Saturday, May 20, 2017

WIP-of-The-Month, Clan Of Outcasts, and Other Updates

A modified version of the cover photo I currently have on my author page...
Yes, I have 400 Likes... Reviews? Not so much...

All right... so you were probably expecting a Clan of Outcasts post today, or at the very least, a "WIP-of-The-Month" update, since I haven't done one of those since, like, April... (boo... )

Instead, you're getting an update on what was, what is, and what is to come!

Princess of Undersea

For starters, "Princess of Undersea" is duly distributed, but like it says in the caption... a little short on reviews.

I'm trying to motivate those who I know already have it, and have verbally told me they read it--Let me tell you! Reviews are the things that reach out to people I have literally zero contact with. Reviews are the things other browsing readers look for when they're scoping out a new book to read. Reviews also help me to know whether it would be worthwhile to keep going and publish another book. If you're wondering how I feel about reviews, just take a gander at the sixty-odd reviews I've written, myself. Every single one of those reviews has a matching review for the book on Amazon. Every. Single. One. I'm not asking an empty favor, expecting anyone to acquiesce purely on my say-so. I'm not even asking for "canned" 5-star reviews of empty ravings. Tell me what you thought, be honest, be as brief as you like--just leave a review!

To that end, I'm offering a special reward for the first 10 reviewers: The chief comment I get from people who have read it is the "open" ending I left it at. While originally, it stemmed from my desire to a) Keep it short (read: avoid falling into the trap of everlastingly adding "just a little more"); and b) Avoid "Happy Ever After" LIKE THE POISONED APPLE IT IS... I did sit down and write a positively smashing epilogue about a month after releasing the book, and I am willing to post it here on the blog... but only if 10 people have reviewed, so that I know they really do miss it! So if you own a copy of my book, and you've read it--you could be one of those 10 people if you hop on over to Amazon and review it today!

Meanwhile, I have 2 more "Bonus Scenes" planned--albeit after the fact, but planned nonetheless! The first, I agreed to share as soon as I accrued 400 Likes on my Facebook page--which I did, so now I'm writing it!
"Give Me What I Need" is not so much a spin-off as a "tag-along" to Princess of Undersea. It reveals the history between the two antagonists in the book, and explores how exactly a random servant managed to incur a life-debt to a sea witch, such that it would result in the servant impersonating royalty--the situation that caused a whole host of problems for Princess Ylaine. I'm probably going to be able to finish it over the weekend (hopefully!) and so, if all goes well, that will be live for viewing by Monday!
As far as the Epilogue goes, it's a scene that hopefully answers the questions that the original ending evokes: So are Ylaine and Nathan actually together now? What about Davor? Does she go talk to him? Does he understand? Will he forgive her? Will she even ask? Is there any chance the sea witch might return? The answers are found in that epilogue, plus a few hints more that will leave you smiling and sighing happily. I can't wait to share it with you all!

WIP-of-The-Month: April/May (The Amazon Triangle)

Phone trouble in the middle of April put a bit of a monkey wrench right at the center of actually treating April like a "NaNoWriMo" month, where I'm just spitting words out as much as possible every day... so I quietly let this project leach into May... to no avail. I'm still as stumped as ever, floundering my way through that odious Chapter 13, after slamming out Chapter 12 in one very encouraging week.
Chapter 12 was great because it was a lot of very clear action, purposeful conversation, and plenty of interaction. In Chapter 13, my "focus character" (Ben) is rather isolated, so it was difficult to figure out timeline, proper levels of familiarity with his surroundings, and how exactly I expected to get from point A (where he is now) to point B (where he needs to be by the end of the chapter)... if indeed the point B I had planned will still work as a point B--but I think enough tweaks have happened in getting the chapter moving and getting the characters and significant props into place, that perhaps I need to shift point B out a little bit... but where will I put it? How is it going to affect the way things turn out for the other characters? Grr... so many questions...

Which leads me to some rather disheartening news.

The Clan of Outcasts

So, after plugging away at this series for the better part of this last year, without seeing the level of engagement I was hoping for, I've decided not only to postpone this week's "episode" to next Saturday... but after that, I'll be starting a NEW Serial Saturday series, so I won't be doing Clan of Outcasts on Saturdays anymore. Season 2, Part 7 is going to be the last one for a good long while, if not indefinitely.
If you're one of the few that really followed that series, and you'd like to see it return and continue, feel free to comment/+1 your favorite "episode(s)", and if enough people are interested, I might consider reviving it for Thursdays or Fridays. Outside of that, though, I'm just not feeling enough interest to devote more brain-space to that at this point. (Prove me wrong?)

That being said...

NEW Serial Saturday Series Begins In June!

I'm starting a new theme of Serial Saturday series: "A-to-Z Blog Challenge"!
The idea is simple enough: One blog post a week, corresponding to each consecutive letter in the alphabet. I'm taking it a little further and I'm going to meld that with the way I used to run "The Suggestion Box": each post is going to have a name, a place, a time, and an object that starts with the corresponding letter for that week. For example, the first post ("A") might have the list "Annabelle, Amsterdam, Autumn, and Apple." From there, I treat it like a normal Suggestion Box list. Since I'll have the letters as a starting point, I won't be dependent on outside sources like the Suggestion Box normally is--but if you'd like to join me in this series and offer some participation, feel free to send me a list of suggestions for whichever letter you like! I really enjoy applying my creative powers to things suggested by other people, so I welcome the engagement! Since I won't be the only blogger participating in the challenge, I'll probably even be linking the week's post from the other blogs on my own, so you have even more cool stories to enjoy!

So that's what's up! Thanks for sticking with me! And... as always:

Catch You Further Upstream!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Reader's Review: "American Goth" by Cyn Mackley




Synopsis from Amazon:

When her grandfather dies mysteriously, New York City artist and goth chick Trinity Goode heads back to her small Ohio hometown to take over the farm and figure out what really happened to the man who always accepted her just as she was. Trinity’s ready to lace up her Doc Marten boots to be a church lady and bake pies for the county fair, but is her hometown ready to welcome her back?

With some help from her old friend Deputy Bobby Grace, she tries to solve the mystery of her Grandfather’s death and track down just who has been hell-bent on ruining her reputation. What she finds out could get her killed.

You can take the girl out of the country, put red streaks in her hair, and dress her all in black, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. Pitchfork in hand, this American Goth is ready to find a killer, save the farm, win a blue ribbon for jam, and just maybe snag herself a good ole country boy.

>>>>>>>

My Review:


I love cute small-town mystery novels! And this one takes the cake. 
It starts with Trinity, a quirky twentysomething with an affinity for "Goth chic" and living in the Big City gets the call that her grandfather in the tiny town where everybody knows everybody has passed suddenly. So she packs up, moves back, and finds just how much has changed in the years since she moved away.

The story is brilliantly told. The death is not a straightforward one; it looks like an accident with her grandpa's tractor—but it might be more of an accident. Himmel (the town) hasn't changed much—but everybody seems to believe the most outlandish gossip concerning Trinity, in spite of the way she can quilt and bake alongside the best of them. Grandpa Hiram already gave the land to the farmer who had been taking care of it, while Trinity got the farm—so what isn't fair about that? Why do they hate her so much? 

It's part "simple country living" story, part mystery as Trinity and her friend Bobby Grace go investigating into the unanswered questions surrounding her grandfather's sudden death, and the source of the despicable rumors someone has been spreading about her for the last decade—and the truth behind those strange looking, "not-Amish" neighbors near the farm that may not be running some sort of religious commune...

I fell in love with the characters, and I definitely enjoyed the story! Every moment, every character—yes, even the not-so-great ones—absolutely glistens with careful craftsmanship and oozes creativity and life! AMERICAN GOTH gets *****5 STARS***** from me, and I'm going to throw in an Upstream Writer Certified Heartily Recommended to boot! 

If you're looking for a new author to follow, with great pacing, fantastic characters, and fun, unique covers in primary shades, Cyn Mackley is your girl!

Further Reading: (Mysteries/Wonderful Characters/Good Humor/Simple Storytelling)
-The Boy Named Topaz--Jeffrey Gartshore
Dawn of Steam Trilogy--Jeffrey Cook
      -First Light
      -Gods of The Sun
      -Rising Suns
-The Starlight Proverbs--Darren E. Barber
-Thimblerig's Ark--Nate Fleming
-A Spell in the Country--Morgan Smith 
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart
       -Wolf's Path 
-Abiding Flame--Pauline Creeden

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 2 Part 6--"Bluefire"

Tadaaa!! New character, Lizeth Ellora!
Part 6
"Bluefire"

Dawn barely cracked the fog down in the belly of the Cascade. Soldiers milled about the campfires, checking their chain-maille for any last-minute flaws from the previous six skirmishes, scanning the lofty crags against the dark sky for any signs of preemptive spies--in case their adversaries decided to strike before the planned attack at dawn.

