Monday, March 20, 2017

Reader's Review: "A Spell In The Country" by Morgan Smith

Synopsis from Amazon:
What if you weren’t what heroes are made of? What if your life was an open book? What if you were just an ordinary soldier, with ordinary skills and ordinary goals? What if you weren’t “The Chosen One” but still had to try to save the world? “A Spell in the Country” is the story of that soldier – a young woman driven not by prophesy, but by circumstances and coincidence, and by the strengths and weaknesses that anyone might possess. Lured into treason and only narrowly escaping the gallows, Keridwen was desperate to build some kind of life for herself. But between demons bent on death and mayhem, treachery at the very heart of the kingdom, and a prince who had every right to nurse a grudge against her, what were the odds that she could stay out of trouble for long?
My Review:
It's a high-fantasy adventure full of medieval kingdoms at war, and the narrator is the spunky-yet-perfectly-ordinary young daughter of a high-ranking nobleman. What more do you want?

To be honest, I did assume the story would be generic, with the old-man advisors and the horses and the soldiers and the royals who get to do whatever they want. What I did not expect was the story to begin with our narrator being tried for treason and very nearly executed for her crimes against the crown, however inadvertent—

But that's what I got, and THEN the adventure began! 
Keridwen is a noble's daughter, but she has been trained as a soldier from a young age. She gets posted to lead a troop in guarding the most remote, backwater outpost in the realm—but if there is any significant reoccurring theme in this book, I would have to say that it is "Nothing is ever what it seems." A nobleman's daughter is a capable military captain, a backwater outpost hides a terrible secret with implications that could very well mean the destruction of the entire continent, and magic comes into play where you least expect it.

I loved it, once I got past the confusion and politics of the first few chapters! Once I really got to know the characters, once I was oriented with the lay of the land, I was deeply hooked into the story and there was nothing else for it. Smith really makes the ordinary something extraordinary! Kerri makes a pretty entertaining narrator, with the scrapes she and her brusque, impulsive manner get her into! The cast of characters she encounters prove wonderfully diverse: from Sorcha, the "large and in charge" woman who basically runs the town of Penvarron, while the Duke who actually holds the position loves to dispense orders under the illusion that he's having any kind of effect at all; Prince Tirais, a young man full of his own importance and constantly at odds with Keridwen, since his mother wore the crown her superior had committed treason against; Cioren, a mysterious man from a bygone age who is on a first-name basis with the queen—and so many others. I enjoyed getting to know them, I was delighted with the story that unfolded, and I am definitely eager to explore more of the Averraine Cycle!
It is with great pleasure that I bestow upon this wonderful, unassuming book a full *****5 STAR***** rating, and add that it comes Upstream Writer Certified Highly Recommended as well! If you enjoy unexpected tales of twists and turns you don't see coming, with characters in circumstances ranging from dumb luck to very-near-prophetic predestination, and a heartfelt cast of characters that will burst to life in your imagination, you just might consider spending A SPELL IN THE COUNTRY.
Further Reading: (Medieval Fantasy/Ordinary Heroes/Female Leaders)
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie
The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny
     -A Halloween's Curse  
  -Puck's Choice--Skye Hegyes
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts," Season 2 Part 2: "Strategic Maneuvers"

And the character with the most nominations for the week is...
Aurelle Divir, "The Illusionist"
 Season 2, Part 2
"Strategic Maneuvers"
"Beren!" Aurelle cried, "Help!"

 Beren sent a blast of water to engulf the white-haired woman. Her panic dissipated, sending the books and scrolls crashing to the floor.
Aurelle spluttered and wiped the water from her face. Beren hesitated at her new, regal look. The long blue coat she had been wearing before was simple enough to make her easily overlooked. In this new dress, with items shining bodice and the silver circlet around her head, she commanded attention by her very bearing.
"Sorry," he blurted when she stared at him.
She shook her head, surveying with disappointment the mess she had made. "Don't be; I couldn't have stopped that on my own."
"What was it?" Beren glanced at the scroll piled at his feet. Words filled it from edge to edge. He recognized some as quotes from books he had read—but what were the others? Where did the scroll come from?
Aurelle slipped it from his hands, an expression of consternation on her face. "I don't know; one moment I was reading, and the next—" she shuddered. "It felt like one who expects to sip from a goblet suddenly falling into the ocean."
"Like a power surge in your Gift?" Beren guessed.
Aurelle frowned and reached up to touch the circlet on her head. She winced and dropped her hand. "I have never heard of such a thing—and are you saying that this new outfit is part of my Gift?"
Beren shrugged. "Try using your Gift now. Do you remember any of the books you were reading?" He bent down and picked up the scroll at their feet. 
Aurelle snorted. "You mean the ones that were flying at my head?" She groused. "A little. Here, let me—" She opened her hand, the way she did when making her illusions. In a flash of brilliance, the words themselves appeared in the air before them, and Aurelle began speaking them aloud. 
Beren referred to the scroll. He could instantly see each passage illuminated on the paper as Aurelle read it. When she stopped, the ink on the scroll faded till it was blank again. He stared at her in wide-eyes astonishment. 
"You got all that in an instant?" He gasped.
Aurelle shrugged. "It's there in my head, like something I know—but I didn't even really read it. I guess I sort of absorbed it."
Beren nodded. "Like the incidents you would observe that would prompt your stories; you see something and it comes out in an illusion." He glanced around the massive library. "Do you think you could do that with all the information from these books?"
Aurelle followed his gaze, a bit more wistful than the prince. "I don't know how much information I can hold without taxing myself; this is all very new to me."
Beren grinned and handed her the scroll, "If you could, it would make you my most invaluable counselor, since you wouldn't need to be carrying tomes and parchments with you all the time."
Aurelle bowed low. "I will do my best, your Highness."

An explosion in the eastern wing shook the ground, and both the prince and the illusionist hastened to investigate.

The throne room lay in ruins. Black soot coated the marble, and all that remained of the wooden furniture and fixings were charred heaps.
At the center, a glowing figure huddled, his light increasing by the moment.
Damaris raised his head, though his skin shone so brightly that it was hard to distinguish his face. 
"Help!" A voice rasped from the man-shaped inferno. "I can't stop it!"
Beren let loose a torrent of ice and water from his hands, but the minute it reached the flames, every last drop evaporated into steam. Soon, the smoke and steam clouded the whole room—and Damaris still glowed at its center. Beren could see the cracks in the marble floor glowing molten-hot.
"Tauranium!" Aurelle cried, producing an image of it in her hands. "It's strong enough to resist the most extreme temperatures. We could enclose him in a case of tauranium!"
Beren coughed. "But Aurelle, where are we going to get—"
"Augh!" Aurelle suddenly flailed her arms, and the round projection giving above her hands congealed into a shining, silvery color and rolled away from her, toward the boy. A hatch flopped open. 
Beren didn't stop to think about it. "Damaris!" He cried as the smoke burned his throat and the floor buckled and swayed beneath him. "Get inside!"
Damaris flung his burning body through the hole, and instantly, the room plunged into darkness without the brilliant light to illuminate it. The marble floor faded back to cold stone, and Beren and Aurelle both sighed with relief.
Approaching the round fixture, Beren could feel the heat radiating off it—but, true to what Aurelle had said, the metal didn't melt or warp.
Beren coated the ground around it with ice, cooling the room further, and after many minutes, he could cause a layer of frost to form on parts of the orb, save the areas where Damaris moved. At last, it was cool enough to draw near.
"Damaris?" Beren called, but neither of them heard any reply.
Footsteps echoed down the hallway outside. "Beren?" Jaran called. "Are you—WHAT THE BLAZES???"
Beren glanced at Aurelle. "Watch over Damaris, will you?"
She nodded. "I suppose this means you're moving the coronation to the courtyard," noted the illusionist with some of her old, wry demeanor.
Jaran still stood stunned in the doorway, gazing around the pitch-black interior. "What happened here?" He squawked.
Beren patted him on the back. "I'll explain everything, just let the servants know that we're moving out-of-doors."
Jaran blinked several times before he could coax his body into movement. "H-h-how.... What—Where is Damaris?" He followed his brother automatically. 
"I said I would tell you later," Beren stated. "Now we need to find the Chief Steward and—" he stopped as he arrived at the outer gate. 

Servants were already hard at work, cleaning and decorating the courtyard fit for a coronation. 

"No need to order anyone," laughed a voice. "I have it all under control."
Beren stared dumbfounded at the young woman standing in the doorway. Finally stripped of her finery and dressed in simple fabrics, Azelie looked no less stunning—even more so, since her natural beauty was not over-glossed with glittering shams. 
She watched the tableau before her with a calculating eye.
"Everything will be in readiness by the time the sun reaches the horizon, your highness."
Beren gave himself a little shake and muttered, "Ah, er, thank you, Azelie. I'll, um, go prepare my, ah, coronation speech, I guess..."

Jaran whistled when they reached the steps of the west tower. "Wow!" He cried. "I wonder how long it took her to get all that together?"
Beren wagged his head. "Probably she noticed Damaris was having a problem and figured it out while I was still dealing with—" he stopped talking and stopped moving as the notion slammed into his brain. Aurelle, Damaris, and Azelie, all having surges roughly at the same time; it fit! But what did it mean? Why weren't he and Jaran affected? What caused it? Beren shook his head and forced himself to write a speech worthy of a king of the Realm.

