Author: Marie

Unrelenting to Be Published in 2022

Unrelenting to Be Published in 2022

Well, it’s official! Unrelenting, my co-written contemporary fantasy debut, will be published in Spring 2022!


I cannot wait for you to read Unrelenting! You’ll get to know a determined woman named Bridget as she takes the search for her missing sister, Dahlia, into her own hands. When she discovers the disappearance is linked to a hidden, magical society, Bridget must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice to find Dahlia.

After having multiple wonderful conversations with Not a Pipe Publishing, a small traditional press in Oregon, my co-author, Jessi Honard, and I decided it was the perfect home for our novel.

We met Not a Pipe through the great folks at Pipeline Media Group after Unrelenting was a finalist in the 2020 Book Pipeline Unpublished Contest.

Wanna know more? Click here to check out the blog post on our book’s website.

Want to support me?

The number one best way you can help me is to join my email list. This is how I can make sure you get the latest updates, like pre-order information.

If you’re reading this, thank you. There’s already a long list of people who have been supportive and instrumental in this process. Friends, family, beta readers, writing critique groups, query letter editors, advocates, and champions. Thank you all. And the journey’s just beginning!

Lessons Learned from Futurescapes 2021

Lessons Learned from Futurescapes 2021

I had a chance to attend my first Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop this week, and I had a great time! I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate, and I really enjoyed meeting so many talented folks.

Futurescapes is a paid, application-only workshop for speculative fiction writers. The faculty are brilliant authors, editors, and agents who specialize in spec-fic genres. They lead instructional classes ahead of the main event: a multi-day series of small-group workshops. The goal is to get writers ready to query and publish their piece. My faculty members were David B. Coe, Tricia Skinner, and SJ Kinkaid (who are ALL brilliant; please check them out).

I learned SO much, but I want to distill three of my biggest takeaways here.

Clear over clever.

When you have to choose, opt for clear over clever.

This is something I remind myself of, as a professional copywriter. It’s also true for fiction.

David elaborates on it better than I could here: Lessons from Manuscript Critiques – Simple Is Better.

Tricia reinforced a different aspect of this concept during my query session. If you’re writing with the intent to publish (whether self or traditional), remember your manuscript is ultimately a product. As its writer, you can show how marketable that product can be. For instance, instead of defining my current work in progress as “an adult secondary world fantasy heist,” I should figure out which shelf it would live on at a bookstore and call it that: “an adult fantasy.” Make it easy for agents, editors, and readers to see how your book can fit into the market and what they’re already enjoying.

The small stuff does matter.

It’s easy, as a writer, to focus on plot structure, worldbuilding, keeping the tension high, and character development. All of that is important. In fact, it’s crucial!

And also, considerations like word choice, sentence length, what is being described (and when), the order information is given in, passive writing… this stuff matters too. Just as much, really.

Because if anything (no matter how small) takes your reader out of the story, slows them down, or bores them, you’re in danger of losing them. No matter how gripping the next page might be.

Writing is for the passionate.

Kimberley Cameron said our novels are “Word document-shaped horcruxes” — fragments of our soul (that, fortunately, don’t involve murder).

David acknowledged that writing is hard, and writer’s block is part of the process. (And so is rejection, for that matter.) Writing isn’t always meant to flow. Sometimes it’s halting. Sometimes we stumble. Sometimes we stare at the wall for hours. But he reminded us to love what we do. We keep writing because the idea of stopping is too terrible to consider. And we should always write what we’re passionate about. That passion will shine through and carry us a long way.

From Pantsing to Plantsing

From Pantsing to Plantsing

If you’re a writer, you probably know the terms “pantser” and “planner” (or “gardener” and “architect”), but if you’re not, know that these refer to two different styles of writing. The planner likes to build a plot outline ahead of time, whereas the pantser is writing by the seat of their pants.

Both have their pros and cons. The planner spends a bunch of time detailing the trajectory of their story and often has to swing back in on later revisions to add more characterization and emotional depth. (Gross overgeneralization.) The pantser often figures out what’s going on in the story only by writing it, realizing what’s wrong, and rewriting. They spend longer in the actual prose, a lot of the time. (Again, gross overgeneralization.)

I’ve always been a pantser, which I find obnoxious. 👖 I’ve been learning about storytelling, character arcs, and plot structures for the last several years in an attempt to become a hybrid plantser — someone who can exist in both worlds.

And I think I’ve figured out part of the key.

The genre matters.

I’ve heard both Mary Robinette Kowal and Dan Wells teach on this subject, so I’m not sure who to credit with the concept. But essentially, there are two broad types of genres. Structured genres (like cozy mysteries or romances) have specific beats that the audience expects, and that the story should give a nod to (or intentionally subvert) in order to fit within the genre. Aesthetic genres, on the other hand (like fantasy or cyberpunk) rely on a specific atmosphere or type of world or tropes that really make it fit within the genre.

Nearly everything I’ve ever written is fantasy, with a bit of science fiction and horror thrown in there. And that means I’ve always written in the realm of aesthetic genres.

