Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reader's Review: "Cadeau, Volume 1: Who Can You Trust?" by Connie Olvera

Synopsis from Amazon:
A millennium has passed since humans arrived to colonize the planet Cadeau only to find several indigenous species with higher intellect and psionic abilities peacefully cohabiting on the world. Fighting soon broke out over land and resources across the continent of Mardeaux.

An ancient telepathic people from another dimension brought peace once again when they developed a symbiotic relationship with the alien humans. This cooperation between the species had lasted hundreds of years, however, bigoted human factions now seek to profit by eliminating all who stand in their way. The tenacious young duchess, Naomi, is trying to save her territory and the species that live there from these partisan forces.

Raised as a sagoron prince, behind the guardian border, Tobin’s life as a half-breed—or graftling as the sagoron children taunted him—was lost and friendless. At the age of fifteen he ventures beyond the protection of the sagoron’s forest, out of a hunger to know his human mother who abandoned him. His search breaks the carefully erected barrier between the sagoron and human realms, and leads him to join the divergent group of resistance fighters supporting Naomi. 

My Review:

What was the last book you read that made you think, "Oh yeah—this is definitely a book that's going to be around for generations!"
Cadeau definitely filled that role for me. It was a rocky start at first—the blurb didn't seem to match the story I was reading for about the first seven chapters, and there were so many questions I couldn't find the answers to—

But I kept reading, and boy, am I glad I did! The more I read, the more I understood. Cadeau unfolded wider and wider as this rich and vibrant world that arriving humans had only begun to probe. It was a world of kingdoms and duchies, with political unrest and Marquises jockeying for power, while the humanoid race on Cadeau, the sagorons, demonstrated incredible feats of supernatural power which they were now forced to employ against the invaders, to protect the land they had regarded as their home. Not only that, but it falls to some humans and sagorons to receive telepathic abilities, which both increases the potential for peace and also makes it all the more difficult to know whom to trust, as those most skilled in reading the minds of others are equally adept at hiding their own thoughts.
A half-blood sagoron prince and a young noblewoman both seek peace between their species, but he is the son of the sagoron leader who would just as soon have nothing to do with the humans, and she is the daughter of a cruel and vicious Lord who seeks to corrupt and destroy all who hinder him in his push for more power. A savage betrayal thrusts them together, and—along with the Duke's daughter, exiled and forced on the run from a murderous enemy—they must trust each other, and learn how to discern the truth in a vast sea of lies.

I loved all of it. Even the first bit that left me confused—after finishing the book, I went back and re-read the beginning, and the new understanding I had gained really helped! (So if you start reading it and get very confused... don't worry! Just keep reading till you get it, and then you can go back and read the beginning part again) 
The pacing is carefully constructed—while not completely perfect (the feeling of "jumping around" does take some getting used to) in the end it's worth it, to see the story that unfolds, to follow the characters and see their storylines intersect in exciting ways.
The wealth of new species impressed me the most: the Ancients, with actual musical notes representing their names in the text, the sagorons and their "powers" of Ker'ah, which is to literally pray and cause a thing to happen; the mysterious, aggressive Ren and their connection to much more of the history of Cadeau than anyone realizes... and those are just the non-human sentient races! Many more creatures leap from the pages in full, breathtaking detail, drawing the reader in, immersing them in this creative new world.

That being said, I would give CADEAU a *****4.5 STAR***** rating—with the stipulation that pretty much the only thing keeping it from a solid 5 stars is the fact that the story is not quite as fluid as it could be. Perhaps it is just the nature of a world existing in two dimensions that run on different timetables, or perhaps it is something that could be amended with a few minor tweaks—but be that as it may, I still loved it very much and I would add an Upstream Writer Certified WHOLEHEARTEDLY RECOMMENDED endorsement. If you love creative fantasy worlds, strong moral principles, engaging characters and a story worth reading over and over again, CADEAU is definitely the book for you—and I might add that it's only the beginning of an epic series! I can't wait to see more amazingness in the books to come!
Further Reading (Amazing Fantasy or Sci-fi/Marvelous Characters/Excellent Worldbuidling)
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie  
The Alexander Legacy--Sophronia Belle Lyon
       -A Dodge, A Twist, and A Tobacconist
       -The Pinocchio Factor
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed
        -I Still Have A Soul 
 Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd
The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny
     -A Halloween's Curse

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Serial Saturday: "Suggestion Box, Vol. 4"--A to Z Challenge: Letter C

The List:
-Crow, Jonas
-Corvallis, OR

The Result:

This excerpt is a scene from an unfinished novel I started a couple years back, The Astonishing Adventures of Jonas Crow, which would be a modern-day adaptation of the Bible story of Jonah. In particular, this scene is the famous "Storm on the way to Tarshish", where Jonah tries to run from God and gets found out, just before getting swallowed by the whale. Enjoy! If you would like to read more excerpts from this story, click the hyperlinked text >HERE<

"The Corvallis Catastrophe"

Jonas slumped down in his seat. The others had cracked every window on the bus, but the temperature just kept climbing.
“Sorry, folks!” the driver climbed back into the bus. “As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be anything broken or leaking in the engine compartment, I just can’t get it to turn on. I’ve put in a call to the repair shop in Corvallis, but there is no telling how long it will take them to get a mechanic all the way out here.”
The elderly couple from Connecticut gripped each other’s hand. “We’re all going to die!” the lady yelled, quivering in her Cancun t-shirt.
Jonas crouched even lower and cranked up the volume on his headphones. He didn’t need to hear this, on top of everything else that had just happened to him. He was going to Canada, and that was that!

