Flash Fiction: The Burning Year

Prompt: Phoenix

Sometimes you can see the future coming at you with all the immensity of a train hurtling down the iron tracks without its conductor.  Steam and fire pour out of its mouth and it gains speed with every mile and you know, you just know, that you can’t move yourself an inch from its path.  It’s gonna hit you, and it’s gonna hurt, and there’s no way to prevent it.

Sometimes you can see the future coming down, but it’s not you it’s meant to hit, but the sister standing beside you who may see it, may not, and her boots are stood fast to the ground as if made from the bones of a mountain.  You know it’s gonna be a spectacular and horrible collision, the future and the girl like mountains, and you know that if she won’t move then you won’t either, because leaving her to her own destruction has never been your way of things.

It was that way when Helios came into our lives.  Dark eyes and sharp grins and just enough mean to make it through the world mostly whole, he and Fred were like each side of a mirror, maybe even cut from the splinters of the same dying star when their souls came to be.  He was drawn to her the moment he stepped foot in camp.  I heard Fred draw a harsh breath and whatever magic or chemistry or soul lay between them, she was caught from the very beginning.

I watched them exchange barbs and laughter and see the challenge light up in their hearts, and I heard the scream of that train in the distance.

Helios kept his past to himself.  That wasn’t so strange to us at first.  We were all of us coming or running from something painful we wanted to forget or make right.  Over time he mentioned a brother he loved and lost, and bits about an old woman who taught him how to throw a knife dead accurate.  He knew magic, but he said it was only a little, only enough to keep him safe in the wilds.

I didn’t believe him, but I had no cause to call him on it at the time.  Sometimes I wonder if I had…  But that’s no use.  That train was coming, I doubt any such action on my part could have turned it aside.

We moved camp to stay ahead of the Rangers and the Army, such as it was, and Fred fell more deeply in love with Helios and he with her every day.  They took to hunting together, coming back with their hair disheveled and their clothes in disarray.  I moved into Dove’s tent after a while.  There’s only so much of your sister you can share before you want to take a fork to your eyes.

Dove watched Fred and Helios, too, and his mouth slid deeper and deeper into frown.

“You’re getting too distracted,” Dove told her one day.  “Love is a fine thing, but it’s making you lazy and stupid.  You forgot three of the boundary wards last night.”

Dove could have worded it better, but I suppose it stung him something deep, seeing Fred go so completely wild for this stranger who did nothing more than walk into camp one day.  I cringed as Fred coiled over on herself and rose up like a kicked rattler.

I don’t remember exactly what Fred shouted back, but every word was laced with venom and she struck deep into every vulnerable soft spot Dove had left.  She’d have been kinder to bury a knife in his chest.  They both left steaming, and something broke between them that day.  They never did fix it.  They worked around each other from then on out, never directly speaking, but they kept any other arguments under the surface.

The damage was done, though.  In-fighting weakens any army, even one so small as ours.  The Rangers caught up to us in a box canyon and we had it out.  We lost nine under the fiery sun and left them in the sand where they fell.  We escaped only narrowly with the help of a sudden rain storm and a landslide that took the Rangers’ ponies.  We scraped our way to the high country and hid out for weeks subsisting on lizards, quail, and alkie water.

Four left us that night, preferring to go back to whatever was left of their families and tribes.  Fred, me, Helios, Dove, and the Cayburr cousins were all who stayed.  We still required vengeance or some sort of justice.  We decided to ride for Antelope Head Junction.  A risk, but we weren’t looking for a future beyond some kind of last stand against the coven alders responsible for our pain.

Helios started acting strange.  He withdrew some of his affection and volunteered for solo hunts and scouting.  It hurt Fred and she couldn’t see what she’d done wrong.  She tried to talk to him.  I would hear him brush it away with a smile and a trail of kisses.  He was just jumpy, and tired, and hungry.  He needed some time to himself.  It was some kind of anniversary, though I never heard what kind, that had him out of sorts.  Fred accepted it to his face, but she worried, and she chewed it over every time he left.

