With fear and trepidation, I present the first part of the short story series. First of how many? That depends on you. I’ll go based on feedback and submissions – and not just on the number of them, but also how the plot works out. I foresee a lot of changes based on what I get back.
I’m more excited to see what you decide to bring to the table in response. Can’t wait to read it!
For the basic plot idea: click here. Quick run-down of how this works:
Have a blog and want to post it there? Email me the link and I’ll post it here.
Don’t have a blog and want the whole story posted here? Email submissions to theravens.quill (at) gmail (dot) com
Any genre, any word count, just give me a head’s up if mom would blush.
Please note: Some strong language is used
Alexis kicked an empty soup canalong the street. Her hands were shoved deep in the pockets of her grey jacket,hood pulled up against the rain. The jacket had once been green, faded over yearsof too much use. It had been hers since she was ten, and even then it hadn’tbeen new – a hand-me-down from her big brother Jake. Back then, the sleeves hadfallen well past her fingertips; at least now she could say it almost fit.
“C’mon, Jake, will you just tellme where we’re going?”
“Shut up, loser, we’re not goinganywhere,” he replied over his shoulder. A friendly wink took the sting out ofhis words and he fell back to throw an arm around her. “Why? Have somewhere yougotta be? Saying you don’t just want to spend the day with me?”
“I spend every day with you,loser,” Alexis replied in the same vein, letting a rare smile shine through thegrime on her face. “S’why I know you’re planning something. We never go thisway.”
They couldn’t afford anything thisway. The commercial area of the city had become more of a wasteland thananything else over the last few years. Dilapidated signage, broken windows,glass-strewn streets – that’s pretty much all you’d find around here now.
Jake bumped against her andjerked his head towards one of the three shops still open along the street – asecond hand clothing store, a second hand furniture store…and the grocer.
Alexis’s stomach grumbled at thesight of it. How long had it been since she’d eaten? Last night? No, yesterdaymorning. A sandwich of stale bread and slightly off lunch meat. It hadn’t donemuch to satisfy her then and now she felt it even more.
He leaned in close to her ear,his breath warm on her cheek. “What do you say, little sister? Feel likesomething more than wormy apples for dinner tonight?”
His meaning sunk in and her browfurrowed. They’d done it before: she’d go in and chat up the chubby grocerbehind the counter while Jake went through and picked up the small items theyneeded. That was before, though, when there were still enough grocery shopsthat they could make the tour, never hitting the same place twice in a week.With only one left around here…and they’d just come last week…
“I dunno, Jake. This guy doesn’tseem as stupid as the others,” Alexis hesitated.
“You going to make me go in on myown?” he pushed, the teasing in his tone only slightly louder than theguilt-trip he was trying to pull. “You know I’m useless by myself.”
Her stomach grumbled again,conscience and hunger warring inside of her. As usual, her stomach won.
“Fine, but go for the boxedstuff, all right? He’s less likely to care about that then the fresh food.”
“Deal,” Jake grinned and tookpulled her ahead.
The streets were crowded withpeople rushing to get out of the rain. Not that many of them had anywhere togo. Doorways were crowded with people who called the streets their home, andthose with actual homes to go to hurried into shops to stare longingly at thefood they could barely afford.
Alexis and Jake pushed throughthem all, Alexis feeling like a salmon swimming against the tide. In this city,she always felt she was going the wrong way in a crowd, pushing against insteadof going with the flow of the world.
Outside the door, Jake zipped hisjacket over his ragged t-shirt to appear more like he belonged in the store andAlexis mimicked him, running her fingers through her shoulder-length blondewaves and pulling it back into a ponytail. For a moment she was grateful forthe rain; it washed some of the scum from her cheeks and made her hair lookless like a grease-pool. How long had it been since she’d showered?
The door pushed open with acheerful jingle, a complete contradiction to the glower of the shopkeeperbehind the counter. Alexis put on her brightest smile and approached him. Jakefollowed behind her.
“Good morning,” she greeted.
The man – Chuck, his nametag read– grunted and responded to her smile with a sullen nod, eyes narrowed. Everytime he was like this and it made Alexis’s stomach tighten. We won’t make it, not this time. He knowswhat we’re doing. But so far they had been lucky. She had to believe theirluck would hold one more time.
