Scorpion Dawn – Cover Copy

Emma Jane Holloway
July 1, 2019  •  No Comments

I’m still tweaking this slightly, but here is the first glimpse of Scorpion Dawn. It’s in the upcoming Rogue Skies box set and is the prequel novella to the Hellion House series.

 

When the prey becomes the hunter

Miranda Fletcher lives in a glittering world of aeronauts and artists, dance cards and dandies, but terror lurks outside the city walls. The countryside is infested with hungry abominations called the Unseen, and a single crack in the capital’s magical defenses invites disaster and death.

When Miranda witnesses a murder, she learns the gates aren’t as secure as the Conclave—the city’s protectors—claim. Despite the danger, it’s a secret the mages fiercely guard. When Miranda and her brother learn too much, the price of the family’s survival is silence.

 No one is foolhardy enough to defy the Conclave, much less battle the Unseen. But when tragedy shatters her home, breaking apart bonds of blood and affection, Miranda refuses to turn the other cheek.

Sometimes the smallest creature carries the deadliest sting.

 


Researching Worlds That Don’t Exist


June 6, 2019  •  No Comments

 

So far, at least, there is no online reservation system for me to book a B&B in my story world. This makes literal boots-on-the-ground research impossible. So—now what? For anyone writing outside their own experience, this is a genuine problem. How do you get real intel on places you can’t go or don’t even exist?

Advice on world-building abounds. Maps, naming conventions, operating codes, and heraldry are all legitimate reference points. My only quibble is that, while they provide valuable detail, they don’t necessarily grab a reader’s heart and soul. Despite the excruciating care writers take with constructing the subjunctive in their new Elvish dialect, most readers skate by that stuff until they reach Rabid Fan territory. What they do remember is the character’s joys and sorrows, because that’s something they can participate in right away. When a character is tossed in a dungeon, their despair, their horror of rats, and the dank stink are more memorable than the name of the prison and where it is located, although that info has its role, too. In other words, worry more about creating an emotional and sensory response and sprinkle in fine detail once you’ve nailed the drama.

This approach makes research somewhat easier because equivalent experience might be available. Got a desert planet? Go find a desert. Need alternate Victorian England? Well, there are bits of the original left, if you squint past the traffic. Castles? Yup, and a person can even sleep in one. Travel is best. Museums can help. Anything that duplicates aspects of your story location will do. The object of the game is to find your imaginary world in the one already around you and to answer the question, “What would my character actually experience if…”

While you’re making the rounds, keep a journal and pay attention to everything. High mountain air feels different than sea level. Dirt isn’t all black. Water tastes different from one city to the next. The sound in an ancient stone building carries differently than in a modern house. Observe and select the most telling details about a place, and this will create an experience that is concrete to your reader. That’s when they say, “I feel like I’ve been there.” Best of all, that’s when they wish to go back.

The same goes for the character’s emotional response to the world around them. Once upon a time, I took a gondola up to a mountain top and discovered to my horror that it was a literal mountaintop with no handrails, no fences, nothing. As I’m terrified of heights, my emotional response was—um—acute, especially when another tourist missed his footing and suddenly slid down the mountainside (he was okay). But the mountain scene I wrote afterward was razor sharp because my emotions were so strong at that moment. How does a character feel about their surroundings? Chances are, those same emotions are somewhere inside the writer. Take the narrative out of the head and put it in the gut.

Once a story world is full of vivid detail, other things to consider include demographics, the economy, transportation, and sanitation. There are too many books where no one seems to have a job, and yet they all have money and nice houses (where do I sign up)? It’s as if the story action occurs on a floating platform very separate from the everyday. Any location seems far more real if there is industry, immigrants and visitors from other lands, and the usual mix of old, young, rich, poor, and in-between. The research lab for the way a city works (or occasionally fails to do so) is all around us. Most historically-based industries and transportation systems have museums, books, and documentaries. Futuristic infrastructure might be based on similar principles. Throughout history, nations rise and fall because of trade profits and how they can take them away from someone else.