A young cadet with magenta hair stomped into view and slumped onto a stump near the fire.
"Medic!" she growled, holding her arm aloft, the sleeve around it hanging in ribbons and oozing with blood. 
Her request drew chuckles from the knot of soldiers loitering nearby.
"Ho, there, Nahlia! Find a bear to wrestle while you were waiting for the sunrise?" one jibed.
"Must be marvelous, having no armor or equipment to maintain!" groused another.
The young woman scowled at the verbal barbs. "Better bears than the village maids you've been wrestling every night since we left the Forest!" she shot back.
The cheers and laughter that followed clearly denoted the victor of the spat. Nahlia smiled smugly and barked again, "Medic!"
"Coming!" The short woman in the blue cloak elbowed her way through the gathered onlookers, a basket clutched against her side. She knelt beside the patient and immediately began pouring on disinfectants and daubing the wound with sterile cloths.
"What was it this time?" she muttered, examining the gashes closely with practiced eyes, even as her hands fluttered rapidly on and around the limb. "These aren't bear claws--"
"Why does it always have to be bears?" Nahlia grunted at her. "Dumb can-heads have no idea--"
"Then what was it?" The medic's blue eyes fixed keenly on those of her patient.
"Just a few brambles I crossed, that's all."
"Lie."
Nahlia scowled. She didn't like meeting the medic's gaze. "Well, that's all the truth you're getting out of me, so there!"
"What was it?" The irritating girl never raised her voice, but she wouldn't leave well enough alone, either.
The cadet hesitated only a moment. "Wolf," she responded bluntly. "Big one. Just waiting over on the east side. Still can't get used to the lack of depth perception in the red eyes."
The woman finished tucking the last bandage securely and looked up at the cadet. "Red eyes?" she echoed. "What are you--"
"Agent Denahlia!" The rich, rolling voice carried on a temperate breeze. "I was hoping you would return, but I didn't expect you so soon."
Denahlia shrugged, flexing her fist and twisting her arm to test the bandage, and stood. "I found what I was looking for." As an afterthought, she bowed low to the bearded man standing before her. "Your Majesty."
King Balwyn Seramis nodded to the arm. "I see you found a bit more besides," he remarked.
A teasing murmur rippled through the camp.
Denahlia tried to shrug, but the wound still smarted a little. "Who said this wasn't my target?" she pointed to her wounded arm.
A stiff gust whistled between the canyon walls as King Balwyn laughed. "Ah, Denahlia, it is truly refreshing to find one in my kingdom who is both willing to serve and not to mince words around me!"
Denahlia bowed. "I owe you a debt, my King," she said. "And I do anything to repay what I owe."
The King removed his gauntlet and clapped Denahlia on her good shoulder with an open, friendly hand. "The Realm is indeed fortunate to have a league of defenders with such a capable spy as yourself." He turned to the young medic. "Lizeth, I am afraid Denahlia's arrival diverted you from giving your report of the perimeter. What did you see?"
Lizeth made a point of bowing to the king before she spoke. "Your Highness, the guards at the south side seem a bit more anxious than the others--but they wouldn't tell me what they saw. I advanced just outside the perimeter, as you requested, and I saw two men standing next to the foremost oak, and what looked like a thicket of aborram near the blind spot on the north side."
"Impossible!" Cried the squadron leader, standing just beside the main pavilion tent. "Aborram isn't native to this region; are you sure this is what you saw?"
Lizeth turned from the king to focus on the speaker, but he aimed his gaze just over her right shoulder. "I am always sure of what I see," she replied simply, inclining her head just enough to break into his line of sight.
The sergeant gave a shudder and slunk away. Lizeth turned back to the King to finish her report.

Over by the fire, a young soldier with a shock of red hair plopped onto the grass next to Denahlia. 
The spy didn't flinch. "Go away, Allen," she groaned.
Allen didn't budge. "Don't you want to hear what they're saying, Nolly?"
Denahlia sighed. "I always know what they're saying," she grumbled. "I'm a daredevil and a rebel, I am a child doing a man's work--"
"You're no good as a spy."
Denahlia glared at him sharply. "What?" she snapped.
Allen shrugged like it was common knowledge. "All the hogwash about going red-eye and being able to see by the light of the new moon," he replied. "People think you make that stuff up, to cover your mistakes and make you look special."
"I'm not special, I'm bloody good at my job!"
Allen sighed, too confident in Denahlia's professionalism in the presence of the king to worry about her tearing into him then and there. "I'm just saying--even the best spies aren't able to predict how many people occupy a locked room the way you do. Don't shoot the messenger," he mumbled, hopping off the seat and wandering to the other side of the camp, toward the medical tent.
The first thing he noticed was the cloudy haze of steam wafting out of the vent at the top of the tent. Inside, the air was fresh, only barely hinting at a variety of wholesome scents. Lizeth carefully examined an array of vials before her, each containing some kind of substance, and all shrouded in condensation that usually accompanied extreme heat--but Allen still shivered. The tent itself wasn't any warmer than the night air outside it. He let the tent flap fall silently behind him.

"Go away, Allen."

He snorted. "Everybody keeps saying that! Whatever happened to Greetings or Well Met?"
Lizeth turned from the vials to look at him. He locked eyes with her before he could stop himself.
"Anyone who meets you is never well," Lizeth remarked. She resumed her work, preparing rolls of bandages and carefully packing the vials in her kit.
Allen plopped down on the bench nearby. "Can I help you do that?"
Lizeth paused and looked at him. "What is it exactly that you believe I do?"
The soldier shrugged. "I don't know; I mean, I know you are a very skilled medic, and you tend wounds and sicknesses and stuff. I want to help with that." He moved to pick up the next vial, but she snatched it quicker than he did. "What is all this stuff used for, anyway?"
Lizeth sniffed. "That would depend on the wound. Some are used for curing, some for preventing infection--some," she lifted a vial of dark liquid so he could see, "are used to encourage the flow of blood, in cases where the infection is already inside and I need to get it out."
He read the label on one of the jars before she could take it away. "Borrisium; huh, looks like a bunch of mud to me."
"To the untrained medic," Lizeth replied, taking the jar from him, "it is. Borrisium must be heated to a very high temperature to activate it as a healing agent. It's very rare. I'll thank you never to touch it again."
Allen stayed right where he was. "But how do you heat it up on the battlefield? Why do you carry it if you can't use it?"
Lizeth whirled around and grabbed a small apparatus from behind some other equipment. It looked like a gentleman's pipe made of glass with a large, deep bowl. "I use this and some refraction pieces to concentrate enough heat to activate it." She popped the clasp on her kit and dropped it in. "I am prepared for anything that goes on."

Just then, the King's horn sounded. It was time to assemble on the battlefield.
Allen followed Lizeth out of the tent.
"So can I help you?"
"No. Go check in with your unit."

King Balwyn and his army marched out to the Field of Zapheira.
Denahlia, mounted, slid into position behind the King's horse.
"What do you see, King's Eye?" Balwyn asked.
Denahlia blinked, and her vision reddened, cutting through the fog and outlining the shapes of the army within it.
"They are here, and ready," she answered.
Balwyn lifted his sword. "Then let's not keep them waiting any longer! Chaarge!"
<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>

Present day.....

Jaran grimaced as the charge burst out of his wrists and trickled down the wire. As an experiment run by the Royal Council, he had control of his charge, and they would still give him time to rebuild between pulses.

"AGAIN!" Zayra shrieked, on the other end of the wire. "MORE!"
Jaran groaned as the electricity arced through him again. Under Zayra's thrall, she could force the charge out of him, pulling the lightning into the crown on her head. Sometimes she would pull for so long, he would feel dizzy and feverish. It kept him weak.
Jaran felt his stomach heave as the charge fizzled out, and his knees buckled.
"Please," he rasped. "No more!"
"Keep going!" He felt her influence twist and jerk—but no spark ignited.
"There isn't anymore!" Korsan yelled at her, as Jaran curled on the floor, too weak almost to breathe. He bent down, briefly reaching to touch the frayed cord on his belt at the same time he remembered where his talisman was. He could only hope that one of his new friends had recovered it.

"I can still see it, you know. It's somewhere in the south, headed eastward."
Korsan still couldn't get used to the voice. He hid the startled flinch from the Queen and directed his thoughts in answer.
"Never mind that just now. Get us out of here. She will kill him!"
"I'm trying—"
"What are you thinking?" Zayra frowned and leaned forward. "Is there another telepath? Oh, I remember!" She clapped her hands and pointed to another corner in the dull-grey room. "My caged beauty! I thought she'd escaped in the big fight." She tapped a pale finger against ruby lips.
"So where is she now?" She stared weirdly at Korsan, almost as if she could try to read his mind. Remnants of Jaran's lightning still flickered around the curling filigree of her crown.
Korsan felt the fog on his mind becoming clearer. Small moments of his usual premonitions were coming through.
"I've almost got it," Azelie spoke in his mind. "I can stop her influence in you, then Aurelle will create a cover diversion so you can escape."
Korsan sat quietly, not answering Zayra as she muttered to herself, pacing furiously, calling various soldiers in to report: no one had found her escapees, the people (and beasts) she had sent out had not returned—things weren't altogether going as planned.
"Not me," he thought in reply to Azelie. "Save the Prince!"
"It's harder," Amelie admitted. "I am trying, but her thrall is too much attached."
Korsan watched the wires dragging between the Queen's crown and Jaran's wrists. "What if I disconnected the wires?" He suggested in his mind.
"That might help."

