Monday, February 19, 2018

Reader's Review: "Angel Eclipsed" by C. L. Coffey

Synopsis from Amazon:

Six weeks ago, Angel earned her wings. Six weeks ago, Angel killed an innocent person. Six weeks ago, Angel set Lucifer free.

Michael doesn't accept that Lucifer is alive, let alone free, and he should know – he was the one to kill him. Thankfully, Veronica and the cherubim are on her side, only they seem more interested in proving Michael wrong than helping put Lucifer back in hell.

Then there’s Joshua. Angel is convinced that the best way for her charge to stay alive is for her to stay away. The problem is that Michael is adamant she remain his guardian angel.

Can Angel keep her charge and New Orleans safe from the evil that is lurking, or will her own demons be their downfall?


My Review:

Wow, what a ride!

Even though it's been more than a year since I read the first book in this series, I had no trouble leaping right back into the story. My love for the characters rekindled just as strongly as it had been the first time, and even more so, since Angel and Joshua seem to be getting closer--even as Angel is wracked with guilt over what had happened to him the last time she let him get too close to her. But what else can she do, as his guardian angel?
The challenge to write a strong sequel that both advances plot and character development and manages to leave some plot for the rest of the series, while not stagnating in the process, is a difficult one--but Coffey meets it head-on, and provides consistent, well-rounded characters meeting some perilous conflicts while in the process of furthering the objective introduced in Angel in Training.

The thing I love most about this series is that it follows the characters through some real-life struggles, most notably the "Imposter Syndrome" everyone can relate to, that nagging self-doubt that wonders if the effort is worth it, if you've made the right choice--whether you ought exist at all. Angel is questioning why she should be Joshua's guardian angel; Josh is questioning why he needs a guardian angel at all, and what part he could possibly play in the Grand Scheme; plenty of others are questioning Michael's leadership, as it seems their enemies know how to exist outside of his hitherto-unchallenged omniscience. There were reveals that had me slapping myself for not realizing the significance staring me in the face the whole time, and that's the brilliance of Coffey's work. The plot stands strong, the stakes are higher than ever, the angels are closer than ever before, though the enemy seems leagues ahead of them every step of the way--and I am absolutely committed to seeing this series through to the end!

It is entirely without reservation that I give ANGEL ECLIPSED a full *****5 STAR***** rating, and once again add an Upstream Writer Certified Totally Recommended endorsement! If you're looking for a paranormal series that's not all about teen romance, or overburdened with extreme peril merely for drama's sake; for a solid series with excellent characters, a plot that keeps you guessing, and an intensity that won't quit--The Louisiangel Series is a sure bet on every front!

Further Reading: (Supernatural/Paranormal/Excellent Characters/Intense Peril/Kickass Heroine)

Judah Black Series--E. A. Copen
-Guilty By Association
Alexi Sokolsky: Hound of Eden--James Osiris Baldwin
        -Burn Artist 
        -Blood Hound
 The Grave Reports--R. R. Virdi
        -Grave Beginnings
        -Grave Measures
        -Grave Dealings
Runespells--Sarah Buhrman
       -Too Wyrd
  The PSS Chronicles--Ripley Patton
       -Ghost Hand
       -Ghost Hold
       -Ghost Heart
       -Ghost Hope
The Books of Winter--R. R. Virdi
       -Dangerous Ways
Talented Series--Amy Hopkins
     -Dream Stalker
     -Barrow Fiend
The Firebird Fairy Tales--Amy Kuivalainen
       -The Cry of the Firebird
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd 
-A Spell in the Country--Morgan Smith
-The Seventh Crow--Sherry D. Ramsey 
The Red Dog Conspiracy--Patricia Loofbourrow
       -Jacq of Spades
The Jill Andersen Series--J. D. Cunegan
       -Blood Ties 
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 1

The bright sunlight sliced through the room at a definite angle, stiff and cold in its precision. Nearly half of the room fixed on what the instructor at the front of the room said, noting down the various algorithms and key points. Among the others, a few pretended to take notes while secretly smashing everything from gems to bugs and cookies under their fingertips. A pair of serious faces tapped away at their netbooks, but only those flanking them knew that the text on the screen had nothing to do with the current lecture, or even with chemical applications whatsoever.

As for me? I like to sit in the third row, two seats from the end. Not committed enough to be on the very edge of the row, but still close enough to the front to catch what the instructor is saying, without being in his or her direct line of sight. Also, being close to the front ensured that I would always be sitting among the more serious students, rather than the ones who apparently didn’t give a flying fig for this class.

“Which brings us to the question,” the professor at the front of the room ceased fussing with the unresponsive projector remote and moved straight into his wrap-up, “What is the significance of this gap in the geological strata?” he gestured back to the last slide, a cut-away of a cliff in Africa, revealing many kinds of fossils embedded across and within each layer save one wide swath of rock that barely contained any. “Use what we’ve learned to prepare a paragraph hypothesis as your writing assignment this week. Dismissed!”
The mad shuffle of papers and textbooks sliding into backpacks and bags commenced, and students vied for space as they headed out the door and split off toward different destinations. I took my time. I had ten minutes to get to my next lesson. I didn’t need to rush off. Besides, I was wearing my nice grey suede booties today, and I didn’t see any sense in getting them scuffed. As the number of students dwindled, a gap opened, and I seized it.

I hardly paid attention to the pressure on the crook of my arm until I had cleared the crowd, and it didn’t let up. I turned to see who it was at the same time the person asked, “Hey, can I borrow your notes from last week?”
I rolled my eyes. “Really, Tony? And the reason you couldn’t review, replay, and re-read all the material to get your own notes is...”
“Come on, Pris!” Tony tried his cool and casual smirk, “don’t be that way. I was sick on Thursday, that’s why I missed those notes.”
I smirked right back. “Are you sure it isn’t because you tend to zone out during these lectures?”
Tony huffed through closed lips. “Hey, it’s not like half the class isn’t doing the same thing.” He smiled. “We can’t all be history nuts like some people!”
I pouted and pretended to be all offended, when really I was proud of that very thing. Getting lost in another time period was a constant fantasy of mine. “Somebody’s gotta preserve the past; the more it disappears, the more we risk repeating the mistakes of our predecessors.”
“Speaking of repeating...” Tony capitalized on another opportunity. “Can I borrow your notes? I promise I’ll give them back!”
I checked my watch. Ten minutes had warped into five. I hadn’t even started across the quad yet. I was going to be late!
I studied my friend’s face. Tony and I had a friendship that went all the way back to grade school. He’d had my back then, when I was a scared little newcomer with no clue how this “school” thing was supposed to work. Tony wasn’t much older than I was, but he looked out for me, waiting for me to get off the bus, coaching me through the intricacies of my day, and fending off those who would try to take advantage of me.
Compared to that, what was a little note sharing now and then?
“Okay, here,” I acquiesced, handing over the requisite pages. “Just get them back to me before the end of the day. I need them before class tomorrow, so I can be ready for the quiz next Friday.”
“Sure thing,” Tony responded, keeping the stack neat and tidy, exactly the way I handed it to him. “I can have it back to you before Calculus tonight.”

