Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Random Paranormal Tales of 2018 Part 8


Bashed by Rick R Reed
Summary:
It should have been a perfect night out. Instead, Mark and Donald collide with tragedy when they leave their favorite night spot. That dark October night, three gay-bashers emerge from the gloom, armed with slurs, fists, and an aluminum baseball bat.

The hate crime leaves Donald lost and alone, clinging to the memory of the only man he ever loved. He is haunted, both literally and figuratively, by Mark and what might have been. Trapped in a limbo offering no closure, Donald can’t immediately accept the salvation his new neighbor, Walter, offers. Walter’s kindness and patience are qualities his sixteen-year-old nephew, Justin, understands well. Walter provides the only sense of family the boy’s ever known. But Justin holds a dark secret that threatens to tear Donald and Walter apart before their love even has a chance to blossom.


Donald and Mark were headed home after a wonderful night out at their favorite club when they have an encounter with fear, bigotry, and a baseball bat.  Picking up the pieces, Donald tries to move on but even the friendliness of his new neighbor isn't enough to leave the past behind.  Walter has his own troubles too trying to bring some normality into his nephews life but with Justin hiding a secret that isn't as easy as it use to be.  When the secret comes to light, will Donald and Walter be able to move on?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!!!  Rick R Reed brings an amazing story to life with Bashed.  It is absolutely horrific that in 2018 this level of bigotry still exists but unfortunately it does, and even more unfortunately we will probably never be fully free of hate.  Yes, Bashed is fiction and yes there is a certain(all be it sort of small-ish but still influential) paranormal element it is also very real and heartbreaking.  I don't want to say too much more than what the author has given away in the blurb so let me just say that all though this is one of the most heartbreaking stories I've read in a long time there is also a sense of growth and warmth, not really joy but definitely edges on a sense of uplifting-ness to Donald's journey.

Donald's eventual determination to move forward gives one hope and Walter's equal determination to give his nephew a sense of home and family is also filled with hope.  But I think Justin's fear of being friendless, his love for his uncle, and the constraints of his conscience show the most hope.  Part of me wants to say "Seriously?!?!?! That's what you get from Justin's character?" but then I realize it really is how I see him.  I won't even touch on Justin's "friend" because that will open a can of thoughts, words, and anger that will lead to spoilers so I just won't even go there.

I can't help but think of Pandora's Box when I think of Bashed and the characters within.  When all the evils of the world were unleashed from Pandora's Box there was one thing left at the bottom: HOPE.  You will be angry, you will be hurt, and you will want to see certain characters punished in the most painful ways possible but by the end of the book(and I don't mean to keep repeating the word and sounding tedious but it doesn't make it any less true) what I felt most was hope.  But whether you agree with my assessment of hope for the characters' futures or not you will be entertained and that's all I really want when I pick up a book.  But I warn you, Bashed is one of those stories that once you start you won't want to put it down till you reach the final page so be sure you have the time to finish before you pick this one up.

RATING:

Reclaiming by Sean Michael
Summary:
Immortal Ink #1
Beau thought Aaron was dead to him… Imagine his surprise when his former lover slinks into his tattoo shop.

Six months ago vampire Beaudelaire Delacourte had it all. As a tattoo artist, he used his special ink and spells to permanently tattoo other immortals and spent countless hours feeding and indulging in BDSM with his human lover, Aaron. Then he asked to turn Aaron so his lover could join him permanently, but Aaron refused, not willing to give up his humanity. Since then, Beau has kept his head down and stayed in his shop, only interacting with the clients who come for his special brand of ink.

When Aaron shows up on his doorstep, half-dead and apologizing, Beau is shocked to learn that his boy was turned at the vampire club they used to frequent by Stephen, another vampire. Not only was Aaron turned, but his chest was torn open, his fangs were broken and he was left in an alley to die. Spurred by the need to see Beau one last time, Aaron has been hiding in an abandoned building until he found the strength to make it to Beau’s shop.

Beau takes in his boy again, promising that Aaron will earn his place back in Beau’s bed, and vowing that he will take revenge on Stephen. Unbeknownst to Beau, Aaron is only the first in a long line of humans who Stephen has created then turned out to fend for themselves. As Beau discovers this is only one of the old rules that Stephen has broken, he and Aaron are drawn into a web of intrigue that can only end in someone’s death.

Reader Advisory: This books contains severe biting and bloodplay during sex between vampires. There is also a scene of fisting and some scenes of violence.

A Wizard's Shelter by Hollis Shiloh
Summary:
Visiting his sister Mary at the lighthouse should be a delightful vacation for Elliot--except he’s going there in disgrace while he awaits his fate from the wizard council.

Mary’s assistant, Rue, is a gentle, self-possessed young man about Elliot’s age. Elliot is drawn to him, and his magic seems to calm down around the handsome and mysterious Rue. Elliot sinks gratefully into the unexpected grace of Rue's kindness and friendship. He doesn’t understand why his magic is broken or why it feels whole again around Rue. But right now he’s just trying to survive, grateful for the reprieve Rue’s friendship provides.

But then a a potential tragedy on the beach culminates in Rue revealing his true nature: he’s a selkie, both man and seal, with a magic that somehow complements and heals Elliot’s when they’re together. And that might not be possible for much longer.

The Dark Farewell by Josh Lanyon
Summary:
It’s the Roaring Twenties. Skirts are short, crime is rampant, and booze is in short supply. Prohibition has hit Little Egypt where newspaper man David Flynn has come to do a follow-up story on the Herrin Massacre. But the massacre isn’t the only news in town. Spiritualist Medium Julian Devereux claims to speak to the dead--and he charges a pretty penny for it. 

Flynn knows a phony when he sees one, and he’s convinced Devereux is as fake as a cigar store Indian. And he’s absolutely right. But when Julian begins to see bloodstained visions of a serial killer, the only person he can turn to for help is the cynical Mr. Flynn. 

2nd Re-Read Review October 2018:
Not much more I can add to my previous reviews.  So in this case I think simplicity is best:  With this third read of The Dark Farewell I may not have experienced the same adrenaline rush that comes with the first read but it thrilled me just as much as it did four years ago.  When an author can create that level of entertainment than you know you found something special.

1st Re-Read Review 2016:
All I can say is I still loved David and Julian's story and that I hope we hear from them again.  The duo is just so precious, sexy, and just plain fun.

Original Review 2014:
I once again enjoyed the vintage, paranormal behind this mystery. Passion, skepticism, drama, weariness abounds in this tale. Once again my only flaw is that it's just not long enough. Josh Lanyon creates characters and plots that just latch on to my heart, soul, and sets my imagination into overdrive that I just don't want to say goodbye when the last page hits.

RATING:

Empty Vessels by Meredith Katz
Summary:
In the aftermath of a terrible accident, Keith is left with anxiety and depression. He's also left with psychic powers, a ghost following him around, and the unwanted knowledge that not everyone in the world is human—some are something other. In the midst of all this turmoil, it's the ghost, Lucas, who becomes his closest friend.

But when Keith starts having prophetic dreams about horrible monsters hunting Others down, he can't remain uninvolved anymore. Against his better judgment, and with Lucas's support, Keith begins to pursue the truth of what's really out there, what sorts of people they are, and what his own role could be in this strange new world of spirits and monsters.
















Click to Check Out Previous
Random Paranormal Tales of 2017

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7


Bashed by Rick R Reed
THE NIGHT had turned cold while they were in the Brig, one of Chicago’s oldest and most infamous leather establishments. A strong wind out of the north had blown away the cloud cover that allowed the city of Chicago to retain a little Indian summer heat this late October night. With the wind, the temperature had plunged nearly twenty degrees, from a relatively balmy sixty-two, down to the low forties. But the wind had also revealed a sprinkling of stars, visible even with the ambient light from downtown. And the moon had emerged, almost full, lending a silvery cast to North Clark Street.

Donald wrapped his arms around Mark as they headed south on Clark, toward the side street where they had left their car. Even with his chaps, biker jacket, and boots, Donald felt the chill bite into him, vicious. He couldn’t imagine how Mark was faring, wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. He’d get his boy into leather one of these days! It was just past three 3:00 a.m., and the far north side neighborhood called Andersonville, once the province of Swedes and working class folk, and now the home of yuppies and gays, was quiet. A lone taxi headed north up Clark, looking for fares. Someone even unsteadier on his feet came out of the adult bookstore ahead of them, blinking rapidly, and looking around, perhaps for more excitement than he had found in the bookstore. Donald thought that, once upon a time, he could have been the sad, singular man emerging from an adult bookstore while the rest of the world slept, but things had changed since he had met Mark six months ago.