The driver pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his face, but it was already so saturated that the sheen of sweat remained.
“What can we do?” demanded the father of two who had been looking forward to vacationing in the Columbia Gorge with his family. “Do you expect us to walk all the way to Corvallis?”
The driver shrugged. “I’m saying we probably have enough to survive a few hours, but these buses are not typically equipped for a lengthy emergency situation—so you best prepare for that possibility.”
“Daddy? I’m hungry!” the little girl whined.
“I want water!” her younger brother chimed in. “Great,” whined the young man traveling with his girlfriend, “Now I’m thirsty, but my water bottle is already empty!”
“I’m so hot!”
“Why isn’t anybody coming? What’s taking so long?”
“Excuse me,” said a middle-aged woman to the passenger sitting next to her. “I need to use the facilities.” She stood, edged out of the row, and turned toward the tiny lavatory at the back of the bus.
The driver grimaced. “I wouldn’t, ah, do that, if I were you,” he muttered.
Her jaw tensed and she turned to him in agony, holding her legs close together. “And why not? Isn’t this exactly why buses like this even have a toilet?”
“Yeah, but,” The driver gestured to the front of the bus. “With the system outage up front, the, ah, filtration system would be non-functional, as well.”
Her face melted at the realization. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” she cried. “Can we get off this bus already?” She sat in the nearest seat, but did not dare relax.
“Great,” muttered the man sitting behind Jonas, “now I have to pee too…”
“Hey!” A man in a sweaty business suit leaned forward, “I have a friend waiting to pick me up at the bus station!”
“Any chance of that repair truck showing up?” somebody else joined in.
The driver patiently checked his phone. He prayed that the blinking battery symbol in the corner had only just begun, that he would at least have a few more hours of juice left till help arrived. “No word yet.”
“Should we be calling 9-1-1?” somebody piped up, only for those around him to start yelling objections as the young children burst into tears at the suggestion.
“Ugh, I hate this bus!” an impeccably-dressed woman with a pinched face complained. “Here I was, trying to be economical, but hey, I guess you get what you pay for!” She stood up and nailed the driver with a steel-eyed glare. “Serves me right—though if I end up surviving this hellish trip, I promise you I will demand a refund, and I am never taking the bus again!”
The driver held up his hands as the palpable agitation thickened all the more. “Now, now, everyone,” he tried to maintain an air of professionalism, “just stay calm. We will make it through—“
“Do I smell burning?” A man three rows from the back jerked up straight.
In seconds, everyone was sniffing and staring.
“I smell it too!” Cancun Lady wailed, and the driver leaped to maintain control of the situation. “All right, everyone, we’re going to evacuate the bus—“
“Evacuate?” Mr. Dad cried. “Are you kidding? I just got the kids to settle down!”
Smoke!” Bathroom Lady shrieked, pointing to the windows on her side.
Panic set in, and every passenger rushed for the tiny steps leading to the narrow door—every passenger except one.

Jonas was focused on being as invisible as possible, making no noise and pretending with all his might that he didn’t even exist, when a shove on his arm nearly sent him through the window beside him.
“Dude, are you crazy?” the guy demanded. “The bus is on fire! We’re getting out of here!”
Jonas felt his heart catapult into his throat. Fire? How was he going to get to Canada? How was he going to survive now?
He hobbled after the guy. In the bright light of high noon, he saw the driver and about five passengers frantically unloading all of the luggage, piling it on the ground as others formed a chain to transport them to the shady side of the bus.
Bathroom Lady came around from the front of the bus, looking very relieved.
“Thank God no one saw me, but I hope I never have to do that again!” she told the harried mother who was in the middle of trying to console two very cranky, very overheated kids. Jonas saw Businessman pace by him, phone pressed to his ear.
“Yeah, hi! We are on…” he looked around, as if the name of the road would be posted somewhere obvious. “Well, the main road into Corvallis… That’s the one! Yeah, our bus broke down and then we smelled smoke, and—yeah, we called them, but there doesn’t seem to be any… Well, not exactly—I know that, ma’am, but if you cou—What? I couldn’t quite ca—“ he peeled his phone away from his ear and stared at it. “Oh you have got to be kidding me!”
“What happened?” asked a young woman.
The man clenched his jaw and his fists, though the hand that held the phone looked about ready to snap it. “Stupid, piece-of-crap junk phone!” the Businessman seethed. “I just upgraded last week and all of a sudden now it doesn’t hold a charge?” He stopped to kick a clod of dirt. “What else could go wrong?”
“Daddy?” the little boy whimpered, ‘I’m hungry!”
Jonas huddled at the back of the crowd, trying his best to be as inconspicuous as possible. What if Deus Maximus was behind all this bad luck they were having? What would these people do if they found out he was to blame?
A stiff wind swept through, making everyone shiver. The bus driver glanced up at the sky as clouds skated across the sun’s light. “Hey, at least it’s cooler now…” he began, but no sooner did he say this, than a young passenger cried out, and people dashed for their coats and any sort of cover as a sudden rain poured out of a once-clear sky.
All forty passengers huddled fruitlessly against the side of the bus as the downpour intensified.
Oh God, WHY?” somebody wailed, and immediately, everybody started yelling out to whatever higher power they believed in.
Jonas felt a jab in his shoulder. Bathroom Lady squinted suspiciously at him.
“Hey, why aren’t you praying?” she hissed. “It seems about the only thing we can do. Maybe your contribution would bring good luck to the group!”

“All right, here it is!” The driver announced, backing up to where the whole crowd could see him. “There has got to be something seriously wrong with this trip, and only one person responsible for all the weird coincidences that have left us stranded.”
Businessman wagged his head. “You’re crazy! How can you just assume one person is at fault for all this?”
Thunder boomed overhead. “You have a better theory?” the bus driver yelled. He pulled a comic book out of the inner pocket of his jacket. Jonas recognized it instantly: B.Y.B.L.  Issue No. 29. “I have been reading this comic since I was a little boy, and it always seemed like there was some higher power like Deus Maximus watching out for some people and dealing judgment on others in the real world, just like in these comics.”
The passengers began shifting apart, glancing suspiciously at one another.
“So how do we find out who is responsible?” somebody asked.
Jonas mouthed the words as the bus driver said them. “Cards of Fate!” He listened with a sinking stomach as the driver explained.
“The hero, Remus Hemptor, would use it when he was out in the field, cut off from Deus Maximus, and he needed to figure out which choice would be the right one.” The driver squinted at the group before him. “Anybody have a deck of cards?”
“I do!” The mother dug through her daughter’s travel pack till she found the slim box.

The driver took the deck. “All right, here’s how it works: I’ll pray to Deus Maximus, because that’s what Remus does, then I’ll shuffle, and each one of you will take the top card. The person who ends up with the Jack of clubs is guilty of bringing the wrath of God on this trip.”
“I still think you’re insane!” declared the Businessman.
The driver ignored him, clasping the deck in both hands. He bowed his head and whispered discreetly to himself for several minutes. When he finished, he shuffled four times, and moved to the far end of the crowd. Once forty-one cards had been handed out, he announced, “All right, show!”
Everyone turned over his and her card. Jonas knew exactly what his would be before anyone registered what he was holding.
“Jack of clubs!” Bathroom Lady shrieked. “It was you all along!”
As one body the whole crowd converged on him, the questions coming as thick as the raindrops.
“Who are you?”
“What do you do?”
“Who do you work for?”
“What kind of karmic being did you anger, that would invite consequences on the rest of us for it?”
The driver waved his hands. “All right! All right, let him speak!”
All voices drifted to silence as all eyes focused on the young man in the grubby tee shirt.
“Um, hi?” he stammered in the silence. “I’m Jonas Crow; I’m a blogger, and I write about the hidden messages and theories that I get from the B.Y.B.L. series.”
“Hidden messages?” the driver blinked. “Like they have on the official Remus Hemptor blog?”
Jonas could feel his face flush bright red, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. “Um, actually, that’s not an official blog—that’s my blog.”
The man’s eyes snapped wide. “You’re the blogger for Remus Hemptor?”
Jonas nodded. “Yeah, and I was supposed to be on a mission for Deus Maximus—“
Deus Maximus gave you a mission?” The driver’s face was so purple Jonas wondered if he was going to pass out before the end of the conversation.
“Yeah, but I didn’t want to do it, so I ended up on this bus because I’m running away.”
The driver hauled out his comic book. “So let me get this straight,” he said slowly. “Deus Maximus himself gave you a mission, and you decided to run away instead—so now we’re getting punished with bad weather and a broken bus just because you're here instead of where you’re supposed to be?”
Jonas nodded miserably. And the Award for Idiot of The Century Goes To….

