Sunday, October 1, 2017

Week at a Glance: 9/25/17 - 10/1/17








































Random Paranormal Tales of 2017 Part 1


Guardian Angel by Hayden Thorne
Summary:
When nineteen-year-old Dominic Coville’s parents die in an accident, leaving him not only alone but on the brink of poverty, he desperately searches for work and is thrilled when the post of secretary is awarded to him despite his obvious inexperience and ignorance. Mr. Wynyard Knight of Mandrake Abbey, however, gladly welcomes Dominic and earns the young man’s immediate sympathy for his fragile health as well as gratitude for the promising new life now awaiting Dominic.

"Inside rock and timber, hungry shadows seek..."

But unusual things soon happen and appear to focus solely on him, and Dominic begins to wonder about the true history of Mr. Knight, the strange young man haunting the third floor, and Mandrake Abbey. With the persistent and increasingly violent attempts at communication by an angry ghost shadowing his hours, Dominic struggles to unravel the mysteries of his new home. And even with the help of a handsome young gentleman who’s an aspiring supernaturalist as well as his clairvoyant sister, danger closes in far too quickly.

Then it’s only a matter of time before carefully constructed facades fall away, and the sickly, decaying underbelly of Mandrake Abbey’s centuries-old collection of stone and timber will reveal itself.

Set in an alternate England sometime before the mid-19th century, 'Guardian Angel' weaves a tangled and dark tapestry of old magic, romance, and madness, a celebration of classic gothic fiction and its macabre sensibilities.

Original Review November 2016:
Holy Hannah Batman! I thought the author's Flowers of St. Aloysius was creepy and hair-raising but Guardian Angel is way creepier and fear inducing and don't even get me started on adrenaline pumping. Dominic Colville is a character that could easily be anyone of us, as a 24/7 caregiver myself, the idea that your charge or others in the household are not exactly who you thought can put fear in your heart faster than flipping to the next page.  Throw in some ghostly behavior and the handsome stranger, Edgar, and what Guardian Angel brings you is an incredible gothic journey into the mysterious world of the paranormal in a timeline where magic is the norm.  Before the mystery is solved, you might even find yourself questioning your own sanity when those bumps in the night that you often credit to the wind or the house settling, suddenly don't seem as easy to explain.  The author has created a world that will satisfy your love of paranormal, mystery, love, and especially tweak your thirst for the "what ifs" and "was its".

RATING: 

Off the Beaten Path by Cari Z
Summary:
When Ward Johannsen’s little girl Ava shifted into a werewolf, she was taken into custody by the feds and shipped off to the nearest pack, all ties between father and daughter severed. Ward burned every bridge he had discovering her location, and then almost froze to death in the Colorado mountains tracking her new pack down. And that’s just the beginning of his struggle.

Henry Dormer is an alpha werewolf and an elite black ops soldier who failed his last mission. He returns home, hoping for some time to recuperate and help settle the pack’s newest member, a little pup named Ava who can’t shift back to her human form. Instead he meets Ward, who refuses to leave his daughter without a fight. The two men are as different as night and day, but their respect for each other strikes a spark of mutual interest that quickly grows into a flame. They might find something special together—love, passion, and even a family—if they can survive trigger-happy pack guardians, violent werewolf politics, and meddling government agencies that are just as likely to get their alpha soldiers killed as bring them home safely.

Krampus Hates Christmas by Andi Van
Summary:
Karl Kringle hates the modern-day Christmas. He was born to be Krampus, but the Holiday Council refuses to let him help his brother Nick—aka Santa Claus—with the Naughty List until he finds his holiday spirit. To meet that challenge, he’s turned human and dumped in a strange apartment.

Lewis Weatherby loves the holidays and always has. Not only do his parents own a pumpkin patch and tree farm, he’s also inherited a Christmas-themed shop. All he wants from Santa is the man of his dreams, and the Big Guy might’ve just delivered. Lewis’s new neighbor Karl is gorgeous, sweet, and has a fantastic sense of humor—if his jokes about being Krampus are any indication.

Soon getting home is less important to Karl than what will happen when Lewis inevitably realizes the truth behind his jokes. He’s finally starting to understand the real joy of the season—now he just has to figure out how to hold on to it.

Original Review December 2016:
What a lovely take on the legend of Krampus!  I'm not going to say too much about Krampus Hates Christmas but I will say that it is a perfect blend of holiday, paranormal, romance, and just plain fun.  I just could not put this down until I swiped the final page and I am already looking forward to re-reading this one next Christmas and for many more holiday seasons to come.  As it's another new author for me, I also look forward to checking out future tales from Andi Van.

RATING: 

Finder's Keeper (Heart's Gate #1) by Shira Anthony
Summary:
The truth might ruin his dreams—or make them come true.

When Zane moves into an old gothic brownstone, he discovers the house comes equipped with a caretaker—Kit, who lives in the basement. Zane is immediately drawn to the charming and attractive Kit. But Kit is much more than he seems. He is a two-hundred-year-old half-human, half–red-fox spirit who guards a Gate between the mortal and spirit worlds—a fact Zane should recognize, but doesn’t.

Orphaned at a young age, Zane never learned he comes from a long line of mystical Keepers. Kit needs Zane’s help to protect the Gate, but how can he tell Zane of his legacy when that will crush Zane’s dreams of traveling the world? If he takes up the mantle, Zane will be bound to the Gate, unable to leave it. But when Zane realizes Kit’s true nature, and his own, he’ll have to make a choice—fight to protect Kit and the Gate, or deny his destiny and any chance of a future with Kit.







Preacher, Prophet, Beast(Tyack & Frayne #7) by Harper Fox
Summary:
Lee would gladly trade all his psychic gifts for a chance at ordinary life with his husband and his little girl. Three years into their marriage, they’re settled in their new home – but the House of Joy can’t shield them from an oncoming threat with the power to uproot their whole world.

Lee can’t define it further, and even his beloved Gideon can’t unmask a monster with no face at all. Gideon is mired in problems and secrets of his own as he struggles to adjust to his new rank and the complexities of plainclothes police work with CID, and for once the devoted Tyack-Frayne partnership is failing to communicate.

