A pencil drawing by stagor55!
Also, have a sneak peek of some LIFELESS writing. Sorry for the [CLASSIFIED] tags, but I want to keep some things spoiler free!
You can preorder the ebook version of LIFELESS at Rabbit Valley!
* * *
Ivan felt like he was suffocating in the double extra-large shirt. If he took too deep a breath, the shirt would threaten to rip apart. “Are you certain this vas largest size?” he asked Scowl as he followed him up the escalator.
Scowl fixed him with a level stare. “Don’t bitch, pussycat, and yes that was the largest size. So [CLASSIFIED] wants us to find [CLASSIFIED] because he wants to save Mommy Dearest from giving her [CLASSIFIED] immortality.”
“I kind of hope it does give it immortality,” Brent said quietly. He looked miserable and unhappy, as if he’d come down with the flu. He even started to develop a cough.
Ivan’s worry evaporated once they reached the top of the escalator and saw what Scowl had found.
In front of a large desk marked CONCIERGE was a glass display. Inside of the display was a [CLASSIFIED].
“This is too easy,” Ivan said. “This cannot be [CLASSIFIED].”
“How much longer are we gonna be stuck here, Batson?” asked the bulldog, leaning up against the elevator wall and staring at the buttons.
Batson opened his eyes to look up at his friend. The bulldog had taken off his leather jacket, draping it over one shoulder. “I’m not sure, Murray, but someone will come and get us out of here.” He patted the floor. “Why not sit next to me and meditate?”
The bulldog scowled, a trait Batson disliked. Murray looked more handsome when he was smiling and laughing. “I’m surprised you can focus on that stuff. Aren’t you volunteering at the soup kitchen in an hour?”
“I already called them and explained I was stuck, don’t you remember?”
Murray snapped his fingers. “That’s right, I remember now.”
Silence filled the air, so Batson took it as a sign he could resume his meditation, with or without his friend joining him.
It lasted for five seconds. “I’m bored,” Murray growled.
The hyena opened his eyes, unperturbed by the interruption. “So meditate with me.”
“Don’t feel like it.”
“So what do you feel like?”
The bulldog’s muzzle split into a grin. “Pestering you, I guess. Nothing else better to do.”
Batson smiled in return. “You can try, but you never bother me.”
“I didn’t say bother. I said pester.”
Batson tilted his head up at Murray “I didn’t know there was a difference.”
“There is, trust me.”
Batson shook his head. “You sound like Raffe.”
“Raffe?” Murray’s brow furrowed as he tried to recall the name. “He’s that big-ass giant giraffe, right? Does yoga with you?”
“Tries to do yoga with me, but he’s making progress.”
Murray folded his arms. “How come you’re not with him today, anyway?”
“Because I wanted to spend time with you. Raffe’s not my only friend, you know.”
“If you’d hung out with him, you wouldn’t be stuck in an elevator.”
“He wouldn’t have been able to fit. He’s eighteen feet tall and weighs a few tons.”
Murray shook his head. “Thanks for deigning to lower yourself to my level.”
Batson blinked at the sudden venom in the bulldog’s voice. “You sound jealous.”
“I am, I admit. What do I have that your giant buddy doesn’t?”
“Canine traits, for one.”
“How very literal of you.”
“Plus you can fit inside an elevator.”
“Yeah, so I’m perfectly average.”
“You make it sound like it’s a bad thing to be average.”
Murray shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind experiencing how some folks live. It must be pretty wild, towering over folks like a giraffe or being fast like a cheetah.
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not a giraffe or a cheetah. I’m just me.”
“Yeah, yeah, a hyena who just so happens to be perfect.”
There was the venom again. “I’m not perfect.”
Murray snorted. “Nothing gets to you. Nothing phases you at all. Being your friend can sometimes be a Catch-22.”
“What do you mean?”
“All right, maybe you’re not a Catch-22. I mean, it’s not like you’re a problem. You can just be so damned frustrating. Like right now, you’re meditating while we’re stuck here in the elevator.”