I shrugged. “You’d better, I need those.” I fumbled with the strap on my satchel to close it. “On that note, I need to head to Ancient Civ class. We just reached the first century CE, and I’m supposed to be discussing the generational gap between the switch in time reckoning.”
Tony nodded absently. “Hey, a bunch of us from Econ are going out to Giordano’s tomorrow night; want to come?”
I could feel my thoughts spinning as soon as he asked. “Saturday? Well, I—“
A rolling murmur and a flurry of paper exploded just before the icy breeze swept through at just the right angle to slide across the space between us. We both gasped and curled up against the cold. As hard as it blew, the breeze died quick enough to leave shivering people and scattered documents in its wake. My skin tingled as I felt the air heat up several degrees, even though the sky remained just as clear as ever.
Tony relaxed the grimace on his face, as the wind blew his stiff hair into his eyes. “Ow, that hurt,” he grunted.
“I’ve gotta go,” I muttered, sighing and walking toward the building on the south side. “I’ll let you know about Saturday, okay?”
Tony waved. “Sounds good. See you later, Pris.”

I gave a little sigh of relief as I sank into a seat near the front of the room and hauled out her notes binder. My mood lifted as I reviewed the notes from the last session, the colors and the streaks of highlighter splashed over the page. Out of all the classes this semester, I enjoyed Ancient Civilizations the most. The close inspection of the lives of early societies gave me a thrill I just couldn’t find elsewhere. Being able to look back at the early records to decode a person’s search for meaning in their life provided a much-needed distraction from the disappointment and apathy I felt about life in the present.

Not to mention, the instructor, Gina Heathers, had proved uniquely qualified to handle the material in a way that made it memorable.

“All right, everyone!” she finished taking attendance and stood from her desk. I always admired the woman’s style, usually consisting of a small-print shirtdress with a chunky sweater layered over it, complementing her wavy auburn hair. “Let’s get started. We’ve been working on piecing together the lives of certain people groups in the Mediterranean region during the time period spanning the turn of the time reckoning, or as I like to call it, ‘Decoding Year Zero.’ Mikayla, you were looking at the differences in architecture,” she pointed to the girl with the frizzy hair slumped at a table near the door.
Mikayla raised and eyebrow and nodded mutely.
Ms. Heathers displayed all five names on the board, with checkboxes. “David, you covered the arts,” she checked the box next to Mikayla’s name and moved the cursor down the list. “I saw your DQ’s on the iBoard, nice work!” She checked the box as a young man near the middle of the room grinned at the praise.
The cursor moved to the next name, and the redhead sitting next to me promptly dumped her whole backpack onto the table in front of her.
Ms. Heathers tilted her head down to peer over her glasses. “Is everything all right, Cassie?”
Cassie swore, and I couldn’t help but stare askance at the mass of crumpled papers, random article pages, and general disorder sprawling next to her. “Fine! I just… I’m looking—“
The patient professor pursed her lips. “Do you have your assignment on the social ramifications of the generation gap, Cassie?”
The words hit me like that rogue breeze earlier. I stiffened in a mild panic as I read that very title across the top of my own notes. As Cassie continued to freak out and dig through various papers, I raised my hand.
“Yes?” Ms. Heathers gave me her full attention.
I held up the sheaf of papers. “Um, I wrote the notes for that topic this week.”
Ms. Heathers frowned. “You did?” She checked the list of assigned topics. “I wondered why your questions seemed a little off; I think you were supposed to look up the government structures and political hierarchy. Hmm…” she glanced over her notes. “I must have switched those when I gave out the assignments. Oh well,” she shrugged and moved on to the “Featured Presentations” slide. “I guess we can just go with what we have!”

The rest of the hour-long class trudged by, in spite of the lively discussion and thought-provoking questions Ms. Heathers would ask; how could I have gotten the assignment wrong? Ms. Heathers praised my work, and much was made of the fact that Cassie had not completed her work at all, claiming her projects in other classes as an excuse, but Ms. Heathers shook her head.
“Cassie, if you’re going to take the course, you’re going to need to do the assignments I give.”
The redhead crossed her arms and glared at the instructor as if it had been her fault instead of Cassie’s own.
“All right people,” Ms. Heathers addressed her class, “your next assignment will be to read Unit 3, Chapter 4, and complete the State of The World packet. Remember that I am checking my inbox every day, if you have any questions,” her eyes shifted to both Cassie and me in particular, “please, please do not hesitate to ask me!”
Everyone stood and packed their things. I slipped my binder back into the satchel, while Cassie shoved and stuffed loose papers back into her backpack. 

By the time I reached the main courtyard, the sun of the afternoon had disappeared, replaced by a grey, gloomy layer of clouds. Many of the students swarmed out of the lecture halls and toward the nearest dining commons, while others headed for the parking lot or bus stop.
I glanced back toward the tech lab, thinking of Tony tinkering away with circuit boards and wires, but I headed north, toward the towering roofs and pristine streets of the Hyde Park neighborhood. Tucked away in the very heart of the area, I took the road that curved around to a gate between two houses, with a sign proclaiming, “PRIVATE PROPERTY—NO TRESPASSING.”

The strap of my satchel was beginning to dig into my shoulder. I shifted its position as I entered the code that prompted the automatic gate to roll aside.
“Hold the gate!” a voice yelled behind me.

I looked over my shoulder, even though I knew exactly who it was. Only one person I knew had that booming voice that carried over crowds. Only one person looked big enough to take up professional wrestling as a hobby, and yet those who knew him knew that his personality more closely resembled a teddy bear. Only one person was rich enough to buy the largest lot in the neighborhood, yet at the same time completely comfortable walking past stately mansions, his shoulder-length ombre hair twisted in a messy man-bun, wearing nothing but a wetsuit. Even his feet were bare.

That person was Patrick Thiele, the man who adopted me.

“Hi, Dad,” I muttered to him as we walked through the gate together.
His arm curled around me, and he hugged me so close the smell of algae and lake water transferred from his wetsuit to my skin.
“Hey Nosy,” he still used his pet name, from when we first met and I was absolutely curious about everything around me. “Glad I caught you before it closed. How were classes today?”
I huffed. He’d slowed down to walk alongside me, but I was still taking twice as many paces as he was. “Oh, fine,” I gave the standard answer at first, amending with, “Except the part when I turned in the wrong assignment for Ancient Civ class.”
He threw back his head and laughed, prompting a chorus of protests from nearby pigeons in the trees lining the lane. Reaching up, he pulled out the hair tie holding his bun in place. A puff of sand accompanied it, falling over my shoulder as he shook his streaky hair loose. “So all that time you spent studying… all those discussions we had—“
“Yep, worthless,” I agreed. “Well, not quite; actually, the person who was supposed to discuss the turn of the millennia hadn’t done the assignment at all, so it wasn’t like I was being redundant, fortunately.”
“Yes, very fortunate!” Dad broke away as we came up to the house. Built on a slope, the back of the house faced the sun, so there were a lot of windows and a wide balcony for perfect views of both the sunrise on one side, and the sunset on the other. The front of the house had a lot of decorative stonework across the fa├žade, giving the illusion of a stately medieval manor.
“What about you?” I asked, nodding at the wetsuit. “How was sailing?” Dad owned a thirty-foot catamaran he would take out on Lake Michigan almost every day.
“Fantastic! The lake was in one of her moods today—but it’s more exciting that way, you know? It beats just taking the catamaran out for a skim when it’s calm,” he shrugged his burly shoulders.
The wind seemed to pick up again, and I remembered the freak breeze that had swept through the quad at school. I shook my head as Dad opened the massive front door.
“Honey?” he called. “We’re home!”

