamin Keep?” she said.

“That’s me.” I invited her in for a cup of coffee while I changed clothes and gathered my camera, a high-quality digital SLR that had set me back several months’ worth of student-loan payments, and soon we hit the road. Annetta drove a Prius that seemed too small to contain her. She refused to share with me the address of our destination.

“I promised I’d keep it a secret,” she said, and when I pointed out that I’d learn it when we got there, she grinned and said, “Maybe.”

We merged into highway traffic and sped east along the Long Island Expressway, another furious insect joining the frantic scurry along the asphalt ant trail.

“What do you know about cryptozoology?” Annetta asked me.

“What the average person knows from watching Bigfoot documentaries and looking at pictures of the Loch Ness Monster online,” I told her. “But I’ve read up on the Montauk Monster.”

“Yeah? So, tell me what you know about Monty.”

I ran down what I’d learned from my research.

She nodded. “Well done, Ben, and yeah, I’ve heard all the explanations for why Monty isn’t a cryptid. Publicity stunt, dead raccoon, latex hoax. Maybe one of them is right—but maybe none of them are.”

“You hope to prove it one way or the other?” I slid a notebook and pen from my camera case. “This is for the record, by the way.”

“Nope, not looking to prove anything. Only theories require proof, and I have no theory yet. But I don’t like the other theories. I’m gathering evidence to form my own theory.”

“How did you learn the location of the remains, and what makes you believe they’re authentic?”

“The owner called me out of the blue. Said she heard about my interest from mutual acquaintances. But I don’t believe anything yet. I mostly expect at the end of this trip out to the ass-end of Long Island we’re going to wind up looking at a collection of squirrel bones. If we’re lucky, they’ll be dressed up to look like something weird, and we’ll be entertained.”

“Like the Feejee Mermaid.”

“Exactly. PT Barnum at his finest. Gold star for you. If we’re very, very lucky, though, they’ll turn out to be something special.”

“The remains of the 2008 creature?”

“Wouldn’t that be nice?”

I agreed it would, then shifted gears. “What attracted you to cryptozoology?”

Annetta laughed. “Now there’s a long story.”

“We’ve got a long drive.”

The nomadic tribes of summer thickened and forced us to slow down, to fall into place with the great migration of beach-seekers, wine-tasters, and antique-hunters fleeing stifling New York City and suburban boredom for Long Island’s once-pastoral East End. As a native Long Islander, I made a point of avoiding Montauk, the Hamptons, and the transplanted city social scene that flooded the Island every summer. Upper-East- and West-Siders, for whom most of the Island counted as the local flyover country, looked down their noses at we suburbanites. The “bridge-and-tunnel” crowd, they called us, but their snobbery never hindered their annual invasion of the South Fork from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Annetta frowned at the mass of surrounding cars, but as the sunlight warmed my face and I eyed the clear blue sky, it surprised me traffic moved anything above an absolute crawl on such a near-perfect summer day.

“Damn this traffic. We need to be there before noon. The owner was insistent about that. I don’t want to roll up at 12:05 and have a door slammed in our faces.”

The dashboard clock read 10:12. “We’ll make it. Might cut it close, but this traffic’s got to thin out sometime. Tell me your story and take your mind off all this.”

After a sigh, Annetta said, “Okay, you ever hear stories about the alligators in the sewers?”

“Where? In the City?”

“Right. People bring home baby alligators as pets from trips to Florida or Georgia or wherever. Their kids love them for a few weeks, then get bored and forget about them. The baby gators grow a little too big, flash some teeth, and then suddenly, a light bulb goes on in Mom or Dad’s head. This thing will get huge and need food. They don’t want to deal with it, and their kids hardly remember they have it. So, one night while everyone’s asleep or some afternoon while the kids are at school, they flush the poor gator down the toilet, good riddance.”

“Yeah, I know this one. There’s an old movie about it. The gator survives its toilet ride, winds up in the sewer, where it grows to full size, and roams around under the city, chowing down on sewer workers. It’s a classic urban legend.”

A tractor-trailer, finding a miraculous opening amongst the cars, flew by us, shuddering Annetta’s Prius with its backdraft. To either side of the road sprawled the Pine Barrens, dark and unkempt, one of the last great spaces of Long Island yet to face bulldozers and conversion into strip malls and townhome developments. Protected, for now, it persisted under development rumors that circled like sharks. Proposals for a 600-acre golf course, a casino, eco-housing, and even an adventure park had all tested the strength of the law protecting more than 100,000 acres of wilderness. Surrounded by it, Annetta’s story sounded like a campfire tale, and a shiver ran through me.

“My grandmother told me about the alligators when I was in second grade,” Annetta said. “Scared me silly. I refused to ride the subway for a month after that. My mother was furious with her because I made us walk everywhere or take the bus. One time we even took a cab because I cried so hard when she tried to carry me down the stairs at Jay Street Station. Eventually, my fear gave way to other worries, schoolwork, who was coming to my birthday party, other kid stuff. My mom promised me a Snickers if I took the subway again. She figured I’d see there wasn’t anything to be afraid of, and we could get back to normal. My first time back, though, wouldn’t you know it? I saw an alligator down there.”

“Wait, seriously?”

“Seriously, yes, but not really. My mother liked to board at the front of the train. We always waited near the end of the platform, with a view of the tunnel, and I saw all sorts of stuff on the tracks. Cockroaches. Rats. Litter. And that one time, in the darkness where the rails curved out of sight into the gloom, I saw something big and frightening with a mouth full of ugly, glistening teeth slither between the rails. I had no doubt it would climb the three little steps at the platform’s end and devour me. I grabbed my mother’s hand, too frightened to speak. Tears in my eyes. I looked up at her, pleading, and she gave me one of those ‘it’s all right, honey’ smiles parents use when they see you’re upset but don’t know why. I pointed to the monster in the tunnel, and when I looked back at it, do you know what I saw?”

“I’m guessing not an alligator.”

“A black trash bag blowing on the track. Our train pulled in then, funneling the air ahead of it, banishing that plastic bag into the subway depths. My mother hustled me onto the train. I never did tell her about my ‘alligator’—but I never forgot it.”

“Okay, but you saw what you saw because of the power of suggestion, the ideas your grandmother planted in your head. Your mind drew them onto a scrap of trash. How’d that lead you to cryptozoology?”

“The psychology of it isn’t the part of the experience that stuck with me. It’s the question, see? However briefly, I believed an alligator was on the train tracks. It was one hundred percent real to me until it wasn’t, but it left a question in my mind. Could an alligator really survive a flush down the drain then live in the New York City sewers?”

“No, right? It would be caught in filters along the way or snagged at a treatment plant, and that’s that.”

“Did you know how sewers worked when you were in the second grade?”


“Me neither. Anyway, that’s what got me hooked. And here is our exit.”

Annetta’s story had distracted us from the traffic, and now she guided her Prius up the exit ramp, off the Expressway. A fair number of cars and trucks came along and stayed with us. My parents often spoke about their trips out to Montauk or Orient Point, the South and North Forks of the Island when they were young, back when potato farms occupied more acreage than vineyards. Then city people and tourists “discovered” those places, the Hampton Jitney started shuttling eager, summer-struck Manhattanites on a regular schedule every Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, and everything changed. I imagined the place undeveloped, like Annetta’s subway tunnel, a place where you could mistake a trash bag for a monster. An untamed place that had still existed not so long ago and maybe remained under the surface.

I don’t know if it came down to Annetta’s story setting the right mood, me simply getting caught up in her telling of it, or the shadows of the Pine Barrens, but barreling down Route 24, through Flanders, I believed that at the end of our drive, we might actually find that very special thing.

James Chambers2020

James Chambers is an award-winning author of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. He wrote the Bram Stoker Award®-winning graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe. Publisher’s Weekly described The Engines of Sacrifice, his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas published by Dark Regions Press as “…chillingly evocative…” in a starred review. His story, “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills,” was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.

He has authored the short story collection Resurrection House and several novellas, including The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood, in the Corpse Fauna novella series. He also wrote the illustrated story collection, The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales, created in collaboration with artist Jason Whitley.

His short stories have been published in the anthologies The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the CrucibleBad-Ass Faeries, Bad-Ass Faeries 2: Just Plain Bad, Bad-Ass Faeries 3: In All Their Glory, Bad Cop No Donut, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, Breach the Hull, By Other Means, Chiral Mad 2, Chiral Mad 4, Dance Like A Monkey,  Dark Hallows II: Tales from the Witching Hour, Deep Cuts, The Domino Lady: Sex as a Weapon, Dragon’s Lure, Fantastic Futures 13, Gaslight and Grimm, The Green Hornet Chronicles, Hardboiled Cthulhu, Hear Them Roar In An Iron Cage, Kolchak the Night Stalker: Passages of the Macabre, Man and MachineMermaids 13 No Longer DreamsQualia Nous, Shadows Over Main Street (1 and 2), The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, The Society for the Preservation of CJ Henderson, So It Begins, The Spider: Extreme Prejudice, To Hell in a Fast Car, Truth or Dare, TV Gods, Walrus Tales, Weird Trails, and With Great Power; the chapbook Mooncat Jack; and the magazines Bare BoneCthulhu Sex, and Allen K’s Inhuman.

He has also written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow HouseThe Midnight Hour with Jason Whitley, and the award-winning original graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe.

He is a member and trustee of the Horror Writers Association, and recipient of the 2012 Richard Laymon Award and the 2016 Silver Hammer Award.

He lives in New York.

Visit his website:



This week’s author has a brilliant talent for envisioning non-humanoid sentient life and bringing them to life on the page. Not only are his races diverse, but they are also relatable. I am in awe of his skill. I hope you enjoy this brief taste as much as I did. This is the title story from Jeff Young’s solo collection Written in Light, which is scheduled to release August 1, 2021. Follow the link to pre-order.

Proof-Young-SFWritten in Light

For a moment, Zoi’ahmets stood as still as the tree the wickurn resembled, watching as the unknown creature stumbled backward from her. Perhaps it was the fact that Zoi’ahmets rose twice its height, her triple conjoined trunks, or the orange eye that she swiveled in its direction. Two podia, how could it manage like that? So inefficient in dealing with gravity, unstable surfaces, and even the strain over time on such a small surface area, certainly nothing like Zoi’ahmets’s designs. She had so little time to be certain that everything remained prepared for the Diversiform Dispute judging, and what in Winter happened here? The cognition engine finally linked with the translator nailed to her bark. Only then did she grasp that the sounds striking the translator were attempts at communication.

