RELEASE THE SNIPPET! Countdown to Rerelease: Chapter 1: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS

Thanks, fans! If you have read or are reading this novel of mine, I’m so happy you stopped by. Please remember to share these blog posts and let people know that they can Preorder ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS here

When I was an apprentice, my master told me that drinking wouldn’t solve my problems. Of course, when he said it he’d just finished sleeping off a two-day binge. While a good enough mentor, old Arghash just wasn’t imaginative enough to see why he was wrong about that.
So I sat at a corner table of the Endless Gullet, waiting for drinking to solve my problem. But tonight, of all nights, the drinkers just weren’t cooperating. Annoyed, I took a sip of my bad rum and let most of it run down my shirt.

What Arghash, like most people, never grasped about drinking solving his problems was that it’s other people’s drinking that solves them. Why is that so hard to grasp? It works for bartenders all over the world.

But tonight, the mean drunks were too sober, and the quiet drunks were too drunk. The well-juiced Death Knights at the center table seemed the best bet, but tonight they were all huddled together, growling away about whatever pisses off Death Knights – which is everything. Then the tavern wench limped up to them, bent awkwardly beneath the cracked platter holding ten quarts of ale. She’d relieved herself of almost half of them before it all went to hell.

“You DARE!” The bellow cut through even the liquid crash of a half-dozen tankards slamming against the wall. The girl was down, and a Death Knight was up. He was bald, toothy, drunk, and had a nasty cut on his ear, but it was old, so I knew she hadn’t done it.

“Get up, cripple tavern-whore, and clean up this mess! Then get your pimp-master out here to serve Zorag Bloodlord better drink. With his own hands, so that Zorag’s eyes will not be fouled by your ugliness!”

The girl picked herself up, violet eyes burning. For a second, I thought she was cowering, but then I saw how her back was twisted in a sharp left S-curve. I hadn’t noticed when she was carrying her tray because she’d placed it on her right shoulder and arm. The hunchbacked girl glared silently up at Zorag’s big, ugly face, her head practically on her left shoulder, arms dangling like a goblin’s, and no taller than my chest. He raised his hand for another blow.

Why did I intervene? I don’t know. I’m not big on that “All Humans are family in the Empire of Dread” bit. People make their own way, here. Maybe I didn’t want the owner to try to get me to doctor my own species. Zorag fit in with my plans nicely enough, okay? I splashed the rest of the rum down my front and stood up, pulling my collar up high and angling my blade away from the orc.

“Oh, well done!” I cried, into the silence. “But do you think it’s enough?” All eyes swiveled toward me. One pair of violet in the sea of yellow, glaring, Death Knight eyes.

“I mean, for a warrior of your rank, is a better drink enough?” I continued, sounding as drunk as I possibly could. “You’re obviously a terribly dangerous fellow, seeing as you’re ready to prove yourself in combat against a human woman. No, I’ve got it!” I crowed. “The last human
woman you fought wasn’t crippled, gave you that ding on the ear, but you know you can take this one, is that it?”

“WHAT?!”

For a moment, I thought I’d gone too far, and he would just charge me then and there, jaws agape. Without losing a moment, I cleared my throat, looked him dead in his gray, pug-nosed face and put my hand pointedly on the ruby pommel of my blade. “I challenge you, Bloodlord.” I drawled.

That brought him up short. There aren’t many humans of noble rank in the Empire, of course, but those of us that are? They tend to be well-connected, nasty sons-of-bitches. And not an orc in the Empire can refuse to duel one without permanent loss of face. Of course, I was counting on him not looking at my neck or my blade too closely, but it had worked before.

And it did now. Zorag began to laugh. “I will eat your liver while you yet live, human filth,” he growled. The rest of the Death Knights joined in.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” I said. Now the wench… it was possible I’d kill two birds with one stone, here. In fact, it seemed I was rather counting on it. Her gaze was riveted on me as though I was some angel or demon. I snapped my fingers at her, and she limped hurriedly to my side. A bruise was already forming on the side of her face. “Who will be your second?”

An immense orc stood and rumbled, “Commander Gruthorz will serve as second.”

“And the lady… what’s your name, dear?” I asked.

