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Halloween Free Read: Brethren

Brethren

There’s something living in my tree—in the old, half-dead sugar maple that corkscrews its way up through the forest canopy in a tortured spiral. Perhaps this thing is feeding upon the heart of the tree, a cancer killing it from within? The old maple’s beech and ash neighbors seem reluctant to get too close, keeping a respectful, if not ashamed, distance between themselves and the twisted giant. Great fissures crease the maple’s gray bark, tracing patterns among the many burls and hollows.

What manner of creature might lurk in those fissures?

I have never really seen the thing directly. It is always a doubtful shadow, teasing my wandering eye. A fox perhaps? Maybe a squirrel? But those are living things, creatures that prove solid and certain, given the proper attention. The shadow thing is noiseless and shapeless, a deep gray patch of uncertainty lurking in the corner of the eye, an elusive rip in the fabric of the real and substantial. Blink and it’s gone, and color once again bleeds into the empty space, filling the void.

* * *

This morning, a heron landed upon the old maple, all slow pendulous grace and ponderous flight above the tendrils of fog that clung to the ground below. It lit upon one of the dead branches that points like a decaying, pale finger toward the shadows of the woods beyond. The bird settled upon the tree in a rustle of feathers, the decrepit branch creaking beneath its weight. Languidly, the heron turned its gaze upon the small stream that wound its way along the edge of the rise upon which the ancient tree stood.

My gaze was held by the bird for a minute or more before it occurred to me to grab my camera in order to capture the moment. Fortunately, I spied the device sitting on the desk next to my computer. Just a step away, but a step that would take me from the window. I took a long last look at the motionless, meditating form of the bird before lunging for the camera.

I returned in a rush to the window but alas, I was too late. The heron had vanished. No bird of such size could have flown away so quickly. I was away from the window for no more than a second or two, and yet the bird was undeniably gone. It had disappeared from the twisted old maple, from the crook of a branch just beside the gaping maw of the hollow in the heart of the tree where the mysterious gray something dwelt.

* * *

The neighborhood cats are at it again. Fighting? Mating? Who can tell what strange desires stalk the haughty minds of cats? All that I knew was that it was well after midnight, and an otherworldly noise was coming from my porch, a whining growl that set my teeth on edge and the hairs on my neck on end.

Slipping into a heavy robe, I crept quietly from my bedroom to the window that opened upon the porch. Gently, I pulled back the frayed corner of the thick green curtain. Nothing. The noise was coming from beneath the long wooden bench under the window, and I could not see beneath it from my hidden vantage point. I let the curtain’s edge drop back into place and sat with my back to the wall, eyes fluttering against the creeping tide of sleep and the seductive promise of dreams despite the noise outside.

The maddening growl ended with a sudden, awful screech. 

I spun, rising and throwing aside the curtain violently, hoping to catch sight of what had made such a terrifying noise—or what had silenced it. 

There.

At the edge of the porch, at the edge of the light, it crouched, hunched and terrible, like an emaciated child with long, stick-thin limbs and eyes of the glossiest jet. A huge orange tabby cat hung limply from its jaws. 

And then it was gone. 

I shook my head. Had I really seen such a nightmare? It was no more than a momentary apparition at the edge of the light, and an insubstantial one at that. Had I mistaken my own reflection or the reflection of something in the room behind me for a creature with a cat in its jaws? Shaken, I double-checked that all of the doors were locked and bolted tight before I returned to the uncertain comforts of my bed. 

At the end of a troubled, sleepless, yet blessedly silent night, I ventured out onto the cold concrete surface of the porch. No blood, no fur. Had I imagined the whole affair after all? I returned to the house and put on a pot of coffee and made some toast but was unable to eat or drink as I stared through the kitchen window at the deep, shadowy recesses—like so many hungry mouths—lining the sides of the old maple tree.

* * *

A trap. That’s what the situation called for. Some way to lure the thing from out of the concealing night and to capture it, thus proving to my own doubting eyes that I had indeed seen the creature. But what to choose for the bait? The heron and tabby cat suggested that the thing seemed to feed on animals of a moderate size. I resolved to visit the local shelter and enact the “rescue” of an animal in need.

