Wednesday, October 26, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016: Introducing "The Amazon Triangle"!

cover designed and created by Lia Wayward

A few years ago, I was innocently laying in my bed, when into my brain popped a bizarre sequence that I immediately wrote down. It had no context; it had no ensuing events. It was intense, vivid, and I loved it, but I had nowhere to put it.

Some time later, I also started thinking about the film Sahara (the 2005 version starring Matthew McConaughey, although my absolute favorite character was Steve Zahn) and what an underrated film that was, and how hilarious it would be if somebody made an adventure film like that, that wasn't all about suggestive situations and stereotypical females and crude jokes—but actually an intriguing adventure that was imaginative fun for the whole family.

The first thing I knew for sure was the kind of characters I would have: two father/son couples: one British, one American, and then a mother/daughter pair where the mother is British but the daughter American. The second thing, since I essentially had 3 pairs of characters, was that the theme would be "Triangles," since I could take what amounted to 2 love triangles (British father once dated Mother; she dumped him, he became good friends with American father; fast forward to when all their kids are adults, and Mother's Daughter is now dating American's son—and none of them have any idea about how their families are connected) and throw them into a perilous situation in the middle of the most famous triangle in the world, the Bermuda Triangle. I went ahead and drummed up something that could pass for an intriguing yet impossible situation that would involve all of them working together to figure it out, and it was a nice idea, but still pretty skimpy and it would involve a LOT of VERY meticulous research, which I was not prepared to do at the time. Or ever. Or at least not till I could just like you know quit my full-time job and making a living with JUST my writing...

Anyhow, I plunked out some premise notes for the idea, shelved it, and promptly forgot about it.

Until this year.

By early this year, I was very sure of 2 things:

1. I wanted to somehow create a context for the Amazon scenes I had;
2. I was somehow going to use the Triangle idea to do it.

There was just one HUGE problem: the Amazon is thousands of miles away from the Bermuda Triangle. How in the world was I going to use both locations if they are so far apart that, even if the cruise were to crash or break down somehow, necessitating my main characters to escape in a raft together—they could choose LITERALLY ANYWHERE ELSE CLOSER??
Yeah... No way a cruise ship could be blown 2,000 MILES OFF COURSE!
Rationality says they'd hit Cuba before South America... but this isn't "The Cuban Triangle"!

Answer: Nothing a little time/space dimensional warp can't solve!

All of a sudden, that span of empty ocean between Bermuda and the Amazon becomes a swirling vortex of wibbly-wobbly because of an interdimensional crash sometime in the mid-1940s... 1943, to be precise. The very same moment that a platoon of Japanese naval soldiers were on their way up the coast of South America to try and launch an attack on the Eastern US. Dimensions collide, they get caught in the time warp, and have to repeat each day 100 times before it moves on to the next one. Everything naturally occurring in that space is reset and repeated: same fish swimming by, same birds flying over—the only thing that doesn't change is that one boat. They can't leave the time warp because of the dimensional crossover. Any attempt to cross the boundary just transports them to another point within that same area. The only point at which they can leave the water is the side that leads to the Amazon River—and even then, they can only set foot on land for a maximum of three night falls. On the fourth sundown, the time warp fluxes and they're back on the boat again, along with anything they managed to pick up in the 3 days. There were some ships that actually made it out of the warp and were picked up by Allied troops within those 3 days (unwittingly 2 years later, in 1945), and so they escaped the "reset" (also giving rise to the realization of the "Japanese Holdouts"), but that was it; four boats still remain out of the original seven.

So what does this dimensional crossover have to do with the Amazon mermaid idea? 

What do you suppose lived in that other dimension?

That's right; a Japanese scavenging party encounters a fearsome race of terribly tall women living in the jungle—and these women are also mermaids, acquiring silver-grey scales and tails when submerged in water. So when the cruise ship crashes and our dysfunctional main characters get caught in this dimensional trap themselves (via the Bermuda Triangle) they discover the mermaid Amazons AND have to avoid being captured by the Japanese (who still believe the world is at war, and they want to be able to use these powerful superhuman beings against the Allied armies) while they figure out how the dimensions got crossed in the first place, and how to fix it. Throw in the relationship tensions, and it's enough material for quite a thrill ride!

Also... For those of you who have enjoyed my NaNoWriMo "1K-A-Day" shares... there's going to be a small change with that. This time around, rather than just sharing bits from what I'm writing, I will also intersperse excerpts with posts about my writing experience. Where does it come from? What problems do I face in writing and developing a plot, and how do I overcome them? How does someone who works full-time find time to write in a given day, anyway? I'll be posting as frequently as I can here on the blog--And then when December comes, I'll start posting the whole thing on Wattpad so you can read it! If you don't know what Wattpad is, here's a helpful blog post about it. If you're interested in reading the stories I have on Wattpad (Including the EXCLUSIVE urban fantasy "The Water-Man") Here is a link to my profile on Wattpad. I will say that an account is free, and you don't necessarily have to be writing a story to have an account--there are thousands of writers on there, and we need readers, too!

Stay tuned for more fun! I look forward to sharing this journey (yet again!) with you all!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts", Part 11--Betrayal

Harlock "The Unknown"
(Also Beren Seramis, The Crown Prince)


 Part 11

High in the branches of a tree, a small bird perched on the edge of a tiny nest. Three eggs lay nestled in the down. It would be not long from now until the time they would hatch. The proud little bird bent to inspect her clutch, when a furious wind nearly carried her away. 

The arrow narrowly missed the nest but sailed high among the branches, dropping finally some distance away.
"On your left, Kaidan!" Crown Prince Beren Seramis peered keenly at the spot where his arrow fell. He had been aiming for the squirrel now safely stationed on an impossible branch, chattering away at him. 
Kaidan brushed aside his unruly red curls and wiped at the sweat pouring down his neck. He offered the arrow back to the prince. "Perhaps Your Highness might try a larger target," he mused.
Beren shrugged. "Nah, I think I'm done for the day." He handed the bow and quiver to his servant and ran a slender hand through his spiky, dark hair. "Let us return to the castle and see what a mess my father has gotten himself into!"
The two young men turned their horses to the road and set off in a light trot.
Beren glanced sidelong at his servant and saw a pensive frown on the boy's face.
"What's wrong, Kaidan?"
The servant sighed. "Forgive me, Prince, but I do not think it wise to treat the King's business so lightly; after all, you will be King, yourself, someday."
Beren snorted. "Yes, and then I will bear the scrutiny of old men who think they can rule better than I can, and who delight to whisper behind my back while slathering me in compliments to my face!" He shook his head. "Some say my father's generosity in putting Gifted citizens to work in whatever capacity uses their Gift is a generous one—but the Council is convinced that there will come a time when the Gifted ones will rise up and demand even more rights."
Kaidan shrugged and tried to diffuse the tension. "That is only conjecture—"
"I hear them talk, Kaidan!" Beren snapped. "I know what they say behind Father's back, the way they corner me in the hallway or talk around me as if I don't exist."
"You have the power to change anything that does not please you—"
"But what if I don't want to change anything?" Growled the prince. "What if I would rather just continue having the freedom to be myself and make my own choices, and let the Council run the kingdom?" He forced himself to calm down when a small river sloshed through the grass toward him, flooding the forest path and causing the horses' hooves to sink in the mud.
"It's not as if Father is really doing any ruling just now, either," Beren continued. "His rules and convictions might be fair and just, but the Council takes his laws and amends them with their own stringent regulations, giving the illusion that he doesn't care about the kingdom, when in fact the laws themselves are produced out of a caring and considerate heart, to protect both Gifted and unGifted people!"
Kaidan answered calmly, letting Beren have his own fire without adding fuel to the discontent. "You do not wish to be King, Prince Beren?"
The young man huffed and urged his horse a little faster. "I don't like being manipulated and forced into a choice I don't want to make," he stated.
"No one can force you to do something against your will, Highness," Kaidan reminded him.
They arrived at the gates of the castle and two stable hands met them to take the reins and care for the horses.
Beren stroked the neck of his steed and cupped his hands under the animal's nose. There was not a well nearby, but his palms overflowed with fresh, clean water. The horse drank its fill, and Beren released his hands, shaking them dry and wiping them on his sleeve.
"I've tried to get Father to use more precise wording in his laws, but he says he won't—he says he would be more worried about compromising what he believed based on someone's interpretation, than of the outcome of that interpretation. He stands by the laws he makes."
"The laws that are unjust?" Kaidan supplied.
"Not by any of his doing," Beren muttered, "but yes."
They reached the main entrance just as a crowd of young men staggered through the door, yelling and whooping and carrying on.
"What's all this?" Beren asked. He recognized the young men from his fencing class in the city—for the services of the realm's Master Swordsman, Sylvanis, was available to all, and not restricted to the castle.
"Old Silly-Van has taken ill!" One of the boys threw his arm around Beren's shoulder. "He won't be able to teach for a few days—and that's just enough time for us to join the pleasure cruise on a short trip to the Imperials—won't you join us, Bear?"
Beren felt his frustration lift as he listened. The Imperial Islands were devoted entirely to every sort of entertainment, and pleasure cruises circulated regularly. He could leave and return in the space of a couple days, and find enough to divert his mind from the cards of the kingdom, without missing anything of grave importance.
"Well, I would certainly love to, Hancock," he replied. "Provided my father has not already made plans."
"Come on!" Hancock persisted. "What's a few days? He'll hardly even miss you before you will be back!"
Beren's eyes traveled to his servant.
Kaidan nodded. "Do what you think is wise, Prince—a temporary respite would not go amiss."
Beren grinned; wisdom had very little to do with this particular decision. Besides, he thought, it would be good to make this decision for myself, to strike out on my own.
He patted Hancock on the shoulder. "Don't leave without me," he assured him. "I'll just go pack my things."
Hancock cheered. "We leave at dawn!"

