Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Reader's Review: "The Purple Door District" by Erin Casey

Synopsis from Amazon:

Bianca was supposed to attend art school in Chicago, not run for her life from Hunters. The only chance she has to survive is to find The Purple Door District, a safe haven for a parahuman like herself. When she stumbles upon a magus named Gladus and a fellow avian named Carlos, she thinks she's found safety. But the Hunters are relentless, as is the dark force driving them.

Vampire, werewolf, avian, magus...

It's up to the parahumans of the Purple Door District of Chicago to put their differences aside to save Bianca and stop a dark threat from destroying their peaceful community.

My Review:

Color me impressed! If anything, this book just made me miss the fact that Grimm is no longer running...

Which is to say, it was awesome! I was intrigued first of all by the mention of bird shifters--usually, shifters are of the four-footed, or at least mammalian variety. But birds? The only place I'd really seen that was on the aforementioned show. The second thing that intrigued me was the idea that there could be a system in place as a haven of protection for shifters and other parahumans--such as Fae and vampires, for example. What would such a place be like? I'd read other books that dealt with their "nonhuman" characters in a similar manner: placing them in protective neighborhoods or reservations, and the like. What would Bianca's journey be like, a teenager on the run, with people trying to hunt her down, and nowhere safe, no family left to give her sanctuary?

Not to give too much away, but Erin Casey executed her answer to this question quite brilliantly. I love it when a good premise gets sculpted into a solid plot!

Firstly, the characters were a wonderful mix of varying strengths and weaknesses, with all their quirks and flaws and just personality in general! Bianca is innocent and wary without being too jaded and always carrying a chip on her shoulder--those sort of characters get really boring if they're just always rebuffing other characters' attempts at being nice! Gladus is knowledgeable and enigmatic and protective without being prickly or withdrawn--she's personable and tender when she needs to be, and yet not afraid to back down when the situation calls for firmness. The difference between the way the Avians like Carlos and Hayley interacted, versus the pack of werewolves like Paytah and Nick and Kat was also a shining example.

The other part I loved about this book was the way it developed its own lore: the Ether, and the way that a Magus could use it to manipulate reality in certain ways, but only to a certain extent, and different magic-users had different names, depending on how the accessed the power and how they utilized it. The concept of the Purple Door, too--a certain region marked by some kind of purple decoration, like a flowerpot or a porch light, signaling that this was an area safeguarded by a Violet Marshall, one elected member of the community who kept the peace between races and ensured that no one was threatened by the Hunters, those who saw parahumans as a threat and wanted to eliminate them. There were definite rules and roles for everyone, and it was all explained fairly well throughout, so that the reader wasn't too befuddled by heady concepts, and could stay emotionally connected to various characters throughout!
I found plenty of characters to root for, I could form clear pictures of each character in my mind, their reactions and responses resonated deeply with me, I can attest to at least a couple late nights when I was going to stop reading at a certain point but I just couldn't!

The Purple Door District earns a full *****5 STAR***** rating from me, and I'll even add an Upstream Writer Certified DEFINITELY Recommended endorsement. I found it thrilling, mysterious, and absolutely enjoyable from start to finish--and I would seriously consider acquiring the entire series!

Further Reading: (Shifter Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Engaging Plot)
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart 
       -Wolf's Path 
       -Tiger's Shadow 
Verona: The Complete Mermaid Tales--Pauline Creeden
The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny 
     -A Halloween's Curse 
     -Frost Bitten
The Bhinian Empire--Miriam Forster
     -City of A Thousand Dolls 
     -Empire of Shadows
Wonderland Guardian Academy Series--Pauline Creeden
       -Red The Wolf Tracker 
Talented Series--Amy Hopkins
     -A Drop of Dream 
     -A Dash of Fiend 
     -A Splash of Truth
The PSS Chronicles--Ripley Patton
       -Ghost Hand 
       -Ghost Hold 
       -Ghost Heart 
       -Ghost Hope 
The LouisiAngel Series--C. L. Coffey
        -Angel in Training 
        -Angel Eclipsed 
        -Angel Tormented 
Judah Black Series--E. A. Copen
       -Fortunate Son (prequel novella) 
       -Guilty By Association 
       -Blood Debt 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 22 "Signals"

Part 22

The Boundary of Elvendom tingled a little as it glided over Erlis' skin. She'd worried what the transition might be like, given the presence of Elvish blood in her veins, but altogether she wouldn't call it an unpleasant experience. She paused to watch the others come through the portal with their tokens in hand.

Jaran stumbled a little bit, brushing a cloud of dust out of his shaggy, dark hair and tugging awkwardly at the rough cotton tunic Aurelle had insisted he wear.
"If you want to be able to navigate Wildhaven without attracting attention from literally everyone," she said as she distributed the clothes during their brief trip in the carriage, "you can't very well accomplish that in such regal robes, Your Majesty."