How does any of this impact day-to-day living for your characters? It’s the world they move through. It might be their means of survival. It might be motivation. Everyone has an opinion about their Internet provider, the bus/underground system, the price of electricity, rents, the price of groceries, and so on—not to mention industrial pollution and the environment. Providing an awareness of the everyday that is appropriate to your character makes it seem as if the world extends beyond what we see on the page. That makes readers curious, and they come back for more. In addition, because some problems are universal (the price of groceries), that makes characters relatable.

That’s not to say a fairy-tale fantasy filled with prom dresses and glass slippers isn’t okay. Gritty, bloody, darkness isn’t for everyone and despite what nitpickers say, no author’s world is wrong because it’s theirs to make and love. Medieval castles might be damp and uncomfortable in our history, but they can be sparkling and filled with unicorns someplace else—as long as I can hear the unicorns clip-clopping across the marble floors. At the same time, an understanding of the castle’s workings gives it depth. A bit of “how did they live” research will point out obvious factual pitfalls. If the medieval princess puts on her lace gown and looks in the perfectly clear looking-glass before attending a ball with a violin orchestra, I’ll buy that if I am told why and how that world has industries out of step with our own historical timelines. Do what you like but make it so real to the reader that it doesn’t pull them out of the story. Fill their senses and stir their emotions until their brains stop caring about the improbability of it all.

As a reader, we all want to believe. As an author, it’s our job to make it easy. Put down good roots as you let your imagination explore the stars.

 


Writing Strong Women in Historically-Based Fiction


June 3, 2019  •  No Comments

What do you do when your assassin is supposed to sneak across the rooftops wearing a corset, a bustle, and high heeled boots? Setting stories in historical (or historical-like) settings opens the door to any number of head-scratching issues, and wardrobing is just the start.

Since I’m a history nerd, I want to understand the era I’m drawing from both in terms of events and how people saw the world. The characters who walk through our stories are individuals, but individuals are shaped by the world around them. At the same time, a storyteller needs to find their particular sweet spot between an authentic historical setting and a tale that thrills modern readers. When it comes to creating a strong female protagonist, bridging that gap takes some finesse.

Finding role models for our heroines takes a bit of homework, but it’s possible to find female painters, composers, explorers, scientists, activists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, doctors, and everything else in most time periods. All the same, despite some exceptional examples (Anne Bonney, anyone? Elizabeth Tudor? Joan of Arc?) women in past centuries were frequently banished to a supporting domestic role.

In Western European history—I use this as an example as I’m most familiar with it, but it is far from the only source material available—females were legally under the control of their husband or closest male relative, with little agency of their own. Even worse for the novelist, unmarried women of respectable families were not allowed to be alone with a man who was not a relative—certainly not behind closed doors—and never stirred out of the house without a chaperone. This makes it desperately difficult to have your protagonist spy, sneak, or otherwise get up to mischief. There is a reason widows are common in fiction—it was one circumstance that gave women a degree of freedom. Depending on the marriage contract, a widow might inherit an independent income and property of her own. For the first time in her life, she openly enjoyed a degree of self-determination—but only if she had money. Otherwise, marrying again was better than the alternatives. According to some scholars, during the Georgian era one in five women were in the sex trade just to feed themselves.

Find out what challenges a woman would face in a particular time period and to make good use of those barriers. Showing a heroine navigating constraints builds tension and demonstrates how clever she can be. Whether she outwits Society’s gatekeepers, crushes the opposition, or intentionally blows off convention, pushing back against the world around her will show her character. If there are serious consequences for failure, so much the better for the story.

I’ll add one safety tip: when pitting a protagonist against the conventions of her time, zero in on the exact decade if possible. The definition of socially acceptable behavior changed over time, and sometimes more rapidly than one assumes.  Most associate the nineteenth century with an elderly and unamused queen, but the 1800s stretched from the Napoleonic era with its see-through gowns and ribald Prince Regent through the corseted and moralizing mid-century and onward to those shocking Edwardian suffragettes. The differences are as acute as those between Carolyn Lamb, Charlotte Bronte, and Emmeline Pankhurst. Masked balls went from scandalous affairs to something holiday-makers did for fun. This all makes sense—we have different attitudes than our great-grandparents, after all. We would expect someone looking back on our own century to know the difference between generations, and so would our protagonists.