My mom—Patrick’s wife—came out of her office in the back on the east side of the house. Where Patrick tended to be tousled, laid back, and gregarious, she was more sleek, refined, and subtle. Aurelia DelVento was the youngest daughter of an oil baron, and the money she earned from oil fields all around the world went straight into supporting various charities and social funds. I knew she was also on the board of directors at the Smart Museum, and it was kind of her job to oversee the acquisition of antiquities, at least some of them, anyway.
She typically wore slacks and a formal top, even while working from home, but today she was dressed in a floor-length fire-red gown, and she’d had her hair professionally styled.

Dad let out a wolf-whistle, but Mom nailed him with a look that said Do not touch me.
“Patrick,” she cooed in her smooth, exotic accent. “What was our rule about you entering the house after you’ve been sailing?” She sounded like he was in trouble, but they smiled at each other. She gestured back toward the front of the house. “Use the mudroom shower, please. I’ll bring your suit down for you.”
Dad winked at me and responded with an eye roll, “Yes dear.” He clomped off to clean up.
Mom smiled at me, massaging my shoulders in a no-touch hug like she often did when she was dressed up and I wasn’t.
“How was school, Priscilla?”
“For the most part, it went well,” I answered, letting my satchel slide off my shoulder as I hopped up on one of the padded stools at the floating bar leading to the kitchen. “I’m really liking the classes I’m taking this semester.”
She nodded. “That’s good. You’d better get ready, too, if you’re going with us tonight.”
I frowned. “Going with? Where are we going?”
Mom blinked. “Priscilla, it’s April fourth—the fundraiser gala for your adoption agency, remember?”
April fourth; this time next week would be my “Got’Ya Day,” the day Patrick and Aurelia officially adopted me. Normally I was totally fine doing these things with them—they were my parents, after all, and the best ones I’d ever had.
Tonight, though, the urge to just change into my pj’s and not do anything was strong within me.
I shrugged. “Can’t, sorry, I have—“
“You said last week that your Linguistics class was canceled for the next couple weeks because your instructor had an emergency medical procedure, so you’d be taking it online until he was able to return.”
Snap, she had a point; my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I peeked at the screen to see a text from Tony asking if we would be fine meeting in front of the Regenstein Library. I looked back at my mother to find her face a picture of bland disapproval. “You’re thinking of meeting somebody?”
“Not for dinner,” I assured her. “It’s just Tony; he borrowed some of my notes today and wants to give them back.”
Aurelia pinched her lips. She was funny about house rules, one of which was that I shouldn’t be out walking late at night when she and Patrick weren’t home.
“Can you get them when you go to school tomorrow?”
“I need them for Study Hall first thing in the morning,” I objected, pulling away from her and flopping on the puffy leather couch. “It’s just to college and back—almost as if I still had that Linguistics class.” Why was this such a problem?
Mom glanced out the window. “It’s going to storm tonight, Priscilla; you know—“
“Then I’ll bring an umbrella!” Was she bound and determined to make me feel miserable no matter what I chose? “It’s not like I’m going to melt, I’m not made of sugar.”
“That’s not what—“

“Aurelia!” Patrick boomed, thumping into the room dressed in a jet-black tux. His long, wild locks had been somewhat tamed, smoothed back into a discreet braid and rolled at the nape of his neck, and he was just fastening his cufflinks. “I’m ready. Is Priscilla coming?” He stopped when he saw me sprawled on the couch.
Mom set her face, but her eyes spoke the disapproval. “No she isn’t; we still have an hour before our reservation.”
Dad’s disappointment held more sympathy than Mom’s did. “Aw, that’s too bad. Well, we’ll just have to plan something extra-special for next week to make up for it.” He wagged a finger at me, grinning behind his huge beard. “And no more excuses, young lady!”
Mom stepped into the hall closet to grab her coat and purse. She glanced back at me again.
“Umbrella, and you go straight there and come straight back, promise?”
I groaned; why did she have to treat me like I was seven? “Mom, I’m an adult—“
“Fine! It’s not like anything is going to happen, anyway!” I folded my arms and settled further into the couch so I wouldn’t see them leave.
“Don’t have too much fun without us!” Dad had a way of soothing my disagreements with mom by softening her warnings with a joke.
I took a deep breath. “I won’t!” I called over the back of the couch.

Once they left, I ordered dinner by delivery. After it arrived, I texted Tony to say I would be on my way soon. The weather had darkened considerably, and the threat of rain still hung in the air, but the musty humidity made it feel warm and gusty as opposed to cold. I grabbed an umbrella off the mudroom rack and headed back down toward the university.

Sure enough, I had just reached the edge of the campus when the deluge hit my umbrella with such fury it almost jumped out of my hands. I clung to it with both hands to keep it steady, even as the water ran over the pavement and plashed onto my shoes. When I turned down the street in front of the museum, a massive gust of wind whistled around the glass dome at the edge of the square and hit my umbrella square on. The force of it popped the canopy inside out, and briefly, I cringed as the rain pelted down and soaked through my sweater.
The icy wind slammed into me again, and it almost seemed like the raindrops immediately in front of me froze in place. My eyes registered something like a face in the air before me, but I wrestled the umbrella in front of me, using the wind to pop it back into place. The moment ended, but I was now soaked by the rain in spite of my umbrella, and marginally shaken by what I saw—or I thought I saw. I scurried under the eaves of the Regenstein and focused on finding Tony as soon as possible so that I could return home quickly.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Reader's Review: "Do You Trust Me?" by Kelly Blanchard

Synopsis from Amazon:

Still on the run from the Thymord Order, Lorrek begins remembering fragments of memories. They all center around a certain woman named Eldrila. Lorrek doesn't remember who she is or if she was important to him, and he doesn't understand why he is just now recalling these memories. It is almost as if a spell has been lifted. He can't focus on evading the Thymords as long as these memories keep resurfacing, so he searches through the magic realm to uncover what really happened in the past.

My Review:
Prequels are difficult things. Trying to pull off a prequel in the midst of a series runs the risk of bringing all prior momentum to a grinding halt, and it would be difficult to then jump back into the present, right back into the action of the main series timeline.

And yet, the same could be said with combining cyberpunk tech and high-fantasy magic—but Kelly Blanchard has proved herself absolutely competent of pulling that off, so we should expect nothing less from her decision to jump back in time.

She does so in the best way possible: in the present, Radella and Lorrek are together after the shocking events of “I’m Still Alive”, and the past is revealed as Lorrek finds it necessary to revisit his recently-restored memories for information to help them in the present conflict with the thymords. What he does find has incredible implications for every experience he has been through since the beginning of the series.

This is what it means to have a prequel done well: the constant referral to other events already mentioned. It’s “retrograde continuity” that supplements rather than interferes with the established timeline. Setting up the framework of Lorrek and Radella in the present keeps that part from stagnating, while each new revelation fits neatly into the existing continuity. Blanchard uses the flashbacks to enrich the story, while using the “third-person omniscience” afforded to Lorrek viewing the past from the magic realm to craft storylines from the past in themselves. 

One thing I can say about this book is that it takes the breadth and richness of the world and the universe to a whole new level. New devices, new nemeses, new players on this cosmic chessboard that exists nowhere else except in this series. And the ending sets the trajectory on the next book very nicely, so we haven’t abandoned the main thread of the series at all!