“Crazy weather we’re having,huh?” she started, making sure to stand right in Chuck’s line of sight. “You’dthink it was August or something with all this rain, not February. Where’s thesnow?”
It was mindless babble, butweather was a good place to start. Usually. Today, Chuck just grunted. “Eitherway all it does is drive people into my store who can’t pay for anything,” hespat, eyes fixed on the mirror in the corner, angled to see the whole shop.Alexis was familiar enough with the place to know there was a blind spot nearthe granola bars in the back, right where Jake was headed. She knew when hedisappeared from view because Chuck’s gaze moved back to her and she breathed asmall sigh of relief. Now time to focus his interest.
“Have anything new come in thisweek? And, you know, cheap?”
He snorted. “Cheap? No. Got someapples come in, forty bucks a pound.”
Alexis let out a loud breath.That was double what she remembered her parents paying as a kid. “That’s a bitout of my price range. What about tomatoes?” They were local and sometimes shewas lucky.
The bell at the door chimed againas someone else came in and Chuck’s eyes jumped to the door. Out of habit Alexisturned to glance over her shoulder and her heart raced to see two uniformedofficers – one tall and skinny, the other short and fat, just like a badnursery rhyme – strutting in towards the fresh fruit section. One of themhitched up his belt, weapon obvious in the holster at his hip. She worked tokeep her face free of the terror inside of her, not wanting to show Chuck thatthe cops made her nervous.
“Not for a month,” the shopkeeperanswered, returning his focus back to the tomatoes.
By now Jake should have grabbedwhatever he was going for and another level of tension eased in Alexis’s chest.
She gave a disappointed shrug. “Iguess that’s it for me this week then. You think you could keep some tomatoesaside for me next time they come in? I think I could pay for one.”
But Chuck was not one forsympathetic pleas. He crossed his arms over his chest. “You come in whenthere’s food, you can pay, you get it. I’m not saving anything for maybes.”
Alexis opened her mouth, whether tothank him or curse him she couldn’t be sure, but Chuck cut her off with a loudyell.
“You! Stop! Thief!” He pointedover Alexis’s shoulder and she whipped around to see Jake drop the fruit in hishands and run towards the door.
“Alexis, run!” he shouted at her,but her feet were glued to the ground. “Run!”he repeated, and this time his urgency moved her to action. He reached the doorbefore she did and the first gunshot fired, the second a moment later. Thejingle of the bell was lost in the ringing of Alexis’s ears. She screamed asJake crumpled to a heap in the doorway, bits of brain and hair sticking to theglass of the door, a second pool of blood spread out beneath the second hole inhis chest.
Her brother’s blank eyes staredahead, met hers and as if from his ghost as he left the world, she heard himagain in her head. Run.
So she did. She jumped overJake’s body, shoved through the half-open door, blood from the glass smearedacross her palms, and began to run. But just like before the crowds were movingagainst her, pushing her backwards into the waiting hands of the cops, whograbbed her wrists and wrestled her arms behind her back, snapping the cuffs onso tightly in pinched.
“Only thing worse than a good kidturned thief is a pretty one like you,” one of the men hissed in her ear – thefat one, Alexis guessed by the smell of bacon on his breath. His wordssuggested sympathy, but the way his nose brushed against her hair as he inhaledher scent made Alexis gag.
Her eyes scanned the crowds forsomeone who would help her, but it was like she wasn’t there. Everyone’s eyesfocused blankly ahead, or on the ground. No one wanted to notice one moreinjustice they couldn’t fix. Their emptiness filled Alexis with bitter fury andshe lashed out, struggling to get away from the strong grip on her arms. Jakewas dead – these bastards had killed him, and now they put their hands on her?
She kicked and pulled, struggledand screamed, but the tall one only laughed at her efforts and landed a blowacross her cheek so hard she saw stars.
“That’s enough of that,” he said,perfectly shaped nail poking in her face. “You come along quietly or you end uplike your friend over there. Those are your options. I’ll give you five secondsto consider them.”
Alexis wanted to spit in his eye.She wanted to reach her knee high enough to get the pig right in the jewels…butshe was starving. Her anger grew, but her rebellion died and she glared murderat his boots.
Tears stung her eyes and she bitdown on her tongue so hard she tasted blood. Jake was dead. It meant she wasalone, but it also meant he didn’t have to live in this festering shithole of acity anymore. She would be happy for him for that. Even if she had to bite mostof her tongue off to stop the tears from falling.