Azelie tugged at the skirt of her dress, where a dull apron cinched it about her waist. Erlis hid the smirk she felt at the sight--never in her life had she ever imagined she would see the Paragon of The Realm attired like a common village girl.

Aurelle strode through last, dressed in a simple shirt and trousers, with a brown cloak fastened about her shoulders--Erlis had seen her wear this very outfit several times over the last three years, sneaking back into the castle after her mysterious trips down into the Harbor, where she played vigilante... somehow, without Denahlia's knowledge, though Erlis could not quite figure out how that could be possible.
The Illusionist swept a loose lock of silver-white hair out of her face and grinned. "Everyone ready?" she asked.

Jaran nodded. "Let's find that woman Anahita mentioned--she owns a wheat field at the back of the community. We'll see what she knows about this enchanted dagger that should get us closer to finding Gybralltyr."

Erlis kept her head bowed, and subconsciously reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear. The pointed lobe felt strange under her fingers, and she glanced around as they passed by rows of houses. A fire-starter like Damaris sent a controlled blaze over his garden to kill off the weeds growing there, in preparation for planting. Next door to him, a Gifted woman waved her hands over the already-burgeoning flowerbed, turning the gorgeous blooms into long stalks thick with ripe fruits of many sorts. 

A burst of greenflame caught her eye, and Erlis watched as a young man with red hair cropped about his ears let the fire dance about his fingers, much in the way that Lizeth would. His twinkling eyes gave her the impression that he might know something.

Indeed, Aurelle had already changed course to approach him.
"It's been a while, hasn't it, Ryan?" she waved to him, and reached to stroke the ears of the cat that crawled around his shoulders. "Twilight is looking sleeker than ever."

Ryan chuckled. "It's the pickings she gets from whatever the gryphons bring back from their hunts," he said. "I never know what sort of animal it used to be, but the scraps are delicate enough for her, and she loves the taste. It's funny to see her running about between these giant catbirds, gorging herself on their leavings as they rest after a hunt. I don't wonder but Twilight firmly believes in her little cat mind that if she eats like them, then one day she will grow up to be a gryphon, herself."

"Ooh, Jaran!" Azelie's thoughts resounded so clearly in Erlis' mind that she had to stop herself from raising the alarm that the queen had just used Jaran's name aloud--which she hadn't. "They have gryphons! Please, can we see them?"

Erlis couldn't hear Jaran's response, but the smile on his face seemed to indicate a favorable response.
"Hello, Ryan," he reached forward to shake the young man's hand. "I'm Jared, and I was wondering if you might help us find someone in particular in this place."
Ryan nodded. "I thought you might be newcomers. Lady Devir often accompanies new arrivals into Wildhaven, to help them get settled. Pleased to meet you, Jared, and I will definitely try, although I do only know a handful of people personally--the rest only by Gift or reputation."

"Thanks, Ryan," Aurelle cut in. "We don't know much about the person we're looking for, not even her name or her Gift. We know she owns the wheat field at the back of the community."

Ryan snapped his fingers, sending green sparks flying. "Ah, I know just the one you mean. The other wheat field is more of a group effort between a handful of Nature Gifteds, but the one at the back is owned by a woman I've heard of, I think Brinley is her name. You should stop in at the bakery, ask for Brinley's Bread--she makes this loaf of bread from her wheat that is the fluffiest, most flavorful bit of crusted heaven that you ever tasted!"
Erlis drew a deep breath as she imagined what such bread must taste like, and her stomach gave an involuntary gurgle. Twilight curled around and stared straight at her, and Erlis felt the blood rush to her cheeks.
"Thank you for the recommendation, Ryan," Jaran said. "I think we just might be hungry enough to try some while we go meet Brinley."

"Good luck finding her," Ryan mused, turning back toward the little shop beside him. A sign beside the door read Ryan's Apothecary--Draughts For What Ails You! "From what I hear," he finished, "she can be a very difficult person to pin down, when she doesn't want to be around people."
Jaran nodded. "We'll keep that in mind." He glanced toward Aurelle, who gestured down one of the side roads. The four of them started off down the path.

Erlis saw more Gifted people: a mason sculpting solid rocks like putty in his hands, making them the perfect shape for fences and buildings; a water-dancer like Anahita drawing water straight up from the well without a bucket, so that people coming by with jugs and cisterns to fill didn't have to haul it up themselves; a cloud of bees buzzed overhead, not one of them bothering the people milling about, nor were they flying too low. Erlis felt Azelie tug on the sleeve of her borrowed dress, and knew she'd been wondering about the same strange phenomenon. When she followed Azelie's pointing, she saw a young man standing at a table full of clay pots, with a large basin in front of him. The bees would dip down into the basin, and Erlis could already see the rich golden honey flowing out of a spout and into the pots. The bees swarmed around the young man, but he didn't even seem to notice them. He could hold out his hand, and a cluster of bees would land upon it--such was his Gift.