DO YOU TRUST ME? is yet another fantastic installment in The Chronicles of Lorrek, and the track record still holds as this book earns a *****5 STAR**** rating and the Upstream Writer Certified ABSOLUTELY RECOMMENDED endorsement. The Chronicles of Lorrek is absolutely the perfect series for a reader seeking a universe to wander, and a story to draw you in with countless fantastic concepts and vivid characters. Start the series today!
 Further Reading: (Amazing sci-fantasy/Awesome World-Building)

The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed
        -I Still Have A Soul
        -I'm Still Alive
The Fair Folk Chronicles--Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins
        -Foul is Fair
        -Street Fair
        -A Fair Fight
        -All's Fair  
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart
       -Wolf's Path
       -Tiger's Shadow  
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd  
The Cadeau Series--Connie Olvera
       -Who Can You Trust? 
Talented Series--Amy Hopkins
     -Dream Stalker
     -Barrow Fiend
The Untamed Series--Madeline Dyer

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" GRAND FINALE

Series Finale
*Be sure to catch the end of Part 2 for an extra scene I added, for the sake of making this segment not quite so long!*

Azelie found it difficult to focus on soothing the crowd when she felt such agitation to be standing next to one so volatile, who had behaved so unpredictably in the entire time of their acquaintance.
“Azelie,” Zayra grunted. “Those four in the back are causing trouble!”

Azelie squinted at the burly group of rabble-rousers still shouting and keeping the ones in front of them sufficiently scared and distracted. “I’m working on it,” she muttered, trying to focus her thoughts on theirs, to calm their aggression.

Abruptly, she felt her mind surge and fill with the loud shouts of four minds talking at the same time, at full volume. She clapped her hands to her head and winced. The suddenness of the noise caused her to lose concentration on the other ones in front of her.


Oh!” the woman in front of her gasped and staggered forward, arms stretched toward her. “Let me help you.”

Azelie raised her head and found herself staring right in the woman’s eyes. She felt it happen—the familiar pull that she experienced in her early days as a Paragon, the one that was the reason she had been chosen for the palace in the first place.

The woman smiled, clinging to Azelie’s hand as she stood.
You’re perfect,” she gushed.

Azelie winced at the word, but the smile slowly spread to other faces, and suddenly the obstinate shouters at the back didn’t matter. All attention focused intently on her, and a hush fell over the crowd as they shuffled forward, pressing closer to lay reverent hands upon Azelie.

“Zayra!” the young girl shrieked. “Help!”

It’s not fair!” Zayra’s voice regained some of the old high-pitched whine. “You’re getting all the attention, when you’re hardly doing anything! I’m doing most of the work! Everyone should be gathering around me!”

Azelie recognized the overtones, but it was too late. The intensity of emotion surged through the crowd, but instead of turning to Zayra, the crowd latched even tighter to Azelie.

She’s perfect! We want her! My turn! Mine!” the whispers rippled through, and Azelie could only stare in horror as the crowd pressed tighter, practically choking one another to lay a hand on her. Someone’s finger caught in the seam of her sleeve, and it ripped. The sound of tearing cloth seemed to galvanize others, and instead of crushing, Azelie felt them pulling on her clothes and her hair. Hands pushed on her ankles, raising her up above the crowd so that even more people could grab hold of her.

Zayra! Help me!” Azelie shrieked, though her voice barely cut through the gushing praises of the crowd. Azelie began pushing and kicking to free herself, wantonly flailing to escape before the grabbing hands stripped her naked. On the steps above her, Zayra clutched her head and wailed.
“Noooo! It’s happening again! It won’t stop! Make it stop!

A black shape emerged from the shadows in the doorway, and Troy surveyed his work with pride.
“It’s good to be back, isn’t it?” he called to the frantic Paragon.

Azelie shoved and pushed her way to a nearby statue, hauling herself up onto the pedestal, beyond the reach of the people. From that vantage point, she could see one side of the courtyard, where Damaris, Erlis, and Lizeth struggled to revive the newly-thawed Beren; the other side, where Edri and Velora battled each other within a root-cage, while Kaidan scrambled through the maze of roots to reach his sister; Jade hovered around the windows of the tower, unable to reach the pair inside, yet torn against abandoning them to assist any of her other friends.

“There should be someone left! There has to be someone!” she begged, as tears trickled down her face.

A gust of wind curled against her cheeks, curling wisps of her hair against her moist skin. Azelie watched as the wind knocked the heads of the pressing crowd against one another, and they stopped reaching for her.
The wind blew over Beren, ruffling his hair as his eyelids slowly fluttered.
The wind carried over to Kaidan, bolstering his efforts as he finally grasped Javira’s outstretched hand.
The wind blasted through the castle doors, flinging them wide with a thunderous crash. Azelie bit her lip, remembering how Jaran had lain in that entranceway, unprotected, and now exposed—
But the foyer stood empty. In all that wide space, there was not even a hint of a body.

Troy threw back his head and laughed.
“I won!” he cried, “The zephyr of fate blows the gates open for me!”

He turned to enter the castle, but just before he crossed the threshold, a bolt of lightning exploded from within, knocking him and everyone close to the front of the castle back several paces.
Troy regained his balance as a young man dressed in midnight blue came to stand in the doorway of the castle, a sword in his hand.

“Well,” grunted Troy, folding his arms. “Sleeping beauty awakes!”

Jaran surveyed the chaos in a single, sweeping glance, and he held out his palm. A few sparks skittered across his skin, but they fizzled as soon as they appeared.

“Oops!” Troy taunted him. “Looks like your power has run dry!”

“Jaran!” Jade screamed, diving toward them, but another gust of wind stalled her.

“Fight me, Troy!” Jaran challenged, gripping his sword with both hands and assuming a ready stance.

Troy seemed to pluck a sword out of the shadows behind him, and he matched the young prince.
“For the crown? Gladly!” he said, and lunged toward him.

Back and forth they parried and slashed, Troy pausing every so often to jack Jaran’s Gift—but the prince never once even considered his lightning, even when it coursed all around his body like an armor of fluorescent light—he fought with his sword, using the strategies his old master had taught him as a young man. He clashed blades again and again, all the way down the castle steps, while the villagers parted to give them room to battle.

Troy found it difficult to focus when the errant breeze kept blowing in his eyes, no matter which way he turned, and Jaran’s constant barrage and strong defense gave him little time to recover as he had done when fighting Denahlia. Part of him wondered why he hadn’t shadow-jumped away and left the cocky whelp swinging at nothing—but at the same time, he knew why.

Coward. To jump now, in the face of someone who wasn’t even fighting with a Gift, would fly in the face of all those whose Gifts he controlled.
Coward. The shadows were easy to hide in, easy to use; Troy liked things that were easy to manipulate.
Coward. The word would not leave him alone! The more he fought, the more insistent it became, wearing him down from the inside like nothing else could.
Coward. Coward. Coward.

Troy pressed Jaran back up the steps, and young Zayra caught his eye. She had recovered from his temporary jack; at least she wasn’t sniveling on the ground anymore. She had been so easy to sway, so susceptible to his power, even though his grip had slipped for those few minutes when that insufferable redhead had clamped onto her. If there was any chance for him to regain control of the situation, it would be through her.