“Harriet,” she husked.

“Harriet will serve as mine.” Her eyes popped. “Now, we’ll need something to quench our thirst while we settle on the Ordeal.” I pressed nine copper coins and a copper-foil packet into her palm. “The best in the house,” I said, “for my worthy enemy Zorag.”

She nodded and scrambled out.

I turned back and stared Zorag in the face. “Name the Ordeal,” I said. As the one challenged, he had the right. Zorag’s face split into an ugly grin. “Teeth and claws,” he grinned. His comrades laughed, too. He knew he had me, and probably thought he was being awfully clever, too. Under the accepted Imperial dueling code, both principals “bid” the most dangerous duel
they thought they could survive. You either agreed to your opponent’s bid, or named something even more dangerous… to yourself. Of course, any weapon I named would be less dangerous to me than having to fight an orc barehanded, so if I suggested it, I’d be immediately branded a coward. This would allow the Death Knights the pleasure of beating me to death on the spot.

“Oh, too easy,” I snorted. “Dragonslaying.” The laughter chopped off as though cut by an ax.

Commander Gruthorz spoke. “What did you say?”

“Dragonslaying,” I repeated. The silence was absolute. There was no possible higher bid. Nothing was more dangerous than dragons. The code did not specify that the principals fight each other, just that they encountered the same deadly risk. Usually, that meant fighting each
other to the death. But not today.

“Oh, come now,” I said, “It’s not a very dangerous dragon; I’ve just the one in mind. Poor thing is half-dead anyway.” Harriet arrived with the drinks. A tall black goblet for Zorag and a glass tumbler for me. Pewter tankards for the rest. I nodded to the wench. Sharp girl. I held up the tumbler. “Unless it’s too much for you?”

Zorag snatched up the goblet and drained it. “Nothing you can name is too much for Zorag!” He exhaled, and I saw his eyes catch orange fire. “Where is this dragon, human? I shall carve my name in its head!” The other Death Knights, impressed by his bravado, cheered. “And when it is dead, I shall take yours as well!”

“Of course, Bloodlord,” I bowed. “It would be your right. Please come with us,” I said,

I felt a tug at my elbow and looked down. It was Harriet. “What the hell are you doing?” she hissed. “I never asked you to kill yourself for me.”

“Good. I wasn’t planning to, though I was considering offering you a job.”

“I… I have a job!”

“One you like?” I gestured to the inn.

She gestured awkwardly to her front, still soaking of spilled ale and orc-spit. “Well, it would be tough leaving the glamour behind,” she snorted.

“One that pays well? Salary advance, by the way.” I flipped her a gold piece.

That shook her.

“Look, I may be a slave,” she said, looking from it to me. “But it includes food and a bed and some protection, and all those will be there tomorrow. Somehow, I don’t think you will.”

“That very much depends on how your interview goes,” I replied.

She rolled her eyes “When do you plan on conducting one?”

“I am conducting one. Seems to be going well, but we haven’t got to the dragon yet.”

“And you know where a dragon is?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re just going to kill it?”

“Rather the opposite. Look, if you like the job, I’ll buy you from your owner. If you don’t you can always go back to him and plead that you were providing excellent customer service.”

She stopped in the threshold of the inn. Well, tried to. The Death Knights around us surged, and we were forced outside. “You’re absolutely insane. What job?”

I gave her my best smile and rested my hand on the pommel of my scalpel.

“Veterinary assistant.”

Re-Release: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS!!

I am pleased to announce that ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS, the adventures of Chief Veterinarian (enslaved) of the Evil Dark Lord, Dr. James DeGrande and his valiant Veterinary Assistant (also enslaved), Witch Harriet Templin, is about to go back in print! It is now on preorder on Amazon as an e-book, and paperback will shortly follow! This is my first foray into the wonderful world of SELF PUBLISHING!!

You can preorder here!

“Hilarious! Veterinary horror like Terry Pratchett would write!”
— D.J. Butler, author of WITCHY EYE

“A rollicking adventure that hits all the right notes.”
–Christopher Ruocchio, Award-Winning Author of The Sun Eater Series

Everyone says it was better in the Good Old Days. Before the Dark Lord subjugated us. Before he gave all the good land to his ogres, orcs and trolls, reducing the civilized races to serfdom and the dirty work: pig farming, sewer cleaning, veterinary medicine.