The next morning, a cloaked figure stopped by the Mage's door and left behind a small chest. By the time Mage Korsan opened his door and discovered the chest, the Prince had missed the morning meal. Korsan sighed as he laid eyes on the crown Beren left behind. Why would the Prince do something so foolish—and just when the Queen would have told her son that he would soon be welcoming a brother? Days turned into weeks, with no sign of the Prince. Word spread about pirate sightings around the Imperial Isles, and that they had attacked at least one pleasure cruise, but no one could be sure whether anyone had survived the attack or not. 
King Balwyn fell ill, and the Queen delivered a healthy baby before passing away, herself. The Council claimed Regency, and Korsan found himself banished from the castle. On his way out to the Wilderness, the Mage stopped by the house of a trusted friend.
"Gordan!" He greeted him warmly. "How does your little family fare?"
Gordon's wife smiled at the Mage. "You see well," she mused. "I have only just learned that I am carrying a child."
Korsan swung his talisman before the woman's belly, flat though it was. "It will be a girl; what would you name her?"
The goodwife's eyes shone with hope. "If it is a girl, I want to name her Velora."
Korsan nodded and turned back to Gordan. He gave the woodsman a small chest, tightly locked. "Keep this safe," he charged him. "Keep it hidden. The one to whom it belongs will come searching for it—but do not reveal its existence to anyone else."
Gordan nodded and resolved to bury the chest in the hard-packed ground under his own bed.

Korsan had left a message of his own, to be delivered to Beren, wherever he may be found, telling the prince what he had done to keep that crown safe. Unbeknownst to everyone save the Pirates and the unfortunate traitors in the Prince's entourage who arranged the attack in exchange for vast sums and the opportunity to disappear from creditors and bookmakers, Prince Beren had been imprisoned, beaten and starved long enough to deprive him of his memory, and forced to serve on the pirate ship that had mounted the attack. For more than a decade, he slaved on many ships, abandoning his name as his merciless masters never used it anyway. At last, the ship he was on encountered a mighty storm, facing waves that no sailor had ever seen. Only one boat survived—a lifeboat, carrying the nameless deckhand. The waves crashed over the boat, tossing the man to and fro, but never overturning it. He lost the oars one by one, and then merely rode the churning sea, praying for the sight of land as the blackness of unconsciousness overtook him. As if Fate finally heard his plea, the sea quieted, and a miraculous current carried the boat and its nearly-dead passenger toward the harbor on the mainland—the very same harbor, as it happened, that he had departed all those years ago...

Aurelle huffed as Erlis nearly lost her a third time in the twisting streets.
"Remind me again where this contact of yours told us to meet her?"
Erlis pulled up short as the harbor patrol marched past, covering her face with her hood and turning away. Only when the soldiers passed out of earshot did she dare move or speak.
"Edri told the contact that she would be waiting just inside the western courtyard, and we would find the west gate unlocked."
Aurelle grabbed Erlis by the shoulder as someone started pointing and whispering. A quick illusion aimed at their eyes, and the villager immediately forgot whom she was looking at and went about her business.
"I wish Velora and Korsan could have come with us," she muttered as they moved on.
"Korsan said he needed to retrieve something, and he needed Velora to help find it," Erlis reminded her. "Evidently whatever it is holds the same importance as getting us into the castle to rescue Jaran and the Phoenix."
"His name is Damaris," Aurelle supplied with a snort. "I just hope we aren't too late; what do you suppose they will do with them?"
Erlis felt her pulse accelerate as the castle walls came into view. "Jaran is a Prince, so they cannot morally or legally do much with him; Damaris, as a known thief and a wharf rat, I am not so sure."
The gate stood just ahead. Erlis glided forward and gave the latch a gentle push. It swung open without a sound.
The healer turned to Aurelle. "What do you see?" She asked the Illusionist.
Aurelle examined the figures on the palm of her hand. "Three soldiers along the wall; two in the parapet, one posted along the corner."
Just then, the figures shifted. Aurelle clenched her fist and the image vanished. "We go now!"
The two women dashed forward and made it to the door without causing any alarm. Carefully slipping inside just before the next patrol rounded the corner, they found themselves in a long, dark tunnel that seemed to slope under the castle itself. 
"If I remember rightly," Erlis mused, "we did come to the right place, since the dungeons are down here."
Aurelle gasped. "You think they're in the dungeon?"
A rippling laughter carried down the tunnel toward them. Aurelle and Erlis inched forward till they could finally see a pale sheen of light emanating from a doorway. Within the doorway stood a figure in armor, her long crimson hair swept back to reveal the jagged glint of three scars: Edri Rodan, the girl who stepped in front of a lion to heal a Gifted man. 
Erlis sighed with relief as they neared her. "Edri, it is good to meet you—" she stopped.
The eyes that met hers were not those of a healer. Crimson dye still dripped off the ends of her hair. Erlis tried to back away, but found that her body no longer listened.
The imposter laughed again.
"Well! So this is what had my bodyguard on edge in the last few days!" Gushed Zayra, the Mad Queen. "She's fine, by the way; I have her all nice and tucked away with happy thoughts. She thinks it's yesterday, can you believe it?" Another maniacal cackle. Zarya turned. "Follow me." 
And Aurelle and Erlis did; they had no choice in the matter. 
"Where are you taking us?" Aurelle demanded as they ascended the stairs heading away from the dungeons. Evidently the Queen did not share the same sympathies as the rest of them, concerning the welfare of the two captive friends.
"We're going back to where it all began," said Zayra.
"What do you want with us?" Edri asked as they walked toward the entrance to the north tower. She had never been in it, since the Council had reserved it for their "scientific experiments," but she had often heard the screams.
"What do you think I want?" Zayra snapped. "I want to be Queen! And you two are going to make that happen!"
"How?" Asked Aurelle. "We're Outcasts, we don't have the authority—"
Zayra stopped short and stamped her foot. "It's not the authority I want, it's the power!" She screamed. Whirling on them, she pointed to Erlis. "You are a healer with more power than Edri could ever dream of! I want you to do what she never could: heal my broken brain." She broke into a wide smile. "Can't have a Madwoman for Queen if she's going to demand 'Off with their heads!' at any moment! And you," she pointed to Aurelle. "You're an Illusionist and a Seer. Your visions can tell me where the True Crown is: the Crown of Prince Beren."
Aurelle glanced at Erlis, who was rubbing the scales on her hand again. "Why do you need the crown?" She asked slowly.
"Idiot!" Zayra shrieked. "Because only the one who wears the True Crown is fit to sit on King Balwyn's throne as the undisputed ruler! Those Black Twins think they can just charm everyone into getting their way..." She sauntered around behind the women and hooked her arms through each of theirs. "But I will be the one with all the power in the end!" She marched forward into the main laboratory, dragging her unwilling assistants behind her.

