This Is Not the Book You’re Looking For

sky_high*Jedi hand wave*

This isn’t a question I’ve had often, but it has come up more than a couple times so I figured I’d address it pretty plainly so that anyone picking up Crimson Son isn’t disappointed. Or mortified. Or tempted to troll me because of the vocabulary I inadvertently taught their young child.

Disney didn’t write this book.

I’ve had several people make the comparison between Crimson Son and the 2005 movie Sky High. These were all people that hadn’t read the book, naturally, and the comparison is there. This isn’t a logical leap from somewhere beyond planet ten.

Spencer is the powerless son of the world’s most powerful superhero….that’s where the similarity ends.  On the surface, a comparison does make some sense. Until you read the book.

If you took Fantasia, a bit of Swiss Family Robinson, blended it with that single part of the Sky High premise, then gave it a pair of balls, you -might- get something like Crimson Son. Maybe. Not sure.

True, Disney bought out Marvel (and Star Wars…) so they do have a few flicks now that are a bit closer in tone. If you take Guardians of the Galaxy double up on the more thoughtful scenes, scale back a bit on the action and snark (just a tiny bit), you’d get something close to Crimson Son. Spencer could totally be Starlord in a universe where he’d been kidnapped by aliens as a boy. Just sayin’.

Another important difference is that Crimson Son skirts the edge of YA and NA. (NA for anyone who doesn’t know is New Adult  which has been sort of co-opted to mean sex in college dorm rooms, I think). Themes of coming of age and both learning to live with and without your family are all incorporated into a trippy, exciting narrative.

Oh, and four letter words. Enough that I’d probably earn an “R” rating and I’m not aware of any “R” rated Disney stuff (though that whole Bambi’s mom getting shot thing should have come with a warning label of some kind…)

However, the biggest difference with Sky High is extremely important to me and is woven deeply into the message of the book.

This could be a spoiler.

Possibly.

I mean, I’m pretty clear about this.

The blurb. Interviews. All the stuff I write here regarding the book.

Last chance to turn back…

Spencer has no powers.

Seriously. Says it right there on the back of the book: Powerless. And I one hundred percent mean that. There is no last second manifestation of the ability to fly as he falls off a skyscraper. No moment where a bullet hits him in the chest and he wakes up with the slug all pancaked between his scrawny pecs. Nothing. Nada.

This is where Sky High fails. And where a million other YA novels fail. They are about kids who need to use special powers to solve their problems.

Yeah, it’s fantasy. It’s escapism. I mean, I’m a forty year old dude that plays role playing games – I get all that, trust me. However, it has always seemed to me to be a complete cop-out when a story builds on the fact that the protagonist has to rely on nothing but their own wits to survive in a world that is so much bigger than they are and at the last minute, they manifest some glorious power and save the day.

Why can’t they save the day without laser vision and super strength?

Because here’s the deal – you total can.

Normal people do amazing things everyday.

Purgatory

Altarpiece of the souls in purgatory. Church of the Immaculate Conception (Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain).

Altarpiece of the souls in purgatory. Church of the Immaculate Conception (Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain).

This one is a flash piece which was originally inspired by an article in the New York Times about a group of mentally challenged men who’d been in a situation that amounted to forced labor for decades. It wasn’t shut down until recently, but it got me thinking about how our brains work. How our incredible ability to imagine and rationalize can work against us. How we can create narratives for ourselves that override reality.

Something crunched under Peter’s feet. At first, he’d thought they were dirt. Thick grains of coarse sand caught between his shoe and the weathered wood. He’d made the mistake of crouching to investigate. He’d only pressed on after that because he had a job to do.

A disheveled man shuffled noiselessly into view at the end of the hall. His clothes torn, his face ragged, he looked every bit the person Peter expected to find.

“You the new overseer? The new prince?” The man smiled, immune to the filth around him.

Peter started to answer but realizing it would require him to breath in more of the pungent air, he only shook his head.

“Cat got your tongue?” A wet spasm started in his man’s chest as he cackled. Color drained from his waxy face. Through the coughing he added, “My mama used to say that.” His expression became serious. “Don’t worry. We don’t got any cat.”

