The Precarious Perch of Lookout County – Part 1

ghost-town-3689_640This was the first story I managed to get published. It’s a bit rough around the edges (I’ve written quite a bit since then) but a good tale nonetheless. If you like it, you should definitely check out Tex Thompson and her new novel One Night in Sixes for more weird west intrigue.

The Precarious Perch of Lookout County

by Russ Linton

Marshal Byron Ellis stomped on the wooden step kicking free a clod of dirt and horse manure from his heel. He nudged the pungent lump off the step and into the strip of bare earth some might call a street. Main Street, of the frontier town of Lookout, population 186. Soon to be 185 by Ellis’ count.

Several squat buildings rose along the dirt street, their sides alternately splashed and scoured by the crimson dust. Beyond lay an endless expanse of prairie, feathery grass nodding rhythmically to the return of the swollen sun stirring low on the horizon.

Silently, Ellis watched as light crept out across the prairie. Cattle bellowed somewhere east of town and a bell clanged at the nearby slaughterhouse. Ellis gave a strangled cough as the prairie wind shifted carrying the stench of rotting flesh. With a stray pat on his horse’s sinewy shoulder, Ellis bounded up the steps toward the jailhouse.

Reaching down, Ellis let his hand hover over the .36 caliber Navy revolver holstered at his side. The gun sprang forward into his hand. Using his thumb to trace the runes etched into the grip, he flexed his wrist and twisted the weapon left, then right, settling it on an outstretched palm. He could swear it was a bit off balance. He hated using cold-iron shot. He hoped there wouldn’t be a need.

Ellis knocked on the door. A familiar creak issued from the other side followed by the tromp of boots across the wooden sub-floor. He stepped back, holstering his pistol and hooking his thumb on his belt, his open hand perched warily. A voice intoned an incantation on the far side and the air shimmered. The door edged open.

“How’s he been?” Ellis called out, his voice clear and steady. The door swung open further.

Ellis’ deputy emerged, casting a wary glance over his shoulder. Colton Conroy was a decent kid by Ellis’ judgment. He was an all around steady hand with a keen eye. Didn’t seem the type for taking initiative, though he was sharp and picked up the duties of deputy quickly. Then there was the most important thing – he took orders well. Thinking too much could get yourself killed out here on the Frontier. 

All that being said, it was enough that Colton volunteered for the job; he needed some extra income after the recent drought wiped out his crops. The salary for a Deputy couldn’t quite cover the loss, but it would help him make ends meet.

“He’s been good, far as I can tell. Slept most of the morning then woke up and just started, well, floatin’.”

“That so?” Ellis pursed his lips and held out a hand to his deputy. Colton took the hint and passed him the golden Marshal’s badge. “He make any hand motions…gestures…verbal incantations?”

“Nothin’ like that, no sir. One minute he was sittin’ on the floor, the next he’s floatin’ mid air. I kept a close eye on him, just in case it got out of hand.” Colton reached down and secured his own pistol.

Something struck Ellis as odd about the way Colton answered the door, badge in hand. The five pointed star of gold was bound in a silver circle etched with ancient runes of power. Telling folks who you were was only part of the badge’s purpose. Warded by the powers in the shield, a lawman could expect to know the exact moment eldritch forces were summoned nearby and even had protection if those forces were directed his way. But it wouldn’t do a damn thing carried in his hand. Thinking too much can get yourself killed, but not thinking at all could get you worse than dead.

Ellis kept his chin down as he slid the pin in his shirt. “That’s good. You didn’t get him anything did you?” He let his eyes wander up to his deputy’s face, “Speak to him? Make eye contact?”

“No, no sir, not a spoken word between us. I even skipped the normal meals. Shoot first, ask questions later. That’s what you said.”

“Good work son, good work.” Ellis let a fragile smile peek out from underneath his graying mustache as he sized up Colton. The man looked played out. Face haggard, eyes dark. Nothing easy about this task, especially for a greenhorn called away from his family and a failing farm. He’d talk to him about the slip up later. “Why don’t you head on home now. I hear your boys have been drivin’ their Mama crazy lately.”

Colton half smirked, “Molly’ll clean their plow if need be, but you’d be right, they can be a handful when I’m gone. I was out in the fields when your message got to me.” Colton looked out toward the horizon, “We’ll both be glad when this is all said and done.”

“Yep. I best be gettin’ in there. See you two days from now, alright?”

“I’ll be here.”

With a nod, Ellis brushed the brim of his hat and stepped into the jailhouse. Closing the door behind him, he kept his eyes fixed on the room ahead. The jail was a simple building, one room, oak subflooor and wooden walls. The duty officer’s low bunk sat next to the door, horseshoes decorating each of the four rudimentary posts.

Across from the bunk was a rickety wooden chair, smooth and frayed by years of use. Ellis reckoned the knotty pine and cowhide perch had seen more backsides than a whorehouse on nickel night.

Out here on the Frontier, being Marshal was a job with an exceptionally high turnover rate. There were a number of reasons for it, but the sheer risk involved was the biggest factor. If you didn’t die protecting the claim holders from one another, you would at least be guaranteed to trade not so friendly words with the Reaper at some point. That was usually enough to prompt a career change.    

For five years Ellis had managed to hang on to the seat, mostly because he was cautious, partly because he enjoyed cheating death, and not a little bit because he could never get used to the smell of the slaughterhouse. He’d need a job if he weren’t collecting the monthly salary – the offal drenched structure was the only place around.