The door to the castle banged open, and the vaulted ceiling rang with much shouting.
Zayra bounded to her feet as the magenta-haired Hunter stalked in, dragging behind her two figures in black, with dark hoods over their heads.
"What do you want?" Demanded the Queen. 
Denahlia dropped her quarry on the floor at the foot of the dais.
"I want justice for the Realm!" She declared. "These are the two false Regents who recently escaped custody of the King—they were caught trying to book passage out of the Realm."
One of the figures squirmed violently and let out a muffled wail, but the prisoner stilled when Denahlia gave a jab with her boot. "I took the liberty of gagging and hooding them to negate the effects of their Gift."

Zayra snorted. "Your initiative is duly noted. Very well, take them to the dungeons to await sentencing.." she paused to consider, "when I feel like sentencing them."
Denahlia handed the chain lead over to the palace guards, and in that moment, Korsan felt the Queen's focus shift completely, and he was his own master. The old Mage burst into action.
He bounded to his feet and lunges for the place right in front of Jaran. Without his talisman he couldn't work solely magic, but the knife he grabbed off a guard's thigh gave him something to funnel his magic through. The wires parted easily under the enchanted blade, and he yelled out, "NOW!"

Zayra shrieked as millions of hissing, black beetles erupted from the cracks between the bricks. They skittered down the marble columns and toward the people.
Denahlia stomped on a few before she realized how pointless it was. She switched to red-eye vision, and at once the insects vanished, proving what they were. At the back of the room, two figures close together scurried for the doorway. Denahlia went for them, managing to grab the cold wrist with broken wire still wrapped around it.
"STOP!" Zayra screamed, still seeing the beetles crawling up her skirts, at the same time noticing the Mage and the prince trying to escape. "I ORDER YOU TO COME BACK."
Korsan thought a silent thanks as he realized that Azelie's work had not only broken Zayra's thrall on him, but she could no longer reach him. 
Jaran, on the other hand, still stopped when she bade and began turning around like a puppet on a string.
"Azelie!" He yelled into the great hall, "Do something!" Now the Hunter held Jaran's free hand, and dragged him away as well.
"Korsan, get out of there!" The telepath warned. "Her influence is too strong. I can't get both of you out, and if you fall back under, I don't think I would be able to break in a second time!"
Korsan felt his loyal heart breaking. "King Balwyn would never forgive me for abandoning his son a second time!" He cried.
"Do it now!" Azelie repeated. "Quick, before the Hunter tries something!"
Korsan let go and dashed out of the castle under an illusion of screaming black bats sent by Aurelle. Their shrieks hid the sound of his own remorse. Azelie caught him in her arms as he made it to the tower where they hid.
"There, you're safe," she thought. "It's all right."
Korsan lifted tear-filled eyes to her. "But what about Jaran?"

Back in the royal court, Denahlia led the young prince by the hand, like a sheep willing for slaughter.
"The other one escaped," Denahlia mentally cursed at herself. The one man she had been commissioned to pursue, and once again, he slips through her fingers.
The Queen looked happy enough, though. She smiled at Denahlia. "Your assistance to me is acknowledged, and I will see you richly rewarded." She stood and began walking toward Denahlia, her eyes fixed on those of the Hunter. 
"I am missing my Lion, but I would feel very safe indeed with someone of your expert caliber at my si—"
Denahlia blinked and the heaviness in her mind receded. She scowled. "Stop right there, missy!" Denahlia snapped. "I've heard of your nasty thrall and I won't have any part of it!"
Zayra frowned and crossed her arms in a pout. 
"Then the least you can do is bring me my Lion! I sent her to get me the Mage anyway—I want her back."
Denahlia snorted, giving a mocking, theatrical bow. "That, at least, I can do, Your Royal Petulance!"
Zayra was already leading the docile Jaran back up the dais toward an empty chair next to her throne, clinging to his arm and ruffling his hair. 
Denahlia left the throne room and blinked until she could use the x-ray vision that was part of her upgrades. A lone skeleton picked its way tentatively among the hallways on the north side. Denahlia positioned herself to intercept it, blinking back to night vision in the unlit passageway.

Aurelle didn't even see her coming. One moment, she was making her way past all the guard stations to rendezvous with Korsan and Azelie on the other side, and the next, she felt a searing blow to the back of her head, and two strange eyes absorbed her vision.
"Show me the Lion!" Growled a low voice.
Aurelle didn't even think she could comprehend the command; what Lion? Who was this person? 
Her Gift responded of its own accord, and Aurelle saw a glimpse of the forest just south of the city surrounding the castle, where a young woman tended to a host of wounds on a massive lion. The woman stood, her hands wreathed in a strange flame. Aurelle heard the person gasp, "Bluefire? Impossible!"
Then the eyes vanished, and Aurelle was alone. She shook her head and continued on her way.
<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>

"Kill him! Kill him!" The frenzied screams of the crowd reached her ear with surprising clarity. There was the poor man, innocent of any wrongdoing, and very obviously incapable. He stood frozen in the middle of the arena as flowers and vines unfolded from the ground around his feet like a green and blooming fountain. The lion advanced on him, lean and hungry. In her mind's eye, they switched places. Now she was the one, scared and alone, standing in the middle of the springtime thicket, as the lion snarled at her, and paced closer and closer. With a running charge, it leaped through the remaining distance between them, its extended claws raking over her head and down her body, flaying her in a single blow...

The lion's roar still resounded in her ears as Edri came awake with a scream.
The red-haired woman sitting beside her dodged the angry swipe of paws.
"All right, sorry!" she cried. "Just trying to help."
Edri let her head flop back to the ground. The woman approached slowly, giving Edri ample time to warn her away if she needed to. The former captain lay as still as she could as the woman returned to running her fingers over the wounds in her side.  
The woman made no sudden movements. "May I?" she asked. "You're not going to just attack me, are you?" 
"No! Of course not!" Edri wanted to shout. She knew better than to beat off the medics when wounded. As a healer herself, she knew that infection was often a silent, painless killer, that just because it didn't hurt, didn't mean that you weren't just minutes away from a sudden, horrible death at the hands of microscopic organisms.
But she had turned into a lion. Somehow, arguing with Justin and being out in the forest with the Wolf had awakened a similar ability in her, and now she was every bit as trapped as the woman she had attempted to heal. She glanced up and met the gaze of this other woman, this strange healer. The woman's eyes held her gaze, and Edri felt a sudden kinship with her--not the kind of overpowering, pulling, dragging thrall that she felt for Zayra, but a mutual understanding.
The woman nodded. "Very well; thank you."
She lifted her hand, glancing warily at the lion in front of her.
"Don't be afraid," she said to Edri.
Edri didn't know what she had to fear till a jet of blue flame unfolded around the woman's upraised hand. Edri let a low, sustained growl fill her throat, but she mastered her willpower and didn't budge, even when the woman touched her with the blue-fired hand, closing and cauterizing the clean gashes with its heat.
"I'll admit, I've never tried healing a lion before," the woman spoke low and conversationally, stroking her hand over Edri's fur. "It's been a long time since I've been called on to heal anybody. Not since the last time King Balwyn rode into battle."
Edri inclined her head. King Balwyn? Was she another healer like Erlis, then?
The woman noticed. "Oh, you recognize the King, do you?" she paused and extinguished the blue fire. "I wouldn't be surprised if you were one of the creatures used in those circuses the Council would run in his name."
Edri let out a low, angry growl at the insinuation.
The woman nodded. "I felt the same way, when I heard of them." She leaned back. "There, all patched up."
Edri lifted her head. Now, instead of bleeding gashes, a series of neat little scars streaked her side. She tried to roll over and stand, but the movement made her head spin. She staggered a bit on her feet.
"Oh." The woman's eyes stared at a place right above Edri's line of sight. "I didn't notice the head wound. Here." She lit the fire in her hands again, and placed her palms over the wound on Edri's head. "This one's deep," said the healer. "But I think I can reach--"
A shooting pain lanced through Edri's head, and as she closed her eyes to wince, she could see a glowing image of herself, the same color as the healer's eyes. She drew away from the touch, and saw that the healer had actually stumbled backward, presumably from the same stimulus.
The healer panted heavily, staring wide-eyed at the lion. "You're not actually a lion," she stammered slowly, "are you?"
Edri wagged her head. Grunting softly, she nodded toward the healer's hands.
"What," said the woman, "This? My Gift, you mean? Oh! Your Gift is that you can turn into a Lion--"
Edri shook her head. She grunted and nodded again. How else could she make her understand?
The connection they shared seemed to work. The woman grinned. "You're a healer too, then?"
Edri met her gaze. Yes, she thought.
The woman gasped. "I can hear your voice!" She tilted her head. "My name is Lizeth Ellora; what is yours?"
Edri could have laughed with relief. Only one day without the power of speech, and she had felt disconnected from the rest of the world! How that Paragon Queen Zayra cursed could have survived till now without speaking was beyond her. Finally, she could communicate everything that needed to be said.
My name is Edri Rodan. Did you serve the royal family?
Lizeth smiled and ruffled the lion's mane. "Pleasure to meet you, Edri. No, I wasn't the palace healer--that position went to someone else. Back in my day, the Gifts weren't as widely recognized. In fact, it was the Battle of Zapheira that brought the Gifts into public knowledge--though not quite in the way that I am sure King Balwyn hoped they would." She sighed.
Edri slowly sat down next to her, the lion's tail flipping idly. What happened?
Lizeth wagged her head. "I was caught, by my best friend, no less. She didn't really understand Gifts, and she didn't like it when anybody made fun of the way she used hers. I tried to make her feel as normal as possible--but when she saw me healing the king with bluefire," she illustrated her point by letting the flame flare up and vanish once more, "she got scared." Lizeth pursed her lips at the memory. "That was probably the single most ill-fated battle of King Balwyn's rule. It was certainly the last time he rode out to battle."
Edri did recall her early days in the garrison, wondering why the Realm would have so many soldiers when all they did was patrol the city streets and hunt down animals to unleash upon the Outcasts.
Why was it ill-fated? she asked in her thoughts.
Lizeth shuddered. "We fought an enemy who was far more clever than we anticipated," she said softly. "These were King Balwyn's greatest and most skilled troops--we didn't know it at the time, but more than half of us were Gifted. We mowed through about half of the opposing army before they sounded the retreat. We would have run them down still, but Balwyn called it off. The fog was too thick, and he didn't want to risk us getting lost in it. We waited till a strong wind blew the clouds away--and then we saw what we had done." She frowned, pulling her knees up under her chin.
Edri kept watching her till she finally admitted, "There was a village our scouting parties hadn't noticed, in the direction the retreating army had taken. They got their revenge on us by killing all of the villagers as they went through, and leaving messages in blood saying Long Live The King and The King's Gift and the like." Her frown deepened into a scowl. "The gossip moved faster than we did, so that by the time King Balwyn returned to the castle to announce the victory, it was already tainted, and people were frantic to know what the King's Gift was, and who among his army had endorsed the slaughter of so many villagers." Lizeth reached out and resumed stroking Edri's mane as she spoke. "Somehow, the Council already knew how to pick out the Gifted ones, and they found excuses to get us stripped of our posts and sent home--even my friend Denahlia, who was the King's most trusted spy."
Edri picked up her head. The Hunter? she asked.
Lizeth gasped. "How do you--" she shook her head. "Never mind. We aren't friends anymore, really." She gave a wry smirk. "When King Balwyn fell ill just after that, she was the one who blamed me. She'd seen the enchanted fires I'd placed in him, she said, and cursed him with a sickness that would eventually kill him. Not even a special proclamation from King Balwyn himself, telling everybody about the Gifts and how they could be useful, would save us from the fear of the people."
Edri pondered over this story. It was certainly an angle on being Gifted that she hadn't heard before. In the heavy silence, she felt the old surge and return of an influence she hadn't felt in a while.
"What is it?" Lizeth asked, and Edri realized that she had risen to her feet without thinking.
We need to return to the castle, she thought.
Lizeth hesitated. "I don't think that's such a good--"
Much has changed. You will see.
The Gifted healer nodded. "Very well, I will come."
<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<> 