Amazingly, the intruder turned its back completely on Zoi’ahmets and began to dig through the grass—a very anti-survival trait in an unresolved situation. Perhaps it lost something. She fed its image into the cognition engine, which identified the creature as a human. Trying to imagine what it might be searching for, the wickurn cast about with all her eyes looking over the thick verdure of the pampas and nearby bushes. There. Something black and lumpy with a short set of straps hung in the top of a shrub nearby. One branch reached for it as another gently spun the human around and faced it toward its property. The human awkwardly trudged through the grass. Zoi’ahmets gently handed it the case. It spared a moment to eye its benefactor thoughtfully and then dropped gracelessly to the ground to open the case. The human quickly extracted a silver device which, when clipped behind its ear, opened up like a flower. The shiny metallic petals spun and clicked restlessly in the afternoon sunlight. Another device fit about its neck and a third nestled in the center of its hand. Then Zoi’ahmets finally heard the human begin to speak.

“_____ wickurn ______ about 3 meters ______ seems to be looking out for me. ______ see why it’s here. Since I’m as far into the Disputed zone as I am ______ ______ _______ _________. Can’t understand why it hasn’t ___________ with me yet.”

“Communicated?” Zoi’ahmets offered as she pulled herself slowly to the human.

“Yeah, actually,” the being stammered.

“You were not exactly making intelligible sounds until just a moment ago.”

“And you were pretending to be a tree! No, I’m sorry, you are a tree. You can’t help that. I guess I just never expected you to move.”

“Why would I require help if I am in my natural state?”

“Look, this isn’t going well. You’re one of the workers on this Diversiform Dispute, and I’m obviously keeping you from your job. I apologize for startling you, if that’s what I did.” It took a deep breath and continued, “I’m Kiona. I’m … a student of the art of photography. I rode the ground vehicle over there until it stopped. Then the flight craft following us crashed into a tree. I’m so sorry to disturb you. I only wanted to learn more about the Disputed Zone.”

It bowed slightly in Zoi’ahmets’ direction, focusing two green eyes on her.

Zoi’ahmets raised a branch, and its eye could see there were fragments of debris at the base of a windrake tree. Flight craft? That could simply a result of the inaccuracy of the translator. In fact, now that Zoi’ahmets looked at the wreckage, it bore a resemblance to an automated sampling drone. The small craft hung, entangled in the net of branches, its weight dragging down the tendrils and breaking them. Looking where indicated, she could see a surface sampling rover. A makeshift seat mounted to the top of the six-wheeled drone sat directly over the solar panel. Kiona must have ridden the sampler until it ran out of power. The aerial drone would have lost its guidance and then crashed. Could it really be that stupid, or could this be deliberate? Zoi’ahmets wondered.

She turned back to the human in front of her. Perhaps an introduction, “I am Zoi’ahmets Calinve, chief architect of the Wickurn Diversiform entrant in this Dispute.” Gently tipping forward, she returned the bow as much as she could manage. Kiona backed up another step.

“I am so sorry. I had no idea this is your environment. I never wanted to harm it.”

Zoi’ahmets cocked a lower eye toward it. “But you had no problem entering the contested area to gain images of the Dispute—did you? You appear to have subverted a sampling drone to carry you. It’s surprising the drone made it this far.”

With that, she began the typical spiraling walk of a wickurn toward the drone. All the while, she thought to herself, I must find a way to get this thing out of here as quickly as possible. She’d heard that humans were allowed onto this Dispute World and didn’t know how she felt about the imposition. Now she had one interrupting her work. For a second, she considered that her opponents might have put the intruder here to hinder her.

Kiona started after her, but the wickurn found herself waiting as the human pulled at one of the coverings on its feet and set to work on something lodged in an ankle. When it held the annoyance to the light to look at it, Zoi’ahmets dropped a branch eye to view it as well.

“Caltrop seed,” she said. “Something I designed that will allow animals to transport seeds. Helps to propagate various bushes. Basically, harmless, but in your case perhaps annoying.” Also, a distraction, thought Zoi’ahmets, instead let’s find out why you are here. “Let us have a look at your conveyance.”

Her eyes studied Kiona for a moment as her branch, vane leaves unfurling, drifted across Kiona’s shoulder to urge it along. She pushed aside rising annoyance and moved forward.

While the human trotted beside Zoi’ahmets as the wickurn’s three root clusters rolled through the thick grasses, Zoi’ahmets took a moment to access the cognition engine and review the biology reports for humanity. Just to be thorough, she’d made certain to download a full bio-summary of all the judges’ species and anyone who might be visiting the Dispute. Thank Summer, there were no immediate concerns regarding her bio-system.

Looking briefly at Kiona, Zoi’ahmets suddenly realized this was a female of their species and estimated her age at about twelve winters. At first glance, Kiona appeared to be in good health. However inappropriate, one of the humans may have decided to take a firsthand look at the entrants to the Dispute rather than waiting as tradition dictated.

Zoi’ahmets looked briefly down at Kiona, considering her again. Humanity had joined the galactic community later than most, and there were concerns among the established species. Humans bred faster than most galactics and still had not modified themselves to limit their numbers. In a community where the primary means of gaining additional planetary growing room was based upon the ability to create effective complete environments for the Diversiform Disputes, most participants learned by modifying their homes and themselves first. Humanity had done a remarkable job of terra-forming numerous worlds, but the issue of their unregulated propagation still remained.

Because Zoi’ahmets’s contemplation slowed her pace, Kiona darted ahead of the wickurn toward the crash of the airborne sampling drone. With a quick glance, Zoi’ahmets noted that it was made of tensioned monomolecular fabric. The remains of a nearby wing swinging overhead seemed to be mostly gas cells with monomole struts. Looking back toward the ground sampler, unease made her stomachs churn. Zoi’ahmets studied Kiona for a moment. Was the human not telling her everything? What was going on here? Did she have time for this?

Zoi’ahmets paused in consideration and looked up at the sky. Reflexively, she called up a weather survey. The cognition engine brought up a real-time satellite map displaying the relatively calm but cloudy current weather and a storm front moving toward their location. Perhaps Kiona hadn’t intended to be out for long, or perhaps being trapped here was all part of the plan. The transmission faded out as Zoi’ahmets became lost in her own considerations.

In the meantime, the human walked about the surface drone. Kiona pulled out another strap-bearing bag from the grass and rummaged through it. Her hand showed through a hole in the bottom as her face skewed, and she murmured something that the translator box didn’t quite register. She turned to Zoi’ahmets.

“Something ate my food, and the only thing left is a snack square. Hopefully, it wasn’t anything of yours that might be poisoned by it.”

That briefly perplexed Zoi’ahmets. It certainly wasn’t the type of comment someone with a nefarious purpose would make unless Kiona’s intent was to deliberately mislead her.

Zoi’ahmets watched as Kiona crawled further among the pampas, where she found a round container twice the size of her palm and pushed that into her black bag. “The rover is ruined,” Kiona commented.

Sadly, the human appeared to be right. Slipping into a gully after it lost power and communication with the satellite grid, the drone snapped two of its three axels.

Zoi’ahmets noticed that the base of Kiona’s leg where it emerged from the grass was no longer the same color as the rest of her. It was the same foot from which she’d withdrawn the caltrop seed.

Zoi’ahmets reached into a mouth. Probing gently past her gullet into one of the xylem spaces, she pulled out a round cylinder. She shook out the tiny arrow-shaped chenditi that clung to the sides. They landed on her lower trunk. Zoi’ahmets’s large orange eye watched as the chenditi absorbed enough solar energy to fill the lift cells in their small bodies by splitting moisture from the air into hydrogen and oxygen. Separately, the little creatures were mere animals. A small swarm equipped with send/receive components acted as a collective intelligence.

Kiona stopped her scavenging to watch as the swarm lifted into the air. One half of each arrowhead was dark black, and the opposite canted at an angle covered with a shiny prismatic surface. Zoi’ahmets noticed that when Kiona stood up from the rover, she favored her left leg.

At first, Kiona shied as the chenditi flitted about her but was apparently familiar with their ability to do chemical and medical diagnostics. They quickly surrounded the human, and she held her arms out from her body as they spun about her. “Like a cloud of butterflies.” Kiona laughed at the image. She drew her gaze back to Zoi’ahmets. Her glance was quick, and her lips slid to one side, a slight breeze lifting her shoulder-length blonde fur. “I do know what they’re for. What do you think is wrong with me?”

“That is what they will tell us.”

Jeff Young headshot

Jeff Young is a bookseller first and a writer second – although he wouldn’t mind a reversal of fortune.

He is an award winning author who has contributed to the anthologies: Writers of the Future V.26, By Any Means, Best Laid Plans, Dogs of War, Man and Machine, In Harm’s Way, If We Had Known, Afterpunk, In an Iron Cage: The Magic of Steampunk, Clockwork Chaos, Gaslight and Grimm, Fantastic Futures 13, The Society for the Preservation of C.J. Henderson, TV Gods & TV Gods: Summer Programming and the forthcoming Beer, Because Your Friend’s Aren’t That Interesting. Jeff’s own fiction is collected in Spirit Seeker and TOI Special Edition 2 – Diversiforms. He has also edited the Drunken Comic Book Monkey line, TV Gods and TV Gods –Summer Programming and now serves as the CMO for Fortress Publishing, Inc. He has led the Watch the Skies SF&F Discussion Group of Camp Hill and Harrisburg for more than eighteen years. Jeff is also the proprietor of Helm Haven, the online Etsy and Ebay shops, costuming resources for Renaissance and Steampunk.


We have another Systema Paradoxa title for you, Breaking the Code by David Lee Summers, a part of the Systema Paradoxa series created in conjunction with Cryptid Crate. It releases May 21, but you can pre-order it now via the link.

SP - Breaking the Code 2 x 3Chapter One

Friday, February 20, 1942

Cheryl Davis parked her Ford Coup in the Gallup High School parking lot and walked to the gym under leaden skies. 1942 was off to a dismal start. The United States had declared war against Japan and Germany and now they needed young men to fight their battles for them. As a teacher, she’d been asked to spread the word among former students who might want to enlist in the Marine Corps. The Marine recruiter who contacted her was himself a former student. He showed a special interest in recruiting Navajos well-versed in their native language. Cheryl was part Navajo, on her mother’s side, but most wouldn’t know it to look at her. She had inherited her strawberry-blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin from her father’s side of the family.

Cheryl entered the gym and found the bleachers full. The high school band played “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” She groaned as a tuba went flat for two notes, but no one else seemed to notice. The crowd cheered and whooped as the band finished the song.

The principal, Sherman Smith, stepped up to the mic. After a burst of feedback, he introduced Cheryl’s former student, Duke Ogawa. She smiled as the young man approached the mic. She had taught him during her first year at Gallup High. He’d graduated five years ago. Now he wore a smart blue uniform with yellow and red sergeant’s stripes.

“It’s good to be back home,” Duke said. “I spent a lot of time in this gym learning teamwork and sportsmanship. I’m here today because I need people on my team for something far more important than beating Farmington in the basketball championships.” A cheer went up at that and Duke flashed a charming smile. “As you know, the United States is now at war and Uncle Sam needs your Tiger pride and your Tiger courage to defeat the Japanese and the Germans.”