When that’s the case, all a writer has to rely on to figure out their plot is the rules of storytelling, itself. Three act plot structure, seven point plot structure, story circles, save the cat, the hero’s / heroine’s journey, etc. Plus pure instinct from spending so much time reading. But at least for me, this process is as vague and overwhelming as it is freeing. Which is why I’ve always really struggled to plot up to this point.

Until my current work in progress (WIP). 🎉

The journey of a novel.

Let me give you a glimpse into the weird, winding road that has led me to where I am now on my plantsing journey.

A little bit more than a year ago, I started writing my current WIP.

First, I envisioned it as a story set in the board game world of Gloomhaven with an Oceans Eleven feel. My main character was Riff, a down-on-his-luck human mercenary, and from the beginning, I was envisioning a strong social justice theme. I wrote the first 10,000 words or so, had an ending in mind, and trusted I’d be able to connect the dots in between. I sent off a pitch and the first few chapters to the fine folks at Cephalofair Games to see if they’d be interested in making the story part of their canon. They gave me a very kind not-at-this-time response next-day — and honestly, I was excited to get a response at all! They were very supportive and generous in their answer. That company’s awesome. Go play some Gloomhaven.

So then, I was left with a choice between continuing to write my story as fanfiction, or adapting it into something unique. I chose the latter. Between digging into planning tools like Campfire and Fabula, I revised the world and plot into something unique. My main character was still Riff, but now he was a down-on-his luck thief.

Over the course of NaNoWriMo 2020, I churned out 50,000 words of the new manuscript. It told the tale of a desperate quest across the countryside, where Riff danced between being a fugitive from the law and trying to reinsert himself into society.

And wow, I was getting lost in the writing. So I joined a critique group specifically for speculative fiction writers. And one of the critiquers said something that really stuck with me. He said, after reading the first two chapters, “This is going to be a great heist.”

And I was like, oh yeah… a heist. Oceans Eleven. That was the root of the inspiration for this thing all along. That’s what this novel is supposed to be!

So then I asked myself, “How do I write a heist?” 🤔

And, miracle of miracles, Mary Robinette posted this:

So I jumped on her Patreon and attended the class and… lightbulb. 💡

Leaning into a structured genre.

All of the sudden, I was writing in a structured genre (heist) embedded within an aesthetic genre (fantasy).

I had beats to write to. All within the rich world and set of characters I’d already developed. Riff’s still being his swashbuckling self.

It was like, all of a sudden, the cast had something to do other than just mill about and hope for a character arc to slap them in the face.

All of a sudden, there was a conduit for me to explore the ideas of classist inequity and racial injustice.

All of a sudden, I was having fun again, because I’d finally found my footing. 😍

As of right now, I’m only 16,000 words into drafting this novel, but I’m getting great feedback from my critique groups, I’ve written an entire synopsis that’s actually coherent (thanks to the Futurescapes Workshop), and I feel more confident writing this book than I ever have with any previous manuscript.

For me, the journey from pantsing to plantsing looks like combining a structured genre with an aesthetic genre to help me build more structure into my process.

I’m hopeful that what I’m learning by writing this book will equip me to go back to the world of pure aesthetic genres with more confidence.

But first things first. I have a book to write. ✍️

I’d love to hear from you. If you’re a writer, are you a pantser or a planner? Are you trying to find a hybrid position in the middle? What has your writing journey looked like to this point?

Unrelenting: Finalist in Book Pipeline Unpublished Competition

Unrelenting: Finalist in Book Pipeline Unpublished Competition

Holy bananas.

I’m SO proud (and overwhelmed and amazed and chuffed and and and!!!) to report that Unrelenting has been named a finalist for the sci-fi/fantasy category in the Book Pipeline Unpublished 2020 competition!

This means the novel is among the top 3 for the genre, and we’ll find out about our final placement on November 5.

You might know the book by its working title (The Grigori) or the series working title (The Deathless Gods). Here’s a quick synopsis, if you aren’t familiar with the novel’s premise:

In their single-parent household, Bridget has always acted like a second mother to her half sister—so when Dahlia goes missing as an adult, Bridget believes she alone cares enough to find her. The investigation jolts to an unexpected halt when unexplainable, murderous smoke attacks her during her investigation. Recognizing she needs backup, she partners with James, a supernatural enthusiast and Dahlia’s former classmate.

As they research, explore, and eavesdrop, Bridget and James learn Dahlia’s disappearance is linked to a hidden world ruled by powerful beings who wield elemental and physical magic, like firestorms and plagues. One ruthless faction has kidnapped Dahlia, convinced she holds the key to unlocking lost abilities. With options dwindling, Bridget and James team up with questionable magical allies to save her sister, and Bridget must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice for her family.

I co-wrote this contemporary fantasy novel with Jessi Honard (my best friend, hiking/camping buddy, and business partner), and… let’s just say there were a lot of happy tears when we heard the news.