Jaran felt Damaris huddled against his back; it was like strapping a man-sized chunk of live coal to his body, but he suppressed the discomfort in light of their present situation. It was awkward, really, walking past all these soldiers so intent on doing their jobs and doing them correctly—and yet they allowed the two high-risk prisoners walk right out of the dungeons, behind a soldier whose only instructions were, "Follow me."
He led them down the halls till they reached the eastern tower, a place Jaran knew well. He shuddered.
"What is it?" Damaris whispered.
Jaran turned his head and cupped his hand over his mouth. The soldier didn't appear to comprehend their conversation, but he didn't want to risk trouble.
"This is where the Crazy Queen lives," he said. "The Council ran experiments on her, and—" he hesitated. "They used me, used my Gift to alter her brain."
Jaran felt Damaris' body heat shift subtly, as it did when he felt agitated, such as with anger or fear. "So... What kind of Gift do you think she had? Would the Crazy Queen be able to enchant someone to—"
"Break two probers out of jail?" Jaran finished, glancing at the back of the soldier's neck. "Who knows?"

The soldier stopped in front of a doorway and turned to face them.
"You have nothing to fear," he said.
Behind him, the door opened of its own accord. The two young men—still in their chains—watched and waited for further instructions.
The soldier did not move. 
Slowly, carefully, Jaran and Damaris inched forward, stepping past him. Still, the soldier did not react. They entered the open door, and Jaran gasped in surprise.
Damaris stopped, utterly stunned by the beauty before him.
She sat in a cage of pure gold, robed in rich, resplendent fabrics from her chin to her toes. On her head she wore a crown of the most resplendent jewels set in rare metals. Only her face showed, tastefully painted and completely flawless. Damaris felt like he was looking at an angel in human form.
Jaran seemed to know her. He stepped forward, chained as he was.
"Azelie, what are you doing in a cage? Were you the one who saved us? How? Why?"
"Help me, Jaran!" The eyes stared at him earnestly, as the voice seemed to emanate from all around—everywhere except the one to whom it should have belonged. "The Queen commanded that I should never speak again, and I have not been able to utter a word since. It is by her command that I have been trapped in here, something pretty for her to look at rather than her own face. The lock—I cannot open it. I did enthrall the guard to bring you here. You must help me!"
Damaris stepped forward, and Jaran could tell he heard Azelie's "voice" as well. 
"If we help you," he said slowly, speaking softly in the presence of such resplendence, "will you help us escape?"
Azelie nodded. "No one should be imprisoned as I have been. Set me free, and from now on you can be my guar—"

"Well! What have we here?"
The harsh voice drowned out the rest of her telepathic words.
Jaran and Damaris whirled around. 

Two stately figures dressed in black emerged from behind a pillar. Jaran tilted his head.
"Wait," he stammered. "I know you!" 
"Of course you do!" Said the Lady Regent. "We are the Twin Regents, the Guardians of the Realm."
Jaran shook his head. "No... Something else—"
"You aren't the real rulers!" Damaris shouted. "And you aren't interested in guarding the realm—if anybody should be ruling, it's him!" He raised a hand and pointed at Jaran. "He's the real prince!"
The Lord Regent raised his eyebrow. "But he isn't the Crown Prince, is he?"
Damaris gaped as the two Regents came close. The Lord Regent looked Jaran straight in the eye. "You look almost exactly like your brother did the last time I saw him."
Jaran fought to keep his face impassive, but he couldn't help the tiny spark that raced up his arm. "I never knew my brother," he stated.
His Lordship chuckled. "Oh, well we ought to arrange some kind of reunion for them, shouldn't we, Javira?"
The Lady Regent giggled and clapped her hands. "Oooh! I know just the thing! Why don't we hold this prince for ransom?"
Javira's twin brother tilted his head toward her in mock confusion. "Ransom?" He echoed in exaggerated tones. "What would the ransom price be?"
Javira smiled and stepped close to the prince. Something in her touch, in the way her eyes never left him--it held him captive, compelled him not to move. "The price would be the True Crown, of course. After all, it went missing when the Crown Prince ran away, so everyone knows he must have taken it."
"He didn't run away!" Jaran felt like a scared young boy again, arguing with his old nurse who grumbled against the rest of his family. He had not thought about it for so long, he'd somehow forgotten that he ever had a brother. "He was killed, or--"
"Or what?" The Lord Regent cut in.
Jaran noticed something in the gleam of his eyes. "I know you!" He gasped. The memory of himself as a young boy unlocked other memories--of growing up alongside the nurse's adult children, who never seemed to age as Jaran did, who remained the same year after year... 
"Kaidan?" Jaran gasped. "Kaidan Clissander? The washer-woman's son?"
Kaidan snorted and rolled his eyes. "And yet so much more! Yes, finally, the little prince comes home!"
Jaran glanced between the ageless twins. "You're Gifted like the rest of us! But you were the ones to issue the Outcast Ordinance!"
Javira smiled, but Kaidan answered. "No--we merely got the Council to agree to it. And your brother isn't dead, Jaran. Goodness knows I tried! But my spies tell me that he is, in fact, heading for this castle even now--after I worked so hard to get him captured by pirates, the spoiled brat managed to survive!" Kaidan sighed heavily and wagged his head. "I suppose if one wants something done correctly, one must do it oneself." He smiled at Jaran. "He's coming for you--coming to save his little brother." Kaidan and Javira both drew matching daggers from their belts.
"He'll never see it coming," Javira gushed.

Harlock jumped awake from where he had sat to rest briefly--or so he thought. From the heaviness of his body, he had been deep asleep for several hours more than he intended. He glared at his pocket. "Jay?" he growled.
The light of her wings flashed from within the chest holding the crown. Harlock lunged for it. "Hey!" he said, flinging open the lid and waving her away. "What are you doing? Get out of there!"
"I did what I must!" Jay maintained. "I have completed my mission."
"What are you talking about?" Harlock packed up the belongings and strapped them onto his back. "What mission? We're not even at the castle yet."
"It wasn't the beatings that took your memory, Harlock." 
Beatings... Harlock stiffened at the unexpected memory of being tied to something round and rough, as heavy clubs and stinging whips ate at his back. "Beatings? I was a sailor, wasn't I? Maybe not a very good one--"
"On the pirate ship; they beat you and they would have killed you if they had known who you were; I took your memories so that you and they would never find out."
Harlock clutched his head in his hands. "You did this to me? You made me forget who I was?"
"I did it to save you. But now I'm giving them back. It's time to remember."
Harlock felt the fear and dread seize his throat. "Who was I, Jay?" he asked in a small voice.
"I cannot go with you into the city. I have placed all the memories in the crown you carry. When you place it on your head, your memories will return."
Harlock closed the chest and locked it again. "No way!" he snapped. "It doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the Prince. No way am I putting that thing on my head!"
"Harlock, please!"
"No!" Harlock tightened the grip on his pack and turned his back on the one constant in his life, the one being who had been close to his side. "You've betrayed me by taking all those things from me. I don't want to listen to you any more. If you don't want to come with me to rescue the Prince, that's fine. I don't need you!" He marched down the path into the city, the one that would take him straight to the castle.
Jay appeared in front of him. "Harlock, if you would just--"
"I. SAID. GO. AWAY!" He raised his hand and blasted her with water--and such was his anger that it immediately turned to ice, trapping her and falling to the ground. Harlock picked up the ice ball and hurled it away as hard as he could. He turned back toward the castle and marched on. He would save his friends and make a new life--and no one would be able to stop him.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Part 10--Stolen