A sideways look at the cage on the far side of the room told Ellis that the smell might be downright pleasant comparatively.

Sitting cross-legged and floating six inches off the ground was a young boy. A young man really, Ellis had to remind himself. His face was narrow, ears elongated, they’d begun to taper even more since Ellis last saw him. The expression was a mask of neutrality, eyes closed. His hair had grown and taken on a wheaten appearance, mingling with the coal black of a few days ago. Most dramatically, his farmhand stature had begun to melt away; limbs elongating, size dwindling.

It was hard to imagine he had known this young man before. The transformation had happened so fast. It was a shock to everyone.

Jack’s mother, Ada, shamed by the whole ordeal, hadn’t left her house for days. No one wants to admit they were seduced by a fey. Doesn’t matter the extent of the sorcery, the deception, the mental control a sylvan being can exert. Marriages don’t survive such infidelity if you want to call it that. And Jack’s father did. The townsfolk, they like gossiping more than pity. She’d be a grass widow soon enough, alone on the borderlands between the civilized world and the vast unknown reaches of the Other.

Ada stopped to visit only once after Jack was taken into custody. She wanted to know it was true. The fact that the boy had been seen lying on a hay stack making lazy motions with his hand while stalks of wheat threshed themselves wasn’t quite enough for her. It could have been Old World sorcery she said. This despite the fact the boy hadn’t been apprenticed, hadn’t ever trained, hadn’t shown an inkling of arcane inclinations.

Then there were the physical changes. The eyes, eyes Ellis refused to make contact with from the day the rumors started. Eyes of hazel brown replaced by the true green of spring’s first day and pupils that were tiny dots in anything more than candle light.

At the time Ada made her visit, Jack had started to change physically and what was left of the human boy mentally was also slipping away. He often stared off into spaces man wasn’t meant to go. Like any mother though, she wanted to say goodbye. She told Jack she’d be back, but Ellis could tell through the tears she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Jack knew too, Ellis was sure of that. Tough thing to watch, a mother losing her son, but Ellis had a job to do.

Walking forward, his eyes to the ground, Ellis examined the white circle on the floor around the cage. The carefully traced runes and sigils remained unbroken, the herbs undisturbed. Inside the circle of coarse salt was a neatly outlined triangle of powdered iron. At the apex rested a clay pot brimming with water from the font of Saint Augustine’s Mission south of town. The cold-iron bars of the man sized cage appeared unmolested. Satisfied, Ellis turned toward the door behind him long enough to utter the necessary incantations and strode toward the small table and chair.

“I’m mighty hungry if you must know.” Ellis’ hand dropped reflexively toward his gun. Jack Pearson’s voice had cracked into manhood with a low timbre that might have been an asset in a barbershop quartet. Now it rumbled with an airy, ominous quality. With heavy motions, Ellis sat down and propped his feet on the table, the old chair creaking in protest.

“Thirsty, too.”

Ellis felt the next two days growing longer.

“The mail run yet, Marshal?”

Not yet, but Ellis held his tongue. He had checked the post office just prior to coming here. Storms out east had travel land bound for now. When the spring storms rolled in across the plains you could bet no Wizard worth their weight in salt would be in a Wind Saddle. If Ellis could will the parcel here faster, he would.

“I ain’t done nothin’ wrong Marshal.”

With a sigh, Ellis rose from the rickety chair and moved closer to the cell. The boy, man, no, elf, he was an elf. The elf watched curiously and Ellis studiously ignored his gaze. Reaching into a pouch at his waist, Ellis started dredging out handfuls of salt, reinforcing the boundaries of the protective circle.

“Even if it broke, I ain’t sure I could get out them bars Marshal.” For a minute the voice shifted, sounding a bit like little Jack Pearson. “Them bars make me nervous; my skin itches ’round them.”

That was interesting to note. Mystery surrounded the New World fey despite the three centuries that had passed since the arrival of civilization. Cold-iron was a well known bane for fey back in the Old Country and everyone had been a bit surprised when it worked here. However, it wasn’t thought to cause discomfort over any sort of distance. Of course, the elf could be lying. That’s something else they were well known for.

Ellis continued his check, visually inspecting the rest of the circle and the inner triangle which extended into the cell around the boy. Nothing alarming, at least nothing worth opening the door for.

“I’m tellin’ ya Marshal, I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

Continuing to avoid eye contact, Ellis stood and dared to mutter under his breath, “Ya keep comin’ back son.”

There was a dead silence like a tornado had sucked out all the air in the little room; a precursor to its hellish fury.

“This is my home, Marshal. What do you expect me to do?”

“I don’t write the laws. I make sure folks follow them, plain and simple.” Ellis knew it was a mistake to talk to it. The circle would contain any magic, but even so these critters were crafty. Their silver tongues were the downfall of many a man and woman. He placed his hand across the golden star on his chest, pinned directly above his heart.

“What kind of law keeps people from their home?”

“You ain’t home anymore, son.” Ellis turned back toward the little table and the stubborn chair, “You never were.”

The old chair moaned plaintively into the silence as Ellis sat. Uneasy, he glanced at Jack. The boy’s eyes were closed, a wet smear appearing beneath delicate lashes.

Ellis cursed beneath his breath and settled in for what would be a long two days.