“Then why are you friends with me?”
“Because you’re one of the good ones, even if you’re always a goody two shoes.”
Batson didn’t like the feeling in his gut. It was something he hadn’t felt in quite some time: disappointment. “I don’t mean to frustrate you.”
Murray waved his hand in dismissal. “You can’t help being who you are, just like I can’t help being who I am. Someone who’s been in love with a hyena since he met him.”
“I like who you…wait, you’re in love with me?”
Batson now felt waylaid. His head felt as if it were filled with helium. Was his friend really in love with him? “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I figured you don’t feel the same way I feel about you.”
“How…how do you figure?”
“Because it wouldn’t have time to fit in your busy schedule. I mean, when was the last time you did something that wasn’t charitable or work related?”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t tell me because I’m too active?”
“Too busy, you mean.”
“There’s a difference?”
Frustration boiled up in Batson’s head now. It was alien to him, and he didn’t like it. “You’re just trying to pick a fight.”
“I’m sorry I had to tell you how I feel in this situation, but it’s almost perfect. Neither of us can storm off, now can we?”
“You think I was going to storm off?”
Murray shook his head. “No,” he said, “I thought I might have stormed off.”
“You’re confusing me.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to handle your answer if it was indifferent.”
“Murray, I’m your friend, right?”
The bulldog nodded his head.
“You’re not acting like my friend right now. Do you really have that low of an opinion of me?”
Murray smirked. “I said you were perfect, Batson. Since when is that a low opinion of someone?”
“You make it sound like a flaw.”
Batson frowned. “Don’t turn this conversation against me.”
“Well, at least I’m getting under your skin. That’s a first.” Murray shook his head. “Look, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I had to let you know how I feel. I don’t want my love for you to turn bitter.”
“I don’t want it to turn bitter either,” Batson said, rising to his feet. “Not until I can…”
Murray arched a brow. “Can what?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never had to deal with this before.”
“Oh, come on. Raffe hits on you like, all the time. What’s it like, having a guy his size do that?”
“It’s flattering, to be honest. He can have anyone he wants, and he focuses on me.” Batson looked down at the floor. “But I don’t want to be just another conquest for anyone.”
“I’m not trying to conquer you.”
Batson looked at Murray. “I know. That’s why I want to figure out how to deal with this.”
“The best way to figure it out is just do it.”
Batson tilted his head a bit. “Do what?”
Murray folded his arms and shook his head. “Go out with me. Best way to figure it out.”
“I don’t know, Murray…”
“Oh, for God’s sake, why not?”
Batson flinched at the frustration in Murray’s voice. “I don’t want to hurt our friendship.”
Murray took a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he spoke again, he sounded calmer. “It’s just dinner, maybe even a movie if I can find anything you actually like.” Murray gave Batson a crooked grin. “It’s not like I’m going to make out with you.”
“Not at first, but what happens if we get together for a while, and it doesn’t work out?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t plan too far ahead, and get together if it does work out.”
“How can you be so sure of things?”
Murray shrugged. “I dunno. You don’t sound so sure right now.” He arched an eyebrow. “Come to think of it, I kind of like that. You being uncertain.”
Batson chuckled, the tension in his neck and shoulders fading, which surprised him. He hadn’t realized how tense he was getting. “I’m not always certain of things.”
“You act so zen, it comes off as certain.”
“No maybe about it, Batson. You are the most confident being on the planet, or at least in this elevator.”
Batson smiled. “Thank you.”
Murray waved a hand. “I’m not sure it was a compliment.”
“I’ll take it as one.”
“Whatever you say.” Murray looked at the row of buttons, then at the ceiling. “I wish they’d hurry up and get us out of here. I hate having uncomfortable conversations like this.”
“Afraid you’ll have to revoke your manliness card?”
Murray nodded. “Not to mention having to pay the fines. They’re pretty steep.”
“I won’t tell anyone that we talked about our feelings if you don’t tell people I wasn’t zen throughout this ordeal.”