A little ways ahead of them, Aurelle had stopped alongside a wide field. She pointed into the distance with a grin. "You wanted to see the gryphons?" she asked Azelie. "There they are!"

The young Queen gasped and clapped her hands giddily to see the large, golden creatures sprawled out in the shade of tall trees under the afternoon sun.

"Oh, they are so beautiful!" Azelie squealed.
A whole herd (flock) of gryphons and a few Manticores dotted the field, licking their paws and legs in just the manner of a cat, while a handful of attendants shifted carefully among them, brushing out their wings and tending to their claws.

Azelie smiled as she stared at the magnificent creatures moving about and stretching their limbs, opening their great mouths wide in lazy yawns.

"Aye, they would," Jaran said suddenly, and at first Erlis wondered what he was referring to--then she remembered that one of their number was telepathic.
"Would what?" Aurelle asked, alerting Jaran to his slip.

He shrugged. "Azelie was just saying that Beren and Zayra would be excited to know how well their idea to create a community for Gifted people is flourishing. I don't think Beren had been down here for a while--and Zayra has been so busy with sending correspondence and organizing things that she almost never comes. I think, once we get them back, that we should arrange to visit more often, now that I know what it is like."

"Perhaps we could even find a place here for Trev," Azelie suggested aloud.
The lighthearted mood of the moment came crashing down at the mention of their new mysterious guest.
Jaran frowned. "What makes you think he's Gifted?"

Azelie shrugged. "Well, he's telepathic, like me--you can't be telling me that such a thing is normal." She quirked her eyebrow at her husband, and the tension mounted just slightly.

Jaran scuffed his boot in the dust around the fence-post. "Well, dear... Nothing about him is what you would call normal. From the way Jade talked, only mortals could receive Gifts."

Azelie crossed her arms. "So now you're insinuating that he isn't even human? Is this just because of how tall he is?"

"Tall doesn't even begin to describe him!" The discussion swelled into an argument as Jaran raised his voice. "Were you even looking at him at all, while he held you captive? There is no one in the Realm as tall as he is... I'm betting he's got some connection to the giants who used to roam the outlying areas before my father became king!"
"And what of it?" Azelie snapped, forgetting all about the enchantment of the gryphons. "He might be a descendant of giants, but that doesn't mean he isn't worthy of being treated with dignity, anyway!"

"Dignity has nothing to do with it," Jaran grumbled, his lightning Gift flashing in his eyes and causing the air around them to crackle. "I want to know why he's in the castle, why he just decides to abduct people now, at the same time we were dealing with the arrival of Captain Haggard, and the assassination apparently instigated by the Crow Queen who wants to take over Justicia and undo everything we fought for three years ago!"

Azelie's jaw dropped open. "You can't possibly assume that all these things are related!" She gasped. "I've told you all I know about Trev: the tunnel system he uses is definitely intentional, a feature of the castle since the time it was built--if not by your father, then by a previous king. It makes perfect sense that he could just form a trail by which he could traverse the castle without being discovered, we're all pretty stuck in our habits and routines! He could have been down there for days, or even months, while we've been caught up in our own issues and distractions."

"But where did he come from?" Erlis blurted before she could remind herself that this was not a conversation she wanted to insert herself into. "What is his history? Why do we have to assume anything if--" She finally stopped and lapsed into silence, leaving the last phrase if you are the one who can read his mind unsaid.

Azelie already knew she was thinking it, anyhow. She rolled her eyes. "I've tried, I promise! I probed him as far back as his mind would go--but it's as if the memories only begin a few days before, and prior to that, it's just blank. He has no memories of his own childhood--I dare say, a week from now, he might not even remember the day that he abducted Damaris." Azelie shuddered and brought her hands up to cover her arms. "As if another influence has erased what was before... Like what happened to Zayra when she was turned into the Mad Queen."

Jaran flinched. It was his own powerful Gift that the scientists had used to "reset" Zayra's mind--his fault that she lost all sense of her past and her identity and went mad. "Well, now we've gone and left that second Zayra alone in our castle while we chase after an ancient legend we're not even sure exists, to try and stop a threat we've never actually encountered before."

"He's not alone with them," Azelie maintained. "Risyn is there--if anything happened, I'm sure the Mage could use his powers to protect everyone, the way Korsan could resist Zayra's influence."

Jaran sighed, all of the effort from carrying around that building resentment now expended. He gestured down the road toward the back part of Wildhaven. "Well, let's keep going, then. The faster we find this woman and the dagger, the quicker we can return to the castle and make sure that Trev doesn't end up actually being in league with the Crow Queen or something."
They walked for at least another mile before Aurelle declared, "There it is!"

Tall, glimmering amber-colored stalks waved gently in the breeze. Jaran stopped and smiled. "This definitely looks like the place," he said. "Now to find this Brinley woman."

The four of them made their way around the wide field. The stalks grew almost right up against the fence, and as tall as Jaran's eye level, which made it hard to see anything but wheat.
"I wonder what her Gift is," Azelie mused. "Perhaps some kind of gardening ability? This wheat looks amazing!"