“So why does the Marine Corps send a Japanese man to recruit Diné to do their dirty work?” A hush fell over the crowd and all eyes turned to a teacher named Frances Todachine. Cheryl noted the woman used the name the Navajos used for themselves. It was shorthand for the story of how five-fingered people came into the world. The small, wiry Navajo woman had earned a grudging respect around the school because she worked with known troublemakers and helped them find jobs around town when they graduated. Murmurs spread throughout the auditorium. Miss Todachine’s words seemed to have struck a chord with the audience.

Duke’s smile didn’t falter. He waited for the murmuring to die down, then responded with the certainty that had always served him well on the school’s debate team. “Ma’am, my parents were born in Los Angeles and moved to Gallup during the last big war to open a feed store. Their action helped feed the troops. The United States is the only country I’ve known. It’s my country.”

Cheryl clapped her hands at the succinct, polite response. Soon other people around the gym joined in. An icy chill went down her spine and she glanced toward Miss Todachine. The woman glared at her for a moment, then turned her attention back to Duke.

“Why should Navajos give their lives for a country that killed so many of them?” Miss Todachine shouted so she could be heard over the applause.

The applause ceased and the murmurs resumed.

Another Marine joined Duke at the mic. Cheryl didn’t recognize him. “My name is Sergeant Randall Yazzie. My people live over in Arizona, near Show Low.” A hush fell over the crowd. The man wasn’t a local like Duke, but he was Diné like many people in the audience. “I joined the United States Marine Corps because it gave me the chance to fight for my homeland. Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito want to take our country away from us and we can keep that from happening.”

Miss Todachine scowled but fell silent. She couldn’t be more than a year or two older than Cheryl, but she carried herself like a much older woman. Several young Navajos huddled with the history teacher and spoke in hushed tones while Duke and Randall continued their presentation. The recruiters highlighted the rewards a soldier could expect, including good pay, regular meals, a pension, and lifetime medical coverage. Cheryl knew these things would all sound good to families who had scraped by through the Great Depression. Although Western New Mexico had been spared the dust storms that plagued the eastern part of the state, Navajos had still suffered through a bad drought.

“You’ll get valuable training in the Marines that will help you find a good job after the war,” Duke said.

Duke and Randall wrapped up their presentation and mentioned they would go to the gym’s foyer and sign up anyone who wanted to enlist. “We’ll be back on Monday to make another presentation,” Randall said. “Be sure to tell your friends. We’re interested in any recruits between the ages of eighteen and forty-four. A bus will pick up those who enlist a week from Monday. It’ll take you to Fort Wingate to be sworn in and then we’ll catch the train to San Diego where you’ll enter boot camp.”

They opened the floor to questions. Cheryl feared that Miss Todachine would try to cause more trouble. She couldn’t quite understand her fellow teacher’s objections. She knew relations between the Navajo—all American Indians, really—and the United States had been strained by westward expansion. She understood the bitterness, but did Miss Todachine really believe that Hitler or Hirohito would be better leaders than Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

Once the question-and-answer session finished, people filed out of the gymnasium into the foyer. Duke and Randall sat at their table and walked a handful of young men through the enlistment process. Cheryl hung back, hoping to speak to Duke. One of her current students, Jerry Begay, approached the recruiters. She couldn’t hear what they said to each other, but they shook hands and Jerry signed a piece of paper.

She looked around and noticed Frances Todachine along with a half dozen Navajos standing in the shadows. They also seemed interested in Jerry Begay’s conversation with the recruiters. His family had a hogan a short distance from town where they raised sheep. They may be poor, but Jerry’s grandmother was a respected matriarch in the Rock Gap clan and he was a good, well-liked student. People paid attention to Jerry and expected him to go far.

As Jerry Begay stepped away from the table, Miss Todachine and her followers seemed to lose interest. They stalked off into the cold night.

That was odd. Miss Todachine wore a fur coat—a strange choice for a Navajo. Most Diné considered wearing a predator’s pelt taboo. Then again, Cheryl couldn’t see the coat well in the dim lighting. It could well have been rabbit or imitation fur. Even with her fair skin, Cheryl wouldn’t wear fur at a gathering with so many Diné. There could be talk that the person wearing the fur might practice witchcraft. Though Cheryl was only part Navajo, she had grown up here. She knew the legend of the skinwalkers, witches who sought the knowledge of magic for power, not healing. Whether she believed or not, she would never give the community a reason to wonder about her the way Miss Todachine did.

Cheryl made a point of stopping Jerry Begay on his way out. “Did you just sign up?”

He flashed her a broad smile. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m pleased you want to defend your country, but don’t you think it would be a good idea to finish your high school diploma first?”

He shrugged. “I’m eighteen. I don’t need my diploma to enlist. What I’ll get from the Marines is more than the diploma will be worth. Plus, they said I’d get extra pay because I speak Navajo.”

Cheryl narrowed her gaze. “Did they say why that would give you extra pay?”

Jerry shook his head. “I should get going, my parents want me home before it gets too late.”

Cheryl sighed and nodded. “Have a good night. Will I see you in class on Monday?”

He nodded. “I’ll be there. The bus won’t come through for new recruits for another week.”


As Jerry left the gym, Cheryl began to wonder if Miss Todachine was right to question these recruiters.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Duke Ogawa’s voice made her jump. He no longer sat behind the recruiting table, but had come up behind her.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you, Miss Davis.”

Cheryl put her hand to her chest and smiled. “It’s good to see you, Duke. It looks like the Corps is treating you well.”

He nodded and smiled. “Actually, my enlistment ended last month, but I signed on again after Pearl Harbor.”

Cheryl sighed. “Yeah, it’s a bad business and I’m glad the United States is finally taking a stand against the fascists and the imperialists, but…” Her voice trailed off as she followed the direction Jerry had gone.

“You don’t like seeing kids as young as Jerry Begay signing up for war,” he guessed.

She nodded.

Duke led Cheryl back to the table and introduced his partner. “Randall Yazzie, this is Miss Cheryl Davis, she was my math teacher here my senior year.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am” Yazzie said. “Call me Rand. So, who was that woman with the smart mouth?”

“Oh, that’s Frances Todachine.” Cheryl shrugged. “She’s a history teacher. She actually does good work with a lot of the kids. She helps them find jobs.”

“I got a strange feeling from her.” Rand shook his head. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something more than concern going on there.”

“Yeah, she had a chip on her shoulder. She was looking for a fight,” Duke said.

“Single woman, a group of close followers, all men,” Rand mused. “Back home, there’d be talk…”

Cheryl snorted a laugh. “You don’t think she’s having an affair with any of those young men, do you?”

Rand shook his head. “That wouldn’t be the worst of it.” He leaned in close and whispered. “They’d be talking witchcraft.”


As Jerry Begay drove home from the recruitment rally at the high school, snow began to fall. At first just a few light flurries drifted through the air, then the flakes fell heavier as he cleared the city limits and drove the ten miles south to his family’s land. Smoke wafting from the stovepipe poking from his family hogan’s roof gratified him. It would be warm inside. His mother no doubt left some stew on the fire for him. He guessed two inches of snow already blanketed the ground by the time he walked from the pickup to his front door.

The hogan was a small, cozy home. A cast-iron wood stove sat in the building’s center and the scents of lamb and vegetables simmering told him he had been correct about her having dinner ready for him.

“Yá’át’ééh,” his father said, speaking the traditional Diné greeting, which asked whether Jerry was well.

Jerry responded by saying he was well, “yá’ánísht’ééh,” and sat down at the table. His mother brought him a bowl of stew and he began to wolf it down.

“So, how was the meeting?” asked Jerry’s mother, Maria.

“Good,” Jerry said. “Lots of people showed up.” He took another bite, then swallowed. “I signed up.” He said the last quietly.

Jerry’s father, Javier, frowned. “We need you here on the farm this season more than ever.”

“You need to finish your high school diploma,” his mother chastened.

“I’ll earn money faster in the military and I’ll get skills that can help me after I’m back.” Everything the recruiters had said about joining up sounded better than continuing to feed sheep and take boring old classes. “Besides, if people don’t go, evil men like Adolf Hitler will send his soldiers to take our lands away from us.”

“It has happened before, and we have survived.” His father sounded tired.

“You sound like that history teacher at school, Miss Todachine.” Jerry scooped up the last of his stew.

His mother’s jaw tightened. “Don’t speak her name in this house.”

“What?” Jerry shrugged. “She’s just a loud-mouthed do-gooder. She found a job for John Claw, of all people. I thought the sheriff would throw him in jail for sure.”

Maria Begay nodded. “She consorts with all kinds of troublemakers and keeps them from finding justice. She spends way too much time with those high-school boys.”

Jerry snorted a laugh. “She’s not much older than we are. She’s gotta spend time with someone.” He took his bowl to a washtub near the wood stove and put it in to soak until the morning when it could be washed.

“Mark my words, she’s trouble,” Maria reiterated. She walked over to the woodstove and tossed in more wood from a nearby stack.

“When would you leave us?” Javier’s eyes narrowed.

“A bus will come through Gallup week after next. It’ll take us to Fort Wingate where we’ll be sworn in, then they’ll take us to San Diego for training.”

Javier grunted. “California is very far. How long will you be away?”

“Three years,” Jerry said.

Maria put her hand to her chest. “So long?”

Jerry held out his hands. “I’ll talk to the guys at school. I can find someone to help you here on the farm.” He walked over and gathered his mother up into his arms. For the first time he could remember, she looked sad and frail.

“Our need for help is not our main concern,” Jerry’s father said. “We’ll miss you.”

Jerry gave his mother a squeeze then sat down opposite his father. “If this were the old days, warriors would be sent out to meet a threat. This is no different.”

Javier pursed his lips and nodded. “I suppose you’re right…”

“But three years?” His mom shook her head.

“I’ll write,” Jerry promised. “And if you guys ever let them install a telephone out here, I could probably call now and then.”

“We’ll consider it,” Maria said, “but only for this reason.”

Javier reached out and took his son’s hand. “We’ll miss you, but I understand why you believe this is necessary.” He stood and walked over to the bed. “Now, this snow is arguing with my bones. I think it’s time to get some sleep.”

The hogan didn’t allow much room for privacy. Many families had moved into homes in town, only to lose those homes during the Great Depression and return to traditional dwellings out on their land. Jerry’s family was one of those. His parents had a bed along one of the hogan’s walls. Jerry’s bed was along the wall across from it. They’d set up an old-fashioned privacy screen between the two. Jerry’s dad blew out the oil lamp next to him. Cloth rustled as Jerry’s parents changed into their nightclothes.