My fevered brain worked through the sordid details. I would leave my trusting ward out on the porch at dusk, tied firmly to a leash. Then I would wait, hidden behind curtain and blinds, with just the smallest of holes cut in the curtain through which I would track the approach of the beast. I positioned a black leather armchair beside the window and settled in for a long night’s observance.

Birdsong prodded me gently awake in the morning after a dreamless night. I had not slept for well over a day and had not eaten for close to forty-eight hours. The exhaustion had overwhelmed me. Scrambling fully toward consciousness, I raced outside. The frayed end of the red leash lay like an accusing question mark on the patchy lawn.

* * *

The shelter won’t let me have any more cats. The woman there was polite but obviously a little scared—possibly terrified. Her plump fingers shifted nervously from toying with the ends of her knitted wool scarf to adjusting the wire-rimmed spectacles that framed her wide eyes. She never seemed to be willing, or able, to meet my own troubled gaze. I focused instead on the pale curve of her neck where it emerged from beneath the smothering embrace of the scarf. I suppose five cats in one week would be somewhat suspicious, even to a woman whose desk was festooned with framed photos of herself posing with dozens of the creatures.

The bathroom mirror at home, spattered with toothpaste and dirty water and so long ignored, revealed a possible further cause for her suspicions. I had begun to lose weight. My gray eyes were nearly hidden in deep, dark hollows beneath a pale, greasy brow. Patches of stubble shadowed my sunken cheeks. Dull, unwashed brown hair, newly streaked with gray, stuck out in all directions, and it was a struggle to straighten my spine, prematurely bent from my constant stooping to peer through the blinds of the various windows around the house, my eyes hungry for a glimpse of the creature.

I have not changed the rumpled clothes that hang awkwardly on my increasingly spare frame, nor have I bothered to bathe of late. It is quite possible that I am the source of an increasingly unpleasant odor that permeates my house, but I cannot say that I pay it much mind. More distressingly, I have not eaten in over a week. I still feel the impulse to eat, but everything in the cupboard turns to ashes in my mouth. 

I need more cats.

* * *

I had not realized that I was so quick. I shadowed the big black tomcat that claimed dominion over the local feline clans, my movements unnaturally silent across the fallen leaves, through the bare, mossy, toothpick trees tinted green in the damp twilight. 

I crept up behind this king of cats as he crouched to drink from a small, dirty puddle, and…

Got him!

Never have I moved with such speed! In an instant I had him by the neck. Out from behind the tree I had sped on noiseless, bare feet.

And then the grabbing. The twisting.

The snapping of bones like dried twigs underfoot.

But the snapping had not come from beneath my feet. Rather, it had come from between my clenched, claw-like hands. I held the limp form of the tomcat loosely, curiously. What good was a dead cat to me? The creature would not come for a dead thing. Or would it? Why was I so certain that it would not?

I sat on a bed of damp, rotting leaves, the wet soaking through my torn and reeking jeans, and stared at the corpse of the cat. Why had I killed it? I hugged my knees to my bony chest in meditative silence, unblinking eyes focused on the dead thing lying before me. I am so hungry, so very, very hungry.

When my mouth began to water, I bolted upright and ran as quickly as I could away from the carcass.

* * *

Squirrels, foxes, cats, frogs. 

Birds, bats, lizards, mice. 

They have all been surprisingly easy to catch, yet none seem to survive the catching. I climbed down from the tree and stared at the lifeless gray form of the squirrel clutched in my pale, dirty hand. 

Useless.

I have not seen the creature for well over two weeks. I still have not eaten significantly outside of the few small morsels I manage to choke down on the rare occasions that I return to the dubious comforts of home.

Mostly I keep to the woods. My clothes are threadbare, ripped to ribbons by chases amongst the trees and grasping shrubs, through cold, rocky streams, and even into caves that I had not previously been aware of at the edge of my property. I sleep in the largest trees or in leaves hastily piled upon the cold earth as I wait, ever watchful. To what secret, shadowed corner of these woods could the beast have fled?