“I feel almost—almost—like we’re the only two people on earth,” Donald said to Mark, drawing him in close for a sloppy, beery kiss. When he pulled his mouth away, he flashed the crooked grin he knew entranced his boyfriend and completed the thought with, “And that’s fine by me.”

Mark grinned back, then rubbed his upper arms. “It’s not fine by me. Not when it’s this frickin’ cold! Let’s get home!”

They wrapped their arms around each other to ward off the cold, much as they had done the night they met, back in March, in the same leather bar. And once again, they were just a bit boozy and flushed with need for each other. Tonight, the weather outside may have not been as frigidly cold as it had been last winter when they had first laid eyes upon one another, but the heat and electricity passing between them was still burning as brightly as that very first night.

Donald stopped again in the middle of the sidewalk, pulling Mark close and planting a kiss on his cheek. There was no one around, and in this neighborhood, such displays really were nothing to worry about, Donald thought. Hell, most anyone they encountered would either be sympathetic or jealous. He nipped at Mark’s earlobe and whispered, “I love you, you know that?” He paused to breathe in Mark’s scent and to nuzzle his nose in Mark’s blond curls.

And Mark stopped, right there in the middle of Clark Street, on an early Sunday morning, and placed his hands on Donald’s shoulders, so he would stop walking and so he could look right back into Mark’s penetrating stare. “And I love you, Donald.” He gave a small grin and looked down at the ground for just a second, almost as if he was embarrassed, and then said, “And I always will. This is a forever thing.”

Donald felt a rush of warmth go through him at the exact same moment a harsh wind, full of chill and with the smell of dark water, glided east from over Lake Michigan. He pulled Mark close and kissed him full on the mouth, his tongue lifting Mark’s and doing a little duel with it. Neither of them closed their eyes, preferring instead to stare into each other’s rapt gazes. Just as they were breaking apart, they stiffened as the roar of a souped-up engine shattered the still of the night. The backfire issuing forth from the car’s muffler made both men jump. They gave each other a quick glance, then laughed.

The car, an old maroon Duster that had been tricked out beyond good sense, taste, or fiscal responsibility, slowed across from the pair. Three shadowy figures moved inside. One of them rolled down a window, and a young male face, pale and marred by acne in the moon’s light, emerged making a kissing sound, exaggerated and prolonged. Donald heard the other guys in the car laughing. He stiffened and felt a trickle of sweat roll into the small of his back, in spite of the chill in the air.

Just as suddenly as they had arrived, they roared off, leaving them in a wake of sour-smelling exhaust. But they did not leave without casting a parting shot out the window. “Fucking faggots!”

Donald shook his head, glancing over at Mark, whose young face was creased with worry. “Don’t let shit like that get to you. They’re idiots. And chickenshits… it’s pretty easy to call names at people from a speeding car.”

The pair continued south. Up ahead, they needed to turn east to make their way to the little side street where they had parked Donald’s Prius. The street could usually be counted on for a spot, even on a busy Saturday night. Donald thought it was more the fact that the street was hard to get to than the fact that it ran along the northern border of St. Boniface Cemetery that made it such a good parking bet.

“I know. They’re just a bunch of assholes,” Mark said as they continued east. Donald could feel the defeat and fear in his voice. He hoped the hotrod homophobes hadn’t broken the spell of their night. Because Mark was much younger, he hadn’t been exposed to some of the same ridicule and taunting Donald had, growing up in the late sixties and seventies.

Donald bit his lower lip, suddenly feeling all the shame and embarrassment he had once associated with being gay rise up again. It never really disappears, does it? His face felt flushed, and a curious mixture of emotions warred within him. First, there was the shame, which he chastised himself for, but he still couldn’t stop the little inner voice that scolded him for the public displays of affection, even on an early Sunday morning and in a part of town that was very gay. Second, there was a more recent, more reasonable voice that was enraged and asked “How dare they?” This voice was ready to chase after the speeding car, shouting epithets right back at the cowards who hid behind the car’s macho posturing and tinted glass. And the final voice, the other half of the fight or flee duo, just wanted to grab Mark’s hand and run back to the car, jump inside, and make sure all the doors were locked before roaring off into the night themselves. Thank God they had a secure garage to park in at home.

“Yeah… assholes,” Donald whispered, then spoke up. “I need to be getting you home, young man. It’s way past your bedtime.” Donald quickened his pace so that Mark would match his step and tried not to let the name-calling weigh too heavily on the evening. He was pissed about how a mood could be so easily shattered, especially by some more-than-likely suburban rubes that were not entitled to it. Fuck them! He wished he could make the mood come back, but not now, not with the “fucking faggots” still ringing fresh in his ears.

Maybe when they got home, Donald could put things right. No maybe about it! He would light candles, open a bottle of wine, put on some trance music, and urge Mark over to the couch. He would undress him slowly, gliding his strong hands over every inch of Mark’s silky skin as he exposed it. He could already taste Mark’s lips and the clean heat of his mouth.

They were almost to their car when they both tensed, slowing as they heard the growling muffler of a car behind them. Donald closed his eyes, thinking, Oh God, please not again. Not them. They both stopped for just an instant. Donald didn’t have to look back to know who was in the loudly idling car behind them. His heart began to thud, and he resisted an impulse to simply grab Mark’s hand and run the three or four feet it would take them to get to the car. But such a sissy maneuver was probably just the kind of thing those assholes would take particular delight in seeing. And the hot pursuit of a couple of scared queers would be the perfect capper to a boring night.

Donald spoke quietly, out of the corner of his mouth. “Let’s just walk to the car. Don’t look back. Don’t even give them the satisfaction we’re aware of them. We both know who it is. But to look back will just open the door to more shit.”

Mark kept pace. “Right.” His voice was clipped, and Donald could pick up on the fear and tension in it.

Behind them, they heard the kissing sound again, over the beat of some heavy metal music, the bass throbbing hard enough to shake the car’s frame. “Hey, boys!” A falsetto voice, mocking, rang out through the autumn night. Donald wanted to freeze in his tracks and could tell Mark did too by the way he tensed. But Donald had enough presence of mind to keep moving forward slowly, cautiously, the way one would back away from a lion about to pounce. No sudden moves. No eye contact. Donald had to remind himself to breathe.

A wolf whistle cut through the night air. “Hey, if you guys are gonna suck some dick tonight, can we get in on the action?” The car’s passengers erupted with laughter.

Donald dug in his tight-fitting Levi’s for his keys. His hand was trembling. His stomach was churning. He wished they had left much earlier. He wished they had parked on busier, more brightly lit Clark Street. He wished they had taken a cab. He wished he had left his leather gear at home, just for tonight. He managed to grasp the keys just as they arrived at the car. Mark hurried around to the passenger side. When Donald met Mark’s gaze, he saw that the younger man’s eyes were bright with fear. He mouthed the word “Hurry” to Donald.

The sound of car doors slamming behind them made Donald’s hands shake so badly he dropped the keys into the gravel by the side of the road. “Fuck,” he whispered. They were off busy Clark now, and the side street was dark. Empty. He couldn’t see where the keys had fallen. He could see where they should logically be, but of course, that’s not where they were.

Mark said, in a tense voice, “Hurry up, Donald.”

Donald didn’t have to look behind him to know the car’s occupants were no longer in the Duster and were getting closer. Each slam of a car door caused his heart to beat a little faster, his breath to quicken. One of their voices sounded almost right behind him.

“So what do you say, guys, how about a little head?”

Snickers. High fives. Laughter all around.

Donald swallowed painfully, his throat dry. He tried feeling around in the cinders beside the road with the toe of his boot and came up empty. He did what he had to do, bent down to grope in the gravel for his keys.

“Nice,” one of the boys hissed behind him. “Hey, Justin, look at that. He’s getting ready for you.”

Donald straightened quickly, the keys in his hand now, hoping the two of them could get in the car before the guys drew any closer.