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Serial Saturday: "Suggestion Box, Vol. 4"--A to Z Challenge: Letter B

The List:
-Bronwen, Brethan
-Before dawn
-Beside a Brook
-Butterfly, Bear, Badger

The Result:

"Braving the Bear"

(Sequel to "His First Quest")
The babbling, silver brook wound silently through the old, overgrown forest. All was still and peaceful—up until the moment a young knight crashed through the bracken, gasping and muttering to himself.
“Merciful Lord in Heaven!” he groaned. “There must be a way to save her! I must find a way!” He collapsed to his knees next to the brook, tearing up the sod with his hands and marring the thin, glittering surface with clods of dirt. He cast his arms wide and roared to the heavens, “Why, God? WHY? IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT ME TO BE? A simpleton who betrays the trust of the very first being I encounter? I shouldn’t wonder if she had been an angel sent to guide me, and I have delivered her into the claws of a demon!”
His shoulders sagged as he bent over the rippling water. The ancient forest, once so full of promise, now only served as a painful reminder of his failure, and the innocent creature he had lost.

As he tried to regain his composure, a flash of color caught his eye. Sir Martin stilled and held his breath as the largest butterfly he had ever witnessed wafted into view. Its wings bore streaks of every color imaginable, in no particular pattern that he recognized, but it struck him as beautiful, nonetheless.
The butterfly wafted closer, coming to settle on Sir Martin’s pauldron. A tiny face not unlike Bronwen’s grinned up at him. Her dark hair, rather than tumbling around her shoulders like the young sparrow-fairy’s, stood up from her head in a sleek, curling point.
Sir Martin flinched and drew back, leaving the butterfly to flap faintly in midair before winding soft curlicues over the surface of the river. The tiny face gave him a tender frown of deep concern before she turned away and began fluttering down the course of the brook.
“I’m sorry!” Sir Martin blurted, reaching toward her. “I was just startled! I didn’t mean to frighten you. Please come back!”
The butterfly-winged fairy circled back around in wide, gentle loops. She settled on Sir Martin’s outstretched hand, and regarded him solemnly.

“Sir Knight,” she said in the same gentle tone Bronwen had used, “why are you so sad?”
Sir Martin fought to speak as the guilt formed a stone in his throat. “I… I have betrayed a fairy of this forest, and I have failed in my first quest.” He hung his head. “I am not worthy of the knight’s noble reputation, being nothing but a coward.”
The fairy tucked her wings up and settled onto his fingers as a seat. “How have you betrayed us? It could be that there is some way to redeem this circumstance.”
Sir Martin shook his head. “No, there is no redemption for me! It was the Beast of the Forest, which she described to me, who fooled me by changing his guise, and though she warned me plenty of times, I did not heed—and now he has her!”
The Butterfly crossed her tiny arms, resting her hands upon her pale shoulders. “That is no great trespass, nor are you particularly weak, Sir Knight. The Beast delights in making fools of the strongest men, tricking them into underestimating him. It will be more difficult than you can face to rescue this fairy, if that is what you desire to do, because once the Beast has one of us in his clutches, he can make it very difficult to let any of us back out again.”
Sir Martin felt the wild surge within himself as the stone left his throat, and he inhaled deeply. “Whatever price, whatever task is required of me, I will do it!” he promised. “Even up to yielding my own life, to make up for the damage I have caused!”

The fairy laughed lightly. “There is no great damage, Sir Knight! In truth, very few who visit this forest and encounter the Beast so desire to reclaim a fairy he has taken—I sense much bravery in you, sir!” She flapped her wings and tapped her chin. “Perhaps there still resides more nobility in your heart than you realized before!”
Sir Martin nodded bashfully. “It is kind of you to say that,” he admitted. “So what must I do to hunt down this Beast and rescue the fairy he has taken?”
The Butterfly lifted off his hand into the air. “The first thing you must realize,” she began, “is that you cannot face the Beast alone. He is far too clever for just one man, now that he has discovered a weakness in you and used it successfully against you.”
Sir Martin shook his head. “What then? Will you go with me, to fight against him in some way?”
The fairy wavered gently in place. “I am also too small to assist you, and it would be far too dangerous for me to venture close to the Beast’s domain, because fairies are the one creature in this forest that he desires the most, so he has invested much time and effort into developing lures and traps that we cannot resist or escape.”
The knight frowned and clenched his fist, feeling the armor plates pressing against the leather inner glove. “Is there another assistant I must seek in the forest, then? For I swear I will not leave here until I have vanquished this Beast once and for all—this I have undertaken as my first quest, and I shall not turn aside until I accomplish it!”
The Butterfly sighed, as if Sir Martin had not been the first knight to make such a declaration—only to fail and turn aside from his quest. “In order to find the Beast in his domain, you will need the Bear.”
Sir Martin squinted in confusion. “A bear?”
“Not just any bear,” The Butterfly continued. “This Bear is particularly strong, and particularly persistent, and he has aught against the Beast, and so will serve any who desire to confront it. However,” she hastened to add, as she noticed the reckless gleam in the knight’s eyes, “you must face him first—and there, many have failed, and been eaten for all their boasting and confidence.”
Sir Martin felt the dread building inside him, but he purposed to maintain his valor. “What can I do, then, to accomplish this feat?”
The Butterfly flew high up in the air, joining a few other dancing splashes of color among the treetops. “Watch carefully, and you will know,” she said. “Follow the brook to find his den.” With those words, she flew away.

Sir Martin remained at the water’s edge, wondering at the way his quest seemed to be taking the most unexpected course. After a few moments, he decided to take the Butterfly’s advice, and followed the Brook down to where it rushed by a large cave that could only be the lair of the Bear he sought. Sir Martin crossed the brook and drew his sword. He could hear the Bear’s claws scratching the stone floor of the cave.
“All right, you Bear!” he cried, holding his sword aloft. “Come out! I would challenge you!”
He heard snuffling from inside the cave, then with a terrible roar, the Bear rushed out. Sir Martin tried to attack it with his sword, but the Bear reached past the length of his weapon and clouted the knight over the shoulder. His armor was the only thing that saved his life. Lacking any kind of defense, Sir Martin turned and ran from the cave, crossing to the other side of the brook to make his escape. He counted it good fortune that the Bear did not appear to follow him.
A little later, Sir Martin again crept back to the point on the other side of the brook where he could remain hidden and watch the cave, but the Bear didn’t let its guard down again. Sir Martin decided to wait until nightfall, to see if he couldn’t subdue the bear while it slept. He settled against the tree and closed his eyes.

