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
"Alterations" 
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—
"Jaran!"

What?
"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!
~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~

Saturday, May 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

Princess of Undersea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads me to some rather disheartening news.

The Clan of Outcasts

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

That being said...

NEW Serial Saturday Series Begins In June!

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

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

Catch You Further Upstream!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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




Synopsis from Amazon:

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

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

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

>>>>>>>

My Review:


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

"Go away, Allen."

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

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

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

Present day.....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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