He had his finger on the remote button that would unlock the door to the Prius when he felt the blow to his lower back. He tried to suck in some breath, but it seemed there was no air. The pain, rushing up, white hot, from his kidneys was fierce, intense, and agonizing. He saw stars. There was no air. He dropped the keys again and groaned, slowly reaching back to rub at the spot where something hard had landed powerfully against the tender area of his back. Through pain-blurred eyes, he looked down and saw the keys lying on the gravel once more, glinting back at him mockingly in the moonlight. He didn’t know if he could reach down and get them, couldn’t imagine how the movement might ratchet the pain in his back up to unbearable levels. And then he groaned again, not because of his own pain, but because he saw one of the other guys, his face hidden by a shadow from the Chicago White Sox baseball cap he wore, grab hold of Mark from behind and pull him close to his chest. The guy whispered something in Mark’s ear and made that infernal kissing sound again. Only this time, no one was laughing. He lifted Mark, whose bright, terrified eyes seemed to reach out to Donald across the hood of the car, pulling him aloft for a second and away from the car. Another of his buddies, this one wearing a do-rag and a leather jacket that would have looked very much at home in the Brig, stepped up, pulled back his arm, and punched Mark savagely in the stomach. Mark let out a great whoosh of air and then a groan.

The guy in the Sox cap let him go to watch Mark stumble, clutching his stomach. Donald heard Mark whisper, with what was left of his breath, “Please… no.” Donald attempted again to reach for the keys, but the pain, searing, prevented him.

And then another of the trio stepped up behind Mark, and Donald saw the hard, blunt object that had just so painfully connected with his own kidneys, an aluminum baseball bat. This guy wore no cap and had the face of a boy: ruddy, matching the dark red hair that topped his head. He handed the bat to the guy in the leather jacket, smiling. The man in the leather jacket took the bat from him, gripping it firmly around the base. “Batter up!” the guy in the Sox cap called and then guffawed. The guy in leather’s face was a mask of grim determination as he raised the bat and prepared to bring it down, with great force, on top of Mark’s head.

Donald cried out, heedless of his pain. “No! Get away from him, you son of a bitch.” Blindly furious, Donald stumbled forward, around the back of the car, to try to do whatever he could to stop that bat from connecting with Mark’s skull. But as in nightmares, his movements were agonizingly slow, as if he were moving through something thick and viscous, even as the beating on the other side of the car seemed to speed up, as if in fast-forward motion.

Donald stood frozen near the back bumper, breathless and wheezing, as the bat came down and landed with a sickening thud on Mark’s head, sounding like a watermelon being squashed. Mark dropped to the ground, and Donald rushed to help him.

Like a pack of animals, they were on Donald, and it was only seconds before he too was on the ground, watching as booted and running-shoed feet kicked at him everywhere they could find that was soft: his stomach, his balls, his face.

He rolled into a little ball and had enough presence of mind to chastise himself for not being able to save Mark. He also thought, in that split-second moment, how quiet it all was. And how fast—how very fast—everything was moving….

He turned to look up. The guy with the leather jacket stood above him, swinging the bat, on his face an expression that was a curious mixture of glee and rage. He smiled, and Donald noticed details: the gap in his teeth, the stubble on his face, how his nose skewed to one side, as if it had been broken once. But the last thing—the most horrible thing—Donald remembered seeing was the bat whistling down through the air toward him. He rolled away, hearing someone whisper, “Get him. Get the cocksucker.” He reached out for Mark’s foot, which was only inches away.

And then everything went black.


One
JUSTIN WAS breathless, shaking, and it felt like the fries, Italian beef sandwich, and five beers he had consumed that night were about to make a hasty and searing exit from his gut at any moment. He and Ronny were covered in blood. The smell of it, its sharp metallic tang, was one of the things that made Justin fear losing the contents of his stomach. The other thing was the violence they had just perpetrated. How had some innocent name-calling morphed into something so brutal? He couldn’t allow himself to think about that now, couldn’t allow that hot touch to his memory. But somehow, he managed to hold the bile back, tasting its bitter acid in the back of his throat, because he knew Ronny would think he was a wimp. Just like he thought Luis was a wimp for running off into the night after they bashed those fags down in Andersonville. Justin simply thought Luis was smart, scared, and yes, sensible, to want to get away from him and Ronny and the bloody mess the three of them had just made less than an hour ago.

Justin wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold things together. He had started trembling after the attack and was still shaking. They had put a serious hurt on those guys, and he wasn’t sure how, or if, they were getting on. Earlier, in the car, he had begged Ronny to let him call 911 from his cell to report the attack so that someone might send an ambulance.

Ronny had sneered at him, a Marlboro clamped into the corner of his mouth as he steered with one hand. “What are you, fuckin’ nuts? They got GPS or some shit on those phones. They’ll find us, dickhead. Is that what you want?” Disgustedly, he dragged in on the cigarette, making its cherry glow in the dark interior, and angrily exhaled through his nose. “They’re a couple of fags, dude. They got what they deserved.”

Justin had just stared quietly out the window as they sailed up Lake Shore Drive, headed for Sheridan Road and the far north side neighborhood known as Rogers Park, where Ronny had his own little studio on Morse. Ronny must have been doing eighty or ninety, and Justin wondered just how smart that was. What if they got pulled over, covered in blood as they were? How would they explain that away?

But Justin knew better than to nag at Ronny about his speed. It wouldn’t be the first time his best friend gave him a backhand across the mouth. Justin simply slid down in his seat and kept his own counsel. Hopefully, there would be no cops out on Lake Shore or Sheridan tonight.

And now, here they were in Ronny’s tiny, filthy bathroom, crowded together, in nothing but boxers. They had thrown their bloody clothes into the tub and were scrubbing vigorously with soap and steaming water at their hands and faces to remove any trace of splatter. Ronny had already wiped down his leather jacket and was satisfied it was clean.

Ronny shut the water off and placed his hands on Justin’s shoulders, looking him over. “Sweet, man, clean as a baby.” He pulled him close and sniffed at his neck. “No smell, no tell.” He leaned back and grinned. “We’ll bag up the clothes and drop ’em in a dumpster.”

Justin continued to shiver, trying to tell himself it was from a chill and not from the fact he was still scared. “Uh, so you think we’ll be okay?”

“No witnesses, man. And those queers will keep their mouths shut if they know what’s good for them.”

“And Luis won’t say anything?” Luis was the friend they had hooked up with earlier in the night at the arcade on Belmont. He was half Mexican, half Irish, and up for anything.

“Nah. Unless he wants to implicate himself.”

Justin shivered.

“You cold, little bro?”

Justin nodded. Even though he and Ronny were in no way blood relatives, it always made him feel better somehow when Ronny referred to him in this manner.

“Let me get you some clothes. I got some sweats you can put on.”

Justin watched him rummaging around on the floor, through the piles of clothes scattered there, looking for something suitable. Ronny’s frame was lean and hard, the upper part of him covered in red, green, and black tattoos, a crazy mixture of Chinese letters, stars, dragons, and tribal symbols that all somehow seemed to work together. He was ten years older than sixteen-year-old Justin, and the fact that Ronny chose to hang around with him made him feel proud, like he was cool.

Except for tonight. They had never veered into territory this violent before. Sure, they had yelled at the fags on Halsted and Clark, even pitched a few beer cans their way, but that was the extent of it. And sure, their activities hadn’t always been strictly legal but had never gone much further than smoking a little weed and maybe lifting a lighter or two off the counter at 7-Eleven while the clerk’s back was turned, reaching for smokes. But they had never done anything like tonight. It still seemed like a dream.

Or a nightmare.

Ronny was coming toward him with a long-sleeved T-shirt and balled-up gray sweats under one arm.

“You think those guys are gonna be okay, don’t you?”

Ronny handed him the clothes, and Justin began pulling them on. Ronny lit another cigarette and blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “You worried about the sweethearts?”

“Well, maybe a little. Wouldn’t want them to be dead or nothin’ like that, you know?”

“They’re queers, man, remember? Those guys are like cockroaches. You can’t wipe ’em out. When I was a kid, my old man told me AIDS was gonna do that… just get rid of ’em all, but you see how they beat that.”

Justin wasn’t sure how that was logical, or even in the realm of sanity, but he kept his thoughts to himself.

Ronny grinned. “Still, we put a good hurt on both of them. They’re not gonna be doing much suckin’ or fuckin’ in the near future.” Ronny barked out a short laugh. “Or talkin’.” He shook his head. “But they’ll be okay. Don’t worry about it, little man.” He reached out and ruffled Justin’s reddish brown hair. “When are we gonna get this buzzed? Like mine?”

Justin’s stomach churned. “Dunno.”

“I am going to smoke a bowl and get some sleep, man. You in?”