When he awoke from his slumber, the moon shone down into the forest, and Sir Martin could detect little movement from the surrounding area save the rushing brook between himself and the cave. A second time, he stole up to the cave, sword extended in front of him to feel around in the darkness.
He stepped fully over the threshold without meeting any resistance at the tip of his blade—and just at that moment, the Bear rose up behind him, and roared again. This time, Sir Martin found it more difficult to defend himself in the darkness, while the Bear didn’t seem to have weakened at all, striking at him with the same fury he had shown in the daylight. Sir Martin barely escaped the savage animal, but at last he made his retreat and withdrew to the same hiding spot from before.

By now, Sir Martin could not understand what the Butterfly had said about gaining an ally to defeat The Beast. Day or night made no difference to the Bear, and there would be nothing Sir Martin could do to so much as approach the den. He sat and pondered late into the night. He hated the thought of giving up on his first quest so easily—but what other choice did he have?
The twilight of night’s last hours remained, but Sir Martin leaped up as he heard a rustling sound coming from the other side of the brook. He squinted hard in the half-light, and saw a squat Badger waddling right toward the Bear’s cave. As he watched, the Badger crawled into the mouth of the cave, and very soon the Bear emerged, as docile and as mild as he had been angry and fierce just hours before. The Badger seemed to hold a sort of audience with the Bear, and then continued on its way, unharmed and unhindered.
Dawn had only just begun threading its way across the horizon when Sir Martin, witnessing the departure of the Badger, came out of his hiding spot and crossed the brook. Full of confidence, he traced the path the Badger had just taken.

The Bear rushed out almost immediately, roaring and bracing itself to attack. Sir Martin doubled back and ran away from the cave, taking the small, narrow pathways to deter the Bear from following. When at last he could stop, he threw himself down at the base of a beech tree to puzzle over what he just witnessed.
“I don’t understand!” he cried. “Every time I try to approach, the Bear attacks and strikes me—these last two times, I have not threatened the animal, and yet it is all fury and strength against me! Yet the small Badger seemed to have some sort of pact with the Bear—I have never heard of such a thing in my life!”
After the last two failures, Sir Martin dared not approach the den for the rest of the day. As the sun set and night fell around him, the stalwart knight struggled to stay awake and watch for the moment when the Badger would come. Many times, he nearly fell asleep, but he would catch himself and shake himself awake again.
At last, in the moments before dawn, the Badger returned. This time, Sir Martin followed it toward the Bear’s den.

He could feel his own heart pounding against his breastplate as he drew closer and closer to the den. Would his presence invite the Bear to attack the Badger, in spite of seeming so peaceful toward it the day before?
The Badger paused at the mouth of the cave, just as it had done. A few moments later, the Bear came lumbering toward it. As soon as the Bear saw Sir Martin, it stopped and began growling, but Sir Martin stood firm as the Badger moved on.
“Please,” it said, as the Bear, for once, did not charge him, but continued to growl. “I am here on behalf of a fairy who lives in this forest. Her name is Bronwen, and she has been captured by the Beast. I am told you are the only one who can help me save her.”
Still growling, the Bear stalked forward. Sir Martin held his breath, but forced himself to resist the urge to flee as he had done. Closer, the Bear crept, until it was close enough for Sir Martin to feel its breath on his face. He did not move as the Bear sniffed his scent, and once it finished, it calmly walked past Sir Martin, out into the forest. It took a few paces, turned back to glance at the shocked knight, and grunted. Sir Martin moved to follow it, and the Bear continued back the way Martin had come.

The Butterfly came fluttering to join him in the light of dawn.
“Very good, Sir Knight!” she congratulated him. “You have earned the trust of Brethan the Bear, and he will defend you against any threats you will face here in the forest.”
“Truly?” Sir Martin felt almost giddy with relief. “That is all this ordeal required, to merely find that one time when the Bear would remain quiet, and now he is my protector?”
“What more did you expect?” The Butterfly replied.

Brethan stopped just ahead. Sir Martin recognized the area: this was the place he had first met Bronwen, trapped in a poacher’s net. There on the ground lay the broken net where he had dropped it. Next to the net was one of Bronwen’s wingfeathers.
Brethan bent down and sniffed closely at the net and the feather. A slow growl resonated in the Bear’s throat, but Sir Martin knew it wasn’t directed at him any more. Brethan immediately set off in quite a different direction, deeper into the forest.
Sir Martin glanced to the Butterfly for advice.
“He has Bronwen’s scent, and that of the Beast as well,” she said softly. “He will lead you to where the Beast has hidden her. Fare you well, Sir Knight.” She flew off toward the lighter part of the forest, leaving Sir Martin to follow The Bear into the shadows, to confront The Beast of The Forest.

Also in the Series:

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Serial Saturday: "Suggestion Box" Vol. 4--A to Z Short Story Challenge: Letter A

The List:
Names: Archimedes, Ashuria
Places: Athens, Acropolis
Time: Afternoon
Objects: Arches, Apricots, Almonds

The Result:

"Answers in the Arches"

The bright afternoon sun glinted off the white walls of the Acropolis crowning the highest point in Athens. Blue stenciling along the edges provided a pleasing visual for the eyes, while absorbing some of the glare that would otherwise blind its citizens.
Under an arch at the edge of an apricot grove, a young girl munched on a handful of almonds as she stared out over the Aegean Sea. So intent was her focus, that she almost missed the approach of an elderly man in a grey toga.