Then, two days before we reached Antelope Head Junction, the Rangers came upon us with three coven alders in tow.  They took us by surprise, and it was so much like that night at Turtle River it felt we’d been kicked in the teeth.  Within an hour we were trussed up tighter than a tangled net and set on our knees before the alders.

All except Helios.  He stood behind them, gun still in his holster.  One of the alders, a plump short man with gray robes and three gold rings pierced through his eyebrow that marked him as High Alder, gave Helios a wand.

“You more than earned it back.  To think, the infamous Granny Ness’ grandson finally brought to heel, and the legendary Sisters who burned Great Falls to ashes.  This is a momentous occasion.”

Maybe it was the late hour and the flickering torchlight, but Helios seemed pale in the face and all his usual charm and bravado had fled him.  He was sent away.

“You are cursed, Helios!  You betray your loyalty, you betray your friends, you betray your heart!  You will never rest in peace above the earth or inside it.  You will have a cluster of thorns in your side for the rest of your days and you will never love, never again, and never have the love of another for so long as I will it!”  Fred’s voice was the crack of a rifle across an empty plain, and her voice struck Helios dead center.

He looked back at her, just once, and then he rode away, unable to withstand her fury.

The Rangers and the Alders took us to Antelope Head and lined us up on the execution platform after the trial.  They took our boots and jackets and put the nooses around our necks.  People cheered for our deaths in the crowd below.  A few did not, but they raised no protest, nor staged attempt at rescue.

“I’m sorry,” Dove said as the mayor read out the charges for everyone to hear.  “I wish it had not been this way between us.  You both fought bravely for the cause.  Granny is smiling on us now.”

“When you see her, give her our love,” Fred said, her voice hoarse.

“You’re family, both of you.  Granny will be waiting for all of us at the docks to bear us over.”

The mayor finished the charges and signaled the executioner.

“It’s not our time to die,” I said as they sprung the lever.  I don’t know if he heard it as an apology or not, but in that moment I almost wished it was the end for us.

Later, Fred and I dug our way out of the loose grave dirt and rose, breathing, under the light of a half moon hidden behind a skein of clouds.  Dove was still buried, his grave marked with wood and a simple inscription of ‘Dove Traveller, Criminal’.

“What now?” I asked in a whisper as my throat healed from the severe wrenching.

“We finish what we started,” Fred said.  She knelt by Dove’s grave and placed a hand on the mound, head bowed.  “First the Alders.  Then Helios.  We right our wrongs and pay for them as needed.  Life is not ours to live until it’s all done.”

I put my hand out to help her up.  She took it.

Fred was never the same after that.  Neither was I, of course, but it was more subtle with me.  I remembered that night the story Granny told us of that mythical firebird that lived to the far east.  How it burned itself to ash and rose from it once more.  That night we both entered the fire and burned, fast and merciless, through the coven lands until we found those responsible for everything.  I make no apologies for it, though I know it made us no better than the alders themselves for killing all we held dear.  We made them fear the Sisters, we seared our agony and anger into every house, every fence post, and every field.

The smoke settled on our skin and wrapped its tendrils around our hearts to smolder beneath our ribs.  We hit hard and fast and disappeared into the dark, pulling the shadows around us like old friends.  We found the alders seven months later, and by then we’d broken the line of their ranches and freed the people they enslaved under false contracts.  The alders surrendered.  We hung them from their alter tree and watched the central stronghold burn until it turned the very sky dark.

We found Helios not long after.  He had taken shelter in an abandoned homestead where shredded curtains blew in the warm breeze and the door hung ajar by its bottom hinges.

Fred’s curse struck deeper than I could have predicted.  An infection had taken hold of him, leaving a track of dark lines to spider web his skin and cripple his strength.  It covered his side, his chest, and his back.  He had wandered, he said, delirious and weak, and no one would so much as look at him when he called for help.  They dodged from his grasping hands and closed their ears to his cries.  He burned while awake and he burned in his dreams.  All he saw was Fred on her knees, her eyes empty pits of flame, holding his heart in her hands.

He asked for mercy.

Part of Fred wanted to give it to him.  It was a small part, made brittle and frail by the fire.

She took his gun and wand.  She tied his horse to ours.

“I have to live with what you did for so much longer than you do.  You can suffer for as long as possible, it will never be long enough.”