But even before that happened, things weren’t that much different for the veterinarians. Everyone cheered the heroes who rode their unicorn chargers into combat against the Dark Lord’s dragons, but no one ever remembered who treated the unicorns’ phosphine burns afterward. The only real difference is that now I’m treating the dragons. Today I have to save one’s life. Know what fewmets are? No? Then make a sacrifice of thanks right now to whatever gods you worship, because I have only a few hours to figure a way to get them flowing back out of the Dark Lord’s favorite dragon. Yeah, from the other end. And that’s just my most illustrious client.

I’ve got orcs and trolls who might eat me and dark elf barons who might sue
me if their bloodhawks and chimeras don’t pull through. And that doesn’t even consider the
possibility that the old hag with the basilisk might show up.

The only thing that’s gone right this evening is finding Harriet to be my veterinary assistant.
She’s almost a witch, which just might save us both. If we don’t kill each other first.

Baen Fantasy Adventure Award WINNER!

So.

That Baen Fantasy Adventure Award I’ve been banging on about for this pat month?

I won.

My story, “Humanslayer,” will be published on the Baen Books Website later this month. They also sent me a bunch of books.

Also, because the award was crystal, I couldn’t resist…

See the source image

Thank you all for your support and readership. I hope you like the story!

Taglines Not To Emulate

Cruising around book descriptions, you see a lot of taglines supposedly designed to make you want to read books. Here are some that well… didn’t. 

Can one man save an immortal race on the brink of extinction?

Um, you know what ‘immortal’ means, right?

Humans are unwelcome but tolerated as none of the galaxy’s other intelligent species has the power to stop them.

Yeah, I tend to “tolerate” people who can kill me with impunity, too. And a run-on sentence isn’t a great way to convince me to buy what you’re selling.

He wouldn’t have stolen the latest cybernetic implant if he knew it was infected with a virus.

Well, I’d really hope not. I wouldn’t want to read the story of an idiot. Actually, I think I’ll pass on reading the story of someone who thinks “not being an idiot” is compelling.

Ahem!! Who says the star messiah can’t be a chick?

No one I suppose, but if you’re trying for some sort of gender-equality, here, I think your tone’s, um, off.

It’s not too late to click now!!

Oh, thank heavens, I thought you might not allow me to give you money for your writing if I waited another minute.

He never thought of arming himself to defend the ones he loves…

Um, really? Never thought of it? Is that because he’s a complete coward, or simply lacks any vestige of imagination?

Stranded on an alien planet, luckily, Major XXX XXX is the most powerful human in the universe!

Thing is, powerful people don’t usually end up stranded on alien planets. That’s one of the indications they’re powerful.

Turns out there’s a whole lotta’ strange going on that most of the world knows nothing about.

Turns out there’s a whole lotta’ bad writin’ going on that most of the world knows nothing about, and for good reason.

Submarine Explorer’s sentient. Dr. Smith knows. Admiral Donovan doesn’t believe. Giant sharks, octopus, a cyberswarm, and enemy submarines. It’s fun.

Tagline consists of fragments. Sounds bad. Reads bad. Stuff happens. Do not want.

Abandoned as a child, Kelly is later forced into a situation where her parents’ betrayal will only be pardoned after her execution. 

That seems needlessly complicated: can’t we just execute Mom and Dad?

The Awful Secret About Our Village, Son

With sort of, but not very sincere apologies to a well-known horror writer whose name may or may not rhyme with Even Thing, but who certainly isn’t the ONLY writer to fall back on this trope…

“Okay, Dad, you said you’d explain it when I was older, and now I am. And in fact, last night it happened AGAIN. They’re dead, aren’t they?”

“Who?”

“Dad, come off it. You know exactly who. That nice couple that showed up last night. You let them stay in the old Hockstetter place, and get eaten by the carnivorous frogs.”

