Stone Belly

2024 Writing Award Sub-Category
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
The introverted keeper of an ancient buried city hires a gruff hunter and his young apprentice to recover a rare metal able to grant the spark of life, which will safeguard her home and its forbidden secrets.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

“What’s the strongest drink I can buy for a quarter ounce of Redmetal?”

Tomas glanced up from his glass of whiskey. A woman with far too many gray hairs to match her smooth, tawny skin leaned over the bar beside him. Strands of tousled curls stuck to her reddened face, layered with the ochre dust from the plains.

The bartender was appraising her too, probably to ascertain how much Metal he could ask for. The woman’s grit-caked clothes showed signs of wear and her rifle needed maintenance, clay crusting the crevasses. She should know better than to neglect something that could save her life.

“A quarter ounce of Red won’t get you much beyond a shot of rail grain,” the bartender said, swiping the already dry counter with a damp rag.

The woman sat down with a sigh, glancing at Tomas and adjusting her rifle. Everyone carried them, few took them off, so she probably questioned why Tomas didn’t have one. After reaching into a cracked satchel, the woman pulled out a long bar of Redmetal and, with the practiced eye, flicked open her pocket knife to slice off just enough.

At the sight of a whole bar of Redmetal, the bartender’s eyes widened. Had she no sense? Flashing your currency could get you killed.

Tomas shifted, eyeing the patrons behind them at scrapped tables. No one had glanced up, but that didn’t mean they had not noticed. The saloon walls, decorated with bright neon signs, splashed acid green and fuchsia light on the chairs cobbled from rusted spokes and handcrafted oak.

“You sure I can’t get you a water to go with your drink?” the bartender asked the woman. “I could fill your canteen. Awfully dry out there on the plains. I only charge a half ounce of Greenmetal.”

Tomas’s lips twisted. Greedy bastard.

The woman looked like she was considering it. Greenmetal was far more valuable, so the man was probably expecting to barter for a nice hunk of Red in exchange.

Tomas’s hand tightened around his glass. It wasn’t his business; he shouldn’t intervene. But as the woman reached for her canteen, his arm moved on its own, staying her hand. “Allow me.”

Tomas pulled off one of his thick leather gloves and took the canteen, skin tingling as he reached for the moisture in the air, building with the approaching storm outside.

Tightening his jaw, Tomas pressed the Bluemetal caps of his molars together. A shock charged from his teeth down his spine as he closed the circuit of energy running through his body.

The tin-plated canteen grew heavier in his hand.

He handed it back to the woman and tipped his wide-brimmed hat. “Condensed moisture isn’t the best flavor, but at least it’s free.”

As she accepted the canteen, her eyes grew wide, filling with recognition. Tomas’s stomach dropped. This could go one of two ways. Either way, it was time to go. Tomas shoved his stool back, throwing a pre-cut Greenmetal chunk on the counter that would more than pay for his whiskey. He was supposed to be taking time off for his mental health.

“Wait,” she rasped. She didn’t look afraid, which meant she wanted something more now that she knew what he was. He could see it in her eyes.

The way she scanned his long leather coat, cracking near his calves, and traced the bandana and goggles hanging from his neck. His lack of rifle probably confirmed her suspicion, though that wasn’t entirely by choice.

“You’re a Weather Watcher,” she said.

He bowed his head. It wasn’t like he could deny it.

Her rigid posture melted, alcohol forgotten on the counter as she gripped the edge of the bar. “Please. It’s my daughter, Norah. She’s only fifteen. Went out to pay respects to her father’s grave and hasn’t returned in days.”

Tomas swallowed; missing kids were his least favorite. “I’m sorry about that. Have you reported it to the constable?”

That wavering lip of hers said ‘yes’ before she did. And as the saloon was conveniently situated beside the law office, it must have just happened. The constable was a coward, so if he refused to help, then it must mean that damn rusk-wolf matriarch was involved. The Terror of the Flats, the reward poster called it. That hulking mass of muscle and coarse, spiked fur was the very reason Tomas was taking a sabbatical. Rusk wolves were normally skittish around humans, but this matriarch and her growing brood were different, having acquired a taste for the blood of Tomas’s kin.

Tomas leaned on the counter and grabbed his empty glass, shaking it at the barkeep. Might as well have another. Couldn’t even last one day on sabbatical. “Where did the girl go missing?”


Tomas stood on the arid clay flats he called home, breathing in the crackling spice of an electrical storm. It was close, though the gray sky above was still a shade lighter than pewter. This flash storm would hit fast and pass quickly. Nestled within the galvanized air was the hint of a floral fragrance, unnatural beside the Forbidden Mountains.

No flowers grew here.

That scent matched the handkerchief Norah’s mother had given him. The girl must be nearby, but he still hadn’t caught a whiff of blood. Perhaps she was still alive. No. Best not to hope for that, but he should make haste, just in case. He tucked Norah’s handkerchief back in his pocket. Her mother had wrapped it around a bar of Redmetal as payment. She tried to give him three bars, but that was too much for a corpse retrieval.