We left him and ignored his shouting, his pleading.  It did not bring Fred any peace, but then, neither did killing the alders.  Peace is a thing of comfort and warmth.  Justice is cold and hard, but it opens the door of peace for others, for them who come long after and don’t have the wreckage of their lives still at their feet.

That year we burned and died and burned again.  We were reborn.  I can’t say yet what we were reborn as.  Maybe just older.  We still have to figure that out.  Until we do we have ashes and wreckage to sort through.  Then, later, see what we can rebuild.

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Flash Fiction: Into the Abyss

“That’s just unnatural,” Taz muttered, eyeing the dark liquid inside the cup.  “What do you suppose it is?”

I tilted the cup around in my hand, so the liquid swirled around.  There was no way to see the bottom of the cup.  The liquid was thicker than water, but not so thick as molasses.  There was no reflection on it, either.  Just a tiny sheen of white as the setting sun light skimmed the edges.

“I would say coffee but even the sludge Mama used to make wasn’t like this.”

My heart twinged at the memory of Mama, but I pushed it aside.  Another day, I promised myself.  When all this crap was over I would let myself mourn.  Though, to be fair, there wasn’t much of a chance I’d live long enough for that.

“We have to make a decision,” Taz said.  “The sun is almost gone.  Do we want to take this chance?”

I swallowed against the sour taste in the back of my throat.

“Gonna have to.  No other way around it.”

“There’s always another way.”

Taz said it not to sway my decision, just as a reminder, but the sun was disappearing and the ash in the air clung to us like dirty snow.

“Yeah, but nothin’ we’d figure in time.”

Taz nodded, accepting and completely trusting.  I never used to question her faith in me.  I never had to, but that was before when I was a stupid child and taking things for granted was the way of things.  Taz didn’t have to be here.  She chose to be and chose to follow my lead, madness infecting my brain and all.

Before I could second guess myself, I upended the cup and drank half the strange liquid down.  It was cold, with a copper aftertaste and a squirmy sensation, like it was alive and worming its way into all my insides.  Taz took the cup as I gagged and finished it off.  She coughed and wiped her lips.  A dark smear went across her cheek.

Twilight fell on us and the world spun like a spindle, around and around.  The plains disappeared around us.  When it stopped we were back in that midnight desert, mountains shaped like sleeping giants in the distance and a set of footprints leading into the dark.

Onward and upward and all that jazz

Editing time!  I wrote the last lines of the ending the other day, now it’s time to start cleaning house.  I have my fuel, my notebook, and in a minute I’ll start the cringe-worthy read through of my story collection.  The plan, as it stands now, is to do a full read from beginning to end and take extensive notes so I have a solid idea of what I’m up against before I go ripping into the meat of this strangely assembled beast.  I have a vague sense of missing character development in several parts, sudden character introductions at the end, and several missing KEY POINTS that were never set up.  So, figure out what needs axing, what just needs a prune, and what needs complete revision because I decided somewhere along the way to go completely off road and into the abyss.

It should be quite a wild ride.

Blue Alice

Chuck Wendig had another prompt that gave me some inspiration.  The prompt was ‘There is no exit.’  This is what I came up with.  I tried something different and wrote in 2nd person present tense.  I think it worked for this piece.

There are three things you know you can count on in your life.

1.  The world will always find a way to temper kindness with cruelty, lest you get the wrong idea of its nature.

2.  The wind will forever pull you back out to sea, and it has no qualms about stranding you.

3.  Blue Alice will always be in the corner of the pub, draining mugs of rum and ale, telling stories of past glory to anyone who will buy another round.

You used to pay her in mugs for her tales.  Cheeky little shit you were, attracted to the glory she spoke of like it was precious diamonds.  You wanted all she spoke of, adventures and treasure and the sheer unfettered freedom her kind of life could give someone if they only had the courage to pursue it.

Those stories taught you many things, but you learned more when you gave your courage full rein.  You’ll never be a quarter of the storyteller Blue Alice is, but you’ve seen your fair share of strangeness, of wonder, and black-hearted vileness.

The latter, perhaps, never so plain as when you catch a glimpse of your reflection.