"Are we there yet?" Damaris whined as they slipped down another alley that looked just as forlorn and unkempt as the last one. He had too many painful memories attached to the harbor to ever enjoy it again.
"Nearly there," Erlis glided smoothly ahead of them, as one who had lived many years on these streets, and knew them all like the tracing of veins on the back of her hand.
Damaris took some slight comfort that even Jade had trouble keeping up, on account of her large white wings that insisted on brushing up against walls and getting caught in the odd break as they meandered down narrow alleyways.
"Can we please hurry?" she begged. "One of the flaws of being Abnormal is that I cannot conceal my inhumanity as well as a Gifted person can--and there is nothing more enticing to an unsavory harbor-dweller than the sight of large Angel wings."
Erlis cast her voice over her shoulder without slacking her pace. "I am going as fast as I can; it's you lot that need to keep up with me! Ah," she paused at a door. "Here it is, just like the old times." She knocked twice.

A man's voice called. "Come in, all of you!"
Erlis balked, and Beren noticed. "What is it?" he asked.
"That's not my friend," Erlis murmured.
The door creaked open. A wizened old man bending over a crutch stood inside the room, beckoning to them. "I said come in," he said. "I'll explain."
Erlis stepped inside, followed by Beren and Damaris, and last of all Jade. Her Angel wings took up nearly half the space--but that wasn't a problem, considering there wasn't much in the way of furniture in the other half.
"Who are you?" Erlis demanded. "What have you done with--"
"Relax!" The man held up gnarled hands. "I have known Lizeth since before you worked at the palace. And you--" He stopped and bowed low to Beren. "I would know the Heir of King Balwyn anywhere." He glanced up and smiled. "You have your father's eyes."
It was a common enough compliment, but Beren could feel the sincerity of it. "You knew my father?"
"Knew him?" the man cried. "I bloody well fought under him till that horrible, bloody day in Zapheira."
"Zapheira?" Jade repeated. "You were there that day?"
The man nodded. "Me, Lizeth, King Balwyn and a whole army specially hand-picked by His Highness. We were his best and brightest--though I will admit to not conducting myself very well in those early years."
Erlis still regarded the strange man with considerable skepticism. "That still doesn't explain why you're living in her house."
The man waved his hand. "I'm getting to that!" he cried. "Let's begin again. My name is Allen, and I have the Gift of intuitive premonition."
"Premonition?" Beren echoed.
"I knew you all would be coming here, and I knew Lizeth would be gone, because I saw us meeting a long time ago. So I found her place, moved in, and waited till the rest of time caught up."
"If you could really see the future," Erlis objected, "and you were at Zapheira--"
Allen tilted his head at her. "How come I didn't warn the King that he was about to die?"
Beren tensed. "You knew my father would die?"
Allen turned to him with eyes full of pity. "I am sorry, Your Highness; if there had been a chance I could have stopped it, I wouldn't have seen it happen."
"Huh?" Damaris scratched his head.
Allen sighed deeply. "It's the way my Gift works. I can see glimpses of the future, the fates of other people--but there is always something that I cannot foresee that will prevent me from being there in time to change the outcome. Sort of a balancing 'curse' to my 'blessing.' I was far on the eastern edge of the Wilderness when I saw Lizeth leaving her house, so I knew she would be gone already by the time I arrived here. I saw the King dying in his bed long before I was ever drafted into his private army--so when we arrived at the Cascade, I knew that something terrible would happen there that would lead to his death and that I would be too far away to prevent it."
Erlis shook her head. "Couldn't you have at least warned someone else what was going to happen?"
Allen shrugged. "I tried to tell Lizeth. The enemy had made it look like we were the ones responsible for the slaughter of an entire village. I remember saying to her, 'This is how it starts. First they kill innocent people, then the rumors will start flying, and people will forget that we ever fought anyone else because they'll think we killed our own citizens.' I remember telling her those exact words--but she was too busy trying to heal the wounds with her Gift, while at the same time hiding it from everybody else."
"Hiding it?" Beren shook his head. "I thought being Gifted was commonplace under my father's rule. You're saying that the Gifted were feared even then?"
Allen chuckled. "I'm saying we didn't even know what it was we had! Lizeth and her bluefire--boy, she was a tough one! She wouldn't even come close to admitting it to me--Denahlia and whatever that red-eye thing she could do..."
"Denahlia?" Erlis picked up the name. "The Hunter fought for King Balwyn?"
Allen nodded. "Are you kidding? She was his favorite spy. Durned pixie could see things in places too dark for any other man to see his hand in front of his face!" He frowned. "Why do you call her The Hunter?"
Damaris snorted. "Maybe because she is the one person in the Realm responsible for apprehending the greatest number of Gifted people and kissing up to the Regents who turned the Gifted into Outcasts!"
Allen nodded slowly. "Hmm, that's true; I'd wondered what it meant--but I knew that if I tried to encounter her, I wouldn't be able to stop her anyway." He paused, his eyes glinting as he seemed to be listening to a slow scraping noise passing by outside. "Speaking of encountering..." He gestured to Erlis. "That should be our next guest, and I think you'll be the one he's after."
In the next instant, a heavy fist pounded on the door. "Healer!" A thunderous voice growled. "I need a healer!"
Erlis opened the door. A brawny, stubble-faced man in tattered clothing stood outside, his arm and leg sorely wounded and half his face purple. He wore a pouch at his belt printed with the royal seal--equipment typically issued to the city Peacekeepers, though this man didn't look very equipped for any kind of respectable duty.
He squinted at her with his good eye. "You a healer?" he grunted through swollen lips.
Erlis glanced at Allen. The old man nodded.
"I am," Erlis said, backing away, "Come in."
The man shambled through the door and plopped onto the floor--but very nearly scrambled to his feet again when he saw who else occupied the small, dark space.
"Angel!" He spat it like a curse, pointing to the wide white wings pressed against the ceiling.
"Never mind!" Erlis snatched his wrist to hold him down again. "Hold still while I'm working!"
Beren stepped forward. "What's your name, soldier?"
The man's body jerked with the involuntary motion of coming to attention, even though he lay on the floor. "Captain Rayne Volenti, of the--er," he faltered. "I guess it's just Rayne now. I'm not a Peacekeeper anymore." He squinted at the young man. "Who're you?"
Erlis whirled around and shot him a warning stare. "Don't say anything," she said. "We don't know who we can trust yet."
Rayne snorted as she moved from repairing his arm to mending the damage done to his face. "Trust, eh? Think I've been trusting the wrong people." He sneered bitterly.
"Like who?" Beren asked.
Rayne shrugged. "Well, the bloody Council for one; I trusted that blasted Black Man and went along with the Hunter and look where that got me!"
"Hunter?" Erlis paused just short of finishing his black eye.
"Black Man?" Jade added. "Who is this Black Man?"
Rayne smirked. "Calls himself Troy or summat. He ain't Gifted, he says, but I seen Denahlia shoot him at point-blank and he just keeps right on talking as if she's throwing spit wads at him!" He gave a chuckle. "He sure messed her up good, though; I don't blame her a bit. He's a devil, that one!"
"Hold up!" Allen waved his hand. "How did this Black Troy mess up Denahlia? What did he do to her?"
Rayne rolled his head. "I dunno, but he did something called upgrades--said they would only work on a Gifted--but it only made things worse for her. Well, he got all up in her business when she was trying to run off with the Twin Regents, and it was like all of a sudden she's got an army of unGifted rising up, and the last I seen her, she's dragging them two back to the castle by their red hair! And him," Rayne waved his hand. "He's all up and gone in a cloud of black smoke, and I don't think he's going to bother her anymore!"
Beren clenched his fists. "We need to get back to the castle," he said. "As long as I'm away, and they're in there, the Realm is not safe."
"But what about the army of unGifted Denahlia has?" Erlis pointed out. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Rayne, meanwhile, squinted hard at Beren. "Who're you, exactly?"
Beren stared back equally as hard. "If indeed you were once a Peacekeeper, then that would make me your commander-in-chief. I am King Beren, your rightful ruler."
Rayne bounded to his feet with an oath, and abruptly, a fireball sprang to life in the hand of the boy standing beside him, while the healer's arms lengthened and broadened, ending with hard scales and claws. Beren skipped producing any water and went straight for his ice powers, lowering the temperature in the room by several degrees.
"I definitely saw that coming," muttered Allen.