Turbulent times in the world at large reach deep into the Bodmin heartland, and the village of Dark is without its guardian constable. More than Lee and Gideon can possibly know has been depending upon their rapport, and as the summer rises towards the longest day, a new and unfathomable kind of Beast is afoot on the moors...

Click for Saturday Series Spotlight: Tyack & Frayne Part 1(#1-5)

Click for Saturday Series Spotlight: Tyack & Frayne Part 2(#6-7)

Original Review May 2017:
When I stumbled onto Once Upon a Haunted Moor, book 1 of Harper Fox's Tyack & Frayne series, I thought I found a great paranormal way to escape reality for a bit.  Well, now with the recent release of Preacher, Prophet, Beast book 7 I realize that, yes it's still a great escape, a chance to let go and recharge but it's also an amazingly balanced tale of mystery, drama, and romance wrapped in a whacky paranormal bow that never fails to make me laugh, shudder, and smile all at the same time.

On the surface, I found Preacher to be the most confusing of the series but I also found that was one of the main reasons I enjoyed it.  The confusion is part of the paranormal charm and fits the plot, not to mention how it fits the characters.  That is as close to a spoiler as you are going to get out of me but don't let it scare you off, yes I found confusion to be a huge factor but a necessary one and I can't imagine the story being told any other way.

As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine, but I find that being freaked out once in a while can be even better.  Why or how you ask?  Well, for me it makes me appreciate what I have because I realize things could be a lot creepier and good or bad it helps me respect what life throws at me.  Now, having made that observation I will say that what Lee and Gideon face on a nearly daily basis is pretty freaky and they manage to face it head on even when they don't realize that's what they're doing.  Throw in little Tamsyn coming into her own paranormal gifts and the family is definitely being kept on their toes.

Preacher, Prophet, Beast is a wonderful addition to my paranormal shelf that has cemented Tyack & Frayne's position on my series shelf.  Hopefully there will be plenty more of Lee, Gideon, and Tamsyn to come.

RATING: 


Guardian Angel by Hayden Thorne
“Ah. I see.” He paused, narrowing his eyes at me in that exaggerated way I’d seen Edgar do whenever he teased me. “Something recent, I think. Something to do with your visit with your friend a few days ago? No, no, the blush is enough to satisfy an old gossip’s curiosity.” He grinned now, eyes sparkling. “Well, I’m very pleased to know you’re now collecting happy memories during your tenure here, Mr. Coville. I’d like to think they help alleviate the tedium of keeping someone like me company—or even the dreariness of living in a place like Mandrake Abbey and its endless secrets and ghosts.”

“Oh, but I don’t find you or the abbey tedious or dreary, sir…”

“What’s your friend’s name, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Do you wish to meet him, sir?” I asked, surprised.

Mr. Knight’s smile made the air feel icy all of a sudden when I hesitated and allowed a nervous pause to draw itself out. “Dominic, what’s the gentleman’s name?”

“Mr. Knight, sir! May we have a word, please?” a man’s voice cut through the momentary silence that had fallen on our conversation.

With this the spell broke, and the hard edge that had suddenly surfaced vanished, and Mr. Knight was once again the pleasant old gentleman I’d always known. He looked around and saw one of the workmen trudging over the grass toward the elm. The big, burly shape looked almost out of place against the backdrop of the timeless abbey, and while some with more refined tastes would call him an eyesore, I was awash with relief with his sudden appearance.

“Yes, Smithers?”

“Sir, there’s a growing crack in the abbey’s foundation,” Mr. Smithers replied, a little out of breath. He barely acknowledged me with a slight nod as he stopped.

Mr. Knight hesitated. Again, I sensed something simmering below the genial surface of the man. “I’m rather occupied at the moment. Has Mr. Carradine seen it? I’ve given him authority to—”

The frantic beating of wings tore our attention away from Mr. Smithers, and I glanced around to find a raven flying past the elm in a rush of black feathers. Once it vanished from view, it cawed, tearing the general calm with its shrill cries. The unexpected disturbance rattled me, and I’d shied violently away at the sudden movement and especially the creature’s harsh calls.

“Good lord,” I breathed, making a face as I stared at the point beyond the elm’s leaves, where the raven had vanished. I’d also heard Mr. Smithers utter a low curse as he, too, was startled by the bird.

“A crack, you say? Let me look at it.” With a grunt, Mr. Knight stumbled to his feet, waving away any offer of help from either me or Mr. Smithers.

He did ask for his cane, which I quickly handed to him. Oddly enough, when before he was quite annoyed at being disturbed, he now seemed keen to remove himself from the area. And when he walked over to where Mr. Smithers stood, his pace was quick and smooth, his usual slow and almost laborious gait diminished greatly.

Before long the two men were walking back to the abbey, lost in conversation. I frowned as I watched them go, wondering why Mr. Knight was in such a mood that morning. In the end, though, all I could do was chastise myself for pushing him so much over my new sleeping and bathing arrangements.

Once they’d vanished from view, I decided to stay there for a little longer to enjoy the calm and the glorious weather and to revel once more in thoughts of Edgar.

I didn’t know how long I’d spent lost in pleasant memories, but soft, furtive movements nearby drew me back to the present. The raven had returned, it seemed, and I didn’t even notice it fly back and land just a few feet away. It hopped on the grass, pausing now and then to look at me with those bead-like eyes whose depths hinted at an unnerving kind of awareness and intelligence.

“Good morning to you, too,” I piped up, bemused. I dared not move for fear of scaring the little creature away. “It’s awfully rude of you, by the way, to frighten us half to death with your wild movements and noise.”

I smiled at it as it hopped even closer, staring hard at me as it paused now and then. When it was only about a handful of inches away from the edge of the blanket closest to me, it stopped. Only then did I notice the raven looking different—off, even. It was definitely a raven, but its feathers were a dulled black, and they looked coarse and unhealthy. The bird’s eyes had a film over them, making them look milky. The beak was rough in appearance as though it was somehow losing its natural—dare I say healthy—qualities. It even looked somewhat misshapen.

“Mr. Dominic Coville must take care,” it squawked. “Inside rock and timber, hungry shadows seek.”