*

Y’all come back for part two next week!

 

Ain’t Always About the Rules

Kids tell the best stories. Mostly because, for a kid, there are no hard and fast rules.

They’re unaffected by market demands and always show, never tell. They keep things boiled down to the most simplistic things in terms of plot, motivation, and story. They have a boundless imagination and we’re often left reeling by the directions they want the story to go. Telling them they’re doing it wrong always gets you the stink eye (and rightly so.)

Ain't Always about the Dice

Ain’t always about the dice either…

Over the past couple of years, I’ve run a few DnD games for my son and his friends. I’m usually in the role of DM or “storyteller” but only because I know the rules. Rules which we often have to trim down or ignore entirely. So what my job really boils down to is making suggestions and seeing how they react.

Like when an enormous dragon-eel attacks the boat they’ve chartered.

This is, after all, Dungeons and Dragons and the the whole point is to adventure, slay monsters, and loot the bodies, right?

Well, not if you are part of this particular adventuring crew, the most reluctant adventurers to ever grace the realms of fantasy.

Since they had a kobold (one of the players – think of this as a little goblin but with dragon-like features) and a gnoll (another player – this one a large humanoid with a vicious hyena head), they figured they could reason with the dragon-beast. The only trick was the gnoll, who also happens to be a bard, was the best negotiator in the party and the kobold was the only one who could speak the dragon tongue.

“I climb on top of the gnoll’s head,” says the kobold’s player.

Okay.

From here, the gnoll proceeds to negotiate through the kobold which has the dragon very confused by the large, hairy, and decidedly canine growth on the kobold’s butt. By the end, they’ve agreed to toss all some shiny stuff into the water if the dragon eel agrees not to eat them. Oh, and if they wouldn’t mind, they’ll leave the boar in the water that fell overboard on the monster’s first pass. A little snack.

The druid in the party took great offense to this suggestion and decided first to cast spells on the boar to give it a chance in a fight with the dragon. This did not go as planned (dragons being dragons and all) so he commenced with firing arrows.

His friends? The scrappy kobold, the lyrical gnoll, the oddly lukewarm paladin, and the melee-averse dwarf all decided to wait. Below decks. You know, they made a deal and all.

So the druid and the druid’s tiger commenced with fighting the terrible dragon-eel and eventually, through some miracle, started to gain the upperhand.

“Ummm, I go check outside,” says the not-at-all fervent paladin.

“Why?” I ask, trying to get him to come up with a reason other than things his character wouldn’t necessarily know. “There are sounds of a terrible fight on deck. Things are SCARY.”

“You’re not gonna kill-steal my dragon!” responds the druid. Because, despite the story telling and the real-life friendship, they are still 14 year old boys.

Eventually, they head out on deck to help the druid scare off their former business partner who then flees to a nearby island.

Afterwards, they slowly built up their courage. They confronted the wounded dragon-eel in his lair. When their treasure and supplies ran short, they reluctantly took on an undead king and his cultists . And they finally found victory in the end when they all decided to work together and not against one another.

A perfectly natural ending to a perfectly told story. Redemption, character growth, a plot thread tied and tucked neatly away – it doesn’t get much better than that.

A Word of Thanks and the Latest Review for Crimson Son

Crimson Son artwork by Johnny Morrow

Artwork depicts a scene from Crimson Son, debut novel of author, Russ Linton

I wanted to write a quick post to thank everyone who is participating in the GoodReads Giveaway. As of today, 212 people have entered and I’ve had close to 100 people add the book to their “to-read” list. Had I known it was going to get so much attention, I would have offered more copies to give everyone a better chance of winning.

Again, thanks so much! And there is still plenty of time to enter if you, or someone you think might enjoy Crimson Son, hasn’t yet – check the link in the sidebar ——>

If you are on GoodReads, feel free to leave a rating and a review if you’ve already read Crimson Son. Out of all the experiences for this Fictional Work gig, I most like hearing from my readers. Things you liked, constructive criticism, lay it on me. I’ll always have my own style and it may not work for everyone, but I’m also always looking for ways to hone my craft and give my readers the best experience possible.

Over the weekend another nice review came out at GeeklyReviews. They especially enjoyed the villain POV sections and the fresh spin on a superhero story antagonist.

The narrative of ‘Crimson Son’ is wonderful, and it immediately makes you root for the main character, as well as understand him.

It always thrills me when people understand and can get into the headspace of a fictional character I’ve created from stringing a bunch of words together. It lets me know I’m not completely bonkers.

On the horizon for Crimson Son (see what I did there?), I’ll be going on a blog tour starting in early September. Expect more chances to win a signed copy and other prizes. I hope to get a chance to discuss my upcoming novel as well which will be completed before the end of the year. First Song is closer to traditional fantasy, with a twist that involves yet another hopefully interesting, and unique, voice.

Now, back to Monday and working on the book I just mentioned so that it actually is finished before year’s end…

Alter Ego

alter_ego_crimson_sonThis is a short story set in an alternate earth superhero world I created for my debut novel, Crimson Son. The novel is narrated by snarky teenager, Spencer Harrington and is a whirlwind of crass humor and male hormones. However, many reviewers have made note of the poignant moments in Crimson Son and this short story builds on that tone with an entirely different perspective.