Rayne glanced from one to the other, wild-eyed. "Why do I always have to be the only unGifted in the room?" he whined.
Jade stepped forward, beckoning for the others to back off. "You don't have to be afraid," she said softly. "I don't have a Gift, but I can--"
"Aww, is it a party and nobody thought to invite me?" A voice interrupted her from a dark corner of the already-dim room. A shadow so thick that not even light from Damaris' fire could reach it congealed into the shape of a man. He grinned at them.
"Troy!" Jade breathed.
He waved a black-gloved hand. "Hiya, sis! What say we kick it up a notch?"
Jade lunged for him as he gestured toward the group. "NO!"

Beren felt his whole body grow stiff and numb as the ice powers went from "uncomfortable" to "deep freeze" in a single breath. In addition to freezing the moisture in the air around him, Beren himself turned into a solid block of frozen man. Erlis shrieked as her body yet again elongated into her dragon form. Damaris regretted keeping the flame in his hand as he saw it expand and engulf his body without any direction from him.
"It's happening again!" he screamed, in case anyone could help him.
Erlis the dragon roared and grabbed Beren--protected from the inferno by his frozen exterior--and burst from the building as it collapsed. Troy himself escaped, and brought Jade with him, but the two were still locked in combat.
"What do you think you're doing?" She snarled at him.
"Who says you get to have all the fun with your 'fair and balanced' delusions?" Troy fired back, deflecting a blow from her fist. "I'm giving these people what they want!"
"You're killing them!"
Troy hesitated to reply as the building they had been in collapsed in a burning heap.
Jade looked down in horror. "Damaris!" she cried.
"He'll be fine!" Troy waved her off.
Jade glared at him, tears glistening in her eyes. "And what about Rayne, the unGifted? Or Allen? Wouldn't you have wanted to recruit him for your precious Cleansing?"
Troy shrugged. "Um, as for the one--unGifted aren't really my thing, you know? And second..." He grinned maliciously. "He totally saw it coming, you have to admit!"
Secure in Erlis' grasp, Beren revived just in time to witness the two siblings hovering in midair, staring each other down.
"This needs to end!" Jade declared.
"Oh honey," Troy laughed, "I'm just getting started!" He motioned with his arm as if tossing something at her, and Beren saw her vanish in a burst of white light.
"No!" he screamed, and frantically thrust his arm toward the shadow. A giant icicle formed off the end of his palm, and shot straight for Troy's back, piercing him clean through in the same place Rayne had put his sword not long ago.
Troy looked at the frozen point protruding from his chest, red with his blood. Spitting a curse, he dropped out of the sky and landed hard on the street below. Erlis slowly came to land next to him, keeping a heavy foot-claw pressed on his battered body. She let Beren go, and he collapsed next to the smoking, blackened heap that was once a building with people inside--at least two of which he counted as friends.
A familiar chiming sound reached his ear, and Beren looked up. A glowing, winged, star-like figure hovered in front of his face.
"Jade?" he gasped.
"I'm sorry," she responded in her fairy voice. "He did it again because he thinks it weakens me."
Beren sighed. "So what are we going to do this time? I'm already King, so it can't be that way--"
"Beren." Jade floated over to stand on his shoulder, facing the building. "We can't worry about that now. Like you said, we need to get back to the castle. At the very least, you should be able to take your rightful place without anyone trying to take you away again. If it means I always remain a fairy, then so be it."
Beren watched the fire. "So... what about Damaris?" he glanced at Erlis. "He survived, right?"
Erlis bobbed her head. She could sense him, though the rubble was too deep for her to reach him.
Beren glanced at Jade. "Do you think maybe you could--"
She flew in a circle. "I'm too small to carry him out, but maybe..." She flew into the dark heap and disappeared.
Beren heard Erlis grunt, and it prompted him to glance back to where she had trapped Troy. As was typical, he had managed to disappear, leaving behind a gleaming trail of blood showing exactly where he went. Beren patted Erlis on the foreleg. "Leave him," he said. "His time will come."
"I've got it!" Jade chimed from inside the building. She emerged a little later, her gold light mixed with a blue one. She flew over and dropped Korsan's talisman into Beren's hand. "Damaris is still alive, but the force of the collapse knocked him unconscious. I think it's time for the Mage to become whole again."
Beren nodded. "There's no telling what Zayra has tried to do to him while we've been separated!" He handed the talisman back to Jade. "You'll get there faster if you fly alone. Take this to him, and Erlis and I will follow you."
Jade landed in his palm next to the totem, almost as big as she was. "Are you sure we should be separate like this?" 
Beren nodded. "You can defend yourself. I think that if things keep progressing the way they are, nobody--Gifted or unGifted--should be left vulnerable."
The little fairy picked up the fiery blue talisman and flew off into the night.
Beren climbed up Erlis' foreleg and onto her shoulders. "Let's fly!" he said.
<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>


Monday, April 24, 2017

Reader's Review: Three Stellar Novellas!

Since these tales were considerably smaller than your average novel (and I basically finished two of them over the weekend, I decided to compile them all together into one post.

Tomoiya's Story: Escape to Darkness
C. A. King

Synopsis from Amazon:

This series is the perfect addition to any Vampire fan's collection.

Space travel. To some it is an advancement; a way to meet new races, learn new traditions; explore new cultures - a chance to expand the mind with knowledge of the unknown. To others, it is nothing more than a new outlet of resources to exploit and destroy. To the naive and trusting it is a recipe for disaster. The question of whether or not venturing into the realm of the stars is worthwhile, is a topic that will be argued for generations to come.

The Universe - vast and never ending. It recycles within itself. What happened before comes full circle and occurs again. Some call it fate - others destiny.

Two different ages - Two vampire princesses.

Two stories - one written in a book - the other about to begin.

Escape To Darkness tells the tale of Allaynie, a vampire whose tears are worth a fortune. A chance meeting on her wedding day changes her whole existence.
and
Woden, a man to whom greed is merely good business. Hunting is his trade. He'll do anything to collect her unique tears for profit, even chase her into darkness.

>>>>>>>>>>>>
 
My Review: 
 
I got this book in a bundle along with the first couple books in her other series as a giveaway. I wasn't sure what to expect, but at least I knew there were going to be vampires. I'm not typically a huge fan of that trend, but I decided to give it a try.

I am glad I did! It's not just vampires; it's a whole alien race that is misunderstood by most and hunted down by the rest. She takes the typical vampire lore and turns it into something heart-wrenchingly lovely. We cheer for Allaynie, and shiver whenever Woden is mentioned. I liked it because, as short as it was, it still had plenty of food for thought and inspiration for imagination!  The story carves deep into the nature of prejudice, and the lengths some people will go to get what they want at the expense of someone else. It feels like a prequel to something grand and amazing, because it is. Tomoiya's Story is a series about to begin!
 