Damaris Kemp, "The Phoenix"
Part 10

The harbor was no place for children. 
Thick smoke clogged the air as the particles of pollution settled and collected in the form of slag coating the ground. The massive storm with its great quantities of rain should have been enough to wash any other port clean, but here in the harbor, it only made the muck worse. Wizened, reeking people of every shape and size, all discolored to a uniform, pallid grey, shoved and shuffled their way up narrow alleys and docks. Not even the wide, bold flounces of the nocturnal women could rescue their lack of appeal—but it didn't stop them from trying.
A creaking ship pulled into the sloop, and its crew disembarked.
"Get what ye can, lads," barked the captain. "We've a mighty haul and a long voyage ahead of us. No tellin' how long it might be till the next chance to enjoy ourselves."
The crew dispersed eagerly. A few joined the crowd pressed around the booth where the Illusionist sat. She said not a word as flashing images poured out of her fingertips, twisting and galloping to vanish among the crowd.
Glinting eyes regarded the scene from a high vantage point. A small body curled in a crevice as the gaze found its mark. Slowly, the nimble feet scurried down the side of the wall. Quick as a spark Damaris moved, hovering here, only to vanish and reappear somewhere quite different. Each movement brought him closer to his goal.
He slipped in the empty spaces between people. They might skid a little on the slick ground, but not he; his feet found the secure spots amid the muck. Damaris glided among them like smoke, his eyes focused on hunting out money belts or pouches. The ones who knew the harbor held their pouches clutched in their hands; the ones hanging too low on the belts were also not good to grab, because the mark would miss the weight. The chink of a coin caught his ear. He glanced forward, and saw a large man just digging coins out of his purse. Damaris scurried forward. As the hand holding the purse came down toward the low-slung pocket, deft hands intercepted it, subtly dropping a rock exactly the same size into the sagging mouth, letting the pouch jingle as he did so.
The mark never suspected a thing. Damaris narrowed his body and prepared to waft backward the way he came.
"Oh my!" A voice squawked, as a soft thing impeded his movement.
The mark turned at the noise, saw the tipsy old woman still tilting precariously—and the shameless runt holding his own coin purse.

Damaris felt the coldness of dread wash over him. Of all the dandies in the audience, he had to pick the pirate as his mark! 
The burly man scowled and snapped the boy up by his collar.
"Oy!" He snarled, tossing Damaris in the open before everyone. "Try to steal from me, you scurvy rat?"
Damaris dropped the purse; riches be damned, the only thing he wanted in this moment was to disappear with his skin and his life still intact. He scrambled backward, but thick boots stepped out of the crowd, more crew members advancing in defense of their mate.
Meanwhile, the mark advanced on him, drawing the curved cutlass and brandishing it with expert menace. "People think we pirates is lawless, but ye might be interested to know there be pirate law, too."
Damaris trembled as the boots behind him and the soft tone of the gravelly voice caused him to lose the will to move. The pirate kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling, and before Damaris could react, the pirate stepped on his arm, pinning him down.
The cutlass flashed in a direct line over his shoulder. 
"D'ye know what the penalty is for STEALING?"
The blade swept down... Damaris cringed...


A strange but deafening snap split the air—but Damaris felt no pain, only that every hair on his body stood straight up. The pressure left his shoulder and he heard the cutlass clatter to the ground at the same time he smelled the pungent stench of burning flesh. A thud and a puff of dust resounded beside him. Damaris opened his eyes to behold the glassy, empty, terror-stricken visage of the pirate, arm still outstretched to deliver the severing blow. Damaris scrambled back as the pirates surged forward to inspect their fallen comrade.

One of them looked straight at the terrified boy.
"He's dead!" He announced.
"I didn't do it!" Damaris squealed the words before he could stop himself.
Denial only fueled the accusation. 
"Sure ya did! Yer one o' Them, ain't ye!"
"Thief! Thief—and a MURDERER!"
Damaris didn't know what they referred to—only that he needed to leave. He jumped to his feet like a spooked rabbit and scurried off down the road, hearing the shouts of the pirate crew behind him. 
No matter how he tried, he knew he would never get anyone to believe the truth about the pirate's death. In the briefest flutter of his eyelids, Damaris (though he wondered if he imagined it, himself) had actually seen the miracle that had killed the pirate and saved his life:

A bolt of lightning, out of a clear blue sky on a warm summer day.

Damaris shook his head and kept running. After all, the Harbor was no place for children.

Jaran cradled the light-flare in his hand until the energy surge died. His cuffs were just out of reach, and besides, they might be the wrong material. He didn't want to risk doing damage to himself in the attempt to escape.

The young boy in nothing but short trousers and a loose vest—his fellow prisoner—stared at him wide-eyed. Jaran wondered if he'd heard stories from the harbor-thief he'd saved when he first arrived at the harbor, back before he'd really mastered his ability.
Jaran closed his empty hand and leaned back against the cell wall.
He heard the boy's chains clink.
"It was you!" He choked. "You killed the pirate!"
Perhaps he had heard of the incident, then. Jaran opened his eyes. "Killed?" He frowned. "No, you must have heard wrong. The man was still standing when I left; I only meant to make him drop the sword."
The boy shook his head. "No, he was dead, all right. All cooked up inside. You did that?"
Jaran opened his hand, and a tiny spark hopped into the air and disappeared. "Guilty as charged," he quipped, knowing how much his advisers would have groaned at the terrible pun.
The boy stared at him with less awe and more fascination. "You saved my life!" he cried.
Jaran frowned. "No, that can't be," he mused. "I saw the pirates leave the port; they said they burnt the thief alive in his own house." He had felt such remorse at the thought of an innocent boy dying because of something he did, that Jaran nearly considered taking his own life—which was how Erlis found him.
A shudder rippled through the scrawny body. "They did burn my hut," the boy said softly. When he looked up at Jaran, his eyes glowed like they held real tongues of flame in them. "I couldn't get out, I thought I would die—but when I woke, there were ashes all around me, and I had flame inside of me." He opened his hand, and called forth a ball of fire. He grinned to see the older boy flinch backward. "It has been within me ever since."
Jaran tried to be grumpy, but the cuffs restrained his hands at an odd and uncomfortable angle. "Born from the ashes, eh? Rather like a phoenix. What's your name, anyway?" He asked.
"Damaris," the boy answered. "What's yours?"
"Jaran; tell me, Damaris—when they burnt your house, were your parents with you?" The only thing that could make this worse is if the boy had to also witness the demise of his family—not that Jaran knew what that felt like.
Damaris shrugged. "Parents? I doubt if I ever knew them at all. I live alone, picking pockets and stealing from merchants for this half-hearted, mindless shuffle they call 'living.'" He smirked at his cell mate. "How about you?"
Jaran shrugged. "I never knew my parents either. They both died the day after I was born."
Damaris chuckled. "Was your father poisoned and your mother heartbroken?" He shook his head. "Korsan told me that was how King Balwyn and Queen Gracelle died, when the Lost Prince was born. He said the realm lost a great leader that day, and we are left with the power-hungry Royal Council, until the Crown Prince is found."
Jaran snorted. "Maybe it would happen faster if the Lost Prince hadn't managed to get himself thrown in his own dungeon!"
Damaris flinched so hard that a small flame struck the floor and ignited some straw wedged between the flagstones. He quickly stomped it out, but the shock remained on his face. "Are you really the Lost Prince?" When Jaran nodded, Damaris jumped to his feet. "Then what are we waiting for? Wouldn't that make you the Crown Prince as well?"
Jaran shook his head. "I am Prince Jaran Seramis, that is true; but I highly doubt I am this legendary Crown Prince meant to overthrow the Twin Regents. I can only guess that he might still be out there somewhere—It's funny," he mused.
"What is?" Damaris was still trying to wrap his head around the idea that he could be unjustly arrested and imprisoned in a dungeon WITH THE FABLED LOST PRINCE OF THE REALM.
Jaran gave a wry grin. "I've lived my whole life thinking I was alone—and just now I discover that I may yet have a brother I know nothing about—oh, and by the way, he's destined to return and reclaim our father's throne!"

"Jaran?" A voice issued out of the emptiness beyond the cell. 
The night watch had taken up their posts some time ago. The two young men fell silent and listened intently. The evening torches flickered dimly. Jaran almost wished they had glowlamps down here instead of flame.
"Who's there?" He asked the growing shadows.
The door to their cell creaked open slowly. Damaris could barely make out a roughly human-shaped shadow behind the door.

"We don't have much time," the voice continued softly. "You should probably run while you have the chance."