These questions bothered him all through the coronation gala, all through the ceremony at the nadir of sunset, and into his speech, so carefully prepared. Azelie helped by reminding him of what he planned to say, and he was met with applause, but the questions still returned as he walked with Jaran to their rooms in the west tower.

"Um... Beren?" Jaran had stepped ahead of him and now called back to him. Beren ascended the last few steps to join his brother.
His bedroom door swung gently in the breeze from his window.
Beren shared a glance with Jaran. "I closed this door when I left, didn't I?"
The two brothers crept forward cautiously. Beren flexed his hand, and a thin sheen of frost spread over his skin. Jaran did the same, and a glowing arc of light spanned his fingers. 
At a nod from Beren, the two crashed through the door, Gifts at the ready.
A whirl of white unfurled before them, and a voice cried, "No, wait!"

Jaran regarded the intruder dubiously. She dressed all in white, with golden hair, and had a pair of white wings attached at her shoulders.
Beren, however, looked like he'd just had the shock of his life. Horror and surprise laced his features.
"JAY?!?!" He coughed hoarsely.
She smiled. "Hello, Harlock," she used his false name. "Or should I say," she swept her wings aside in a reverent bow, "your highness, King Beren. That was a good speech, by the way."
Beren remained exactly as he was. "B-but... but you—" he spluttered. "Jay, I thought you were a fairy!" A red flush flamed across his features as he said it.
She chuckled and shrugged. "I was," she acknowledged, "for a time. Actually, I am an Angel. And my name is Jade, not Jay."
"Your Gift is wings?" Jaran queried skeptically, still standing behind his brother.
Jade flexed her wings. "Not in the sense you understand, Jaran. I'm not Gifted, I'm—"
"Sorry to interrupt," said Azelie's voice. "But I've just heard a voice calling for help, and I think it's Erlis!"

Inky blackness, everywhere. It filled his mouth, blocked his eyes and ears—Rayne had just made up his mind to struggle when he found solid ground under his feet and stumbled forward, gasping real air as he fought to get his bearings.
Beside him, the Hunter flopped on the ground much like him, and the strange man who had laid claim on his life stepped out of thin air as if walking through a doorway. Outcast prick! Rayne struggled to his feet. The sun, at the full brightness of midday, shone bleakly through thin clouds. The city-bred soldier took one look at the rocky crags around them knew exactly where they stood: the Wilderness, the naked expanse along the eastern border of the Realm.
The trouble was, he had been standing on the complete opposite end of the Realm only moments ago. How did this happen?

An animal shriek tore him from his musings. The Hunter sailed through the air, her body slamming into Troy, flattening him against the cliffside. 
"YOU SCUM!" She screamed, knife clenched in her fist. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"
A curious thing happened. One moment, it looked as if the shadows around Troy deepened, till he was almost shrouded in black. Then the Hunter dropped to the ground, slumping against bare rock as she did.
Troy faded back into existence, standing just behind her, brushing a bit of rock dust off his cape.
"Now then, Miss Firron," he mused calmly. "Let's not get too—" 
She sprang at him again, and once more, he propelled himself backward in a wisp of black smoke. 
"Calm dow—"
Again, lunge and dodge. 
"Miss Fi—"
Around and around they went, Troy doing his utmost to remain out of reach, but still very much present. Denahlia wasn't having any of it, though. She leaped and bounded tirelessly, twisting and watching carefully, till at last, Troy made one jump too many—and this time, when he appeared, Denahlia had her pistol out, and pulled the trigger the instant he appeared.
A glistening, black wound unfolded on Troy's forehead, and he staggered back, shock frozen on his features. He gasped, gurgled, flopped back—and regained his footing with a hearty laugh. Denahlia still held the pistol's trigger down, so tight was her grip, and she stared as the "wound" vanished, leaving whole skin, as Troy—the stranger she had shot at point-blank range—smiled at her. Laughed in her face.
"I must say, you are nothing if not tenacious!" He declared with admiration, as if she had just given a stunning performance. Hardly the demeanor of a man toward the person who tried to kill him.
"WHAT THE BLAZES ARE YOU?" She shrieked, tossing away her gun in disgust. "You cannot be human. I saw that." She scowled at him. "You're not Gifted; no Gift can do what we have seen you do."
Rayne glanced down at the Hunter's empty gun at his feet. She had tried bullets and Troy had evaded each one.
The stranger himself gave a flourishing, theatrical bow. "You are right," he admitted, "I am not Gifted, though my abilities are tied to the Gifts. I am what is called an Abnormal; I am a Shadow. I can blend in to my surroundings and travel anywhere I want in the Realm, via the shadows I draw to myself."
Rayne stared at Troy. Abnormal? First there were the Gifted humans, and now there were Abnormals who weren't human at all? Where did they come from, then?
Troy went on. "Nice to see you've calmed down a bit. Now, let me explain the upgrades I've given you. You can see through most materials, no matter how thick. That's x-ray vision."
Denahlia blinked three times and squinted. Rayne heard her gasp. 
Troy nodded, "Also, I have given you magnification."
"Huh?" Denahlia blinked again, and Rayne could see her lips moving as if reading something. She raised a finger in front of her face and made a tapping motion. Suddenly, Denahlia flung her body prone with a yelp. Dust kicked up around her as she threw her arms up protectively and thrashed to avoid some invisible peril.
"Denahlia, stop!" Troy barked at her. "Blink again!"
The Hunter ignored the fact that he'd used her first name and blinked, allowing her hands to flop against the ground as she panted heavily.
"I saw... I s-s-saw... I saw—"
"Grains of sand," Troy supplied calmly. "Magnified a thousand times."
"Sand?" The Hunter picked a tiny grain off her sleeve. 
"It'll take some getting used to," Troy mused. "Anyway, there's more. I've also given you a few other tricks..."
A ringing developed in Rayne's ears, a high-pitched whine that drowned out the Shadow's voice. He winced and clamped his eyes shut, but the squeal only intensified. He felt his hand clamp on the hilt of his sword. Rayne opened his eyes to see if either of his companions noticed—almost immediately, he locked eyes with the Hunter. Her glowing turquoise gaze held him, as the whine only subsided a very little. He stood just behind Troy, so she could be possibly looking at the arrogant Abnormal when she really wasn't. Rayne could see his lips still moving. He had no idea—for that matter, neither did Rayne. What was the female doing?

As abruptly as it began, the ringing stopped. Rayne blinked. Denahlia had stood, brushing the dust off herself. Troy was no longer babbling—in fact, he was choking on his own blood as Rayne's sword protruded from his torso. Rayne cursed and released the bloody hilt, letting the body slump to its knees. 
Troy stared at the Hunter. She smiled.
"You think we are just toys to play with?" She growled, "Mechanisms for you to tinker and reprogram?" She reached over his head and grabbed the sword, doing even more damage as she yanked it out. "Think again."
Troy's body didn't dematerialize like it had before. Rayne stared at it, unmoving as Denahlia offered the bloody sword to him.
"Let's go," she said.
"Go where?" Rayne stammered, wiping the sword on the ragged edge of his tunic. He would need water and clean rags to get it ready for use again.
Denahlia shrugged and gestured to the forest. "Back to the harbor, I guess. Anywhere but with him and his kind—and I definitely have no interest in chasing down a dragon, of all things!"
Rayne stumbled after the lithe woman, still glancing over his shoulder and expecting to see a black cloud rise up and chase after them. "Do you think he's really dead?" He asked.
Denahlia scowled. "I don't doubt it, but I am done caring, either. He used us, Rayne—"
"You used me," he pointed out.
Denahlia shook her head. "Whatever; we get back, we part ways, and we can forget this whole thing ever happened."
Rayne snorted. "Well, except that now you have amazing things that your Gift can do. I will only need a few tankards of the strongest ale to wash my conscience clean."
Denahlia didn't reply.

Justin sighed and reached out his hand as they passed under some wild apple trees. He chuckled to himself as the smooth skin of a ripe apple slapped against his palm.
Velora sighed behind him. Justin ignored her. The truce between them was an uneasy one. He knew full well that she wasn't happy about his presence, but when an Angel speaks, there isn't much one can do. He liked Korsan, though. He'd heard stories of the King's Mage back in the heyday of King Balwyn, of the incredible feats of magic this young man was able to perform in service to his King and the Realm. He wasn't so young now, but his power surely had waxed rather than waned. Still, he maintained an honest and approachable air about him, unassuming and deeply connected to the world around him. Justin could feel the Mage watching him, and dared not turn around, lest he make eye contact and allow the Mage to read his mind, as magic users were wont to do. 
The branches overhead rustled with a light breeze. Justin glanced up in time to see two objects descend from the canopy.
"Ow!" Velora snarled as an apple thunked her on the armor-plated shoulder. She glared at Korsan, and Justin welcomed the response. Apparently the young Alpha Wolf harbored resentment toward just about everybody, not just him.
"What was that for?" She seethed as Korsan calmly picked up the bruised apple and offered her his unblemished one.
"If you spent less time nursing your wounded pride and focused more on your surroundings," the Mage advised, "you would find the journey that much more pleasant."
She snatched the apple from him, slicing it into perfect sections with a rake of her savage claws. "I don't have much use for pleasant journeys or a comfortable life," she grumbled. "We need to get to the castle and warn the others about this shadow-being." Her body tensed as soon as she finished speaking, and she whirled to her left. "Look out!"