The man disappeared across the hall.

Peter shuffled carefully through the empty husks littered on the floor. Down a single hallway lined with open doorways. Most were dark. One was lit by a candle next to a mattress on the floor. Another man slept restlessly on the splotched mattress. His mouth hanging open, Peter watched small shadows traverse the ceiling.

He pressed on. More darkened rooms. Dozens more on the floors above. Shallow breathing from somewhere, or everywhere.

A light shone at the end of the hall where the man had disappeared into a side room. Peter peered around the open frame. His fingers sunk into the rotted wood.

“Hungry?” The disheveled man hovered over a gas stove. An empty pan hissed and crackled.

Peter crunched into the kitchen. A time capsule. White porcelain appliances and a checkerboard floor. A chrome-rimmed table sat next to the door. Dishes in various stages of filth littered every surface.

The man cracked an egg. “Sit on down. Breakfast will be ready soon enough.”

Peter considered the invitation but knew never to accept hospitality in a place such as this. “I’m not here for breakfast. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to live here anymore.” Peter looked at the sagging floor. “You can’t live here.”

A second egg then a third sizzled into the pan.

“Time to decide,” said Peter.

The man prodded at the eggs with a spatula. Their sulfurous smell added to the stench. He scanned the room, gazing into a timeless past. “Ain’t nothing wrong. This is home.”

Advanced Table Top Plots

Wonder Woman versus a Hobbit

A pic of Wonder Woman Fighting a Hobbit – Cuz I can…

I recently started experimenting with Wattpad – mainly just posting my Free Fiction Friday there cuz, well, why not? It’s FREE!

It’s been a fun experience and I’ve been able to chat a bit with readers and writers and have gotten some kind feedback on my stories so far. Anyway, now that the floodgates have opened and the digital revolution has been pummelling publishing for a while now, efforts like Wattpad remind that there are so many places yet to explore.

I posted a response in the forums to a writer who was having trouble with character development. My suggestion – try using Role Playing Games to flesh out characters. Yeah, sounds strange. “Real” writers might roll their eyes at this, but an RPG session is essentially a collaborative story. For it to work, you need to have all the same elements of a good story: plot, dynamic characters and dramatic tension. I’ve summarized this process before but I wanted to spell it out with clear examples.

Pen and paper RPGs have gotten pretty sophisticated in their focus on story development. My favorite example is F.A.T.E.  which is light on rules and requires players to add to the overall story to be rewarded (instead of simply getting lucky with dice rolls). Character creation involves several story-based steps and I’ve grabbed a few from the Dresden Files F.A.T.E. RPG character creation process.

When making a character, your first step is to develop a “High Concept”. What’s the character’s job, role or calling? Their background in a nutshell.

ex. Frodo the Peaceful, Home-body Hobbit

Next you give them a “Trouble” – What complicates their High Concept?

ex. A Troubling Inheritance (The One Ring, an adventurer’s legacy)

In the next step you write short summaries (say a paragraph or so) for the following questions:

Where did you come from?

What shaped you?

What was your first adventure?

Whose path have you crossed?

From these summaries you create “Aspects” which are essentially a single concise phrase or sentence that captures each individual summary.

His “first adventure” could be where he was asked by Gandalf to keep the ring safe many years before the true power of the artifact was understood. An “aspect” or short sentence for that could be:

Beholden to the Gray Wizard’s Warning

As you develop your character, the other players are doing the same and the final question, “Whose paths have you crossed?”, is intended to be a place where one character history links with another. So you would write a summary of an event which say, Sam and Frodo shared. Let’s use where Sam is caught eavesdropping on Frodo’s conversation with Gandalf. Even though it is the same event for each, they would have take on a different aspect to show their unique character. Sam could take as an aspect:

Concerned for Frodo’s Safety

and Frodo maybe:

Must Keep the Shire Safe

The key here is that both of these are in conflict which creates some dynamic tension throughout the story. These aspects should also be fluid to allow characters to develop and change as the story progresses. Using these as mental guidelines as you write will help keep your characters consistent, identify moments where tension can be added and inform you what direction the story needs to take.