“Your Highness!” He looked straight at her as he parried Jaran’s blows. He saw the way her eyes gleamed at the title. “My Queen! Come with me to reclaim your throne!” he kicked at Jaran’s unprotected side, sending the young man reeling back into the castle, and thrust his hand toward Zayra. “Your crown awaits, my dear! There is still time—this young pretender only needs to be reminded of his place, and you can rule over all the Realm like the queen you were meant to be!”

aran still continued to press against him, but at least in the Great Hall of the castle, they were out of the wind. Troy felt his hope renew as he watched the white-gowned waif trail after the battling pair, as if Troy held the leash and compelled her to come. He could feel his moment of victory nearing as he dashed away from Jaran and into the throne room, luring the man deeper in, further away from his friends, completely isolated, where black shadows hung over everything.

“Yes, my darling,” he crooned to the unfocused young woman. “Closer, my queen!” His queen. Completely under his control. He would win. Troy dodged a thrust from Jaran and clipped the young man in the side. The prince crumpled with a cry, and Troy held out his hand to Zayra.
“Come, Queen Zayra!”

She drifted forward to stand beside him, but did not take his hand. Tilting her head back, she raised her hands and grasped the crown upon her head. Without breaking eye contact with Troy, she lifted the crown off her head and declared staunchly, “I am no queen!”

As the Shadow watched, stunned, Zayra bent down and set the crown upon Jaran’s own head, crying, “NOW!”

The same zephyr that had blown across the courtyard now blasted through the broken window, and Troy found himself unable to resist its pressure. It picked up around his feet, tossing him backward—

Right into the cage he had so recently escaped.

Jade slammed the door shut behind him, and he saw all the former Outcasts who were his victims gathered in the throne room to view his downfall. The medic with the bluefire and the healer he’d tried to contaminate with Dragon’s Blood both made short work of Jaran’s wounds, and he soon stood alongside his brother and friends.

As for Jade, she nodded to the group, and five of them separated to form the Zodiac that opened a portal to Justicia. She stared down at Troy and wagged her head.

“Juros will not be pleased when he hears what you’ve done,” she said. “Something tells me you’ll be staying in there for at least a few millennia.”

Troy huddled at the bottom of the cage as she sent it through the portal in front of her.

“Wait!” Beren called before she quite disappeared.
Jade turned to face him.

The young king couldn’t restrain a bright blush as he stammered, “What about you? Aren’t you worried that you might still be rejected for the mistakes you made?”

Jade blinked at him, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “You don’t know?” she blurted.
Beren squinted. “Know what?”
Jade’s smile grew. “The zephyr—that was Juros’ forgiveness.”
“Juros controls the wind?” Jaran asked.
“No,” answered Jade. “But your father could.”

As if the very mention could recall his essence, Jaran and Beren felt the same thrill racing down their necks. “Our father?

“B-but he’s dead!” Lizeth cried. “He’s been dead for a long time!”

Jade nodded toward the portal. “But his Gifted spirit lives on in a special dimension reserved for those Gifted loyal to Juros’ purpose. I believe Juros allowed him this one last deed to ensure that the Realm survives, and all Troy’s schemes come to nothing.” She turned to look at the shimmering surface, as if she could see something beyond the opening. “I should leave you now,” she said, glancing back over the assembled group. “I won’t forget any of you.”

Beren’s expression twisted as he asked, “You’ll visit us sometimes, won’t you?”

Jade sighed, but shook her head. “I think the Abnormals have interfered with the Realm quite enough. You who are Gifted can still learn about your Gifts, and use them to help those around you, as we intended—but you don’t need our meddling to accomplish it.” She gazed around the group. “You all have proven yourselves more than capable of looking after one another without my help.” She paused one last time to bow deeply before the two brothers. “Fare thee well, young king.” She smiled, slipped through the portal, and the Zodiac vanished behind her.

The silence hung as thick as the black soot that clung to the walls around them.
Beren coughed and glanced at his brother. He nodded with a smile.
“Looks good on you,” he murmured.

Jaran frowned at the remark. “Huh? Oh,” he lifted the crown off his head and handed it to his brother. “Here, I think it should be yours.”

Beren made no move to receive the crown. “No, you keep it; from what I’ve seen, I think you would make a better king than I would.”

Jaran persisted. “B-but you’re the heir! It’s not my place—“

“You’ve lived in the kingdom longer,” Beren reminded him. “I still feel like I hardly know the place.”

“Come on, Beren!” Jaran looked like he might grab his brother’s hands and place them on the crown himself. “What about the coronation? What about taking your rightful place?”

Beren shrugged, albeit as he grinned at his brother’s discomfort. “Been there, done that, wasn’t my style.” He snatched the crown away, but only to immediately plunk it back on Jaran’s head. “Your turn!”

“For what it’s worth,” Korsan spoke up, stroking his beard, “the portents do speak favorably of the younger brother superseding the older.”

“There, see?” Beren ribbed his brother. “We don’t want to disappoint the portents!”

Jaran still kept his hands down by his sides. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” he complained.

Beren nodded to the old Mage. “Then it would behoove you to establish your court with the aid of the same sage who advised our father. He would know exactly what you should be doing.”

Jaran glanced at the mage standing before him. “Will, ah, will you be the royal advisor, then, Mage Korsan?”

The wise old man nodded, bowing low. “It would be my honor to serve the son of King Balwyn.”

A smile unfolded across Jaran’s face, and he glanced to his brother. “That’s done,” he said with a note of relief. “What next?”

Beren shrugged. “How should I know? Didn’t the council groom you for becoming king in my absence?”

Jaran wagged his head.

“For what it’s worth,” Azelie spoke up, “I think the Royal Council was too concerned about securing power for themselves and trying to maintain control of Zayra in her madness, that no one really paid any attention to the young Prince.”

Emphatically, Jaran nodded. “That’s very true; I wasn’t really doing much of anything except testing my Gift over and over again.” He turned to Korsan. “You’re my adviser now; what should I do for the rest of my—of the Royal Court?” he shied away from ownership just yet.

Korsan stroked his beard. “A King ought to have a Royal Historian in his employ, a record-keeper who knows the history of the Realm by heart, so that the wise ruler can avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of his predecessors.” At Jaran’s persisting confusion, he nodded to the white-haired young woman standing behind the young king. “Aurelle, can you still recall the contents of the Royal Library?”

Aurelle grinned. With a wave of her hand, she projected a roll of parchment, and a flick of her fingers filled the scroll with writing. “Looks like I still have the upgraded Gift,” she remarked.

Jaran glanced around. “All right, who’s next?” His eye fell on Edri. “Captain Edri,” he addressed her.
The woman with the three scars across her face took one look at the crown upon his head and knelt before him. She offered her sword, holding it across her hands before her somber face. “By this blade, I swear fealty to the Crown and to the Son of King Balwyn who sits on the throne in the White Castle.”

Jaran stood a little taller at this declaration, and he accepted the sword. Gripping the thing awkwardly, he touched the blade against Edri’s shoulders. “I appoint you as Captain of the King’s Guard. Use your Gift wisely and well.”

“I will,” Edri vowed, and she stood and accepted the sword from him.

The next person to catch Jaran’s eye was Erlis. She grinned at him, one eye grey and the other golden. “You don’t even need to ask me, my liege,” she bowed. “I would be honored to serve as your Healer.”

“Lizeth too,” Jaran added, gesturing to the tall, red-headed woman. “She can be your assistant.”

Lizeth nodded, lighting a small spark of bluefire on her fingertips as she bowed. It extinguished, and she moved to stand next to Erlis.

Jaran turned to survey the rest of the group standing around him. “Where’s Denahlia?”