A long, barbed tail snaked out from behind a screen of trees, knocking down half a dozen in one blow. In the clearing now exposed to them sat a dragon. On the dragon's back, two women sat, one in a tattered silk dress, the other in armor bearing the crest of the White Castle. Both had three scars on the right temple, and bright-crimson hair swept over to one side.
Justin raised his hand and squinted. "Edri!" He called.
The woman in armor leaned over the dragon's shoulder to peer at him. "Justin?"
"Well, well!" Cried the other woman. "If it isn't the Banished Heretic who got himself exiled for his foolish ravings!"
Korsan stood firm and merely gave a courteous nod. "Greetings to the false Queen Zayra. I did not recognize your appearance."
She did not seem to catch the slight, but stroked her scarlet hair with a self-conscious smile. "You like it?" She asked shyly. "I wanted to look just like my Guardian."
Two more figures emerged from the trees behind the dragon.
"So!" cried Kaidan, eyeing the trio, "We meet again, Mage!"
Korsan's expression hardened. "So it would seem, young Kaidan."
Javira sidled forward, and Justin saw Velora tense. She turned her strange gaze on him, though, and he felt his thoughts scramble over in his head. "What might you three be doing in the woods just now?" She asked innocently.
Justin knew that these two were responsible for oppressing the Gifted population after the death of King Balwyn. The fact that they were here in the forest instead of the castle meant that, possibly, they had been overthrown. If there really was a King Beren now, perhaps the Crown Prince had really returned, and things were finally okay.
Justin felt his thoughts aligning. He was going to tell these newcomers about their mission, about their friends, about everything—but just then, he felt Korsan move to stand beside him, and the compulsion broke.
"Javira," the Mage warned softly, "leave the poor boy alone. One might also ask what you are doing so far from the castle."
"Don't remind me!" Zayra snapped as Edri slipped off the dragon's back. "My castle was stolen from me, and I want to get it back!" She jerked on the dragon's neck, and its head swung around to stare at the three. "Don't even think about getting in my way!"

Edri reached Justin and threw her arms around him. He welcomed the embrace. 
"When you were summoned to work in the castle, I never thought I'd see you again," he whispered. 
"They told me your entire unit was slaughtered by the Outcasts," she murmured. "I lost all hope after that!"
Justin drew back to look at the earnest face before him. "They weren't completely wrong, but Edri, so much has happened since then! And these Outcasts, these Gifted ones, they are friends, not threats. Why, even I have a Gift now!"
The former captain blinked. "You what?"
Justin stretched out his hand to gently pluck a flower from a nearby plant. Edri watched in astonishment as the flower floated toward her—only to shrivel and die just inches from her hand.
Zayra glared at them. "I have had enough of you three. We are leaving and you cannot stop us. Come, Edri!"
The captain felt the familiar pull of the Queen's thrall. It tugged her away from Justin, but she kept a hold on his hand. "Your Majesty," she begged. "These are friends. They are not the enemy we thought! At least let us bring Justin along—"
Dragon and rider whirled upon her suddenly. "HOW DARE YOU DEFY ME!" Zayra screamed. "THEY HAVE INSINUATED THEMSELVES BETWEEN US, AND TURNED YOU AGAINST ME!"
Edri shook her head, dropping Justin's hand. "No, I am not against you—"

"Awooooo!!" A long howl split the air, and suddenly, Velora bounded over the heads of those in front of her, to land, claws flexed, in front of the Queen riding the Dragon.
"Of course we're going to stop you!" She snarled. "You're not fit to rule! Your reign has ended!"
"NOOO!" Zayra pounded the dragon scales in front of her with a delicate white fist. The scaled tail whipped around, smacking into Velora and sending her flying. "YOU WILL ALL DIE!!"
Korsan focused on his staff, muttering a spell and increasing it's power. 
"No, wait!" Edri yelled at him. "Don't hurt the dragon, it's Erlis!"
Justin grabbed for Edri's hand again, but Velora had just recovered from smashing into the tree, and once again launched herself at the dragon. It growled a warning, and smoke issued out of its nostrils. Fire would soon follow.
Justin saw the smiles worn by the Twins. Somehow, they were responsible for the mayhem; he had to stop them. But how?
"Hey, ginger!" He shouted, charging toward Kaidan.
The dragon lifted a claw and smacked Velora against the ground, causing a tremor that made Justin stumble a bit.
"Kaidan!" Javira cried. "She's wearing my armor!"
Justin watched Velora cough a bit, and slowly struggle to her feet. Just then, the dragon sent a jet of flame over her head, igniting the tree behind her. Korsan shouted a spell, and a fluffy blue cloud enveloped the blaze, extinguishing the fire before it had much time to spread.
Zayra wailed as the dragon reared, and when it came down, a claw wrapped around Korsan, trapping him.
"I CAN'T!" Zayra gripped her head with both hands as the dragon spread its wings and prepared to lift off. "MY HEAD! IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN! MAKE IT STOP!"
"My Queen!" Edri cried, whipping off her glove and running toward the dragon, but it was too late. The dragon ascended into the deepening night, the Mage in its claws and the suffering Queen on its back. 
Edri dropped to her knees, tears welling in her eyes. "She left me..." she whimpered. "How could she leave me behind?"
Justin stepped forward to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, but Captain Edri smacked it away as she stood. "No!" She snapped, whirling on him. "This is your fault! You drove her away!"
"Edri, I'm sorry!"
Movement in the bushes caused him to stop and stretch out his hand. Kaidan and Javira bobbed up into the air, in the very act of sneaking away while no one watched them. "And just where do you think you're going?" Justin demanded.
Javira fixed her weird gaze on him again. "Let us go, good knight," she cajoled him. "Our quarrel is not with you."
Justin shook his head. He wasn't about to fall for whatever trick she tried on him a second time. 
"No, but I am sure the King would be very anxious to have the two of you back in custody—especially with a mad Queen hell-bent on attacking the castle with a dragon. You're coming with us." He used his free hand to draw thick vines out of the trees, and wrap them tightly around the two siblings. A swath of fabric from the edge of his tunic served as gags for the pair.
"You are under arrest, in the name of King Beren of the White Castle," Justin announced. 
Kaidan and Javira squirmed against their bonds, but they could do nothing. Satisfied, Justin turned back to check on Velora. She was still breathing, the armor had at least preserved her life, but the pressure and the blows definitely left their mark. Justin glanced back to Edri, standing with her glove clutched in her right hand, while her left glowed faintly in the moonlight.
"Edri," he said softly. "Will you help me?"
She scowled and did not move. "I don't want to," she answered flatly.
Justin stared until she met his gaze. "Please?" He begged.
Edri let out a deep sigh, but pressed her healing hand against Velora's neck. Seconds later, Velora gasped and coughed as her body righted itself. Justin helped her to her feet. 
The Wolf glanced at the two prisoners, and the young captain glaring at her as she slipped her glove back on her glowing hand.
Velora turned to Justin with a raised eyebrow. "Aren't you going to arrest her too, for treason and conspiracy against the crown?"
Edri sniffed and her lips tightened.
Justin shook his head. "That's no way to treat somebody who just saved your life, Velora." He gave her a significant nod. "We have more important things to worry about, remember?"
The Wolf nodded. "Let's get to that castle before it's too late!"
The Clan of Outcasts Series
Episode 1: "Upgrades" 


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

WIP of the Month: March-ing On!

C'est Fini!!!

Well, friends, I have done it! February, in spite of being the shortest month, was a rousing success! I finished my Wattpad-exclusive story, "The Water-Man", with a week to spare, and that left me free and clear to take a little "get caught up on reading library books" break before starting into my next WIP-of-the-month!
And I must say, what a relief it is. The characters all cooperated with what they should be doing in the story, I was able to take the time to get things set up in conversation, rather than having to shoe-horn some on-the-nose exposition to get everybody into position and where they needed to be, along with what they needed to say.

Reading it aloud to my writing buddy was an excellent opportunity to test if I had written well. Especially when the way I wrote garnered a reaction in all the right places. Tugging at the heartstrings of a particular Wattpad reader gave me great joy. Most of all, I am glad to finally be able to draw the two parts of the story together. For so long, it had to be two separate parts, and they seemed to be completely unrelated—but all the hemming and hawing I went through over Mollie and her descent into murderous madness was worth it when I figured out how exactly to bring the final mystery to light without being too obvious or requiring anybody to act out-of-character just for this one scene.

Now it is over, I can chalk that up to a successful attempt and use it as motivation to fuel many more successes in the months to come!

What's Upcoming for March?


March's little WIP! A mock cover I designed myself; Isn't it pretty??
This month, it's going to be a short story I am writing for a tribute anthology in honor of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. The story I am writing is called "The Starborn Legacy", and it's sort of a combination "love child" of two stories I wrote for my NaNo project of 2013—the one based on my first-ever attempt at the Suggestion Box series

The basic plot came from the story "The Legacy", about a mother who grew up feeling abandoned by her own mother, a famous explorer, so she reacts by doting on her own daughter. The daughter discovers a secret that the grandmother left behind, and the two of them finally work things out to be able to follow the clues to a discovery the grandmother had saved for her descendants to find. 

Since this is more of a sci-fi/fantasy theme, though—I thought I might borrow from the setting and the concepts used in "The Vega Effect", except without the creepy, horror-like ending. 