Jerry followed suit and climbed under a stack of warm blankets. Despite the snowstorm outside, he was snug in his family’s home. The idea of sharing a barracks with other soldiers didn’t bother him. His parents began to snore, and the wind whipped outside. His eyes grew heavy and he began to drift off to sleep.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The tapping caused his eyes to spring open. No trees grew up against the hogan to cause the noise. He listened. Maybe he’d just dreamed the sound as he’d started to drift off to sleep. His parents still snored. Whatever he had heard, it hadn’t awakened them. His eyelids grew heavy again.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Again, Jerry’s eyes sprang open. The tapping resumed. It sounded like it came from the wall beside him. He tried to picture the outside of the hogan. He didn’t think there was anything there but grass. The wall had been constructed from solid logs. Nothing light could make a tapping loud enough to wake him. He tried to dismiss it as his imagination.

Wide awake now, he thought more about the Marine Corps. He wondered what boot camp would be like. He had no doubt he would cut it. He’d been up early in the morning and working hard ever since his family moved back out to their traditional lands. His chest swelled with pride as he thought about continuing the long tradition of Navajo warriors.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The sound returned. No doubt about it, this was no dream. He thought more about what could cause the tapping. He wondered if some wood had broken loose in the high winds, or if the roof had been damaged. It could probably wait until morning, but he thought he’d better go check it out. He wouldn’t get to sleep until he knew what it was. He shoved back the blankets, pulled on his trousers and heavy boots, and lit the lamp.

As he walked toward the door, he looked back at his parents. Still asleep. He went outside. The snow was coming down heavier than before and swirled in white eddies. He stayed close to the house, so as not to get lost in the storm, crunching through snow deeper than the tops of his boots. He reached the back wall of the octagonal structure, and inspected the building.

There were divots in the snow, as though an animal had been there and left. Had a sheep gotten loose and butted the wall?

He held up the lantern and looked around.

In the distance stood a tall figure on two legs. Its long ears lay back and it snarled, revealing long, sharp teeth. A forbidden word came to mind—a word as shocking as the vilest pornography. Although this did not involve ripping off clothes, it involved ripping off the very skin to reveal the monster underneath.

Yee naaldlooshii in the Diné language.

Skinwalker in English. It didn’t mean the same thing, but it sounded almost worse.

The creature turned and walked away.

He knew he should follow his path back to the front door, blow out his lantern, and forgot what he’d seen. Good sense almost prevailed, but curiosity got the better of him. He took a step away from the house and then another.

The skinwalker continued to prowl through the snow.

Jerry followed a few more steps.

The wind picked up. The snow came down faster until he lost sight of the creature.

He ran forward a few more steps, heart pounding furiously. The skinwalker had vanished.

The cold began to seep through his clothes. He needed to get back inside before the storm grew worse. All he had to do was keep a clear head, turn around and follow his path. When he turned, he could no longer see his footprints. He could no longer see the hogan. He should only be a few steps away. He began trudging the direction he thought home should be. Despite the cold, exhaustion came over him. It would be so good to lie down and go to sleep.


David Lee Summers is the author of a dozen novels and numerous short stories and poems. His most recent novels are the space pirate adventure, Firebrandt’s Legacy, and a horror novel set an astronomical observatory, The Astronomer’s Crypt. His short stories have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as Cemetery Dance, Realms of Fantasy, Straight Outta Tombstone, After Punk, and Gaslight and Grimm.  He’s one of the editors of Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales from WordFire Press.  He’s been nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards. When he’s not writing, David operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory.  He’s also been known to drive lonely desert roads, watching for cryptids. Find David on the web at



Yes… there is a theme here. Aaron Rosenberg’s Gone to Ground (Systema Paradoxa Vol. 2) released three days ago and we are so excited we have to share it with you. Today we have a brief excerpt for your enjoyment.

SP - Gone to Ground 2 x 3Chapter One

Everyone always agreed that, whatever else you might say about him, Trevor Kinkaid threw an excellent party. His house was of the larger variety, being done in the old style with high, vaulted ceilings, handsome inlaid floors, and a wide, sweeping staircase. It sat by the edge of the woods on one side and the sea on the other, thus taking advantage of both soothing sea air and welcoming shade. There were always plenty of spare bedrooms for those who imbibed too heavily and needed to be put up for the night. It was also a mark of distinction that it was even possible to imbibe, for Trevor was one of those who did not hold with Prohibition. He had no compunctions about acquiring whiskey and other potables from Canada and then making them freely available to his friends, or at least to those who chose to accept his frequent weekend invitations. He also stocked a good deal of food and nonalcoholic beverages, all of it of the highest quality, and as a result, his parties were the highlight of the season, and everyone made a point to attend.

This particular evening was no exception. The house was nearly full of people, or at least there were some in every room, so that while one could certainly still move around freely, it was also a bit of a challenge to find more than a moment of privacy. The women, mostly young and pretty, wore the latest fashions, with fringes and beads aplenty. Fascinators and feathers bobbed in time to their conversation, while cigarette holders dangled from their gloved fingers as they gestured. Their other hands cradled martini glasses, which they occasionally raised to brightly painted lips, hints of jasmine and rose and sandalwood and vanilla drifting about them. The men were either young and dashing or older and distinguished, dressed smartly in ascots and brightly polished shoes. Pipes or cigars outnumbered cigarettes, while martini glasses were as   prevalent as heavy cut-glass tumblers. Laughter and conversation rose everywhere, while music played from radios and record players, a different tune in every space but somehow not at all discordant, as if all the songs together melded into a single larger melody like flowers in a bouquet forming a harmonious whole.

Always the gracious host, Trevor drifted from room to room, carrying his habitual coffee mug rather than any actual glassware, pipe clamped firmly between his teeth, perhaps a touch paunchy now, his hair beginning to thin from its former thick waves, but his whiskers still neatly trimmed, his jaw still mostly firm, still a striking presence in his traditional red velvet smoking jacket. He knew most of his guests by name and always stopped to speak to each one, inquiring after their health, their recent pastimes—most of his guests were not so gauche as to have anything like an actual job!—their travels, and so forth before moving on with a smile and an encouragement to avail themselves fully of his hospitality.

It did not go unnoticed, of course, that for many of these perambulations, Trevor was not unaccompanied. This was nothing new, for he was still a handsome man and a charming one, if a trifle overbearing, and possessed of a fortune well in keeping with his grand home. Women were always eager to win his attention, and Trevor himself was more than happy to grant them such notice, for as long as it—and they—continued to amuse him.

At most parties, however, he played more of the gadfly, moving from lady to lady as easily as he went from room to room. Thus, the fact that one particular lady wandered with him for much of this evening drew some attention and a good deal of gossip. All of which seemed to entertain Trevor himself, while the lady appeared alternately flustered and determined to act as if oblivious of the whispers that trailed behind her like ribbons fluttering on the breeze.

Her name, it was gathered, was Lisette Barnes. She was from somewhere in the region, which is to say New England, and her manner and posture spoke of good breeding even if her robin’s egg-hued dress was only barely still in fashion, her scent more clean soap than expensive perfume, and her beads of polished stone rather than pearl. Still, she was striking with her bright blue eyes, pert nose, petaled lips, and feathered blonde hair, and she did appear to enjoy Trevor’s attentions, although there were those who wondered after they had disappeared from view whether indeed the pair were walking together or whether Lisette preceded their host, much like a scout before a patrol—or a lamb fleeing a wolf.

Still, no one heard her say a word to rebuff his advances, nor did anyone think that Trevor could be anything but gracious, even in defeat. Thus, when the couple failed to turn up in the next room after a time, those whose presence they had just vacated smirked amongst themselves, giggling and whispering and glancing furtively toward the upstairs, in the direction of Trevor’s grand master bedroom.

When Trevor did reappear, however, it was not by descending the stairs, nor did he look triumphant. Indeed, he wandered into the sitting room in something of a daze, his face red and beaded with sweat, mud spattering his trouser cuffs. He went straight to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink, adding it directly to his mug and downing the lot in a single go.

Of the young lady, there was no sign.

After a few moments, he seemed to collect himself again and began to glance around, smiling and engaging in small talk with those guests nearby, his voice slowly returning to its customary volume and cheer, the furrows in his brow and by his eyes steadily easing.

He was his usual self again, all geniality and consideration, by the time they heard the screams.


Aaron Rosenberg is the author of the best-selling DuckBob SF comedy series, the Relicant Chronicles epic fantasy series, the Dread Remora space-opera series, and—with David Niall Wilson—the O.C.L.T. occult thriller series. Aaron’s tie-in work contains novels for Star Trek, Warhammer, World of WarCraft, Stargate: Atlantis, Shadowrun, Eureka, Mutants & Masterminds, and more. He has written children’s books (including the original series STEM Squad and Pete and Penny’s Pizza Puzzles, the award-winning Bandslam: The Junior Novel, and the #1 best-selling 42: The Jackie Robinson Story), educational books on a variety of topics, and over seventy roleplaying games (such as the original games Asylum, Spookshow, and Chosen, work for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Pinnacle, and many others, and both the Origins Award-winning Gamemastering Secrets and the Gold ENnie-winning Lure of the Lich Lord). He is the co-creator of the ReDeus series, and a founding member of Crazy 8 Press. Aaron lives in New York with his family. You can follow him online at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter @gryphonrose.



We posted an excerpt from this book earlier, but that was pre-edit and we now have a cover, so I wanted to give another sneak peek. Enjoy!


TWO – Days 1-2

Conceal and Protect.

Those words, always capitalized in my mind, were drilled into my head from toddlerhood—so much so that I, as Tony and Bonnie Brand’s son, grew up thinking of it as our family motto. Back when I was in fourth grade, I learned about familial coats of arms. Afterward, totally jazzed, I drew one for my family. It depicted a fire-breathing dragon shooting flames out over a charred and blackened field. I even wrote the words “Conceal and Protect,” very carefully, above it in big block letters.

Eight-years-old and largely friendless, I showed this “masterwork” to my mom, who immediately paled.

“It’s beautiful, sweetheart.” My father was at work, and we were alone in the house. Even so, I remember the way my mother looked furtively around as if worried that someone might see. “You’ll be a great artist someday if that’s what you want. But… this isn’t something that you can ever show to anybody.”

I was crest-fallen, pun intended. “But… I thought we could put it above the fireplace!”

Without warning, Mom pulled me into a desperate hug. “I wish we could, Andy. Your father and I would be so proud to have it there. But it’s too dangerous. We’ve talked about this.”

I squirmed and pulled away. “Dad says we shouldn’t be ashamed of what we are.”

“And he’s right,” Mom replied tearfully. “But we’re not the only ones in danger.”

“Why do we have to hide? If we’re not supposed to be ashamed, then why are we always hiding? I’m so sick of hiding!”