Jaran stopped short, and raised his hand. "Shh! I think I heard something!"
They all paused, listening closely. Among the steady murmuration of the wind through the grain, a plodding crunch could be heard.
Azelie clung to his arm. "I can feel someone nearby," she said softly.

They approached the next edge of the field, taking care to stay on the road, lest any of them get accused of trespassing. The wheat field extended far over to the top of the next hill in the distance--and just under the rise, amid the sea of gold, a blue skirt fluttered, and the sharp blade of a scythe glinted in the sun.
"There she is!" Erlis cried out, forgetting about staying quiet.
Jaran cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to shout over the sound of the wind. "Brinley!" He called.
"I don't think we're close enough," said Aurelle, and she strode forward to close the distance between them and the woman.

Azelie suddenly froze in place, staring at the wall of wheat beside them. "Something's coming!" She squealed--and almost before the words had left her mouth, a dark shape loomed out of the pale stalks with a deafening roar, as a massive, angry bear came charging out of the field, headed right toward them.

Every deckhand on the Brigadier's Ransom paused to watch the jagged cliffs coast by as they entered the "Strait of Death." Quilla had been bound in a crouching position so that the whole ship was covered in her special armor, and every so often, Goddry would strike her with his whip, lest she relax her defenses, even a little.

Kaidan winced as he watched from his post at the side of the ship. Ever since he learned that Quilla was a sibling of someone he knew, he couldn't stop imagining if it was Javira in that position, and the cruel treatment the young woman received at the hands of these pirates made his blood run cold. He was going to get them out, if it took every ounce of cunning and strength he had.

"Weigh anchor!" Captain Haggard bellowed, and Watson relayed the order all up and down the deck, sending the pirates into a flurry of activity. The ship came to a stop in a darkened bay, with cliffs on all sides, except for a narrow crevasse which seemed to be the only egress from the pile of sharp, angular boulders at the base of these "cliffs."

Haggard finally signaled Goddry, and the quartermaster set down his whip and clouted Quilla's shoulder. "That's enough!" the dark man growled.

Quilla slumped to the deck, completely spent, but Haggard barked, "Get her up and put her with the others. The prisoners ought to be bound together--except the girl, " he pointed to Denahlia. "She'll be with me."

Denahlia grimaced as Keaton popped up behind her and gave her a shove. "Get over there," he barked. The crow perched on his shoulder--probably one of the ones from the flock that had accompanied Queen Mallory--squawked in assent.

Once she stood before Haggard, the grey-bearded captain showed her a scroll. "This here's a map to the Gate," he said, unrolling it.
Denahlia pursed her lips as she squinted at the blank parchment. "I see no map," she retorted.
Another shove from Keaton, and he hissed, "Take it!"

Denahlia accepted the map from Haggard, and she felt her implants hum to life. Fine lines materialized out of the parchment, standing up from the papery surface like the holographic projections she was accustomed to. When Denahlia shifted her grasp, the lines disappeared, only reappearing when she would hold the edges of the map. She kept her face neutral to hide her surprise at finding a tech-sensitive material in a place like The Realm.

"Ready, Captain," Goddry grunted, and Denahlia glanced over her shoulder at her friends. Beren and Quilla stood bound together, and although Kaidan held his arms in front of him as if he wore shackles as well, Denahlia saw none. She searched the man's face, and Kaidan caught her eye. He winked, and she remembered his Gift having to do with memories--perhaps he had influenced the memory of the pirates binding them, to make them think they'd already shackled him when they hadn't.

Good to know, Denahlia thought. That might come in handy later on. Haggard would be watching her closely, but as long as everyone thought the three other prisoners were bound--and they had no idea of the fourth, invisible person looking out for their interests--then that meant they had so much more of a chance of escaping later.

Twelve people rowed ashore: Goddry, Seline, Cori and the three "bound" prisoners in one boat, and Haggard, Watson, Denahlia, Sally, Reva, and Keaton in the other.

Technically we're thirteen, when you count Zayra, Denahlia thought to herself as the boats bumped against the rocks, and Goddry and Watson both clambered up to moor them so that the others could disembark. Was the number of the landing party going to prove unlucky? Which side would end up on the downside of that luck?

An alert in the implants just below her skin sent a jolt all the way up to Denahlia's elbow, and she looked upward. Her eyes registered a long, lean black shape just as it sailed behind the thick cloud banks overhead, but the thing that helped her realize what she saw was the sound of a familiar voice in her implanted earpiece.

"... --alia if you're getting this, it's Markus and Hadrian should be just overhead. Send a signal to connect and cancel this message. Denahlia, if you're getting this, it's Markus and Hadrian should be just overhead. Send a signal to connect and cancel this message. Denahlia if you're getting this..."