Justin followed Ronny out of the bathroom and sat next to him on the stained sheets of his bed, sinking down into the mattress, watching as Ronny pulled a bag of bud from beneath his bed. He wished he could go home tonight, but his mother, Patty, had a date and had told him that she would appreciate “a little privacy” if Justin wouldn’t mind “having a sleepover” at one of his friends’.

Justin had had a lot of sleepovers during his short life.

And a lot of them lately had been with Ronny, which was cool, except the place was filthy, stank, and had cockroaches.

“Here you go,” Ronny croaked, breathless, and held out the metal one-hitter to him.

That was one good thing about Ronny and staying here: he always had good weed, and if you smoked enough of it, you forgot all about what a pigsty you were in.

Justin took the one-hitter, fired it up, and drew in deeply. Tonight there was a lot he wanted to forget.


EVEN WITH several hits clouding his brain, Justin found sleep elusive. He only felt groggy and sick, and the oblivion he sought stayed stubbornly just out of reach. He lay beside Ronny, who slept on his back, one arm flung over his forehead, snoring loudly. He wondered how the guy could have done what he just did and then go home and sleep, as if nothing had happened.

Images kept coming back to him. He would see the terrified look on the younger guy’s face, the pleading in his eyes just before Ronny brought down the bat on his head. Justin didn’t know if he could ever get that out of his mind, the sickening crunch of bone as the bat made impact. He saw the other guy, the older one, decked out in leather, stumbling behind his car to try to get to his friend. He was whimpering, and the terror stamped on his features was real. Luis was laughing, but Justin just couldn’t see the humor in what they were doing. It was sick. He just hoped the guys were able to crawl away, to get the help they would undoubtedly need.

So he lay there, restless, after spending hours of tossing, turning, and glancing at the little digital clock on Ronny’s nightstand, surprised to see that only minutes had passed since the last time he had looked. He just wanted to go home, if there was such a place. But he knew his mother, Patty, wouldn’t like it if he showed up too early, wouldn’t want there to be an uncomfortable meet and greet across their scarred breakfast table.

Now the light was peeking in from the spaces around the sheet Ronny had hung over his sole window. Justin looked again at the clock. It was going on seven. He turned on his side, drawing his knees up closer to his chest. The movement sent Ronny onto his side, and then he was lying up against Justin’s back. One sleepy arm fell across Justin’s chest, and he stiffened. He could feel Ronny’s dick, hard, against his ass. He must be having some dream! He wanted to slide from the bed but didn’t want to wake Ronny, didn’t want to face his queries about why he was getting up so early.

Ronny snuggled closer in his sleep, and his hand brushed across Justin’s stomach, then dropped farther south. He cupped Justin’s crotch and then let out a big snore.

Justin jumped from the bed. His heart was beating fast.

Ronny opened bleary and bloodshot eyes and looked up at him.

“What the fuck?” Justin asked.

“Huh?”

Justin gave out a little laugh, but there was no mirth in it. “You were grabbin’ my dick, man.”

Ronny rolled over on his back and groped on the bedside table for his smokes, lit one up, and blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “What the fuck are you talkin’ about, man?”

Justin began to feel sheepish. “In your sleep, uh, your hand grabbed at my dick.” Justin felt himself begin to tremble again, so he reached down and pulled on the sweats and T-shirt Ronny had given him the night before. He stared at his friend.

“So what? You think I’m going queer for you or somethin’?”

Justin shook his head. “Naw. It was just weird, is all.”

Ronny propped himself up on one elbow. “’Cause if you think I’m queer, I ask you to please think about last night, dude. That should give you all the evidence you need that I am straight as they come.” He took a drag and blew out the smoke angrily. “I was asleep, end of story.”

“Okay,” Justin whispered, as much to himself as to Ronny. “I’m gonna book. The coast is probably clear at my ma’s by now. I’ll get the clothes and throw ’em in a dumpster on my way home. I’ll make sure to throw them in one that’s nowhere near here.”

“You do that.” Ronny snuffed out his cigarette and rolled back over on his side. Justin waited until he was snoring again. It didn’t take long.

Justin moved toward the kitchenette and found a black plastic garbage bag under the sink, then went into the bathroom and lifted the jeans and T-shirts they had thrown into the bathtub the night before. He stuffed them into the bag, trying not to look at the garments as he did so. He snatched his South Park T-shirt from the porcelain and placed it atop the pile of balled-up clothes in the bag. As he did so, he caught sight of a little blob of pinkish matter on the leg of one of the jeans.

And finally, it happened. Everything came up, and he turned just in time to hurl into the toilet, his eyes watering as he heaved on and on, until there was nothing left inside.

Nothing but remorse.

He tied the bag and heard Ronny call out, “Lightweight!” He realized he probably just thought Justin was hungover. God, didn’t he understand what they had done?

He hurried toward the door.

Reclaiming by Sean Michael
Beaudelaire Delacourte zoned in on the buzz of the needle and the pattern he was drawing up on one paler-than-milk inner arm. The vamp had come in looking for a grim reaper with shining eyes. Lucky for him, Beau had luminescent paint that would indeed glow at night.

He was almost done and the piece was going to be stunning.

Of course, he thought his client was a bit of an idiot. Beau had explained that he used specialized ink, permanent on vamps, and given that sun and lasers were a no-no for creatures of the night, it would never fade, never go away and maybe, just maybe, a guy who lived in the shadows didn’t want permanently glowing marks that were in highly visible locations. It kind of messed with one’s ability to lurk.

Johnny Stupid had insisted, though.

Beau could have turned the doofus away, but this kind of stupid got under his skin. So he’d quoted twice his normal rate, and was making a pretty penny on this particular piece of ink.

For a guy who made his reputation by his fangs, Johnny sure was whiny about the needles. Beau rushed the job just to get it done so he could usher the loser out of his shop. He should have said no and turfed the guy when he’d first walked in. Beau was smiling, though, when a nice fat wad of cash was handed over. He waved the guy off and stuffed the money into his safe.

A slow night had turned into a good take, thanks to Mr. Glow In the Dark Vampire.

The bell over the door rang, and Beau shook his head. Sunrise was near and he’d been shutting down the shop, pulling the heavy shutters across the windows and doors. “Sorry, we’re closed.”

“Beau?” The voice was a sweet, soft tenor that reminded him of long nights of feeding and fucking. Aaron.

Of course, Aaron had left him, what, eight months ago now? Calling Beau…an abomination and informing him that under no circumstance did Aaron want to become what he was.

He looked up to tell whoever it was who’d shown up that he didn’t want what they were peddling, but what he saw made his jaw drop and the words freeze in his throat.

Aaron was gaunt, milk-white, full blond hair gone limp and dull.

“A…Aaron? Is that you?” He wasn’t quite sure he believed it. His Aaron had been robust, tanned, hair like a romance cover model’s. His Aaron had been alive.

“I…I came to see you.”

“Satan’s balls, I barely recognize you.” He could feel the dawn like a specter breathing down his back. He had to lock up. “The sun will be up soon, you should go home.”

“Okay. You’re beautiful, still. I should have told you yes. Forgive me.” Aaron pulled his hoodie up and slipped out of the door, silent as a wraith.

What?

Aaron always did have a flair for the dramatic.

Beau went to the door and called out after the figure fading in amongst the shadows. “Unless home is within a block or two, you’re going to be incinerated. Get back here and help me with the damned shutters.”

“I don’t have a home anymore.” Aaron stopped, but didn’t turn around.

Beau pondered his next move quickly. He could let Aaron slip away to whatever hole he was staying out of the sun in, or he could invite the man in and get answers to the questions bouncing around in his head. If he let Aaron go, he had a hunch he’d never see the man again.

He sighed and cleared his throat. “Get back here, A. And help me close the shutters.”

“I didn’t come to be a bother.”

Like Aaron wasn’t the biggest bother of his life already.

“You’ll help me close the shutters. There we go. Not a bother.”

He rolled his eyes and shut the door as soon as Aaron was through it. After locking it, he pulled down the heavy metal that blocked out the sun. “Get the windows, A.”

“‘Kay.”

God, he was burning with questions. Burning.

They got the shop locked up tight and Beau pointed to the chair. To his credit, Aaron sat.

Beau took the stool. “So what were you looking at getting?” It wasn’t the burning question driving his curiosity, but it was familiar, comfortable. Besides, the ink—it had a way of making a man talkative.

“I… I was…I keep… Honeysuckle.”

He’d once fucked Aaron under a honeysuckle bower in the full moon, bound his lover’s hands with the vines.