Alter Ego

Russ Linton

Jackie dyed her hair orange the summer of seventh grade. Her father let her but he wasn’t sure at the start. He had stared, mouth half-open, eyes seeing through her for what seemed like a long time. But he’d finally agreed with a silent nod of his head.

She’d reached up and wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. Frozen in whatever mental fog gripped him, there were too many heartbeats before she felt him caress the back of her head. He’d probably never expected her to ask for something so, well, crazy, but he had to know she’d at least considered it.

A few years ago her father decided to give her an allowance. Even then, at ten years old, she’d grown tired of living in a weed-choked, laundry basket of a house slated for a dust bunny breeding program. After long hours at work, her father was exhausted. Most often he’d drop down on the sofa with a beer and tune out everything but the television.

She understood.

So, she started cleaning – learned how, after a few dozen shrunken t-shirts and pink socks later, to do the laundry. The dishes. She even conquered her fear of the vacuum cleaner. Sure, she’d screamed the entire time, racing around the house as if she held a live animal in her hands but she got the job done. After that, she took on the lawnmower, an even scarier monster. But she was brave. That’s what Ember would be.

Once she had saved enough money and gotten up the nerve to let her dad in on her secret desire, she’d raced triumphantly to her room and launched into the air. She always clung to the moment when her feet left the ground, pretending she could control the thermals, change their density to let her tiny frame float. She never could, of course, but she landed on her bed, giddy with excitement about her coming change.

Above her, the ceiling was papered with news clippings and magazine pages. There, in those spaces, Jackie did fly. One of the pictures in particular always held her attention.

Ember, the flame wielding Augment, soaring through the skies of Chicago on a pillar of fire.

Her costume was made of thick, shimmery material which could somehow withstand the intense heat. A heat that could set the air on fire, burn through the outer shell of a battle tank and melt guns into puddles.

If Jackie could have any power, it would be Ember’s.

But the fireproof costume didn’t explain the hair. Ember’s mask covered her entire face. A sleek visor, sort of like a medieval knight, but no holes for her eyes. Behind that, her brilliant orange mane flowed in a stripe down her head. Her powers kept her from frying her head, Jackie thought. Precise control of the heat. Too bad Dad hadn’t agreed to the mohawk.

“Are you ready?” her dad stood in the doorway of her bedroom, keys in hand. He was trying to smile, but his eyes were worried. He always looked like that.

“Yep, yep!” She leapt to her feet on the bed and bounded toward him.

Excitement coursed through her and she knew her face was plastered in the world’s goofiest grin, but she didn’t care. And exactly like she hoped, he snatched her off the ground as she got to the door, his distant expression now transformed by her joy.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

She smacked his shoulder. “Of course I want to do this.” He laughed and lowered her to the ground. “Besides,” she added, “this is your fault.”

The distant look returned. “Why do you say that?”

“You’re the one that watches Ember all the time.”

“Do not.” He forced a smile.

“Do too! Every time she’s on the news you can’t look away.” She poked a finger in his chest. “Somebody has a crush.”

“Come on, now.” He started down the hall, fidgeting with the keys.

“Admit it! You do!”

“Stop. Let’s go before I change my mind.”

They hopped in the jeep and made their way into town. They stopped at the grocery store first. Jackie complained but Dad was right, they actually did have things like hair coloring kits. But the shelf held only an autumn sort of red, nothing like Ember orange. She even asked a bald, sullen looking employee if they had the color, exactly like that, “Ember orange”. He shook his head and went back to pushing a ragged mop across the floor.

They tried several stores and were about to give up when Jackie spotted a salon. She’d never been in one. Her and her dad both went to the ClipShack, which she didn’t mind. The stylists were always excited to see her. She felt a bit like Ember those days – a touch of the famous Augment’s celebrity. She swelled with a bit of pride as they fawned over her, the only other girl in the place. The excitement always waned when she asked for something ‘easy’.

“A phase,” they’d say sympathetically. “She’ll grow out of it.”

“Aren’t there any boys you like?”

Gross. Ember didn’t like boys. At least Jackie didn’t think so.

The salon looked fancy. With cursive letters on the windows, she couldn’t even read the name. The posters with models pointing their chins at the sky made her cringe. Their hair was all silky and smooth and perfectly colored.

“There!” Jackie pointed.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded.

When Jackie and her father walked in, they weren’t staring down a row of barber’s chairs facing little TVs looping Sportscenter. She didn’t even see any chairs. Just a reception desk decorated with smooth, turquoise stones all down the front and a blank brown wall behind decorated with the same cursive lettering. A girl with perfect hair, like the posters, and razor-sharp lips and eyebrows pulled herself away from a cell phone.

“Welcome to Sante. Do you have an appointment?”

“Nope.” Jackie said before her dad could speak. “I want my hair colored. Maybe you have a kit?”

“We don’t sell ‘kits’,” the girl’s sky-pointed chin dipped to her collarbone when she said the word. “But we might have someone available.” She rose and disappeared around the wall. Jackie walked toward the partition swinging her shoulders like the receptionist.

“Jackie.” Her Dad sounded stern but maybe a bit amused.

“What?”

The receptionist rounded the corner with another girl behind her. She was young and her hair was silky too, but a broad swath of it was deep purple on one side and shaved tight to her scalp on the other. Somehow, Jackie thought, the snooty receptionist had found the right person.