Tomas knew he should have told the mother there was no hope. That she didn’t want to see what became of her little girl. Parents always told him not knowing was worse. Until he handed them the gnawed bones of their children. Until they screamed their throats raw, cursing him for being too late.

As if he didn’t already curse himself.

Tremors crawled up his arm, and he squeezed his fingers into a fist, ignoring how empty his hands felt without his rifle. The joints in his hand popped, but nothing could ease that pressure for good. Seeing the beast dead would at least give him some peace. He could hope for that. Hope that this rusk-wolf hadn’t moved on again before he reached her latest den. This one might push him over the edge.

Each time he stood alone in an abandoned den, the torn remains of a child at his feet, he wouldn’t sleep for weeks after. It was hard enough working solo without the nightmare-inducing images and crippling failures; Weather Watchers usually worked in pairs. But after the last one cheated him out of his earnings for months, Tomas wasn’t in a rush to look for a new one.

He stooped to study faint tracks in the cracked clay. Boot treads encircled the crude drawing of a girl following a canine companion; a canine that looked friendlier than Tomas knew it to be in reality. Norah probably stumbled across the matriarch on her way to visit her father’s grave.

He touched the lines—too deep to be drawn with a finger. Norah must have used a scrap of metal from the steely carcasses strewn across the plain—a metal boneyard from a time long past.

As the wind kicked up, Tomas hunkered against one of the rusted skeleton vehicles, the outer shell torn off by scavengers. He raised the bandana around his neck to cover the lower half of his face and focused on the mountain stabbing through steely clouds.

He found more drawings scrawled in the ground as he broke into a jog, boots pounding grit beneath to the cadence of his heart. The floral scent grew stronger as the mountain ahead grew larger, yet the distance seemed to lengthen. A wail warbled across the plain. Or was that his imagination?

His back was naked without his rifle, but the constable made it clear Tomas’s ‘mental health break’ was non-negotiable. The constable had hung The Terror of the Flats reward posters in a passive-aggressive response to Tomas’s demands he do something about the missing children. All that did was provide the rusk wolf with more meals and cause Tomas to storm into the law office, raging.

Tomas pulled down his thick-rimmed goggles as the rising winds luffed his leather duster against his calves. Dust capered in small twirls and buffered against him in waves, dredging up debris. The storm was imminent. Clenching his molars together, he activated his Bluemetal and directed the debris to blow around him. Despite his best efforts to be realistic, he still experienced a glimmer of hope when he heard a second wail.

If that was Norah, she was still alive.

Shadows shifted below the cliff ahead, but this close to the Forbidden Mountains, it was hard to decipher details. Sight wasn’t the most reliable sense here. The mist emitting from the towering peaks leaked down and spilled onto the clay flats—glimmering like golden flecks of pyrite. Many people believed it was where the souls of loved ones congregated. But if those mists held spirits, they were far more malevolent.

The air currents carried more than just scents now; a panting both desperate and hungry puffed in his ears. Tomas cast another glance at the sky and the tumult of clouds gilded with silver light, ready to release their pent up energy. The panting continued to strengthen, accompanied by snapping that was far too close. As the clouds pitched like waves overhead, wind raging and pressing against his body, Tomas looked over his shoulder.

A pair of green eyes cut through the swirling clay dust, spiked fur prickling up a hulking spine. Rusk wolf. It must have been sheltering in one of the rusted vehicles, avoiding his detection. It wasn’t the devilish mother; this wolf loped with the easy gait of an adolescent, still losing youthful specks on its sienna coat. One of her newly matured litter?

It didn’t matter. Thunder rumbled along with his growing anger and he clamped his molars together, the charge of Bluemetal surging through his body as he stretched an arm above his head.

The rusk wolf was gaining on him, head bowed against the billowing gusts of dust, intent on its prey. Tomas let the wind carry him for a moment, his feet leaving the ground as he spun, summoning the electrifying heavens into the palm of his hand. Heat branched down his arm and through his bones, vibrating with raw, wild energy.

Nothing beat holding a fist full of lightning—crackling with lawless light and sheer force. Tomas inhaled, freezing for one terrifying moment. He felt powerful, in control for the first time in ages. Neon electric brilliance sizzled in his blood, his hands shaking; unwilling to let go, knowing he must.

Breath hissing out through his teeth, he released it on the offending predator, his body sagging from the loss. Even with his tinted goggles, Tomas was forced to shut his eyes as the bolt lashed out at the rusk wolf. When they opened, there was little left aside from a mound of smoking fur.

He didn’t linger to examine it. The flash storm was already abating, and if he wanted to use the whirling dust devils on the other rusk wolves, he needed to hurry. He was close now, but so were the mists from the mountains, pouring down in vaporous plumes, obscuring the base of the cliff.

As Tomas pushed into the glittering fog, grunts melded with mutters, vapor licking in gentle circles around his head. He waved away phantom forms, squinting through thick swaths of sparkling mist to discern a cave mouth. This rusk wolf matriarch always chose a cave.