“It’s the Rain, son. You probably don’t remember the last one, but…”

“Don’t remember it? Are you kidding? I was seven years old. It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me! The clouds came, the carnivorous frogs fell everywhere, we spent the night sealed up in the basement, and then in the morning that couple had been eaten. And the frogs all evaporated. the next morning. Why didn’t we warn them if it happens every ten years?”

(Sigh) “We did warn them. We always warn them.” <Deep, Pensive Breath> “It’s time to tell you the Awful Secret About Our Village, Son.”

“I think I just said it. We let this happen to people every ten years? Why?”

“Well, if we didn’t, the frogs might not evaporate. They might stick around and eat all of us.”

“Seriously? What makes you think that would happen? Has it ever happened before?”

“Well, of course not! Because we always let the frogs eat the visitors.”

“Really? How did we survive the first rain of frogs?”

“Eh? I told you: we let the visitors get eaten.”

“So, what, someone showed up and said, hey, here’s how this will work? Innocent visitors will arrive, you have to warn them off, but they won’t go, so let them stay in a rickety house and let them die, or carnivorous frogs will rain from the sky and kill you all? And did all the people in the town hurt themselves laughing?”

“Well, I never heard about anything like that. My grandfather, he just told me…”

“Really? Okay, let’s think about this: One day a young couple came to town, and wanted to stay. And somehow, that night, everyone except them didn’t get eaten by the frogs. I mean, did we warn them that night?”

“Well, obviously we…”

“Said what? ‘You might not want to stay here in case carnivorous frogs rain from the sky?’ Even though that had never happened before?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly how…”

“And then, when it happened the first time, did everyone just say, ‘Hey, that was weird, I guess we’re lucky that only the strangers got eaten; I sure hope that doesn’t happen again in exactly ten years, but if it does, I hope that another two innocent strangers show up and get eaten AGAIN so that the horrible carnivorous frogs melt away AGAIN before they eat all of us?”

“Son, the important thing to remember is…”

“Can I get in on this? If I invite my stalkerish ex-girlfriend, or my psycho Econ prof down for a weekend, can I charge out of the house screaming and shoot them in the face and then have you tell the whole village that it only happens every five years, and that if they don’t help you bury them really quietly in the ravine without telling anyone, then I might have killed the entire town?”

“Um…”

PEACE TALKS Theories: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!

Okay, so I know Jim Butcher’s latest installment of The Dresden Files came out only yesterday, but I devoured the whole thing by this morning, and I really want to talk about it, so in case the HUGE CAPITAL LETTERS weren’t enough, I want to make it really clear to everyone choosing to read further that there will be HUGE AMOUNTS of spoilers below.

Okay, if you’ve got this far and haven’t chosen to turn back…

Too late, here they come.

All right, so what I suspected about this “book:” since seeing that we were getting two of them this year was correct: PEACE TALKS is not a book. It’s the first half of a book. At best, we get the second half in BATTLE GROUND later this year. At worst, of course, we get part two of three or more. But Butcher is a good guy and hasn’t left us with that kind of cliffhanger since the end of CHANGES.

So, there are a LOT of questions unanswered here, and the biggest one is this: Why did Thomas Raith decide to attack King Etri of the Svartalves, causing a lot of trouble for Harry and Mab? This question is unanswered in the book, a lingering mystery.

First of all, what are the possible reasons?

It is heavily implied, and Harry acts on the assumption, that Thomas was being blackmailed into the attack on Etri by someone who could credibly threaten the love of his life, Justine. This is made more serious by the fact that Justine is revealed in the opening chapter to be — very improbably — pregnant.