“A pretty aster clings to the wall, growing taller and more beautiful every day!” he mused.
The young girl glanced up and smiled. “Oh, hello, Master Archimedes.”
The old man stroked his bushy white beard. “Ashuria, my dear, what’s the problem?”
Ashuria sighed and tapped the heels of her sandals against the wall. “I have a dilemma that I am not sure how to answer,” she confessed.
Archimedes took a seat next to the girl. He gave a low chuckle. “So you would seek out a Sicilian astronomer for advice, as if I could read the answers you seek, hidden among the stars?” He shook his head. “Why not turn to your mother instead?”
Ashuria rubbed the hem of her mauve-colored dress. “My mother and father are in accord.”
Archimedes frowned. “And this does not satisfy you, to see your parents agree on a matter?”
Ashuria shook her head. “Not if the thing they agree on is wrong!”
The old man leaned out to pluck a ripe fruit from a low-hanging branch. “How is it wrong? Does your father intend to break the law?”
“Not the law of the land,” Ashuria admitted, “but is there not also a moral law that people must follow?”
Archimedes nodded. “So the philosophers would say—and each would have a different theory about the parameters and implication of this moral law.”
Ashuria moaned and covered her head. “Then I am afraid the moral law of my parents is different than the one I hold—so what am I to do?”
“Tell me, child,” Archimedes offered her an apricot, “would great harm come to anyone if you simply laid aside your misgivings and followed your parents in whatever they have asked you to do?”
Ashuria’s lips twitched. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I am very afraid because no one else has ever done this thing before, so I do not know what harm will come of it.”
Archimedes wiped his hand on the loose fold of his toga. “It could be that no harm may come at all... yet you are still too much afraid of it. Why can you not find peace in minding your elders like so many others?”
Ashuria drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around her legs, hugging them to her chest. “Something still stops me, Master Archimedes. What they want to do is wrong, and nothing I can think of can change that sentiment in me.”
Archimedes shrugged. “Well then, my dear Ashuria, if nothing can change that, then there won’t be any need to worry. Your conscience is clear enough to prevent you from violating this moral law of yours.”
Ashuria tilted her head, letting her pale hair drape across her face. “What does that mean?” she asked.
Archimedes patted her on the shoulder. “It means, dear child, that you only need to go as far as you feel you may safely do so. Your own spirit will guide you in doing what you think is right.”
He squinted up at the sun, noting the angle of the shadows cutting under the arches. “I must meet with the Assembly,” he explained. “Is there anything else you wished to discuss?”
Ashuria shook her head. “No,” she said. “Thank you for your wise words.”
Archimedes shrugged. “It is only in application that we discover how vital the advice of another really is.” He trudged further up the road, while Ashuria scurried back home.

“Ashuria!” her mother met her at the door, her head wrapped in a large cloth that hid all of her hair. “Come quickly! Preparations are underway. Where have you been?” The tall woman’s firm hand swept the young girl into the room.
Ashuria stopped short when she saw her father in his white tunic and purple sash. “Father!” she cried. “Your hair! What happened?”
The entire top of his head matched the color of his sash. Ashuria’s father smiled at her, beckoning her forward. “It’s going to be the new fashion when we get to Natalys!”
Ashuria frowned. “But… why?”
Her mother entered, pulling the cloth off her head. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders and back in luxurious waves—that same unnatural violet color. How many pounds of dye had been wasted on this frivolous fashion statement? “Because we are going to lead the new colony, Ashuria, dear! As its leaders, we needed some way to stand out—and purple being the herald of royalty, we decided that purple hair would signify our rank among the citadel!” She stroked Ashuria’s pale golden curls. “Your hair would look so lovely—“
“No!” Ashuria felt the tightness in her stomach, the ache that spread through her whole body at the overwhelming wrongness of the whole situation. “I will not be going with you!”
Her mother’s face fell. “But Ashuria,” she pressed, “you must come with us!”
Her father nodded. “Yes, the Assembly has decided that everyone who has drunk of the Fountain must return to Natalys and live there permanently.”
Ashuria felt her back press against the wall behind her. She was still within reach of her mother’s long arms. “But that was one drink!” She said, the tears climbing into her eyes. “I didn’t know!”
Her mother smiled, gliding ever closer. “One drink is all it takes.”
Ashuria clapped her hands to her mouth. What would happen to her now? Her whole body trembled. “No! I don’t want it!” she cried.
“Oh, darling!” Her mother pulled her close into a tight embrace. “Come, relax with me. You’re just tired, and the thought of such a long journey frightens you. It will be all right, I promise.”
Ashuria wanted it to be all right. She prayed for it harder than she had ever prayed for anything else in her life. One drink is all it takes. She had drunk once, and would serve that punishment forever.

“One drink, one forfeit,” she whispered. It was a fitting consequence, and that made it just.
Ashuria looked up at her mother. “For my trespass of drinking from the Fountain, I will allow the servants to dye my hair.” She cringed inwardly at the way her mother sat up with wide, hungering eyes. “But,” she forced herself to finish, “I will never drink of that fountain again!”
Her mother huffed. “Oh, Ashuria, how can you say that? Why, in Natalys, the very ground is saturated by water from the Fountain of Youth! Crops are irrigated by it, food and clothing is washed in it, the wines are made with it, and it is the only thing to drink there!” She patted Ashuria’s head. “I understand how you would like to keep your principles, but the fact is, dear, you won’t be able to resist for long.”

Sitting at the edge of the pool, watching her reflection as the servant spread the heinous purple paste over her wet locks, Ashuria felt her conscience harden within her. They think I will eventually approve of what they have done, she thought. They have no idea how strong I really am. Someday, I will find the chance to stand up for what I believe in. I will show them what I am made of, she promised herself. Someday.

To find out what happens in Natalys, and Ashuria's ultimate choice, Click >HERE<

Monday, May 29, 2017

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 2, Part 7--"Alterations"

Ta-DAA!! Queen Zayra has a FACE! And YES, she got
the most votes this go-round!
Part 7
Zayra drummed her fingers on the arm of her throne. The Hunter had been gone too long, and she couldn't stand the fact that the Mage had just walked away from her presence, right out of her thrall. That Illusionist and her beetles! 
She frowned and hovered her hand over the open palm of the Prince sitting beside her. He opened his hand, and a delicate splay of lightning bolts rose from his skin to crackle over hers. She felt the energy humming, and she closed her eyes with a soft moan. At least she still had this one thing.

"Jaran? Jaran!"
He heard her voice in his mind, very faintly behind the pain Zayra inflicted just now, the pain of pulling something out of him that he should have been able to control. At least she wasn't dragging it all out of him at once anymore, but he would rather—

"Oh good, you're still here." 

It's not as if I had a choice.

"Jaran, I'm sorry we couldn't rescue you earlier, but her focus on you was too strong. Now, though, she ignores you as long as you pulse and give her what she needs. She has other things on her mind."

So when is it going to happen? Just say the word and I will bolt! Haha, get it? Bolt as in lightning?
As he thought of it, Jaran released a stronger pulse than the ones Zayra had been pulling, and it slammed into her with too much force.

"Ow!" She cried, thwacking him with the back of her hand. "Naughty prince! Don't do that!"
Jaran allowed himself the smallest flicker of a smile as he sat perfectly still, not betraying for an instant that he was telepathically talking to someone. 

Azelie sent laughter through his head. "That was clever," she said, "but I am afraid since she is actively tethered to you, we are going to have to be more subtle to break her thrall. I will work on the connection from here, bit by bit, and I will let you know when it is small enough to free you."

Jaran winced as Zayra once again forced a flare out of him.
Just hurry, he thought.

In the south tower, Azelie glanced over at Korsan. The man seemed positively wilted, not just from being separated from his talisman, but from having to leave the Prince in the clutches of a madwoman. She sidled closer.