One Mage and three women gathered in the back of the small dispensary. None of them looked very happy.
Velora swore. "They must have grabbed the kid while we were all fighting; I should have suspected something when the fire stopped coming!"
"It is I who should have been paying attention," Erlis replied mournfully. "I swore to protect Jaran, and then I go and allow sanctuary to the very person hunting him down!" She scowled at her foolishness. "He warned me not to trust her, but like a noble idiot I ignored him—if I had listened, we would have escaped long before the ambush!"
"Her?" Aurelle tilted her head. "You mean the Hunter?"
Erlis nodded. "She appeared in my courtyard, badly wounded; Jaran wanted to leave her unconscious or at most merely set and bandage her wounds," she looked down at her palms, glowing faintly in the daylight. "But in my arrogance I convinced myself that I could heal her instead of bandage her, and that maybe she could be turned to our cause."
Korsan dropped his talisman with a clink. "Instead, she became the beacon to bring all these soldiers to your location!"
"And," Velora added, "she got away!"
Aurelle was still lost in thought. "The peacekeepers know our faces now," she murmured. "There won't be any of us able to get into that castle to stage a rescue."
Erlis looked up. "We may not have to," she mused. "I can use my position as apothecary to make contact with the other healer in the castle; she serves as the bodyguard for the Council's Queen." She glanced at Korsan. "She is Gifted, that much I know. I can only imagine that they must not know of her Gift, or surely she would fall under the Ordinance."
Aurelle snorted. "The Golden Goose? I've heard of her; she's crazy."
"But this healer might be our only chance, since she is Gifted as we are," Korsan pointed out. "And perhaps the..." He faltered, "deranged queen might be just insane enough to become our diversion."
Velora's eyes lit up. "Wait," she said slowly, "what about Harlock?"
Korsan frowned. "Whom?"
Erlis gasped. "You've met Harlock? When? Where?"
Aurelle nodded. "He was—Velora and I met him in the woods, after ambushing a detachment of soldiers. He warned us that the Hunter was coming."
Erlis smoothed the scales on her arm. "He must have seen her in the early hours; that's why he left without saying anything."
Korsan waved his arms impatiently. "Who is Harlock?" He demanded.
"Another Gifted," Velora answered. "He had water manipulation—but the last we saw of him, he didn't seem interested in helping anybody but himself."
"Not to mention that we have no idea where he is now or how to find him, even if he were willing to help us rescue the boys!" Aurelle grumbled.
Erlis glanced at her old friend from the palace. "Korsan, what is it?"
The white-haired Mage had gone very pale and rigid, gaping at Velora with wide eyes. His voice trembled as he asked, "Did—did you just say this young man you met could manipulate water?"

"Ho, then!"
Harlock jerked awake with a snort as the wagon rocked to a stop. He poked his head out from under the tarp.
"Trees?" He cried in confusion. "What—" He twisted this way and that, but there were only trees as far as the eye could see. They were not in the town, but down in the deepest, thickest part of the forest. "Where have you taken me?" He demanded.
The wagoner shrugged. "It's where you needed to go, wasn't it?"
Harlock swore. "I told you I needed a ride into the city!"
The wagoner crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. "Did not either! You said you needed to find something in the forest! I remember it clear as day! 'Sides, what would the likes of me do in a high-faultin' Capitol city? Simple folk like me don't belong in a place like that!" He squinted down his nose at the man. "Now if you don't mind, stranger, I have other business to tend to—business called 'getting home to my family'—and I'll thank you to get your ungrateful arse off my wagon!" He dropped the reins into his lap and crossed his arms like a petulant child. He lifted not a finger until Harlock—with many oaths muttered under his breath—slumped off the back and sauntered to the side.
The driver grinned, snapped up the reins and waved. "Be seeing you!"
Harlock managed to keep from losing his temper until the wagon reached the top of the hill. Just before the driver and his ridiculous hat disappeared, a sudden deluge drenched him right through, though there didn't seem to be a cloud in the sky. Then the wagon was gone, and Harlock stood alone.
"All right, Jay!" He growled. "Come on out!"
The fairy slowly crawled her way out of his pocket. By the way she flew in reluctant squiggles, he knew that his suspicions were not mislaid.
"You did this to me!" He jabbed a finger at her. "To us! You messed with the driver's head and convinced him to go south to the forest instead of keeping to the north road toward the city!" He was so angry, he stomped his foot and a wellspring of water erupted from the base of the tree he stood under. "Why?" He roared at her. "Why would you do that? Is there something you're not telling me?"
"I have never lied to you, Harlock," Jay tried to defend herself.
"Not to me!" Harlock exploded. "But why are you keeping me from going to the city? Why did we have to leave those Outcasts? Velora said that one of them was a Mage—he might have been able to help me! Those two Outcasts the driver mentioned? One of them had to be Jaran! I could have been there to save them!"
"I am trying to save you, Harlock!"
"That's what you keep saying, but so far, I can't tell!"
"There is something you need," Jay insisted. "Here in the forest."
Harlock folded his arms over his bare chest and shivered. "What I need is a shirt, maybe even a jacket! But no, I have to chase you all over the realm, and you won't ever tell me anything!"
"Please, Harlock; you must trust me!"
"I don't think I can, Jay. You've done enough."
"Harlock." With the one heartfelt knell, Jay flew up to his face, close enough for him to actually make out some of her features. "You must come with me to find the answers you seek. Just this one last time, and I promise to hide nothing from you."
Harlock tried to scowl and stay mad, but she stared at him with such purity and penitence that he couldn't. In one explosive sigh, his anger dissipated. "All right; just this once, and then we are going to the castle to rescue the kid and you will not stop me again!"
"Of course," Jay responded. "Follow me."
She zipped off into the underbrush. Harlock followed her easily—just like he had for as long as he could remember.

Not far from where they had fought, Jay came to stop in a wide clearing that bore the remains of a small village—now heaps of ash and blackened stone. She wandered among them, and Harlock followed.
"What happened to this place?" He mused as she searched various piles of rubble.
"Fire; what else does it look like?" Jay replied. "One building caught and then the rest of them went up in flames." She paused to survey two skeletons, entwined with one another where they died. "While their residents cowered inside the burning rooms," she finished. Finally, she moved to a heap of ash. "Here it is; you'll have to dig for it."
"Here what is?" Harlock grumbled, brushing away the hash to the hard-packed mud below. "How do I know when I've found it?"
"Believe me, you'll know."
As he dug, a slow realization began unfolding in Harlock's mind. He could clearly picture the village as it must have looked before the fire—but at the same time, he could think of no reason on earth why he would visit such a remote place. Was this his childhood home, perhaps? Would he find something that pertained to his life before the boat?
What in the blue blazes would such a thing be doing buried under a heap of ash in the middle of a forest?
Finally, his fingers connected with something hard and slippery. It felt wooden, so it could not be just another rock. He finally dug deep enough to loosen it and pull it out.
In the light of Jay's wings, Harlock could see that the object was a small oaken chest. Being buried had done it no favors, but at least the outside being intact assured him that the chest had done its job of protecting whatever was inside it.
Carefully, Harlock reached inside the locking mechanism and pressed the prongs to release it. The chest flipped open, and the first thing Harlock saw was a thin piece of parchment. It wasn't even really aged; whatever this was, it hadn't been there for long. He opened it to read the message inside.

Keep this safe for my return.
-Beren S."

Again, his memory clicked and spluttered, but Harlock could not place it; had he known a man named Beren, once upon a time? The name Korsan sounded familiar—but why?
He reached into the chest and felt something hard and thin. Harlock pulled it out to look at it in the moonlight.

It was a tall circlet, set with jewels. A crown fit for a prince.
"Whose is it?" He asked Jay.
She wavered carefully.
"It belongs to the Crown Prince," she answered.
Harlock smirked. He'd seen the reward posters, he'd heard the rumors. "Well then," he said, dropping the crown into his knapsack, "we'd better head up to the city to return it to him!"

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Reader's Review: "A Fair Fight" by Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins

Synopsis from Amazon:
The faeries are preparing for a war throughout worlds. But before the fighting comes the talking.