Blue Alice accepts the rum and takes a deep swallow as if it might quench some long-suffering parch.  She licks her lips and sets the mug down, fingers still entwined in the handle.

“What tale may I offer ye today?  Something adventurous and daring?  Perhaps ye wish to hear about the cursed pearls that won back a war.  Or maybe something mysterious, such as the sirens who lurk at shipwrecks so they might pry a bargain from the lips of a desperate sailor in their blackest hour.”

You say nothing, for it occurs to you to look past Blue Alice’s words.  You notice her eyes.  They must have been striking, long ago, as the clearest blue this side of the Caribbean.  Now, yellowed and bloodshot, they’re just sick.  Her skin has gone sallow and discolored from drink and ruin.  Her facial scars, which once must have struck fear and dread into those who came against her, especially when she flashed a devilish grin containing no trace of mercy, now only paint her a sad and weary creature.

“No, none of those,” you say.  You drink your own rum for a moment and try to gather the words that scatter as a school of startled fish.

Blue Alice tilts her head and studies you.  You find it uncomfortable for the position to be switched.

“I heard tell you met yourself a genuine sea witch out there.  Mayhap you ought should be tellin’ the story this time.”

“I don’t want a story,” you say.  You wipe at your mouth and sigh, frustrated.  There’s still blood under your nails and on your coat.  Would that the last voyage had only been a tale.  “I want an ending.”

Blue Alice hums and swirls the run around the bottom of her mug.

“There is no exit,” she says.  “You stick around long enough, survive enough, you come to realize a few things.  One being that every ending is nothin’ more than another beginnin’ disguised up in magic or faith or solace.  Nothin’ truly ends.  It just becomes something else.”

“No.  There has to be an ending.  Otherwise, the concept wouldn’t even exist.  There has to be a way of getting out.  For good.”

“Why?”

So you tell her.

There’s no fanciful euphemisms or rousing prose.  You tell it as it happened.  The legend.  The voyage.  The map.  The island.  The witch.  And how everything you followed left out that the treasure was another kind of hell, one someone else fought and bled and wrecked themselves to contain.

“You lost someone.”

“Lost implies they might be found again,” you say.  “She’s not lost.  She’s ended, more or less.”

The magic of the hurricane saw to that.  It ripped her apart worse than any musket or cannon.  It tore at her until she was less than skin and blood, less than soul.  Whatever remained, if anything, was finer than strands of corn silk and left drifting in the ocean.

It should have been you.

“So don’t tell me there ain’t a way.  There was for her.  Now I need another.”

Blue Alice ruminates on that while more rum is poured.  You drink yours down, barely tasting the liquid scorch.  Time passes.  Music plays.  Someone starts a fight and someone else ends it.  But it’s just noise.  After the hurricane took her dying screams nothing sounds quite real.

“Maybe there is something,” Blue Alice says when the sun is down and the tide has come in.  She pulls a vial of black liquid from her vest.  “Drink this, and it shall give you what you seek.”

You take the vial and turn it over in your hands.  It’s dark as pitch with an oily residue.

“Poison?”

“Nay.  More akin to a wish, if you will.  Best to be sure, though.  Ye can’t be wishing yourself back.”

There’s never been anything sweeter fall upon your ears.  You uncork the vial at the table and down it in a single gulp.  You think, let it be a good ending.  The bar winks out around you, and then back again.

But you are not in your seat.  You’re in Blue Alice’s, looking back at yourself from her eyes, from her body.  She smiles using your mouth.  It looks stiff.  You’ve not smiled in many months.

“What is this?”

“A way to make as many endings as ye need.  Make them worthy.”

She leaves you alone with a full mug of rum.  You find yourself unable, or maybe unwilling, to follow.

Before long someone else arrives.  Young.  Impressionable.  Eyes too bright, ears too eager.  They fill another mug in front of you.

“Give us a tale, then, Alice.  Something full of adventure and daring.”

Blue Alice drinks her rum and opens her mouth.  Out comes a story with a fitting end.