She looked at me, stricken, and suddenly my newly found, pre-pre-adolescent fury vanished like smoke.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you want to be like the other children. But you’re not. Our family is Kind, and we need to remember how few we are and how many they are. Andy, human beings scare so easily, and they always strike out at what scares them. This means that to live among them, we have to try to appear human… even though we never will be. But it’s not about shame. It’s never about shame.”

Now, alone in this strange cell, my mother’s words echo. That day’s conversation was a pivotal one, grimly transformative, and I never forgot a word of it.

We have to try to appear human… even though we never will be.

This, of course, is how my captors must see me.


When I wake up after being “vectored,” whatever that means, I’m stretched out on the tile floor where I fell. The room is unchanged. I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep. Hours, certainly. Maybe longer. Without a clock or window, time’s a bit of a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is how hungry I am.

“Hello, Andy.

The Voice—yeah, I’m capitalizing it now—makes me jump a little. I try to hide the reaction and don’t reply.

“You must be hungry.”

This time, not replying’s harder. My stomach growls.

“No? Well, let’s skip breakfast then.”

“Wait!” I call, jumping to my feet. “Yes, I’m hungry.”

I immediately hear a scraping sound, and another wad of paper lands on the floor in front of me.

“Breakfast is waiting. All we ask in return is a little cooperation.”

My stomach growls louder. “What do you want me to do?”

“You know the answer to that question.”

“So… what? You’re not going to feed me unless I obey?”

“Cooperate,” the Voice corrects patiently.

I glare down at the new wad of paper. Then I kick it into the corner with the first one.

“No hurry, Andy. When you’re hungry enough, just say so. I’ll keep your food warm.”

The Voice goes silent.

I wait, but it doesn’t return.

Time passes furking slowly. The growling in my stomach deepens. I struggle to ignore it. Drinking water helps. Every so often, I go to the sink and fill my belly from its tap. But the feeling doesn’t last and, before long, I have to pee like a racehorse. After a while, I get into a torturous rhythm. I wait until my stomach’s too empty to bear, and then I drink myself full and, later, pee myself silly.

Rinse and repeat.

It makes for a brutal day. I keep expecting the Voice to return, maybe to tempt me, first with lunch, then dinner. But it doesn’t. They’re letting me, as my mother sometimes likes to say when I’m being a snot, “stew in my own juices.”

It frankly sucks.

But they want me to break Conceal and Protect.

And. That. I. Will. Not. Do.

Eventually, and without warning, the lights dim. They don’t go out completely. If they did, I’d be in pitch darkness in this windowless room. But they drop low enough that I sense this is supposed to be “nighttime,” that I made it through a full day without eating. I wish I could call it a win, but every second of the ordeal feels like a minute and each minute like an hour. And I have no reason to think the night’s going to be any easier.

I do my best to sleep. Cramps twist my guts, forcing me to lay curled up in a tight ball.

I’ll never know how, but eventually, sleep finds me.

In the “morning,” after a fitful night of pain and terrible dreams that left me sobbing in the dark, I awake to find a big bowl of oatmeal waiting for me.

I run to it and eat greedily, shoveling the food into my mouth with the included spoon.

As I do, the Voice says, “You’re a stubborn young man.”

I don’t reply as I lick the bowl clean. I half-expect to vomit, but I don’t. The stuff tasted like paste, thick and sticky but easily digestible. Maybe they don’t want me puking either.

Nice of them.

“This would all go so much easier if you’d just cooperate.”

“How?” I ask.

“You know how.”

“What I know is that you want me to somehow start a fire without a match. If you’re expecting me to use my heat vision, then I suggest you try a big guy in a cape and with a red “S” on his chest.”

The Voice says nothing more.

Sometime later and without ceremony, my lunch arrives.

Ty Drago

Ty Drago is a full-time writer and the author of eight published novels, including his five-book Undertakers series, the first of which has been optioned for a feature film. Torq, a dystopian YA superhero adventure, was released by Swallow’s End Publishing in 2018. Add to these one novelette, myriad short stories and articles, and appearances in two anthologies. He’s also the founder, publisher, and managing editor of ALLEGORY (, a highly successful online magazine that, for more than twenty years, has features speculative fiction by new and established authors worldwide.

Ty’s currently just completed The New Americans, a work of historical fiction and a collaborative effort with his father, who passed away in 1992. If that last sentence leaves you with questions, check out his podcast, “Legacy: The Novel Writing Experience,” to get the whole story.

He lives in New Jersey with his wife Helene, plus one cat and one dog.


For those who are more into short fiction than novels, this week’s excerpt comes from Tales from Dragon Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido, the first short story collection in the Dragon Precinct Series. Currently there are five novels and one short story collection, but more of each are planned. This series has been described as “Dungeons and Dragnet” by one reviewer and “JAG meets Lord of the Rings” by another. In either case, you get the idea. These are fantasy police procedural fun.

Tales from Dragon Precinct 6x9


“What’ve we— lord and lady, what is that smell?”

Lieutenant Danthres Tresyllione of the Cliff’s End Castle Guard stopped short in the doorway of the cottage. Behind her, Lieutenant Torin ban Wyvald, her partner, had to do likewise to keep from being impaled on the standard-issue longsword scabbard that hung from her belt. He found himself staring at the brown cloak with the gryphon crest of Lord Albin and Lady Meerka that Danthres (and Torin, and all lieutenants in the Guard) wore.

Torin was about to ask what she was on about when he, too, noticed the smell.

Danthres was half-elf, so her senses were more acute. Torin could only imagine how much worse the stench was for her—it was pretty wretched for him. He detected at least four different odors competing to make his nose wrinkle, and only one matched the expected stench of decaying flesh.

The guard who had summoned the two lieutenants was a young man named Garis. Like most of the guards assigned to Unicorn Precinct—which covered the more well-to-do regions of Cliff’s End—Garis was eager to please and not very bright. “Uh, that’s the body, ma’am.”

“Guard, I’ve been around dead bodies most of my adult life. They don’t usually smell like rotted cheese.”

“Uh, no, ma’am,” the guard said.

A brief silence ensued. Danthres sighed loudly. “So what is the smell?”

“Ah, probably the rotted cheese, ma’am. It’s on the table. Or it could be other food items we’ve found.”

“Who found the body?” she asked, still standing in the doorway blocking Torin. Since she was half a head taller than him, and had a wide mane of blond hair, he had no view of the interior. Under other circumstances, he might have complained. Instead, he was happy to enjoy the less unpleasant aroma of the street a while longer. At least this murder wasn’t in Dragon Precinct or, worse, Goblin Precinct, where a rotting corpse constituted a step up in the local odors.

“Next-door neighbor, ma’am,” Garis said. “The, ah, smell got to her—”

“No surprise there.”

“—and, ah, when he didn’t answer the door, she summoned the Guard. I came, broke the door in, and found this body. He’s the only one here, and there’s only one bedroom upstairs, so he probably lived here alone.”

“You didn’t ask the neighbor that?”

“Uh, no, ma’am, I thought that you—”

“Would do all your work for you. Naturally. Did you at least have the wherewithal to summon the M.E.?”

“Yes, ma’am, the magickal examiner sent a mage-bird saying he’d be here within half an hour—and that was about a quarter of an hour ago.”

Danthres finally moved into the house, enabling Torin to do likewise. He surveyed the sitting room, which seemed to take up most of the ground floor. To his left, a staircase led, presumably, to the second level. To his right was a wall taken up almost entirely with shelves stuffed to bursting with books, scrolls, papers, and other items, interrupted only by two windows. The wall opposite where he stood was the same, those shelves broken only by a doorway. Directly in front of Torin was a couch, festooned with papers, dust, writing implements, and wax residue from candles. Perpendicular to it on either side were two easy chairs, one in a similar state of disarray as the couch, the other relatively clean. A table sat in front of the sofa, covered with a lantern, papers, books, scrolls, candles, bowls, and foodstuffs—including the cheese responsible for keeping Torin’s nostril hairs flaring.

Lying facedown on the floor was the body of an elderly man, already decomposing, which meant he’d been dead at least a day. The corpse wore a simple—but not cheap—linen shirt and trousers. Most importantly, the man’s head was at the wrong angle relative to the rest of his body.

“The question now,” Danthres said, “is whether he broke his neck or if someone broke it for him.”

“I’d say the latter.” Torin pointed at the body. “Look how neatly he’s arranged—almost perfectly parallel to the couch, with his arms at his sides. He was set there by someone.”

Danthres nodded in agreement, then looked around. “Probably too much to hope for that it was a robbery. Not that we’d be able to tell if something was missing in this disaster.” She turned to look at Garis, folding her arms across the gryphon crest—a match for the one on her cloak—on the chest of her standard-issue black leather armor. “Why haven’t you opened a window?”

Garis seemed to be trying to shrink into his own armor, which was a match for Danthres and Torin’s, save that he wore no cloak and the crest on his chest was that of a unicorn, denoting the precinct to which he was assigned. “Well, er, uh, I didn’t want to disturb the scene. I remember that robbery in Old Town last winter and I tried to close a window, and—well, ma’am may not remember, but ma’am tried to cut my head off for interfering with possible evidence before she had a chance to, ah, to examine it.”

Danthres snorted. “That’s ridiculous. I never would have tried to cut your head off—there’d be an inquiry.”

Torin grinned beneath his thick red beard. “I think it will be safe for you to open it, Guard.”

“If you say so, sir.”

Garis walked to the window, and found that it wouldn’t budge.

“Honestly, they have got to raise the standards during those recruitment drives,” Danthres said scornfully. Her not-very-attractive face looked positively deathly when she was angry, and Garis tried to shrink even further inside his armor. Danthres’s features were rather unfortunate combinations of her dual heritage. The point of her ears, the elegant high forehead, and the thin lips from her elven father were total mismatches with the wide nose, large brown eyes, and shallow cheekbones she’d inherited from her human mother.

“I’m sure,” Torin said before Danthres truly lost her temper, “that it’s just stuck.” He walked over and saw that there was no locking mechanism. That, in itself, was odd. True, this was Unicorn Precinct—people didn’t need to virtually seal themselves into their homes for safety around here—but an unlocked ground-floor window was still unusual. Especially if this old man did indeed live alone.

Torin braced himself against the window and heaved upward. It still wouldn’t budge.

“It won’t work, you know.”

Whirling, Torin looked for the speaker, his right hand automatically moving to the gryphon-head hilt of his longsword. The only people in the room were Garis, Danthres, and himself. And the corpse, of course, though he was unlikely to speak.

“Who said that?” Danthres asked. Her left hand was also at her sword’s hilt.

“I did.”

Torin realized that the voice came from the area of the couch.

“Come out from behind there.” Torin walked around to behind the sofa.

“Uh, sir, there’s nobody there,” Garis said. “I checked.”

Torin saw that Garis was right.

“It’s the couch,” Danthres said. “The couch talks.”