Denahlia flicked her wrist up and down, activating the connection, and Markus' voice ceased. Instead, the digital prompt declared "Connected", and a sense of reassurance washed over the former Hunter. Her comm systems weren't intuitive and wired into her brain, so she would need either her voice or hand signals to be able to leave a message for Hadrian to carry back to Markus, but the added security of having yet another ally in her camp was a definite bolster to her confidence.

They clambered up the steep path single-file, till the trail widened and dipped down slightly, away from the clouds, not quite up to the tops of those cliffs. If anything, the crags farther inland rose higher and more definite. According to the map, Denahlia saw that eventually they would need to end up on the top, but at the rate of decline they traversed, they would need to be traveling straight up to get to the top again. Was Haggard prepared to scale these walls around them?

Her answer came as they entered a wide crevasse, wide enough to accommodate everyone. One side of the ravine seemed covered in trees, vines, and roots of some sort--plus some kind of metal plates, unless Denahlia's eyes deceived her.

Haggard signaled to Goddry and Watson. "Get up there and get that greenery cleared away," he said.
The two burly men, along with Keaton, Sally, Cori, and Seline, pulled and slashed at the vines, using their swords to cut away the roots and branches from the metal plates that seemed to extend all the way up to the clifftop, where the map indicated they would need to go next. When Goddry finally yanked on the right vine to cause a small landslide, everyone cowered and covered their heads as the whole mass crashed down with a rumble, and when it cleared, Denahlia peered up and gasped.

Slumped against the ravine wall was a giant, articulated robot of sorts, complete with a vaguely humanoid face, arms, and legs made from a combination of metal and hardened clay. The hand splayed on the ground was big enough to hold at least four of them seated comfortably. What was a giant robot doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Denahlia glanced down at the map. The landmark on the map had a label: The Golem.

When she looked up again, Haggard was pointing to her.
"You," he said. "With the special powers and such--you're going to wake the Golem."

Raedyn had to admire how the deep-green Ranger uniform fit him as he walked alongside Warden Velora down the Forest Road. He had completed his training to her satisfaction, and now she was putting him to the test: guard the Gate.

Velora stopped as the Ranger on duty saluted and took the same Forest Road to her next assignment. She in turn saluted the two soldiers on either side of the entrance.

"All right, Raedyn," she announced at last. "You'll be watching the Gate until nightfall. Keep a keen watch as people go in and out. The soldiers we have here are--" she paused to sniff deeply. "Hmm, looks like Sir Vann and Sir Henry." The armored soldiers glanced in their direction and nodded. "They're on different rotations, and they report to Commander Edri if there's any trouble. You're here to make sure that things go smoothly with anyone coming in or out, making sure that they have their special tokens," she showed him the silver coin with the strange tree emblazoned on it, "so they don't disrupt the magic, that sort of thing. I'll send Gavin out at dusk to escort you back to my headquarters. Until then, you just stand here and watch. Got it?"

Raedyn saluted in the same way he'd seen the other Rangers do. "As you command, Lady Velora," he replied.
Velora balked briefly, staring intently into his eyes as if she either suspected him of mocking her, or as if she could perhaps see into his mind to find out what really went down during that face-to-face with Juros.

Finally, she said, "I look forward to hearing your report tonight." With a final salute, she turned heel and walked away.

Two hours later, Raedyn was nursing an ache in his leg that wouldn't go away, he'd seen almost no activity at the Gate, and he was beginning to wonder if swearing his allegiance to Velora had been worth it. And yet... every time he considered cutting ties and resuming his mercenary path, the sight of Juros' terrifying visage--the gleaming armor, the piercing eyes, the thundering wings--would overtake his mind, and Raedyn's resolve returned anew. Better sore legs and a boring job than facing the wrath of a deity whose follower he almost murdered in her sleep!

The sun was still halfway over the horizon, and the shadows were twice as long as they had been before, when Raedyn's ears caught a rustling sound in the bushes alongside the Forest Road. Finally, some action! He stood straighter, all senses on alert, ready to receive whoever came along the road toward the Gate, seeking sanctuary in Wildhaven--

But totally unprepared with the sudden pressure that wrapped around his neck and dragged him backwards into the underbrush, cutting off his breath as it squeezed tighter. In the dark shadows that gathered around his vision, Raedyn could see the shapes of two glowing, narrow reptilian heads--snakes made of light, it seemed, but with all the weight and strength of living animals. A shadowy figure stood over him, one that Raedyn found vaguely familiar--but he was too busy getting the life choked out of him to think about that just now.

A voice reached his ears as the hissing snakes crushed his windpipe.
"A dull knife is no real benefit to anyone, a dead weight," the figure crooned. "She who commissioned you has sent me to convey to you how very disappointed she is in your failure to complete the task you were given. Dead weight must be shed, to make room for fresh inventory... and this time, he who follows will not fail as you have..."

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Saturday, April 24, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 21 "All's Fair"

Part 21
"All's Fair"

Seven Years Ago....