An update

 

Writing is hell.  Even on a good day.  One thing it has taught me ever since I began is that nothing goes according to plan.  Even if there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t, even when the plan went perfectly and it’s done and it’s everything you saw in your head so all you need to do is, you know, do it again.

The latter has been my lesson during the past year.

I published ‘Count Your Crows’ and I loved it.  I also hated it, and felt indifferent toward it, all usual emotions I experience when I’ve completed something I’ve slaved over with blood, sweat, and tears.  I was ready to work on the next one, and I wrote it.

About five versions of it.  All 50k words or more.

And I couldn’t use any of them.

Sometimes stories are like that.  Sometimes they don’t work out, and so you have to figure out if they’re worth reconstructing yet again, or if it’s time to put them away for good.

I took time to think about it.  I worked on other projects, other characters.  But I kept coming back to Fred and Taz, so I decided to approach their tale again, but I had to rethink that approach and the conclusion I came to is this: their story won’t be a novel.

I wanted it so badly to be a novel.  To be a series of novels.  To see book after book, thick ones, on the shelf at a bookstore.  I wanted it to take both hands to hold the book open while reading.

Because the novel is the standard, right?  That’s what people consider real writing, real work.  And saying you write novels is just so much more impressive.

But I’m not good at writing novels.  The scope is too big for my attention span.  I lose threads and get burnt out.  I end up tangled in a web of my own making, and fixing it doesn’t so much require patching as it does a jug of kerosene and a match.

But I’m good with short stories.  After talking with another writer who knows my work and my work habits, I had to admit that writing shorts was more within my skillset than a novel.  I can certainly write a novel if I push myself, but I get far more joy out of writing short stories, out of pulling my characters’ headspace into hyper focus.  I can also finish a short story, and in more reasonable time, which goes a long way to preserving one’s sense of sanity in this precarious profession.

So that’s what I’m doing.  I’ll be taking ‘Count Your Crows’ off of Amazon soon to replace it with the revamped collection of short stories for Fred and Taz that is 50% completed.  As of today I have 5 stories fully finished for the collection.  I started writing them April 1st.

So, that’s the update on what I’ve been doing since I posted last.  Writing is a bumpy journey that is certainly not linear, or even well paced, but I still love it, even when I want to strangle myself for loving something so contrary.

The Girl With Two Shadows

For the prompt ‘rebellion’ in Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge.

the-girl-with-two-shadows

Once, there was a girl with two shadows.

Her name was Taz and they were both there when she woke up.  One shadow was herself, just over four feet tall with short hair with mussed in every direction.  The other shadow was slightly bigger, with bushy hair that curled.  That shadow followed her steps, but not her movements.

Taz jumped up and down, waved her arms around, and danced until her feet were sore.

The shadow would tilt it’s head as if to say, what on earth are you doing?  Other times it would shake, it’s shoulders bunched up and shadow hands melting away where they clasped over the face in silent laughter.

One day Taz held out her hand as the sun was setting in the west.  The other shadow took her shadow’s hand, and they stayed that way until night seeped through and made them one.

“What happened to her?” Taz’s mother asked the town Alders.  Her mother shook with righteous fury under the bruises and the indenture collar they forced on her.

“We don’t know,” they said.  They actually said quite a bit, but none of it was helpful.  They tried to find out, though.  They performed spells of removal and spells of unbinding.  They made Taz drink mixtures of herbs steeped in brine.  They took knives and tried to cut the shadow away.

The other shadow flipped them off and stuck out its tongue, and stayed very much attached.

“You have to belong to someone else,” Taz told the other shadow one night.  “Why are you here with me?”

The other shadow brought its hands together to made a shadow bird flapping its wings, and then wavered to become a storm cloud and a black lightning strike.

In the dark and silence of her room, Taz heard a faint caw and smelled ozone.

Taz asked her mother about it, but her mother turned away, shoulders tight and angry as she went to work.  Taz asked the Alder’s when they tried their next experiment with fire and holy oil.  They said she was infected with a nasty spirit, don’t ask again, we’ll fix it.

Taz got the distinct impression everyone was keeping something from her.

That night, when her mother took the whiskey bottle to bed, Taz stole the matches and climbed out the window.  She snuck past the houses and the edge of town to a ravine that cut its way through the dusty landscape.  She walked until she came to the deepest part, where the walls rose twenty feet high on either side above a dry, sandy bed.