“Brava to the woman,” the couch said.

“Hell and damnation,” Torin said, “our corpse is a wizard.”

“And bravo to the man,” the couch added. “Yes, my dear, departed owner was a mage. His specialty, as you might have already deduced, is animating furniture. He also hated the very concept of fresh air, so he magicked the windows shut.”

Another voice said, “You’d think just once he’d take pity on us, but no.” This, Torin realized, was the lantern.

Then the cleaner of the two chairs made a noise. “All you ever do is complain. Efrak gave you life, and now that he’s dead you spit on his grave.”

Danthres turned to Garis. “I don’t suppose the M.E.’s mage-bird is still here?”

“No, ma’am, it discorporated as soon as it gave the message.”

Another noise from the chair. “It really is a shame about poor Efrak.”

“It’s not that much of a shame,” the couch said. “I mean, really, what did he do for us?”

“Well, he did give us life,” the lantern said.

“I don’t think—”

“That’s enough!” Danthres bellowed, interrupting the furniture.

Torin added, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to question each of you individually.”

“What’s the point?” Danthres asked him. “He’s a wizard. The Brotherhood will claim jurisdiction, perform their own investigation and keep us completely out of it, like they always do whenever one of their own is involved. And honestly, they’re welcome to it. I hate magick.”

“Don’t be so sure of that,” said another voice, this time from the doorway. Torin recognized this one: Boneen, the magickal examiner. The short, squat old man was on loan from the Brotherhood of Wizards to provide magickal assistance to the law-enforcement efforts of the Cliff’s End Castle Guard.

“Good afternoon, Boneen,” Torin said with a grin.

“What’s so damned good about it? I was having a perfectly fine nap when one of those blasted children woke me with another damned thing for you lot.” Several young children—troublemakers, mostly orphans that had been arrested and pressed into service in lieu of incarceration in the work-houses—served as messengers and/or informants for the Castle Guard. Most of the Guard called them “the youth squad,” except for Boneen, who usually had less flattering terms. Garis had no doubt sent one such to fetch Boneen. “And what in the name of Lord Albin is that horrendous smell?”

“A combination of various slovenly habits,” Torin said.

“Not surprising,” Boneen said as he entered. “Efrak makes the gutter rats in the Docklands look positively pristine by comparison.”

“You know him?” Danthres asked.

Boneen nodded. “A tiresome little old man who dabbles in useless magick for the most part. He’s not actually a member of the Brotherhood.”

Torin blinked in surprise. “I didn’t think that sort of thing was permitted.”

“With new wizards, it isn’t.” Boneen reached into the bag he always carried over his shoulder. “But Efrak’s a couple centuries old—he predates the Brotherhood, and they let him be as long as he registered with them and stayed out of mischief.” He pulled the components for his spell out, chuckling bitterly. “That certainly won’t be an issue anymore.”

Torin led Garis toward the back doorway, which presumably led to the kitchen. “Come on, let’s give him some room.”

The primary duty of the magickal examiner at a crime scene was to cast a “peel-back” spell—it read the psychic resonances on inanimate objects and showed him what happened in the recent past. This generally meant he was able to see what happened, how it happened, and, most importantly, who did it.

Danthres followed him into the kitchen, which smelled worse than the living room. The place was an even bigger mess, with several part-full mugs of various liquids (or congealed messes that were liquid once), plates of partly eaten food, and still more papers and books freely distributed about the table, chairs, countertop, and cupboard. The cupboard itself was the source of the worst stench. Torin recognized the sigil on the cupboard door as that of a freezing spell, but he also knew that it had to be renewed every few days—something Efrak was no longer in a position to do.

“Why would anyone want to have animate furniture?” Danthres asked.

Torin shrugged. “It gave him someone to talk to? If he lived alone, shunned even by other wizards, he probably didn’t have much by way of social interaction.”

“We should talk to his neighbors—starting,” she said with a look at Garis, “with the one who called you. Take us to her.”

Precinct Series

Keith R.A. DeCandido

Keith R.A. DeCandido is a white male in his late forties, approximately two hundred pounds. He was last seen in the wilds of the Bronx, New York City, though he is often sighted in other locales. Usually he is armed with a laptop computer, which some have classified as a deadly weapon. Through use of this laptop, he has inflicted more than fifty novels, as well as an indeterminate number of comic books, nonfiction, novellas, and works of short fiction on an unsuspecting reading public. Many of these are set in the milieus of television shows, games, movies, and comic books, among them Star Trek, Alien, Cars, Summoners War, Doctor Who, Supernatural, World of Warcraft, Marvel Comics, and many more.

We have received information confirming that more stories involving Danthres, Torin, and the city-state of Cliff’s End can be found in the novels Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, Goblin Precinct, Gryphon Precinct, and the forthcoming Phoenix Precinct and Manticore Precinct, as well as the short-story collections Tales from Dragon Precinct and the forthcoming More Tales from Dragon Precinct. His other recent crimes against humanity include A Furnace Sealed, the debut of a new urban fantasy series taking place in DeCandido’s native Bronx; the Alien novel Isolation; the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy of prose novels starring Marvel’s versions of Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three; short stories in the anthologies Aliens: Bug Hunt, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, TV Gods: Summer Programming, X-Files: Trust No One, Nights of the Living Dead, the award-winning Planned Parenthood benefit anthology Mine!, the two Baker Street Irregulars anthologies, and Release the Virgins!; and articles about pop culture for and on his own Patreon.

If you see DeCandido, do not approach him, but call for backup immediately. He is often seen in the company of a suspicious-looking woman who goes by the street name of “Wrenn,” as well as several as-yet-unidentified cats. A full dossier can be found at


This week’s feature has the distinction of being the first Precinct novel published exclusively by eSpec Books. Fortunately, it will not be the last, as it was originally intended to be. We present to you Mermaid Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido, book five in the Dragon Precinct Series. Currently there are five novels and one short story collection, but more of each are planned. This series has been described as “Dungeons and Dragnet” by one reviewer and “JAG meets Lord of the Rings” by another. In either case, you get the idea. These are fantasy police procedural fun.


An early autumn breeze tickled Lieutenant Danthres Tresyllione’s blonde hair as she stood impatiently on Albin Way wishing Lord Doval would hurry up and finish his speech.

As he’d only just started talking, Danthres was less than optimistic that its end would come any time soon.

“Today happens to be the first anniversary of my ascension to the lordship of this great city-state,” Doval was saying, standing in front of the entryway to the newest construction in Cliff’s End. “When I inherited the post following the death of my father, the great Lord Albin, I didn’t imagine the first year would be so very eventful.”

Danthres snorted. Next to her, Lieutenant Torin ban Wyvald, her partner in the Cliff’s End Castle Guard, glanced at her and smiled inside his thin red goatee. The breeze barely stirred his close-cropped red hair.

She whispered to him as Doval carried on, “Funny how he’s completely ignoring Blayk now.”

“Can you blame him?” Torin whispered back.

The reign of Doval’s older brother Blayk had begun with Albin’s death and ended with Blayk’s arrest and condemnation when it was revealed that he’d been responsible for his father’s death, as well as an attempt on the life of the king and queen. His reign had been barely a month long.

“No, but I can be annoyed, since we were the ones who found Blayk out and had him arrested.”

Doval was still droning on. “…at midwinter, the incorporation of the prison barge into the Castle Guard as Manticore Precinct, and most recently the expansion of the docks. Then, of course, there was the fire in Barlin. I must say that I am very proud of how this great city-state responded to the sudden influx of refugees from our sister city, resulting in, among other things, this grand new section of town, named after my great father.”

Again, Danthres snorted. Officially the neighborhood was called Albinton, but everyone had been calling it “New Barlin,” since it was made up almost entirely of refugees from there. The origin of the fire that had devastated the city-state located to the west of here was still a mystery, as it had somehow managed to work past the fire-suppression spells provided by the Brotherhood of Wizards. However, that was a problem for Barlin’s lord and lady and their people.

“The work done by the people of Cliff’s End in clearing this section of the Forest of Nimvale and in constructing the buildings and thoroughfares of Albinton is a testament to why this is truly the finest city-state in all of Flingaria.”

Danthres rolled her eyes. Looking around, she saw that all of her fellow lieutenants, as well as Captain Dru, looked just as uncomfortable as she felt.

Well, not quite all of her fellow lieutenants. Horran was conspicuously absent and would remain so—which made his lack of a replacement somewhat frustrating.

“Having said that,” Doval continued, “our expansion has not been without its—ah, growing pains.”

Dru let out a breath, but that was the closest anyone came to a groan. Danthres was grateful that at least nobody laughed at the awful joke.

“The riot during midsummer, the rampage of the so-called Gorvangin, and the general rise in crime since the establishment of Albinton, has forced us to expand the Castle Guard. Our recruitment drive has been quite the success, and today we officially open our newest branch: Phoenix Precinct!”

That prompted applause from the gathered crowd, which was mostly those selfsame new recruits, as well as a bunch of more experienced guards. Most of the latter were being assigned to this new precinct—they were all wearing the new phoenix crest on the chest of their leather armor. The new recruits had mostly been sent to Gryphon and Unicorn Precincts, which were the castle and the upper-class district, respectively. Those two precincts had the lightest duty—mostly it involved catering to the insane whims of the rich and tiresome—and Lord Doval, Sir Rommett (the member of the lord and lady’s court in charge of appropriations and such for the Castle Guard), and Captain Dru all agreed that it was best to put the new recruits there rather than in the new precinct. Phoenix was instead staffed by transfers from Dragon Precinct, the middle-class district; Goblin Precinct, the lower-class district; and Mermaid Precinct, the docklands.

A guard in a green cloak stepped toward the front as Doval waited for the applause to die down. Danthres tried not to snarl. “I still can’t believe they promoted that shitbrain,” she muttered.

Again, Torin smiled at her discomfort. “He did save young Dal Wint during midsummer.”

“Which is the first useful thing he’s done in fourteen years on the job.”

“And now,” Doval said, “may I present the officer in charge of the day shift at Phoenix Precinct, Sergeant Rik Slaney!”

Slaney waved to the crowd, with the same stupid smile he’d had on his face when he’d left Danthres to subdue a troll all by herself, back when they both served together in Goblin Precinct twelve years previous. He’d had a mostly uneventful career, working first in Goblin, then Dragon Precinct. It was serving there during midsummer that he saved the life of the son of the construction ministers, Sir and Madam Wint. Given all the new buildings and roads going up all around the demesne, the Wints had become two of the most influential and powerful members of the court. Slaney’s promotion to sergeant was inevitable.

Doval went on: “He will be joined by Sergeant Ander Kaplan, who will be taking the night shift. He’s home in bed right now, of course, resting up for his first shift this evening. Sergeant Slaney, please say a few words.”