My smile faded. The raven fell silent, still regarding me with inhuman intensity. Then with another shrill cry it beat its wings, and it—exploded. One large black bird suddenly burst into hundreds—no, thousands—of loud, buzzing flies that flew everywhere, spreading out and immediately disappearing, their horrible noise fading in the distance. I’d let out a small yelp of surprise and disgust, curling myself in a ball when I thought I was about to be overwhelmed by a host of those dreadful insects, but nothing came of it. The flies dispersed in the opposite direction away from the elm.

Within seconds all I could hear were my rapid, irregular breaths as I slowly calmed down. I dropped my arms from where I’d bent them above my head protectively, and I cautiously looked around, bug-eyed and drop-jawed. No, all was glorious and peaceful once again, and there was nothing anywhere that I’d just had a singularly terrifying meeting with a cursed raven—if, in fact, that creature that had warned me was a raven. I simply didn’t know.

I scrambled to my feet and ran out, almost getting myself tangled with the blanket in my haste. I looked at the sky and the surrounding countryside for signs of the swarm. Here and there, I thought I spotted dark dots flickering in their rapid flight. I was also growing aware of a lingering stench, and once I’d fixed my mind on it, the stronger and more horrible it smelled.

I grimaced. “What is that?” I whispered. “Something dead?”

I couldn’t tell, but it certainly made me think of death and even decay, which then made me think about an animal’s carcass in the process of rotting away. And yet not quite—somehow, the stink seemed a little different from what I’d grown to know as a dead animal’s. How did a decomposing human body smell? I shuddered, disgusted and also glad I didn’t know the answer to it. The smell seemed to soak the air around the elm, though, and with no breeze dissipating the stench, I was forced to hurry back in the tree’s shadows and snatch the blanket before staggering away.

I’d held my breath the whole time I jogged over the grass toward the abbey and allowed my strained lungs some valuable air again once I deemed it safe to inhale. The air was clear where I’d stopped, and I sighed in relief.

I settled my nerves there by carefully folding the blanket and thinking over the bird’s strange words. A warning? Yes, it was a warning, but it was, unsurprisingly, cryptic. Hungry shadows inside rock and timber? And they seek? Seek what? And what on earth were those shadows all about?

I stared at the abbey and its imposing façade. Ghosts? Did the cursed raven mean ghosts? Mr. Knight had referred to ghosts off-hand, even unthinkingly, over breakfast, but I’d never really thought much about it, convinced he was saying nothing more than something metaphorical in some way. Ghosts of the past had been my initial impression, but now—was he referring to something more literal? Mandrake Abbey was haunted?

I took a deep breath and hurried inside.

Off the Beaten Path by Cari Z
WARD
YOU COULDN’T sneak up on a werewolf.

It wasn’t possible. Everyone agreed on that, from a million pop culture references to the people who actually ran ops with the real ones. Werewolves had hyperdeveloped senses, and they were incredibly protective of their territory and their pack. You could trap a werewolf, you could trick a werewolf, you might even be able to bargain with a werewolf―I was banking on that―but you couldn’t sneak up on one. They could tell where you’d stepped almost before your foot hit the ground.

So why was I standing outside a chain-link fence in the snowy twilight, slowly freezing to death while waiting for someone to notice I was there? I’d been counting on being found quickly; I really hadn’t packed for the snow. My bad―Davis had told me I needed more than a sweater and a jacket better suited to a California winter than a Colorado one, but I’d been too frantic to listen to him.

If I died clinging to a fence in the middle of nowhere, Davis might bring me back to life just so he could kill me again for being such an idiot.

“Avoid the guardian,” he’d said, thin lips terse as he’d handed me the map. An actual physical map, not GPS—nothing I could program into my phone. “You can’t take the obvious road without getting stopped, so you’ll have to hike into another part of their preserve. And burn that map when you’re done with it. I’m fuckin’ serious, Ward. If that’s found by the wrong people, it could cause a domestic terrorism incident.”

“I’ll destroy it,” I’d promised hastily, glancing at it before I stuffed it in my pocket. At that point, my daughter Ava had been gone for three months. At least she hadn’t been missing, not anymore. Davis had located the pack she’d been sent to. I’d just had to find it, get the nearest werewolf to ask questions before shooting or biting or whatever appealed most at the time, and persuade them to let me stay.

Well, at least I’d managed the first part of it.

“Don’t you people have cameras?” My lips were so cold I could barely articulate the words, but the act of speaking seemed to break through the layer of ice that had chilled my anger ever since I’d started hiking.

I’d gone seven miles through the snow after abandoning my car, the pale winter sun doing little to warm me as I trudged along, hoping against hope for a sign that I was going in the right direction. Finding the fence had felt like a godsend at the time, but I’d been there for over an hour now, waiting for anything and getting nothing at all. My breath rasped in my chest, and I’d had to stop and use my inhaler twice. Much more than that and I’d be courting real trouble, so I kept my breaths shallow and my scarf pulled across my mouth.

“Seriously,” I went on. “What wolf pack doesn’t have cameras covering every part of their territory? How can you not have seen me yet? If you’re not as goddamn paranoid as I was led to believe, I’m going to be so pissed.” Also probably deceased, but that was my problem, not theirs.

Actually, no, I was going to make it their problem too.

“I will climb this fence,” I announced to the growing darkness in front of me. “I’ll climb this fucking fence, and I’ll get all snarled in the barbed wire at the top, and then you’ll wish you’d found me while I was still alive, you assholes, because you’ll be untangling me for fucking hours!” I don’t think I’d sworn this much since my brother’s funeral.

Okay, I was angry, but I was also being serious. Someone should have seen me on camera by now. Davis had been very clear about that. Maybe the one I was closest to wasn’t transmitting—I needed to move, then. I needed to pick a path and go, because if I didn’t start walking now, I might not be able to before long. Right or left? Which direction had the road that passed the guardian been on, again? I’d already burned the map, shit, shit….

I went right. If I hit the road, at least the guardian would probably keep me alive if they found me. I wouldn’t be able to help my daughter if I was dead. My feet felt dangerously numb, and my nose might’ve been blue by now. The wind made my eyes water, and tear tracks froze on my cheeks. I clung to the fence, using it half for guidance, half for support.

“I’m gonna find you, baby.” I would. “I’ll find you.” I had to. I wasn’t going to sit back and let the government take her from me just because she’d turned out to be a werewolf.