The moments ticked by on the grandfather clock as they sipped in silence--but etiquette demanded that she never initiate the conversation. She would rather have scraped her arms till they bled, but she could not excuse herself until he'd said his piece.

He sipped slowly, eyes gleaming as he ogled her over the rim of his teacup. At last, he wiped his mouth and set his saucer aside.
"Tessa..." He said, and she fought to suppress a shudder. This was the moment she dreaded. She kept her hands firmly clasped in her lap. Perhaps if she didn't give him any quarter, she could avoid it.
"Tessa, look at me."
She stared at his chiseled, gleaming face, his eyes that haunted her, his lips that twitched more into a smirk than a smile.

"You have everything to gain if you consent to a life with me, and nothing to lose," he said. "Your father supports the match--and I've been as forthcoming as possible with my feelings."
Her father only saw that he was rich and well-connected. He didn't see the wandering hands, the seething stares, or the slurred words murmured in private and denied in public.
"Well?" he pressed her, shifting closer. "Say something, Beautiful!"
She shifted away. "Please understand," she begged, "I realize how my father feels about having a son of the Archduke's cousin taking an interest in my family--but it pains me to hear you speak of harboring such feelings for me when I cannot in good faith reciprocate!"

"Why do you shun me so?" He reached for her, so she disguised her avoidance with the activity of picking up the tea things. He kept talking. "Ever since I first saw you, all other maidens seem hideously ugly--I want no other. You are beyond beautiful, and your delicate nature gets you noticed--it's just that I need that sort of attraction in my life. We are a perfect fit, even if you refuse to see it. You may even grow to like me!"
Tessa stood up with the tea service, heading for the dumbwaiter door on the wall of the parlor. He followed her for those few spaces.
"Tessa! Say something--" She made the mistake of backing away after closing the dumbwaiter, right into his waiting arms. His grasping fingers folded around her elbow. "Don't just ignore me, girl!"

Tessa twisted to get away, stumbling over her skirts to get out of his grasp, but he held on. "Let go of me!" she cried.
He did not move. His eyes darkened. "Not till you say you'll accept my proposal."

Tessa's eyes flamed right back, and this time, she didn't shrink from meeting his gaze. "I will accept nothing from you!" She ducked under his arm, darting behind him and forcing him to release her. She didn't stop, but gathered her skirts and continued right out the door and into the hallway.
"Tessa, come back!" His voice followed her, but she dared not turn around. She ducked into the next wing and threw herself behind the first open door she could find.

The floorboards creaked under his weight. "I'm going to find you, little bird--and then I'll prove to you that you really do want me!"
Her heart beat wildly, and as he neared the door into the room where she hid, Tessa slipped out a second door and into the next room.

On and on it went, all through the house, as Tessa ran in terror, while the mad suitor stalked behind her, growing more insistent and more malicious with his threats.
"Scurry, scurry, little mouse!" His dark voice echoed from the next room as she darted into the solarium. "You can't avoid me forever, you know! You're mine! I am your destiny!"
Tessa listened at the door, cowering and trembling, until the sound of his footsteps faded. Still she waited with bated breath, until nothing but the pounding of her own heart reached her ears. Only then did Tessa dare to step out from her hiding place, and take great, deep breaths to calm herself.

The solarium looked very different at sunset than it did when she usually used it, in the morning. On display at the center of the table in the middle of the room was a shining dagger, given as a present from another suitor. The young maiden had been puzzled by its arrival, and she never did figure out who had sent it, but it was pretty, and it hid a fascinating secret.
Tessa drew the knife and gazed at the constellation etched on the blade. The arrangement of that singular row of stars was such that the main star, Polaris, graced the pommel. Tessa sighed and sank into a chair, speaking the star's name aloud as she did so.

Immediately, the blade hummed, and a brilliant ball of light issued from its tip: a scale model of the star itself, small enough to fit in Tessa's palm. She held it, feeling the warmth radiating over her hand, calming her nerves. It spread up her arm and toward her shoulders, like a gentle caress--not at all like the grasping wrenches of her suitors. She wished she could know how it was even possible to contain a star within a knife's blade, but for the time being, it was her secret to cherish.
"There you are!"
The suitor's voice rasped in her ear, his breath hot against her neck, and Tessa jumped from the chair with a scream.

His dark eyes leered in the light of the tiny star as he pointed at her. "You're coming with me!"

"No!" Tessa threw up her hands to defend herself, forgetful of the energy she held. It left her hand as easily as tossing a ball, and a furious wind blew past her, connecting solidly with the young nobleman's chest. He reeled backward with a cry, sliding right into a stone pillar behind him where he connected with a resounding crack. The wind stopped, and the body slid to the floor... dead.

Tessa stared in horror at the swirling orb of light in her hand. Had she killed the Archduke's cousin? Slowly, she folded her fingers toward her palm, making a fist around the light. As soon as she released it, the light had vanished, gleaming upon the dagger's surface once more. Tessa laid the dagger upon the table and backed out slowly. Only after she had closed the door to the solarium did she turn and run back through the halls, screaming for the butler.
Somehow, she doubted that anyone would try taking advantage of her ever again.