A yelp cracked off the rock face to his right, and Tomas turned, arms raised. But he could barely see his hands in front of his face. It would have been nice to have someone watch his back.

“Norah?” he breathed.

The fog thinned as he neared the bottom of the mountain cliff, revealing two silhouettes. His heart caught in his throat at the sight of a girl crouched in the mouth of a cave.

Moving. Struggling.

Norah was alive.

He had made it in time.

Norah’s hunched silhouette wrestled with the imposing, shaggy outline of a rusk wolf far larger than the one Tomas had encountered on the plain. The matriarch must be dragging Norah to the ground.

The clouds were empty of lightning, but that wouldn’t stop him. Throwing off both gloves, Tomas clamped his teeth so hard he bit the inside of his cheek. Blood coated his tongue as he willed the spinning winds surrounding him to condense. He cupped his hands and molded the air into two miniature tornadoes, like throwing clay on a potter’s wheel. One, he sent to lift the girl away while the other restrained the predator hunkering on the ground.

Tomas heard Norah give a soft cry of surprise as he directed her tornado behind him, but his focus was on the rusk wolf. There would be no escape for the elusive hound, no more tiny bones to lie at their parent’s feet, no more phantom cries on sleepless nights.

The creature didn’t put up a fight as he hoisted it into the cave, limp as a wet rug. Tomas strode in behind, prepared to deal with the adolescent wolves inside, who he knew could be equally brutal if given the chance.

He tasted something unexpected within the den’s air: the copper tang of blood. And it wasn’t coming from his mouth.

Several lumps of matted fur littered the slick stone ground. None were moving. The captive mother wolf still hadn’t raised a fuss, and he realized veins of red marbled his small whirlwind. But he had done nothing yet.

Stunned, Tomas dropped the half-skinned carcass of the rusk wolf beside the others, watching blood spray over the floor. He turned to face the cave mouth.

The girl stood aiming a rifle at Tomas, tattered duster stained crimson, trails of blood creeping down her forehead. “Who are you?” She didn’t sound relieved, the edge to her voice matching the sharp line of her tight jaw and taut trigger finger.

Tomas didn’t raise his hands. He leaned against the cave wall instead, his lingering relief battling a strange, quiet disappointment. She was safe, even if he hadn’t saved her.

Wide umber eyes absent of innocence, Norah sized Tomas up. “You’re not here for the pelt, are you?” she asked.

The constable’s reward poster. Promising two bars of Greenmetal.

The struggle he had witnessed at the cave mouth must have been her trying to skin it. “No. Your mother’s worried. I came looking for you, not the wolf.” Best to save a little face.

“What’s her name?” Norah asked, not lowering her weapon.

What was it? Tomas fished in his pocket and withdrew the handkerchief. “She said you were paying respects to her father at the base of the cliffs.” Though that had clearly been a line Norah fed to her mother.

The girl eyed the cloth with a tilted head, her back still stiff, mouth drawing a thin line. “And her name?”

This kid was in danger of winning Tomas’s respect; she was cautious, shaped by the world around her. “Myrah? Marie?” he said. “You live in a house pieced together by scrap metal off the red plains—your father and mother built it themselves before he passed. Inquisition over?”

Norah slung the gun on her back. “Good enough. I assume she paid you. Since I did most of the work, you can help me.” She waved a bloody knife toward the wolf. “We could use the Greenmetal.” Without waiting for a response, she stooped back over the rusk wolf.

Skinning someone else’s kill was not what Tomas expected to do today, but it was far better than giving horrible news to a grieving mother.

“Not a bad job, kid,” he said, stuffing his gloves in his duster’s pockets and trying not to sound as impressed as he was.

“Not a kid.” She glanced over her shoulder when he pulled out his knife to help. “I freelance. You hiring?”

Shifting the hunting blade to a comfortable grip, he narrowed his eyes. “Your mother know about that?”

She shrugged. “She knows I pick up ‘odd jobs’ when we’re strapped for Metal. You didn’t answer my question. You hiring?”

“Are you as loose with your Metal as your mother?”

Norah snorted. “Hardly. Why do you think I’m out here wrestling with a wolf?” She paused. “Please tell me she didn’t pay you three bars of Redmetal? That’s all we have.”

Despite fighting it, Tomas’s lips twitched in a smile. “She tried. But I just took one.”

“Good. Well, since you didn’t do anything, you can give half of it back.”

Tomas waved his hunting knife over the pelt. “Weren’t you just asking for a job? Not really endearing yourself to a potential employer.”

Norah grunted and turned back to the carcass.

Tomas chuckled. A sound he hadn’t expected to make today. “How old are you again?”

“Old enough to point, shoot, and take out the Terror of the Flats,” she said. “And old enough to be interested in becoming what you are.”

A Weather Watcher.

Tomas studied the gleam in Norah’s expression—not the eyes of a victim, but someone desperate to learn, to survive. Not to mention she seemed to have a good handle on finances. Maybe he was hiring. Age wasn’t everything.

Weather Watchers worked better in pairs.