Hence the mother and daughter live comfortably in a colony on the other side of the galaxy, and the scorned grandmother is a famous terraformer and galactic explorer. Much of the story is going to follow "The Legacy"... except one key event that is central to the plot, a device lifted straight from "The Vega Effect," with dire consequences for many characters. You'll have to wait and see... or meanwhile, read those two stories on Wattpad (if you like; the blog posts linked above are merely excerpts, not the complete story) for a bit of an inkling as to what might happen! 

Possibly the biggest challenge for this project ISN'T that it's going to drag on and on till I burn out... but that I am going to have to work at keeping the story under eight thousand words. Considering "The Legacy" itself was just over ten thousand... I've got my work cut out for me! The good news is that it shouldn't take me very long to write, and then I can get it beta-read and polished before submitting it in April!

In addition to that story, I am also working at making progress on The Clan of Outcasts! After delaying it a week because of lack of input, a small group of reader-friends I'm in on Facebook came through this week, and I got enough character nominations to put together a plan for a new episode coming on Saturday! (I also tried making a poll here on GooglePlus, but that didn't go over so well...) All that to say--If you really like the Clan of Outcasts, literally the only way I can keep it going is if you comment on a post or somehow let me know that you would like to nominate certain characters! I think I'm going to stick with doing it bi-weekly, since it usually takes about a week to get people to nominate characters. It's not restricted to only one character, and it's not limited to just one day, either. I'm going to keep it wide open and guideline-free until it gets so far out of hand that I have to create parameters and stipulations--but right now, I'm getting so few responses that there is really no need! The more nominations I get, the more I can do with (and to!) these characters! Don't hesitate, nominate!

My goal is still to read at least 2 indie books and feature their reviews this month! I'm about halfway through the first book, A Spell in the Country by Morgan Smith--and it's getting pretty exciting, so it shouldn't be long till I've finished that one!
Meanwhile, I've finally pulled my new books off the shelf (Clouds of Witnesses by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss) and started reading! I have so many ebooks to read, it's going to be a looong time before I find myself in a library again, I think. 
Not only indie ebooks, but there is also a lot of Wattpad reading to catch up on! I start following authors whose stories sound really cool... and then I never quite get around to reading the works of these authors I'm following. No more! I am just going to keep plugging away till I've covered them all!

So that's what I'm up to this month! How about you? What are you reading or writing? Do you have any other goals that you've set this month? Tell me about them!
Catch You Further Upstream!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The ReBible Series: "Professional Integrity" Excerpt--The President's Dream

Previous Excerpt: Kill Order
It took a moment for Daniel's eyes to adjust. A massive fire roared in the large hearth, so distended with propellant and chemical and mineral incense that it burned in a rainbow of many colors and gave off a bewildering mixture of scents. He could make out a massive desk strewn with packets and powders and still-smoking fumedants, but there was no sign of President King. A high-backed leather chair faced the back wall. Daniel waited a moment, but the pressure in his lungs grew too much, and he reluctantly drew a breath. A cloud of smoke billowed from the chair, and it slowly turned to face him.

President Chadwick Octavian Reginald King squinted from behind drooping eyelids. His puffy lips lay slack around a burning “fumer,” which glowed brightly as the substance inside slowly burned away. The light from the fire reflected off the shiny trail of mucous left under his nose. His hair hung in limp, greasy locks from his head. His hands shook from the number of drugs coursing through his bloodstream. 
The cigarette dropped from his mouth, and he stared at the figure before him. In a low, rasping voice, he spoke.
“I haven’t slept for three nights, did you know that?” He stopped with a chuckle that ended up more like a choking, rheumy cough. “Three nights, and the same cursed dream. I'm even starting to have visions of it when I am awake.” He flopped back in his chair with all the muscular control of a rag doll, and drew a long breath. “So unless you can say what no one else has--”
“Mr. King,” Daniel cut in, fighting to keep his presence of mind in the heady cloud of scents. “No technician, or dream specialist, or mystic, or psychiatrist can both tell you what you dreamed, and tell you its meaning.” The eerie eyes watched him quietly as Daniel continued, his voice getting stronger with each phrase. “But I am here to say that there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries so profound the human mind cannot even begin to conceive of them, much less a machine invented by human minds. It is this same God who has revealed to you, by your dream, a glimpse into the future of this company and the companies to come after it.” The mere mention of God in that dark, foul-smelling place seemed to invite a gust of fresh wind from some unseen quarter. Daniel felt much better as he drew another breath to launch into his presentation.
“Mr. King, I will now tell you the dream that has robbed you of your sleep for these last three nights.
As you lay in your bed, you were thinking about the future of Byblos Corporation, and--since we are at the height of our efficiency and the balance of profit--what the company might pursue in the coming years. Not even the most comprehensive prediction machine or any of those who claim to consort with the spirit world could ever tell you what would happen should Byblos ever fail--but I stand before you, able to do just that, not because of any superpower or any other kind of power I have beyond the limits of average human logic, but in order that you may know what it means, and to ease the confusion of your mind so that you can have the rest that has been denied you since the first time you dreamed.” Daniel took another breath and forged ahead.

"As you stood on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a huge valley, a terrible statue appeared, stretching from the valley floor, high over your head into the sky. At first, it seemed to be a statue in the shape of a giant man, but the longer you looked, the more it seemed to shift and change. The head, made of gold, was at first a man, and then a lion, roaring with all its strength. The arms and chest, made of silver, transformed from human form to the arms and claws of a bear."
It may have been his eyes adjusting to the darkness even more, but as Daniel watched, he could distinguish more of President King's eyes; they had lost their glassy haze, and he was watching this new recruit sharply. He continued.
"Further down, the statue had the flanks and haunches of a leopard, and the iron hooves of a goat."
The leather chair squeaked as Chad King flopped back. "Yes!" He gasped. "Yes, that's it exactly! How did you do that?"
Daniel raised a finger. "But that's not all you dreamed."
Chad nodded vigorously, pushing back the lank hair from his face. "Yes, go on."
"As you were admiring the statue and marveling at the detail, you became aware of a large stone rolling from out of nowhere, and not removed by any machine or man-generated efforts; it was something—Someone—else that cut the stone. That stone collided with the enormous statue, and instantly, the whole structure disintegrated into fine powder."
Chad was still nodding as if his head would fall right off his neck. "Yes, it just—" he gestured the explosion with his hands.
"And once the powder scattered to the four winds, all that was left was the huge stone, and as you watched, it grew and expanded till it became one mountain that took over the whole surface of the Earth."
Chad sniffed noisily and wiped the sleeve of his plush robe across his face. His eyes were so wide, Daniel almost wondered if he was physically capable of blinking anymore. He stared, mouth gaping, until his eyes rolled in his head and he slumped back in his chair. Daniel waited a moment, a bit puzzled by the response. Had he passed out? A grin unfolded over the emaciated president's face, and he opened his eyes.
"It's gone!" He wheezed. "Holy Dagon, it's gone! Once you said exactly what the dream was, it disappeared out of my head!" He clapped his hands over his scalp with a huge sigh of relief. "Well?" He gestured impatiently at Daniel. "Go on, Benedict Shafer! Tell me what it means!"
Daniel took a deep breath. The words came easier now. "You are the lion, President King, and God has seen fit to cause your administration of Byblos to make it the most successful company in the world—but there will come a time when the reign of Byblos will end. Your headquarters will be absorbed by a smaller company from Nevada, and this one will be taken over by a company represented by the bronze leopard, from Arizona. Last of all, the iron goat hooves represents a company based in Utah that will completely overtake the three that came before it."
Chad's face had wilted over the course of this interpretation; the frown that had begun at the mention of the fall of Byblos only deepened when he listened to all the companies that would continue to absorb one another. "And what does the giant magic stone represent?" He demanded in a dangerous tone. He stubbed out the cigarette, but his elbow jogged a mound of powder dispensers, sending a reeking cloud into the air.
Daniel coughed and prayed that the substances wouldn't affect his system, but he finished his interpretation anyway. 
"The stone is the ultimate community that will overtake all corporations around the world, will encompass all workforces of every nation, and it will change the face of employment forever, and there will be no more corporations. This, Mr. King, is the vision of the future that God has allowed you to see, and you can be absolutely certain that it will come to pass, in one way or another.”
As he finished speaking, Daniel noticed that the air, while still stiflingly hot, was not as heavy with the dizzying fumes; the flames had receded to gentle embers, and these were not the blazing, unnatural colors, but a gentle orange-golden glow. A digital tone signaled in the darkness, and the holoplast covers over the windows faded into transparency, allowing natural light to pour into the room. 
Chad King sat with his eyes glued on the simple young man standing before him. Three days of every kind of dream recollection procedure known to man--and this young intern’s God had imparted every detail of the dream so vividly, that it felt like perhaps Daniel had experienced the same dream. Then, too, was the affirmation that the dream he saw did represent the future--how many fortune tellers could truly claim that? He knew their penchant for broad, general statements and vague predictions that pretended to foretell whatever eventually came to pass--but he, Chad King, had actually seen what was going to happen. True, it did say that Byblos would eventually fall… but that wouldn’t be in his lifetime, would it? Chad laid all this aside as he felt an incredible weight lifted off his shoulders. As he watched the sunlight drive away the shadows, it seemed as if he could really breathe again, after holding his breath for three days.
He stood up from his chair, feeling the soreness in his knees…. how long had he been sitting there? He blinked in disgust at the amount of drugs littering his desk, making him look like a junkie and not the president of the “most successful company in the world.” He came around the desk and took Daniel’s hand. He seemed to recall viewing that face several times in a personnel report somewhere… but he pushed that out of his mind for now. Daniel led him out of the office, and with every step, Chad felt a new strength enter his limbs. He saw the sunlight streaming, saw the fresh flowers, heard the soft twittering of the birds in his private aviary--
And in that moment, there were tears in his eyes.