“Good girl,” the tall oneapproved, and squeezed her skinny arm tight enough to leave bruises. Alexisdragged her feet between them as they pulled her along the street.
“Get out of my way!” a shoutreached them from ahead.
“How about you look where you’regoing, asshole. Move!” came the angry reply.
The street congested with agrowing cluster of oglers as the fight started and the cops exchanged a glanceover Alexis’s head. The fat one let go of her to push through the crowd.
“All right, all right, let’sbreak this up, huh?” he called, grabbing one man by his collar to pull him outof the way.
The curses and shouting betweenthe two people grappling on the road got louder as the fat cop reached them andgrabbed one of them by the hair. In an instant chaos broke out as both fightersturned on the cop and started yelling and kicking him. Alexis wanted to cheerthem on.
“Frank, help!” the fat cop yelledto the tall one. Frank maintained his hold on Alexis and began to move towardshis partner.
Somewhere in the mass of crowd, somethinggrabbed Alexis’s hand. She turned behind her to see a boy about ten give her awink and smile, and nod for her to follow him. It didn’t take much to escapeFrank with his focus so scattered, and in a moment she was running with the boyaway from the crowds down the length of the deserted street. He took a hardleft into an alleyway and only there did he stop to let Alexis catch herbreath.
The boy disappeared behind herand a moment later she heard a click and her hands were free. She rubbed her wriststo get the numbness out of her fingers.
“Thank you,” she said.
The boy shrugged, as if he hadn’tjust done something like save her life. His mop of brown hair fell into hiseyes and covered the splash of freckles that covered his pasty skin. “We sawyou needed help. Someone has to stand up to those coppers, right?” hesqueaked.
“We?” Alexis asked.
The boy’s smile widened, showingtwo missing teeth, and he glanced back towards the crowd. Alexis followed hisgaze, her own eyes widening in understanding.
“Mosh and Bull,” he said. “That’stheir thing.”
It took her a moment to realisehe was referring to people. “Mosh? Bull? Strange names.” The boy shruggedagain. “What’s your name?”
“Pipsqueak,” he answered. “Whoare you?”
“Alexis,” she replied, andwatched as Pipsqueak shook his head in disapproval. Maybe he thought her namewas too boring.
“Squeak? You down here?” afamiliar voice hissed from the edge of the alley. Pipsqueak let out a strangemouse-like call and a hulking shadow moved into the light. Alexis leaned closeragainst the wall, suddenly feeling that coming into an alley with a stranger,even a child, hadn’t been the wisest idea. She wished Jake was with her. Hewould know what to do.
Her chest tightened and onceagain she shoved her tongue between her teeth.
“You get her?” another voiceasked.
“You got eyes, don’t ya?”Pipsqueak answered, climbing up on boxes of garbage and sitting down on top,letting his feet dangling over. “She says her name’s Alexis.”
“Strange name,” the smaller ofthe two – and not by much – replied. Black hair dripped with rainwater andblood ran from his nose, his t-shirt torn across the chest, yet an impish smilewas on his face with no hint of discomfort or anger at his recent fight.“Mosh,” he said, using his arm to wipe his face.
“Bull,” said the other massiveboy. These two looked to be around Alexis’s age, but easily twice her size. Forbeing the larger of the two, Bull didn’t seem to have done much better in theirskirmish. His left eye was already nearly swollen shut.
“Are you guys all right?” sheasked, concerned.
Pipsqueak joined the other two ina laugh at her expense and Mosh clapped a hand on her shoulder that nearlybrought her to her knees.
“Sweet of you to worry, but we’vegot this covered,” he said. “Glad we could help. Try to stay out of trouble,all right? These cops, they have no mercy.”
Bull nodded his bald head, eyes grim. “Damnright. Think they own this place now. Forget there are still more of us than ofthem.” His expression softened. “I’m sorry about the guy you were with.”
“My brother,” Alexis said. “I’llbe fine.”
Jake would have been proud tohear the strength in her voice. He had trained her pretty well in what sheneeded to do to survive. She would beall right on her own.
“We’d better get going,”Pipsqueak said to Mosh and Bull. “Jack’ll be angry enough about what happened.”
Mosh groaned, lips twisted into agrimace. “Probably right. Better go and face the ringleader before his brainexplodes.”