His eyebrows went up, but he could see it already, the vines wrapped around Aaron’s wrist just like they had been that night, a couple of flowers hiding among the leaves.

Beau began grabbing ink and filling his little pots. “You trust me to do it freehand?”

“I can’t pay you.”

Beau looked up, meeting Aaron’s eyes. “You can pay by answering my questions.” It wasn’t like he needed the money. Aaron’s story, however—that, he was pretty sure he needed to hear.

Aaron nodded, eyes burning in his skull.

Beau hooked the machine up and stepped on the pedal, the buzz soothing him immediately. That sound was his blood, ink flowing through his veins. “Hold still.”

“Okay.” Aaron’s eyes were nearly clear now, barely any green there.

Beau watched them a moment longer, then turned to his work, touching needle to skin, punching the ink beneath the surface.

Aaron watched him, still and silent as the dead.

It looked like Beau was going to have to draw his former lover—and former live dude—out.

“When did it happen?”

“Six months ago. I was at the club and… It was stupid. I know I shouldn’t have gone without protection, but I was looking for… It doesn’t matter. Someone decided to claim me.”

Beau’s nostrils flared and his knuckles went white around the machine. He had to bite his lip to keep from snarling that Aaron had already been claimed. “If you weren’t interested in being turned, why were you at the club?”

“I was looking for someone.”

Beau took a few deep breaths and applied needle to skin again. “Oh?”

“You. I missed you like crazy. I fucked up. I wanted another chance.”

“So you went to the club on your own?” Beau nearly snarled the words out. Stupid, stupid move. Aaron knew better. “You know better than that.”

“I was hoping you were there. My skin didn’t fit, I couldn’t eat, and it was Monday. You always went on Mondays.”

“I stopped going after we…” After Aaron had left him.

He inked in another vine, putting a knot in it at the side of Aaron’s wrist.

Aaron fell silent again, but Beau felt the man’s eyes on him.

“So you went looking for me…” And he refused to take blame for this—Aaron knew better than to go to the club without being under someone’s protection. Not unless he wanted to be fed upon, used or worst, turned against his will.

“I did. Stephan decided that I’d treated you poorly and he turned me on stage so that I could pay for my mistakes.” Aaron wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I came to apologize. I mean, I’d come to apologize before, but now, too.”

Beau snarled, foot leaving the pedal, and the sudden quiet felt loud. “Stephan turned you? He had no right. He knew you were mine.”

Stephan was fucking lucky there was nothing but daylight out there right now, or Beau would go rip him to shreds this very moment.

Aaron unzipped his jacket, the scars where Stephan had drained his blood brutal and ragged. This had been no loving thing, or even a sexual one. Aaron had been subjected to the most pain possible.

“Fuck. Fuck, Aaron. Nobody tried to stop him?”

Stephan was a dead man. As brutal and painful a death as Beau could devise. Payback was a bitch.

“I deserved it. I was scared and stupid.” Aaron zipped back up, hiding in the heavy fabric. “The honeysuckle is beautiful.”

“I take it Stephan didn’t take you under his wing?” It wasn’t really a question. If Aaron had belonged to someone, he’d be thriving now instead of looking like the walking dead.

Aaron shook his head. “At least I knew to get out of the sun. They took my wallet, my clothes, broke my teeth and wished me luck. I found an attic in a little office building. I stay there. Insurance agents.”

Beau got up and began to pace. “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to take his fangs and throw him in a pit and then I’m going to let the sun take him, piece by piece.”

“I didn’t come to make trouble. I came to see you, literally. I just wanted to look.”

“So you still don’t want me?” Beau was stung, he really was.

He’d thought the big reason why Aaron had dumped him was because the man hadn’t wanted to give up his humanity, and that wasn’t an issue anymore.

“I want you more than anything, but I’m broken, Beau. Ruined.”

“I’m kind of a collector of broken things, Aaron.”

He went back to his stool and picked up his machine again, stepping on the pedal to fill the room with the buzzing. He let it encompass him, let it soothe him and bent back to his task.

Aaron sat beautifully, and Beau inked the life back into the milky skin. He wrapped the honeysuckle vines around Aaron’s wrist, then filled in a few light-colored flowers.

He sat back when he was done and grinned. “That’s my mark on you now.”

“It’s beautiful.” Aaron stared into him, so intense. “I was wrong, Beau. I went to the club to say I was wrong.”

He reached for Aaron’s cheek, cupping it. “You’re so skinny. How have you been surviving?” Had Aaron’s fangs grown in at all? Was it even possible with his teeth knocked out when he’d been made? Stephan had some nasty payback coming his way and Beau would make sure he paid it.

“Rats. The building has a rat problem.”

Six months. His lover had been living on rats for six months.

“And your fangs?” Because having to squeeze out the blood would make it even worse.

Aaron exposed his teeth. The human teeth were there and whole, clearly grown back in thanks to the regenerative abilities of vampires, but the fangs were barely long enough to push past them. Feeding would be possible, but a bitch until they finished growing back out. “It took time to be strong enough to come see you.”

Beau touched the baby fangs. “You need a protector. You need a teacher.” Aaron needed him.

“I think. I think he should have killed me. It would have been kinder than this.” A single bloody tear slipped down Aaron’s razor-sharp cheekbone. “I’ve been so frightened.”

If Aaron had shown up at his doorstep the day after Stephan had done this, Beau would likely have hesitated, still hurt from Aaron’s rejection. But eight months had passed and he could feel the pain Aaron had suffered, could see it.

He wrapped Aaron in an embrace. “You don’t need to be scared anymore—you’re mine now.”

“I’m not worth saving.”

He would have spanked Aaron if he’d thought it wouldn’t have knocked him over. “You made a mistake. I’d say you’ve paid for it.” He stood. “You can be the shop apprentice for now. Cleaning up, running errands. I’ll show you how to clean the machines.” He wasn’t ready to offer more at the moment.

If only Aaron had accepted his offer in the first place. Of course what ifs could drive you crazy, he’d lived long enough he knew that.

Aaron nodded. “I can clean.” The too-big hoodie went up, Aaron hiding his lean face again.

“There’s living quarters in the back. You can sleep at the foot of my bed.”

He got a silent nod. They tidied up, then he led Aaron back to the room where they’d made love so many times. Aaron sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, looking like a pile of discarded clothes.

Beau tugged a box out from under the bed and pulled a thick comforter from it, handing it over.

Then he took a pillow off his bed and gave that to Aaron, too.

“Thank you.” Aaron disappeared in the blanket, hiding from the world.

What a waste. Aaron had been a lovely, vibrant boy, eager to know everything.

Beau went to the fridge and grabbed a bag of blood. “Heads up.” He tossed it over.

Aaron looked at him, confused. “I’ve never…”

“You’ve never what? Fed from a bag?” That was hardly a shock, if Aaron had been living off rats.

Aaron shook his head and handed the bag back. “I’m okay.”

He crouched next to Aaron and handed the blood over again. “You clearly haven’t looked at yourself recently, because you look like shit and you need to feed.”

“I haven’t been out of the building until today.” Aaron reached for him.

Beau let Aaron hold onto him, snaking an arm around the too-skinny body. “You can’t live on rats. You need this.” Aaron didn’t even need to use his fangs on the bag, it had an easy drip line.

He brushed his fingers over Aaron’s eyelids, closing them. Then he brought the drip line to Aaron’s lips. “Suck.”

When Aaron didn’t immediately do as he’d been told, Beau squeezed the bag, forcing the blood down the tube and into Aaron’s mouth.

Aaron’s eyes went wide, the green flaring back in them. That was better already. Beau leaned in and said it again, “Suck.”

Aaron keened, pulling hard, the dying body trying to come back to life.

Beau bet he’d need to go on a blood run soon, and Aaron was going to be surprised by how much better he’d feel when he woke up.

Aaron began to sink into the covers, clearly fed and safe enough to feel the weight of the sun urging him to sleep. Beau nodded and went to climb into bed. He stopped himself, though, going to the door and bolting it closed. Then he went to bed.

It never hurt to take extra precautions.

A Wizard's Shelter by Hollis Shiloh
Chapter One
THE STORM blew me in. Rain lashed against the coast, pounding breakers against the shore and boulders, against the beach and the squat little lighthouse.

Most of all, it pounded against my carriage, which rocked alarmingly from side to side. I held on to the wheel grimly and stared ahead. It took all my strength, and not a small bit of magic, to keep the wheels gripping the road and the lightweight, horseless buggy from blowing away and tumbling down the cliffs into the foaming, apoplectic sea.