Of course, we’re thrilled that we’ll be able to take advantage of the prizes, including consideration from producers for film/TV adaptations, invitations to writer events, and possibly circulation to agents/publishers/editors.

But honestly, the biggest gift is the affirmation. We put 6 years into the book, building the world, creating the characters, imagining the magic, reading every sentence aloud. We’re proud of it. We know it’s an enjoyable read… at least for us. But it’s been a tough year (as we all know). It’s been hard to muster the energy to write and query. Imposter syndrome has been creeping in.

This news has been electrifying. Someone — beyond our partners, families, and friends who’ve always had our backs — believes in us.

We can’t wait to share this story with you, and hopefully this is the push the manuscript needed to get in front of decision-makers who can actualize our dream.

Stay tuned! I’ll let you know how it goes in November. 🙂

If you want to get on my newsletter to learn more, enter your email address in the “GET EXCERPTS AND ANNOUNCEMENTS” widget.

And if you want to join our newsletter specifically for Unrelenting (which you may know by our original working title, “The Grigori”), please click here and visit the “Learn More” page.

November 5, 2020 Update: While Unrelenting was not selected as the Grand Prize winner in the fantasy/science-fiction category, we are still just SO grateful to be finalists. Excited to see where this takes us!

Worldbuilding + A Short Story Detour

Worldbuilding + A Short Story Detour

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the world, society, cultures, races, government, and environment of my WIP. When I switched the IP from Gloomhaven to an original world, I discovered I do NOT have the effortless worldbuilding skills I thought I did!

I’ve taken inspiration from A Trevena’s 30 Days of Worldbuilding, the Writing Excuses podcast, and the rich details in some of my favorite video games and books. All super helpful!

My biggest hurdle has been deciding on the types of fantasy races I wanted represented in the novel. The story speaks to racism and discrimination, so I needed to be especially intentional about how I proceeded.

After getting help and input from Erica Courdae, a friend and a trusted diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) expert, as well as my trusty writing critique group, I’ve settled on a direction.

I have a whole new respect for the practice of worldbuilding, but I’m honestly super pleased with the way the writing (rewriting, at this point!) is going. Best of all, the project is flowing again, which is such a relief after months of hitting my head against the wall.

Fortunately, I used those head-banging months to be productive in another way: working on short stories. While I usually write in fantasy, I’ve been dabbling in science fiction and horror for this short story detour.

One particular horror story feels strong enough to submit to magazines, so I’ve been traveling down that road. More news as it comes!

Meanwhile, Jessi and I are still querying Unrelenting, and we hope that one of the agents we’ve pitched will love it.

Always staying busy!

Changes to my work in progress

Changes to my work in progress

Stone Breaker started as a Gloomhaven fanfiction that I hoped to get officially licensed.

I finally got up the nerve to pitch the Cephalofair team, and the very next day, I got a very gracious “it’s not a good time for us to consider this” response.

No problem, but that left me with a decision to make.

Did I keep going and publish it as a free fanfic? Or did I salvage what I could of the characters and plot and devise an entirely new world?

I chose the second path.

I’ve always wanted the story to center around fantasy tropes of discrimination between races and groups. I want to call these tropes into question, examine them, see what they mean for the characters, society, and reader.

So I hired a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) consultant to help me think deeply about how to approach this topic from a storywriting and worldbuilding perspective.

A few weeks later, the Black Lives Matter protests renewed their intensity after the murder of George Floyd. And I knew without a doubt, my book could be a way to investigate the journey towards allyship — in a fantastic setting with compelling characters and swashbuckling goodness.

So Stone Breaker has been reborn into something I’m even more passionate about than ever: Flightless. I’m so excited to build this world and continue this story. Honestly, I’ve never been more giddy about a writing project than I am about this one.

Still, I’ve had a fair number of stops and starts as I venture into this new iteration of my writing project. Running a business during COVID-19 has been a major one, with tons of my creative energy going to what clients I’ve been able to maintain.

But the most difficult challenge has been the loss of my beloved dog, Gabby. I adopted her 11 years ago, and she has been with me through thick and thin. She joined me at coffee shops to write. She was the most attentive alpha reader one could imagine. She kept me energized and dreaming of new adventures. Our bond was incredibly strong, and when she died peacefully in my lap after suffering from awful degenerative health issues, it felt like a piece of my soul was ripped out. I’m still grieving… I may always be grieving… but I’m trying to be kind to myself and not force creativity when all I can do is think about her.

A healthy Gabby from six years ago, ready for me to put away the computer and take her on a walk

She would want me to keep playing and having fun, so I’ll be sure to thank her as I lose myself in the world of Flightless.

Gloomhaven Novel Progress

Gloomhaven Novel Progress

November 4, 2020 Edit: Basically none of this is true anymore, since the novel is no longer a Gloomhaven novel, but a world of my own creation. But I’d still totally be down for writing a Gloomhaven story one of these days! The new iteration of this story is called Flightless.