* * *

I think, perhaps, that I am a damned soul. I came to this sorry conclusion as I followed a child home through the woods today. One of the neighbor girls perhaps? She was a small thing with waves of loosely curled black hair, kicking at stray leaves and sticks with tiny, mud-splattered pink and white sneakers. I tracked her along the wooded path as I would a cat, or a fox, or one of my countless previous victims. To my shame and horror I thought of putting my scabbed, calloused fingers around her soft, snowy throat. Would it be so different? Could it be so easy—so terribly, terrifyingly easy?

I stopped at the edge of the woods and scrambled up into the comforting, concealing shadows of a large pine. There I crouched, gnawing upon my cracked, yellowing nails as I watched her through narrow eyes, clinging desperately to whatever decency remained within my diseased heart. I think that perhaps she heard some tiny sound or felt the weight of my predatory gaze, because she turned, her eyes wide and darting as she scanned the woods. Then she spun and took off in a chaotic, stumbling dash for the safety of home, of mother, of cookies and hot chocolate and marshmallows. 

The hunger may be killing me.

I pray it does before it drives me to some desperate act.

* * *

I haven’t returned home in weeks. My skin has taken on an unpleasant, sallow shade and my already thin hair is falling out in clumps. What am I doing out here? I am so hungry and I can’t seem to find the creature from the old maple. Why am I succumbing to this obsession? I sleep during the day now, while the sun makes its blinding progress across the heavens, and my eyes seem to have adapted to the perpetual nocturnal gloom that clings to these woods.

* * *

I have never really enjoyed poultry. Chicken, turkey, duck—all of them too dry or too greasy for my tender palate. Perhaps the mistake all along was in cooking them. I caught a crow today, and before I could control my hunger, I was tearing at it with my teeth, a mess of feathers and warm blood clinging to my face and arms.

And by God was it good—so good that I managed to suppress the horror of what I had done. And momentarily—if only for a few brief, blessed hours—the hunger subsided. 

I wonder what squirrels taste like?

* * *

I have finally spied the creature that lurks on the boundaries of my every waking thought and haunts my clouded dreams.

I have been tracking it for three weary days and am fairly certain that it knows I am on its trail. But my new skills are all being brought to bear and it has yet to shake my dogged pursuit. We are moving deeper into the woods than I have ever been before—into a land of spectral shadows and quiet whispers. 

The ancient trees seem to watch me with scarcely concealed malice. Or perhaps something lurks within their branches, peering out with malevolent, hateful eyes? The remnants of my shirt have fallen off a sickly, skeletal frame that I scarcely recognize as my own. The jeans are made of stronger stuff, but they too will succumb eventually. I have my doubts about whether I will miss them when they are gone, if I will feel any shame prowling naked through the shadows.

The last remnant of dusk has long since faded as the creature moves into a clearing, and I follow on calloused, silent feet, sometimes dropping to all fours when the situation requires. Though the beast has always seemed a dull, empty gray to my daylight eyes, it now takes on a luminous glow in the pale light of the moon as it mounts a small hillock covered in ghostly, dying flowers. 

She turns—and I am sure it is a she—and smiles at me from beneath a tattered veil of lank black hair. Lips like thin straps of black leather part to reveal wicked rows of sharp, uneven, yellow teeth. A shuddering, keening howl erupts from all sides of the clearing and a host of gray, hunched forms detach themselves from the shadows and caper forward to greet their terrible queen.

And I too am howling in a savage, primal voice. It is a voice that does not belong to the world into which I was born, a world of sunlight and comfort and bright colors. For I am a creature of the shadows now, a skulking terror from the elemental darkness of a child’s nightmare, a hungry thing that goes bump in the depths of the unfathomable night, skittering across roofs on clawed hands and feet, scratching at windows. 

I run a pale, swollen tongue over my own jagged fangs and creep forward to join my brethren as they cavort in ragged, snaking spirals around their goblin queen. 

Discover NuLo

If you haven’t yet explored the seedy underbelly of the dying city called NuLo, you're in luck! All this week (6/13 - 6/17), the novel Seven is just 99¢, and the novella Quinboy is FREE.

