by Juliana Koen Alonso (@ConduitOfMagic)

Adult Dark Fantasy
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Within a city steeped in occult brujería, Seventh-born brujos like Mo Delgado are as powerful as they are hunted. Hiding her true nature behind the walls of the Red Church from a young age, Mo is torn between the ideals of her family’s drug cartel and the clergy that raised her. The one thing her worlds agree on: stepping foot in the Bellflower—a casino that deals in knowledge by gambling memories—is a sin. After her brother disappears into the Bellflower to win knowledge rumoured to end the city’s longstanding drug war, Mo defies her oaths by chasing after him. Wagering her own mind to save his, Mo becomes entangled in the web of secrets the casino and her city were built on, unravelling the truth of her family’s deadly legacy.

Meanwhile, ever since Andy lost her memories to the dice, she’s worked off her debt by letting the Bellflower abuse her rare power of memory multiplication. Sick of being treated like property or a measly tool for the casino’s gain, Andy fights not only to preserve her wavering sanity but to reclaim her body by embracing the power that thrums through her blood. So, when Andy discovers she once hid blackmail against the Bellflower’s owner, freedom might finally be in the cards. But she doesn’t remember what the blackmail is, let alone where she stowed it, and in a casino full of bones glowing with stolen memories, it could be anywhere. If the Bellflower realizes Andy’s past is catching up to her, they’ll cut her puppet strings… and drop her six feet under.

Each woman is focused on winning her own game, but every move leads them closer to realizing they’re chasing the same secret. A secret that has as much potential to cage them in as it does set them free. At the Bellflower, there’s only one thing that’s certain: if you show your hand, be prepared to watch it burn.

Told in a braided narrative and complete at 121,000 words, BALLADS CAGED IN BONE is an adult grimdark fantasy standalone with series potential. It combines the atmosphere of a more wicked The Night Circus, the queer romance and badass women of Gideon the Ninth, and the complicated interpersonal relationships of Jade City. Inspirations include the socio-political history and modern feminist movement—with a primary focus on the fight for bodily autonomy—of Argentina, as well as its mythology and culture. This manuscript was picked as one of the RevPit 2022 winners.

A daughter of Argentinian immigrants, I’m currently enrolled in an exclusive creative writing diploma program from Memorial University of Newfoundland. I’m also a professional marketing editor and freelance fiction editor. I won the Young Writers of Canada contest in 2013 and was also shortlisted for the 2021 Watty Awards. Thank you for your consideration.

First Five Pages

Chapter One: Free Be the Flame

“Wicked is the crime without malice. Wicked is the greed behind false benevolence. Wicked is the battle fought not to protect His word or His image but your own. Righteous is His path. Righteous is His will.”
— San Hector the Righteous 6:84

Madre Leticia often branded the words into Mo’s back with a lit cigarette: chins up. Backs straight. Fire in heart, spirit, and hand all alive and well. Incantations muttered between prayers always healed the letters before they could scar, but the instructions still smouldered in Mo’s mind, echoing like a benediction.

Mo repeated the mantra as she stood alongside her fellow vestals—the anointed holy women of the Red Church—in a line of deep crimson cloaks that cut through the church service like a bleeding wound. The lace mantilla draping from her crown to the ends of her robes fluttered in the winter winds that chapped her lips, but the single flame in her cupped hands never shuddered.

Standing under the crumbling archways built to worship El Poderoso, Mo’s stomach twisted with guilt. On any other day, she wore orange robes as a disciple, not a vestal—at least, not yet. He would be disappointed in her for wearing colours she didn’t earn and using a holy place as a hunting ground, surely, but hopefully not enough to rip her from His service. Striking her down would be like blunting His own sword.

But no. Mo pushed thoughts of Him aside. She wore red tonight not to show her devotion. She wasn’t at the Slums’ church as a holy woman at all.

Tonight, she served at someone else’s word.

She scanned the pews for the maldito she’d come for. Emmanuel Garza hid among the rest of them, but the darkness made even the hidden glint of some scales, a forked tongue, or monstrous eyes difficult to see. Even if malditos looked like brujos in every other way, the eyes would always give them away.

No matter how graceful His light was, it couldn’t burn the shadows.

The preacher’s arms waved around in grand, dramatic gestures as he conducted the service. Mo forced her body to remain rigidly still, thankful for the sash tied around the upper half of the preacher’s face, trailing down the back of his fitted robes in a river of blood. She didn’t want to catch a glimpse of the holes where his eyes had been gouged out.

“For too long, the Bellflower Casino has taken our memories—our knowledge and our souls—and dumped us on the streets. Your streets.” The preacher in front of the pews was a wiry brujo with even fewer strands of hair than he had teeth and shoulders curved forward by an invisible weight. “A casino built on sacred land.”