Once the time period is nailed down, the next question is how faithfully a story will stick to it. A fast-paced adventure will undoubtedly take the heroine out of the drawing room, possibly with a loaded weapon.  How the story world is portrayed is entirely up to the author. If the desire is to paint an environment that grants females more agency than was the historical norm, go for it as long as it makes sense with the rest of the society and culture in the book. If this is historical fantasy, are we talking dragons, dirigibles, or full on wizardry? How action-oriented will our heroine need to be? What are the rules of engagement? Is she alone, or are all the cool girls shooting zombies? These factors become the new normal for the heroine and need to be treated just like every other element of setting and backstory. People are shaped by their environments, their circle of loved ones, and the ideas they’ve absorbed over their lives. No maidenly miss is going to wake up one morning and think, “Yeah, I’m going to go kill people” without a LOT of context. But given the right approach, we’ll believe in her.

A really good example comes from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Brienne of Tarth is a female knight and utterly at odds with her culture’s concept of womanhood. She’s physically capable of combat, trains hard, and walks the talk. But however competent she is, she is ridiculed. Her dream comes at a cost and it’s hard. One reason she works so well as a character because we fully understand what’s expected from her, how she’s departed from that, and what it’s cost her. Although she’s unique, she is entirely consistent with the historical setting Martin has created. As with many of his female characters, Brienne believably checks all the action-adventure boxes, but it’s a bumpy road.

To recap, when writing a heroine who is going against the norms of her historical period, tell us why she’s doing it, what the consequences are, and how she justifies her behavior to herself and others. Most of all, be consistent with her background. If she picks up a steam-powered aether gun, how does she know how to use it? Why does she think it’s okay? Has she done it before and will she do it again?  How does she feel about the episode afterward?  Is she forced to redefine who she is once the adventure begins? Most of all, tell us her story with as much emotional truth as you can. Then stand back and let her shine.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Keep a curious mind


February 17, 2019  •  No Comments

Ever have one of those dreams where you wake up back in high school about to write a math test? You think you should know how to do the problems—and clearly the teacher does—but it’s all a bunch of squiggles on the page?

My first forays into indie publishing felt like that at first. I’d been traditionally published for a lot of years, but did that help me self-publish books? The answer is: some times more than others.

Even late adopters have been forced to respond to the changing face of publishing. Everyone has to be largely self-sufficient when it comes to marketing their work. Even if publishers want to do a good job promoting a book, they may not have the resources, agility, or access to the right tools. These days, it’s up to the author—however their book got published—to attract an audience.

But unless you’ve been taught to market, how do you know what to do? The same goes for formatting, finding covers, hiring editors, and all the myriad steps involved in putting a book out on your own. Remember that dream about an algebra exam?

I had to approach everything with the curiosity of a raw beginner, and I think I’ll keep that mindset for a long time. Wherever an author is along their publishing journey, it’s impossible to know everything because there are so many constantly moving parts. If I have any advice for someone transition from trad publishing to indie, it’s this: Be open, be willing, seek advice, and give yourself permission to push your boundaries. Above all, remember to have fun!


Addictive world-building


February 7, 2019  •  No Comments

I was thinking about what I wanted most in a story. Some like spooky chills, others the heartache of a great romance. For me, it’s the OMG wonder of discovering an amazing world. Prydain. Middle Earth. Westeros. I love a fully-formed fantasy realm I can walk into and find friends waiting for me. I don’t take to most I find—I’m picky and take a while to settle in—but I’m loyal once it’s won me over.

I think part of the problem with finding a truly satisfying realm is that they’re hard to build. It goes far beyond naming kingdoms and drawing maps. There is a terroir that infuses everything so that the reader instinctively knows the smell and texture of each item in the place. Great authors can spin that out of the aether, making it distinct and complex and madly simple all at once. The characters grow from it (or vice versa) so that even the agents of change are the natural extension of the realm’s internal conflicts. It’s all terribly logical and consistent, as if the reader is encountering a history rather than a piece of fiction.

I read these things and think: I wish I’d written that. And somehow, weirdly, feel as if I have because the author has made it so incredibly real it’s become part of me just by looking at the page.

Is that writing or summoning a world?