 
 

Skirting the uncertain waters at the nexus of dystopian science fiction, urban fantasy, and cyberpunk, Seven is the story of a girl who might be psychic and might be psychotic (or maybe both!), while Quinboy is a prequel novella exploring the backstory of supporting players from Seven.

 

Seven: The Haunted Girl of NuLo

Seven and Pug must cross the dying city of NuLo, evading the clutches of wolves and cyber-witches, priests and madmen, in a desperate race to counteract a virus before it transforms Pug into a monster. But what lurks in Seven’s head may be the greatest monstrosity of all.

 

Quinboy: A Tale of NuLo

Danny is in trouble. An orphan recruited into a gang of street thieves, his first job ends in disaster. His best friend is injured, and the man he tried to rob lies bleeding on the pavement. With nothing to show for his efforts, Danny can expect only punishment from Pipejohn, the cruel gang-boss.

Spring into the Dreambetween

This week only, you can get the entire historical fantasy series, The Dreambetween Symphony, for under $3! With all three novels in the series on sale at 99¢ per book and the companion volume Preludes & Elegies available for free, there’s never been a better time to discover this sprawling saga of dark lords and orphan girls, sorcerous songs and tragic loves.

What readers are saying about The Dreambetween Symphony...

 

“Refreshingly original, exquisitely written, enchanting, beguiling and utterly worth the read.” -Jenny ten Wolde, Amazon reviewer

“M.S. Hund did it again in painting a beautiful world within the Dreambetween.” - Joanna Ogan, author of Prophecy Revealed

“Well written fantasy you feel and see coming together as you read each book.” - Fred Oakman, Amazon reviewer

 

Remember: the sale ends Friday, so don’t wait. Complete your collection or discover the Dreambetween for the first time today. Get the entire series of four books for under $3!

 

A song is calling to you from the far side of sleep. Will you answer its siren call?

 

And Now, For My Next Trick…

(TL;DR version: Over the course of November, I will attempt to write and publish nine short stories, free to read online or as an ebook in early December. Want to learn more? Read on…)

The problem is never finding new story ideas. The problem is being able to ignore them long enough to write the story that’s in front of you now. Or at least that’s how it goes for me. I lose momentum on the work in progress when I get distracted by the bright and shiny object of a potential new story.

So I made a deal with myself as I was drafting The Pike (my new cyberpunk/dystopian science fiction thriller novel) these past couple of months. Every “new” idea that popped into my head was tossed into a text file on my desktop with the promise that I’d tackle them when the first draft of The Pike was complete. Tackle how? By doing a rapid-fire writing and publishing sprint with as many ideas as seemed viable in the month that followed. And do it all within the limited 2-3 hours of writing time available to me each day.

Madness? Perhaps. Glutton for punishment? Not if you enjoy writing! Besides, I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, so this seemed like an interesting twist. And I certainly didn’t want to fall into that post-drafting rut that makes the words dry up for a week or two after a first draft is complete.

Anyway, when I finally staggered across the finish line after the first pass through The Pike, I immediately dove into the Text File of Deferred Ideas. I knew it would be bad, a bloodbath even. And it was. Fully half the snippets, characters, worlds, and plots I had dumped in there held no interest for me anymore. The fire had faded. Others seemed interesting, but didn’t get me as excited as I knew I would need to be to deliver a bunch of stories quickly.

I buckled down with the remaining ideas, knowing that I would have just a little over a week to decide which stories I would be taking on. And all the while, I tried to ignore the fact that my normal short story writing process takes 1-2 weeks to advance from idea to the first draft being in the bag. Oh, and did I mention that I’ve decided that the novem root of November means that I'll be challenging myself to finish nine stories in the month?

Nine readable stories.

That means I'll need to do editorial passes and polish drafts instead of the raw word count that is de rigueur when it comes to NaNoWriMo. The stories will not be wart-free, but they’ll be as good as I can make them in a month. The end game here is to go back and rework the stories with a little distance and the help of anybody who dares to read them at this early stage of development. More refined versions of these stories will then be made available for sale in both print and ebook format in the early months of 2016.