“Here,” came the blunt voice from the edge of the crowd. She reluctantly removed her hood that would have kept her out of sight long enough to slip away. “What do you want from me?”

Jaran grinned at her surliness. “How is your Gift, after that fight with Troy?”

She snorted. “You mean the one where he danced circles around me before beating me all to pieces and leaving me for dead with nothing?” She blinked once, twice, and Jaran could see her expression changing as the way her eyes perceived what they saw changed ever so slightly. “Well, what do you know? I still have it!”

Jaran peered at her appraisingly. “How would you like to be the new Harbor Watch of the Realm?”

Denahlia sighed. “Like to? You mean I have to put myself under someone else’s orders again?” She waved a hand. “No offense, but I’ve had about enough of getting told what to do and where to go and who to do it to.”

“Then I give you the license to run The Harbor as you see fit,” Jaran replied patiently. “Provided it is within the bounds of the Law, and in accordance with the aim of using your Gift for the benefit of others, and for the peace of the Realm.”

Denahlia huffed, but she nodded. “Oh, all right,” she groaned.

“Speaking of setting up a Watch,” Jaran continued, scanning the area for another certain face. “The Forest could use some looking after.”

Velora smirked at him. “I suppose you’ll be putting me in charge of that now, eh?” she asked, though with considerably less grumpiness than Denahlia had displayed.

Jaran shrugged. “You are The Wolf, after all,” he remarked. “The Forest will be safer with your pack to protect it and guard the citizens who walk through it.”

Her strange eyes glinted at the prospect. “Any threat from the North will have to get through me,” she murmured.

“What about me?” Damaris piped up. He toyed with a palm-sized ball of flame, tossing it casually between his hands. “I’ve got a much better handle on my Gift now.”

Jaran grinned widely. “Oh, I think I know the place you’ll be most useful.”

Damaris extinguished the flame and watched the king expectantly; would his luck hold? “And where would that be?”

“The kitchen,” Jaran responded simply.

Damaris opened his mouth to protest, but just before anything more than a small “ha!” escaped his lips, he recalled himself and chose to say nothing.

Erlis nudged him. “A tongue is much harder to tame than a fire; you show great promise already.”

The young boy glowed with the praise. Unlucky? Living at a palace and enjoying steady employment among people who accepted him struck Damaris as the luckiest he had ever been in his life.

“Now, as for you two,” Jaran turned to Kaidan and Javira, hanging their heads and looking very much less haughty than they had been before. “Your crimes against the Crown should not go unpunished—the way you both tried to undermine the safety and peace of this nation and use its government for your own purposes is absolutely wrong and I think you know that I could have you executed or banished like you condemned so many others with authority you had no right to use.”

Kaidan stared at the ground with pinched lips, while Javira raised her eyes with a small sob. “Please! We were unwitting pawns of Troy, deceived into thinking that what we were doing was right… We didn’t know—“

“However, your aid here at the last fight cannot be overlooked, either,” Beren continued, at a nod from his brother. “Therefore, you may stay at the palace—Kaidan, you’ll be assisting Aurelle as an archivist, since her touch can amass information, and yours can be used to confirm the accuracy of the records. As for Javira—I do believe your Gift is most suited to work in the palace gardens.”

Javira twirled her finger, drawing up a sprig of forget-me-nots from the patch of tossed dirt beside her. “Yes, your highness,” she whispered.

Kaidan composed himself enough to bow with a blank expression. “Thank you, your majesty,” he said.

Jaran shared a grin with Beren. He was fitting in with his new royal position quite nicely.

Those with assignments meandered off to assess the state of things. Aurelle and Kaidan headed for the library, Erlis and Lizeth to the medical stores, while Velora and Denahlia took their leave to survey their new domains. Edri turned quickly, so no one would see the tears gathering in her eyes. She headed toward the garrison at the far side of the courtyard--but first, she stopped by the mound of roots Javira left behind, to claim a fallen body there. Sir Justin The Brave would receive a hero's burial, though she alone would mourn him. 

Soon, all who remained were Jaran, Beren, Korsan, Damaris, Azelie, and Zayra.

Azelie didn’t speak, even though she could. She ducked her head and smoothed invisible wrinkles on her dingy apron. When she looked up, Jaran stood close enough to seize her hand.

“Azelie…” he began.

She raised her gaze and smiled at him. “Yes?”

A small smile played about his lips and his cheeks flushed as he asked, “Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife, and the Queen of this Realm?”

A matching smile unfolded over the young woman’s face, making her look more radiant than ever. “I accept, King Jaran.”

Zayra frowned as she watched the two of them. Small tears trickled down her cheeks. “What am I going to do, then?” she asked. “Being queen is the only life I’ve ever known. I don’t even have anywhere to live!”

Beren gave a little cough. “Er, well,” he mumbled, “I cannot offer you the throne you’ve sat on, since I gave that up—but, as a former king to a former queen, would you like to be almost-royals together?” He held out his hand to her.

Zayra’s eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open very slightly. “Oh,” she gasped. “You mean, you—“ She raised a hand to her cheek. “You want me to… to stay?”

Beren held her gaze and nodded, still offering his hand. “Yes, if you’re willing to work along with us to restore peace and unity to the Realm.”

Zayra placed her hand in his. “Yes, of course! I accept.”

High over the Realm, a lone Angel watched the scene with a smile. Things just might turn out for the better, after all.



Episode 1: "Upgrades" --> Episode 2: "Strategic Maneuvers" --> Episode 3: "Swiftly Tilting Odds" --> Episode 4: "Potential" --> Episode 5: "Unleashed" --> Episode 6: "Bluefire" --> Episode 7: "Alterations" --> Episode 8: "Damaris and the Dragon" --> Episode 9: "The Justification of Jade" Part 1 and Part 2 --> Episode 10: "The Zodiac at Zero Hour"
SERIES FINALE: >Part 1< >Part 2< >Part 3<

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Finale, Part 2

(Part 2)
For a brief moment, nobody moved. Zayra approached the group and glanced around as if there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, even offering a smile. “Why is everyone staring? I have come to help.”

Denahlia didn’t take her eyes off the woman. “We don’t want your help,” She muttered. “For all we know, you’re here to kill us—“

“Stop!” Azelie stood in front of the Hunter. She turned back to the former Queen. “She means what she says, and she isn’t using her thrall.”

“How is that possible?” Kaidan spoke up. “I saw her memories; Troy made her Gift insatiable and immutable, and the science doctors broke her mind! She has no control over her Gift!”

Zayra tilted her head and regarded him. “Perhaps it was the sight of the memories that the doctors hid that gave me the control I needed.” She glanced between them all. “I don’t want to rule anymore. That was something imposed on me, a bastardization of the motivation I have to use my Gift to make the world a better place. I am here to join the fight against Troy, for the good of the Realm.”

No one moved to welcome her. Zayra stepped closer to Azelie. “Just watch,” she said, “I can prove it.” She turned to the young Paragon. “I want you to have your voice back.”

Azelie stared at her, wide-eyed. A thrill ran through the group, as none of them had ever heard this woman’s physical voice.

“I... I can...” Azelie stopped and clapped a hand over her mouth. The curt, raspy whispers grated over her throat. She winced at the feeling, even as tears welled in her eyes at the realization that at last, she could speak!

Lizeth stepped forward, cradling a single blue flame in the tips of her fingers.

“Here,” she offered, “let me help you with that.” She touched the flame to Azelie’s throat, and the young woman gave a deep gasp.