May is approaching, but there's no way Megan O'Reilly can focus on plans for graduation and beyond when the ancient monsters called the Fomoire are about to break out of their frozen lake. As the ice melts in the Spring air, a conference of magical beings from around the world is being called. Apparently there are a lot of risks involved in properly equipping this kind of party. There are so many places--Earth, different mystic realms, the collective unconscious, an outright netherworld--to go, people to see, and things to be done.

Megan is going to help. No matter how dangerous it gets.
My Review:
Every time I open a Jeffrey Cook novel, I am blown away by the magnitude of the fantasy—and characters so impossibly real that it HURTS.

I knew I was going to love this series from the first book. One of my favorite things about Cook's writing is that his continuity is spectacularly on-point. Characters go through intense circumstances and they respond and react in ways that change them and mature them so that the person on the other side is distinct from the one who started out.
I love how, in all of this fantasy and spending incredible lengths of time in a dimension other than the real world, Cook does not neglect Megan's relationship with her parents. It becomes a bigger deal in this installment than in the previous two, and as a character, she handles it beautifully. It is very clear that she loves them both, even so far as they don't actually know each other, and the attention she gets (or doesn't) get from both of them also plays an important part in the development of the plot.

Speaking of "developing relationships" one cannot ignore the marvelous "ship" between Justin and Megan. Their interactions are so adorable they will melt your heart—and yet the respect they both maintain is wonderful—I love that Cook ensures that the reader falls in love with him first, so that Megan doesn't have to waste precious plot time pining after his scent or doubting his love for her, and nonsense like that. He's pledged to her, but they don't make it awkward or uncomfortable. He's adjusting to modern life every bit as much as Megan is adjusting to life in the Fair realm. 

Oh, also: the Kahales feature even more in this book. Mr. Kahale has been "absent" from the real world for so long—but the Menehunes are an important part of this war, so as The Kahuna, naturally, he is in for a more prominent role.

The stakes in this plot are higher than ever, as the "villain" this time isn't any one nefarious enemy or despicable entity—it's every evil thing and every monster in every culture, all together. The description of the Fomoire straight-up CREEPS. ME. OUT. If this series ever becomes a movie or a TV series, that will I think be the part where I cringe and look away, because even the descriptions in the book sent chills down my spine!

The ending, though... (*distant sobbing*)
That clinched it. I know it's not the end of the series, but darned if I almost don't want to read the last book—not because it was horrible, but because it was SO GOOD I don't want it to end! The last scenes of the book are glorious and breathtaking—and the last big event broke my heart. I couldn't believe such a wonderfully compelling author to be capable of it, but he did. It happened, and there's no going back. There is only marching forward with the inevitability of Time.

Of course I do not hesitate to give FAIR FIGHT an unreserved *****5 STAR***** rating, and add an Upstream Writer Certified COMPLETELY RECOMMENDED endorsement. I cheered, I giggled, I gasped, I reveled—if you're looking for good, solid fantasy with plenty of fairies and magic and brownies (the Fae, not the dessert... Though I don't doubt Kerr could make some AMAZING desserts!) and Celtic mythology in spades, along with excellent moral characters who win you over from the start, and a perilous challenge that calls everyone to band together to defend the good and the right—look no further than the FAIR FOLK CHRONICLES! 

Further Reading: (YA/Urban Fantasy/Myths and Legends)
The Fair Folk Chronicles--Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins
        -Foul is Fair
        -Street Fair
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart
       -Wolf's Path 
Spirit Knights--Lee French
       -Girls Can't Be Knights
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd 
Talented Series: Dream Stalker --Amy Hopkins
Also by Jeffrey Cook: The Dawn of Steam Trilogy
      -First Light
      -Gods of The Sun
      -Rising Suns 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Part 9--Rebel

Azelie Pozreth, "The Paragon"

Part 9

Head down... Face covered... Walk slowly... Be about your business... Do not speak unless spoken to... Yield to those more important than you... The rules of etiquette pounded through her brain as she meandered through the marketplace. Along with them, the list of ingredients her mother wanted also vied for prominence in her memory. Flour, oil, strawberries... Don't make eye contact... cinnamon, milk, eggs... Head down...
Azelie shook her head; she was better than this! Carefully, deliberately, she lifted her gaze and looked right at the merchant measuring out the milk for her.
His eyes flicked up and then right back down again. He handed her the jug. "What're you lookin' at, hussy?" he growled.
Azelie took the jug and placed it in the basket hanging from her arm. She strode on her merry way without answering him. This time, there were no silly rules, only the list of market items. Azelie completed her purchases in record time, racing from booth to booth and staring at the merchant to make them work faster to be rid of the discomfort. She grinned as she swung off toward the Pozreth bakery, ignoring the confused and disdainful stares directed at her back. Just a few more turns, and she could unfasten the stifling veil over her face! She reached up to her jawline and began loosening the strings.

Azelie turned the corner and stopped. A crowd blocked her way--but they weren't looking at her. Village locals gathered in an awkward sort of audience as soldiers in palace livery made their way up the lane of housing units. Every so often, Azelie heard a door banging open, but no one made a sound except the indistinct whisper and the odd whimper. She saw only the crowd, she was too short to see what was happening.
Carefully edging her slim body into the narrow spaces between people, Azelie worked her way to a spot that gave her a clear view of the soldiers. Two of them guided a line of veiled figures between them, but these were so shrouded that all Azelie could tell was that they were women. Which women in particular, she could not tell. Why were the soldiers taking these ladies? Why was everyone just standing around watching them?
Azelie barely had time to wonder before a rough, mailed hand clamped around her arm and pulled.
"Here's another one!" the soldier cried, hauling her out of the press, toward the space around the wagon.
Azelie felt her heart give a jolt as the veil chose that inopportune moment to drift free as silently as a whisper. There she stood, bare-faced among those long fabric robes with eyes. Several people gasped; they knew the reputation of women who unveiled in public.
The squadron leader stared down at Azelie over thick arms folded across his broad chest. With nothing else to lose, Azelie stared back.
Finally, the leader barked, "She'll do!"
The soldier shoved Azelie into the back of the wagon with the other women. She could count twenty faces in the dim light. The vehicle gave a lurch and sent Azelie tumbling toward an open space on the bench lining the interior.
"Why are they taking us?" she asked the pair of eyes beside her. "Where are they taking us?"
No one ventured an answer. Azelie was left to her own worried thoughts and the clatter of the wheels upon cobblestones. The wagon was just rolling to a stop when she thought of her basket; did her family know she'd been taken? What would her mother think when her father brought the basket back and told her of the broken milk jug and the spilled berries? Would she ever see them again?
The doors at the back of the wagon opened and the soldiers began herding the women out. A Council member in rich, resplendent robes stood by, surveying their arrival. The other women were far too concerned with where they might be headed and whether they were about to trip over the hem of their long gowns, but Azelie watched the Councilor, staring straight at him until he turned and looked at her. She held his gaze until the soldier behind her gave a rough shove on her shoulder. When she glanced back, the Councilor was already walking in the other direction, but Azelie hoped at least to have made her message clear: she was not afraid of him, nor what might happen to her.

Some time later, Azelie sat in a fresh, clean gown far richer than anything she would have imagined wearing, freshly bathed, while a maidservant combed her hair to a brilliant sheen. The other servants had all but ignored her as they went about their business, but this maid began humming to herself. She stopped when she looked up at the mirror and saw Azelie staring intently at her.
The maid blushed. "Forgive me; I forgot myself."
Azelie relaxed her stare; quite possibly, this girl was from the village, like herself, and only a strange twist of fate placed her in servant's livery, while Azelie received gowns and jewelry.
"It's all right," she said. "I get the feeling you and I are not much different."
The young girl twisted and pinned Azelie's curls into place, peppering her head with jewels. "Oh, but we are!" she gasped. "You and the other ladies were chosen for your impeccable beauty to become the public face of the Council, to ensure that the Realm is receptive to their policies. The citizens long for a leader since the King died."
Azelie flinched. "But I cannot lead a kingdom!" she objected. "I am only a commoner."
The maid finished placing the last hair pin and turned the chair to face her. From the table beside her, she selected a wide crown hung with a trailing veil of diamonds. "You won't need to rule; they will just use your beauty to win the people over to choosing you and rejecting the Regency; the Council will still be in charge, all you will have to do once you win the people is endorse their continued rule."
This nettled Azelie more than it reassured her. "So I'm to become a puppet, am I?"
The maid placed the crown on her head and arranged the veil around her face. "A very beautiful puppet, if you are chosen." She smiled, her eyes full of admiration. "If it's any consolation, I think you will win; the others have flaws, but you..." she sighed. "You're perfect."