The smile fell from Slaney’s face, and a look of abject fear spread across his features. That change was proportional to Danthres’s own improvement in mood, as she went from annoyance at Slaney’s promotion to total glee at how scared and helpless he suddenly looked at the thought of speaking in front of all these people.

“Well, uh, I mean—” Slaney swallowed. “I ain’t much for, uh, for public speakin’, really, but, uh—well, I guess I just wanna say ’at ’s’an honor to, uh, t’be in charge’a this, well, this new, um, precinct, and I’m ’opin’, um, this’ll mean, y’know, that New Barlin’ll be, um, safer and, ah, sounder, like, y’know?”

Doval visibly winced at Slaney’s use of “New Barlin,” which gave Danthres even more joy.

From the other side of her, Lieutenant Manfred whispered to her, “Roll call’s gonna be a nightmare if that’s how he talks to the troops.”

Danthres chuckled. “And that’s one of his more lucid speeches.”

“Tell me about it—I had to work with him in Dragon, back in the day.”

Captain Dru shot them both a look and put a finger to his lips.

“Er, well, thank you, Sergeant.” Doval had obviously been expecting a longer speech. “Without further ado—guards of Phoenix Precinct, consider your first day shift to have officially begun!”

Precinct Series

Keith R.A. DeCandido

Keith R.A. DeCandido is a white male in his late forties, approximately two hundred pounds. He was last seen in the wilds of the Bronx, New York City, though he is often sighted in other locales. Usually he is armed with a laptop computer, which some have classified as a deadly weapon. Through use of this laptop, he has inflicted more than fifty novels, as well as an indeterminate number of comic books, nonfiction, novellas, and works of short fiction on an unsuspecting reading public. Many of these are set in the milieus of television shows, games, movies, and comic books, among them Star Trek, Alien, Cars, Summoners War, Doctor Who, Supernatural, World of Warcraft, Marvel Comics, and many more.

We have received information confirming that more stories involving Danthres, Torin, and the city-state of Cliff’s End can be found in the novels Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, Goblin Precinct, Gryphon Precinct, and the forthcoming Phoenix Precinct and Manticore Precinct, as well as the short-story collections Tales from Dragon Precinct and the forthcoming More Tales from Dragon Precinct. His other recent crimes against humanity include A Furnace Sealed, the debut of a new urban fantasy series taking place in DeCandido’s native Bronx; the Alien novel Isolation; the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy of prose novels starring Marvel’s versions of Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three; short stories in the anthologies Aliens: Bug Hunt, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, TV Gods: Summer Programming, X-Files: Trust No One, Nights of the Living Dead, the award-winning Planned Parenthood benefit anthology Mine!, the two Baker Street Irregulars anthologies, and Release the Virgins!; and articles about pop culture for and on his own Patreon.

If you see DeCandido, do not approach him, but call for backup immediately. He is often seen in the company of a suspicious-looking woman who goes by the street name of “Wrenn,” as well as several as-yet-unidentified cats. A full dossier can be found at


This week we are featuring Gryphon Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido, book four in the Dragon Precinct Series. Currently there are five novels and one short story collection, but more of each are planned. This has been described as “Dungeons and Dragnet” by one reviewer and “JAG meets Lord of the Rings” by another. In either case, you get the idea. These are fantasy police procedural fun.


Lord Albin was late.

This distressed his chamberlain, Sir Rommett, no end, because Lord Albin was never late for the first appointment of the day.

Oh, as the day wore on, the lord of the demesne’s ability to be punctual deteriorated, and engagements scheduled for the end of the day were postponed about a third of the time. As the person who ruled the city-state of Cliff’s End, Lord Albin was in great demand. (Technically, he co-ruled with his wife, Lady Meerka, but she limited herself to overseeing financial matters. Her husband had to deal with everything else.)

That Lord Albin had agreed to see Sir Rommett first thing in the morning underlined the importance of the meeting. To make matters worse, Rommett had no idea what the meeting was about. Lord Albin had been unusually mysterious, saying only that it was “a grave matter.”

When the time chimes rang nine times, Rommett decided to take action. Normally, one waited for the lord to arrive at his leisure. To do aught else would be highly improper, and Rommett prided himself on his propriety. But Lord Albin was now an hour late, and worse, had sent no notice of his tardiness.

Stepping out of his office, he saw his secretary sitting at his desk, writing on a scroll. “Bertram, has there been any word from Lord Albin?”

Looking up from his writing, Bertram said, “I’m afraid not, sir.”

“He’s an hour late.”

“Yes sir, he is.”

“No message, nothing?”

Bertram shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Damn. This is very unlike him, don’t you think, Bertram?”

“I would never presume to say, sir. His scribe did come by.”

“What, that gnome?” Rommett asked with a frown.

Nodding, Bertram said, “Yes, sir. He hadn’t seen his lordship yet this morning, despite having gone by his office twice. I sent a pageboy to check with the house faerie, and his lordship did get up and leave his bedroom at seven this morning, along with Lady Meerka. They had breakfast together, and then her ladyship went to the eastern wing to speak with the magickal examiner. I’m not sure where his lordship went, I’m sorry to say.”

“Odd business. The meeting with the guild leaders is still at half past nine, yes?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll never be able to reschedule that.” Rommett shuddered. Finding a time when the leaders of all the guilds that controlled various occupations throughout Cliff’s End could meet had been almost impossible. Postponing and finding a new time would take weeks, and the guilds had already been threatening work stoppages if they didn’t get to meet with Rommett soon. “If he’s not in his bedchambers and he’s not in his office, he’s likely in the sitting room.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m going to have to check there myself. If he is there, it’s best he not be disturbed by a mere pageboy.”

Bertram’s eyes widened with shock. “Is that—is that wise, sir?”

“We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?” Rommett sighed. “It’s just so unlike him not to send word if he’s this late.”

“Yes, sir.” Bertram sounded dubious, but Rommett studiously ignored him and started down the corridor toward Lord Albin’s sitting room. He noticed that the guard who was usually posted near Rommett’s office wasn’t present. Indignant, Rommett whirled around to face his secretary again. “Bertram! Where is the guard?”

“I’m afraid the guards assigned to the castle are a bit short-handed this morning, sir. Today is the funeral.”

Bertram had said that as if Rommett would know what funeral he was referring to.

Apparently deciphering the quizzical expression Rommett gave him, Bertram continued: “One of the lieutenants in the Castle Guard was killed during that, ah, unfortunate incident at the bank?”

Rommett vaguely remembered a report about something like that. In fact, thinking about it, he recalled a requisition from Captain Osric for permission to promote one of the guards to lieutenant to replace the detective in question—Hawk, was it? He still hadn’t approved that requisition. In any case, while the chamberlain was not happy at the notion of the castle being short-handed of protection, he also was not so churlish as to deny people the right to attend the funeral of a comrade. “I assume this funeral will not extend past lunch?”

“No, sir,” Bertram said confidently.

“Very well.” Nodding, Rommett again turned his back on his secretary and proceeded through the castle halls until he reached Lord Albin’s study.

The double doors at the end of the corridor were closed. That was meaningless in and of itself, as the doors were rarely open. If Lord Albin was inside, it was usually a meeting that he did not wish people to eavesdrop on (more public meetings were held in the dining room or in his office); if he wasn’t inside the doors were not just closed, but locked.

Rommett hesitated, then knocked.

There was no response.

Praying to Temisa that he was not making a career-ending mistake, he grabbed the left-hand door and pulled down the handle. The door creaked as Rommett gingerly pulled it open to reveal Lord Albin sitting in the plush chair, currently turned to face the fireplace, which was roaring, as it was a chill autumn day. Lord Albin hadn’t been well lately, and in retrospect, Rommett shouldn’t have been surprised that his lordship had decided to take refuge in front of a fire.

Oddly, Lord Albin was simply staring straight ahead, as if lost in thought. He had an odd expression on his face, but Rommett couldn’t figure out for the life of him what precisely was odd about it, merely that it was.

“My lord, I’m sorry, but we were supposed to meet an hour ago to discuss that—that grave matter of yours, and I need to meet with the guild leaders in just half an hour, so I was hoping . . .”

Rommett trailed off, as Lord Albin had made no response of any kind to his chamberlain’s words. In fact, he hadn’t blinked, hadn’t moved, hadn’t twitched his mouth, hadn’t done anything.

Not even breathe.

His voice a strangled whisper, Rommett said, “Oh, Temisa, no . . .”

Hesitantly, he approached the body. Afraid to touch it, he instead just looked at it. Lord Albin’s eyes stared unblinkingly ahead, his body as still as a statue. Rommett briefly felt dizzy and had to steady himself on the frame of the fireplace—only to quickly remove his hand and almost fall forward, as the bricks were hot from the fire.

Filled with a sudden urge to be away from the sitting room as fast as possible, Rommett turned and practically ran, his legs carrying him toward the main entrance to the castle. Only as he entered the vestibule did he realize that his legs knew where to take him even when his conscious mind did not: Bertram had said that Lady Meerka was with Boneen, the magickal examiner, and his lair was in the basement of the eastern wing of the castle.

Coming in through the main entrance at the same time were two members of the Castle Guard, a human man and a half-human, half-elven woman. They wore black leather armor as all guards did. A medallion on the chest included a stylized gryphon, the family crest of Lord Albin and Lady Meerka, indicating that they were assigned to the castle. They both wore earth-colored cloaks with the same crest, the color denoting them as lieutenants in the Guard. Rommett could not remember their names.

The male half of the pair had a thick red beard and long red hair, which obscured all but his aquiline nose and penetrating eyes. He looked concerned upon seeing Rommett, and the chamberlain realized that his devastation was etched on his features.

“Sir Rommett,” he asked, “are you all right?”

Flexing his hand, which still burned from the fireplace frame, Rommett said, “No. None of us may ever be all right again.”

“What’s wrong?”

Rommett hesitated, as if saying it made it more real.

Then he looked down at his hand, which was starting to get red. Saying it or not saying it would have no effect on anything, he forced himself to admit. Temisa had already taken him away.

“Lord Albin,” he finally said, “is dead.”

Both detectives’ eyes went wide, and the half-elven detective, who was one of the ugliest women Rommett had ever seen—not just in face, but also in personality, as the woman had no respect for her betters—put her hand to the hilt of her sword, hanging from a belt scabbard. “How was he killed?”

Rommett stared at the woman for a second—Tresyllione, that was her name. “He wasn’t killed! He’s been ill, and he died in his sitting room.”

“You’re sure?” Tresyllione asked insistently. “His body had no markings on it, no indication of foul play?”

“Of course not, don’t be ridiculous!” Rommett shook his head, wondering why he had even stopped to talk to these two idiots. “I must go inform Lady Meerka.”

Flexing his left hand some more, he made a mental note to see a healer after he talked to her ladyship.