“Thank you...” Azelie spoke in clear tones now, a strange accent overlaying the voice they had grown used to hearing and conversing with in their thoughts. But by the ecstatic grin on her face, there could be no doubt that this voice was well and truly hers.

Zayra grinned at Erlis.
“Have I proven myself?” She asked.
The old healer maintained an icy glare.

The screaming outside grew more intense as the sounds inside the throne room died.
Edri curled her lip in disgust. “We don’t have time for a stand-off,” she growled. “We have a fiend to catch, before he destroys everything!”

Jade gave a pained grunt, and slumped against the nearest pillar.
“Can’t... move...” she moaned.

Lizeth came around to stand next to her, even as Edri yanked off her left glove to expose her brilliant-blue hand.

“I’ve got this,” the soldier grunted. She gripped the wing, feeling the joints and muscles knit themselves back together. Jade couldn’t restrain a cry of pain, so Lizeth diffused the agony with a spurt of bluefire. At last, the pair pulled away. Jade stood up, waggling her newly-repaired wing experimentally.

“How does it feel?” Damaris asked.
Jade flung her wings wide, bracing for the jab of pain that would tell her if the wings could not bear her weight; it never came.
“It feels all right,” she answered.

Azelie winced, raising a hand to her head. “I’m glad we were able to resolve that,” she said. “Because it sounds like Troy has just discovered Aurelle’s deception, and the others are in danger!”
“What are we waiting for, then?” Velora growled. “Let’s get back out there!”

The group arrived at the entrance to the castle, in full view of total chaos.
The angry villagers were vainly attempting to set fire to the mound of twining branches spewing from Javira’s side of the courtyard, while the glacier overtaking the other side of the courtyard spread a thick layer of ice over the flagstone ground, while the archways glittered with vicious icicles.

“What do we do first?” Denahlia asked, glancing between the two. She recognized some of the villagers facing the threat of flame and root, but at the same time, she could see Beren trapped within the glacier, nearly frozen solid himself, while his power grew far beyond his control.
“Where is King Beren?” Zayra pushed to the front of the group, scanning the frozen surface. “I want to help the king.”

Erlis nodded toward the frozen side. “It might be more prudent for those of us with fire powers to help him, highness,” she glanced toward Damaris and Lizeth.

Damaris spread his hands, willing the balls of flame to consume his arms past the elbow. Those within arm’s reach of him stepped back at the flash of heat.
“Way ahead of you,” he declared.
Kaidan nodded. “I will try to calm my sister.”
Velora flexed her claws. “I will go with you.”
“As will I,” Edri stepped forward.

Velora scowled at her; the memory of the captain’s betrayal still hung fresh in her mind.
Edri merely sneered. “We are both armored; we stand the best chance of surviving those roots.”
Zayra stepped closer to Azelie. “The two of us will work on calming the crowd, see if we can’t wrest thrall away from Troy.”
“And I will fly up the tower to see what I can do for Korsan and Aurelle,” Jade said, spreading her wings and lifting off.

In the middle of the courtyard, Troy was busy shadow-hopping, even in his physical form. He couldn’t quite float as freely as he once could, but at least jumping from window to window up the tower where the illusionist and the mage hid wasn’t so very difficult. He glanced down from his high perch halfway up the tower, just in time to see the group scatter in separate directions. Jade headed right for him.
“Not today, sister,” Troy muttered, hopping to another window, one in the covered walkway just above the ice wall. Grinning to himself, he focused his jacking ability on the young Phoenix and cranked it up.

Down below, Damaris felt the fire coursing through his whole body like his skin might explode.
“Oh no…” he murmured, before the flames covered his whole body, and still grew.
“Damaris,” Erlis noticed his condition and stared at him with concern. The dragon scales unfolded over her arms as she reached for him. “Calm down.”
“I can’t!” Cried the boy made of flame. “It’s not me! I can’t control it!”

Lizeth set her mouth. “Troy,” she muttered, glancing around at the shadows, as if he might appear. She couldn’t distinguish his shape in any of them. “At least he’s melting the ice,” she pointed at the massive dent in the glacier, clarifying and widening by the moment.
“If we don’t get him calmed down before he reaches Beren, Damaris will start melting him!” Erlis declared, trying to grasp the boy’s hand and finding only flame. “Damaris,” she tried again. “Listen to me! You’ve got to let go of your fire; the more you struggle, the more hold Troy has over you!”
“I’m trying!” Damaris screeched. “It won’t let me! It’s pulling me apart!”

Lizeth could see them approaching the dull, solidified form of King Beren. “I’ve seen this before,” she told Erlis. “When I first began manifesting my Gift, I didn’t know what it was, either, and it felt totally beyond my control.” She turned to the nexus of flame before them. “Damaris.” She called to him softly. “Breathe.”
“Just breathe.”
“It’ll burn me! I’ll die!”
“I’m trying!”
“Look at my flame,” Lizeth held her palm out, a bubble of flame the size of her head dancing and swirling over it. “My flame is your flame. Now watch what I do.” Concentrating on the ball, she reduced it till it was no bigger than her eye. She clenched her fist, and it went out.

“How did you do that?” Damaris wailed, even as his flames spiked higher, dangerously close to the frozen king.
“Breathe, Damaris,” Lizeth said again. “My flame is your flame. You can make it smaller. Picture its size, and picture it getting small enough to fit in your hand.”
“Are you sure I’m not just unlucky?” Damaris stopped, inches away from Beren’s body. He wasn’t as frantic, and the flames didn’t escalate as much as they had.
“You have control over this, Damaris. Troy can reach you in your fear, but if you put away your fear, you put away his power over you.”
“Okay,” Damaris replied. “Breathe.”
The flames reduced, down to about the boy’s own height.
“Breathe,” he told himself again, and the fire receded from his head and feet, concentrating on his arms.
“Breathe.” The third time, it slowed until he held two orbs of spinning, swirling fire in his hands. He looked up at the two women, flames dancing in his eyes. “I did it!”
Lizeth nodded to him with a grin. “Now let’s free the king!” Blue and gold mingled in steady concentration, while Erlis plunged her dragon’s claws into the ice to scrape it away.

On the other side of the courtyard, Velora, Kaidan, and Edri could barely see anyone through the mass of roots blocking the way and furthermore barring any exits along the outer wall. Edri drew her sword and began hacking away at the vicious branches, but for every one she cut, three more grew and twisted into its place.

“Javira!” Kaidan called. “Where are you?”
“Kaidan!” they could hear her voice over behind the corner, where a new mass of tangled roots sprang up. “Help me! It won’t stop!”
The trio fought their way back to her, but the closer they got, the more frustrated Kaidan became. He winced as his hand brushed over the branch.
“What’s the matter?” Velora asked, yanking a root out of the way to widen the path.
“It’s my Gift,” Kaidan muttered. “I haven’t had the time to get used to it, so whenever I touch a root, I get a little bit of Javira’s memories coming to me.”
Edri reached up to swing at a thick overhead root, when it suddenly shifted away from her blade. “What the—“

All three of them froze as the roots seemed to peel away before them, forming a clear path. Justin clambered down from the top of the pile and joined them, moving the roots with his mind. “Please,” he said, “allow me.”
Velora watched with mild interest as a red-faced Edri sheathed her sword, and the four of them walked comfortably amid the twisting, curling roots to Javira, who sat on a throne of roots while fresh ones curled out from under her hands. The longer they grew, the more she amassed around her person.