"It's all right," she wanted to say, but his mind had closed off to outside influences. Her words fell flat and dull as they were not received. Azelie rubbed his shoulder, and he sighed. 

"I should be more powerful than this, Azelie," Korsan mourned. "My Gift is Magic, why shouldn't I be able to use it with or without my talisman?"

"The talisman is your protection," Azelie reminded him. "Protection from influence, and also protection against being destroyed or drained by your own power."
Korsan nodded. "This is true—but without it, how can I rescue Jaran?"

She gave his arm a squeeze. "We'll find a way," she said. "At least we know Zayra won't want to kill him, since she likes the feel of drawing his Gift."

Korsan stroked his beard. "Hmm, yes; interesting how the Gift of thrall can have such an effect on the Gifts of another."

"Have you ever heard of a Gift being able to do that?"

Korsan shook his head. "No I have not. I always believed that a person's Gift was unique to them, and couldn't be stolen by anyone else. Certainly I've never considered taking or altering someone else's Gift."

Azelie caught a fluttering flash in the sky outside the window.
"Korsan, look!"
The old Mage raised his head. Fluttering toward the window was the glittering blue shape of his talisman, complete with the frayed cord hanging down. It seemed to fly of its own accord on a pair of golden wings.
When the talisman swooped close enough to the window, Korsan snatched it. A sharp knell like a tiny bell rang out, causing him to flinch and nearly drop the talisman. 
The gold wings detached, revealing a tiny golden figure darting to and fro above their heads. 
"What—Jade?" Korsan gasped, as Azelie squeaked and ducked behind him. "What happened? Who did this to you?"
Jade, in fairy form, hovered in front of him, chiming slowly in her light, bell language.
The Mage shook his head. "I don't know what she's saying when she's in this form."
"Let me try," suggested Azelie. She held out her hand, and Jade landed on it. The tiny fairy repeated her message, and Azelie watched her closely, trying to focus her intent on the small area of Jade's face.
"Something about Beren and Erlis," she said. "Something destroyed... no, sorry, Troy—oh, but Troy destroyed... Fire? You mean Damaris?" She gasped.
Korsan wagged his head. "What's the boy done now?"
Azelie' chin trembled as the message came through. "He... I can't get all of it, but it sounds like he was setting fire to a building, and it collapsed on top of him!"
"A building? Did he survive?"
Jade attempted to answer, but Azelie shook her head. "I can't tell."
Korsan gripped his talisman tight in his hand, feeling the power coursing through him. "It's time to stop Zayra before this situation gets any worse!"
Jade jangled in response, and Azelie tried to pick up what she said. "I'm sorry," she thought, "I don't—"
Jade flew to the window and circled several times. 
Korsan and Azelie joined her as a massive figure sailed toward he castle.
"It's Erlis!" Azelie's telepathic voice rang in Korsan's ear. 
The dragon commenced a dive in preparation for landing, skimming right past the tower.
"I see Beren on her back!" Korsan cried. "The Rightful King has returned!"

The Mage and the Paragon raced for the door of the tower, brimming with confidence that Zayra couldn't  defy the true king for long.

In the hallway between the atrium and the south tower, Korsan and Azelie met Aurelle, running toward the south tower with grave news written on her face.
"Oh, Korsan!" She gasped. "I'm glad I found you!" She glanced at the blue flare dangling from his belt. "Your talisman! It's back!"
"Aurelle, did you see?" Korsan beckoned her along with them. "Erlis has returned, with Beren!"
Aurelle shook her head. "I am glad he has come; this castle has been left in the hands of fools for too long." She glanced over her shoulder. "We have a problem."
"What is it?"
"Zayra has ordered the Hunter to find some Lion or some such—"
"Ah, that would be Edri," Korsan nodded.
"And when she forced me to show her the Lion, she must have seen something else because she ran off after saying something about 'blue fire', and the next thing I know, a whole detachment of Hunters is headed for the forest!"
"Why is this a problem?" Azelie thought. "Edri wasn't altogether a friend to us."
Aurelle rolled her eyes. "Believe me, I know. But I am concerned for Velora. She and Justin went out under Zayra's thrall, but they haven't come back."
Korsan sought answers from the talisman, but it remained neutral. "Do you think they've managed to find a way of escape?"
Aurelle wagged her head. "I do not know, but if they're still out there, they are in mortal danger!"

The dragon's roar thundered overhead, coming right next to the castle. By the sound of it, Beren had probably landed in the wide courtyard.
"Zayra!" He shouted, his voice coming faintly after the incredible bellow. "Come out! You have no right to sit on that throne, and I will brook no disobedience here!"

The trio peeked cautiously out the window. Beren stood on the ground next to Erlis, and Zayra herself emerged, leading Jaran behind her on a thin, glittering chain.
"Thank you for bringing my dragon to me," Zayra announced, eliciting a growl from Erlis. "I believe I have something of yours as well." She stopped, allowing Jaran to shuffle next to her.
Baran stood firm. "Unhand my brother," he snarled.
Zayra held up her end of the chain. "What, this? Why would I do a thing like that when he gives me this?" She opened her free hand, and a glittering blue arc snaked from Jaran's arm, down the chain, and onto Zayra's arm. She giggled at the blue mass on her hand. 
"Isn't it pretty?" She asked with fiendish glee.

Down in the dungeons, two prisoners sat in the cell reserved for murderers. They had been calling out for the last hour, but to no avail.
"Hello? Anybody there?" Kaidan put his last ounce of energy into it.
Javira slumped back against the dingy, rotten cot on the floor. 
"I don't understand," she whined. "We were betrayed by the Hunter, abandoned by Troy—and now we are prisoners in our own dungeon?"
Kaidan rattled the bars again. "If there were any people nearby to thrall, that would be something; but it seems that Denahlia has even thought of this, and she has warned people away."
"Great!" Javira threw up her hands, "now even our Gifts are useless!"
Kaidan gave the bars an extra shake and began prowling the vicinity of the cage. "Oh come! Plenty of unGifted prisoners have escaped royal dungeons. There must be some way out!"
Javira studiously refused to move until Kaidan yanked the cot from behind her.
"Hey!" She cried, scrambling to her feet.
Kaidan ignored her, his attention absorbed by a small scrap of fabric left behind on the floor. The pattern reminded him of something... what was it?
He lifted the piece of fabric. From somewhere, a distant memory coalesced in his mind, of seeing those embroidered flowers up close, of the gentle hand they covered holding his own...

"GAH!" Kaidan cried out as a huge weight crashed over his shoulders. His vision spun to behold something like a memory--but those were his parents, talking together! If this was a memory, it wasn't his.