“Hello.” The girl extended a hand and Jackie took hold. She wasn’t much taller than Jackie, but something about the tight lines of her jeans made her legs appear endless. Her white sleeveless t-shirt hung like a shredded rag and black lace peeked through the holes alongside bare skin.

Jackie realized she had been standing there, staring when the girl raised her eyebrows. “I’m Becca. You are?”

Becca didn’t paint on her eyebrows or her lips. The natural lines suggested perfection enough. That and her smile made Jackie’s cheeks flush.

“This is Jackie.” She felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. “She wants to color her hair.”

“That so.” Becca eyed Jackie and tapped her lip with her finger. “I can probably help you out. What were you thinking?”

It was the finger on her lip. Jackie couldn’t erase the image.

“Well?”

“Ember orange,” said her father. Becca’s face twisted in confusion and he stuttered out an explanation. “Like the Augment, Ember.”

“Ahh, so this is like an ‘I’m not fucking around’ orange?”

Jackie nodded.

Her father choked out a reply. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Got it. Come with me.”

Jackie followed, her father close behind. At the corner, Becca wheeled and brandished a finger in his direction. “Girls only,” she said with a wink.

Jackie’s father raised his hands in surrender and half-smiled. “All right. But no mohawks.”

Becca ran a hand through Jackie’s hair and pursed her lips. The touch made her scalp tingle and she swore she could feel it all the way down to her toes. “Yeah, no problem.”

They entered an open room with stylist’s stations peppering the space, each made up of a floating wall with mirror and fancy wood cabinets facing a barber’s chair. Everything matched the earthy tones of the reception area. At each station stylists hovered around their customers, silver blades flickering between their fingers. This was not the humming assembly line of electric clippers like the Clipshack where she went with her Dad. Here, women spoke and laughed. Some sat alone reading magazines oblivious to strange rings floating over their head on arms mounted to the chair.

Jackie almost asked what they were, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to speak. Normally, according to her teachers at school, she didn’t have a problem with speaking, but Becca had left her tongue tied. Becca motioned to a chair and she sat.

“Sure you don’t want a mohawk?”

“No.” Jackie wished Becca would stop smiling, but at the same time, she knew she’d miss it. “My Dad.”

“Yeah, I know.” Becca pouted and whipped an apron around Jackie’s neck. “You’d look kickass with one.”

Jackie felt her cheeks flush and she checked the mirror in time to watch them blossom. A hand lightly touched her chin and kept her from hiding her face. Becca was examining her again and Jackie let her eyes wander around the room to avoid contact.

“Orange, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool. Let’s get started.”

From that moment, Jackie was lost in a world of odd sensations. The warm water from the faucet as Becca washed her hair was exhilarating but not nearly as much as the pull of slender fingers along her scalp. All the while, Becca hovered over her, the loose shirt dangling open. Things stirred inside Jackie – things that made her drive her stubby nails into the arm of the chair.

Next, they returned to the station and Becca brushed on globs of dye that looked nothing like orange, but Jackie didn’t protest. Becca worked while wrapping strands of hair in foil slips, like leftover pizza. Her playful side tucked away, she worked with a laser guided stare. So focused, Jackie finally started to relax. All the staring and examining was part of the process, she told herself. Checking her hair out, not her.

“Your mom cool with this?” Becca muttered as she brushed on more of the dye.

“My Mom’s not really around.” Jackie didn’t normally tell people this – it was really none of their business, but despite her awkwardness around Becca, she felt she could trust her.

“Oh, sorry.”

“Not a big deal,” said Jackie. She had an urge to sound grown up. “Long time ago.”

Becca nodded and fixed on a palette of foil. “What’s it with this Ember chick? You into Augments?”

“I guess. Well, not really.” Augments weren’t a ‘girl thing’ and Jackie was always stumbling with what to say when people asked.

If Mrs. Curren, her history teacher, were to be believed, they were weapons. Living weapons created by the world’s superpowers. Only boys thought weapons were cool.

As she watched Becca’s skull-shaped ring move in and out of her field of vision, she thought of how stupid she was being. Becca wasn’t about to pass judgment. “I just think she’s, well, great,” Jackie sputtered.

“Great, huh?” Becca sounded unimpressed.

“Well, my Dad thinks so too. He’s always reading about her, watching her in the news.”

“Not creepy,” Becca mumbled, lost in her work. Jackie waited to see if she was going to apologize, but she didn’t so she took it in stride.

“No, nothing like that. He’s got a crush.” She stopped at telling her about the news clippings on the ceiling of her room. How half of them had come from the trash dad set out late one night after he’d had too many beers. The next morning, Jackie found a box full of the pictures and stories by the curb. So carefully clipped and kept flat with crisp edges, they felt like something he cared about. He never asked what happened to the box. Even when he saw them on her ceiling months later, he still didn’t say a word, only stared.

Becca nodded, biting her lip as she applied another stroke. “Okay, so, he’s got a crush. What about you?”

“I don’t know. I sorta get her, you know? She’s always standing up to the rogue Augments, helping people. I want to be like that.” She almost added “when I grow up” but stopped herself.

Several more coats of color went on before Becca pulled herself from her work to ask another question. “So, say Crimson Mask and Ember get in a fight, who wins?”

Now Becca was being stupid. Crimson Mask was maybe the most powerful Augment ever created. “They don’t fight. But if they did, Ember all the way.”

“Yup,” Becca barked. “Girl power, baby.” She extended her fist for a bump then slumped back to examine her work. “Okay, I think we got it.”