The mutation had been around since the early forties, when a supersoldier experiment resulted in men that, instead of having all the heightened senses of wolves, actually turned into wolves. They escaped the confines of Pine Camp in northern New York, crazy with fear and adrenaline, and went on a biting spree. Most of the bitten died after turning into wolves.

A few of them managed to turn back into people, though.

The government took responsibility for their mistake and divided the surviving werewolves into packs. Hollywood loved them, scientists wanted to study them, and bigots wanted to kill them, but for the most part, real werewolves stayed firmly out of the spotlight. The only exception to that rule was when someone turned unexpectedly. Someone like my Ava.

The bite didn’t manifest in lycanthropy for everyone bitten. Some people, a tiny percentage of those exposed to the mutation, were simply immune to the shift. They could carry it, though, and they could pass it on. For Ava, the gene must have come from her mother. Carriers were almost always incredibly healthy, and I was far from a model of vitality. It was just as well I wasn’t usually attracted to people who could get pregnant.

Every now and then, maybe half a dozen times a year, a child would shift. Usually it didn’t happen until puberty, or some other time of extreme stress. For my daughter, it was her first day of preschool.

“Daddy, nooo.”

I could still hear her voice from that morning in my head. I’d been running late, stressed by the start of a new semester and the challenge of trying to get my daughter dressed, fed, and into her car seat before eight in the morning. She’d been clingy, more than usual.

“I want to stay with you!”

“But you’re a big girl now, sweetheart. Big girls go to school. You’ll have so much fun and make so many new friends.”

I’d gotten the call about her change at lunch, right after dismissing forty freshmen from my Physics 101 class at the community college where I’d taught. I hadn’t recognized the number at first―I’d almost let it ring through to my voicemail. “Hello?”

“Mr. Johannsen?” The woman’s words had been almost too warbly to make out. She’d cleared her throat. “It’s Maria Kostakis. Ava’s teacher.”

“Oh, boy.” I’d sighed and sunk down into my chair. “Is she okay? She’s not sick, is she? She was pretty unhappy this morning, but she wasn’t running a temperature back at the house.”

“She’s….” I’d never had a professional trail off like that with me. It made my heart beat harder in my chest.

“She’s what?” I’d snapped. “What?”

“She’s turning.” Those words seemed hard to get out, but once she’d managed them, Ms. Kostakis had continued faster and faster. “She told me at snack time that her hands hurt, and when I looked at them, I saw—there were claws coming out the end of her fingers, and her palms were changing color. I got her to the nurse’s office before things got much worse, but our school doesn’t have the sort of containment facilities needed to handle a shift, so—”

“Containment facilities?”

“It’s standard procedure, Mr. Johannsen. If a child shifts in a public environment, they have to be contained immediately so they can’t infect others. The nurse called the police, and when the SWAT team arrived—”

“A SWAT team? She’s four years old!” I knew the basics of dealing with an unexpected shift—I worked in public education—but SWAT seemed excessive.

“A four-year-old werewolf. The danger she put our entire school in, I just….”

“She’s a kid, not a bomb!”

“She might as well be a bomb!” Ms. Kostakis had shrieked at me.

It had taken longer than I’d wanted to get the rest of the chain of events out of her. SWAT had come, ushered my baby girl into a cage, and taken her to the nearest government facility equipped to deal with werewolves. By the time I’d gotten there, Ava had already been transported again. And this time—

“We can’t tell you where she’s gone, Mr. Johannsen.”

“The hell you can’t.” I’d never been so angry in all my life. Never: not when I’d been laid up in the hospital for weeks at a time, not when Rick and Davis had enlisted, not when Ava’s mother left us. “She’s my daughter. I’m her parent, her legal guardian. You can’t just take my child from me.”

The state official behind the bulletproof glass had weathered my outrage without batting an eye. “Actually, under the Safety in Isolation Act of 1946, we can. Your child is a member of a protected but dangerous species, and the best place for her is in a pack where she’ll get proper care and oversight. Werewolves need to be in packs in order to be mentally and emotionally stable.”

“How will ripping her away from everything she’s always known make her emotionally stable?” I’d demanded. “Ava is an only child―she just started school this morning! I’m all she knows, and she needs me. We need to be together.”

“Werewolves adapt differently to change than humans, and Ava is very young. She’ll do better in her new situation than you’re giving her credit for. Regardless, Mr. Johannsen, you’re not going to be allowed to see her.” Cool eyes had regarded me dispassionately. “It’s best if you accept the government’s transition payment and forget you ever had a child.”

“I refuse.” I’d stood, furious enough that I barely had any energy left for standing. My breaths had been so shallow I was light-headed, but I’d be damned if I showed any weakness in front of a soulless bureaucrat. “You can expect to hear from my lawyer.”

“If that’s how you want things to go. You won’t get anywhere with it, though.”

“Fuck you.”

I’d left full of righteous indignation, enough to drown out my fear. Eventually the tables had turned, though, and fear replaced confidence as I learned that the official was right. No lawyer would take my case. The law was ironclad: werewolves weren’t classified as human. They were a dangerous subspecies, and they were the property of the government. Any attempt to locate my daughter would result in my imprisonment, which I’d have risked if I could have gotten anywhere, with anyone.

In the end, the only person who would help me was Davis, and I still didn’t know everything he’d had to do to get the information he did. I’d asked, but he wasn’t sharing his sources. I didn’t care as long as he was right. His information had led me here, to Middle Of Nowhere, Colorado, where he said I’d find Ava.

God, I was so cold. And when had my feet stopped moving? I glared down at them through my frozen lashes, willing them to get going again, but they refused. How far had I come from where I’d first found the fence? Was there another camera? My arm felt as heavy as an anvil, and it was so hard to keep holding on to the fence when all I wanted to do was rest. Just for a moment. Just….

“Hey.”

Pressure so light I barely felt it against my hand made me turn. There was someone on the other side of the fence—an actual person. Hallucinations might be able to talk, but I wouldn’t feel them, right? She was mostly concealed by a hooded fur-lined parka, but I could see the top half of her face. Her eyes looked worried.

“Please,” I croaked. The cold had ripped my voice to shreds. “Let me see her. I need to see my baby.”

“Who are you talking about? How did you get here?”