But what if you’re brave, or curious enough, to want to see the sausage being made? Well then, pull up a chair, dear reader, November is going to be interesting.

I’ve already expanded the ideas that survived the initial purge, mashed a few together, then added structure to create story skeletons for my nine tales. I have a week’s worth of pre-planning ahead, but after that blessed extra hour of sleep on Saturday night, I’m going to disengage the emergency brake and go for broke on November 1st.

How can you follow along? You’ve got two choices, both free. If you want to watch it happen live, I’ll be publishing the stories on Wattpad, though you’ll have to register to read them (note: registration is free!). You can read the stories on the Wattpad website or on any of your phone/tablet devices using the free Wattpad app.

If you’d rather receive an early holiday gift, I’ll be distributing a free ebook containing all nine stories to my newsletter subscribers in early December. (Not a newsletter subscriber? Sign up now!)

This has the potential get ugly. If I get even a minor cold, I’ll probably crash and burn. Maybe the pre-planned stories will refuse to cooperate when I try to write them, forcing me to come up with entirely new tales on the fly. Maybe one or two of them will even try to explode into full-blown novels.

Should be fun to watch…

The Singles Shift

The Singles Collection is getting a facelift and a shift in market strategy. While the single-volume compendium of all twenty-one short fictions is still available at all of the print and ebook outlets that my work is currently distributed through, the six individual titles are now available only on Amazon, a requirement of their being part of Kindle Unlimited.

As KU titles, the books are now free to read for subscribers to that service. But the shift to Kindle-exclusivity for these books also allows me to run special sales for non-KU members, the first of which begins today. All weekend (August 15 & 16), all six individual books in The Singles Collection are on sale for the low, low price of $0.00. This is a limited-time offer, but if you have an Amazon account, you undoubtedly have access to a device that can read Kindle ebooks (apps are available for non-Amazon phones, tablets, and personal computers of all sorts). Barrier to entry = ZERO!

All seven books (the six individual books plus the single-volume compendium of all twenty-one stories) also feature updated titles and formatting. To find out more about the books and where you can buy them (or get them free!), hit the button at the end of this post.

Thanks for reading.

Exile Ballad: Special Launch Sale

Exile Ballad, the second part of The Dreambetween Symphony, is now available in 6x9" trade paperback and Kindle editions (eBook also coming to Nook, iBooks, and Kobo later this year). As part of the launch of the book, I'll be running a special launch week sale on both Exile Ballad and the first book in the series, Song of the Severed Lord. Stay tuned after the blurb for details on the sales and links to get your copies of the books!

The dream continues…

A year has passed since Lily Markart’s harrowing introduction to the Dreambetween, the communal dream realm shared by the members of her bloodline. Having survived that traumatic experience, she still finds herself an outsider, both in the dream and in the waking world. Her one chance at real friendship, and perhaps something more, is Simon, a dreamer who Lily finds enchanting and dangerous in equal measure. But she is not the only one with her eye on Simon…

Exile Ballad follows the intersecting lives of three women of the dreaming blood born millennia apart. From late Iron Age Britain to occupied Poland during World War II to the modern day, these women are united by violence, isolation, and vengeance.


Launch Week Sale!

Wednesday, February 4th - Saturday, February 7th

Enjoy a special launch price for Exile Ballad, and get Song of the Severed Lord free!

The Kindle edition of Exile Ballad will be available at the special launch price of 99¢ before returning to the list price of $2.99 on Sunday, February 8th.

"But wait," I hear you say. "I didn't read the first book in the series!"

You're about to run out of excuses because the Kindle edition of Song of the Severed Lord will be available for FREE during the same time period (Feb. 4-7)!


Both titles are also available in 6x9" trade paperback through the following links and any of my print books that are purchased through Amazon allow you to download the Kindle edition for free through the Kindle Matchbook program.

Song of the Severed Lord | Exile Ballad

I hope you enjoy the books, and please don't forget to leave a review when you're done!