The engine sputtered threateningly and gave out just before the lighthouse. I threw my cloak tighter around my shoulders, ducked my head, and ran for the shelter ahead of me. Shelter in more ways than one, and it felt as though I was running in more ways than one also. Howling, the wind tore at my clothes, ripping at my cloak, tearing it from between my fingers. The strings snapped, and it flapped away like a large black crow. I was soaked instantly, hair flattened to my head, grim, cold water plastering my clothes to me. The wind shrieked triumph and cackled laughter at me.

I pounded at the door to the house connected to the lighthouse. I rattled the knob in desperation. Behind me, the carriage toppled gently onto its side and edged away. I sent a quick flick of magic to glue it in place so it wouldn’t fall over a cliff.

Then I turned back to the house and nudged the lock with a tendril of magic. The door flew open under my hand. I burst into a small room lit with a glowing hearth, books coating its walls on cozy bookshelves. The wind forced the door open the rest of the way, banging it against the wall with a loud crack. Wind and rain flew in, parallel to the ground, and warmth and dryness flew out.

I stared into an astonished young man’s face. He looked about my age and was seated on a small couch not far from the fire, within reach of the bookshelves. He wore a red short-sleeved shirt and blue shorts that were just a little too short both for this weather and for his muscular, hairy legs. His bare feet were propped on the edge of the couch, and he had a book open, but he wasn’t reading it. He was looking at me with the widest gray eyes I’d ever seen, utterly shocked.

“Shut the door!” cried a female voice, and with a quick flap of skirts and curled red hair, here she was: my sister. I turned and braced myself against the door, fighting the wind to get it closed. She threw herself against it as well. Grunting, we fought back the wind. The door nearly banged us against the wall.

And then the stranger was there, throwing his weight against it too, his shoulder next to mine, nearly shoving me out of the way. He grunted, once, and then the door shut for all three of us.

“Wow! That’s some wind!” And then he took a step back, self-conscious again. “Hello.”

“Hello.” I nodded at him curtly. I wasn’t quite sure about my sister having a man here. She had good employment, and I supposed some man might want to live off her. But I wasn’t pleased. I visibly saw him swallow and decide not to offer his hand for shaking. I must have looked a bit fierce in that moment, windswept and intense.

“Hey, hey,” said my sister, giving me a sharp nudge in the ribs. “Be nice! This is my assistant, Rupert. Rue.”

“Hello,” said Rue, giving me a faint nod.

“Hello,” I managed, trying not to sulk. The last thing I wanted was to have to use my company manners while visiting my sister.

“And this is my brother Elly. Be nice, Elly!”

“Elliot.” I grimaced.

She turned to face me then, bright-green eyes snapping, a crooked smile on her square, freckled face. Her hair plastered to her face almost as hard as mine did, even from that brief fight with the wind.

She smiled rakishly at me and reached out to tug at my shirt. “You always did like to make an entrance. You look like a drowned rat.”

I smiled softly in return. “You’re one to talk.” I gave her a light tap of my knuckles on the shoulder, and then I found myself in one of her tight hugs. All encompassing, warm, sturdy, steady, and soft. And I closed my eyes and just breathed, for what felt like the first time in months.

When we drew apart, my smile was apologetic. I tugged uselessly at my shirt and glanced at Rue again.

He had beautiful hair, wavy and thick with loose curls, dark as the night sky, dappled with fine threads of white through it. His skin was as tanned as a fisherman’s. He looked healthy and strong, slender and youthful-looking but well muscled, with slim wrists and ankles.

“I’ll check the light.” He moved away to give us our privacy.

“Where’d you get him?” I asked. I followed her into the lovely kitchen, so warm.

“Be nice. I’m glad to have an assistant. And he needed the work—to get away from his family for a bit, I think.” She went to pour tea, pulling down a large red mug for me and a smaller, slimmer white mug for her. The familiar glug-glug-glug of the tea leaving the pot reminded me of home, made me feel grounded already. I took a deep, shaky breath. The warmth of the kitchen comforted me, but my damp clothing stuck close.

I tugged at the shirt and grimaced. “Listen, Mary, I’d better go change. You’ll have to tell me all the gossip in a minute.”

“Any clothes?” she asked without turning from the stove. She finished pouring the tea and began to spoon sugar into hers, then mine. The spoon made a ting ting ting against the pottery, like a small bell.

“Um.” I ran a hand back through my wet hair. “In the carriage. It blew over.” I grimaced at the thought of going back out for my luggage.

She laughed. “It’s all right. Go take a bath. I’ll bring you some clothes.”

I raised a brow. “Ooh. You keep men’s clothes on hand now, do you?”

She gave me a swat on the stomach. “Shut up. I have some things for bad weather.”

I snickered at her. “You’ve got a beau, you’ve got a beau.”

“You’ll get a fat lip in a minute.”

I escaped with a laugh, steps clattering toward the bathroom. I already felt better for talking to her. More human and sane, more like myself. I felt less as though I’d been banished.

The bathroom floor was stone and felt as though it went straight down into the earth. I liked the sturdiness of the worn-smooth surface beneath my feet. I reached over and turned the hot water on to fill the tub. Steam rose around me. I stripped down without ado and climbed in. The turbulent water swirled around me as the tub filled. I breathed deep of the steam, resting my arms on the sides of the tub. It felt good to let go. I closed my eyes.

The raging fury assaulted me, shaking me to my core. Closing my eyes and lowering my barriers let the strange magic of the storm flood me. I opened my eyes quickly and sat up straighter, tingling and discomfited, shivering inwardly. The wildness of the storm hadn’t touched me as deeply when I was drenched by it. That was all on the surface; this was deeper, troubling. I felt the full fury of the storm, not just here, but stretched for miles along the coast and out to sea. The wild, uncontained magical and natural strength of it—for an instant, I had felt it all, and it terrified me. My magic hadn’t been so uncontrolled for years. Except for the one time, the reason I’d been sent here. What was happening to me lately?

I clung to the sides of the tub, my eyes wide. I hadn’t done that in ages, opened myself to accidentally taste the full fury of nature that way. That was one of the best things about getting proper magic training—I didn’t have to deal with that anymore. So what was going on? Just another symptom of whatever the hell it was?

I calmed my breathing and reached down deep, feeling the strength of the rock beneath us, holding this building sturdy, as it had for longer than I’d been alive. The strength of the rock held a quieter magic, and slowly, as I filtered the storm out and tuned in to the rock, it quieted me.

Someone knocked at the door. I hadn’t even begun to scrub. I reached for a fat, gray sponge and the soap. “Come in!”

“Clothes.” The door creaked and slid open. Rue slipped into the steamy room and put down a set of clothes. I pretended to wash my chest, but actually, I just watched him. He moved with a confidence and purpose I found myself envying. He looked at home in his body, as if it obeyed him without question, as if he had never been clumsy once in his life.

He gave me a nod and a small smile and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

The storm battered close again, and I closed my eyes quickly and felt for the stone’s strength. I searched deep, pulling it to me, pooling it around me. My breathing deepened and grew slower as I relaxed. But I felt something else, strangely. It was close now, shining, elemental, whimsical, and raw, but without the steadiness of the earth magic. Something living and magical, but wilder than I was used to. An animal? Something like an animal? I felt farther, reaching after it, this shining, glowing creature. Even magical apes at the Boston zoo had never drawn me so. I reached and felt and stretched for the creature. For a moment, I could almost taste and feel its size and strength and personality—and then something snapped.

I opened my eyes, jolted back to the present as cleanly as if someone had slammed a magical door. I rubbed between my brows. The storm raging around me was just that, now, with my magical awareness shut tight. The stone beneath was just stone. I glanced over the side of the tub down at the floor.

Damn it. I grimaced at the sight of what I’d done. Smooth stone flooring had rippled toward me in little waves, pooling, pushing up against the tub. I’d reached for the stone to steady my magic. It now sat in an uneven wasteland. I couldn’t go without wrecking anything, could I?

This floor had been here longer than I’d been alive, and I’d managed to ruin it in one careless moment. I grimaced and climbed from the tub onto the craggy, uneven ripples of stone. Cold water sheeted off me. I still hadn’t washed properly, but my skin was wrinkled and puffy. I reached down for the magic of the stones, but I couldn’t find it now. I tried again, but it didn’t work. I sighed, stared at my handiwork, and then dried off.

I’ll fix it tomorrow.