“Now what?”

“I clean this up, you get to sit and wait,” Becca said, gathering her supplies. “Be right back.”

Jackie felt the tension drain from her body. She almost wished it had stuck around.

She didn’t have to wait long. Before she knew it, Becca was back and they were at the sink again, rinsing her hair. Fast and efficient, the earlier exhilaration was lost and Jackie began to feel anxious about seeing her hair free from the foil nest. When they got back to the station, Jackie stood in front of the mirror.

“Can we dry it?”

“Let it air dry. I promise, you’ll love it.”

“Oh, I love it now!”

Becca moved up behind her, gathering Jackie’s hair into a sculpted ridge. “Yep, that would be hot. Want me to talk to your dad?”

She felt her cheeks burn again. “No thanks. He’ll need to get used to this first.”

He’d been shocked when she returned to the waiting room, but not half as shocked as when the receptionist rang them up. Jackie spread her allowance on the counter to fill the silence, and he eventually paid the difference, even leaving Becca a tip that earned them a wink. She could swear they both blushed and she understood.

Later that day, when the breeze from the open windows on the jeep and Jackie’s rushing around the house jumping from the back of the couch or leaping onto her bed had dried the last strand of hair, she dropped next to him on the couch and shook his arm to pry him from the glow of the television.

“Well, do I look like her?

Jackie didn’t understand why his red eyes grew damp. He took a swig of his beer before answering. “Yeah, baby. Just like her.”

Thanks for reading! I’ll be sharing more free stories here and if you are interested in more of my writing please check out the links to my published work

Dungeons and Dragons Family Reunion

All in the Family

All in the Family

Okay everyone, squeeze in. Yes, Mikey, I’m aware Great Grandpa Gary is wrinkly and smells like cheese, but you have to be in the picture. What’s that, Grandma Ada? Something in your eye? Okay, I can wait. Oh, c’mon, not the botched spine surgery story again, Uncle Cook! Can’t you just stand for one second. Mikey, no! No, Trey. Stop offering to grapple Mikey into place, it’ll take you ALL DAY. And really, someone get Quatro his meds.

Oh bother.

Snap.

Well, here they are. Thirty three years of Dungeons and Dragons on one screen. Sure, maybe we should have exhumed Great-Great-Grandpa Chainmail for the event, but that felt a bit extreme. And I know Grandpa Gary there in his faded, battered red jacket spawned a whole bunch of illegitimate kids, but that’s beside the point. They’re all out on display from the depths of my gaming closet.

Yesterday marked the release of Dungeons and Dragons latest edition. As the progenitor of every roleplaying game out there, and arguably, the guiding creative energy behind all manner of computer games, movies and terribly designed websites, this pen and paper RPG deserves more than a bit of recognition. Not only was a new hobby spawned but an entire generation of creative influence ignited.

The Basic Dungeons and Dragons book you see on the left came from a boxed set which, at some point in elementary school, I sold door to door greeting cards to earn. I probably raked in hundreds of dollars for the company and only because I’d seen the DnD set pictured in their “prize” listings. Sure, they were probably skirting child labor laws by offering “prizes” instead of actual cash, but I was more than willing to work my ass off for that box.

That cardboard box of motherfucking sin.

When I grew up, DnD was the Devil’s tool. Christian groups tried to argue this game promoted satanic rituals, suicide, maiming small animals. Today, you see it on primetime TV (Big Bang Theory and Community to name a few) and the fantasy that inspired this pagan game (but not halflings, no siree, totally different thing there) has scored big at the box office.

While I was never enticed into human sacrifice, I did develop a love of narrative through that game. I found out I had an infinite number of stories inside waiting to get out. It provided a creative outlet and for the next thirty years, I held on for the ride.

On the outside, this latest edition looks pretty slick. Emulating that first red cover, we have a female magic-user facing down a terrifying beast. Beautifully rendered, something about it lacks the energy of the original. Maybe there was more fantasy and less detail scrawled into the almost garish painting of the first. And to some degree, that’s what I found inside.

They’ve tried to correct the oversimplification of fourth edition and pulled gratuitously from third, but also sought balance as far as fiddly mechanics go. Of that, I can approve. As a storyteller,  I don’t have much interest in the physics of things or the minutiae of exactly how, say, being small or tall might change your relationship to the entire imaginary world.

I like the simplified conditions players have to deal with. I’d say the list is roughly a third of the list from 3.5. Now I don’t have to worry why there is a difference between say being frightened, shaken or panicked and precisely how many gallons of piss I’d lose with each. I also like the advantaged / disadvantaged mechanic that replaces a whole spreadsheet full of modifiers. I’m even on board with the removal of saving throws and essentially calling them what they are – ability checks.

What I don’t see, however, is any correction from the fourth edition path of skill side-lining. This is one area where I really don’t mind having a bit of extra detail. Those details help define a character into a separate person that can do things other than cast and smash. Yes, 3.5’s version was cumbersome and required some serious accounting, but I believe many players didn’t mind the “fiddliness” there.

I also see other problems.

I admit that my first act when I opened the book was to turn to the spell section and look up Polymorph. Apparently they are fine with turning a giant into a fish (on a Wisdom save) and letting him suffocate as a fourth level spell, though I suspect DM’s may begin their litany of house rules somewhere around here.