How to begin a book (or not)


January 16, 2019  •  No Comments

How to begin a book? Book beginnings tend to go two ways with me: either out of the gate like a shot or in a dithery fashion that means I begin chapter one about twenty times, erase it, make it chapter three, erase it, then go back to whatever it was I wrote the first time.

Some people would say that the latter method results from a failure to plot and/or I didn’t understand the story well enough. This might be true. Most of storytelling is a mysterious process and though people throw theories at it, I doubt it will ever become an exact science. The story might be stalled because my tea was the wrong temperature and/or one sock was inside out. More likely is that I used up my allotted number of story beginnings early on in my writing career, since I started ten stories for every one that I finished.

Half the theorists say the story should begin in the regular, everyday world of the protagonist. The other half advocate for a major explosion. One wonders about the protagonist’s propensity for bomb-making.

The best way to connect these dots (at least some of the time) is to consider that there is exterior action (incendiary vampires, or whatever action you are proposing) and interior action (whatever character growth the protagonist will undergo). What we’re looking for to launch the story is conflict. It could be the start of the action plot (kaboom!) or it could be a high point of conflict for the interior plot (or both, if you can make them realistically coincide).

I’ll throw my advice into the mix: If in doubt, start with the interior plot, but make it a big moment. Show the character sweating so we like that person but understand how he or she desperately needs to change.

Examples of a high-conflict interior plot opening could be a fight, the character getting fired, or the character doing something else high-risk. Whatever flaw they have, demonstrate it to the max. This makes a nice bookend with the end of the novel, where you can show them reacting a different way to the same situation. That’s a straightforward demonstration that they aren’t the same person they were at the start.

Chapter one: Billy gets in a bar fight

Chapter thirty-one: Having developed people skills, Billy de-escalates a similar situation.

This is a stupid-simple example, but you get the point. There is a difference between flashy and important. Billy might win NASCAR and that might make up the bulk of the exterior plot, but it’s important on a personal level that he is a functional human being so that he stays out of jail and weds Mary-Lou.

Put another way, remember that HIGH STAKES are important to open the story, but the HIGHEST stakes are those the protagonist carries inside them. If in doubt, start your story there.


Frostbound: The Dark Forgotten coming up

Sharon Ashwood
January 1, 2019  •  No Comments

Last year, my goal was to re-release my Dark Forgotten series (Ravenous, Scorched, Unchained, and Frostbound). I had three purposes in mind:

  • To get the books in the hands of new readers at a sensible price
  • To give myself the chance to revisit the world and build on it if I so choose
  • To get some indie books into the world so that I can build my sales

Check, check and check. I’m just about to release Frostbound, the fourth in the original series, which gets me up to date. I was slow on this one in order to get Gifted out the door in time Frostbound: the Dark Forgottenfor Christmas but, hey, I really wanted to do a holiday-themed novella. I hope you enjoyed it!

Doing an edit pass of these books was educational. I can see improvements from book to book and also how much I’ve learned about writing since. This is completely natural and healthy.  However, at times I’m troubled by errors that got past the previous professional editing team, but I have to let that go. It’s history. Probably much of what’s bugging me are only things I’d notice but, as a professional, I want to put out the best possible product. In any event, the books are better now than before, and that’s what counts.

Case in point—today I added a new final chapter to Frostbound. After a reread, I thought a more fulsome wrap-up would improve it. Poor Talia needed a bit more time to adjust to the new hellhound in her life—not to mention the rest of the pack—and we were all waiting for election results. Now there’s a few more questions answered. Not everything, of course, because Joe and Darak and the rest still have stories in the future.

Release date will be mid January, 2019. For more on this book, look here.

 

 

 


Blood, Sweat and Words Podcast

Sharon Ashwood
November 26, 2018  •  No Comments

I was asked to do a spot on Blood, Sweat and Words, so I chatted about writing about a paranormal Christmas–check it out here.


I am such a geek – social media scheduling software


November 25, 2018  •  No Comments

I like order. One glance at my desk would make you think otherwise, but I geek out on diaries, lists, schedules, planners, and post-it notes. It is no surprise that the Black Friday sale I fell prey to was for social media scheduling software.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest…I suck at them all. It’s not that I don’t like spouting off in public. I just forget, get busy, chase squirrels and a week goes by in radio silence. Hence, I need an internet butler. He keeps things running while madam chases virtual butterflies. I still have to check up on things throughout the day, but my odds of success improve when I get to do the fun bits and the software does the heavy lifting.