I pulled on the oversized gray cardigan Rue had left for me. It had large, cable-knit stitches and the worn smell of old sheep beneath the cleanness. I could sense it had all come from one animal; the unmixed fiber sat smoothly against my skin, a sighing, easy comfort. The neck was stretched out, and there were darned patches near the waistline, but I could already feel this would be my new favorite piece of clothing. It was earthy and true and sturdy, the steady sort of clothing a wizard should wear.

The trousers were more problematic. They were cut to fit Mary’s fertile female hips, not my narrow, barren male ones. In the end, I had to work some magic to keep them from falling to my knees with my first step.

When I emerged, I found Mary and Rue seated at the table. He sat over a cup of tea, munching steadily through a scone with the deadly serious appetite of youth. His hair was healthy-looking. So why did he have streaks of gray in it? He was surely far too young.

He looked up as I entered the room, his cheeks puffy with mouthfuls too large. His gray gaze met mine, steady and calm, with a smile he hadn’t shown me earlier. There was a look of liking in his expression.

He rose, moving to give me his seat and take a chair nearer the corner. I accepted it, because it seemed such a natural thing, and only a moment after I sat did I wonder at it. He ducked his head and pushed the plate of scones toward me.

Mary was watching me. She moved a mug toward me slowly. It made a low, scraping sound across the wood table, a friendly sound, like checkers sliding across a wooden board.

A great burst of wind and rain tore against the house, smashing at the battened-down shutters, making the whole house shiver. A whistling roar like that of a train seemed about to bear down on us. I shivered involuntarily and crouched over my cup, trying to draw all my senses in so I couldn’t accidentally reach out and feel the storm again. Its fingers tore at the edges of my awareness, ragged wind fingers, too much power, too close. I thought guiltily of the floor in the bathroom and didn’t reach down to anchor myself. I shut my eyes and weathered it, holding on to the mug. The one sheep’s wool guarded my upper body, and the steady grain of the kitchen table rested under my elbows, but they were small comfort against that fierce magic.

Mary closed a hand over my upper arm and squeezed. She knew more than most how I had struggled, even in the old days before the worst (or best) of my magic had hit. Things touch a wizard more deeply sometimes, both the good and the bad. There is a reason for the stereotype of the mad, old wizard. I can get drunk on a rainbow. I can get the heebie-jeebies over a storm.

I can accidentally ruin the wizard parliament when I’ve had too much blackberry wine. And then I can be sent away in disgrace.

I scraped fingers back through my hair and took a shaky breath. “I’m afraid I’ll have to fix your bathroom floor later,” I informed Mary. She smiled and nodded, giving my arm a light squeeze.

When I looked up, Rue was watching me with an interested expression, as though reading a fascinating article or book. He met my gaze, and I saw him smile. It was a complicated smile, part friendly, part sympathetic. I recognized in it something I desperately needed: the offer of friendship. I didn’t know how he could’ve decided I was worth such an offer when he had barely spoken a word to me—but I accepted that he had.

He reached out to me, and, hardly knowing what I did, I reached out and took the hand he offered. He squeezed it, a comforting strength in his surprisingly firm grip. He had callused hands, I was surprised to note. Mary clasped my upper arm, Rue held my hand, and we sat out the violent blasts like that, together, the three of us: the absurdly strong wizard, and the normal people who were somehow yet stronger than he.

The Dark Farewell by Josh Lanyon
Through the darkness, he found his way down a row of plush seats, located an empty seat near the back and sat down. It was only then that he actually looked at the stage. There was a small table with a crystal ball in the center. Behind the table, The Magnificent Belloc was sitting in a large gold throne. Presumably it belonged to the Opera House since it was hard to picture gramps and Julian lugging that piece of furniture all over the Midwest. It was a nice prop, though, and it suited the occasion and the man sitting in it.

Julian looked like one of those French aristocrats from the time right before the people got tired of eating cake and started lopping heads. He wore dark blue leggings and a silver and powder blue brocade frock coat over a soft shirt with bunches of lace at the throat and cuffs. He had caved to the fashion of phony mediums and donned a turban, but it was relatively simple, creamy pale silk fastened with a giant sapphire. There were jewels on his slender hands and pinned at the lace at his throat; they flashed in the footlights every time he moved. The crowd seemed spellbound, and Flynn was not surprised. Julian looked beautiful and exotic and mysterious. He looked unearthly.

Flynn had already missed the introductions and preliminaries, whatever they were. Julian’s eyes were shut and he was mumbling to himself, but the acoustics of the old building were excellent and Flynn recognized the occasional French word. Not French as he knew it. It was probably supposed to be the French of Paris at the time of the Revolution, but it was more likely French Creole. Then again, French Creole was supposed to be an older variety of French, wasn’t it?

Someone shouted out from the crowd, “What about these here murders we’re hearing about? What do the spirits say about them?”

The Magnificent Belloc shook his head, gave an impatient flick of his jeweled fingers and kept concentrating.

There were hisses and shushing from the crowd for the man who had interrupted the mystic’s train of thought. He subsided, abashed.

Belloc—it was hard to think of him as Julian in this context—sat up straight and opened his eyes. He had a distinctly French inflection as he said, “Her name is Marie. No. Mary. A pretty child. La pauvre petite. She was very young when she crossed, yes?”

Reaction rippled through the crowd but no one spoke up.

“She was…confused at first,” Belloc said gravely. “The young ones often are, but they…what is the word? Habituate the most quickly.” He looked out over the sea of faces, although he probably couldn’t see anything beyond the front of the stage. “Mary. She is all right now. Everything is all right now. Who is here for Mary?”

There was a smothered sob as though torn unwilling out of some grieving breast, and an elderly woman stood up, handkerchief pressed to her mouth.

“Ah. Grand-mère,” Belloc said kindly. “Mary wishes to tell you something. She wishes to tell you that she is all right. She is happy. She is playing with the little lambs and baby angels. She is strong and she is well again.”

The woman sobbed into her handkerchief.

“Non, non, Grand-mère,” Belloc said quickly. “Mary wishes you to be happy for her. She has joined us with one purpose tonight and that is to tell you that she thanks you for all your love and your care, and that she is in a better place now, oui?”

The woman buried her face in her handkerchief and sank back into her seat.

Belloc nodded, well-satisfied with his chicanery, and relaxed in his throne. He closed his eyes.

Already the murmurs were running through the crowd impressed with the evening’s entertainment so far.

Belloc mumbled some more French words. He dipped his head as though agreeing to something the spirits were saying. Listening a few seconds more, he held up a graceful hand, bidding the spirits to shut it for a sec.

Flynn began to enjoy himself.

On stage, Belloc had fallen silent, fist to his forehead, ostensibly concentrating hard.

“Angela,” he said slowly, “I have a message from Bill.” He raised his head and stared out beyond the glare of the footlights. “Is Angela in the house tonight?”

A tall woman stood midway up the sea of red velvet chairs. “I’m Angela. Bill was my father. William Robert Tucker. He passed nine years ago.” She looked around smiling, and others were nodding affirmation.

In that same tired voice, Belloc said, “Angela, Bill says that you must not feel guilty for going out tonight. He was teasing you, that is all.”

Angela seemed to recoil. She said falteringly, “What does he mean? What is he saying? Who was teasing me?”

“Bill…was teasing you.” The fakir must have been tiring because he wasn’t bothering with the accent anymore.

“Bill? My husband Bill? Is that what he means? What does he mean? What is he saying?” She looked around as though expecting answers from the audience, but the people around her were deathly still.

“Bill says he loves you…you must not grieve for the…you must not.”

“What are you saying?”

The voice dragged on. “When you see the music box he made you—”

“My father never did!”

“When you listen to the tune ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’…”

Angela screamed, her voice ringing shrilly off the rafters and walls. “It’s not true. It’s not Bill. It’s my father. It’s not Bill!”

There was stricken silence in the auditorium. Flynn could almost pick up the soft, tired breaths of Belloc. The spiritualist was gripping the arms of the throne with white-knuckled hands, his eyes were closed, his face tense and pained. Alarmed whispers rustled through the spectators like a fox running through tall grass. The whispers picked up volume and velocity as they flowed through the aisles.

Angela made her way through the row of seats, still crying and protesting, “You’re lying. You’re trying to frighten me. It’s not true. It’s not Bill. It’s not true…” She ran up the aisle followed by her companions, and they hurried out through the double doors, leaving them swinging.

In the wake of her panicked flight a hushed alarm hung over the spellbound audience, all gazes fixed on the man in the golden throne.