Well, I’m about 15% through the draft of my Gloomhaven novel, which is feeling slow, but good. I tend to be a careful writer who creates a relatively clean first draft, so there’s no surprise I’m moving this slowly. (Not to mention I’m distracted by a full-time job and Coronavirus anxiety.)

You can read an excerpt here.

Here’s what that progress means in more concrete terms.

I have a title

This is RARE for me. I struggle with pithy, catchy writing at the best of times, so a novel title is nearly always the last battle I have to wrestle with. But as I’ve continued working out the plot and character arcs of the Gloomhaven novel, the title came to me rather easily.

Stone Breaker.

Especially if you’re a Gloomhaven fan, I’m interested to hear what the title suggests to you. To me, it has multiple meanings… but I don’t want to reveal anything by exploring those here!

I’ve reached the Inciting Incident

Fellow authors will recognize this term from the 3-act plot structure, which I’m using for this novel for simplicity’s sake.

The Inciting Incident is the moment that sweeps the main character out of their life and into the main plot of the novel. It tears them from what they believe and expect and puts them on a new course. This happens after the hook and the setup, including the introduction of the main character, world, setting, etc.

I’m fleshing out the synopsis

It’s generally accepted that there are two types of writers: planners and pantsers. (As in, write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.) I’ve traditionally been a pantser, but the more I’ve learned about story structure and the craft of writing over the years, the more I’ve veered towards a hybrid plantser approach.

That means that, even though I’ve only drafted 15% of the novel, I have a clear idea of the main conflict, many of the sub-conflicts, the character arcs, and the plot.

And that means I can get to work on a synopsis. Novelists often dread these because it can feel impossible to cram an entire book into a few spoiler-filled pages, but I’m discovering that starting with a synopsis and then editing it as I go is giving me a good roadmap, without locking me into ideas that don’t pan out.

I’ve got a writing timeline

All along, my goal was to write three really great chapters, then send those off as a pitch along with the synopsis to Childres’ team for consideration for licensing.

I’d like to have more than that written, and I have accomplished that (although it’d be ideal if the whole book was done!). But I DO feel solid enough about the beginning that I’m revising it with a fine-tooth comb in preparation to send it over.

There’s no point in sending it right now, though. The Frosthaven Kickstarter is about halfway through, and it’s doing remarkably well, especially given the financial stress caused by the pandemic. As a former fundraiser, I know firsthand how demanding a campaign can be, so I’m well aware that now is NOT the time to pitch a novel. Everyone has their hands full.

But I’ve been watching the announcements with excitement, and my husband and I were fortunate enough to be able to back the campaign right away. It’s given me plenty of ideas, and it’s re-confirmed for me how beloved this game franchise is. I know i’m not alone in my appreciation of the world Childres has built.

So my current timeline is to finish smoothing out the initial chapters, synopsis, and pitch this month and send it over in May. And in the meantime, keep writing! I’m engaged in Camp NaNoWriMo to help me stay on task. Feel free to friend and follow me there.

I’ll keep the blog updated as I make progress!

Writing in the Coronavirus era

Writing in the Coronavirus era

Today’s my 8th day of self-quarantine (except for a quick trip to the grocery store 7 days ago).

Is this not the most surreal experience of your life? It’s both comforting and horrifying to know that the conversations I’m having are taking place all over the globe.

I was supposed to be on vacation in Italy this week — spending my first trip to the country in Venice. Needless to say, that’s not happening. However, I took the opportunity to use my PTO for a staycation instead. My goal this week: Try on the life of a full-time author.

So far I’ve written 184 words. #productive

I’m finding it really freaking hard to concentrate. Even though I’ve worked from home for 7 years, there’s something uniquely weird and distracting about this experience.

That’s not to say I’ve done nothing. Monday, I spent all day working on client stuff. Tuesday, I sent out a few queries for Unrelenting. And today, I’ve been trying to tune out the news. I might even achieve an epic power nap.

I’m trying a few things that might help me recapture my focus.

I’ve hosted Zoom rooms to co-write with fellow alumni of the Writing Excuses Retreat.

I also migrated my weekly writing critique group to Zoom so we can stay accountable to one another.

I’m wearing my sound-canceling headphones to get in the zone.

I’m eating as well as I can and taking daily 3-mile walks.

And all of that is great. But…

None of it is quieting the buzz of anxiety in my brain. So I’m trying to be kind to myself by allowing myself to feel the feels, playing with my dogs, watching comedy shows with my husband, and curling up with some great books.

I’ve also found I’m feeling very disconnected from all of my projects set in the modern day or near future. The world has changed so quickly, and it’s hard to resonate with stories where characters do crazy stuff like go to coffee shops or hang out at a friend’s house.

So I’m switching gears from the novel I’m querying to focus on my main WIP. It’s set in a secondary fantasy world (yay, Gloomhaven!), so it’s already different from real life. That’s making that project feel strangely normal right now.

If you’re struggling to focus, you’re not alone.

But I believe we can get through this.

Be kind to yourself. Lower your expectations of yourself. This is traumatic and weird and stressful.