Daniel wasn’t quite sure how to respond as President King suddenly threw his arms around him and sobbed on his shoulder like an addict coming very quickly off an especially powerful high--which, judging by the number of fumedants he had in his possession, was probably very true. Chad’s knees buckled, and he slid to a crumpled, kneeling position, still clinging to Daniel’s hands like a drowning victim.
“Thank you,” he sobbed brokenly, “thank you… Thank you, my savior!”
This was not at all the outcome Daniel had been expecting. “I’m not--”
“Yes, you are!” Chad jumped to his feet as some of the old, dynamic, charismatic leader returned to him. “You have saved me, and you have saved all of Byblos--this God of yours must be something amazing, if He can give you someone else’s dream and tell you the meaning like that! You have no idea how much I have wanted someone to be there for me, and do that. You have got to tell me all about Him!”
Daniel nodded, but Chad didn’t stop. “Here, come with me!” He brought Daniel over to a kiosk at the end of the hall. Placing his hand on the biometric scanner, he spoke into the microphone, “Chad King!”
The kiosk blinked and showed the symbol of an open lock. “ADMINISTRATIVE PRIVILEGES ACTIVATED,” said the kiosk. Chad grinned widely as he beckoned to Daniel, “Here, now you put your hand there,” he pointed to the glass surface.”
Reluctantly, Daniel complied. A bright laser scanned his hand, and the kiosk instructed, “PLEASE STATE ADMINISTRATOR’S NAME.” Daniel opened his mouth to announce the President’s name, but Chad whispered, “Now say your Byblos name!” 
Thoroughly befuddled, Daniel announced, “Benedict Shafer.”
The kiosk blinked again, and showed two open locks. “VOICE KEY ACCEPTED; ADMINISTRATIVE PRIVILEGES ACTIVATED FOR BENEDICT SHAFER.” Daniel drew back his hand as if the scanner had delivered an electric shock. He looked at President King. “Sir--”
Chad shook his head. “Oh no, Benny-boy! We’re both administrators now; I’ve just made you Executive Director of Human Resources, and given you a chair on the Board of Directors. You must call me Chad, and you now have administrative authority in every department in the company having anything to do with personnel and employees. No more seeking out superiors and asking permission or finding your protocols changed and privileges revoked. Now you can make your own rules! You are the superior! We’re practically equals, you and I.” Chad clapped him on the back.
Daniel felt his skin grow cold, and his head became suddenly devoid of all rational thought. “I… I don’t know what to say!” He spluttered.
“It’s the least I can do, after what you’ve done for me!” Chad said to him as they arrived at the front door. “Go ahead and enjoy your new privileges, Ben. I’m sure you’ll have plenty to do!” Chad began to walk away, but Daniel didn’t leave immediately. 
“Sir--I mean… Chad?” he called after him. 
Chad turned immediately. “Yes?”
Daniel tried in vain to swallow the awkwardness as he formed his request, “I would like… I mean, if I wanted to… promote some of my friends, can I do that?”
Chad smiled magnanimously and winked. “As long as I am president of this corporation, you can do anything you want, Benedict.”

Aaron was the first to awaken at nearly four in the afternoon. His glass tablet blinked with a new message. He opened it, and saw that the same message had been sent to Harry and Mike as well. 
Harry and Mike awoke to the frantic sounds of Aaron fumbling around the room trying to find his best clothes. “Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap!
Harry rubbed his eyes. “Whuzzat?” he slurred drowsily. A heavy sleep like the one he’d just had was difficult to emerge from.
“Check your tab!” Aaron called from the bathroom.
Both friends did so.
“Executive offices?” Harry blurted.
“Dinner at the Administrative lounge?” Mike repeated incredulously.
By then, Aaron was already dressed. “Get moving!” he told his friends.

By four-thirty, three very nervous, but neatly-dressed young men stood awkwardly in the foyer of the spacious lounge. The hostess emerged from the main dining area and beamed at them. “Shafer, party of four?” she asked.
The three friends looked at each other. The only Shafer they knew was Daniel’s Byblos name. Aaron glanced back at the hostess. “Yeah, we know Bene--” 
“Follow me, please,” she said, leading them back down an exclusive hallway. She opened the door. “Your party is here, sir,” she announced to the person inside.
“Excellent!” Daniel’s voice gave them all a sense of relief. Harry, Mike, and Aaron wandered into the room.
In this private dining space, there was only one table, and only four chairs. One was occupied by their friend Daniel Princeton. He was neatly dressed in the fanciest charcoal-grey suit the boys had ever seen. 
“What is going on?” Mike demanded suspiciously. 
“Where did you sneak off to while we were sleeping?” Aaron wanted to know.
“And exactly how long were we asleep?” Harry looked around the opulent room in confusion.
Daniel grinned and gestured to the chairs. “Have a seat and let’s eat, boys. Order anything you like. We have a lot to discuss now that I’m the Human Resources Director for all of Byblos.”
All three dropped as one man.
“You’re what?” Aaron squeaked. “How?”
Daniel demonstrated for his friends how to activate the digital menu embedded in the table. “Order up and I’ll tell you. There'll be promotions for everybody today.”
More Excerpts from "Professional Integrity:
To read more excerpts from the rest of the ReBible series, Click >HERE< 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Clan Of Outcasts" Season 2 Part 1-- "Upgrades"

Season 2, Part 1 
Velora pulled up a corner of her cape to mop the sweat pouring down her forehead. The sun beaming down from the clear sky heated the armor she wore, creating an effect very similar to sticking a tin of sardines in the fire. She glared at Korsan, striding evenly before her.
"Take the Wilderness Route, he says," she grumbled. "It'll be faster, he says."
The mage wagged his head without turning around. "You know, you could take off that armor, if you're uncomfortable!" The portends delivered to him via his talisman troubled him. Something no one expected or wanted had happened at the White Castle, and things did not bode well for the Gifted outcasts.
Velora frowned and watched the way the sun glinted off her gauntlets. "I like it!" She insisted. "Even though it is better suited for forest travel and shadows, rather than rocky cliffs in broad daylight!"
Korsan stopped abruptly, and Velora nearly collided with him. Her lip curled in a snarl. "What now?"
Korsan waved her to silence and hissed.
Velora blinked, and in the same space of time it took her to refocus,  a man appeared. One moment, she and the Mage were the only two living souls in sight, and the next, a young man in light chain mail stood in the center of the path, turning round in dizzy circles. He seemed to be mumbling to himself as he spun, and with only a few paces, Velora's keen ears could distinguish his words:

"... Then I was alone in the woods with a message she said I needed to deliver." He stumbled around. She was close enough now to see the utter confusion on his face. "Now where am I?" He whimpered.

Korsan had already consulted his talisman and deemed this man as no threat to them. He held up a salutary hand.
"Well met, friend!"