Perfect. The word repeated in Azelie's thoughts as she wafted through the selection process. She repeated it to herself as the others were dismissed for one reason or another. Finally, it came time for her turn to be presented to the gathered populace to gauge their reaction upon seeing her. I am perfect, she reminded herself as she emerged onto that balcony amid thunderous applause. She stared down at them, willing each one by one to stop cheering and to witness her. A discreet parchment gave her the words to say, words that had been repeated almost twenty times already.
"People of the realm!" she announced. Her voice was not commanding, it did not echo off the stones as she was sure others did; but when she looked down and met the upturned gaze of a villager, she felt her words reach out to them, so that at the very least, this one person heard what she had to say.
"I have been a commoner like yourselves; I was raised up from among you to become the person you can trust to ensure that your needs and interests are represented in the Council's every decision. Your voice is my voice; your sentiments are my sentiments. Together, we will continue to thrive in the realm, just as King Balwyn would have wanted!"
She finished, and the whole crowd stood in awed silence before breaking out into wild cheers, so much louder than before.
A Councilor took her hand and guided her back into the palace. A few others had already assembled, and they regarded her with proud grins.
"Well, my fellow Councilors?" asked the one beside her. "Are there any doubts?"
A woman spoke up in a thready voice. "None whatsoever," she gushed. "She is perfect!"

I am perfect. Azelie tried to remind herself every day, but as time wore on, it became harder and harder to convince herself. Within days of winning the adulation of the people and holding audiences with endless streams of admirers and supplicants seeking wise answers (fed to her by the supremely-capable Royal Council), Azelie Pozreth became the target of a series of announcements decrying her as, at best, a performing monkey, and at worst, a shallow ninny who didn't know what to think. As her popularity waned, that of two strangers seemed to swell and expand. They were twins, and they made no pretense of laying claim to the vacant throne, defaming the Council before the people, and especially the "perfect" citizen they had chosen to connect with the people. The Lord and Lady Regent, as they called themselves, stirred up scorn against such unblemished beauty, so much that Azelie could no longer hold public audiences--nor could she leave the palace, now that she had been burdened with such a high-profile reputation. She was reduced to wandering the halls; at least, by way of staving off boredom, the Council had instructed her to be listening carefully to any conversation she overheard. Azelie particularly enjoyed the clandestine nature of the new assignment; accustomed as she was to being overlooked and ignored, she found particular skill in slipping in and out of rooms undetected--even by the inexorable, untouchable Twins themselves. She reported what the Regents would discuss, and the Council would devise new ways of undermining their influence based on this information. Azelie smiled to herself; she was perfect, after all--but perfect didn't necessarily mean good all the time. The Twins always seemed to find new ways of picking on her anyway, so she preferred to stay out of their way. She found that by concentrating very hard on a particular person, she possessed some instinct that told her precisely where they were. Azelie depended on the instinct so much that she never expected to collide with a young man in the Great Hall one day--but that is precisely what happened.
One moment, she was walking and listening for the Lady Regent, and the next, her veil had slipped over her face and her nose ached from smacking into someone.
"Oh!" Someone cried. "Sorry! I didn't see you there."
Azelie adjusted her crown and stared at Someone; he had dark, sleek hair and narrow features. His blue eyes sparkled as he bowed low with expert decorum.
"A pleasure to meet such a rare beauty," he murmured. "I am Prince Jaran; who might you be?"
Azelie felt the warm blush crawling up from her chest to her face. "I am Azelie Pozreth, the Council Paragon Interface," she said, curtsying delicately.
The blue eyes widened. "Oh, you're the interface! When I saw the advertisements I thought--well," he caught himself and faltered, hanging his head in embarrassment.
Azelie tilted her head. "What did you think?"
His narrow lips curved upward. "I never dreamed you were real," he murmured.
Azelie opened her mouth to say something else, but just then, a knot of Councilors descended upon them, drawing them in separate ways.
That was the last time Azelie ever saw the Prince. She tried asking about him at her regular Council sessions, but no one would answer her. The servants (whom she helped avoid unjust punishments by distracting the superiors to give them enough time to get away) told her that Jaran was one of those that some people called "Gifted", and that the Regents--along with the Council--had agreed to issue an ordinance declaring them Outcasts, which gave the Council jurisdiction to use the prince in conducting secret "experiments."
In return, Azelie launched her own sequence of experiments; beyond just knowing instinctively where people were, Azelie found that, gradually, she could be able to detect their very thoughts, and still further, to place thoughts of her own among those of another. When the Council decided to abandon the tactic of winning the people with beauty, and thus brought in a second exemplary woman to act as ruler--even going so far as to demand that everyone treat her as Queen and refer to her as "Her Majesty"--Azelie immediately set out to bend this woman to her will. This proved harder, as every attempt to influence this new Queen was met with equal resistance. The Queen was the only person in the whole castle to regard Azelie with open disdain, so Azelie contented herself with planting vulgar thoughts in the Queen's mind when she least expected it.
One night, Azelie woke out of a deep slumber and found herself in the midst of a terrible storm--and the sound of Jaran screaming in pain. It took several minutes for her to realize the screaming was in her head.
It hurts! I can't stop it! Azelie recalled one story she had heard, of a Healer that once worked for the King, but was dismissed by the Council on suspicion of conspiring with a dragon to kill the king. In retaliation, it seemed, the Dragon had Marked her, and she had fled to the harbor. If anyone could help the Prince control his gift, it would be this healer.
Go to the Harbor, she sent the thought to the fearful Prince. Find the Dragon-Marked Healer.
It's too much! his thoughts screamed. They will find me. What Dragon? What Mark?
He must not have heard her clearly enough. Azelie fought to make her words distinct. She is Dragon-Marked; you will find her in the Harbor. She is a healer, and she can help you.
A furious crack of thunder sounded like a stone striking the side of the castle, but after it happened, Azelie found she could not hear Jaran anymore. She could only hope that he had understood and would find his way.