But there’s a few serious problems with that. Firstly, who would want Etri dead and have the ability to threaten Thomas to the point of making him carry out a near-suicidal attack? White Court vampires aren’t supposed to operate that way even if they are good at it. Furthermore, Justine is guarded by several formidable security teams. Harry’s hiring of Goodman Grey is very nearly redundant. Thomas had to know Justine was guarded by the full force of the White Court. But she’s also being watched by hired Monoc Securities guys, the cops, Feds, Goodman Grey and Paranoid Gary. And Thomas, whose brother is Harry Dresden and the Winter Knight, didn’t go to him or his sister, the White Court ruler, for help? Especially if Harry is right about his supposition that Justine is being threatened by one of her “guards?” The only credible threats of those mentioned (against Thomas) are the White Court and Monoc. Neither have an interest in killing Etri OR destabilizing the Accords.
That’s dumb.
Secondly, what was the effect of the attack? Who benefited from it?
Well, you could argue that no one did, because the attack failed. Okay, sometimes the bad guys fail. But Etri’s death has no obvious consequences besides making the svartalves even more angry with the White Court.
Very well, was that the goal? If so, the Fomor and the Outsiders — who are obviously working together — are the obvious suspects. There’s only one problem with that: it didn’t work. By betraying the peace talks, the Fomor and their patron Titan simply forced the svartalves and the White Court to work together in spite of their issues. That’s also dumb.
So, if that makes no sense, why else would Thomas attack the svartalf king? Were the svartalves threatening Justine? Why? It would be utterly out of character for them to attack or threaten a guest.

No, there’s a much more sinister plot that’s possible here. The person who was influencing Thomas to attack the svartalves was… Justine herself. Or, more accurately, something pretending to be Justine.

Consider these hints:

  1. Justine should not be pregnant. Thomas and Justine can barely touch, they’re using contraceptives, and White Court vampires are almost infertile.
  2. Justine surprises Harry by her reaction to the news of Thomas’s attack and capture. Rather than falling apart, she asks if Lara knows. Her first reaction is to seek intelligence on Harry’s actions and Lara’s knowledge.
  3. Thomas is conveniently unable to talk to Harry after the attack. He manages two words: Harry’s name, and then, three attempts at a word starting with ‘J.’ Harry assumes he is trying to say “Justine” and means, “Protect Justine, Harry.” Each time Harry promises to, though, Thomas breaks down crying. Harry thinks he’s desperate to protect Justine. But what if Thomas is trying to protect Harry by warning him about Justine? Thomas says “Junghg. S’Jnngh.” Suppose what he was trying to say was “Justine. It’s Justine?” He cries because not only is the real Justine in danger, but now so are Harry, Lara, and everyone else who believes they are guarding the real Justine.
  4. The one player we haven’t seen in PEACE TALKS is The Black Council, whose man Cristos they elevated to the Senior Council back in TURN COAT. The Black Council is known to be able to exercise mind control powers, and the Outsiders are known to be able to infect humans and fae with a seemingly unbeatable mind-control effect.
  5. Finally, Harry orders up and uses an ability to cast a doppelganger that fools even Blackstaff McCoy.

So, taking all these things together, I hypothesize the following:

The Black Council has taken the real Justine and done something to her. Possibly they are simply holding her under threat, and possibly she is taken by the Outsiders’ mind control. In either case, they simulated her pregnancy and are continuing to simulate her. Sometime after Thomas revealed Justine’s “pregnancy” to Harry, she revealed her true nature and demanded that Thomas attack Etri and the svartalves. The goal of the attack was to get Thomas out of the way and distract Harry Dresden. Which means that something happened while Harry was away from the Peace Talks or on his way to the island, and that Justine is an entirely new front of the Black Council/Fomor/Outsider alliance, ready to strike at either the White Court, Monoc, the svartalves as a false flag, or Harry himself or any combination as opportunity presents itself. The worst thing would be if it could similarly infect others.

Okay, once you’ve read the book and this, explain to me why I’m wrong.

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Phantasm

Holy shit. When I wrote the review for House, I thought I’d seen the worst the 80s had to offer in the horror genre. Then I saw Phantasm.

I legitimately cannot say which of these two movies is worse. I was interested in Phantasm because it certainly had one of the more unique ways of offing its victims. The little silvery flying murderball. I was hoping to find out more about that.

And yet, I did not, because the murderballs are disappointingly secondary.

Okay, here’s the plot: There’s a mysterious mortician who is apparently killing humans in a small town. Once he has their bodies, he shrinks them to half-size and reanimates them to serve as slaves in some wasteworld where the gravity is higher. He has a portal to it in a spare room.

Yet apparently he’s really operating on a shoestring because the only way he gets caught is that the younger of this orphaned pair of brothers sees the guy lifting 500-lb. caskets by himself and some of the dwarfzombies sneaking around.