“Ava. My kid. She―I know I’m not supposed to be here; they told me to just forget about her, but she’s all I have. Please. I’ll do anything to see her.” Anything at all.

Her mittened hand gripped mine harder. “What’s your name?”

“Ward Johannsen.”

“How did you find us?”

“Please.” I was so cold, and my hand was so heavy. It fell from the fence, even though she was trying to hold on to it. My knees collapsed, and I heard the woman cry out. “P-please.” I leaned my head against the unforgiving metal links, the only things that were keeping me from pitching into the snow. She knelt down on the other side of the fence and stared at me.

“Mr. Johannsen. Mr. Johannsen! Ward!”

I blinked at her.

“Shit.” She glanced away for a moment. “Henry’s going to kill me.” She looked back at me. “Fuck it. I’ll be to you in two minutes, Ward. Do you understand? Don’t lie down.” She shook the fence for emphasis. “Do not lie down! Say you understand me.”

“I….”

“If you lie down, you’re not going to get to see Ava. You hear me? Ava needs you to stay awake!”

My baby needed me. “I’ll stay awake.”

“Good.” She pushed to her feet. “Two minutes, Ward. I’ll be right back.” I heard the crunch of her footsteps vanishing into the dark, and I pressed my forehead hard to the fence.

Two minutes. I could do that.

As long as I didn’t die first.

Krampus Hates Christmas by Andi Van
“THAT’S SUCH bullshit,” Karl snarled to his brother as they stomped out of the council’s meeting room. “The same old fucking excuses every single year.” His hooves crashed against the marble floor with a resounding boom, and the dwarfs who were escorting them had to dodge out of the way before they become a gooey mess under the force of Karl’s steps. They glared at him, but he returned the glare with one of his own, and the dwarfs paled. It was something about the horns, he guessed. Or maybe the pointy teeth. Or just the fact that he was three times their height and could turn them into tomato paste on the hard floor.

“It’s not a big deal,” Nicholas said. “I’ve done this for how many centuries?”

Karl came to a screeching halt and turned his glare to his brother. “That’s not the point,” he rumbled, poking his brother in the chest, though he was careful to do it gently, despite his anger. “You shouldn’t be doing it at all. Hell, it works perfectly for us in the few parts of Europe they let me assist with. Why shouldn’t Krampus be able to help out jolly old Saint Nicholas in the United States too?”

Nicholas let out a mournful sigh, shook his head, and turned the full force of his disappointed gaze on his brother. Karl tried not to wince, but it was hard. He hated disappointing Nick.

“You know why,” his brother said. “You hate Christmas. You need to find your holiday spirit before they’ll ever let you help me.”

“Why are they even on the council instead of you?” Karl asked, his voice growing in volume in the hope that the puffed-up idiots in the other room would hear him. “They’ve left you all the damn heavy work. With every year you’re the one with more and more responsibilities. That damn rabbit doesn’t have to judge good or bad. He just drops off eggs and candy and hops away, no matter what kind of brats are on his list. Halloween’s become a night to cause trouble and get hyped up on sugar instead of a time to celebrate the thinning of the veil. But you? Oh no, you get to judge every single child who celebrates Christmas before going out of your way to make them happy. And even when you do, half the time those ungrateful kids whine about how you didn’t give them a damn pony. At least where I get to help you, the kids are afraid if they aren’t good, I’ll take their presents away.”

Nicholas rubbed his face and then dropped his hand to his side. “We’ve been over this,” he said softly. “You’ll get your chance.”

“It’s not about me, Nick,” Karl protested, his voice booming with his anger.

“I’m going home,” his brother said. “We’re not having this discussion again.”

“Nick,” Karl growled, but he stopped when Nicholas looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Fine,” he grumbled. “Tell that diva you married that I said hello.”

Karl was pleased to see Nick’s expression soften, and his brother nodded. “I will. I’ll call you later.”

Karl nodded and waited until his brother and his escorts were out of earshot and then turned around to look at the dwarfs who were still waiting to kick him out. He gave them a toothy grin, leaned down, and roared so loudly that half of them toppled over. The other half ran for it, and there was an odor that followed them out that suggested at least one of them had soiled themself. With a snicker Karl spun around and stomped toward the exit.

Finders Keepers by Shira Anthony
WHAT WAS I thinking? Zane had never even stepped foot in the old building before he’d decided to leave North Carolina and take the job at the boutique architecture firm in downtown Cleveland. But since his second cousin, Ralph Carver, passed away and left the house to him and his sister five years earlier, Zane had dreamed about the place. After his last relationship had tanked like all those before it, those vivid dreams and the feeling of belonging that accompanied them seemed like good enough reasons to pick up and leave Raleigh. If he’d been in his right mind, Zane probably would have considered hiring a lawyer to challenge the restriction on the deed that the property could not be sold or transferred to someone outside of the family, and sold the place. He was well off, but his sister could certainly use an infusion of cash.

The photographs Jim Robinson, Ralph’s executor, had sent along with the deed to the house showed a huge crack in the foundation on the building’s side, crumbling sandstone cornices over the downstairs windows, and a downed tree blocking the front walkway. Fortunately, Ralph’s will provided money to restore and maintain the brownstone. As his suitcase wheels clattered up the smooth sandstone steps, Zane was pleasantly surprised to see the place was in really good shape. The tree had been removed and the stone railings repaired.

Zane smiled and ran a hand over the patinaed lion’s head knocker on the wooden front door. He’d thought the repairs were mostly meant to bring the property up to code, but the work done on the front of the house was amazing. The shutters were properly hung and painted in a chocolate brown that drew attention to the gorgeous old bricks. The foundation had been repainted a soft tan, and no evidence of the cracks he’d angsted over remained. The tension in Zane’s gut eased as he realized his diamond wasn’t as rough as he’d expected.

He fumbled in the pocket of his thin jacket for the key, shivering as another gust of icy wind blew across the deserted street and gathered snow and bits of ice that stung his cheeks. He forced the key into the lock and tried to turn it with numb fingers. The damn thing stuck. He jiggled it back and forth. Still nothing. He tried again, this time moving it as he pushed on the door.

The lock turned and the door flew open. Zane fell onto the hard tile floor and banged his left elbow.

“Shit.”