Speaking of the spell section, the saves are all buried in the spell descriptions (which are thankfully brief and to the point.) Further, flat ability checks still exist alongside these saves and make even less sense now that any stat is fair game.

Overall though, DnD Next is a passable return to its roots.

However, over the years, I’ve moved on. That storyteller in me has only gotten stronger.  Other systems, all which owe Dungeons and Dragons an enormous debt, have emerged that encourage players not only to interact with slaying monsters, but to interact with the story itself on whole new levels.

I can hear the faithful yelling that “you can do that with DnD. Roleplaying doesn’t need rules.” However, I’ve seen it time and time again, whatever the rules revolve around becomes the focus of the game. \

But the new breed of RPGs not only expects but requires players to weave collaborative tales. Environments become fluid, useable things and not simple penalties and bonuses. Characters aren’t defined by a collection of combat ready stats but by their past and their emerging future.

Sure, they’ve added character backgrounds – a sort of a traits and flaws system – but that seems a bit quaint in the current generation of pen and paper.

I can only think that the failure of fourth edition and the success of Pathfinder, drove them to “play it safe” and perhaps, they’ve played it too safe here. Pathfinder aficionados will find little reason to convert their campaigns which have been raging unchecked for years now. Players of the new breed of story-centric RPGs won’t see enough change to draw them back into the fold.

Next time, you may be forced to check Ancestry.com to locate the family photo.

Dead Tree Giveaway

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Crimson Son giveaway coming soon to Goodreads…

Pssst. You.

Yeah, you. The one that’s quietly clicking around my site.

Here’s the deal – if you hadn’t heard, I’ve got a book out. If you have heard, well, why haven’t you bought it already? Needed the $3.99 for your Mocha Frapp? Don’t have an eReader? Paperbacks cost way too much nowadays? Like, say, not much more than a movie ticket where you sit and fight biological functions for three hours while someone blinds you with their cellphone?

Fine, so you have your priorities. But I know you aren’t one of the people who has seen this book in the pulp. Because if you had, you’d have already bought your portable, superhero tale of awesomeness which, at your discretion, can be read WHILE seeing to your, ummm, necessities.

Sure, the eBook is outselling Crimson Son‘s dead tree version by three to one. I’m cool with that. Digital media is the future and more trees isn’t a bad thing. But this book, as horrified as say Groot or Treebeard might be at the methods of creation, looks AMAZING.

And I want to give one to you for FREE.

Keep an eye on my site and over at Goodreads for details.

Other news for Crimson Son

I’ve got an upcoming blog tour which will also include prizes and all you would ever want to know about me, Crimson Son, and a glimpse at my future writing plans. Still aren’t convinced this operation is legit? Buckle up for Free Fiction Fridays where I’ll post a yarn or two right here each month for your reading pleasure.

That’s no Moon…

thats-no-venn-diagram

That’s no moon, that’s a Venn Diagram…?

I’ve got a mission statement. Nothing like establishing a galactic empire. No, closer to crafting a fully operational story sharing station where I can target people in need of good fiction and zap it into their brain from somewhere far, far away.

Anyway, the mission statement goes something like this:

“Russ creates character-driven speculative fiction. His stories drip with blood, magic, and radioactive bugs. He writes for adults who are young at heart and youngsters who are old souls.”

The important thing to note is that nowhere do I mention other writers in this mission statement.

Over the past year I’ve shared my experiences about the road to self publishing with anyone willing to listen. I’ve talked about my writing process, marketing ups and downs, distribution woes, and even the yawn-worthy business of being a self-employed author. During that same period, I’ve seen my followers and fans grow from dozens to hundreds. I’ve met some wonderful people and exchanged ideas, tips and tricks, and even cautionary tales about this demanding, fictional lifestyle.

Lately though, you may have noticed a few changes. A bit of a shake up in the topics I discuss. I’m refining my marketing approach which will mean saying goodbye to posts about writing and more posts about things my readers (and I) want to geek about.

This isn’t to say I’m shooting my writer friends in the exhaust port.

I’ll continue to trade tips, share my successes and failures, and provide critique for fellow authors but in other venues. Over the coming weeks, I hope, if anything, to become more involved in professional circles. But the ultimate goal of this self-publishing venture is to get my fiction in the face of as many readers as possible. Those in the bigger “red” zone up there, not just the tiny overlap.

Take this as my final tip for self-publishing success: Get on mission and don’t wait for readers to come find you, go and find them.

With that, prepare for the shakeup – a disturbance in the force. And as soon as I get this wrinkled, green muppet off my back, expect to see more stories and cool stuff. Right here. Coming Hyper-Soon.

Books Defaced, Gaming Accomplished

wonder_woman_crimson_son

Despite a few hiccups, we had a great turn out for the signing event. The cosplay contest sorta never went down though, which makes a bit sad. When we were planning the event, we didn’t realize until much too late that we were conflicting with Dallas Comic Con Fan Days, which I’m sure drew a large crowd of superhero Cosplayers.

But I bet they didn’t have Wonder Woman. I mean the Wonder Woman. At least one person full-on face planted into the invisible jet while gawking, but hey, I can’t blame ‘em.

No costumes, but there were plenty of great games going on and I met some wonderful people. I’d like to thank everyone that came out and let me deface their books. I’d also like to give a shout out to David and Stanley who helped organize the event. Hopefully we can do it again someday, though next time I’m in the store, I’ll be GAMING. (Any ganers in the DFW area, go check out the Roll2Play store – great setup!)