“You got yourself a deal, Batson.”
“So what kind of movie would you take me to watch?”
“Something indy. You’re not one to watch the blockbusters, which is a damn shame.”
“I’m not a follower of the top ten, sad to say.”
“I’ll teach you the error of your ways. Just give me a chance.”
The elevator then started to move, and Murray looked at the floor number going down. “Guess they fixed the elevator.”
“Looks like it.”
“Guess you won’t be that late for the soup kitchen now.”
The silence enveloped them. A wall had somehow formed between the two. The open dialogue they had was now shut down. When they finally reached the lobby floor Murray exited first, followed by Batson.
“I guess I’ll see you later,” Murray said, his back to the hyena.
“You could come with me. To the soup kitchen, I mean.”
Murray paused, then his shoulders went up and down in a shrug. “Nah, I got errands to run.”
Murray went out onto the sidewalk and was gone.
Batson had a hard time focusing at the soup kitchen, and it continued even after he went home. Raffe wasn’t home, so there was no one to talk to. Might as well go to bed, Batson thought as he went into his bedroom. A good night’s sleep will clear everything up. Then I can try to talk to Murray.
The next day, though, Murray came to him.
“There’s a door inside a bigger door?” Murray said, looking up at the two story door.
“Raffe’s a giraffe, remember?”
“I am feeling like a kid again,” Murray said as he entered. “I’m not sure if I ever want to be friends with a giraffe if they live like this.” He saw a pair of enormous steel toed work boots next to the door. “Are those his boots?”
“They are, yes.”
“Good lord, you could hide a grown man in one of them.”
Murray looked back at Batson. “Right. You’re wondering why I’m here.”
“I think I know why.”
“Can we talk about this in your room? I want to feel normal sized again.”
After they had entered Batson’s room, Murray looked down at his shoes. “I want to apologize for giving you a hard time in the elevator.”
“I also want to ask you out on a date.”
Murray looked over at Batson, frustration filling his eyes. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, you know.”
“What makes you think I don’t want to?”
“Because you don’t sound happy I’m asking you out. You don’t sound unhappy I’m asking you out. You’re treating this like we’re talking about the weather.”
“I have quirks. You’ll just have to accept the fact I’m very easygoing.” Batson then realized something. “Why haven’t you accepted that yet? We’ve been friends for a while.”
“I dunno. Maybe I find it hard to believe someone would want to go out with an ugly old dog like myself.”
“So that’s what the problem is. You don’t think you’re worth my time? But you asked me out anyway.”
“What can I say? I’m stubborn that way.”
“Pick me up at six. Take me to your favorite place to eat, and pick a movie you think you’ll like.”
“No indy movie?”
“I don’t think so,” Batson smiled broadly. “I want to get out of my elevator every so often.”
“You’re confusing sometimes, you know that?”
Remember, you can totally preorder LIFELESS at Smashwords! https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/342221
Now for a preview!
* * *
Ivan hit the mat so hard that his vision blurred regardless of the protective helmet he wore. For a moment he couldn’t think, which was when a foot nudged the side of his head.
“Get up, pussycat,” Scowl said, cracking his knuckles through the sparring gloves. “I barely touched you.”
Ivan focused on Scowl. He made a swing for the cougar’s ankle. The smaller feline hopped away as if lighter than air. “Nice try, Ivan, but you’re too slow. And what did I say about no cheap shots?”
“You hit like sledgehammer,” Ivan said as he slowly got up to his feet.
“Flattery won’t get me to hit you any less hard.”
Ivan exploded in a burst of motion. He lunged forward. He feinted left. He swung with his right at Scowl.
The mountain lion dodged at the last possible second. He grabbed Ivan’s wrist. He tossed him over his shoulder.
Ivan stared up at the ceiling, grateful his vision wasn’t blurred this time. “I almost had you,” he said as he sat up.
“That was pretty sneaky,” Scowl said, offering a hand up to Ivan. “But you’re still telegraphing your moves worse than a choreographed fight scene.”