Faraway laughter floated in the open door on another gust of wind. Zane took a deep breath, got to his feet, and retrieved his bag. He closed the door and leaned against it, soaking wet and shivering. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and tapped the screen.

“Ren, I told you I’d call when I arrived,” he said.

“You were supposed to be there six hours ago,” his sister said. “I got worried.”

“I got delayed in Atlanta. They had to deice the plane.” He wouldn’t tell Ren about his near misses moments before. He didn’t want to worry her.

“It snowed in Atlanta?” Ren loved snow, although they rarely saw it in their hometown on the North Carolina coast. “Lucky. It’s just raining here.”

“I don’t consider a six-hour layover in Atlanta to be good luck.” Zane rubbed his elbow and winced.

“It’s an omen.”

“Not a good one.” Zane looked around. Someone had left the hallway light on, casting shadows over the freshly painted walls of the entryway. “And speaking of which,” he continued in a voice that reminded him of their mother, “if you were so worried about me, why didn’t you text me while I was sitting in Starbucks waiting on the crew to arrive for my flight?”

“How much snow do you have?” Ren asked, her voice bright with excitement.

“Here?” Zane glanced out the window. “Five, maybe six inches.” He wondered vaguely if there was a shovel in the garage out back.

“When can I visit?”

Zane smiled. “Give me a chance to get settled in? At least get the guest bedroom put together so you have a place to crash.”

“’Kay.” Ren sighed through the receiver. “But you know I can help if you need me.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, Zane?”

“Hmm?”

“I… um…. There’s something I, ah, saw,” Ren said. “You know….”

“In the cards?” Zane shook his head. Ren had always been obsessed with the supernatural. Recently she’d taken to reading tarot. They were both twenty-seven, Ren older than Zane by about four minutes, but she still acted like an overgrown kid. Ren had barely managed to finish high school, where Zane had gone to college and graduate school. Polar opposites and best friends.

“Lara said she’s worried about you too.” Lara was the clerk who worked with Ren at the tiny comics and games store in downtown Wilmington. “The Tower is the harbinger of danger, chaos, destruction, and change. It means you—”

“Let it go, Ren. I know you worry, but it’s just an old house.”

Ren remained silent.

“Look, I’m beat,” Zane said. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Give Lara a hug and tell her not to worry.”

“’Kay.” From the tone of her voice, Ren was unconvinced. “But—”

“Love you, Ren.”

“Back at you.”

Zane disconnected the call and shoved the phone back in his pocket.

The Tower. Harbinger blah, blah, blah. Total bullshit. Besides, change was a good thing, wasn’t it? The engineering job at McHugh & Weston Architects was exactly what he’d always hoped for, and leaving his cheating ex-boyfriend had given him the kick in the ass to take a chance on leaving North Carolina.

He ran a hand through his damp hair and unzipped his jacket. The caretaker Jim had hired to keep an eye on the place while it was empty had left the heat on, and the house smelled clean.

In the dim light, the stairs looked even steeper than in the photographs. Instead of threadbare carpet, polished brass stair rods anchored a wool runner to each step. Zane lovingly ran his hand over the curved banister at the bottom of the steps. The wood was perfectly smooth, surprising given the place was more than a hundred years old.

He hung his jacket in the front hall closet and glanced in the direction of the kitchen. He’d make a trip to the corner grocery store and stock up on cleaning supplies and food in the morning. He didn’t even want to think about how disgusting the fridge might be.

Tomorrow.

He made his way upstairs with his bag. He couldn’t find the switch for the overhead light in the master bedroom, but in the dim glow of the small lamp by the bed, he saw that the room was clean. The furniture had been dusted and polished. The new mattress set and bedding he’d ordered had arrived and had been set up. He probably had the caretaker to thank for making the bed.

He washed up and brushed his teeth in the master bath, happy to discover that the water heater had been turned on. He dried his face on a towel he found hanging by the door, changed into sweats, and slipped under the fluffy down comforter. The pillows felt like heaven. He closed his eyes and fell asleep a moment later.


ZANE WOKE to the smell of coffee and baking bread. He’d been dreaming of breakfast. Eyes still closed, he yawned and stretched. Then he realized he really did smell breakfast. Jim had mentioned the caretaker might stop by. But breakfast?

His stomach growled. Time to get your sorry ass out of bed.

He opened his eyes and looked around. The heavy brown drapes drawn over the windows made the room darker than he expected. He fumbled for the table lamp and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light. The siren call of coffee too much to ignore, he slipped out of bed and walked barefoot from his room to the top of the stairs.

Plates clinked and the whistle of steam from a kettle sounded as he reached the bottom of the stairs. In the sitting room near the front door, the fireplace had been lit. The sweet smell of burning wood made him smile. Zane rounded the corner to the kitchen and found the table set for one. A french press filled with coffee waited next to a pitcher of steaming milk.

A tall man with curly red hair bent down and retrieved a pan from the oven. He wore a simple white apron over a pair of gently worn Levi’s and a pressed button-down shirt.

“Hello?” Zane ventured.

The man looked at Zane and smiled, his green eyes bright with pleasure. “I hope you slept well,” he said and set the pan on the stovetop. He then piled several muffins into a basket already half-filled with bread and placed the food on the table.

“I…. Wow. It smells amazing.” Zane looked around. The remodeled kitchen sported sleek tile walls, slate countertops, and stainless metal cabinets, not to mention stainless appliances and a professional-grade oven and stove. Ralph had clearly been better off than Zane realized.

“I’m Kit.” The man smiled and offered Zane his hand.

“Zane,” he said and shook Kit’s warm hand.

“I’m glad you’re finally here.” Kit smiled and tiny lines gathered at the corners of his eyes. In the bright morning sunlight, his hair looked like fire against his pale skin and flush of freckles. “Hot milk and a teaspoon of sugar, right?”

“Huh?”

“In your coffee.”

“Thanks.” Zane watched as Kit filled a mug. “But how did you—”

“I made blueberry and chocolate-chip muffins,” Kit continued, undaunted. “There’s also some baguette if you’d prefer. I know how you like it when it’s hot.”

“I do.” Zane was too tired to wrap his brain around how Kit knew this. Maybe he’d mentioned it to Ralph. Zane remembered telling him he’d lived in France for a year during college.

“I put jam and butter on the table, but if you prefer honey, I can get you some.”