One of the best things to happen was getting to talk to a group of kids all clustered around an old school DM screen. And when I say “old school” I mean Gygaxian Era. These kids, most younger than my own 14 year-old son, were rollin’ with not the shiny new Fifth Edition, not Fourth Edition, not even Third Edition or Pathfinder. Nope, they were slaying inverted-armor-class-having, THACO-calculating beasties with AD&D.

Total trip.

When the signing was all wrapped up, I managed to get in a round of Mascarade with none other than A. Lee Martinez. We talked shop for a bit and I took in as much writerly advice as I could from this award-winning fantasy author, but our main focus was the game.

Mascarade, if I had to describe it, was sort of like that fun, childhood card game, Memory, but in Deathmatch mode.

roll2play_storeEach player starts with a card which assigns a role such as Thief, Judge, Bishop, King, or Queen and a pool of coins. Each card has a power ranging from taking coins from their neighbors or simply gaining coins from the bank. However, once the game starts, you turn your card over and every turn a player can swap cards (under the table natch, so you can’t tell if they swapped or not), swap with a center “neutral” card, view their card, or simply activate the power of the card they think (or want people to think) they have. The winner is the one who gets thirteen coins (unless you are the Cheat and you can win with ten).

Speaking of ten, about ten seconds in, I was lost as to who had what, but I managed to stumble my way to a win. It’s a light, quick game that can support up to a dozen players (which would be madness but sounds incredibly fun.)

Overall, an amazing day and a wonderful place to hold my first official signing. Again, thanks to fans, friends, and Roll2Play for all the support!

Cosplay Contest PSA

In honor of my signing event tomorrow, I’d like to take the time to provide a PSA.

I’ve been to many cons over the years and cosplay has evolved from the occasional Starfleet uniform to the body-painted, poly-foamed, uber-competitive, beautiful thing it has become today. And while there is no wrong way to cosplay, there are some things people just don’t need to see. Ever. In the spirit of fair play, and to raise the bar for the competition tomorrow, I’ve got a few examples of things you might not want to do to impress the judges.

Jabba the Duvet and Princess Panty

I think this is called closet Cosplay, but you have to make sure you aren’t in the linen closet when you embark on such a project. Plus, if your costume can readily be mistaken for another character, it may not be up to par. Put a Santa hat on Jabba and this guy in his formless brown comforter could easily be Mr. Hanky. And while slave girl Leia was wearing next to nothing in the movie, that doesn’t mean to pull it off you simply show as much skin as possible. (It should be noted that closet cosplay attempts need to move beyond your underwear drawer if possible.)

Daenerys Targaryen...

Daenerys Targaryen…

Re-enacting pivotal scenes in a novel, comic book, anime, or movie (such as the scene from Jabba’s barge above) is a great idea to sell a concept. Depicting the scene where Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, rises naked from her husband’s funeral pyre with her freshly hatched children can be tricky to pull off. Especially if you are in public. Or if you look more like her husband. This guy has a solution, but I’m not buying it.

What…the…f…

I get it. Having a tail can be awkward. Maybe you regularly knock your drink off the coffee table. Perhaps you’ve got to strap it to your leg so you don’t get slapped on the subway. And maybe sometimes you just sit down wrong and it pops up there and you struggle to restrain it while your Mom keeps trying to get the best picture for your website but she gives up halfway through, determined to rent out the basement to someone else, so you settle with this photo because, well, at least it’s in focus and easy to crop for the awesome space background you’d already picked to float around in.

Spoooooooon!

Sure, this is a superhero themed cosplay but… Awww, forget it – this guy wins.

 

Free Event Saturday with Prizes and More!

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An Awesome Game Shop in COPPELL, Texas…

Come and see me write my name on things! Prepare to be underwhelmed! I mean, I wouldn’t come to see myself but I hear my wife may be there in a Wonder Woman costume so I’m like “AWWWW YEAH! LASSO OF TRUTH ME!” But not in public. There’s no telling what I might say…

Seriously, this will be a fun event hosted by Roll2Play who has graciously forgiven me for repeatedly telling people they are located in Carrollton. They are in Coppell. And here is a link to a shiny Google map of their location at 150 South Denton Tap Road in COPPELL.

dc_game_boxNot only will Crimson Son be available as a prize, I’ll have a bunch of copies on hand to sell and sign. Sure, if you think you have the BEST cosplay costume in DFW, you might just win a copy, or if you believe you have the strategic skills of, say, Batman, you could get a copy in the DC Deckbuilder Tournament. Of course, you could still buy a copy, you know, as insurance. They make great conversation pieces (conversations which should always include a link to my website http://www.russlinton.com.)

After attending Tex’s amazingly successful signing, I’m looking forward to one of my own and only hope a bit of her talent for working the crowd rubbed off on me.

In other Marketing Monday news – Crimson Son is now available on Google Play!  If android devices are your thing, or you just love Google and like to purchase your fiction there – look it up and leave a review if you feel inclined.

Hope to see as many of you as I can on Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Roll2Play.

Cosplay Contest runs from 5 to 6
DC Deckbuilding Game Tournament from 6 to 9
Also, Saturday, Roll2Play hosts open gaming so even if the events aren’t quite your thing,  just come to geek out with friends!