Genre: Paranormal Urban Fantasy
Rating: ****
 
<<<<<<<>>>>>> 
 
Burn Artist (Hound of Eden #0.5)
James Osiris Baldwin

Synopsis from Amazon:
When stuff gets too weird for the Mob to handle, hitmage Alexi Sokolsky is the guy they call to fix it.
1986, New York City. The Russian Mafia is neck-deep in a Wall Street heist worth millions, but things heat up when a mage from a rival gang is hired to force the Russians to back down from the deal. As the magic flies and men burn, Alexi must hunt the murderer in a feverish game of cat-and-mouse – not only to protect the Organizatsiya, but his friends and family as well. The only thing is, to honor his contract, Alexi must also save his worst enemy.

His father.

Set 5 years before Blood Hound, Burn Artist is a prequel to the series which reveals more about Alexi’s past. What were the events that shaped him? Why did he murder his own father? And what are his true feelings for his best friend?
 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
 
My Review: 
 
After reading Blood Hound and largely enjoying it (except a few really trippy parts that went too far down the rabbit hole for my tastes!) I went ahead and signed up for Baldwin's mailing list, which meant I got this novella for free! 
All that aside, this one made me really excited. It was like a story boiled down to the elements I actually enjoyed about Blood Hound—Alexi being a wizard, tapping into powers and abilities to be able to fight malevolent entities, but also Alexi as a person struggling with how to connect to the people and the world around him. Actually getting to see his interactions with his father help me understand his deep-abiding resentment that still affects him in Blood Hound. And watching him interact with repeat characters, already knowing what secrets they hide that will be revealed later, but for now Alexi doesn't know... Well done. I was very pleased with this story!
 
Genre: Paranormal Urban Fantasy
Rating: ***** 

<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>

Tiger's Shadow (Therian Way #0.5)
Kimberly Rogers
 
Synopsis from Amazon:
 
It’s not easy having an older brother. It’s worse when your brother is the paragon of the Therian Way. Madoc knows he can’t live up to his brother’s reputation. Sometimes the only way out of the Tiger’s shadow is to rebel . . .
>>>>>>>>

My Review:

I saved the best for last! Only because out of the three novellas in this post, I am already an obsessed fan girl over the Therian Way series. 

I will read anything from this series. Absolutely ANYTHING. It's another prequel novella, so dealing with the way things were before Baran met Raina... but it follows the trend of "dual narrators", dividing its points of view between Baran and his brother Madoc. Madoc is resentful of the way his brother adheres so strongly to the Therian Way—but not in the same "loosen up, Tiger!" way that Raina is. While Raina wants to see Baran relax to not be so hard on himself, Madoc just wants his brother to leave him alone, wants to get away from the pressure of always being overshadowed by Baran's "religious perfection", and most of all, he's not handling the guilt and the rebellion very well. I see it as introducing his character into the established timeline of the main series, and I am VERY excited!
 
Genre: Urban High Fantasy
Rating: ***** 
 
<<<<<<<>>>>>>>
 
Be sure to check out the Reader's Reviews page for more literary goodness!

 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 2 Part 5--"Unleashed"

This week's most-nominated character:Captain Edri Rodan, "The Lion"
Season 2, Part 5
"Unleashed"
 
Jaran clenched his fist as the blue lightning crackled around it. Every thump on the wooden surface of the door left a black, singed imprint.
"Beren!" He yelled. He heard his brother scream, heard Zayra proclaim herself queen—

Jaran stumbled back down the hall as he felt her influence buzzing around his ears. Clearly she resented him for the pain he'd caused—but how could he have known? Now his brother was in mortal danger; he could only hope that the Angel had somehow managed to save his brother.

Jaran dashed down the hall. He couldn't do this alone.
"Azelie!" He called.
The fair maiden emerged from the doorway leading to the back courtyard.
"I am here," said her thoughts. "What happened? Where is the King?"

High in the west tower, the door slammed open and Queen Zayra descended. They could hear voices, a lot of shouting—but none was clear enough.
"Zayra," Jaran whispered. "She..."
He couldn't quite form the words, but Azelie read his mind. She gasped. "She killed him?"
Jaran hung his head. "No, at least I hope not. I don't know."
The young woman shook her head. "She is completely insane."
Jaran heard somebody scream in the atrium. "What was that?"
Azelie pursed her silent lips. "I've been trying to find out, but there are too many voices, and some of them have changed. It sounds like Edri is trying to—" she stopped and gasped. "Erlis is free!"
"Free?" Echoed Jaran aloud. "You mean she isn't a dragon anymore?" He turned toward the doorway, but Azelie grabbed his hand. "No! Don't go out there, it's not safe!"

Jaran pulled away just as a series of explosions rocked the ground beneath them. Part of the wall before them collapsed, and he glimpsed a few bodies flying through the air like the toys of some giant child. A bright light filled the space—Jaran knew it could only come from Aurelle—and then there seemed to be a lot of shouting.

"AFTER THEM!" Zayra shrieked. "FIND THEM!"
A wolf howl sent the chills racing down Jaran's spine, and then the castle lay eerily still.
Queen Zayra gave an order, and the scuffling steps of servants rushed to obey, but around the young man and young woman standing absolutely still in the back room, the dust settled and nothing else moved.
We need to leave, Jaran thought.
"That is a wise choice, I think," Azelie's voice responded in his head.
Jaran turned, and his foot scraped against the floor as his shoulder brushed a few pebbles from the crumbled wall.
 
"What was that?" Queen Zayra's voice came sharply from the next room.
 
Jaran quickly scuttled toward Azelie and the two friends slipped behind the door leading to the east tower just as servants entered the back room along with soldiers to move the rubble.
"I don't get it," Jaran wagged his head. "How could they just follow her like that? I mean, everybody saw my brother's coronation, didn't they?"
Azelie watched him. "Do you remember how it felt when she sent you out of the room?" She asked.
Jaran nodded. "It was like my body just went numb, and it was just something I was going to do anyway."
"That is her Gift," Azelie stated. "She can enthrall people into doing what she wants, and she can even manipulate reality in small ways when she is sufficiently motivated." The pretty girl shrugged. "She is the reason I lost the ability to speak. She ordered me to stop talking, and I haven't been able to utter a sound since."
Jaran slumped against the wall in the dark, narrow stairwell. "How can we stop someone so powerful?"

"Jaran?" Korsan's voice resounded from above.
Jaran and Azelie looked up at the two familiar faces on the landing above them.
"Korsan!" Jaran raced up the steps. Aurelle stood just behind the old Mage. "But you were in there," Jaran gestured back toward the main hall. "How did you get back here?"
Aurelle smiled. "I turned us both invisible in the flash, and we snuck back here."
 
Korsan nodded. "We both knew that being outside the castle wasn't safe because that would be the first place Zayra would search for us, and we couldn't get far—I'm still pretty weak from the dragon's claws." He reached down and fumbled at his belt. Horror spread across his features as he looked down. "Blast!"
"What is it?" Aurelle asked.
"My talisman," Korsan answered, "it's gone!"
"What do you use it for, anyway?" Asked Jaran. "I see you holding it from time to time, but I never understood why."
 
Korsan slumped into a nearby chair. "It serves as a reservoir of magic so I can cast spells without taxing myself. It also protects me from being harmed by other Gifts."
 
Aurelle watched him. "That's why you could still recover after being injured so badly by Erlis."
 
Korsan nodded. "I don't know where it could have gone," he said.
 
"It might still be here in the castle," Azelie offered.
 
The Mage stared at the young woman. "I wondered why you didn't speak..." he murmured slowly.
Aurelle sighed and glanced toward the door. "It must have come off when we were trying to escape Troy."
"Who is Troy?" Jaran tipped his head.
 
The Illusionist shivered. "He calls himself an Abnormal, and Gifts don't really affect him. He's the one who has been messing with our Gifts—causing the surges."
 
"That was him?" Jaran's eyes widened; didn't the Angel in Beren's room claim to be an Abnormal as well? Were they possibly related somehow? "But why would he do that?"
 
Korsan stroked his beard. "He claims that he is only allowing Gifted people to achieve their full potential—"
 
"But at the same time," Aurelle interjected, "his surge in Edri turned poor Velora into an actual wolf." She scoffed, "He doesn't seem to care about that like we do. And he's got Zayra's trust, so that tells you how dangerous things are going to get for us."
 
Jaran huffed and began pacing. "We have to find Beren, make sure he's okay."
"Where did you last see the King?" Korsan asked.
Jaran's face fell. "After the coronation, Zayra surprised us. She forced me out of the room—Jade was there—"
"I'm sorry," The Mage interrupted. "Jade?"
 
"She's the other Abnormal," Jaran explained. "Remember when we first met my brother, when he had no memories and this fairy companion named Jay? Yeah, apparently this Troy person cursed her to be tiny like that unless she could bring the Crown Prince, my brother, back to sit on his throne. So now she is human-size again."
 
Korsan nodded slowly. "So Jade was with your brother when Zayra expelled you from the room?"
"Yes," Jaran replied.
"Then perhaps we can hope that she managed to protect the King; she has certainly managed to do that so far."
 