Taz gathered dry roots and driftwood and piled them with tight bunches of dried grass. With the matches she lit the tinder and fed it until the fire crackled and popped in the dark.

Taz turned her back to the fire and greeted her shadows that stretched out on the ravine walls.

“I think they made me forget who you are,” Taz told her other shadow.  “No one wants me to remember except me.  I need your help to do that.”

As if only waiting for permission, the other shadow turned to Taz’s and placed its thumb on her forehead.

Taz gasped as her forearm spasmed in pain.  She clutched at it and cried as a black mark bubbled to the surface of her skin.  Three long slashes made a triangle that held a circle inside.

Then both shadows reached out from the wall, across the sand, and gestured to the fire.

Taz understood.  She bit her lip, closed her eyes, and thrust her arm into the blaze.

There was a scream, but it did not come from Taz, for the mark on her skin writhed like a living thing, wrenching to and fro, unable to escape the flames that did not hurt Taz.  The mark seeped out of her skin and ran off like water, sizzling itself out on the coals.

Taz pulled her arm back.  It tingled and felt over warm, but not burnt.  She gazed up at the other shadow in awe.

Taz remembered.

She remembered her sister.  Taz remembered running side by side with her, crows overhead, watching lightning arc down from the sky and strike the two of them.  It fused them, their spirits, together.

Taz remembered her heart tearing in two as the Alder’s separated them.  Taz remembered reaching for her sister as her she was loaded into a wagon with others, forced to go to war.  The Alders held Taz down and marked her arm, and the memories seeped away like water into dry land.

“Your name is Fred.”

The shadow could not grin, but Taz felt the pride and love radiate as Fred’s shadow embraced Taz’s.

The next morning the Alders took her again and put her in the room with all the tools, herbs, and books of magic.  They tried more things they thought would sever her extra shadow.

“We will fix you, darling,” one said, as if that were a comfort.  “The dark cannot hold against the light.”

“You don’t understand anything at all,” said Taz.

With Taz’s memories came the lessons Fred taught her.  Lessons about balance and nature, magic and willpower, and, above all, the chaos of love.

“I’m sure it seems that way to you now,” one Alder started, and then stopped.

For Taz’s two shadows were growing and melted into each other.  They became one and filled the wall, and then the corners, then the ceiling.

They swallowed the Alders’ own shadows and smothered them.  The Alders fought each other to run for the door, but one by one they fell to the ground.  Triangle marks burst onto their skins.  Their eyes clouded with confusion, and they slept.

The girl with two shadows walked home with the key to her mother’s collar. 

“It’s time to find Fred,” Taz told her mother.

Later the Alder’s woke on the floor of that terrible little room.  None of them remembered why they were there.

New Short Story!

So, remember how I mentioned I have two new short stories I was going to put up?  Well, the first is ready!

Kill the Writer

“Choices, left in our incompetent hands, lead to thought, lead to opinion, lead to clash of opinions, lead to art.”

In a world run by the Formula, a rigid system that dictates every part of life, picking up a pen is a death sentence–

It’s also revolutionary.

This short story is available on Gumroad here.  Kill the Writer is free, so when you go to purchase you can enter 0.00 in the box (or a higher amount if you’re so inclined, and I appreciate that!) and click ‘I want this!’

Kill the Writer is a bundle that comes in PDF, Mobi, and ePub versions for your convenience.  It will also be available on Amazon within the next few days.

Cheers!

Count Your Crows – Available on Amazon!

The day is finally here!

COUNT YOUR CROWS is available for purchase on Amazon.

Count Your Crows by Shiloh Ohmes

Count your crows and make a wish before they fly away.

Taz has only one wish: to find her sister Fred, gone these past four years fighting in a war to secure a better future for witches everywhere.  She would also appreciate not dying horribly and forgotten in the wild Texas frontier, too, but in post-war Texas that is easier said than done.  Packs of hungry chupacabra roam the landscape, slave traders prey on the weak and stupid, and nature herself is entirely unaccommodating to someone who just wants her family back.