“I vill do better.”
Scowl took the laces of one sparring glove between his teeth, pulling on it until it unlaced. “I’ll give you credit, Ivan,” he said, “you’re getting faster. A year’s more training and you’ll be fast like a cheetah and dangerous like a tiger.”
Ivan had been training with Scowl for as long as he’d been dating Tank, who happened to be Scowl’s ex. Sometimes he wondered why, exactly, he agreed to train with Scowl but after a month’s training, he found Scowl to be a capable teacher.
There was still one problem. “But not fast and dangerous like you?” Ivan asked as he removed his helmet and gloves.
“Pussycat, you don’t want to be in my line of work. I thought you realized that after being on the run for a night from that Koschei the Deathless.”
Ivan shuddered. It was one of the most terrifying nights on his life, and the most tragic, having heard the news of his father’s death. “I do, but vhat if your line of work finds me again?”
“Just because you’re involved with Tank doesn’t mean they have reason to go after you.”
“But it could still involve me.”
“I can only train you so far,” Scowl said, putting away the sparring equipment. “You got limits, pussycat. We all do.” He lingered his gaze on Ivan, then grinned toothily. “You’ll be a terror if you keep up the training.”
Ivan found himself smiling in return. “Spasiba, Scowl.”
“You earned it, pussycat. No need to thank me.”
Ivan rubbed the back of his head before putting on his ball cap with the brim behind him. “You did not have to train me, but you did. Vhy?”
Scowl arched an eyeridge. “All this time I’ve been training you, and you never thought to ask?”
“You intimidated me in beginning.”
Scowl’s toothy grin returned with a vengeance, as it was wider than before. “I still intimidate you, pussycat. Admit it.”
The urge to take off his ball cap and wring it between his hands was overwhelming, but he stood his ground; imagining his spine was made of steel and ramrod straight helped. “You do, da. But then I remember I am bigger than you. Maybe stronger.”
Scowl narrowed his eyes at him. “You want to arm wrestle and find out?”
“Nyet. I am braver than when we first met, but I am not yet brave enough.”
Scowl threw back his head and laughed. “Yeah, well, I’m not as much of a dick as I was when we first met. Amazing what getting over old grudges can do for a guy.”
“Is that vhy you train me? Because you no longer hold grudge?”
Scowl’s features clouded over, and for a brief moment Ivan thought he’d crossed a line. With Scowl, it was like walking on eggshells, some of which were randomly loaded with explosives. One misstep would be your last.
But then he smiled, and Ivan felt the tension in his chest dissipate. “Yeah. I’d rather have the big lug as a friend than an ex, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do, but only because I vatch much television.”
Scowl clucked his tongue. “That stuff will rot your brain, pussycat. Worse, it’ll Americanize you.”
Ivan tilted his head in confusion. “Is that bad thing?”
“It depends on how American you get.”
“I do not understand.”
“Some Americans, God love them, are couch potatoes and crumple at the first sign of trouble. I thought you would be just like them when I first met you, but then you surprised me. You faced the bad guys, and you beat them.”
“I did not vant new friends being threatened, and Hopper vas in danger of losing soul.”
“Still took a lot of grit.”
“Vhat is grit?”
“It’s something based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. In other words, you got ambition.”
“Then vhy not say I have ambition?”
“Because grit sounds more like something I’d say.”
Ivan couldn’t deny that, so he just nodded his head.
“All right, let’s get you back to the carrot-thief before he thinks I broke you.”
“You almost did.”
The evil gleam in Scowl’s eyes made the tension in Ivan’s chest return twofold. “Ha! If you thought that, then wait until next time when I really get rough with the training.”
“I cannot vait.”
“Oh, I bet you can.”
Scowl was right, but Ivan wasn’t about to say so out loud.
“I feel so humiliated,” Larry said, covering his head with a pillow as he laid on his bed.
“Still, you get major points for having the guts to ask him,” Osaze said.
“But he said no.”