Alexis blanched and Mosh’s eyeswidened. “Sorry,” he said. Alexis waved him away.
The three boys all gave her a nodas they walked past her, heading towards the opposite end of the alley – whatappeared to be a dead end. She watched them, trying not to think about what shewas going to do next.
Mosh, the first of them to reachthe end, paused and turned back around. “You have someplace to go?” he calledto her.
Alexis wanted to say yes, to notseem pathetic and helpless. But the truth was she really didn’t. She shook herhead.
“Better come with us then,” hesaid. Pipsqueak’s jaw dropped and he looked from Mosh to Alexis to Bull. Bull gruntedhis agreement and pushed against the wall until something moved and hedisappeared into it.
“Jack’s going to kill you,”Pipsqueak muttered.
Mosh shrugged. “He’s welcome totry. Worst that can happen is he kills her, but he’d at least make it quick.”
Alexis stared back at him,considering. He was right, a quick death by Jack would be better than a slowdeath by starvation, or rape and torture by Frank and his fat friend. So shefollowed them to the end of the alley.
Mosh stood by to let her go firstand Alexis stepped through what turned out to be a makeshift doorway in thebrick. Bull stood on the other side, waiting for them to pass and go down thecrate-and-stone steps to the cement floor below so he could seal it shut again.For the second time Alexis wondered if she had made the wrong decision. Sure,these guys seemed normal and helpful,but where the hell were they taking her? Secret passageways behind buildings?Bricked up doorways?
Bull pulled the heavy door backinto place and the cramped space was thrown into darkness. Unable to see,Alexis’s heart rate sped up again and her palms grew sweaty, feeling like shewanted to claw her way out of the nothingness. There was a click and lightreturned to the world as first Bull and then Mosh flicked on their lighters.Bull led the way, followed by Pipsqueak. Mosh gestured for Alexis to go nextand he followed behind her.
“It took about ten years to buildthis place,” Mosh explained, reading her thoughts. “We’ve got exits all overthis city.”
“Go ahead and tell her all oursecrets why don’t you?” Pipsqueak snorted.
“Hey, little man, you volunteeredto help with his. Keep your yap shut and don’t play the innocent bystander, allright?”
“If you guys don’t want me here,I’m happy to go,” Alexis snapped, tired of them fighting over her. She was usedto not being wanted, but they didn’t have to rub it in her face.
“Ignore Squeak,” Mosh answered,eyes narrowed at the smaller boy. “He’s just afraid of getting spanked byJack.”
“Who is Jack?” By what she’d heard of him so far, he sounded like agrumpy parent.
“The Jack of all Trades. He leadsthe way around here. Picks us, trains us, sends us out on errands.”
“You don’t like him?” It was asafe guess, based on Pipsqueak’s fear of Jack’s reaction to her being there.
“Are you kidding?” Mosh grinned.“We’d be nowhere without him. Don’t let Squeak’s cowardice fool you. Jack canbe scary, but he only wants to protect us. Our secret is what keeps us safe.”
Alexis tried to keep track of themaze they were in as they walked, but after the fourth left-then-right, shegave up and accepted that she’d probably never see the sky again.
Another right turn and the tunnelopened up to a larger, more cavernous corridor. The flicker of lighter fireglinted off metal below and Bull grabbed the back of Alexis’ jacket as shenearly stepped over the edge of a five-foot drop. Her hand flew to her chest tostop her heart from bursting through her ribs.
“Subway tunnels,” he explained,nodding to the abandoned tracks, and she backed away from the fall.
“Thanks,” she gasped, and he,too, only shrugged in reply.
The squeak and scurry of ratsmade Alexis cringe. The transit system had shut down before Alexis was born,most of the tunnels and street accesses sealed. Large signs were posted outsideof old depots warning people to keep out of the tunnels, warning that they weremonitored 24/7. Clearly, that was a lie.
As they wandered farther down thetunnels, Alexis was able to see the domed ceiling more clearly, and echoesother than the sound of their boots on the pavement reached them. Voices.
Mosh and Bull extinguished theirlighters and let the light of larger fires lead them around the next bend towhat was nothing less than a little city. Tents, blankets and campfiresscattered the area, forts built out of crates, rope, and plywood balanced onstairs into bunk towers for more people to find places to sleep.