Eventually he and his brother kill the guy. Sort of.

And then the younger kid wakes up to find his live brother dead, his brother’s dead friend alive, and he gets kidnapped through a mirror. Roll credits.

That’s it. The mysterious murderball is used exactly twice, once successfully when Big Bad decides to off a henchman, and then again when he tries to off Big Brother. Despite apparently being an alien, undead, or both, he cannot make murderballs immune to buckshot. So that was anticlimactic.

Is it better than House, or worse? Well, let’s put them head to head:

Do the characters act reasonably? Well, the protagonists in Phantasm eventually come up with something resembling a plan. It’s basic: go to the bad guy’s mortuary and perforate him with bullets. Essentially, this works. This beats the protagonist of House who forgets he has military training until the last 15 minutes. On the other hand, the Big Bad in House at least has a plan to get revenge. The Big Bad in Phantasm could have saved himself a lot of trouble by simply calling the cops and having the protags arrested for B&E.
House: 0, Phantasm: 0

Are the plots coherent? Phantasm‘s plot is simple, but makes sense: the bad guy is doing bad things. The good guys stop him. Contrasting this with House, where the bad guy is apparently haunting the house where the protagonist doesn’t live for several years, it’s a win for Phantasm.
House: 0. Phantasm: 1

Which movie is less boring? In House, strange things keep happening. They’re all red herrings, but things occur. In Phantasm, approximately half the film is taken up with Older Bro refusing to believe Younger Bro.
House: 1. Phantasm: 1

Do the endings make sense? In House the protagonist rescues his kid. So, yeah. In Phantasm, dead people are alive and alive people are dead, no fucks given.

Conclusion: Don’t watch either of these movies: do something more entertaining, like filing off your eyelids.

Baen Fantasy Adventure Award Finalist! “Humanslayer.”

See the source image

I am honored to announce that my story, “Humanslayer” has been selected as one of the ten finalists for this year’s Baen Adventure Fantasy Award!

I’d like to post an excerpt, but I think that might go against contest rules.

I was honored to win First Runner Up in the inaugural BFAA in 2014 with my story, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef.” It would be awesome to win, but obviously I am honored simply to have made it this far.

Oh, heck, no one can get upset if I just give you the first line, right..?

“At the foot of the mountains at the cold edge of the world, a dragon lay dying…”

RELEASE DAY: Fantastic Schools Anthology!

So, every now and then, I think: wouldn’t it be cool if there were a story about…

For example, like many people, I loved the story of Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Not just because he was an awesome character, but because he started me thinking: what other cursed kids can’t go to Hogwarts? Dumbledore managed to come up with a scheme to get Remus into Hogwarts and keep him and his classmates safe, to an extent, but what about the kids who couldn’t go?

Children with disabilities never seemed to exist in Hogwarts. To be fair, maybe wizards aren’t “disabled” in the same ways as Muggles. After all, Madame Pomfrey is pretty much able to regrow Harry’s arm. Perhaps blindness, deafness, paralysis and developmental delays are cured among wizards in the same way that we remove extra fingers and toes o the rare occasions they develop. But there are curses and conditions that even wizards cannot cure.

Where would such children — the children who couldn’t be mainstreamed without great danger to themselves or others — learn their magic? And what would happen on that terrible day when they, and they alone were left to save the world, against all odds? This was the genesis of my novelette, “The Last Academy.” And I never thought I would write it until I was invited to the anthology Fantastic Schools. Obviously, I didn’t write in the Potterverse, but think of it as a, shall we say, Potteresque story.

And now, to whet your appetite, an excerpt, from Edric’s first day at his new school:

There was already a chair pushed back next to the boy who was eating with one hand. Edric began to sit.

“Excuse me, but this seat is taken,” said an exasperated voice.

Edric jumped. He almost lost form. “What?” The boy next to him was looking up with an amused expression on his face, but Edric would swear he hadn’t spoken.

“Yes, I know, you weren’t to know,” said the voice, which sounded like a young boy’s. “But I promise you that I am here, even though you can’t see me. Although honestly, the food might have been a clue.”