The man stared at them with wide eyes, and instantly brought up his hands in front of him. Velora felt it like a powerful gust of wind pushing against her. Try as she might, she could advance no further down the path.
He trembled now. "Stop!" He said again.
"We mean you no harm," Korsan assured him.
The stranger blinked, and Velora felt the pressure pushing against her lift ever so slightly.
"I know," said the man. He carefully balled his hands into fists and brought them stiffly to rest at his sides. He shrugged his shoulders. "You're probably the ones I am supposed to find."
He didn't have time to so much as draw a breath before Velora struck. She rammed him with her whole body, her armored claws digging into his shoulders, drawing blood.
"Who sent you?" She snarled in his face. "Who is looking for us?"
"Hey!" The stranger scowled right back, and opened his hands again. One slight motion of his arms, and Velora felt the strange force lifting her off him—but she didn't sail through the air and crash to the ground. Instead, the mysterious pressure left her dangling eight feet in the air, utterly helpless. She tensed and curled her legs under her, bracing her knees for impact.
"What—are you doing this?" She eyed the stranger. 
He dropped his hands, but she remained hanging in thin air. "Yes; If you would just let me explain—"
"Do so quickly," Korsan prompted, ignoring both the furious glares from Velora, and the warning glance from the telekinetic stranger that said he was one wrong word away from joining her. "We are in a bit of a hurry, and—"
"A hurry?" The man snorted. "A mage and a—" he lowered Velora slightly to his eye level, still an inch or so above the ground, peering at her closely. "Whatever you are..." his eyes fell on the clawed gauntlets. "Wait," he said quickly, looking back up at her face. "Do I know you?"
She nodded to the livery he wore. "You're a knight of the White Castle," she observed. "We may have crossed paths."
"Paths?" His voice came strangled and faint. "Knights at night..."
Velora felt her feet touch the ground as the strange man left off holding her to clutch his own head. She took hesitant steps toward Korsan, her senses keen for any shift in the man's mood.
"Claws and blood," he whimpered. "So much—" his voice stopped abruptly.
His eyes came up at the same instant Velora felt a massive fist drive straight at her, clouting her from her ankles to her face. The momentum plastered her against the cliff behind her, as the man glared wildly. 
"You attacked my unit three nights ago!" He screamed. "You and the others with you killed everyone—killed me!" Harder he pushed, forcing the breath from her lungs, grinding her spine against the rock. Velora couldn't move
"STOP!" Korsan waved his staff and a blue light flashed, negating the telekinetic force. The man staggered back at the sudden absence of his power, and Velora dropped to her knees, coughing and gasping. 
The man pointed his finger at Korsan, but his power had stalled. "You!" He snarled. "You are in league with this fiend, this monster, this... this—"
"Wolf?" Korsan supplied, helping Velora to her feet. "Yes, and you should be too. We have stared we mean you no harm, and that is twice you have attacked her." He shifted his grip on his staff, letting this stranger know that he could cast a spell on him at any moment. "Now," said the Mage calmly. "Suppose we start back at the beginning. My name is Korsan, and this is my friend Velora. Who are you?"
He sniffed, scrubbing his grimy nose with the back of his hand. "Justin," he said.
"Well then, Justin," Korsan continued in a pleasant tone, "perhaps you can tell us why you are meant to find us, and what you mean by saying that Velora killed you." He raised his bushy white eyebrows dubiously.
Justin shrugged. "The answers to your questions are both the same," he said. "I was part of the unit working for The Hunter, and she," he nodded to Velora, "along with some other Gifted freaks—"
He broke off as Velora bared some very savage fangs at him, but he didn't amend his words, "—attacked us, and I saw many of my brothers fall before everything went black, and I awoke in the presence of an Angel."
"An Angel?" Velora scoffed.
Korsan glanced at her. "Do not forget so hastily my friend," he cautioned her. "Do you not recall the being we saw yesterday?"
Justin's eyes grew wide. "Fair hair, pale skin, large white wings?"
Korsan nodded. "It appears we have met the same person, though we were not able to get her name before she vanished."
"It's Jade," Justin supplied readily. "And she wanted me to tell you that her brother is loose, and that we need to find him before he causes trouble."
Velora stared at him, eyebrow raised in contempt. "She didn't happen to tell you how we are supposed to find this brother of hers, did she?"
Justin shook his head. "I wonder if her brother is also an Angel like her," he mused. "What say you, Mage Korsan?"
The old man didn't seem to hear him. His talisman sat in the middle of his hand, and he seemed to be muttering to himself. "Coin... It's a coin, it must be!"
"Korsan?" Velora asked.
Korsan looked up at the two of them. "I see a coin in my visions of Jade. We must assume that she and her brother are as alike as two sides of a coin—which is to say, not at all. If she is white and Angelic, he must be dark and shrouded in shadow. If it is in her power to give Gifts, it must be his nature to corrupt them. The only thing that they hold in equal measure is power; her power to restore and heal must not be overwhelmed by his propensity for destruction and chaos." He looked straight at Justin. "I believe you were meant to join us on our way. King Beren will want to hear of your news."
"King Who?" Both Velora and Justin spoke in the same moment. 
Korsan had already started down the path. "No more time to waste! We have a coronation to attend! Keep up, children!"
Velora sneered. "Who is he calling child?"
"I know a guard at the castle," Justin said. "She was fortunate enough not to get assigned to my unit—though I will admit to wishing she had at first. If we're going to the castle, I can introduce you. She also is Gifted, though I can only assume her powers were deemed useful by the Council, and thus she escaped falling under the Outcast Ordinance."
"Lucky her," Velora snarled, effectively quashing further conversation.

Denahlia watched the strange glowing letters scroll across her vision, supplying her with what might have been information, but she did not comprehend it. All she knew was that when the words "SYSTEM CHECK" appeared, that was her cue to get to a safe place and close her eyes, because she would be vulnerable and unresponsive when the letters began to stream. She waited, feeling her head clear, her focus sharpen, and her vigor increase. When the glowing vision declared "ALL SYSTEMS RESTORED" she could open her eyes and be on her way, feeling very much restored, indeed. 
Except this time, a shadow detached behind her, and Troy materialized in the room. Denahlia whirled on him and stared. She blinked to the red, expecting the sight of him to erupt in a symphony of reds, yellows, and greens as people normally did when she saw them like this. But as black as he appeared, the closest color she could perceive was a deep blue-violet around his hands and face. The rest was black and shadow. What manner of man was he?
Troy grinned. "Done with the inspection, then?" He asked.
Denahlia blinked back to normal vision. "Who are you, again?" She demanded.
He shrugged. "Somebody who's going to make you very rich and very successful. Sir Rayne!" He addressed the man before Denahlia had heard him approach behind her. "How kind of you to join us."
"Uuggghhhhh...." Rayne moaned, shuffling into the room and covering his puffy eyes with his hand. "I feel terrible."
Troy glided over to him, guiding him into the empty chair. "No," he said with a chuckle, "what you feel is sober. Your body is still trying to remember how to exist without the liquid fortification."
Rayne finally lowered his hand to stare at them with glassy eyes.
Troy nodded to Denahlia. "Madame Hunter here will need a few improvements before we get going—"
"Going where?" Rayne blinked, looking more alert, the longer he kept his head up.
Troy still leaned against the shadowy wall. It blended exactly with the color of his clothes, so that the longer he stood, the more he seemed to meld with the wall. "To catch your dragon, of course," he said.
"Still insisting we follow you on your fool's errand, are you?" Denahlia sneered. She blinked to the red, enjoying the rainbow of colors slumped over the table in front of her. Troy's figure behind it remained a deep, enigmatic shadow
"Dragon? So, wait, that whole conversation in the tavern was real?" A shift of the colors, as Rayne's face warmed considerably, and his body went cold.
"Of course it was real," said the deep, cold shadow. "In any case, we're going to need more than thermal and night vision to catch our dragon—wouldn't you say, Madame Hunter?"
Denahlia blinked and her vision shifted one too many times. Now she was using the green sight, the one that enabled her to pierce the darkest shadows. She immediately looked at Troy—but he appeared no different than Rayne in the green vision. She blinked, and the colorful daylight returned. "Your words mean nothing to me," she muttered.
Troy persisted in grinning at her. "That's not surprising. After all, you were born with it, weren't you? Of course most Gifted children born to unGifted parents would have no idea how to identify their Gift, since the parents would have done anything to conceal the existence of the Gift—if they had known about it."
Denahlia gasped. "How did you know about my family?" She growled. "This thing I can do?" She pointed to her face. "It's not a Gift! I hunt Gifted people!"
Troy didn't flinch. "If it's not a Gift," he said, "how am I able to do this?" He waved a hand in front of Denahlia's face, and everything went black.
She forced herself to remain calm. She was still aware that she was standing. She could hear Rayne's uneven huffing beside her, smell his heavy, unwashed, drunk-sweaty body odor.
"What have you done to me?" She demanded, forcing the calm to subdue her voice. "I cannot help you if I am blind."
Troy chuckled darkly. "My dear, compared to what you could be, you've been blind and deaf your whole life."
The words "SYSTEM UPGRADE AVAILABLE; APPLY? Y/N" appeared in the blackness. In the whole statement, "SYSTEM" was the only word Denahlia understood. "Give me my sight back!" She demanded.
She felt the brush of gloved fingers on her ears, and Troy's voice reached her, faint and small. "You must accept the upgrades first; do you want what I can give you? Yes or no."
Yes or No; Y or N. "I do not know what upgrades are!"
"Yes or No, Denahlia?"
The words vanished, leaving Denahlia with the cold realization that she had just displayed desperation and vulnerability before someone with very obvious power over her. Her vision returned gradually, fading into full color till it did actually seem as if what she had considered "normal" just a few minutes ago was actually foggy, and washed out.
Troy was grinning at her. Rayne wore a frown.
"Well?" Asked the former. "How do you feel?"
Denahlia shook her head. "I feel no different." She gave him the satisfaction once, she would never let him see that side of her again.
Troy laughed. "Oh, go ahead," he goaded her, "try the x-ray vision!"
Denahlia had never heard of such a thing. "X-ray?" She asked. Her eyes blinked, and Denahlia screamed. 

She now sat in a grey world populated by skeletons. One sat on a slate-colored form, its grisly, grinning skull facing her. Troy at least appeared normal, having his skin on, instead of the bones exposed. All around them, the building had vanished. Other skeletons milled about, some on the ground, some floating in midair—including below them, and over their heads. Nothing was hidden from her. She could see what people did behind closed doors, what they carried covered by blankets or locked in iron chests. Denahlia regained her composure, only to look down and see the bones of her own hands! She could see every hidden knife and gun on her person, hanging as if from her exposed frame. She looked out over the expanse of the harbor. A long, sinuous shape wavered in the distance, no bigger than a speck to the southeast.
 Another blink brought everything back to normal. Denahlia gave a huge gasp of relief, running her fingers over her palms and her arms, enjoying the sight of her flesh where it was supposed to be.
"Well?" Troy grinned even wider. "What do you think?"
Denahlia wagged her head. "You are insane," she muttered.
"Well? Tell me what you saw!" He said, finally coming to sit by Rayne.
Denahlia pursed her lips. "I may have seen the dragon," she said, "but it was too far away. I couldn't be sure."
Rayne looked around the room with a puzzled frown. "She could see a faraway dragon from in here? The windows are still shuttered, for crying out loud!"
Denahlia watched Troy carefully. Why did he continuously seem different than everyone else? Well, not everyone, she realized. "I also saw someone who looked different than the others," she said.
"Different, how so?" Troy asked.
Denahlia shrugged. "Well, different from Rayne and me. She looked like you, though. I couldn't see her bones except in her wings."
"Bones?" Rayne grunted.
"Wings?" For he first time, Troy's swagger vanished as his eyes opened in alarm. "Where was this person you saw?"
Denahlia relished the fear on his face. Finally, payback for what he had just put her through! "She should be here any moment. It looked like she was headed this way." A small smirk played around her lips. "Why so afraid?"
Troy scowled at her. "I am afraid because I know what she is capable of," he snarled. "You think I am some kind of twisted miracle-worker? That's nothing compared to what my sister could do to you."
Denahlia's eyebrows raised. "Sister?"
Troy pinched his lips. "We should get out of here before you two become collateral damage when she tries to kill me."
"Hey!" Rayne cried, shambling after them as Denahlia led them with her night vision down a light-less path out the back of the inn. "Don't I get some of those upgrades?"
Troy sighed. "Unfortunately, since you are unGifted, I can do nothing for you. The best we can do is get you armor and weapons, right?" He looked in Denahlia's direction as if he could see her.
"Yep," she replied tersely. "There's an armory down the way."
"Perfect!" Troy laid a hand on the shoulders of both his companions. "Let's go!"
Everything went black.