We’ll see how this goes. It’s all part of my author business refit, which started with a new website and newsletter platform. Every improvement I’ve made has seemed a little overwhelming at first but ultimately made outreach to readers easier. Here’s hoping this works just as well!

 


A free excerpt from Gifted: the Dark Forgotten

Sharon Ashwood
  •  No Comments

Here’s an early holiday treat for readers: the first chapter of Gifted: the Dark Forgotten.

Gifted is available in KU and paperback, and here is the link that should take you to shopping bliss wherever you are in the world. Happy reading!

Chapter One

 

Good evening, listeners, this is your night hostess and favorite pussycat, Errata Jones, coming to you from CSUP, the radio station that puts the super in supernatural. It’s frosty tonight on the glorious University of Fairview campus with only four more shopping days until Santa Claws stuffs your stockings.

Four days and four nights until the moment of truth? That hardly seems enough time to wallow in all the gift-giving, party-going, eggnog-drinking mayhem, much less to watch all those sentimental holiday specials. But don’t fret, my pets, the Yuletide season is an endurance event, not a sprint. Pace yourselves. There’s still New Year’s Eve to get through.

 

Alessandro Caravelli, vampire, closed the door before the damp December wind chilled him straight through to his bones. There were things he liked about winter—more darkness, less suntan envy—but none of his kind appreciated the cold.

As sheriff of Fairview, he’d been out keeping order among the town’s supernatural citizens. He’d taken the early shift, leaving a contingent of hellhounds to finish out the night. It was almost midnight now, still early enough to enjoy some family time in his largely nocturnal household. Hanging his sword on a hook by the door—it was old school but still the most efficient weapon against things that went bump in the night—he dropped his car keys in the tray on the hall table. A stack of mail waited there—junk, bills, a few seasonal cards. Nobody sent actual letters anymore unless they were—like him—from a time that thought the printing press would never catch on.

Instinctively, he drifted toward the warm, sweetly scented kitchen, mail in hand. There, his partner stood icing festive fangs on a tiny gingerbread bat.

“Hello, sweetheart.” He kissed her, tasting sugar and spice on her lips.

“Hi,” she said, leaning against him. For a moment, they simply drank each other in.

Holly Carver was a witch, part-time student, professional ghost buster, and the center of Alessandro’s universe. She was also, via an exceptional bit of magic he barely understood, the mother of their daughter. Currently, little Robin—wearing flannel pajamas covered with tiny pink werewolves—was wrapped around Holly’s knee like a squid. She was just over a year old and toddling, if lurching from one handhold to another qualified as such. Alessandro dropped the mail on the wooden table in the corner and picked up his child, tucking her into the crook of his arm. Squeaking in delight, Robin grabbed a handful of his hair and gave it a sharp tug.

He sat, shifting to balance Robin on his knee. She had her mother’s green eyes and dimpled smile, not to mention her formidable will. Pulling his daughter close, he rested his chin on top of her soft hair and watched Holly baking. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her elfin features flushed from the heat of the oven behind her. There was a smear of icing on her cheekbone.

It was the perfect domestic scene, despite the strangeness of it—a vampire and a witch playing house in a neighborhood largely populated by supernatural beings. The university town of Fairview had seen more strange things than even conspiracy theorists could dream up.

“How was your evening?” Holly asked, icing the last of the gingerbread bats.

Alessandro made a noncommittal noise. Having remained still for exactly two seconds, Robin was squirming again. He tried to straighten the bow in her wispy blond hair, which seemed to delight her. No sooner had he tied the ribbon than she pulled it free again. It was becoming a fabulous game—at least to her—and he was reconsidering the ethics of hypnotizing his own child into a submissive trance.

“I ran into Ashe today,” Holly said, picking up the conversational burden. “She was asking whether we’d heard from Darak or his friends.”

“Should I be nervous when your vampire-slaying sister asks after a pack of rogue vampires?” he asked dryly.