“No, this is perfect,” Zane replied. He took a sip of his coffee and moaned with pleasure. “Really perfect.”

“I’m glad.” Kit turned and went to work on something by the stove.

Way too adorable for his own good. Zane brushed the thought away and said, “I didn’t realize when Jim said the house had a caretaker it meant a full breakfast and personal service.” Zane offered Kit what he hoped was an appreciative smile.

“Jim?”

“The attorney handling Ralph’s estate.”

Kit looked momentarily confused, then said, “Oh, right.” He laughed and gestured to the table. “Please, have some breakfast, before it gets cold.”

“Thanks.” Zane took a drink of the orange juice and sighed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had fresh squeezed.

“Did Ralph tell you about the… house?” Kit asked as Zane drank.

“The house? No. I mean, I knew he’d left the place to me and my sister,” Zane explained, “but I had no idea he’d done all this work on it. From the photos Jim sent, I figured I’d be doing some serious remodeling. But it looks incredible.” If he’d realized just how incredible the place was, he might have considered moving sooner.

“Oh. Sure. Ralph did a lot of work on the place.” Kit nibbled his lower lip, reminding Zane of a child who wanted to please a favorite teacher. A little strange, but endearing. “Did he tell you about me?”

“You? No.”

Kit’s face fell.

“But we didn’t talk much,” Zane said quickly, hoping he hadn’t hurt Kit’s feelings. “I’m sure if we had, he’d have mentioned you.”

“Oh. Right. I’m sure he would have.” Kit picked up a towel and folded it neatly.

Zane wondered what Ralph might have said about Kit. Zane’s family had always referred to Ralph as a “confirmed bachelor.” Had they been more than friends? He debated whether to ask but decided to let it go. He’d bring it up again later, when Kit seemed less nervous. And when he could focus on something more than the charming company.

Preacher, Prophet, Beast by Harper Fox
Lee fastened the gate after their visitors, and made his way slowly back across the garden. A massive heat still had a grip on the day. The eastern sky held a distant promise of relief, some of the hot gold shading into blue, but the sun was still blazing over Bern-an-Wra tor, and he couldn’t honestly tell from this distance whether the tower had its crowning rock in place or not.

He looked away. His plans for the evening included outdoor dinner with Gid in the orchard’s shade, and later, if their kid was still up for more hijinks, a weekend breaking of the bedtime rules and a stroll and a quick skinny-dip for all three of them in the millstream pond behind the hill. Bodmin winters could be harsh. Experienced moor-dwellers knew to make the best of summer days, and when the weather gods opened a box-of-jewels June like this on the gorse-starred heath, you seized every moment.

Bucca Gwidder, Bucca Dhu. Not figure-of-speech weather gods but two distinct personalities, the Lords of the year’s light and dark halves. The word bucca – meaning spirit, as Rufus Pendower had explained to him, actually stammering nervously over his Bs, the last time they’d been alone together – had become corrupted to pooka or Puck, a mischievous sprite. Out here, the ancient forces were restored. There just wasn’t room for the trappings and twists of civilisation. No room to hide, and no mercy. All the old demons could have sway.

Gideon was on the phone in the hallway when he pushed open the door. Dead-set determined not to hear anything else he shouldn’t today, Lee slipped past him and into the kitchen. He’d volunteered to fix Gid’s favourite casserole, and that required quite a lot of pan-rattling and banging of fridge and cupboard doors before he got stuck in.

Felt good, too. Slam of the chopping board onto the counter top. Slap of beef fillet onto the board, and he diced it as if he’d had a personal grudge with the cow.

Ridiculous. Tamsyn dealt with her emotions better than this. Gideon followed him into the kitchen, and he wiped his hands on a tea towel and turned to greet him with a sane, everyday expression on his face. “Thought that lot were gonna stay around for dinner. You getting hungry?”

“Ravenous. Could eat that raw.”

“I trust you mean the beef.”

“Read it however you want, gorgeous.”

It was a good attempt at their normal repartee. On any other night, it would have driven them back into each other’s arms to take care of unfinished business. Instead Lee took a steadying hold of the counter top behind him and said, uneasily, “Do you think Flora Waite’s all right? She had Tamsie out of the cot before I could stop her, and she was kind of rubbing her face against the poor kid’s. For luck, she said, when I asked.”

“Oh, no. Did Tamsyn wake up?”

“Not really. She doesn’t seem to mind outbreaks of weirdness from her friends.”

“She wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if she did.” Gideon shifted awkwardly. He was flushed, Lee noticed, his handsome summer colour heightened from tan to fever. “I think something is amiss with Flora. We talked a bit about Dev Bowe, and she seemed stressed. Thanks for skipping balletically past me on the phone, but it was nothing you couldn’t know about – I just wanted to give Lamshear Hall a ring and check everything was all right.”

“Lamshear… Oh, right. That’s Dev’s long-term care facility.”

“Mm. Also pronounced bottomless looney bin, poor lad. I dunno – they said he was okay, but something sounded hinky. I might pop over.”

“In your capacity as a police officer? What about poor Rhys?”

“No, just as Flora’s friend. Rhys can take care of Ross Jones.” He fell silent. The helpless, anxious scrape of Lee’s question hung in the air between them. He propped his hands on his hips, looked first out of the window and then at the rug at Lee’s feet. “All right. Speak.”

Lee couldn’t, not at first. His throat was tight with pent-up fear. He waited until he thought his voice would be calm. “I’ll head Ma off at the pass for you, if you like. On Monday.”

“Er… yeah. That would be good.”

“There’s a new garden centre just opened up outside Truro. With Edwardian tearooms. Ought to be irresistible, even against the prospect of getting beaten up by fascists at a Pride parade.”

“Bloody hell, Lee. You weren’t meant to know.”

“Is that the point? This isn’t like a pub fight or a few kids kicking off at Montol. It’s violence, hatred, right here on our streets in Cornwall, and… and you, right there in the middle of it. I don’t understand – why the hell hasn’t the march just been cancelled?”

Gideon took a step towards him, dismay dawning in his eyes. Lee turned to the sink and blindly ran water into the washing-up bowl. He couldn’t let Gideon get a close-up view of him now, on the edge of stupid tears, fighting like a toddler not to crack and cry outright. It’s not that you’d have gone off and done it, although that thought freezes the marrow in my bones. You’d have done it without letting me know. And here I am, locked up like some sea-widow at home, staring off over the water, knowing the damn ship’s gone down.