People are losing their jobs, wrangling kids, and wondering how they’re going to pay the bills. So give yourself grace if you’re not feeling 100%. I’ll try to remember my own advice.

Stay safe, wash those hands, and self-quarantine (if your situation allows it) like a boss! Love you all.

It’s Time to Query Unrelenting

It’s Time to Query Unrelenting

EDIT: Unrelenting has found a home with Not a Pipe Publishing! Click here to learn more.

In two days, I will begin querying agents for a contemporary fantasy/suspense manuscript for adult readers called Unrelenting.

In the story, Bridget’s sister is missing and everyone has given up hope. Everyone except Bridget.

Determined to take matters into her own hands, she begins a desperate search for answers among the misty streets of Cleveland, Ohio.

What she finds points to something far more ominous than a missing person’s case. Bridget is caught up in an unpredictable world of ancient magic and sinister secrets, hidden in plain sight.

To find her sister, Bridget must adapt to this new reality, team up with an unlikely companion, and forge an uneasy truce with supernatural beings called Grigori before it’s too late.

You can read more about the book and sign up for email updates at And you can follow announcements on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

I co-wrote this novel with my best friend and co-business-owner, Jessi Honard. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments to date. Here’s how the process has gone down so far.

Original concept + draft

Six years ago, Jessi and I had the seed of an idea. What if angels lived among us? And what if they weren’t all that angelic?

We did some research and came across the Grigori. The Book of Enoch tells the story of how many of these angels, also known as Watchers, fell to Earth. We discovered the artwork of Peter Mohrbacher. We couldn’t keep the idea from growing into more.

So we started drafting a story.

As we wrote the first draft, we realized the story needed to change a lot. So we moved on to the second draft. Then the third. Etcetera.

The final drafts

By about the seventh draft, we were ready for beta reader feedback. We had ten incredibly generous readers who gave us wonderful food for thought.

We spent the next year implementing those changes, learning, and honing our craft more and more. We started studying storytelling and novel structure more intensely than we ever had before.

We attended the (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!) Writing Excuses Retreat in 2019, learning from masters like Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, K. Tempest Bradford, Howard Tayler, Cory Doctorow, Piper Drake, Dongwon Song, and more.

We kept refining and refining until we wrapped up the ninth draft.

Preparing to query

The writing, revising, and editing process took us six years.

The next step was reaffirming our game plan. These days, writers are fortunate to have different paths to publication. Jessi and I are seasoned marketers, so we could probably have some success self-publishing.

But from the beginning, we’ve always envisioned this novel going the traditional route. It just felt right to us.

So we recommitted to that game plan, and taking the question up with those who know the industry much better than we do! That means querying book agents, who could then put our manuscript in front of a publisher.

But it’s not as simple as reaching out to a bunch of agents.

First we had to land on some comp titles (which was NOT easy).

Then we had to research agents to see if they’re open to queries and a good potential fit for the manuscript. We’ve looked into their manuscript wish lists and the authors they currently represent to narrow our search.

Then we hired an author who is also a professional query letter and book manuscript consultant to review our query letter and first ten pages. The feedback on the pages was GLOWING. But we have some work to do on the query letter.

This week, we’re finalizing the letter and submitting our first agent query.

What’s next

I don’t know.

I know the process of finding an agent will take some time. Months. Years.

And then we still have to get the book sold to a publisher and wait for that process to come to fruition before we can hold the book in our hands.

But I’m so proud of what we’ve done.

Honestly, finishing a manuscript I’m so proud of, in collaboration with my best friend, has already made me feel like a success.

Everything else is a whole pile of cherries on top.

Stone Breaker: Gloomhaven Novel/Fanfic Sneak Peek

Stone Breaker: Gloomhaven Novel/Fanfic Sneak Peek

November 4, 2020 Edit: Basically none of this is applicable anymore, since the novel is no longer a Gloomhaven novel, but a world of my own creation. But I’d still totally be down for writing a Gloomhaven story one of these days! The new iteration of this story is called Flightless.

I can’t post the whole story yet for two reasons.

  1. It’s not done. Check the side bar for my writing status updates.
  2. My (maybe completely unattainable) dream is to get this puppy officially licensed, so I don’t want to show too much leg yet.

But I’d like to show a little leg. So… here’s the first little bit.

(Yes, I know Isaac Childres created this world, not me. Yes, I know I don’t own a sliver of this IP. Yes, this is a tribute to Childres’ fantastic game. Yes, I am creating this story in an entirely different medium so it does not compete in any way with the financial success of Gloomhaven. Yes, I hope it brings new fans to the game and reignites the loves of existing fans. And yes, I pray Childres doesn’t sue me.)

Stone Breaker Chapter 1 Excerpt

Riff worked in the dark. Lighting even a match would attract the wrong kind of attention. Unfortunately, that left him hacking at the thick rope before him instead of simply burning it apart.