The King-to-be frantically paved in front of the floor-length mirror, half-dressed and much too agitated to progress any further. Clothing lay strewn about the room, shirts in five different shades and trousers in three. A dozen neckties hung lazily out of an open drawer on the bureau, like a monster with so many tongues.

"Try the yellow ones, they're regal."

Beren whirled around at the sound of a female voice, covering his nakedness—but he stood alone in the room. He shook his fist toward the window. "Stop it, Azelie!" He snarled. "I don't need your help!"
The door opened behind him, and Beren twisted around and promptly tripped on a discarded outfit laying in a heap on the floor.
Jaran, his younger brother, smirked at him. "She's right, though," he mused, brushing stray lint off his midnight-blue suit.
Beren scowled. "I am not going to appear at my coronation looking like a man-sized banana!"
"Fine," Jaran shrugged, slinging a pair of brown trousers at his brother. "Wear these, then, and a green coat—you'll make a fine tree!" He laughed at his own joke, only to splutter and cough as his mouth filled with water. "Hey!"
"You shouldn't address the King that way," Beren grumbled.
Jaran waved a hand. "Whoa, slow down! You're not King yet!"
"But I will be," Beren protested, "by sundown!"
"Very well," Jaran sighed, stretching and yawning, "at sundown, let me be the first of your subjects to grovel and kiss the ring!" He reached out to touch the fantastic array of jewelry, only to see a brilliant web of sparks suddenly spring from his fingers at the presence of metal. "Oops!"
Beren selected a burgundy coat and a gold cravat to match, but didn't tie it. He slumped into a chair. "What am I thinking, Jaran? Do I really have what it takes to rule the kingdom as our father did?"
Jaran shrugged. "I wouldn't know," he mused. "They died when I was born."
"And I was too busy being a fool to pay any attention to the legacy intended for me," Beren noted with a wag of his head.
Jaran sat forward and regarded his brother. "For what it's worth," he said slowly, "I think you'll do just fine. You're pretty smart when it comes to these things."
Beren glanced sidelong at him. After being so convinced he was all alone with only a fairy for company (Jay! Oh, he was such a fool for sending her away; he hoped she'd survived the ice at least, whether or not she ever wanted to see him again), having a brother and preparing to lead a kingdom was wholly new.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
Jaran gave a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Absolutely; we're with you on this, brother." He stood with a jerk, and trudged to the door.
"Is the kid with the flames still working on getting the castle in order?" Beren asked before Jaran exited completely.
"Damaris?" Jaran stopped to answer. "Yes; the Council have all been informed that now instead of ruling for themselves, they must prepare to heed you as king."
Beren smirked. "I bet that didn't go over well," he remarked.
Jaran returned the grin. "It didn't, but don't worry, I shocked some sense into them." He let a blue spark play over the metal fixings in the door.
Beren frowned when he saw the burn marks in the wood. "Oy! Look what you've done!" He huffed. "What about Azelie? Has she gotten any closer to finding the Twins?"

"I'm still trying," the voice responded. "They can't have left the Realm so quickly."
Beren flinched. "We really need to get you a voice box so you can stop doing that."
"Who says I wanted to stop?" Came the retort. "No, wait!" She continued in a more frantic tone. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty; that wasn't supposed to come out. I didn't mean it."
Beren shook his head and stood before the mirror to tie his cravat. "What's the difficulty with finding the Twins?"
"Their Gift, I suppose."
Beren'a fingers fumbled. "They're Gifted?"
"You didn't know? I suppose they hid it well. They both have Charisma, which means they can enthrall people into doing what they want by manipulating their emotions. It also makes them hard for me to find, because their minds are nearly impervious to detection and influence."
Beren blinked. "No wonder they were able to hoodwink the Council so fast."
"While creating a Council of unGifted may have seemed like a reasonable safety check at the time, it also created a liability, because the unGifted are all the more susceptible to corrupting influences."
Beren tightened his lips. "We'll have to do something about that," he murmured. "What about Aurelle? What is she up to?"
"I don't know," Azelie answered. "I have been wholly focused on finding the Clissanders. She is still in the castle, but I can't focus on her while my mind is spread elsewhere."
Beren nodded. "Understood. No worries, I'll look for her myself. Just tell me which tower she's in."
"The north one, I believe."

Beren exited the room and headed for the North tower. He knew it housed the royal library—somewhere Korsan and his father always encouraged him to go, but Beren had always avoided.
The hallway seemed too dark, after the brilliant glowlamps illuminating the rest of the castle. Beren paused as he felt a gust of warm, musty wind—blowing from within the hallway! He reached the door and pushed it open.
"Aurelle!" He gasped.
Books and scrolls sailed off the shelves of their own accord, swarming around a white-haired figure standing at the middle of the room. Instead of her simple jacket, she now wore a long gown resplendent with silver threads. A gleaming silver circlet crowned her head. 
"Beren!" She cried. "Help!"

From her perch on the dragon's back, Zayra saw the trees first. They had made it out of the abominable wilderness! Soon the castle would be hers! Down on the ground below, the twin ex-Regents slumped against the first tree. As much as Zayra knew there was plenty of room along with her and the dragon more than capable of bearing the weight, there was still most of her psyche that enjoyed seeing the ones who had caused her such pain now experiencing discomfort of their own.
She paused, cleared her throat, and announced, "I am ready to continue!"
Kaidan looked up at her first. "Well, we are not!" He shouted back.
Zayra rolled her eyes. The insufferable idiot persisted in reminding her that she could not enthrall them as she had the others.
"Well then," she sighed as her Dragon picked up its head and began flexing its wings, "I suppose I will just have to make the rest of the journey on my own—"
"Have fun trying to overthrow the castle full of Gifted heirs with nothing but a dragon," Javira called sweetly up to her.
Zayra glared at her, wishing she had enough control to make her head explode.
"If you will not let us ride," Kaidan called to her, "then you must wait while we rest."
Zayra folded her arms, but allowed the dragon to slump into a sitting position. "I'm tired of waiting!" she grumbled. "I've waited far too long already!"
Javira stiffened, peering deep into the forest. "Someone's coming!" 
The twins scooted under the cover of the dragon's massive body. 

A young woman dashed into view, wearing the livery of the White Castle--and the same scars on the side of her face as Zayra had, though where Zayra's looked the pink of only a few days old, the scars marring the newcomer had faded to white already. 
Zayra grinned and dismounted to welcome her. "Captain Edri!" she gushed. "What a pleasant surprise!"
The young female soldier knelt in the presence of her queen. "My lady Zayra," she said. "I have come to once again pledge my service to you."
The twins regarded her closely as Zayra raised Edri to her feet and stroked the scars on her face.
"Wait, is this not the captain who interfered with the circus some months ago?" Javira enquired.
The dragon bent its head toward her, and Edri reached up to stroke its nose. "Well met, Erlis," she murmured, though the growl she received in response seemed more angry than congenial. To the twins, she said, "That was indeed me; I intervened because I did not believe in the destruction of Gifted people for the sake of entertainment."
"Were you not recently in league with the band of Outcasts led by the one known as Harlock?" Kaidan asked slowly.
Edri shook her head. "I know no one by that name. The only Outcast I know is Erlis, and she sits before you as a dragon." She gestured to the scaly creature beside them.
Kaidan flinched in surprise. "This is Erlis Irrya, the King's onetime healer?" He stared at the creature as Edri nodded. The dragon would not meet his gaze.
"Why have you come to us, Captain Edri?" Javira sidled up to her with a sly smile.
Edri remained resolute. "I have come to swear fealty once again to my Queen." She turned back to Zayra and met her gaze. "These Outcasts are to blame because they killed the only friend I had in my unit. I will serve you, and aid you in meting out justice upon them for their crimes."
Kaidan tilted his head as Javira and Zayra both smiled. "What is your Gift, if I may ask? I confess I only saw it from afar, and would love to know more about it."
Edri slipped off her glove to reveal the glowing blue hand. "I have the power of healing; it is nowhere as strong as that of Erlis, but I am able to mend broken bones and temporary ailments."
Javira grinned and wrapped her hands around Edri's arm. "Oh, I think you'll do nicely on our side!" she mused.
"Excellent!" cried Kaidan, the respite having restored him. "Let us depart with all haste to the castle, then!"
The Clan of Outcasts Series

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The ReBible Series: "Professional Integrity" Excerpt--Kill Order (Pt. 3)

Previous Excerpts:
Daniel and the others made their way out of the room. The corridors were silent save for the low buzz of the survivors thanking whatever powers they believed in for their continued existence. There weren’t many bodies still about--and the ARICs had switched primary directives, to cleaning up the mess they had made.