Alexis gaped and she shiftedcloser to Mosh, staring in wonder.
“What is this place?” shewhispered.
Mosh grinned. “This is home. Itold you: Jack finds us, he trains us, he keeps us safe. This is where it allhappens.”
“Trains you to do what exactly?”Alexis asked, her mouth watering at the smell of meat cooking over a fire. Hergaze fell on some sort of browned and crispy bird. Her stomach grumbled.
“Who’s the chickie?” demanded agirl no more than fourteen on the other side of the fire. She was tending toher dinner with lemon and the tanginess added to the flavours already buildingin Alexis’s mouth.
“Name’s Alexis,” Pipsqueakanswered, sitting down next to her and making a grab for a leg. “Brother justgot shot by the coppers topside.”
Alexis focused on the turningbird. She felt Mosh brace, as if prepared for her to attack, but as far as shewas concerned, they hadn’t said anything. Her tongue started bleeding again.
“Huh,” the girl replied, swattingPipsqueak’s hand away. That was the end to her reaction of the boy’s news.“Bring me the spices I asked you for, Squeak? If you did, you can share.”
Pipsqueak gave his gap-toothedgrin and pulled a plastic bottle from his pocket. “Swiped it before the fight.I want a wing.”
“And a leg for Alexis,” Mosh spokeup, hearing Alexis’s stomach.
The girl’s eyebrow twitched.“What’s she done to deserve it?” she asked. “I never seen her hunt.”
“And if Jack had said the samething when you first got here? Where’d you be, Fly?”
She grunted, her brow twisted.“Whatever.”
“This is Firefly,” Moshintroduced as he pulled a leg off and handed it to Alexis. She brought thegreasy flesh to her lips and sank her teeth in glory. When had she last had freshmeat? Months? She moaned in pleasure as she chewed.
“Nice to meet you,” she saidafter swallowing. “You’re an amazing cook.”
Firefly’s eyes narrowed, butAlexis caught a glint of pride within them. “Damn right I am,” the girlreplied, minus a bit of the hostility. “Jack lets you stay here, you bring mestuff to cook with, you get free share – same deal I got with Squeak.”
Alexis nodded her understanding.
“If Jack lets you stay,” she repeated, amused. Her eyes jumped toMosh. “Word’s out.”
“Of course it is,” Mosh sighed.“People here got big mouths.”
“Bring us food, at least thenthose mouths’d be full,” Firefly pointed out.
Mosh turned to Alexis who by nowwas ripping the last of the meat off the bone. “Come on. It’ll be worse if hethinks we’re avoiding him.”
Alexis thanked Firefly again,received another shrug, and then she and Mosh headed off, Bull staying behindwith Pipsqueak and Firefly.
They hadn’t gone far when anothervoice stopped them.
“So it’s true. Mosh, when are yougoing to learn to stop bringing home strays?”
If the smell of cooking dinnerhad made her mouth water, this man’s voice turned her legs to butter. A heavyScots accent rumbled through lips surrounded by unshaved bristles. Auburn hairswept low over his forehead and blue eyes sparked in fun. His arms were crossedover his chest and he leaned against the wall, one leg propped up behind him.
“Tell them to stop being so cuteand I would. But come on, look at her.”
Alexis’s face flushed under thenew guy’s closer attention, but she stared back, shoulders squared. He wasolder than she was by a few years. Probably a bit older than Jake, too – earlytwenties at least.
“You Jack?” she asked, thinkingit likely based on his reaction. She was startled when he let out a guffaw andpushed himself off of the wall.
“Me? You must be joking, lass.I’m not a hard-assed demon like Jack.”
“This is Maverick,” Moshintroduced. “He’s second in command around here.”
“Aye, that’s about it,” Maverickagreed. “And who are you?”
“Alexis,” she said.
His eyes narrowed. “That’s a goodname for a hardened lass, but you don’t strike me as the type. You’re thedamsel in distress and no mistake – blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. I wouldn’tworry about Jack throwing you to the hounds. He’ll find good use for you roundhere.” He matched the new glare on her face with a grin. “You two follow me,and I’ll give you the tour before I take you to Jack. More to learn about thisplace than you’ll ever have time for, but this’ll teach you what you need toknow.”
He gestured grandly to the widestaircase going up to the higher level. “Well, Damsel, welcome to the Shadows.”