Also, her sister has managed to become the most wanted witch in the Republic.  Taz isn’t surprised; Fred’s always been an overachiever.

Wishing on crows got her through a shaky childhood of persecution and running, but Taz will need spells and bullets to make it through Texas.  Even then, that may not be enough.

Get your copy today!

Count Your Crows – An Excerpt

Official excerpt time!  Have a first look at chapter one of COUNT YOUR CROWS.  Be advised, it does contain some strong language.

Count Your Crows by Shiloh Ohmes

Taz is an idiot.  That will be on her headstone, guaranteed.  Here Lies Tazarina Wyatt, She Who Lived By The Laws Of Sarcasm And Idiocy, Aged 18, Gobbled Up Rare.

Well, if she gets a headstone.  At this point she may have to be content with her carcass strewn out over acres in the middle of nowhere, because Texas hasn’t changed it’s overall penchant for hostility against outsiders.

Down below, in the shade of the lone cottonwood tree, the pack of chupacabra circle.  They’re even uglier than she remembers: gray hairless bodies all gaunt like decaying cow hide stretched over bleached bone, heavy heads  with yellow tinged eyes that are far too intelligent, big snapping jaws, and skinny rat tails that snap back and forth.

And they sing.

They sound human until you get close enough.  It’s a trick, some form of old magic the chupacabra are able to somehow harness.  It’s all snatches of words and half sentences stitched together out of order and let loose in mournful bursts, like coyote vocals, only with the stolen voices of their prey.

Chupacabra hunt humans exclusively. Taz has seen them crazy mad from hunger yet pass up horses and cattle and sheep just to go after people.  Fred used to joke that it was because chupacabra couldn’t catch any wild pigs, crafty fuckers, so good ol’ long-pig was their second choice.

They shouldn’t be that hungry these days.  The war only stopped, what, two or three weeks ago?  Taz passed three towns already, all of them empty save for the dead.  Too many to count, Taz lost her lunch the first time.  Laying side by side, hanging from trees, torn apart by shrapnel, spells, and scavengers.  It’s nothing like she’s ever seen, not even in her worst nightmares.  She avoids towns now.

And fuck you, Fred, for being so gods damned hard to find.

By Taz’s estimates there are thousands dead, but her sister isn’t among them.  Good thing, too, otherwise Taz has no idea what she’d do with herself.  Fred is alive, northwest of Taz’s current location and Taz’s horse is to the south about twenty miles.  He’s not running anymore, but he’s still going in a direction that’s away from here.

Taz can’t do a lick of magic, but she has a gift.  An internal compass that lets her find anyone or anything that’s not magically shielded just right.  The only thing is, Fred’s signal is patchy, going in and out and it’s faint.  Taz has never felt anything like that.  Is Fred dying?  Mortally wounded?  Taz has no answer, only knows that Fred is like a weak radio signal and it’s the reason she’s spurred herself onwards so hard, blowing through the Oklahoma state line, pushing herself and her horse as much as she can, and, apparently, forgetting to set the pre-made perimeter charms Mom left behind when she inexplicably disappeared.

Taz shudders and pushes back into the branches.  She’s never seen such a big pack.  Usually chupacabra hunt alone, or in groups of three or four.  Below, fifteen chupacabra stare up at her, unblinking, and sing.  Their big jaws move around the sounds and words, their sharp teeth and red, lolling tongues on display.  If she closes her eyes she could pretend she was in some theatre, listening to a group of actors shout and sing all their parts at once.

One skinny chupacabra crouches down and then springs straight up, browned teeth snapping at her boots.  It misses, barely.

Eyes wide open, wide-wide open, Taz.

Taz’s camp, what’s left of it, lies just to the left of the tree.  Her little canvas tent is in tatters, her meager food stores ruined, clothing torn up and spread around the sage and buffalo grass.  She didn’t have time to grab anything but her backpack, which is now swinging on a branch three feet under her.  One misplaced foot and rotten bark nearly gave her a heart attack and the backpack dropped, saved only by a strap hanging on by a few threads.

What’s that phrase that Cajun witch liked to use?  Oh, yeah.  Mauvais gumbo.