They weren’t too far down the hall when they spotted the ARIC carrying Carissa’s body. Before Daniel could react, Aaron trotted over and--without disrupting the robot’s movements--slipped something out of Carissa’s pocket. 
Daniel frowned at him when he rejoined the group. “What did you take?” he asked.

Aaron shrugged. “Weren’t you wondering how the robots still found us, even after Carissa told us that room would be safe?” he asked. “And why the robots targeted her first? And why she wouldn’t just come out and tell us what department she worked for?” He showed his friends the object in his hand.

It was Carissa’s ID card, the one she’d used to seal the door, the one that held her identifying information and personnel file. Under “DEPARTMENT” it clearly displayed the word “MYSTIC”; her specific division was “DREAM CTR.”

“Well, no wonder she was so scared of the ARICs! And how she knew the inside scoop behind the death threats!” Mike exploded. “She could have been one of the ones responsible!”

“And now she’s paid the ultimate price,” Daniel cut in before his friends could continue venting against the young woman. “Let’s not get carried away in blaming her.”

Harry tilted an eyebrow as they entered their room at the back of the Employee Residence section. “And let’s not suffer the same fate,” he muttered.

Daniel closed the door behind them. “We’re not going to die,” he assured his friends. “We’re going to solve the mystery of the President’s dream.”

Aaron flopped on the bed. All of them felt the slow, heavy drag of adrenaline withdrawals and the lack of sleep. “What makes you so sure?” he grumbled.

Daniel waited till his friend sat up again before tossing the soft-cover Bible at him. “There’s why,” he said. “We don’t have to be afraid because we know The One Who sends dreams, and we know that He will make it known to us if we ask Him.”

Mike rubbed behind his ear as the four of them gathered in a circle on the floor. “Isn’t that presuming a lot from God, though? I mean,” he shrugged, “why would He just tell us the answer? What’s so special about us?”

Daniel shook his head. “You’re asking the wrong question, my friend. If there’s one thing I believe with absolute certainty, it is that God wants to bring Himself glory through those who believe in Him. It’s not about us being special; that’s not why He’ll answer. I believe He’s going to answer because this is an opportunity He’s given us to bring Him glory in a place that has totally rejected Him.” He nudged Aaron sitting next to him. “Don’t you think that might be a reason we, of all people, are still here?”

Aaron shrugged. “Maybe,” he sighed.
Daniel accepted this with a nod. “Let’s pray,” he said.

All four bowed their heads and Daniel began to pray. “Dear God,” he said, “You are the God of dreams. You have given a dream to President King and it has brought about an extreme response. We pray that the dream and its interpretation may be revealed to us now, that we may relieve the terror of Mr. King’s heart, and that You may be glorified…” Daniel let his words trail off. In the silence, he could hear the steady hum of the air conditioning unit Harry had refurbished to cool their apartment in the warm California summer. As he waited, the hum faded into total silence. Daniel felt the floor tilt underneath him as his center of balance slid sideways, and he could hear his friends’ voices calling his name, but when he opened his eyes to answer, he saw only darkness.

Aaron felt Daniel slump beside him, but his friend was usually a bit limp during moments of extreme, silent prayer, so he thought nothing of it till he heard Mike call out, “Dan!” just before the thud of Daniel’s body hitting the floor jerked everybody out of silent introspection. The three friends gathered around the prostrate body, chafing his hands and checking his pulse.

“He’s out of it,” Harry murmured, pulling up an eyelid and checking the pupils.

“Daniel? Can you hear me, Dan?” Aaron felt along the jugular vein. “He has a pulse.” He put his hand over his friend’s lips. “And I can still feel him breathing.”

“What happened?” Mike asked him. “One second he was praying, and the next, I look up and he’s totally passed out. Did he, like squeeze your hand or say anything to you before it happened?”

Aaron shook his head. “Man, I was sitting right next to him, and I had no warning. You know how floppy Dan gets when he prays!”

“Here, let’s get him up on the bed,” Mike suggested.
Together, the three friends hefted their companion onto Aaron’s bed. Harry kept calling his name.
“Daniel! Daniel! Wake up!”

“This is bad,” Aaron muttered. “His skin is really cold. What do we do if he doesn’t wake up?”

“Here,” Harry began tossing blankets from the other bed. “Try wrapping him with these.”

“Come on, Dan,” Mike said loudly, “Snap out of it!” He clapped his hands over Daniel’s face. His friend didn’t respond.

For three hours, the friends kept constant vigil, trying every remedy they could think of: strong smells, loud noises, everything short of administering medical injections, which they did not have access to. Daniel’s skin had gone pale, and his lips were deepening to a bluish-purple tint. Aaron still had his fingers over his wrist, under the blankets. “Guys,” he said quietly. “I can’t feel a pulse.”
The minute the words left his mouth, a rush of color spread over the prostrate body, and Daniel’s eyes popped open and he gave a heaving gasp.
“Daniel!” chorused three relieved voices all at once.

Daniel Princeton sat up and threw the blanket off, eyes roving in bewilderment. “What in the world--” he stopped when he saw the three anxious faces hovering around him. “What’s the matter?” he looked down. His clothes were a little rumpled, but he wasn’t wounded or deformed or anything.

“We thought you were dead!” Mike blurted.

“You passed out while we were praying, and you started going all cold and pale!” Aaron added. “I just lost your pulse right before you came to just now. What happened?”

Daniel smiled and accepted the glass of water offered by Harry. “Guys,” he said, “God answered my prayer. I saw what President King dreamed last night, and I know what it means.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Aaron jumped to his feet. “Let’s go tell him!” He went to the door and pressed the “exit” frequency--and smacked his head on solid holoplast. “Hey!” Aaron rubbed his face and frowned, punching the button again. “What’s the big idea?”

Mike activated his glass tablet and checked the notifications. “Looks like, as a repercussion for the rampage earlier, corporate instituted a building-wide forced lockdown. Apparently, it is scheduled to last,” he turned and looked at Daniel, “for about 24 hours.”

Daniel nodded. “That sounds about right,” he said. “I was going to suggest that we hold off for a while before going straight to Mr. King; I mean, it’s only been about,” he glanced at the clock, “four hours or so since we made the bargain.”

“You mean,” Aaron flopped on his empty bed, “we have to stay cooped up in here for another twenty hours? Are we going to starve?”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “A twenty-four-hour fast never hurt anybody,” he chided his friend.

Aaron jumped to his feet and started pacing. “Look out,” he warned melodramatically, “I’m feeling the cabin fever setting in already! I’m going stir-crazy just thinking about it!”

A pillow sailed through the air, catching him in the face. “Well,” Harry muttered from his bed, “go crazy quietly, because if we aren’t expected to be anywhere, then I’m going to use at least some of this time to catch up on my sleep!”

Aaron collapsed into the armchair and pretended to suffocate himself with the pillow. “Oof!” he cried, dropping the pillow onto his lap. “I shouldn’t have mentioned eating; now I can’t stop thinking about food.”

“Shut up!” Harry barked.

Daniel remained sitting up as Mike took the last available bed. “What are you going to do?” Mike asked.

Daniel shrugged. “I feel like I’ve been sleeping for an entire day,” he admitted with a chuckle. “I don’t need the extra sleep like you all do.” He smiled at the concern on his friend’s face. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
Mike nodded and rolled over. Soon he was snoring peacefully.

Daniel spent the better part of an hour saying a prayer of thanks to God; his heart overflowed with gratefulness that he should get the opportunity afforded to nobody else. After he finished praying, he activated a simple text entry box on his tablet and began writing out the images from the dream, in preparation to present them before President King. He made sure to get all the details recorded, and paid especial attention to the interpretation. He sat and considered the significance for a few minutes. Dark times were coming for Byblos, Inc.--so what did that mean for him and his friends?
The clock on the wall read one in the afternoon when Daniel--amid the snores of his slumbering friends, slipped out toward the door. Activating the videoconferencing screen, he put in a call to the building security. As he expected, an ARIC had been posted in place of a live guard, and it responded. Text scrolled across the screen.


Daniel made sure that the camera could register his face clearly. “Daniel Princeton, requesting an audience with President King.”


Daniel smiled grimly. “Tell President King that I have the answers he seeks.”


Five minutes later, the holoplast door hummed softly, and Daniel slipped out. Two ARICs awaited him in the hall. “YOU HAVE BEEN GRANTED AN AUDIENCE WITH PRESIDENT KING,” one of them intoned. “PLEASE DEPART IMMEDIATELY. WE WILL ESCORT YOU INTO HIS PRESENCE.”
Daniel nodded and complied with the directions.

The ARICs led him out of the Executive Trainee Residential Block. The bright sunlit afternoon belied the quiet, “ghost town” atmosphere in all the buildings and on the empty streets. Across the main courtyard stood the grand mansion where President King and his closest executive officials lived. The ARICs continued straight inside the grand house, the whirring of their mechanics echoing through the empty halls as their metal feet clanked on the marble floors. They stopped when they reached the massive double-doors that led to President King’s office.

PLEASE PROCEED,” said an ARIC as the two robots took up their posts on either side of the door. The other ARIC emitted a digital signal, which caused the handles on the doors to turn, and the door hissed open on hydraulic pistons.