Present day...

Damaris chased after the team headed for Wildhaven: King Jaran and Queen Azelie, Aurelle, and Erlis. He did his best to remain unseen, but Azelie glanced over her shoulder, and abruptly Jaran came to a stop.
"No, Damaris," he said to the empty hallway behind them. "I thought I was very clear that you are not coming with us."

Damaris dropped from the rafters. It was hard to hide from a telepath! "Please!" he begged. "I can be useful--I probably know a lot of the people living in Wildhaven."

Jaran shook his head. "It is unwise to take too many people along to what might amount to a fact-finding mission. You would get very bored before we'd even arrived in Wildhaven."
Damaris scowled. "It's better than hanging around here with Him!" he retorted.

Queen Azelie chuckled. "Just because Trev chose to leave you behind because you couldn't understand him doesn't make him a threat to us," she said. "He could have given me the same treatment, except that I gave him a voice, with my telepathy, and that gave him the confidence to follow me back into the castle where you all could find me."
"And now we're headed to try and get ahead of this threat that's got three of our own captive," Erlis added, her weird Elvish eyes glinting. "You don't have an assignment yet--"

"Or perhaps he does," Aurelle cut in. She smiled at Damaris. "You and Risyn are both in charge of keeping the scientists and Javira safe. Who knows what might decide to strike, or whether Markus might send an update while we're gone. You're the last of the original Outcast team--remember when you and Velora met Korsan in that cave, back when the Wilderness was someplace to send those who had been banished from setting foot in the kingdom?" she laid a hand on his shoulder. "We trust you more than we trust these newer friends. Stay alert, and hopefully nothing will happen till we return."
Damaris smirked. "Little did they know that this was the last time any of them would see each other," he quoted.

Aurelle snorted and cuffed him gently on the back of the head. "Stay out of trouble, young Phoenix."
Damaris nodded.
"If you find out anything," Jaran directed, "Contact Azelie. That will be the fastest way to let us all know."
"I will," Damaris replied. He waved as they departed out of the castle gate. "Fare you well!"
Once the guard closed the gate behind them, Damaris jogged back toward the Great Hall, where Trev sat at a table with Lizeth and Nyella.

The two scientists were fascinated by this unexpected person, and peppered him with all sorts of questions, trying to draw out any portion of his past, to ascertain his origins. Trev, for his part, did his best to concentrate on the Illusory Scroll Aurelle had made, which would write out the words he thought, since no one there could read his thoughts like Azelie could.
"Have you always lived in the castle?" Lizeth asked.

Trev nodded to the scroll.
I have lived elsewhere. I have lived in another castle, where I could move freely. Not this castle all the time.

"Was it hot in this other castle?" Nyella wanted to know. She had a map spread out before her, with lots of information recorded, of the different biomes in and around The Realm. "Or was the weather cold most of the time?"

Trev shrugged, and more words appeared on the scroll.
I do not know.

Lizeth gestured to the light, summery linen tunic he wore. "Did you always wear clothes like this, or do you remember wearing longer sleeves, or thicker fabrics at some time or another?"

Trev gestured all around them. I am warm in these places. I have fire when my arms are cold. I have no need of other clothes. I do not have them with me. In my other castle, I had cloaks and other clothes.

Nyella made some notes, crossing out a few locations on the map. "This other castle, was it big or small? Many rooms or just a few? Tall towers, or only a few stairs?"

Damaris rolled his eyes and glanced over to Risyn, who was watching this whole thing from his favorite place to stand in the Great Hall, just beside the dais where the King and Queen would sit. We trust you more than the others... Those words should have bolstered Damaris' confidence--they were probably intended as a compliment--but years of living on the streets of The Harbor had taught the young man a thing or two about trust. Was there something he was missing about these people who remained behind? Why didn't Jaran and Azelie trust them?

No one was paying him any mind, so Damaris did what he did best: he disappeared, faded into the shadows of the castle, and climbed through all the secret alcoves among the rafters. Trev might be master of the apparent system of tunnels underneath the castle, but Damaris knew how to get around without touching the floor. Perhaps talking it over with Anahita would help him make sense of things.

Down in the garden, Javira coaxed a network of vines to finish sealing over the portion of the castle exposed when Damaris escaped Trev's imprisonment. Since Kaidan was taken, she'd felt untethered, detached from everyone else. She knew that nobody trusted her, least of all Aurelle and Jaran--the people she'd hurt the most by her actions. At least Azelie could see that she was doing her best to be genuine--but Jaran had insisted that the two of them should not be separated after about a day and a half of not knowing where she was, in spite of searching the castle top to bottom three times over. Javira finished sealing the hole with fluffy, leafy ivy, and moved to the rows of hedges, trailing her finger over the leaves and branches to sculpt them into whatever shape she pleased.