Edric blinked. There was indeed about a third of a meal on the plate in front of the seat. And the seat-cushion was flattened.

“Look, you can sit opposite me if you like.”

“Um, thank you.”

That meant that Edric had to walk around the girl in the wheelchair, the head of the table, and then the sphere of darkness, which was uncomfortably close to the wall.

“Um,” Edric said, trying not to address anyone in particular, “Is that dangerous?”

“No,” said a girl’s voice from inside the sphere. “Just don’t stick your head inside it.”

Edging around so as not to touch it, Edric sat down next to the blindfolded girl with grayish skin. As he did so, his plate filled. There was a steaming portion of shepherd’s pie, some white bread, and a cherry tart. The food looked decent enough, but it didn’t appear he was going to get any choice.

“Are you Edric?” the girl asked, without turning to face him.

“Yes,” he said.

“I’m Gwen.” She faced him and smiled, offering her hand in his general direction. He took it. Her hand felt unusually dry and cold. “Thanks for sitting with us.”

“It wasn’t his first choice,” said the girl in the wheelchair, sourly.

“Oh, come off it, Karen,” said the boy across from Gwen with a smile. “Half the people at the table tried to sit down there. It’s a shock finding yourself at Calarzat with the monsters. Can’t blame people for wanting to latch on to what looks normal.” He nodded to Edric. “Hi, I’m Callahan.”

Edric extended his hand. Callahan gave a wry smile. “Thanks, but you don’t want to do that.” He pushed himself back and withdrew his hand. Instantly, the candles guttered out and he held up a hand that was alive from wrist to fingertips in incandescent flames.

“Ah… I see,” said Edric. “I could shake the other hand?”

“Not unless you like second-degree burns,” Callahan said.

“Oi! Kindling! Lights!” yelled the biggest wolf, from down the table.

Callahan slid his hand back under the table and the candles sprang to life. “It’s useful.” He gestured to the chair beside him. “That’s Ian.”

“Sorry I tried to sit on you.”

“Oh, it’s all right, I suppose.”

Edric turned to Gwen. Might as well get the awkward parts over with. “Why are your eyes bandaged? Did you hurt them?”

“Not exactly. Are you afraid of snakes?”

Edric blinked. “Not particularly. Why?”

For an answer, her hair parted, and a thin snake peered out at him brightly. His mouth dried up as he realized what he was sitting next to. “You’re a… gorgon?”

“In a way. The Dark Lord cursed me when I was four. An attempt to blackmail my family. But I started out as a human. Calarzat is for human monsters.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Edric asked Callahan.

“Um, no,” said Callahan. “I’m afraid we had a bit of a house fire when I was seven years old. My Dad panicked and tried to cast a spell so the fire wouldn’t hurt me. It worked. Sort of. You see, the fire became my best friend. And it never wants to go away.”

“Can you control it?”

“Can you control your friends?” asked Callahan. “It gets… upset if I do that too much. You don’t want to see it angry. Ian’s dad tried to keep him safe, too. From the Dark Lord. Turned him invisible. Permanently.”

“Callahan!” snapped Karen. “You don’t talk about other people’s conditions. You know the rules.”

“I don’t mind,” said Ian. “S’true.”

“That’s not the point,” Karen said.

“What about them?” asked Edric, jerking a nod toward the group at the other end of the table. “They look normal enough.”

“It’s not full moon,” said Ian.

“Werewolves?” Callahan nodded. “Don’t like anyone else much, do they?”

“If you’re not a wolf, you’re not worth anything to them,” Callahan said.

Even Karen didn’t bother to dispute this. “And you’re here because… you can’t walk?”

Karen frowned. “No one at Calarzat is compelled to talk about why they are here unless they want to. And I don’t.”

“What about you?” Callahan asked. “What brings you here?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Edric said. I don’t want to explain it.

Karen scoffed. “Wants to know our secrets but keep his own.”

“Can you show us?” asked Callahan.

“Uh… not if you want to keep eating,” Edric said, staring down at his plate.

“And you’ve been to Porcinoma?” asked Gwen. “Yes,” Edric muttered. He wished he was back there, with his friends. Except he’d be dead. With his friends.

I hope you’ll give it a try.