After having lamented, at length, about how weirdly short January was, I must now also admit that I have no idea what happened to February. With only a day or so left in the month, my bold plans for frequent updates seem to have fallen by the wayside. So I’ll leave the general site update news for another time, and get straight to the fun stuff; posting the first two chapters of my short story, The Stars That Sing.
The Stars That Sing is set in the same world as my full-length novel, See These Bones1. The story started out as a writing exercise; an excuse to tackle third person perspective and to write characters that pushed beyond my comfort zone. The end result is not at all representative of my usual style, so sharing it might be a mistake… but what the hell, right? If nothing else, it offers a brief taste of my fictional world.
Standard disclaimers apply. This is very much a first draft. There may be typos, mischaracterizations, plot holes and potholes2. While this snippet is firmly PG, the full story does have some violence and exactly two expletives3. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it!4
The Stars That Sing
The last storm of the season brought more than just sleet and misery to Old Baltimore’s broken streets, though it was a month before anyone realized it. Everyone knew strangers didn’t come to the city. Strangers didn’t slip past the thousand unblinking eyes that watched the surrounding territories or the unsleeping automatons that patrolled the streets themselves.
And yet somehow… one stranger had.
Perhaps the only unsurprising aspect of that entirely unexpected event was that it was Samara who found the stranger first. If Sammie was a Power, Mr. Greenwood had been fond of saying, her ability would have been finding things. Mostly trouble.
It had been three years since Mr. Greenwood went away, replaced by the unsmiling and wobbly-chinned Ms. Stevenson, but Cornelius James still thought of the tattooed pod leader’s words from time to time. That had been the moment he first realized that even adults didn’t know everything.
CJ was sprawled out on the bottom three steps in front of the rowhouse that served as one of their pod’s dormitories. He’d spent every morning out there over the past week, soaking up the sunshine that had been absent all winter. Maybe that’s why Samara knew where to find him.
Or maybe it was that non-existent superpower she didn’t have.
“CJ! Come quick! You’ve got to see this!”
Normally, that would’ve been enough to get CJ to his feet, but the stone steps beneath him were warm, the spring sun even warmer, and going anywhere at all just then seemed like way more effort than it was worth. Instead, he cracked one eye open and glanced up and over at his friend and pod mate.
Sammie was winded and a little flushed, but her dark eyes sparkled like the colored glass beads in her hair. She’d set aside her winter coat as soon as the weather turned, and her springtime uniform—the same short-sleeved tunic and pants everyone in their pod wore—left long swaths of scrawny brown arms and legs uncovered. In the span of a single winter, she’d grown a good six inches. Not only was she two years older than CJ… suddenly she was taller too.
“Cornelius James!” She put both hands on her hips and scowled down at him from above. “Come on!”
“I only finished chores an hour ago, Sammie,” he retorted. “I’m wiped out. Let’s sit and enjoy the sun. Whatever you’ve found will still be there this afternoon after foraging.”
She shook her head, thick braids wobbling back and forth. “I’m not so sure about that.” She paused and quickly glanced around before continuing, her voice suddenly quiet. “There’s someone in the no-go zone!”
That got both of CJ’s eyes open. “The Crater?”
“No.” Her voice dropped even further. “The Hill.”
“What?” He let out a low whistle. “What pod is dumb enough to let one of their people—?”
“He’s too old for a pod. Too old even for a pod leader.” Samara took a careful step down the cracked stone stairway, her voice now little more than a whisper. “And he’s not wearing colors.”
CJ frowned, glancing at the matching patches on their uniforms’ left breast pocket. Their patches told everyone which pod they belonged to. More importantly, they identified them as citizens of Old Baltimore and offered some limited protection from the things that traversed the streets and skies above the city. “Why would someone take off their colors?”
“I don’t think he did.” Her voice took on conspiratorial overtones. “I don’t think he ever had any to begin with.”
Cornelius puzzled over that for a moment, then his eyes went wide. “But that would mean—”
“Yeah.” Sammie didn’t smile often, but when she did, it reminded him of the brilliant flashes of light that sometimes split the night sky way down south at the harbor. “He’s an outsider.”
Maybe it was the idea of an actual out-of-towner that got him to his feet or maybe it was just the usual effect of seeing Samara’s smile up close. Either way, CJ was halfway up the steps when a new thought stopped him. “Wait… how do you know he’s on the Hill?”
She rolled her eyes. “I saw him there.”
“But that’s…” He frowned. Located squarely between their pod’s territory and Pod 24’s, the Hill was an overgrown mess of fallen buildings and ancient trees. Seeing anything at all from the outside was almost impossible. “Sammie, did you go into the no-go zone?”
“Well, duh.” She flipped her braids and scowled again. “And I’m going back there too. Are you coming with me or not?” She waited for his nod, and her smile reappeared, like the springtime sun after an overly long winter. “Then let’s go!”
She turned and darted off, all long limbs and infectious energy, and CJ, as he’d always done, followed close behind.
From the street, the Hill was a wild jungle of tangled foliage and towering trees, made even taller by the rise that gave the zone its name. Sometime after Lord Legion had taken over Old Baltimore, he’d built a wall around the area, and if the lack of any gates in that wall hadn’t been a clear enough message to keep out, the two Hands he’d dispatched to patrol its exterior had hammered the point home.