The rope held a wrought iron grate firmly in place, and it was doing an abominably good job of it. The grate covered a hole in the stone wall of the tunnel system that led to the University buildings. In particular, to his goal: the warehouse of the Department of Enchantment. At three hand spans wide and two spans tall, the hole was just big enough for a slender man like Riff to crawl through. Frigid air exhaled through the bars, and within his threadbare gloves, his hands shook, nearly numb.

He’d been led to believe that the hole would let him access a quiet corner of the University’s underbelly. To a dusty old professor, he supposed the items inside the warehouse were research projects. To Riff, they represented an upgrade from the months of tattered clothes, rusty tools, cold meals, and restless nights spent on dirt floors. He knew his disheveled state had gotten particularly bad, considering how little attention women gave him these days. Whatever roguish charm he possessed had evaporated upon reaching his current degree of unwashed poverty.

It was a good job, especially for a relatively new mercenary to the city. He didn’t even have to hurt anyone. Plus, it’d probably be months before the University noticed the items were missing, and they might even assume some absentminded student had misplaced them.

Ten feet above his head, a wide bridge blocked the moonlight. It was made of pockmarked stone, just like the wall before him. Overhead, Riff heard the clattering footfalls of a troop of a dozen soldiers making their nighttime rounds. He’d spent the last two nights studying their pattern. In a few minutes, they would descend from the bridge, passing where he stood as they circled back to the barracks. He needed to be out of sight by then, tucked within the wall’s embrace.

At sunrise, the bridge would be lined with merchant stalls, the smell of flowers, and the sound of shrill hawkers. But right now, and particularly right here—under the bridge—it was another world. Empty, dark, dank. And nearly perfect.

Perfect except for the pack of half a dozen tattered Vermlings clustered on the far edge of the bridge’s underbelly. They were gathered thirty yards away around a campfire. Their chittering laughter bounced off stone columns and rose into the night like their fire’s smoke.

He swiveled his head far enough so his one good eye could spot them. The Vermling closest to him, silhouetted by the flames, leapt to its full height—no more than four feet. Its long, naked tail whipped back and forth as it cried out for its turn to gnaw on the meat that was going around the circle.

The meat in question was a skewered, severed leg. Definitely human. Riff knew, because the rest of the body was laying a dozen feet from the pack. By the look of the man, he’d been a beggar, his gray hair a tangled mess, clothes in tatters, knapsack deflated. But to the hungry Vermlings, his body had been valuable enough on its own.

Grimacing, he turned back to his work. Why is this rope so blasted stubborn?

Riff tested the edge of the knife on his thumb. It creased the skin, but it wasn’t sharp enough to make him bleed.

Gloom and gore, he thought. The rope was triple-thick, as big around as his arm, the kind sailors used on ships. The corded strands of hemp wound around each other in an unending spiral. He’d managed to cut halfway through, but he didn’t have all night. Too bad he didn’t get an advance on this job; then he could’ve afforded to replace his whetstone, and he’d be halfway done with the job by now.

Riff knew that when the guards passed, the Vermlings would likely scatter, disappearing back into the sewers or Great Oak knew where. He’d be completely exposed, so he had to be gone.

Forget the knife. 

His fingers groped for the leather pouches lining his belt. His second blade was gone; it had been snapped by a Quatryl’s experimental sharpening device two weeks ago. Smoke bomb. A vial of poison. A lockpick set. None of it was of any use to him here.

It was going to have to be fire. So long as the Vermlings didn’t see him, he’d be through in no time.

Sheathing his sorry excuse for a blade, Riff reached into his inner vest pocket and brought out a small oiled matchbox, slid it open, and drew out a single match.

He glanced back at the Vermlings. They were still thoroughly distracted by their grim prize.

Huddling over his hands, he struck the match over the rough strip on the side of the box. Light bloomed to life, illuminating his wavy mess of blond hair around his peripheral vision. Then the light softened. He leaned closer to the rope to shield the flame from view, holding it under the hemp. The rope was blackened from dampness, toughened from age like leather.

The frayed strands Riff had already cut burned a deep orange, then puffed out. Riff leaned in and blew on the charred edges, and the glow returned. A wisp of noxious smoke rose.

Riff coughed, covering his mouth with the crook of his arm to muffle the sound.

The chittering of the Vermlings quieted. He peeked over his shoulder again. Each ratlike face stared directly at him, ears perked. Then, as one, they scrabbled towards him, moonlight glinting off steel blades and bone clubs.

Oh, this is charming.

Riff shook out the match and drew his dull knife as he whirled to face them. “Not worth it, friends!” he called as they continued their scrambling approach. Rows of sharp, wet teeth flashed in response. With a grimace, Riff took a step back, bumping into the grate. “Really!” he tried again. “The guards will be here any minute. You think you can kill me and hide two human bodies before they arrive?”

That gave one of them pause, and it slowed to look back at the beggar. The other five seemed more optimistic as they scurried forward. From a distance, all of them had looked disheveled, but harmless enough. In close quarters, though, the creatures were easily two-thirds Riff’s size with snarled fur and wicked, curved claws. 

The closest one lept towards Riff with a sharp yip. Its flattened nose quivered with flared nostrils. Riff spun away, tucking in his shoulder to avoid a swipe of the Vermling’s paw.