She was running, pursued by a pack of wolves. She turned her head to look at them, and suddenly one gets its jaws around her leg. She screams and tries to pry its teeth out of her skin, but another bites down on her wrist. She can do nothing as yet another wolf lunges straight for her throat—
Dennahlia came awake with a heavy gasp. Her body sat upright, but she couldn't feel her hands, or see her arms. She willed sensation in them, then frowned as the movement of her fingers occurred behind her head. She tried to stand, but her ankles had been firmly trussed to the legs of the chair she sat on.
The Hunter glared at the two faces across from her.
"What did you do to me?" She growled.
"Do to you?" Said the one in the hooded cloak. "Who do you think I am?"
Dennahlia wriggled again, but the back of the chair was too high for her to get the kind of leverage over the rope that she needed. She scowled.
"A freak," she spat at the ground in front of her captor's feet. "And a monster!" She felt the panic rising in her chest and attempted to meet it with brazenness. "If you're going to kill me," she declared, "do it quickly!"
The deformed woman with the green scales on half her face chuckled deeply. "I am a healer, and my name is Erlis," she answered. "I could no more kill you than scrape the scales off my own face. We only tied you up because of the danger you would have brought on yourself if you had succeeded in killing me while I healed your wounds." She gestured to the side, where a shaggy-haired youth regarded the Hunter with thinly-concealed malice. Now there was a kid with his priorities in the right order. 
Then she realized what Erlis had said.
Wounds? Dennahlia looked carefully over what she could see of her body. Her dream about the wolves returned—only now she began to doubt whether it was all a dream or not. 
"What wounds?" She asked.
Erlis watched her carefully. "You arrived in my yard with your body nearly flayed to ribbons. It has taken several hours, but I managed to restore your body to it's full health." She leaned forward. "How did you get so wounded? Where did you come from?"
Dennahlia fumed inwardly, but she was professional enough to hide it. What had that blasted Illusionist done to her?
Erlis, meanwhile, mistook the meaning of her silence. "Are you having trouble remembering? What is the last thing you recall?"
Dennahlia's mind wasn't having any trouble at all. The longer she kept awake, the more her thoughts spun in dozens of directions, seeking a way out of this mess. If she could only reach the brooch tucked into her glove...
"I'll tell you what," she remarked, trying in vain to struggle some more against the ropes, "untie me and I'll tell you what you want to know."
Finally the youth stirred. He kept his fists clenched as he snorted. "Not a snowball's chance, after what you tried to do!"
Instantly, the sound of his voice kicked the Hunter's senses into high gear. By some miracle, she had encountered the hideout of one of the Outcasts she sought! The bear cub had led her right to its den.
"You will let me go," Dennahlia mused, "when you realize it's your only chance to stay hidden... Your Highness."
The young man's hand flicked open, releasing a spiderweb arc of blue sparks. His eyes shifted from her face to Erlis. 
Dennahlia grinned as he confirmed what her senses had already told her: this was Prince Jaran, the last known member of the Seramis royal family. The name Erlis told her that his companion was the disgraced Royal Healer Erlis Irrya, banished from the castle after being accused of killing the King when she ought to have been caring for the Queen.
On cue, Erlis shifted her position forward, as if placing herself between the Hunter and the prince.
"Have you come to rid the kingdom of us, in the name of the Outcast Ordinance?" Erlis asked.
Dennahlia shrugged, and felt her fingertips brush the opposite palm. "Oh relax; you're not my quarry."
Erlis and Jaran shared a glance.
"Why are you here, then?" He asked.
The Hunter gave one last twist and felt the subtle click as her finger connects with the brooch in her hand. She chuckled. "Your guess is as good as mine, Highness. One minute I am running through the Wilderness looking for something I am not even sure still exists; next thing I know, I'm being chased by a pack of wolves," she shuddered. "And then..."
"Wolves?" Jaran repeated. "I thought the wolves lived in the forest."
Erlis stared at the Hunter, her face paling as she realized the Hunter's true errand. "The Regents sent you," she guessed.
Dennahlia nodded. "Seems a suit of armor went missing; they'd like it back."
Jaran tilted his head. "So, wait... You're not after the Outcasts?"
Dennahlia relaxed into her bonds; the deed was done; all she needed to do was wait for the cavalry to show up.
"I never said either way," she teased the young prince. 
He immediately whirled on Erlis. "I told you it was a trap."
Erlis kept an eye on the prisoner. "I think she might have fallen into a trap, but that doesn't mean she is the trap. We may yet convince her to join our cause."
Dennahlia leaned back and laughed. "I would never join you circus monkeys!" She let her hands hang slack. Almost time...
Unfortunately, the dragon eye was keener than she anticipated.
"Hand!" Erlis bounded to her feet just as Dennahlia slipped her bonds. She went for her knives, but a furious blow knocked the weapon from her hands. 
Jaran stood with his hands extended toward her, a glittering web of sparks spanning his fingers. 
Dennahlia smiled. "Neat trick," she said, drawing her sidearm. "Ever wonder if it could stop a bullet?"

"All Outcasts exit the building with your hands in the air! I repeat, hands in the air, by order of the Lord and Lady Regent!"
All three froze and the two Outcasts complied.
"We mean no harm!" Erlis called out. 
"Come out or we will open fire!" Said the voice. "Three... Two—"
Erlis and Jaran shuffled toward the doorway, with Dennahlia keeping her weapon trained on them in the rear.
"Thanks, Sergeant!" She hollered. "I can take it from—"
"I said hands where I can see them, you garbage mutant!" The Sergeant directed his comment not at the compliant Outcasts before him, but at the Hunter sent to bring them in. "You are all under arrest according to the law of the Ordinance!"
Jaran spun to gape at Dennahlia. "You?" He spluttered. 
Dennahlia swore and launched herself at the ten-foot wall beside her. She landed at the top with ease, but before she could drop down the other side to make her escape, a turquoise-colored wind blew her back into the narrow, cramped courtyard.
A gigantic fireball exploded at the rear of the squadron, spooking the horses and adding to the panic. Erlis and Jaran split off to find cover as the air filled with flames, howls, magic spells, and fantastic illusions. Velora dropped in to even the odds by scaring away the horses and pulling the soldiers down to the ground. Aurelle created illusions of the Outcasts, making them seem more numerous than they actually were. Damaris used careful streams of flame to keep any outliers from slipping away, and Korsan made up for the lack of armor on the part of his compatriots by casting and maintaining protection spells in the melee. 
They fought until the last soldier backed off and left the harbor far behind.
Erlis came out from behind a stack of crates to greet the newcomers.
"Master Korsan," she bowed. "It is good that you arrived when you did. I should have realized that the Hunter's false sympathy was nothing more than a stall tactic." She held up the abandoned brooch. "This was a homing beacon she managed to activate while speaking with us."
Korsan tilted his head as he regarded the scaly face. "Have we met before?" He asked.
Erlis smiled, and her right cheek blushed. "We worked for the King at the same time, I think," she said, "but we never had the pleasure of meeting."
Korsan smiled. "King Balwyn spoke highly of his very valuable Healer. A pleasure to meet you, Madame Irrya."
Velora sauntered up. "Darn Hunter got away," she snarled. "Wouldn't you know she was an Outcast too, all this time?"
Aurelle looked back toward the docks. "Where is Damaris?" She asked.
Fear gripped Erlis as she glanced at the bodies left behind. "Where is Jaran?" She added. 

Amid the rocky spires and deep crags, a lone figure trudged across the landscape. He waved a hand at Jay, flying up ahead, and flopped down under an overhanging rock to rest. The fairy settled on a rock next to him.
Harlock wagged his head. "I don't know, Jay; maybe we should have taken the harbor route. All of this wasteland looks the same, I can't tell if I'm walking in circles!"
We will arrive at the castle soon enough, the fairy assured him.
Thinking about the harbor reminded Harlock of the widening circle of friends and acquaintances he had formed since reawakening. Learning from Erlis and Aurelle, who seemed to know a lot about this Outcast phenomenon and the people behind the oppression had bothered him considerably.
"Jay," he mused. "How did we meet, you and I? Did I know you from before? Do you know anything about my past?"
Jay buzzed noncommittally, a sound Harlock had come to accept as her "thinking noise."
I met you on the boat, she answered. I have not known you for much longer than you have known me.
"Where did I come from?" Harlock mused. "Where did you come from?" He recalled how it seemed that no one else could understand Jay's speech like he could. "How did we get to be bonded so closely?"
Jay lifted off and began flying uneasy loops. You ask many questions, she replied. But I will try to answer them. You may not remember this, but the first time we met—"
Harlock had been so focused on Jay's story that he didn't notice the clatter of a passing cart till it rounded the bend. He grabbed Jay to hide her light and jumped to his feet. The horses shied at the unexpected movement, and the driver slowed to a stop.
"Ho there," he cried, "what's the likes of you doing out here in the wasteland?" He regarded the bare-chested man dubiously. "You one o' Them or something? The Outcasts?"
Harlock recalled Velora's sentiments on the subject. "What if I am?" He said, not ready to confirm or deny the question.
The man wagged his head. "If you wasn't, I'd give you a ride into town; t'ain't fit for a man to be out here with no food nor water—but the town ain't safe for the Outcasts. Word is there was a big to-do at the harbor and two of 'em got arrested."
Harlock kept his face blank. "You don't say," he mused, trying not to appear too interested. "You wouldn't happen to know which two, would you?"
The wagon driver wagged his head. "Nah, never heard—but there are those who would tell you that they saw the Crown Prince himself gettin' drug into the castle in irons. Heh-heh," he chortled. "Bet the Regents wouldn't let him live for long if he was! Bet that Hunter will be collecting her bounty soon." He fidgeted with the reins. "Will you be takin' that ride, then, stranger?" He asked softly.
Harlock tucked Jay into his pocket, where she would stay hidden. "I'd be much obliged, sir," he said, climbing in.
The driver snapped the reins, and the horses ambled on down the road leading to the city. 
The Hunter had found them; was it his fault? Could he have stopped her if he had chosen to remain with Velora and Aurelle? He wondered who else had gotten taken with Jaran. There was only one way he could think of to find out.