But that had been decades before Samara or CJ were born. The Hands had long since been recalled and put to other tasks, and after years of ice and snow and neglect, the wall was starting to crumble. Along the eastern perimeter, one of the great trees had fallen, tearing a path through wall and foliage alike. It was at that gap that the two now stood. Even at mid-day, the Hill was dark; creeper vines twisting up and around dying trees, as the ever-present wind sent unseen things scurrying deeper into the shadows.
“We’re going to get in so much trouble for this.”
“Only if we get caught. Which we won’t, if we hurry.” With a half-skip, Sammie placed both hands on the base of the broken wall and vaulted over its now ineffective barrier. She turned to give CJ a hand, but he was already scrambling up after her. With one glance back at the empty city streets—and an additional scan of the skyline, to make sure no Eyes had witnessed their intrusion, they dropped down to the other side of the wall.
“I don’t see him,” said CJ, inching back towards the exit. “Maybe he left.”
“Why would he be down here?” Samara wrinkled her nose, shooting Cornelius James the look that always said he was being dumb. “When I saw him, he was entering one of the buildings up top.”
“So how do we get up there?” The Hill wasn’t all that steep, but it was still a long climb, made more so by the underbrush that thickened the further you got from the wall.
“Just follow behind me. I’ll help clear a path.”
All told, it took almost ten minutes of climbing, and they were twenty feet away from the first building before CJ even realized it was a building. Thick stone walls were invisible beneath layers of ivy and the broken roofline was masked by surrounding trees. All but one of the exterior windows had been smashed in at some point, and the large door at the front hung from a single rusted hinge, like some giant had kicked it in.
Baltimore was a city of old and ruined buildings, from the burned-out rowhouses in their pod’s territory to the empty shells of manors just to the north, but in all his wanderings, CJ had never seen a building so clearly and irrefutably haunted.
Samara headed straight for the front door.
CJ hesitated for a moment, massive trees looming above him like thick-skinned Titans from the legends, and then hurried in after.
As grim as the exterior had been, the inside was somehow even worse. The pungent smell of some wild animal’s markings mixed with stagnant, strangely damp air, and the floor was more dirt than tile. Between the canopy of trees outside and the lack of functioning glowtorches within, the darkness was all-consuming.
“Sammie…” The last thing Cornelius James wanted was to look like a coward—not in front of a fellow pod member and especially not in front of Samara—but his mind was furiously conjuring up the things that could be hiding within that darkness, from monstrously large rats all the way up to the foreign Powers that Lord Legion and his forces stood vigil against. “I don’t see—”
“Shh!” Samara clapped a hand over CJ’s mouth, her long fingers warm and a little bit sweaty. Her whisper was barely audible even with her mouth next to his ear. “Sound carries in places like this. We don’t want him to hear us.”
CJ mimicked her whisper. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” He felt her shake her head. “But like I said, I watched him go inside this morning. He had a light with him.”
Another shake of her head, braids rustling. “Something else.”
“Well, I don’t see—” CJ’s voice trailed off. Now that they’d been inside for a little while, he was able to make out the general shape of their surroundings; the grand lobby with its multiple broken windows and the small mounds on its floor that were either nests or broken furniture. But even with his eyes having adjusted, the hall that led away from the far end of the room should have remained impenetrable shadow. Instead, it was the tiniest brighter than the entryway they stood in. When they peeked around the corner, they saw faint light spilling from a doorway, more than halfway down that hall.
Together, they crept forward, over and around the piles of debris that smelled like death and rot. The closer they came to the doorway, the more obvious the light became. Whatever its source, it was a pale and flickering thing, far weaker than the glowtorches that lit their dormitories and Lord Legion’s castle down by the harbor. CJ crouched down at the doorway’s edge and scooted closer, conscious of Sammie at his back, standing slightly above him. In one synchronized movement, as smoothly as if they’d practiced it for hours, they leaned forward to look into the light.
The stranger was short—maybe half a head shorter than Sammie, who had yet to reach her adult height—and dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and pants of thick, dark fabric. A wooden cane leaned against the shelves behind him. The top shelf held the light source, a contraption of rusted metal and glass, whose captured flame danced and cavorted like a Pyromancer’s animated pet. Its illumination was too dim to banish the room’s darkness, casting wild shadows against the far walls and their own rows of barely-seen furniture. Standing between the light and the doorway, the man was little more than a silhouette, a dark figure vanishing into the darker backdrop around him.
As they watched, the stranger made several shuffling trips back and forth, carrying items from the shelves that adorned the wall to a squat table in the room’s center. There was something wrong with the way he walked, but it wasn’t until his third pass before the flame that CJ realized the man’s right leg was stiff and straight, sometimes thrust out in front of him, sometimes dragging behind.
The stranger tossed something heavy down onto the growing pile atop the table and wheeled about for yet another trip to the shelves, but as he neared the doorway, he came to a sudden stop. His head dropped even as his shoulders hunched, and he breathed out a long, slow sigh.
“I wondered how long it would take you to come, brother.” His voice was deeper than CJ would have expected from his size, but oddly faded. Terrence’s voice had sounded like that the morning after he’d gotten into Mr. Greenwood’s stash of hooch and tobacco and spent the night screaming and dancing like an idiot.
Terrence had gone away after that. CJ didn’t miss him at all.
The man turned toward the door, his expression still lost in the shadows, and took a short step in their direction, dragging his other leg behind him. “Show yourself, Lincoln. We’re too old for games, you and I.”
That seemed like the perfect time for them to leave, but before CJ could back away, Samara stepped past him and into the light.
“Who’s Lincoln?” she demanded.