“You didn’t know he was going to say no until you asked. It’s still brave, even if you feel like you’re on a narrow and rickety walkway along a cliff by the sea.”
Larry peeked out from under the pillow. “That was pretty specific.”
“It’s how you feel though, am I right?”
“I guess. I don’t know. I feel a lot of things right now. None of them good.”
“Rejection rarely, if ever, feels good.”
“Are you sure you’re a teenager? You’re sounding like my dad.”
Osaze grinned, a touch of sheepishness on his face. “Sorry, I guess the semi-divinity surfaced. It’s not easy, having a grandfather who’s a god. The wisdom just…pops up, and yet it never appears when I’m taking a test.”
“Is that why you’re so tall?”
“I thought I answered that question when we first met.”
“You weren’t a gazillion feet tall when I met you in first grade.”
Osaze shrugged. “Yeah, but you still stared at me when they had to bring in a desk made for fourth graders.”
“So you were a half-gazillion feet tall.”
“To answer your question again, no. I just have very tall genes. You don’t see my older brother this tall or taller, now do you?”
Larry suppressed a shudder. “I try never to see your brother.”
“Oh, come on now. He’s not that bad.”
“Says you. I hate it when he looks at me. It feels like he’s looking directly into my soul.”
“You’ve got a soul? Since when?”
“Anyway,” Osaze said, “you can’t just hide in your room wishing the humiliation would go away. It will, but it’s going to take time.”
Larry pulled the pillow away from his head and smirked at the jackal. “You’re doing that wisdom thing again.”
“This time it’s from all those years of watching Sesame Street. I felt a kinship with Big Bird. He’s tall too, you know.”
“I appreciate your fixation on being tall–”
“Being extremely tall.”
“–and you’re probably right.” Larry sat up, clutching the pillow against his chest. “I just wish…I just wish I had kept my beak shut, you know?”
“Not really. My only true love is basketball, and it hasn’t rejected me yet.”
Larry laughed, throwing the pillow at Osaze. “You’re confusing, you know that? One minute you’re helping me, the next minute you’re being an egomaniac.”
Osaze caught the pillow one-handed. “I might be trying to use my egotistical nature to make you laugh at me.”
“I guess it worked, because I’m laughing at you.”
“For once I’m not going to mind.” Osaze casually tossed the pillow back to Larry. “So why don’t we go to the Mall to drown your sorrows in some yogurt? My treat.”
“I guess, as long as we don’t see Sampson.”
Osaze rolled his eyes. “You’ll be fine, Larry.”
The second Osaze and Larry went into the hallway, Freddy poked his head out of his room. “Hey, Larry. I hear Sampson turned you down on a date. Want me to eat him?”
Larry froze in mid-step. “Wh-what? How did you..?”
“He posted a status on his Facebook account. I quote: “I just got asked out by a cool guy.” I wasn’t sure if it was you. Since when did you turn cool?”
“Shut up, Larry!”
Freddy opened his beak in a grin. “The offer still stands.”
“No! I don’t want you to eat him!”
Freddy’s wings moved in a shrug. “Your loss. I bet humans taste bad anyway.”
Pizza was ordered, then quickly devoured by the soccer team, with the majority seemingly going into Freddy’s bottomless stomach. Near the end of their victory meal, Larry’s father stood up.
“Alright, men, I have an announcement. After our last game next weekend, we’re going to have a formal dinner celebrating our winning season. There’s going to be awards given out, but what’s probably most important for you all is we’ll also be having a dance. So be sure to bring a date, or just go stag. Just be sure to be there.”
“So who’re you going to ask out?” Sampson asked Larry as they walked to the car.
“I don’t know if I’m going to ask anyone,” Larry said, keeping his eyes averted from Sampson. Why do I have to have a crush on one of my teammates again?
“That’s okay,” Sampson said as he got in the car. “I’m sure a lot of us are going to do the same thing.”
“What about you?” Larry asked. “Are you going to go by yourself?” Maybe Sampson would say he was going by himself, and assert his availability. Maybe this would be Larry’s chance.