Truth be told, she was a bit envious of Trev and his network of tunnels that could take him anywhere he wished under the castle, without anyone the wiser. If she and Kaidan had known about these tunnels when everything had been falling apart around them, they might have avoided throwing in their lot with Troy and inviting all manner of scorn and animosity because of it. Perhaps the Shadow would have exposed his hand a lot sooner, if he couldn't find any lackeys to manipulate into doing his dirty work for him.

"Family is an important part of one's identity," rumbled a voice behind her. "Without them, we are ships adrift, deprived of an anchor for our souls."

Javira sniffed and wiped the tears out of the corners of her eyes. "What do you know about family?" she turned to face Mage Risyn, who had entered the garden behind her. How long had he been standing there watching her vent her frustration into the plants?
Risyn sighed and sat upon a nearby bench, looking very much like a man with a painful secret--hadn't Kaidan suspected as much the last time he talked to Javira?

"There was once a young man," Risyn explained, "who found himself blessed with a Gift he did not understand, and he became desperate to find someone to help him control it, and understand it. This young man had a sister who depended on him for protection--but once she too had a Gift of her own, she no longer depended on him so much, although the young man sought to keep his sister safe, so that she would have no cause to use her Gift more than absolutely necessary."

Javira wanted to ignore the mage, to cut him off and tell him to get to his point--but the longer he talked, the more she felt compelled to listen without speaking. She related to this sister, seeing in the relationship between siblings a reflection of her own relationship with Kaidan. She stopped fussing with the hedges and came to sit next to Risyn on the bench as he continued.

"The young man heard of a powerful man who had practically mastered a similar Gift to his own, so the young man decided that he would do whatever it took to meet this man and train under him. His sister had been to a place where the young man assumed she would be safe, and so he could have departed to see this great man all by himself, leaving his sister behind. But just before he could have left, on his way to the harbor to find passage, the young man received word that his sister was not safe, that this place where she was had put her in far more danger than she should ever have been in, and instead of reserving her Gift for isolated incidents, she was requiring her Gift to defend herself, in the absence of her brother, and because of this, she was going to be given over to a place where she would almost certainly be killed. Therefore, the young man decided to rescue his sister, and remove her from this dangerous situation, and leave on the first ship that was headed in the direction he wanted to go." Risyn's eyes gleamed, and sweat beaded on his brow as the sun shone down on them both. Javira felt a new breed of anxiety, a longing for Kaidan to come and rescue her in just such a way, and all of this agitation she released into the ground, calling up a living, blooming arbor of grapevines with climbing plants woven through them, shading the two of them on the bench.

Risyn had sat silent for some time as the arbor formed, so after waiting in thick and heavy silence for several minutes, Javira finally asked, "Did they escape?"

Risyn nodded. "They found a ship, but as payment for passage without interference, the young man had to consent to use his Gift to benefit the captain and his crew. In this way, the young man and his sister crossed most of the Sea without trouble--but there was one night, when the storm was too great and the young man's Gift too underdeveloped, and so the Captain suffered the loss of his cargo. He charged the young man for that loss, and furthermore cast him off his ship with a rowboat to traverse the rest of the distance to his destination, keeping his sister behind to work of what remained of this 'debt' that the young man now owed--and that was the last that the young man ever saw of his sister."

Javira felt the ache crowding around her chest, and when she released her Gift into the ground beside the bench, a rosebush sprouted and unfurled, full of the thorny, scented blooms. She met Risyn's gaze.
"That's why you were so afraid when Captain Haggard's ship pulled into the Harbor," she whispered.
Risyn nodded. "Your brother suspected as much. That young man was me, and the last time I saw my sister Quilla was when Captain Haggard declared that she would serve as his galley maid until he had no further use for her. That was so many years ago, I don't even know if he's bargained her away at some point, or if she might still be on his ship--but I know that if I ever see the Captain again, he might claim my debt to him and use it against me. That's why I stay here--not because I'm waiting to betray any one of you," he abruptly declared the very resentment that Javira harbored as an excuse to avoid the dark Mage, "but because I failed the dearest person in my life so long ago, I don't want it to happen ever again." He let out a sigh and rubbed his hands together. "And now you know something about me that I have never told anyone--not even Mage Korsan."

Javira smiled, and placed her hand on Risyn's shoulder. "I guess you have just as much of a vested interest as any of us to stop the Crow Queen from achieving her ends."
Risyn nodded. "I just want my sister back, before she is caught in the crossfire between Queen Mallory's forces and our own."

Javira lifted her chin, a renewed sense of inclusion and connection established in her psyche. She held out her hand to Risyn. "For the sake of family, then?" she said.
Risyn seized her hand and clasped it tightly. "For family," he affirmed.

Javira nodded. "Now let's see what our scientists have discovered about our new acquaintance," she said, pointing toward the door into the castle.
Risyn gestured ahead of himself with a nod. "Lead the way, miss."

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