“Help me,” she begged her brother.
Kaidan wagged his head. “How?”
“You can reach into my mind, can’t you? That’s how your Gift works; perhaps you can turn off my thoughts, knock me unconscious or something!”
Kaidan sighed. More roots curled and spiraled around them, but Justin kept them from overwhelming completely.
“I’ll try,” he said, gritting his teeth and preparing to climb up toward his sister.

Velora saw the root headed for him almost too late. “Look out!” She lunged for him, boosting his position out of the root’s way. Kaidan flailed to regain his balance, and his hand brushed the exposed part of Velora’s wrist. She fell back with a cry as an entire wall of roots crowded between them.

“Velora!” Justin cried, crouching beside her as she covered her head with her hands. Roots surrounded them completely, cutting them off from the Twins.
Edri waited for the young woman to stand up, but Velora continued to writhe on the ground. “What’s happening to her?” she asked, drawing her sword to cut away the roots.
“I don’t—“ Justin backed up as Velora bounded to her feet with a snarl.

Soldiers!” she shrieked, glaring at both Justin and Edri. “Everybody scatter! It’s an ambush!” She threw back her head and howled before charging straight at Edri, claws outstretched.

“No!” Justin lunged between them, throwing up his hands to push Velora away. Her strike caught him across the face, leaving three long scars across his forehead not unlike Edri’s own. As the young Wolf reeled, Justin explained. “She touched Kaidan; it sounds like she’s stuck in a memory of being a hunted refugee in the woods.”

Make a break for it,” Velora growled, crouching in an aggressive stance. “I’ll hold them off!”

“Velora, stop!” Edri cried. “You’re not an Outcast anymore! We’re trying to work together!”
“She can’t hear you,” Justin said, glancing in her direction.
That brief space of time was the window Velora needed. She lunged, catching Justin in the throat with her claws. A spray of red erupted below his face, and he sank without a sound.
One down,” Velora growled, her claws dripping as she stared at Edri with a feral gleam in her eye. “I’ve saved the best for last.”

Edri felt her breath harden in her lungs, as the lion surged forward within her, eager to put this young pup in her place. She firmed her stance and flourished her sword.
“You should not have done that!” she growled, and the two women collided with mighty screams.
Aurelle ducked behind the wall, doing her best to stay within the patch of sunlight streaming through the hole in the roof. The shadows weren’t safe anymore.

Korsan swept in, weaving spells behind him as he went. His talisman flashed as he scraped his staff along the stones, tracing runes and wards around the door and especially around the bright spot in the room. Coming to stand next to Aurelle, he closed the circle, sealing them both in as best he could. Only then did he allow his body to sag, leaning heavily on his staff as he gasped for breath.
“There,” he breathed, “that should hold him.”

As if to test his words, a dark cloud swept across the light, and a solid object connected with the door.
“Ah-ha!” Troy’s voice seeped through the wood. “I’ve found you!” The door shook as he rammed it again and again. “I can do this for the rest of eternity if I wanted to!” screamed the Shadow. “You, on the other hand, won’t last forever!”

Aurelle shivered, clinging to Korsan’s shoulder. “He’s insane,” she whispered. “How are we ever going to stop him?”

Korsan slid his arm around her shoulders and stroked her milk-white hair with gnarled fingers. “We can only hope the others figure something out.”

Outside in the hallway, Troy flared his Shadow again and again, searching every crack and seam for some way past the wards. It was easy enough to jack the Illusionist, once he made eye contact with her in the window. He squelched her power, shrinking it to almost nothing, and the dragon he’d been fighting disappeared.

The Mage, however, was a different story altogether. Troy ceased his fruitless activity and turned his energy to thinking. He should have been able to mute the Mage; after all, weren’t his Magic abilities fueled by his Gift? Yet even as Troy negated that Gift, the old Mage had knocked him flat with a spell and escaped with the Illusionist. Where did his power come from, if not a Gift? Could it be that he had acquired some organic skill? That would explain why he was stuck out in the hallway, while the room seemed well-barricaded against him.

“Hey!” a familiar voice snapped at him from the end of the hallway. Troy pasted on a smile and turned.

“Well, Miss Denah—“

She moved faster than anyone he had ever seen. Her fist clouted him across the face almost as soon as he saw her.

“I told you never to call me that!” she growled at him.

Troy chuckled and rubbed his face. “Ever the charmer,” he gushed. “Thanks for helping get my body back, by the way.” This time, he saw the blow coming, and shadow-jumped out of the way, laughing to see her over-balance and stumble into thin air. “I’m sure you had everyone convinced that you were here to stop me!”

He saw her blink; which vision would she switch to this time?

“I do intend to stop you,” she grunted, stalking forward with a strange gleam in her eye. “Seems to me that having a body makes you quite punch-able.” She swung, and he dodged—but she met him there, too, sinking her fist into his torso as if she expected to go right through it as she could with his shadow-form.

Pain radiated through Troy’s body, making it difficult to breathe and keep his balance.

“Aww, what was that?” Denahlia taunted. “No witty reply as you melt back into your little black cloud?” She grinned and pulled out her guns. “Let’s see how well you catch a bullet this time around!”

Troy timed his jump for the exact moment she pulled the trigger. He reappeared in the blackness behind her. “You forget, Hunter,” he said, grabbing the back of her neck as she couldn’t defend herself with her hands full of empty guns. “You can punch me—but I can also punch back.” He tossed her toward the wall, willing her face to smack against the stone, but she tucked her feet under herself quicker than that, and pivoted to face him. She tossed the guns aside and balled her fists.
“Fight me, coward,” she snarled.

Troy scowled at her. He nearly jumped, but Denahlia lunged for him and grabbed his wrist.
“Oh no you don’t!” she said. “We’re doing this without powers. I’ve had more than enough of them anyway. We scuffle for real.”

Troy smiled at her; just how weak did she think he was beyond the shadow-jumping?

“Winner take all,” he agreed, and flipped his hand around to grab her wrist, yanking her over his shoulder.

The Hunter and the Shadow wrestled in the hallway at the top of the tower, back and forth. Denahlia could keep her balance fairly well, but the longer she fought, the more she realized that her opponent took his blows without wearying as she did. She could match him in strength for only so long, but he recovered far too easily from having his face smashed into the wall or his limbs broken and dislocated.

Seeing his constant, maniacal grin only made her more and more angry, though she knew better than to let her guard down even a little.

“I said,” she snarled at him, punctuating her words with blows to the vulnerable parts of his body, “No. Using. Powers!” She bounded off the wall for a two-footed kick, shoving him through the wooden railing and down the center of the spiral staircase, a drop that should have taken him all the way down to the floor of the tower. She raced down the stairs to catch his body on the ground—only to encounter him just in the act of swinging himself back onto the staircase through a similar gap further down!

“Don’t worry, honey,” he purred, clapping both hands around her neck with iron-like fury. “This is all-natural for me.” He squeezed tighter, and blackness seeped on the edge of her vision. “No powers,” he whispered in her ear as her sight faded faster than her hearing and her body went limp. “Only Shadow.”

Troy stepped over the unconscious body. The two self-committed prisoners upstairs could rot in terror for all he cared. There was just one more angle to try.



Episode 1: "Upgrades"  
Episode 2: "Strategic Maneuvers" 
Episode 9: "The Justification of Jade" Part 1 and Part 2
Season Finale: >Part 1< >Part 2< >Part 3<