"But what do we do now?" Jaran demanded.
Before anyone could reply, the door to the tower opened.
"What's this?" The sergeant cried. "All of you stay where you are! Nobody move!"
 
He had a line of sight on Korsan and Jaran standing at the top of the stairs, but Aurelle moved only slightly. She gripped Azelie's hand and faded into the wall behind them.
 
The Mage and the prince stood helplessly as more soldiers stormed up and grabbed their wrists to drag them back into the open. No one noticed the two ghostly forms drifting along behind them all the way to the throne room. Twenty servants crouched under a thrall so thick, Jaran could practically see it; they did nothing but scrub at the layer of soot coating the stone, scrub till the marble showed underneath, scrub till their hands were raw and bleeding.
 
Upon the blackened throne, a young woman in a pale dress sat, his brother's crown upon her head. 
"What have we here?" Her eyes lit up when she saw the prisoners.
"We found these two hiding in the east tower, your highness," said the sergeant. He shoved Jaran roughly in the shoulder. "Kneel before the queen!"
"No!" Jaran grunted. "Rather, it is she who should kneel before me!"
Queen Zayra pinched her lips at his response. "The man said kneel, boy!" She rose to her feet; the soot did not so much as stain her dress. "Kneel before me!"

It happened again; his mind blanked, and before he could focus enough to think, Jaran was already kneeling. Korsan dropped to his knees beside the prince. 
"I cannot resist without the talisman," hissed the Mage. "My only consolation is that she may have my body, but in my mind, I am bowing to the True King of the Realm, King Beren."
Jaran tried to use his mind to convince his body to stand, but it was no use.

Above them, the Queen gloated. "Ah, Troy was right! Power feels good. I amass an army of souls, Gifted and unGifted, all mine to command." She sat upon her throne. "And now with a prince and a wizard at my side, there is no one in the Realm who can stop me!" She laughed heartily, setting the vaulted ceilings ringing with the sound that chilled Jaran to his core.
It was the sound of madness, all-powerful and unleashed.
~<>~<>~<>~<>~

Kaidan watched the stranger very closely, but though Troy met his gaze with twinkling, black eyes, there was something unnerving and incorporeal about his features. 
 
Beside him, the Hunter tensed. "What do you mean, achieve our full potential?" She hissed, her hand gripping the hilt of the knife on her hip.
Kaidan leaned forward. "I'm more interested in how you propose to garner all that prestige and power. How would you know what we deserve?"
 
Troy grinned. "I know, dear boy, because I experienced it once. A long time ago, Gifted humans were revered as deities. Myths portrayed them as the children of gods, and legends extolled their every accomplishment as a genuine miracle for generations!" A sneer flickered across his face. "Then technology came, and the unGifted could suddenly make machines to mimic what the Gifted could do, and suddenly the people didn't NEED gods anymore."
 
Javira remained upright, a sharp contrast to her brother currently leaning over the table with a hungry gleam in his eye, drinking in every whispered syllable Troy uttered. "So why should we presume to undo this progress society has made? Isn't it just a thankless cry for attention?"
 
Troy transferred his attention to her. "Tell me," he whispered, "are you truly happy with the Gift you wield? Knowing that it was never intended to be yours anyway, knowing that your own Gift could have been the thing that saved your mother, instead of causing her death? Are you happy, Javira, that this Gift, forced upon you by your father, motivated your mother to kill your father and herself? Are you content with influencing the death of those you love?"
 
Javira opened her mouth to speak, but the grief gripped her throat as the tears trickled down her cheeks. "I didn't..." she stammered pitifully. "It wasn't me!"
Troy smiled. "But think about it, my dear: it couldn't possibly have been anyone else."
"ENOUGH!" Denahlia roared, slamming the knife blade-first into the table. 
 
The spell was broken. Javira felt Kaidan's arms around her as she sobbed and tried to regain composure.
The Hunter glared at the cocksure Shadow. "No more games, Troy. Either you tell us what you are really up to, or I will run you through again—only this time, I cut you into little pieces so you can't come back again!"
 
Troy leaned back and raised his black-gloved hand. "Whoa, now; there's no need for such extreme measures, Madame Hunter. I am fully prepared to guarantee everything I am offering. This is no game."
Kaidan viewed the man with slightly less awe, after what he had just done to Javira, but the guarantee sounded nice. "So what would you offer?" He asked. "What is this utopian future you think you can guarantee?"
Troy folded his hands. "I'm offering the chance for Gifted people to rise up and take power."
 
"In the Realm?" Denahlia snorted. "They already have power. Balwyn's whole family was Gifted, and now under King Beren, they are no longer outcasts."
Troy shook his head. "I'm not talking about merely being accepted by unGifted as functioning members of society. We are Gifted; we should be masters over the rest of our race!"
 
Kaidan felt the thrill at his words. Masters! Unstoppable!
Denahlia snorted. "And you are the only one who can make it so?" She sneered.
Troy shrugged. "Consider the upgrades I've given you; do you honestly think you could have done that by yourself?"
Denahlia hesitated, but Troy went right on talking. "And it might interest you to know that King Beren isn't on the throne."
 
Denahlia frowned. "He isn't? But I saw the proclamation announcing his coronation just yesterday."
 
Troy smiled. "I paid a visit to the palace, myself. I tried offering the same things to the others, but unfortunately my idiot sister was there, and she spirited the young king away to who-knows-where. The only person to take me up on the offer was that marvelous little Queen you have locked up in there."
"Zayra?" Javira cried.
Denahlia rolled her eyes. "You gave an upgrade to Zayra?" This could not end well.
 
Troy shrugged. "Like I said, she was the only one to agree with me. Jade had already sunk her impeccable claws into the minds of everyone else there."
Kaidan blinked. "But if Zayra is now in charge..." he trailed off as the inspiration leached over into his sister. 
Javira smiled. "We've had her once; we can get her again."
 
Troy grinned. "And the Gifted shall inherit the earth, and all dominion shall be given over to them," he quoted.
 
Javira frowned. "But there are so many unGifted," she said. "Surely they would not take very well to someone asserting control over them."
Troy shrugged. "That's where Gifts like thrall come in handy. I would say get rid of them all and create a society of only Gifted people, but as matters stand, unGifted are suited for servitude, menial labor, and little else. Every ruler needs their lackeys, and we'll have plenty of rulers to go around!" He threw back his head and laughed.

"You forget, Shadow."
The laughter died in his throat when he felt the cold edge of a knife on his neck.
 
Denahlia, her turquoise-colored, hypnotic gaze glowing next to him, whispered savagely in his ear.
"I have seen and felt what it is to have so much power that you depend on someone else to give you orders." She swept her gaze around the room, igniting a turquoise gleam in many more pairs of eyes. A group of burly seamen drifted forward and surrounded the Twins.
 
"It's called being a mercenary, and you want to know something funny about mercenaries? We hate being on a contract." She pressed the blade closer and deeper with every utterance of the word. "We hate abiding by someone else's rules, whether we get paid or sent away with the bullshit line about keeping our lives." A nod from her, and the pirates grabbed the two siblings. Troy still wouldn't dare to move, even as the blood beaded around the blade now puncturing his skin. 
 
"And we really don't take kindly at being called somebody's lackey." She brought the knife down hard, aiming for Troy's chest, but the knife connected with the back of the chair he had been sitting in. Troy himself vanished.

Scowling but not venting her frustration, Denahlia sheathed her knife and gestured to every unGifted person in the tavern. They all gathered around her.
"Javira!" Kaidan hissed. "Do something!"
"I'm trying!" She whispered back. "Whatever she's done to them, they won't respond to me!"
"Shut up!" Denahlia barked. "This Hunter is calling her own mission this time! You two are headed back to the palace dungeons where you imprisoned so many others, and we'll just see how much power the Gifted ones have when the entire population of unGifted are unleashed upon them!"
~<>~<>~<>~<>~

Jade carefully drew her wings close about her as they crested yet another dune in their trek toward the forest. She glanced at Beren, marching stolidly next to her, but his face had solidified into a permanent frown as his mind focused on something else besides their endless walk. At least, she hoped he was thinking about something else right now, and not about the last time he had been with her in the wilderness, heading toward the forest. The guilt hit her again as she remembered how furious he had been, taking her actions as betrayal simply because he lacked the memory to know how necessary it was to do what she did. Now here they were, wandering the wilderness yet again, ostensibly no closer now than they had been before he got his memories back.
The words came out before she considered them. "I'm sorry."
Beren blinked away from his thoughts and glanced at her. "Hm, what?"
 
Jade sighed and ran her finger along the edge of her wingfeathers. "I was just thinking of how much trouble I've caused, all for the sake of what I thought was right--all the lies and half-truths, when I thought I couldn't reveal who you really were. I'm sorry for not telling you the truth sooner."
 
Beren sighed; his face held slightly less anger now when she knew he was recalling those moments. This made her wonder what he had been so frustrated at just moments before.
"I forgive you, Jade," Beren said softly. "Like you said, you were doing what you thought was right, and looking back on it now, I can agree that it probably was. Neither of us could have predicted what happened to us along the way." His eyes drifted to the healer walking calmly ahead of them, recalling how she had been the first person to meet him upon his return to the realm he was meant to rule. "All the friends we've made--"
"And enemies uncovered," Jade added wryly, thinking of Troy and the havoc he had only begun to cause among the Gifted population.
 