Empty Vessels by Meredith Katz
The clattering scrape of claws on the alleyway pavement sound loud even to his own ears, easy to follow, a dead giveaway. But the time for stealth is long past. Too little, too late. He thrusts his hand in front of himself—scaled, with black claws fully extended from each of the fingertips—grabbing a dirty plastic garbage bin and digging grooves into it as he shoves it aside just enough to squirm past.

He hopes it will slow the Terror down.

There’s no time to worry about the humans still lingering in the restaurant next to the alley, closing up and tired, so he tries not to. They’ll be fine—Terrors don’t go after humans if better prey is around. It’s his own hide he has to worry about right now, and he can’t afford to spend his attention on anything except where he’s placing his feet, what’s ahead of him.

No matter how aware he is of what’s behind him.

A fence looms at the end of the alley. He’s got no time to stop, barely any time to slow. He bends his knees, hocks tensing for the upcoming jump as his lizard-like hands grab the top of the chain-link fence. He springs upward, body nearly horizontal as strong muscles tense, vaulting the fence, vestigial wings spreading to catch what air they can to propel him up, forward, past.

Another scrape of claws as he hits the ground and nearly slips on the other side, mud and a wet patch of leaves catching underfoot. There’s a spike of pain as his shoulder slams into the wall. He can feel skin tear on the rough brick. No good. Blood—any kind of essence—will only make it easier for the Terror to keep his trail.

Still, it’s better than falling. An image springs to mind—shadows crawling over skin—and then with a shudder and a desperately sucked gasp of chill air, he’s off again, shoving off the wall and running as hard as he can.

A splash, a corner rounded. Soon he’ll be in the parking lot where he left his car—he’s already passing the boundary, lined with the skeletons of dark trees in the middle of losing their leaves. It’s empty at this hour, with nobody to run to for help, but once he’s in his car he can get away from them easily. Just a bit further and he’ll be free. He spots his old Corolla and his heart soars. He runs faster, not caring about his exhaustion.

But they come.

They swarm him from the front first, with grasping indistinct hands and a screaming maw bellowing. Their hands are darkness coating his scales, trying to swallow him in. Teeth and claws catch and it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

He roars back in fear and defiance, but there’s a difference between the two sounds. He’s still someone. The Terror in front of him is not, and won’t have fear or empathy or any hesitation. He lunges desperately, fighting and swinging, claws connecting with a sludgy mass and splattering it on brick. It doesn’t remember who it used to be. There’s no way, no way at all, to convince it to not just kill him.

That’s what they do, just kill.

But this Terror—these Terrors, he can see others behind the first—they’re different somehow.

They don’t just feast on him, don’t tear at him more than they need to in order to subdue him, although this is when they would. It’s a spike of useless hope as instead, he’s forced down under their unnatural, unspeakable weight, his scaled knees buckling as they press. He fights the entire way down, straining and struggling to get free, snapping sharp teeth into semi-solid flesh—but he is pressed down regardless.

The one in front groans with hunger, longing to swallow him down, but resists, shifting around to hold him from behind. He struggles, helpless, as another approaches, something clutched in what used to be its hands. He stares at it in a blinding panic and confusion.

“What the fuck is going on?” he screams, or tries to. He chokes halfway through the first word, his mouth full of something terrible and stagnant as the Terror’s bulk presses down.

The bottle glows, symbols crawling across its surface, and it seems to hurt the Terror to hold it, but it approaches nevertheless. The edge of the spout is sharpened into a spike and he realizes what it’s for.

His head is yanked back as the Terror behind him grabs him by one long, ridged horn. He tries to fight it, struggling, nostrils flaring for more air, mouth open. He’s crying. The tears are hot on his face in the cold air.

Slowly and firmly, letting him see every inch of its terrible approach, the Terror drives the spout of the bottle into his eye.
*~*~*
Keith Marose woke with a strangled sound that might have been a yell if he weren’t sleeping facedown. Trying to suck air, feeling as though the panicked flight in his dream were his own, he inhaled wet pillow and coughed.

It took a few seconds of struggling to realize he was awake. When he did, he forced himself to move, rolling over with a strand of spit sticking from his pillow to his mouth. It settled coldly on his cheek and he made a face at the ceiling through blurry eyes.

“Gross,” he croaked, voice trembling.

He thought he heard an answer, but he wasn’t awake enough to be sure. Groaning, he rubbed his face with both hands, wiping his mouth and grinding sleep out of his eyes, then fumbled around next to the bed for the bottle of water he’d left there.

The day outside was bright, sun stabbing in through the curtains—though he wished belatedly that the word stabbing hadn’t come to mind—but the shadows in the room abruptly darkened as the gulp of cold water helped wake him up. His second sight was beginning to take over for his normal sight again, showing him what the room normally hid: the memories the building held, becoming visible to him alone. Along with, of course, the dark shape hovering near the end of his bed.

Another mouthful of water, swishing it around in his mouth to try to get rid of the sour flavor of bad dreams, and the shadow began to resolve into Lucas’s familiar figure: Transparent and washed-out dark hair and brown skin, eternally in polo shirt and jeans. Broad-cheek boned, insubstantial as air, and smiling at Keith despite the concerned set of his brows.

“Morning, sunshine,” Lucas said, warm and sympathetic. “That didn’t look like a good dream.”


Rick R Reed
Real Men. True Love.

Rick R. Reed draws inspiration from the lives of gay men to craft stories that quicken the heartbeat, engage emotions, and keep the pages turning. Although he dabbles in horror, dark suspense, and comedy, his attention always returns to the power of love. He’s the award-winning and bestselling author of more than fifty works of published fiction and is forever at work on yet another book. Lambda Literary has called him: “A writer that doesn’t disappoint…” You can find him at his website or blog. Rick lives in Palm Springs, CA with his beloved husband.

Sean Michael
Often referred to as "Space Cowboy" and "Gangsta of Love" while still striving for the moniker of "Maurice," Sean Michael spends his days surfing, smutting, organizing his immense gourd collection and fantasizing about one day retiring on a small secluded island peopled entirely by horseshoe crabs. While collecting vast amounts of vintage gay pulp novels and mood rings, Sean whiles away the hours between dropping the f-bomb and persuing the kama sutra by channeling the long lost spirit of John Wayne and singing along with the soundtrack to "Chicago."

A long-time writer of complicated haiku, currently Sean is attempting to learn the advanced arts of plate spinning and soap carving sex toys.

Barring any of that? He'll stick with writing his stories, thanks, and rubbing pretty bodies together to see if they spark.

Hollis Shiloh
Hollis Shiloh writes love stories about men, also called gay romance or m/m romance, with the preferred genres of contemporary, historical, and fantasy. Hollis's stories tend towards the sweet rather than the spicy. When not writing, the author enjoys reading, retro music, and being around animals.

Josh Lanyon
Bestselling author of over sixty titles of classic Male/Male fiction featuring twisty mystery, kickass adventure and unapologetic man-on-man romance, JOSH LANYON has been called "the Agatha Christie of gay mystery."

Her work has been translated into eleven languages. The FBI thriller Fair Game was the first male/male title to be published by Harlequin Mondadori, the largest romance publisher in Italy. Stranger on the Shore (Harper Collins Italia) was the first M/M title to be published in print. In 2016 Fatal Shadows placed #5 in Japan's annual Boy Love novel list (the first and only title by a foreign author to place on the list).

The Adrien English Series was awarded All Time Favorite Male Male Couple in the 2nd Annual contest held by the Goodreads M/M Group (which has over 22,000 members). Josh is an Eppie Award winner, a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist for Gay Mystery, and the first ever recipient of the Goodreads Favorite M/M Author Lifetime Achievement award.

Josh is married and they live in Southern California.

Meredith Katz
Meredith Katz lives in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada with her lovely wife and her sensitive poet cat. She is an author of lgbt+ romance, science fiction, and fantasy. Her first novel, Beauty and Cruelty, is the winner of the Rainbow Awards 2016 Best Debut Lesbian Book. She is a big fan of mixing the human and the other-than-human and seeing what comes out.


Rick R Reed
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Sean Michael
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Hollis Shiloh
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Josh Lanyon
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EMAIL: josh.lanyon@sbcglobal.net  

Meredith Katz
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Bashed by Rick R Reed
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Reclaiming by Sean Michael
A Wizard's Shelter by Hollis Shiloh
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The Dark Farewell by Josh Lanyon
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Empty Vessels by Meredith Katz