Frodo’s aspect of Must Keep the Shire safe initially prompts him to leave with the ring as dark forces close in. This goes against his High Concept but at some point in the story, this High Concept might develop into something like a Bearer of the One Ring aspect and perhaps even his Trouble changes to Beholden to the Ring. In essence, by the end he’s developed into an adventurer all because his initial Trouble and a desire to Keep the Shire Safe.

Conflict motivated action. Action prompted change. Cool story followed.

Of course how and when these dynamic changes happen is entirely up to the writer, but you should re-examine these aspects at each pivotal scene and consider how the events might affect the character. For small changes, simply add or alter an aspect. Big changes? Add to or completely alter the High Concept or Trouble.

The meeting with the elves where Frodo volunteers to carry the ring is pivotal, for instance. For other characters, say when Boromir is alone with Frodo – that’s entirely pivotal. Boromir’s own Trouble of Destined to Rule Men draws him to take advantage of the situation but in the end, he sees his mistake and his Trouble changes entirely: Fated to Protect the True Ring Bearer perhaps…

Whether writing or gaming, I hope you found this post interesting and can find ways to incorporate these techniques into your own pursuits. Geek out with me in the comments about RPGs and tell some of the stories they’ve helped you create!

BEHOLD! Michael Bay schooled by a 14 year old…

This summer I asked my son to make a book trailer for me. He’s always been into creating slideshows and short videos. He’s edited a zombie movie his scout troop filmed, a few photo collages and several gaming related shorts. At one point, he was so into creating videos, I sprang for some mid-range editing software.

Of course, then he stopped doing it as much.

But I figured I’d try to entice him back into the hobby. Luckily, he agreed and this is what we came up with.

BEHOLD! WITNESS! ENJOY!

And buy my book if you haven’t already. What’s wrong with you?

Musical score: Reign Supreme by Kevin MacCleod, Creative Commons license.

The Precarious Perch of Lookout County – Part 2

Missed Part One? Read it here!

A knock at the door and Ellis started. Annie had already delivered lunch and dinner from the Red Eye saloon a few doors down. He thought for one bleary, sleep filled minute it had been two days and Colton might be back. No, this was only the first night. Ellis looked toward the table, checking the cage out of the corner of his eye.

The elf floated motionless, eyes open and fixed on the door. It was even smaller now, half the size, and the linen clothes hung like willow boughs. Skin had turned brown and rough, but it was difficult to tell much more without a dead-on stare. Ellis wasn’t about to risk that. He’d already broken his own rules by speaking to it. Casually, he eyed the four bedposts; horseshoes firmly attached, boundaries intact.

The door rattled once more.

“One minute.”

Ellis stood, stretching at the edge of the bed and adjusting his holster.

“It’s here.” Jack Pearson’s voice was completely gone now, replaced by a deep grainy rumble that had worked its way out through a hollow stump.

Grabbing his hat off the table, Ellis walked to the door and called out, “Best stand back a minute.” He waited to hear the sound of feet shuffling and placed a hand on the door knob. A brief incantation, the shimmer of a distant horizon, and the threshold was once again safe for passage. Ellis opened the door, the thumb of his free hand hooked on his belt.

Standing on the porch, covered head to toe in dust and mud was a boy no older than Jack. He stared out from beneath the broad brimmed, tasseled hat of a cavalryman looking more than a bit like a rabid raccoon. His face was mud stained, with the exception of the perfect outline of the goggles which hung around his neck. Ellis glanced out at the horse tied next to his own, a coal black Arabian with Eldritch energy steaming off the hooves in clouds of fiery white motes.

“Delivery sir, from Fort Constance.” The boy thrust out a package the size of a hat box, neatly wrapped and tied.

“That it is. Didn’t figure this for an emergency,” Ellis glanced again at the black charger.

“Oh, no it’s not sir. Your package got diverted to the fort on account of the storm. Midnight here needed the run and Colonel Jessup agreed to it sir. “

Ellis smiled and took the parcel, “That’s a real six-shooter of a horse there son.” He turned his attention to the steed, “A little bit of training, eh?”

The horse whickered and the boy smiled, crimson dust and mud cracking in the corners of his mouth. “Yes sir, and Midnight thanks you sir, for the kind words and all.” A textbook salute and the boy was back in the saddle.