Another landed on his back, whumphing against him like a sack of grain. It dug its claws into Riff’s leather vest, piercing his skin. Riff gasped in pain, then gagged. The creature’s breath smelled like rotten meat.

Eyes watering at the stench, Riff swiped his knife at the Vermling in front of him. Dull as the blade was, it drove the creature back a few feet. It hissed with glinting eyes.

Before another could take his companion’s place, Riff staggered into the wall, driving the Vermling clinging to his back against the stone. Its furry head connected with the metal gate with a crack.

The Vermling let out a cry and dislodged itself, giving Riff’s ankle a kick before scampering back. Riff hopped in place, shaking out his smarting limb.

Three fresh Vermlings advanced, one swiping its claws menacingly. Another nibbled on the edge of its battered knife, its beady eyes locked on Riff. The third swung its club over its shoulder, staring consideringly at the rope-bound grate.

Riff fingered the smoke bomb in his vest pocket.

Thrump, thrump, thrump, thrump. It was the sound of a dozen sets of boots approaching, marching in step.

“Here come the guards,” Riff hissed at the Vermlings. “You honestly like these odds?”

They looked between each other. The one with the club swiveled its pointy ears to Riff then squeaked at its companions, “Go without! I catch up!” Riff blinked. He hadn’t realized they were capable of stringing together a coherent sentence. 

The rest of the Vermlings—all but the one facing him—chittered in agreement. They scampered off, squeezing out of sight through a sewer grate on the far end of the bridge. One darted back to the campfire to snag their gory meal and drag it underground with him.

The sound of the approaching guards grew louder as Riff straightened. “Not going to follow your friends?” He asked the remaining Vermling as he clutched his aching shoulder. His empty hand balled into a fist.

“Not going to attack,” it declared.

“Then leave,” Riff snapped.

“What is your plan?” the creature demanded, voice raspy. Its eyes darted to the half-severed rope to indicate what it meant.

“My plan?” he asked blankly. 

With an impatient gait, it scampered to the rope, tugging on it. “Why cut this?”

The guards were getting closer. From the sound of it, they would be in sight any moment now.

Shaking his head, Riff snapped, “Get out of my way.” He strode forward, reaching for his matchbox, which had fallen to the ground. He slipped it back into place.

By the time he straightened, the Vermling had sunk its teeth into the rope, gnawing at it with vigor. In just a few seconds, the two pieces fell away, and Riff lunged forward to catch the metal grate before it clattered to the ground. He looked down at the Vermling, who bared its teeth. Bits of rope stuck out between them. Was it… smiling?

Flickering light caught his eye, and he looked up to see torches coming around the far edge of the bridge. The soldiers marched alongside the columns, slowing to a stop at the sight of the campfire and dead beggar.

Without another word, Riff set down the grate and pushed his way in front of the Vermling. He heaved himself into the hole in the wall. Fingers digging into the tight stone, he dragged himself deeper until he was lying on his stomach, all but his feet within the tiny space. The hilt of his knife jabbed against his hip. Riff stretched out his arms until his gloved hands grasped at empty, pitch-black space. He wormed his way forward and toppled inelegantly onto a hard, cold floor a few feet down. 

As he clambered to his feet, he heard the scuffling rustle of the Vermling following him. “Get out of here,” he hissed. Insufferable little creature.

Abruptly, its paw landed on Riff’s face, grasping his nose. Riff yelped and stepped backwards out of its reach. The Vermling tumbled to the floor with a squeak of alarm, its bone club clattering just after it.

Now that the hole—shaft, really—was cleared of occupants, Riff could see through it, into the under-bridge area where he’d just been. He couldn’t see the guards, but their torchlight came ever closer. Their steps were no longer synchronized, and they murmured in concerned tones. He ducked out of sight as soon as he spotted them, putting his back against the wall, with the shaft’s entrance beside him.

For the first time, he took in his surroundings. The sliver of moonlight that pierced the darkness illuminated a long hallway that stretched to the left and right as far as he could make it out. Every fifty feet or so, there was another shaft just like the one they’d crawled through. A few feet away, embedded in the wall, was a metal sign. It said Department of Enchantment, Left. Department of Transmutation, Right. Do Not Extinguish Torches; They Are Necessary for Your Safety. There was not a single torch in sight. Maybe they’d been blown out; the frigid air that had seeped through the wrought iron grate now surrounded Riff, blowing through the corridor.

The guards’ voices grew louder on the other side of the wall until one sounded like it was just a few feet away. Torchlight illuminated a perfect rectangle of the stone wall across from the shaft. “Is the grate supposed to be on the ground like this?”

A second voice gave a long-suffering sigh. “What kind of idiotic question is that? Of course it’s not.”

“Do you think that has something to do with the… unfortunate soul back there?” the first voice asked.

“Perhaps, but it’s far from him. It’s more likely to be Vermling mischief.”

“Should we investigate, sir?”