“I don’t know. I think they had a few things in common.” She shuffled the cookie trays, turning her attention to the next decorating job. There were freshly baked ghosts and broomsticks and little werewolves in mid-howl. She began putting tiny silver balls at the tip of each of the wolves’ Santa hats.

“They are both members of Homicidal Mercenaries Anonymous?”

Holly gave him a withering look. “Ashe is retired.”

“And I’m a vegetarian.”

Alessandro gave up on tidying his child and retrieved the stack of mail. He shuffled through it, pausing when he got to a large red envelope labeled in an elegant script. When he tore it open, he expected a fancy Christmas card. Instead, he found a formal invitation edged in gold and green. “Joe’s throwing a Christmas Eve party at his hotel and we’re on the guest list.”

He held up the invitation to show Holly, just out of reach of Robin’s grasping hands.

Holly pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I knew he was up to something.”

Before he could ask how she knew, his phone buzzed, making Robin giggle. He pulled the device from his pocket and accepted the call without pausing to see who it was.

“Caravelli,” he said in his stern sheriff voice.

“It’s Perry,” said the caller.

Perry Baker was the son of the local Alpha werewolf. Pack Silvertail was filled with strong males, but Perry was the smart one. He taught computer science and knew his way around most spell books, which amounted to more or less the same thing in Alessandro’s mind. “What’s up?” he asked.

“You know how I volunteer to drive the bus for Aunt Margaret’s seniors’ home?” It was a casual question, but there was strain in the young werewolf’s voice.

In the background, Alessandro could hear a crash, shouts, and someone swearing. Over it all, Christmas carols warbled from a sound system. “Where are you? It sounds like a bikers’ holiday party.”

“I’m at the community center. I drove the Silvertail seniors out here for bingo night and some eggnog,” Perry said. “Unfortunately, things went sideways. I think we have your kind of problem.”

Which meant supernatural trouble. Alessandro rose from his chair, setting Robin down once more. Holly shot him a questioning glance, so he put the phone on speaker. “Go on.”

“I’m not sure, but I think it might be a minor demon. Or a possessed cartoon unicorn. One that really hates Christmas.”

“Say that again?”

“Don’t ask. Just come.”

By now, Alessandro was in the front hall. He put on his coat and retrieved his sword from the wall. Holly had followed, scooping Robin up on the way and setting the toddler on her hip.

“Do you need my help, too?” Holly asked the werewolf on the phone.

“I think I can take care of this one,” Perry said. “Besides, I know babysitters are hard to find at this hour. I just need someone to get these people out of here, so I can banish this thing.”

“Do you need supplies?” Holly asked. Worry flooded her expression.

“The center has an emergency kit with some basics, but I could use henbane and St. John’s wort. I’ve been consulting with Grandma Carver.”

A picture of Holly’s grandmother, feisty but frail enough to need two canes, made Alessandro grip the phone hard enough the plastic creaked. “She’s there?” he asked.

“Yup.”

Holly stifled a groan, meeting his eyes. Of course the old witch—the term meant literally—would be at bingo night. The community center was only a block over from her apartment building, and Grandma liked to gamble.

“I’ll be right there.” Alessandro ended the call.

Holly went in search of the herbs Perry needed, working one-handed because Robin fussed every time her mom tried to set her down. “I should be there,” Holly said with a frown. “Perry’s good at what he does, but I have the most experience with demons.”

“Let me check out the situation,” Alessandro said. “Once the site is clear of civilians, you and I can always trade places if Perry can’t handle it.”

Holly nodded. She cuddled Robin, whose heavy eyelids were drooping. “Call me as soon as you can. I need to know you’re okay. Grandma, too.”

He smiled then, amused and still amazed that someone cared if he came home. He was the luckiest vampire on the planet, and he never took that for granted. He kissed Holly hard, his daughter gently, and left the house at a run.

His Thunderbird sat at the curb, a 1960s red two-door with custom chrome and smoked windows. It got him to the center in ten minutes. Alessandro parked behind a converted school bus with the logo of Pack Silvertail’s retirement home stenciled on the side. He got out of the car, retrieved his sword from the trunk, and paused to take stock of the scene before he ventured inside.