Gideon’s arms closed round his waist. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said, his mouth like hot velvet against Lee’s ear. “We don’t know if it’s fascists, or some nutter acting alone, or even if anything’s going to happen at all. Oh, my God, sweetheart – don’t cry.”

“I’m not.” Lee wiped the heel of one wet hand over his eyes. “I’m fine, okay? I’m really sorry.”

“What for?”

“Eavesdropping. Getting in your way. Making things harder for you.”

“You don’t do any of those things.” Gideon rocked him. “Listen – I know this new work’s been tough as fuck on both of us. It’s just… very different, that’s all. I don’t go out and get into the middle of things anymore.”

“That must be killing you.”

“A bit. But I’ll get used to it. As for cancelling, we don’t have nearly enough information to justify that, although…”

He fell into a reverberant silence. Lee, who could read his body as well as his mind, and who knew the village bobby of Dark would have cancelled this march at the breath of a threat to its participants, listened to the tensions in the warm body pressed against his. “Gid, tell me what’s wrong.”

“I saw something. In the orchard.”

Lee’s spine chilled. Was this how it felt to other people, when one of his own visions fell from him unannounced? I can see something. Not a stray dog or one of their distant neighbours’ sheep on the loose – something eerie, not to be contained by earthly walls or defences. “What?”

“Not sure. It went round the front. You stay there.”

He set off at a run. It went without saying that Lee would never obey an order of that kind, and he followed on, securing the porch door behind them. God help any serious intruders, encountering Detective Sergeant Frayne in the garden! If it was Daz or any of his feckless mates, he’d rumble at them like a volcano but send them about their business with startling gentleness. Only once had Lee seen him on the edge of unleashed violence: when Elowen had decided she wanted the baby back, and Zeke and Michel had made the mistake of trying to block his response. Still he’d let Lee bear him down to his knees on the clifftop path. All that power, shuddering and restrained in his arms… “Gideon, hold up. I don’t see anyone.”

“No. Me neither, now.” He came to a halt by the gate. “Hang on – over there. Look.”

He was pointing to the thicket of gorse on the far side of the lane. Lee saw the yellow blossoms quiver, as if someone had passed briskly behind them, but then the heavy stillness of the evening returned.


Hayden Thorne
I’ve lived most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area though I wasn’t born there (or, indeed, the USA). I’m married with no kids and three cats and am a cycling nut.

I started off as a writer of young adult fiction, specializing in contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, and historical genres. My books ranged from a superhero fantasy series to reworked and original folktales to Victorian ghost fiction. I've since expanded to New Adult fiction, which reflects similar themes as my YA books and varies considerably in terms of romantic and sexual content.

While I've published with a small press in the past, I now self-publish my books.

Cari Z.
Cari Z was a bookworm as a child and remains one to this day. In an effort to combat her antisocial reading behavior she did all sorts of crazy things, from competitive gymnastics to alligator wresting (who even knew that was legal!) to finally joining the Peace Corps, which promptly sent her and her husband to the wilds of West Africa, stuck them in a hut and said, "See ya!" She also started writing, because some things she just thought she could do better. She's still climbing that ladder, but can't stop herself from writing, or from sharing what she creates.

Cari enjoys a wide range of literary genres, from the classics (get 'im, Ahab) to science fiction and fantasy of all types, to historical fiction and reference materials (no, seriously, there are so many great encyclopedias out there). She writes in a wide range of genres as well, but somehow 90% of what she produces ends up falling into the broad and exciting category of m/m erotica. There’s a sprinkling of f/m and f/f and even m/f/m in her repertoire, but her true love is man love. And there's a lot of love to go around.

Cari has published short stories, novellas and novels with numerous print and e-presses, and she also offers up a tremendous amount of free content on Literotica.com, under the name Carizabeth.

Andi Van
Andi Van is a foul-mouthed troublemaker who lives near San Diego with a small fluffy thing named Koi, a baseball bat that's forever being used for things other than baseball, and a fondness for rum and caffeine (though not necessarily together).

Andi is fluent in three languages (English, sarcasm, and profanity), and takes pride in a highly developed -- if somewhat bizarre -- sense of humor.

Shira Anthony
Shira Anthony
Shira Anthony is a complete sucker for a happily-ever-after, and rarely reads or writes a story without one. Never a fan of instalove, Shira likes to write stories about real men with real issues making real relationships work.

In her last incarnation, Shira was a professional opera singer, performing roles in such operas as “Tosca,” “Pagliacci,” and “La Traviata,” among others. Her Blue Notes Series is loosely based upon her own experiences as a professional musician.

Shira is married with two children and two insane dogs and when she’s not writing, she is usually in a courtroom trying to make the world safer for children. When she’s not working, she can be found aboard a 36’ catamaran at the Carolina coast with her favorite sexy captain at the wheel. She’s given up TV for evenings spent with her laptop, and she never goes anywhere without a pile of unread M/M romance on her Kindle.

Harper Fox
Harper Fox is an M/M author with a mission. She’s produced six critically acclaimed novels in a year and is trying to dispel rumours that she has a clone/twin sister locked away in a study in her basement. In fact she simply continues working on what she loves best– creating worlds and stories for the huge cast of lovely gay men queuing up inside her head. She lives in rural Northumberland in northern England and does most of her writing at a pensioned-off kitchen table in her back garden, often with blanket and hot water bottle.

She lives with her SO Jane, who has somehow put up with her for a quarter of a century now, and three enigmatic cats, chief among whom is Lucy, who knows the secret of the universe but isn't letting on. When not writing, she either despairs or makes bread, specialities foccacia and her amazing seven-strand challah. If she has any other skills, she's yet to discover them.


Hayden Thorne
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Cari Z
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Andi Van
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Shira Anthony
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Harper Fox
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EMAIL: harperfox777@yahoo.co.uk



Guardian Angel by Hayden Thorne
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Off the Beaten Path Path by Cari Z
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Krampus Hates Christmas by Andi Van
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Finder's Keepers by Shira Anthony
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Peacher, Prophet, Beast by Harper Fox
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