Ellis tipped his hat to the horse, then the boy, and walked back into the jailhouse closing the door behind him. He did not bother to reset the protective ward. The sooner he got this done, the better.

Placing the package on the table, Ellis removed the buck knife from his hip and cut the fuzzy twine that held the paper. He was aware of the elf watching intently. Without looking up, Ellis unfolded the wrappings and opened the box. A faint silvery glow bathed the room. Inside rested a neatly coiled rope, the corded surface writhing like living mercury. In the center of the box was a single iron stake.

#

Gazing out across the plains from atop his horse, the dusty streets of Lookout far behind, Ellis felt like a fool. He wasn’t sure what possessed him to ignore common sense for what he thought was the second time in as many days. Bad things come in threes and bad was the only thing that could happen out here.

It had occurred to Ellis that waiting for Colton to show up the next morning might have been the smartest thing to do. But sending out a rider to the farms would take time. Dragging Colton away from his family again wasn’t necessary either.

In theory, all the precautions should hold up – the bindings, the cold-iron shackles. Failing that, the badge would warn him if the elf tried anything. He would be fine without Colton here. In theory.

Ellis muttered a curse.

“Everything alright Ellis?”

“Keep walkin’ not another word.”

The slight figure in front of him never looked back. The size of a young child now, the brown skin was rough and veined, the linen clothes left at the jail house. Grassy hair waved in rigid strands from the creature’s head. Maybe it never was Jack to begin with.

Once they turned, the elves were not allowed back in town. Frontier Code covered that thoroughly. The more they sank into their fey personalities, the less predictable they became. Most of the time, the fey nature would take over and the elf would head out into the wilds in search of their people. On a rare occasion, like with Jack, they’d keep coming back.

A few towns tried to show charity. Most that did disappeared, swallowed up by the plains and the hidden worlds of the fey. There was a constant negotiation for human souls among their kind that overrode any of their ties to humanity. For the fey, mortal souls were a commodity; power in the purest form. Ellis wasn’t sure where Jack’s soul figured into things.

Superstition kept men from simply finishing off the elves once they revealed themselves. No one wanted to declare war. Fey wars in the Old World had been some of the worst ever seen and taking the blood of a fey was not a trivial thing. Here, on the frontier, the fey were more feral, dispersed. Some argued it meant they could be eradicated with impunity. Of course, it also meant that there was no one to negotiate with if a war did erupt.

There was only one thing left to be done. According to the Frontier Codex, he was to take the elf well outside of the settlements and bind it with the ethereal cord. Tethered to the cold-iron stake, the elf would be unable to use magic to escape – it would be at the mercy of the land. Its people should find him soon enough and might even be able to release him. If not, well…it wasn’t Ellis’ business what happened.

It could have been worse. Jack could have been like the girl in Sterling. When she was found out, she went crazy as a loon. Used her family for human shields in a shootout at their farm.

Luckily, Jack had come along peacefully. When Ellis arrived to check up on things, he was almost relieved that Jack’s parents were entranced and staring slack jawed at their weeping son. Jack confessed he put them that way when they started asking too many questions. He didn’t know how, but he knew he’d done it. Listening to that broken boy sob, too wary to look him in the eye or even put an arm out to comfort him, was the toughest thing Ellis had done in his years as Marshal.

“You ever think about Jack?”

Ellis loosened his gun in the holster.

“He’s still here you know, that farm boy. We’re both here.”

Despite Jack’s claim, Ellis felt more alone than ever but his instincts twitched again as the elf continued to speak.

“He can’t believe you’re gonna do this to him, Marshal. Leave him out here to die.”

With the barest whisper of steel on leather, the .36 caliber pistol was in his hand. He clicked the hammer back. The elf’s steps momentarily lost their cadence.

“I mean to end this day with you where you belong and me where I belong.” Ellis kept one hand on his reins and sighted the pistol at the elf. Looking down the barrel, he saw Jack Pearson firmly in his sights and his heart skipped a beat.

“I can’t help what I am Ellis. Why can’t you just let me be? I miss Ma…Pa…even my little sisters, the darn brats.”