“I dunno, I probably might go by myself as well. I’m not that good a dancer anyway.”
Was Sampson trying to hide the real reason of going by himself? Or was he really a bad dancer? Larry couldn’t recall a time where he saw Sampson dance, but it couldn’t be that bad, could it? His long, blond hair swishing around as he gyrated with the beat of the music…
Larry shook his head, clearing his head of those awkward thoughts.
“You okay, Larry?”
“Yeah, I just had to shake my head of the mental image of you trying to dance.” Larry was getting too good at lying by telling the truth. At the rate he was going, he would soon find himself gaining a career as a politician.
“Gee, thanks,” Sampson said, driving towards Larry’s house.
“You’re welcome, but can you try and keep your eyes on the road?”
“What, and deny my eyes the sight of my favorite teammate?”
Larry felt his ears start to warm. “I’m your favorite?”
“Yeah,” Sampson said. “Why? Is that too weird?”
“N-no! It’s kind of…nice.” Larry tried not to squirm in his seat. He was Sampson’s favorite teammate?
“Good. I’d hate for you to feel weird around me. We’re prolly not only teammates, but friends. I think I’d like that. Osaze can’t have you all to himself, now can he?”
“I guess he’d be able to share me. I think we’re friends too.”
As Larry’s house drew nearer, the end of the journey caused something to stir within him. Something he only felt during the soccer matches. Determination. It burned inside of him, and he knew it would not go away until he asked Sampson the question. Failure to ask would mean a sleepless night.
Larry took a deep breath, then: “Sampson? Would you like to go to the dance with me?”
Sampson blinked in confusion. “Huh? Of course I’ll go to the dance with you. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Larry shook his head. “No, Sampson,” he said, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. “I mean as my date.”
Sampson just started at Larry for several seconds, and the moment he opened his mouth to speak, Larry felt his heart sink deep into his stomach. He knew what the answer would be.
“I’m sorry, Larry, but I don’t swing that way.”
So I released a new short story on Smashwords called Relationships. It’s a story set in the DEATHLESS universe, but you won’t find the main character fighting against supernatural forces. Well, maybe in the flashback, but still!
Anyway, it’s free over at said website, so why not pick it up? Because I got a challenge coming…
If Relationships becomes the highest downloaded title in my library of published fiction, I’m going to release LIFELESS (the sequel to DEATHLESS) as an ebook a month earlier than the print version, which debuts in September.
We’ve got until the end of July to make this happen, so let’s make this happen.
So what’s been going on? I’ll tell you what’s been going on!
The webcomics world looks something like this:
GAMING GUARDIANS: Uhm, yeah. Totally not my fault, which means it’s probably my fault.
CARPE DIEM: Don’t ask. I might just do a Kickstarter so I can raise the funds and pay for an artist in advance.
DUNGEONS & DENIZENS: The fourth trade paperback is coming soon. Aw, yeah.
SUDDENLY FISTING: Might have to skip this week because of a certain convention approaching, or it might just be a little late. I hope it’s the former.
PROFILES: Krahnos graduates in May. He has not lost his love for this comic, so expect it to return sometime.
Alright, that’s what is happening in my little webcomics world. Now for some fiction news:
RELATIONSHIPS: The short story is written, so now I’m going to get it edited extensively. I’m pleased with how this looks, and it provides you gentle readers with some behind the scenes into a few characters from the DEATHLESS universe.
THE GRYPHON’S GOAL: Major writer’s block there. I’m working on other stuff until I hit an epiphany. Fear not!
UNTITLED SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGY: I’m going to gather up a lot of short stories I’ve written over the years and put it into a big ol’ book.
SECRET PROJECT: I’ll be announcing this one in May, but if you go to the Biggest Little FurCon in Reno, Nevada, you might just see a sneak peek. I think a LOT of you will enjoy this one, or at least I hope you do.
That’s about it for now. See you soon!
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Hell of a Fix by Matthew Hughes
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Perfect Stranger by Amy Sterling Casil
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