There sat Habram Clissander, arms folded as he scowled across the table. Veransa Clissander scowled right back, the corners of her flower-embroidered shawl gripped tightly in her hands.
"What were you doing in there, Habram?" she asked guardedly.
Habram wagged his head. "Just bidding the children goodnight. A father is allowed to treat his offspring thus, isn't he?"
Veransa didn't back down. "You did something, I know you did! They were crying, Habram! What part of 'goodnight' includes making your children cry out in fear?"
"I did nothing!" Habram pounded the table with his fist. "Stop fussing over your own ideas, woman!"
"Tell me what you did!"
"Come, Veransa," Habram sat back as his voice grew silky-soft, as warm and inviting as a new blanket. "Why can't you just let things be? There is nothing you need to worry about. Take my hand."
Veransa clenched her fist on the table. "I'm done doing what you say, Habram," she declared. "In fact, I've decided not to take that position at the palace. I'll find some means of making money here in the city."
Habram choked, but instead of anger, a boisterous laugh rang out. "You silly woman! You'd take in pennies and keep our children in poverty, all for the sake of giving yourself the illusion of choosing your own fate?" He stood and inched closer to Veransa. She froze as still as a statue, and refused to look at him. Tenderly, Habram let one of his hands slide up her shoulder and to the back of her neck. The other hand covered both her balled fists. Veransa gave a little shiver, and tears dripped down her face as Habram leaned in close.
"Now that I have your attention," he murmured softly, "I did do a little something. I gave both our children the last little part of me. You wouldn't understand, because you're unGifted, but I just couldn't bear to have children who weren't in the least like their dad. I am sure whatever Gifts they would have had were far inferior to my own Charisma. You will go to the palace, Veransa. You will take the job, and you will secure a fortune for the Clissander family. If you understand me, give me a kiss."
Veransa immediately turned and kissed her husband, just as he asked. Habram smiled. "Now, my darling," he instructed, "sleep."

His vision went black, and Kaidan revived with a powerful gasp. Javira dashed to his side. "What happened?" she asked.
Kaidan couldn't find the words to describe what he had just experienced. He held out the shawl to his sister. "Touch it!" he gasped.
Javira did, giving her brother a confused stare. "Yes? It's mother's shawl, I recognize it, but what--"
Kaidan held out his hand. "Here, let me show you." 
Javira took his hand, and immediately gasped as the empathetic bond they shared communicated everything Kaidan had seen. She dropped his hand. "What a horrible, horrible man our father was!" she declared. "You're telling me you got all that from picking up the shawl?" She held the bundle of fabric in both hands, hugging it to her chest as if proximity would produce the same effect it had given to Kaidan. "How is it possible, though?"
Kaidan ran a finger over the bars of their prison, feeling the emptiness, the guilt, the indignation, and the loneliness of countless other prisoners before them. "I think," he mused slowly. "It might be my Gift." 
"Really?" There was almost a whine in Javira's voice. "You've found it already? When will I find mine, then?" She turned toward the back wall of the cell and ran her fingers over the bricks. Her fingers connected with something in the cracks and she stopped. "Kaidan!" Digging her fingers between the stones, she felt the sinuous length of a tree root and pulled. The stones tugged free and dirt cascaded into the dungeon from the small hole as the root extended a good two feet out of the wall.
"Where did you find that?" Kaidan asked.
Javira continued pulling wherever she could feel the tendrils of root. "It's in the walls! There's a grove of trees nearby, remember? If we can tear down enough of this cell, we can escape!"
Kaidan poked his finger between several bricks, but only came away with dirt and a pinched fingertip. "I'm not feeling anything," he grumbled.
Javira reached her finger into the space Kaidan had just searched, and another length of root sprang out. "Keep trying," she prompted. "It's easy."
Kaidan gave one more push, then stepped away with a grin. "Javira," he chuckled. "I think we've found your Gift."
Javira stopped and blinked enthusiastically. "We have? What is it?"
Kaidan pointed to the floor. "Wave you hand over here, and imagine roots crawling up between the stones."
Javira snorted. "What would be the point of that? We want to escape through the wall, not the--" She made a waving motion with her hand.
Immediately, the ground gave a rumbling shake, sending the twins staggering apart as a whole knot of roots sprang forth, exactly where Javira indicated.
She stared wide-eyed at her brother. "Tree roots?" She spluttered. "Really?"
Kaidan shrugged. "We'll discuss fairness later. Just use the roots to break down the bars!"
Javira thrust her hands toward the cell door. The roots followed suit, stretching like a thousand senseless arms, gripping the iron tightly and pulling until the doors came apart with a clang. Javira spread her arms to pull the roots to the side, and the Clissander Twins walked out of their prison cell.

A lone wolf slunk through the deep shadows of the forest. Lacking the ability to speak wasn't really a problem for Velora. She didn't believe in talking unless there was a compelling reason to, anyway. She lifted her head and sniffed, gauging the hour, the temperature, and whether any humans remained in the forest.

She had left Justin behind long ago. He was frightened enough of her as it was, and after what she had managed to do to Edri the full-grown lion--
Velora paused and licked her chops proudly. She was probably the first wolf in history to dare taking on a lion--she could not be more proud of her pack. The two lovers (now there was a shock!) had been so taken with each other that they never saw it coming until it was too late. Velora snarled; she hoped at some point her patrol of the forest would reveal the lion, dead where she had fallen. It would serve her right.

Velora stopped as her instincts screamed of danger. She smelled lots of humans entering the woods, along with the sharp scent of gunpowder. Hunters! Velora dove for the nearest cover and calmed her body to stay absolutely still. A pair of burly men crashed through the undergrowth about thirty paces away, but there was enough distance that neither of them even looked in Velora's direction.
The wolf slipped in, following the men's scent. She passed by a familiar tree, and recalled another time she had passed through this forest: with the Illusionist, Aurelle, when the woman had taught her to embrace the Wolf as her Gift, and use the natural instincts as an advantage. In spite of her peevishness, Velora found herself wishing that she knew where all the dispersed Outcasts had gone; it was wrong to be separated like this. They should all be together, coming forward against their oppressors and re-establishing the Gifted as recognized members of society.

She heard voices and instinctively crouched.
"I think I could," the unfamiliar, feminine voice suggested. "Not entirely, no--but there are some herbs that I know of, by which we might be able to draw your humanity out again."
Velora heard a rumbling growl, and her tail automatically went flat. Peeking from within a bush, Velora saw a lion, sitting calmly at the feet of a young woman who held herbs in her hand. Glowing blue flames emanated from her wrist, far more gentle and concentrated than Damaris' globes of golden fire. The woman cupped the herbs against the lion's nose, and the flame from her hands spread all down the massive, tawny body. The fur began to singe and wither away, and when it subsided, Edri knelt in the lion's place, wearing her armor as she had been before transforming into a lion.
A surge of envy washed over Velora. Here was someone who could reverse the transformation Edri's own foolishness had forced on her!