Jack began to turn and Ellis swallowed hard. Jack’s eyes met his, forlorn and red rimmed like the day Ellis marched him out of his family farm house in irons. Unable to look away, Ellis could hear his well-honed sense of self-preservation rattling like a caged animal somewhere in the back of his skull. He squeezed the trigger intent on putting a bullet down the barrel.

Or so he thought.

Unable to move, Ellis could feel his finger tense on the trigger, the hammer hovering, waiting impatiently to slam down. He continued to hear Jack’s voice even as the boy’s mouth stayed firmly closed. It echoed inside his head like the distant call of a stranger.

“Pull in your horns, Ellis. Untie me and let’s head back to town. I need to get Ma and Pa. Jackie and little Beth too.”

 Every nerve in his spine tingled, crying out to deaf limbs. His heart hammered madly and frantic terror clawed at his throat emerging as nothing more than a strangled whimper.  He could only watch as his finger released the tension, thumbing the hammer back to rest. His hand holstered his gun and he slid out of the saddle, the fear contracting and dropping like a lead ball into his stomach.   

His mind’s eye raced to the previous day, seeing things with perfect clarity – the straight face, the unmoving lips. He had been vulnerable the minute he set foot in the jailhouse. That otherworldly voice had been inside his head all this time. His continuous lapses of judgment. The conversation with the elf, the hasty departure. Not a spoken word.

Colton.

Desperately, he cast his eyes down toward the badge. Buried in the fold of his shirt was a common hat pin.

Helpless to stop himself, Ellis approached Jack and began to undo the bindings.

“I made a deal, Ellis, a deal with Deputy Conroy. I’ll take care of you, don’t you worry. We’ll just go get my family and we’ll all be goin’ home for some introductions.” Jack Pearson smiled as Ellis watched himself coil the rope neatly and drape it across his saddle. “You’ll see Lookout again, don’t you worry about that either. Deputy Conroy’s a sharp one, but a lick and a promise ain’t a real deal. He’ll learn that.”

As the fickle prairie breeze shifted, Ellis could almost hear the creak of that old pine chair.

Labor Week

novelist_@_work

GET BACK! FICTION IN PROGRESS!

I realize it ‘s a slow week here at the blog but behind the scenes, I’m working at a frantic pace. With the new blog schedule, I’m supposed to get all geeky with geekery on Wednesdays, but this week I’ve got my nose to the verbal grindstone. Don’t worry though – Free Fiction Friday will not be interrupted and part two of Precarious Perch will be posted this week.

My goal had been to finish the first draft of my current novel by…well…now. And while I’ve hit the neighborhood of my estimated word count, I haven’t quite finished yet. So I’m off to the trenches.

On first glance, this next book will be a pretty big departure from Crimson Son. This one, under the working title First Song, is a more traditional fantasy novel that takes place in a mythical, Indus River inspired realm with lightning wielding monks, dragon deities and civilizations lost to a Timeless Age.

But there are similar themes.

The story follows a bug-humanoid known as an Ek’Kiru (I don’t simply add pointy ears for races, I mean, really let’s do that stuff right…) who was raised among humans as a Storm Temple monk.  And though he’s a multiverse away from Spencer and his Augmented heroes, Sidge, the protagonist of my new novel, has to struggle to relate to a world much larger than he.  Coming of age, grappling with powers far outside his own capability, and themes of loss and family unite these two books. I think fans of Crimson Son will find much to appreciate.

My intent has been to make this new novel a single-book story as well. I’m breaking all the conventions here, I realize, and may pay a price for it. There have been rumblings about when to expect Crimson Son sequels. At the moment, I’m happy to share a single tale and let readers move on to some other fantastic place that I’ve cobbled together from the weirdness in my head.

If you’d be so kind, someone else beat the drum for a few days and tell everyone to go and buy Crimson Son, ’cause publishing books and doing it RIGHT ain’t cheap and I have no intention of stopping now. And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to sign up for the Goodreads Giveaway of Crimson Son. Yeah, you can still buy a copy, too. They make great gifts and look good scattered about your house, or in a box in the backseat of your truck, or even on the shelf of your local library.

Thanks!

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