"That too," Beren agreed with a nod. He glanced at Jade--more specifically, at her wings. "If you don't mind my asking, how exactly was your brother able to shrink you like that, and make it so that you would not be able to change size till I had reclaimed my father's throne?"
 
Jade shrugged. "To be honest, I never expected him to do something like that, either. One moment we were talking, and the next, I was small enough for him to hold in his hand. Perhaps he gets the ability from the same source as his power to manipulate Gifts." She shook her head. "I'm his sister, and I don't even know. All I do know is that he should not have escaped, and his campaign of corruption is my responsibility, and as such it is my duty to see that he is stopped."
Beren stopped and peered at the Angel closely. "Escaped from where?" he asked. "Where did you two come from? How is it your responsibility?"

FWOOOSH!!
"Incoming!"
 
Jade instinctively wrapped her arms and her wings around Beren as a jet of fire blasted toward them, and the warning came too late.
Once the danger had passed, Beren shoved the feathers out of his way as he stormed toward the young fire-starter. 
"What do you think you're doing?" he screamed in Damaris' face. 
 
The boy cringed before the enraged man. "I'm sorry! I was just holding the talisman and I felt the fireball building up in my other hand, and it's normally not that large and I totally wasn't expecting it to do that, I wasn't aiming for you on purpose, I swear--"
"Damaris," Jade came up behind Beren and laid a hand on the boy's arm. "It's all right, calm down."
 
Damaris heaved a shuddering sigh and his chin trembled as he tried not to burst into tears. He held up the talisman. "This thing is really powerful. I can't help feeling that Korsan is in mortal danger every moment that he doesn't have it."
Jade nodded. "I know; we're going the safest route I know. We don't want to take the normal paths because unfortunately those would take us right into danger and it would take even longer to be in any capacity to return his talisman safely, without it falling into the wrong hands."
 
Erlis joined the group. "I think we've been walking far enough for one day," she said. "We should rest for a bit before continuing." She pointed to a concave wall that served as a decent shelter against the elements. "That looks like a good place."
When they were all seated, Damaris handed the talisman to Erlis and attempted to start a fire for their little camp. The ensuing fireball required Beren to quench more than half of it to get it down small enough to be useful, but no one voiced any resentment. Erlis even shared a recollection in an attempt to console him.
 
"You remind me of a young assistant who used to help me in the palace apothecary," she mused. "She could produce a blue flame in her hands that was perfect for brewing the most delicate medicines, though she was often frustrated that it was good for little else." She smiled. "Now there was someone who had a bit too much control over her flame. She was always afraid to let it grow any bigger than the small ones."
"Hmph," Damaris grunted. "I had hoped Korsan would teach me how to control the flame, but everything happened too fast for him to have any time. So now I'm a danger to everyone around me." Unlucky! crowed the voice from his past. "I've always been unlucky," he mourned aloud.
 
Erlis grasped his hand, her dragon-scales protecting her from the small gouts of flame dancing on his skin. "I am sure if we make it at least as far as the harbor, we can find this woman, and she can train you."
Damaris raised hopeful eyes to the woman beside him. "You really think she could?"
The healer nodded. "Absolutely." She glanced over at the King and the Angel. "As long as the others don't mind a small detour."
Beren prodded the fire with a stick. "I guess I wouldn't mind seeing just how many Gifted people there are in the Realm, if I am ever going to take my place to rule over them."
 
Jade smiled. "That, I think, is also the key to making sure my brother cannot damage the Realm too deeply. He wants to separate the people and keep them weak and dependent on villains like him; the best way to combat that is for us all to band together and unify of our own accord." 
 
Erlis offered her other hand to Beren. "Troy made a lofty speech about Gifted people reaching their true potential--I say we show him what the Outcasts are truly capable of!"
Beren took her hand and smiled. They would stand together on this, no matter what.
~<>~<>~<>~<>~
 
Edri could feel the tension building as they delved deeper into the forest. The alpha wolf--Velora--darted through the undergrowth ahead of them, her powerful senses combing the area as she raced forward. Abruptly, she stopped.
"What is it?" Edri pushed forward.
 
Velora immediately turned and snarled at her, not relenting until Edri stopped at a respectful distance and waited for the wolf to move.
The leaves bore traces of blood. Velora whined and scraped at the ground the rough symbol of a crown. The blood belonged to King Beren, then--but how had he survived such a fall from the castle tower?
"King Beren?" Justin grunted behind her. "I thought we were supposed to find the Mage and his illusionist friend."
"I know!" Edri snarled. "But if there's one thing I also know about these Outcasts, it is that they tend to band together. Find one, and others aren't usually far away."
Justin scuffed his boot on the ground. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else but right there, but at the same time, a certain compulsion kept him from just walking away. Velora let out a sustained growl, but continued tracking the scents deeper into the forest.

Edri knew the conflict Justin felt because she battled it, herself. There was her natural compulsion to do the right thing, to defend the innocent from injustice--but that was steadily being overridden by Queen Zayra's thrall, disguised as her fierce loyalty to "a soldier's duty."
She glanced at Justin. "I've wondered, since the last time we talked," she began.
He snorted. "You mean the time you took a lion's claw to the face for the sake of a man who could make flowers?"
The resentment built inside her. Edri returned to her soldier's training to squelch it back down again. "Yes; if you knew I was Gifted, all that time ago--"
Justin smirked. "Yeah, I knew."
"Why didn't you turn me in, then?"
 
Justin stopped and faced Edri. She half-expected some kind of noble struggle, about knowing what was right and wanting to do things for the benefit of the Realm.
"Honestly?" Justin retorted. "I knew that the moment I turned you in, I would never see you again."
 
Edri squinted and frowned. "What do you mean?"
 
Justin rolled his eyes. "I like you, Edri Rodan! There, I said it," he threw up his hands. "I didn't understand what these Gifts were, or why it was such a crime to have them if at least some people were harmless and others did good things with their Gifts, but I knew that the minute I reported what I knew about you, possibly both of us could end up dead." He snorted and wagged his head. "And now look at us, wandering through the woods and beholden to a lunatic queen who should have been Outcast a long time ago--"
 
"Shhh!" Edri froze in her tracks as alarm bells triggered in her intuition. It was far too dark in this part of the forest, far too quiet. She couldn't see anything--not even Velora, though she could still hear the panting somewhere in front of her.
"Velora?" she whispered.
The panting continued, overlaid by a long, sustained growl. The bushes rustled all around them, and Edri realized something was very wrong.
"AMBUSH!" she screamed, and the whole forest came alive with fur and teeth and claws.
 
Velora howled as her pack descended on the pair. Justin used his telekinesis to keep the beasts at bay, creating a bubble around himself, taking down the pack by snapping bones and throwing the wolves against the trees. 
Edri depended on her armor to protect her, struggling to get the metal plates into the snapping jaws whenever she could. Her heart accelerated in her chest. She found it harder to breathe as shadows danced in front of her eyes. Desperately she fought on, but she knew it would only be a matter of time before one of the wolves got the better of her. Sure enough, the keen sting of a claw found its way into her unprotected side, ripping it open. Edri went down with a cry--but as her hands connected with the ground, she felt something twitch inside her, like slipping into another suit of chain mail. Her senses dilated, a new strength filtered into her muscles, and with one last painful wrench, Edri knew she had become something else. She opened her mouth to scream in Velora's face, but the sound that came out was a roar of such magnitude that it sent the wolf pack practically tumbling over themselves to get away. She saw Justin staring at her in horror, his back pressed against a tree where the pack had cornered him.
"Edri?" he whispered hollowly.

She looked down at her hands and saw the massive paws of a lion. Fierce, loyal, and impenetrably strong, she had become the thing she had so long contained inside. Edri turned on Velora; as an alpha wolf she had been very much a threat to the two humans, but now that one of the humans was a fully-grown lion, the alpha wolf looked small and vulnerable. 
Edri didn't doubt that Velora knew this. The she-wolf crouched before the king-of-beasts, whimpering softly. Edri raised a paw to send the pup flying across the forest in retaliation for the ambush. Velora barked once.

A second wave of wolves, nearly as large as the first, leaped out of the bushes where they had waited while Justin and Edri slaughtered their pack-mates. Edri wasn't entirely sure of her new lion form, so when these efficient creatures attacked this time, she could not defend against their speed and agility. Jaws and claws ripped into her sides and flanks. Edri could crush a few spines and swipe at the wolves heading for her soft throat, but all too soon, her world spun and her vision went black as all sound faded.

A stiffness and a piercing, burning sensation jerked Edri back to wakefulness. She tried to moan, but the sound didn't come from a human voice. She was still a lion, then. A woman crouched next to her. Edri could smell her, though her eyes refused to focus. One thing she did notice, though it didn't make much sense as she drifted back into unconsciousness: the woman seemed to be tending Edri's wounds with her bare hands, spreading a poultice over each and then cauterizing it with a blue flame cradled in her palm...
~<>~<>~<>~<>~