Just Riff’s luck. He shot the Vermling a sour look. Faintly-glowing yellow eyes peered back at him unblinkingly.

Finally, the second voice responded, “Shift’s about over. Just note it in your log.” Their boots thrumped away, taking the torchlight with them.

Riff released a sigh of relief, then rounded on the Vermling in a whisper. “Alright. Care to explain yourself?”

Its sharp teeth glinted in the moonlight. “I help. I profit.”

He scowled. “I don’t need help.” And he certainly wasn’t losing his profit. Lifting his gaze, he started down the left path, towards the Department of Enchantment. As he walked farther from the shaft, everything grew dark. The icy wind picked up speed and blew his hair back from his face. He extended his right hand to run it along the wall. Twenty paces ahead was the next pale rectangle of silvery moonlight.

 Hearing scrabbling behind him, he stopped and turned. The Vermling was hurrying to catch up, club bouncing on its shoulder. 

“I told you to go,” Riff snapped.

“What are you stealing?” the Vermling asked, its furry clothing swishing with each step.

“Stealing?” Riff demanded. “Why would you assume that?”

“What are you… re-homing?” it rephrased. Even in the dimness Riff could see its horrid, toothy smile.

Riff shook his head. “Very funny. Now scamper along.”

“You are not ready. You need Marash.”

Riff wrinkled his nose. Now that it was close, he could smell its breath again. “Need what?”

“Marash.” It jabbed its thumb at its chest, then trotted ahead of Riff. It was faintly silhouetted by the light ahead—until it abruptly ducked out of sight.

Riff blinked, peering ahead in the darkness. “Marash?”

“This way, human!” it squeaked.

Through his gloves, he felt the wall on his right turn a ninety degree angle away. Midway between the two ventilation shafts was a new corridor that led deeper into the University complex; he never would have seen it in the dark. He could hear Marash scrabbling ahead. With a sigh, he turned to follow. At least this path pointed him in the direction of the warehouse. 

He’d known for a few months that these tunnels existed; they’d been built to help University students and faculty move between buildings. But they were infrequently traveled due to their dark, chilly state, so a few smuggler friends of Riff’s had used them before. They’d drawn him rough maps of their layout. Granted, none of the maps had agreed on anything but the fact they were labyrinthine, so they weren’t of much use.

“You don’t even know where I’m going,” he muttered to the Vermling. In this new hallway, with no ventilation shafts, there was no light whatsoever. He kept his gloved hand on the wall, taking slow, careful steps.

“Can guess,” it responded. “Only so many places with items to st—re-home.”

Riff sighed. “Let’s say I am re-homing something,” he said, following along more slowly. “I have no intention of sharing the profit with you. I’m working alone.”

It laughed, a chittering, echoing sound ahead in the dark. 

Riff kept walking, back hunched against the cold. The air smelled of sickly-sweet mildew, and water fell to the floor with echoing drips. His gloves were damp by now, and he shivered. A whetstone and a coat. That’s what he’d buy as soon as this job was over.

His shoulder still smarted from where Marash had hit him with its club. Come to think of it, his ankle twinged too, from where its little friend had kicked him. Why was he following this creature again?

His boot landed on a loose stone, and he wobbled. He took another step and found another unstable rock.

“Collapse,” Marash’s voice came from directly beside Riff’s elbow.

Riff jumped. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!” he snarled at it.

“You can’t see?” Marash asked, glowing eyes turning to peer up at him.

Riff sighed in exasperation. “You’ve led me into an impassable tunnel. What other help would you like to offer?” Vermling claws hooked into his sleeve and drew him closer. “Hey!”

“Come,” Marash urged. It drew Riff towards the collapse. “A way through.”

Riff reluctantly stepped forward, guided over debris and clattering fallen stones.

“Duck!” Marash ordered.

He lowered his head, and squeezed through a gap in the rubble that was just big enough for his slender frame. Then he clambered down the other side, where the air was even colder. He sneezed at the dust in the air.

“I help,” Marash insisted, removing its paw from his shirt. Its glowing eyes were all Riff could see.

“I could’ve just struck a match,” Riff muttered.

“Torch ahead,” Marash chirped.

With a sigh, Riff walked forward, fingers now trailing along the left wall, until his hand touched a metal bracket extending from it. He felt its shape. A torch, indeed. It seemed the little creature could see perfectly well in the pitch black. Perhaps it was good for something. Pulling the matchbox from his vest once again, he struck a match and lit the torch.

The hallway he was in looked just like the previous one—narrow and made of stone—but there was one difference.

Before him lurched three green, amorphous globs. Each was about waist high, and embedded within their gelatinous forms were all sorts of objects: rings, pebbles, and coins. The one in the back was larger than the other two, and within its quivering embrace was a dagger. From the green slime that coated a nearby grate, it appeared the creatures had emerged from there. A sewer grate, if his nose had to guess.

“What in the…” Riff whispered.

“Ooze!” Marash called from behind. “Kill them!” It sounded downright cheerful.

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Featured image by Markus Spiske from Pexels.