The community center was a single-story building made from sand-colored brick that looked gray in the dark. It housed a gymnasium, several recreation rooms, a small theater, and a cafeteria that faced the busy street. Both humans and non-humans used the facility, but only the nocturnal clients would be out this late. Christmas lights glowed along the roofline, reflecting in the puddles of rainwater on the street.

Although the cafeteria was dark, the lights were on in the activity room to the right of the front door, turning the foil banner across the window that said “Happy Holidays” into a wavering silhouette. His vampire hearing caught the carols piping through the building’s PA system. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” floated in an otherwise-silent night. For an instant, he wondered if the crisis had resolved.

Then a metal chair flew through the window, spilling glass, light, and screams into the street. The chair bounced, soaring several yards into the air before crashing to the ground and skidding across the road. Bolting toward the center, he sprang up the steps and yanked open the door—only to recoil. The stink of a moldering grave rolled over him, mixed with the cloying sweetness of cakes and candy. He bared his teeth and slid inside, his footfalls silent.

The double doors to the activity room stood open to his right. Alessandro stopped to one side of the entrance, pressed close to the wall, and then peered inside. He’d learned long ago not to leap into a danger zone without looking first, even though he itched to barge in, sword flashing.

His first glimpse was of rows of folding tables with stacking chairs lined up behind them. A few of the tables had toppled over. Bingo cards and daubers littered the floor. At the front of the room, a machine tumbled balls inside a glass globe, but the caller was cowering on the floor, arms folded over his balding head. Alessandro recognized him as an employee of the center, but couldn’t remember his name. No one was speaking—the babble he’d heard over the phone was gone. Even the screams audible from the street had fallen silent.

The Silvertail seniors huddled at the far end next to an artificial tree, Perry’s aunt Margaret guarding them like the Alpha she’d once been. Most were the wolves who had come on the bus—easy to spot since a few were furrier than normal, no doubt due to stress. There were also a handful of hellhounds, a scowling demi-fae, and a few elderly witches. He searched until he found Holly’s grandmother. He’d known Hazel Carver since she’d been Holly’s age, and needed her to be safe. He finally found her at the edge of the group, and she seemed unhurt. A knot inside him released.

But where was the enemy? An eerie stillness froze the scene like the tableau inside a snow globe, silent except for the bland music. He scanned again, this time noticing a table with coffee and cookies along the far wall, the treats as yet untouched. And then the metal coffee urn began to shudder and float upward, the cord straining a moment before it pulled free of the wall plug. A spatter of coffee slopped onto the floor as it rose. Alessandro slipped inside the doorway to watch as it drifted to the ceiling like an iron filing to a magnet.

And there, circling around the overhead light fixture, was a cloud of rainbow mist. It swirled like a miniature cyclone, swatches of pink, blue, and mauve sparkling like a toy from Robin’s closet. Around the edges of the cloud, slime trickled down the walls, leaving streaks of glitter on the worn industrial paint. He suddenly understood Perry’s reference to unicorns, but the playfulness of the entity ended there. This was the source of the unholy stink, and the coffee urn wasn’t the only metal object caught in its spinning current. Two more stacking chairs and a floor lamp spun around the ceiling as well, whirling so fast he could barely see them. The sight explained the chair that had broken the window—it had probably spun out of control like a crazy comet.

Time for action. Perry was nowhere in sight, but Alessandro wasn’t about to wait any longer. He got two strides into the room before he sensed the entity take notice of him. It was like a brush of cold fingers as foul as its stink—as if something had reached from Alessandro’s own abandoned grave to drag him back. He spun with a snarl, baring fangs, but there was no face, no form to confront.

All the same, the thing hurled the coffee urn. Alessandro ducked, his reflexes saving him. The urn smashed against the wall, punching a hole in the drywall and spraying scalding coffee throughout the room. The man on the floor howled in pain.

“Get up,” Alessandro ordered.

“I can’t,” the man replied, his voice ragged with terror.

Wasting no more words, Alessandro grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet, half-tossing him toward the relative safety of the others. Then he drew his sword, not because it would do him any good against whatever this was, but because it showed he meant business.

“What do you want?” he demanded of the mass of stinking sparkles.

“A white Christmas,” it rasped with the withered whisper of the dead.