It still doesn’t have the same ring as fucking fucked in the lowest level of fuckering fucks.

Taz swallows against the dryness in her mouth and casts her eyes around, desperate for something, anything.  She’s been up this tree for over a day now, praying and wishing like it’s going out of style.  She just needs one crow, one measly crow, to pin her wishes to.  Of course there isn’t one.  Hasn’t been a single crow since she crossed the border, and ain’t that just typical of the universe.

She can’t believe this is how she dies, miles from civilization and all alone with no one to hear her final words.

Fuck the gods.

Fuck all of them.

Unless they give her a miracle soon.  She’s not totally unreasonable.

The relentless Texas sun beats down through the wilting leaves.  Taz swipes at her forehead.  Sweat, sticky and hot, trickles down her cheek and the back of her neck.  Gods, what she wouldn’t give for some water.  The chupacabra aren’t going anywhere.  Even if she sits tight and waits, they’ll just settle in below, keeping up their creepy singing until she dies of dehydration and drops.  Or makes a suicide run for freedom, whichever comes first.  Out this way, miles from the established roads and trade routes, it’s unlikely anyone will come to her rescue.  Even if they do, odds are they won’t be friendly.  So she needs to rescue herself, gods and wishes be damned.

Taz is gonna need her backpack.  It’s time to make her move, last stand style.

Problem one: the backpack is three feet below Taz, well within biting range.

Problem two: this tree is rotten as all get out and the branch she has to step on to get the backpack won’t hold her weight.

The solution is clear, and Taz hates it.  Hates it worse than she hates lima beans and cold winters.

“I hope you all rot in some gods forsaken sinkhole,” she says without thinking.

The words melt away from her, grow thin and weedy in her throat as the chupacabra magic steals them away.  Taz clamps her teeth over any more, but the damage is done.

The chupacabra go silent for about ten seconds and Taz gags on the forceful pull deep in her throat.  Words spill up and out of her like maggots from a dead thing.  Words that don’t make sense, just bits and pieces taken from her head, things she’s thought and said to herself and others, all of them out of order.

The chupacabra start singing again, louder this time, pulling more words out of Taz and she can’t stop it.  She bites her tongue, her lips, she clenches her jaw.  All that does is make the words like splinters and they scratch coming up.

Blood wells up in the back of her throat.  Nothing for it now.

Taz stops fighting and lets her mouth run.  Mom would say it’s no different from any other day, but, well.  Not like Mom would know anymore.  Taz stopped talking to her unless necessary once her sister left.  They never had much in common without Fred anyway.

Taz shifts on the tree branch and settles her fear in her belly.  Fear won’t do her any good.  If she’s gonna die anyway, she might as well die trying to do something, rather than let the chupacabra magic tear her apart on the inside until she falls.

All she needs is three feet.  Three feet and quick fingers.

Legs, Taz thinks, are a wonderful part of a person.  They can kick and squirm and run for miles, and they can wrap around a lover’s waist to keep two people anchored together.

Or one person and a tree trunk, which is a slightly larger circumference.

Taz hooks her ankles together and thanks all the partners she’s practiced with over the years as she scoots her butt off the branch and hangs on by the strength of her thighs alone.  Taz releases her hands and leans back, dangling upside down and backwards.

The chupacabra look no less terrifying from this angle.  Taz breathes and focuses on the backpack.  The skinny one jumps up, jaws snapping.  It hits the bags and sets it to swinging.  Fabric rips.

Taz pulls back, then lunges, fingers wiggling.  Her nails scrape the strap, just there.

Almost.

A chupacabra head comes up at the same instant.  Bites down on the pack.  Rips it off the branch.  Chupacabra and backpack tumble to the ground.

Stay tuned for more updates about the upcoming release of COUNT YOUR CROWS by Shiloh Ohmes.

I now have a Facebook page!

Yay!  *throws confetti*  I created a Facebook page for my WITCHES OF TEXAS series.  This blog isn’t going anywhere, don’t worry, but the FB page will have updates just about the series, including music mixes, art, deals, and information about the world and characters.

Witches of Texas (1)

Witches of Texas Facebook is live, so go check it out!