“Free be the flame!” The words spilled viciously from the vestals’ mouths as they stood in a line across the chancel of the church, looking out at the platform and stake that separated them from the preacher and the pews. Cradled in their hands were flames that burned brighter and taller with every word thrown into the air—no wick or candle in sight.

“Free be the flame!”

The rotting wooden double doors creaked open. A rush of darkness dimmed the fiery light of the service and caught Mo’s attention like the only remaining match in a field of darkness.

Where tall, stained-glass windows were supposed to enliven the room with the warmth of the red sun, instead the cold sheen of the three moons refracted through broken shards. But it wasn’t the decay of the church she smelled in every crack of its copper-spotted, piss-stained walls.

It was the malditos—the many creatures of the Slums. They were like an infection that crawled through the inner organs of Mo’s faith and nurtured the black spots of mould that tainted God until they would inevitably need to be cut out.

Two vestals dragged a maldita into the church and through the path between the pews, the whistle of the wind too soft to hide the sound of the creature’s stumbling footsteps until it fell down at the preacher’s feet.

It looked like a bruja. But the church had taught Mo better than that.

More than the outline of pried-off scales on its cheeks and forearms, it was the maldita’s eyes—eyes that were much too round with pupils so heinously big its gaze was nearly just black. The maldita’s stare helped it underwater but made clear on dry land that it wasn’t like Mo and it never would be.

Mo was a bruja. A champion of His holy mission. A weapon of chaos used for good. A light in the darkness when He couldn’t provide it Himself.

The maldita was scum. An it, if Mo was feeling generous.

“Free be the flame!”

This is what they do to us. This is what they force us to become.” His fingernails dug into the back of the maldita’s head as he held its wobbly form up in front of the pews. “You will become the Hollows of the Slums, without memories and thought, without purpose or soul. Without a name to give to Him in our prayers.” His body brutally shook with every new word that sprouted from his thin lips. “Hollow is how they leave us. Hollow is what you’ll become if you do not follow His light!”

Silently, two vestals took the maldita from the preacher’s grasp and led it towards the wooden beam in the middle of the stage just in front of the line of vestals. As they stripped the maldita of what little clothing it wore, Mo turned her head away. Not because she couldn’t stand to see the horrors that would follow but because she’d seen too many Hollows to find the maldita’s cleansing interesting. All Mo cared about was getting her job done by sunrise.

As the light of the flame flickered against every wall and dark corner, Mo’s gaze followed, scanning faces under hoods as she and the holy flame searched for Garza. Her hands itched, begging for weapons to be pressed against them instead of flames. Weapons she could dig into Garza when she got the information she wanted.

The preacher kept his gaze towards the pews. “We send this wretched sinner to you, oh great First,” he prayed to El Poderoso’s messenger. “We send this sinner to you so that you may judge it, so that you may give it a spirit, replenish its soul, and let it live on by your mercy in the next world.”

The vestals all hummed a gospel tune as they propped the maldita onto the wooden platform and tied its arms around the beam. For His word did not teach to spurn.

The last lines of the song rang in Mo’s head.

But to reincarnate by the grace of His light, first the sinner had to burn.

But tonight wasn’t about the scriptures Mo could recite by heart. If He was listening, He’d have to forgive her—turn a blind eye and a deaf ear—for not standing under this roof to cleanse evils but to act in her own interests. To infiltrate a service only vestals could attend and pick out a thorn in her family’s side. She swore tomorrow she would be a devoted member of his clergy again. Tonight, she was an enforcer for the Delgado cartel. For her family’s cartel. And cartel business was anything but holy.

Now, all she needed was patience. More of Madre Leticia’s words echoed in Mo’s mind: patience reveals opportunity.

The preacher screamed into the empty air of the warming church, “Free be the flame!”

One by one, the vestals stepped forward and placed the thriving fires in their hands under the platform. Flames licked at the wood, smoke burning Mo’s eyes and the crackling fire clawing at the surface of her skin.

All the vestals raised their hands, ten pairs of once-violet eyes now like churning molten gold, the fire growing and devouring with every inch the hands rose. The flames climbed until they slithered through the cracks in the wooden platform and nipped at the maldita’s heels. Sweat dribbled down its skin like tears. It writhed against its restraints, grunting and screaming as sweat or tears became but a memory and its dry skin cracked under the flames’ touch.

They called themselves vestals, but to be a member of His Crimson Order was no feat of purity. In His clergy, women had one role alone: to spill blood in His name.

Mo didn’t falter when the maldita burned. No one faltered.

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Photo by Adrien Robert on Unsplash

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