He also wondered if he wasn’t too snappish with Tresyllione and her partner. In fact, he didn’t investigate the body all that closely, and it was Lord Albin himself who proclaimed the law that any time someone died in Cliff’s End, it should be investigated by the Castle Guard.

But no. His lordship had been sick. That was all.

Precinct Series

Keith R.A. DeCandido

Keith R.A. DeCandido is a white male in his late forties, approximately two hundred pounds. He was last seen in the wilds of the Bronx, New York City, though he is often sighted in other locales. Usually he is armed with a laptop computer, which some have classified as a deadly weapon. Through use of this laptop, he has inflicted more than fifty novels, as well as an indeterminate number of comic books, nonfiction, novellas, and works of short fiction on an unsuspecting reading public. Many of these are set in the milieus of television shows, games, movies, and comic books, among them Star Trek, Alien, Cars, Summoners War, Doctor Who, Supernatural, World of Warcraft, Marvel Comics, and many more.

We have received information confirming that more stories involving Danthres, Torin, and the city-state of Cliff’s End can be found in the novels Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, Goblin Precinct, Gryphon Precinct, and the forthcoming Phoenix Precinct and Manticore Precinct, as well as the short-story collections Tales from Dragon Precinct and the forthcoming More Tales from Dragon Precinct. His other recent crimes against humanity include A Furnace Sealed, the debut of a new urban fantasy series taking place in DeCandido’s native Bronx; the Alien novel Isolation; the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy of prose novels starring Marvel’s versions of Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three; short stories in the anthologies Aliens: Bug Hunt, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, TV Gods: Summer Programming, X-Files: Trust No One, Nights of the Living Dead, the award-winning Planned Parenthood benefit anthology Mine!, the two Baker Street Irregulars anthologies, and Release the Virgins!; and articles about pop culture for and on his own Patreon.

If you see DeCandido, do not approach him, but call for backup immediately. He is often seen in the company of a suspicious-looking woman who goes by the street name of “Wrenn,” as well as several as-yet-unidentified cats. A full dossier can be found at


Hitting the midway point. This week we are featuring Goblin Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido, book three in the Dragon Precinct Series. Currently there are five novels and one short story collection, but more of each are planned. This has been described as “Dungeons and Dragnet” by one reviewer and “JAG meets Lord of the Rings” by another. In either case, you get the idea. These are fantasy police procedural fun.

Goblin Precinct 2x3PROLOGUE

Oddly, given how miserable he’d been the past few years, Elthor lothSerra was happier than he’d ever been in his century-plus of life when he died.

Once, many years ago, Elthor was a member of the Elf Queen’s court. He had a charming wife, a beautiful mistress, dozens of servants, hundreds of slaves, all the food he could consume (and then some), and enough gold to drown himself in.

Elthor’s wealth was inherited, but he also invested wisely, and one of his concerns was in swordmaking—a boom business during war, and the Elf Queen was always at war with someone.

Then, of course, came the biggest war of all, as the Elf Queen tried to extend her grasp to all the dwarven and human lands. And she would have succeeded, too, had it not been for the betrayal of her nephew, Olthar lothSirhans.

Elthor had always considered Olthar to be a dear friend and comrade. His betrayal had stung at the time.

Said betrayal was the beginning of the end for the Elf Queen, which meant it was also the end for Elthor. His fortunes were tied entirely to his being a favorite of the Elf Queen, and when things took a turn for the worse, his own lifespan—once guaranteed to last a couple of centuries—was now measured in hours.

Unless, of course, he got out. He had sufficient cash reserves, and barely enough people who thought highly of him, to get out of the elven lands. When the Elf Queen was brought down by human soldiers led by the legendary Gan Brightblade, Elthor was long gone.

Olthar, for all that he and Brightblade had become comrades, was not among those who brought the Elf Queen down. Indeed, he never set foot in elven lands again after his betrayal. Up until his own hasty departure, Elthor had thought that to be cowardly.

But how could he go home after leaving in ignominy? For decades, he had traveled in lavish coaches drawn by the finest horses. When he left home, for what turned out to be the last time, it was hiding in a merchant’s carriage drawn by one slow, elderly horse. He was surrounded by assorted badly packed dry goods and the ride east nearly destroyed his back.

Finding somewhere to go proved more problematic than he had first thought. In the past, all he’d had to do was say he was a member of the Elf Queen’s court and he could stay in the best accommodations with serving staff at his beck and call. Now, the very mention of a connection to the Elf Queen would like as not put him on the wrong end of a sword. With his luck, it would be a blade made by one of his own swordmasters.

Eventually, he found himself in the city-state of Cliff’s End. A nominally human metropolis—it was run by Lord Albin and Lady Meerka, who served the human king and queen—it was, in fact, an incredibly diverse place where elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings mingled with humans with little difficulty or revulsion.

Elthor had been pretty disgusted when he arrived, but given his current station in life, he wasn’t in a position to be fussy. And the ease of blending in proved useful.

He had come to the port city with the thought of hiring a boat to one of the islands on the Garamin Sea where they didn’t ask questions, but by the time he arrived, he’d gone through all his cash reserves, with poor lodgings eating through his remaining coin in a week’s time.

Only a year after escaping his home with his life, Elthor lothSerra found himself reduced to begging on Haven’s Lane. It was his only option, as being a nobleman for a great empire left one without very many marketable skills. His attempts at securing employment proved pathetic and short-lived.

So he begged. And grew more and more unhappy.

As the years passed—Elthor honestly had no idea how many, as his sense of time had atrophied from lack of caring—he got progressively better at begging and proportionately more unhappy.

One of the other beggars he occasionally shared space with on Haven’s Way was a gnome whose name Elthor had never bothered to learn. On one occasion, the gnome asked Elthor, “Why aint’cha happy?”

Elthor just stared at him. “Are you mad? What could I possibly be happy about?”

“What ain’t there t’be happy about?” The gnome shook his head. “This is the life, innit? You sit around all day and people just throw coins at you for lookin’ pathetic. Shit, all’s you have to be doin’ is lookin’ like your usual self, and it’s good for a couple gold a day. What could be better?”

“Almost anything.”

The gnome laughed and shook his head. “You gotcherself entirely the wrong attitude, you do. Know whatcha need?”

“A boat to take me away from this cesspit of a city?”

“Naw, you’re needed somethin’ for cheer. An’ I know someone’s got just the thing.”

Elthor had ignored the gnome for the rest of the day, but on the next, he offered Elthor a pill.

“What is this?” Elthor asked, pointedly not taking the proffered item.

“It’s called ‘Bliss.’ It’ll put the smile back on your face, it will. Just costs a copper.”

At first, Elthor was going to reject the gnome’s offer out of hand. After all, he was truly endeavoring to save up to hire that boat.

But how realistic a notion was that? He’d been begging for years now, and—once he’d spent what he needed for food, drink, and the occasional awful accommodation, usually during winter—he’d only scraped together a few gold. While he’d attempted to keep his personal spending down, it still wasn’t enough. He’d been absolutely ruthless in paring his spending down. Indeed, the only time he’d indulged himself was to buy a celebratory drink when he heard the news that Olthar lothSirhans had been killed.

He was decades away from even considering the possibility of hiring a boat, and he was fairly sure that he’d go completely mad long before then.

There was also the stark realization that the only day he’d been truly happy since coming to this city-state was the day he learned that Olthar had been murdered. On that day, his only sadness was that he had not been the one to wield the weapon that killed the betrayer.

So, at once both reluctant and eager, Elthor took the pill that the gnome offered in exchange for a copper recently dropped in his hat by one of his regulars.

At first, nothing changed, and Elthor was about to demand his copper back—then suddenly he was utterly suffused with joy! The sun, formerly an unwelcome intrusion of light, was now bright and lovely! The stinks of Haven’s Way became pleasurable, the drab colors of Goblin Precinct’s buildings became bright and vivid, and the sussurus of the downtrodden voices of the Cliff’s End poor became a symphony of noise!

For the first time since Olthar’s betrayal, Elthor truly felt joy!

The day passed by quickly, and Elthor got many fewer coins than usual—after all, who would give money to so happy a beggar?—but he found that he didn’t care.

At least until roughly sundown, when it all just stopped. The scents became odors once more, the noise became oppressive, the sights dull. As miserable as he’d been before taking Bliss, it was as nothing compared to how he felt now, with the knowledge that such transcendent happiness had been his just minutes ago.

His sleep was troubled, his dreams filled with images of people he hadn’t seen in years, but the most prominent was Olthar lothSirhans, laughing at him.

The next morning, he sought out the gnome and bought a dozen of the Bliss pills, figuring they would keep him going for a week or so.

But the second pill only lasted a few hours, and the third only two. With each pill, the high was of a shorter duration, the crash harder and nastier. It got to the point where Elthor was taking a pill every quarter-hour, desperate to maintain the joy and stave off the doom.

One morning, the gnome, whose name was Chobral, wandered into Haven’s Way to inquire as to whether or not Elthor wanted more pills, only to find that he lay dead in the alley.

With a sigh at losing a paying customer—Chobral got twenty percent of the take from any direct sales he made, and Elthor had the makings of a good regular—the gnome went to find a member of the Cliff’s End Castle Guard to report the dead body.

Precinct Series

Keith R.A. DeCandido

Keith R.A. DeCandido is a white male in his late forties, approximately two hundred pounds. He was last seen in the wilds of the Bronx, New York City, though he is often sighted in other locales. Usually he is armed with a laptop computer, which some have classified as a deadly weapon. Through use of this laptop, he has inflicted more than fifty novels, as well as an indeterminate number of comic books, nonfiction, novellas, and works of short fiction on an unsuspecting reading public. Many of these are set in the milieus of television shows, games, movies, and comic books, among them Star Trek, Alien, Cars, Summoners War, Doctor Who, Supernatural, World of Warcraft, Marvel Comics, and many more.

We have received information confirming that more stories involving Danthres, Torin, and the city-state of Cliff’s End can be found in the novels Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, Goblin Precinct, Gryphon Precinct, and the forthcoming Phoenix Precinct and Manticore Precinct, as well as the short-story collections Tales from Dragon Precinct and the forthcoming More Tales from Dragon Precinct. His other recent crimes against humanity include A Furnace Sealed, the debut of a new urban fantasy series taking place in DeCandido’s native Bronx; the Alien novel Isolation; the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy of prose novels starring Marvel’s versions of Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three; short stories in the anthologies Aliens: Bug Hunt, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, TV Gods: Summer Programming, X-Files: Trust No One, Nights of the Living Dead, the award-winning Planned Parenthood benefit anthology Mine!, the two Baker Street Irregulars anthologies, and Release the Virgins!; and articles about pop culture for and on his own Patreon.

If you see DeCandido, do not approach him, but call for backup immediately. He is often seen in the company of a suspicious-looking woman who goes by the street name of “Wrenn,” as well as several as-yet-unidentified cats. A full dossier can be found at