Edri reached out to shake the woman's hand. "Thank you, Lizzeth."
Lizzeth did not have time to reply before Velora marched out to confront her. Edri tensed, knowing full well who it was, but Lizzeth didn't seem to mind the approach of what appeared to be a wild predator.
"Well, what have we here?" She crouched to face Velora, and smiled.
"It's just a wolf," Edri snapped quickly.
"No wait," Lizzeth regarded Velora's eyes. "I believe this is someone trapped in another form, as you were."
Velora stepped forward and nudged Lizzeth's hand.
"Would you like to be human again?" Lizzeth asked.
Velora nudged again and calmly sat back, ready for the process to begin.

Instead, Edri let out a sharp whistle. Hunters poured into the clearing, armed to the teeth. Lizzeth stepped closer to Velora, as if to protect her, but Edri was already dispensing orders.
"Right, you lot! This is the Wolf we were after, and it's time to take her back to the palace for Queen Zayra."
Lizzeth tilted her head. "Queen who? I thought Balwyn had a son--"
"Yes, but he disappeared, and now Zayra is queen of the White Castle," Edri advanced toward them.
Velora wrapped her body against Lizzeth's legs and growled savagely at the captain.
Edri merely signaled with her hands, and a lasso sailed out from behind the pair and wrapped around Velora's neck, jerking her savagely backward.
"Don't hurt her!" Lizzeth cried, raising a protective hand.
"Muzzle the beast!" Edri seemed to forget that until a few moments ago, she had been a beast, herself.
Velora could snap and thrash all she wanted, but she couldn't escape the half-dozen men surrounding her. The leather muzzle slipped into place, and she could no longer defend herself. The man holding the rope still around her neck tugged it like a leash.
Edri nodded with supreme satisfaction. "Now we can return to the castle," she said to Lizzeth.

"Not so fast!" A figure in black dropped down from the trees in front of them. She tossed her short-cut magenta hair back from her face.
Lizzeth blinked. "Denahlia?"
The Hunter smirked. "Still up to your old tricks, Bluefire?" She moved to stand next to Edri. "Good work," she said. "But the Queen wants you back at the castle."
Lizzeth shook her head. "Denahlia, how can you be in league with the ones who want to usurp the throne from Balwyn's heir?"
Edri chuckled. "Are you kidding? The Twin Regents commissioned The Hunter personally to hunt down all of the Outcasts they wanted in custody. There was nobody better at the job than she was!"

"Twin Regents?" Lizzeth still frowned in confusion. "Denahlia, what happened after the Battle of Zapheira?"

Denahlia snorted, "As if you didn't know! You've been in hiding too long, Lizzeth. Me, I followed the money. King Balwyn thought he could come back and make a speech and everything would go just fine for the Gifted people? Not a chance! People were more afraid of us than ever. I went into hiding--but not like all you mice running for the deepest, darkest hole you could find! No, I found the place for me, hiding in plain sight, taking jobs where my skill," she pointed to her face to indicate her Gift, "gave me an advantage. The King died, the Royal Council took over, and then the Twin Regents took them over, and when the Gifted were branded Outcasts by the administration, I knew it was either 'join or die', so I went ahead and did whatever they asked."

Lizzeth wagged her head. "So you would betray the King who gave you such an elevated position, only to take such a low position as mercenary and bounty hunter, all for the sake of money?"

Denahlia smirked. "Not entirely. On my mission to bring in the leader of the Outcasts, I met this powerful new being, an Abnormal named Troy. He gave me all sorts of upgrades for my Gift, made me more powerful--he's trying to stop his sister Jade from suppressing the full power of the Gifts, under the guise of making us more acceptable to unGifted people."

"And is that such a wrong idea, to be accepted?" Lizzeth retorted.

Denahlia shrugged. "Being accepted is one thing we Gifted will never be, no matter how hard we try, Lizzeth. Our only option is to regain the top, and stay there. Wouldn't you rather be in charge with your power, than simply dismissed as 'normal'?"

The young woman didn't answer. Edri checked the setting sun.
"It's getting late," she said, waving to the hunters. "Let's get moving!"
Lizzeth followed them out of the forest. Velora could smell the confusion on her, but even she had to admit, the question had been a good one. What sort of position did she want in her life?

The heap of rubble at the edge of the Harbor still smoked when the Shadow materialized. He paced forward, listening and watching for signs of life. There had to be someone still alive in there, otherwise he wouldn't be able to return. He wasn't like his sister, reviving the recently-dead.
He stepped right up to the blackened boards that used to be the steps up to the front door. Out of all the Outcasts assembled here the night before, who still remained? He extended his hand, and a black tendril slipped into the cracks between the debris.
"Hello?" He whispered, as the tendril probed deeper. "Who's there? Come out, come out, whoever you are!"
The tendril felt a body, but the soul inside it had already departed. The Shadow maneuvered around the corpse and continued until he found the victim still living. Curling the tendril around the body, he slowly drew it out, toward himself, shadow-traveling it through any obstructions till he brought it to rest on the cobblestones in front of him.
"Ah, the young firebrand," Troy mused as he surveyed the loose vest and the mussy hair. "Well, this makes the third time we've crossed paths--so what do you say we make this one extra-special?" He laughed and sent a burst of energy streaking toward the boy.
The body exploded into flame, much as it had inside the building not too long ago, but the fire kept on building, while the ash-coated body remained. Troy spread his arms. "Yes, my friend! Yes!" He punched the air and even dared to dance his celebration. "Show the Realm what you really are!"
A sharp screech pierced the air, as a giant figure took shape in the flame. Sharp talons formed on the ground, and a beak in the midst of the inferno. With a huge gout of fire, two wings spread, and when it relaxed, Troy stared up at a massive Phoenix, newly-birthed and still glistening like stirred embers at the edges of its feathers.
"Now that's more like it!" Troy gushed, floating up to hover in front of the Phoenix's face. "Nobody stands a chance against you! Everybody left you for dead--let's show them just how unlucky they are!"
The Phoenix squawked, and a jet of flame erupted from its beak.
"To the Castle!" Troy shouted, and the Phoenix took off after him.

Down at the south end of the harbor, where the forest met the town, a young man staggered out from among the trees. He'd been lost for quite a while, and had finally found the edge, though it wasn't quite the right edge. He saw the massive Phoenix, and the dark Shadow in front of it, and he knew that, whatever the Shadow was planning, it would not have a good outcome for the castle's current occupants.

Justin staggered for the nearest stable, pulling out his badge bearing the crest of the White Castle as he did so.
"King's Business!" he blustered as he made for the nearest saddled horse, just preparing to bear its master. Justin tossed a bag of gold pieces down as he took the reins and jumped onto the horse's back. He didn't know if he would make it to the castle before the flying beast, but at least he could try!