Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Works-in-Progress Wednesday: "Fugitive of Crossway" Excerpt: "Changes And Chioces"


"Dear Madam, I am writing on behalf of the town of Gracenote, in the southeastern region of Outwest. We are in dire need of a schoolteacher to educate our children, and a merchant from Crossway mentioned a wise and learned woman who cared deeply about many books... Please come as soon as you are able... We eagerly await your arrival..."

Mellisande stared at the words on the page, her mind spinning with anticipation. An Outwestern schoolteacher? Those in the south of Crossway didn't place much stock in academic studies, beyond what one would need to ply a trade or distribute goods as a merchant. She was "That Storyteller" in much of the villages around the area, known for her fanciful adventures written for children, not for her intellectual prowess.

But here was a letter from a faraway town in a region hardly anyone traveled to, except to reach a destination on the other side of it, offering her whatever she wanted to just come and stay and teach the children. They wanted her there! Life-changing, indeed!

Mellisande attacked every nook and cranny of her little apartment, packing everything she would need for just one trip into one small trunk, and everything else that actually belonged to her (not just fixtures and tools that came with the place) into another larger one, for delivery. Every book she owned went into the sturdy wooden box that she could strap to her back.

She showed up in the World's Orb with the small chest in tow, her whole body tingling with excitement.
The barkeeper caught her eye and a smile broke over his face. "Mel!" He crowed as she sat at the counter. "You're looking particularly starry-eyed. I take it that letter held good news?"

Mel accepted the mug of cider he placed before her and sighed. "Depends on how you look at it, I suppose," she said pensively. "You were right about it being life-changing, though." She took a sip and watched her friend's face.
Kellan raised an eyebrow. "I was?"
"There's a school somewhere in Outwest in need of a teacher."

Kellan grinned. "That's right up your alley! Haven't you always said you wanted to be a schoolteacher, but the towns around here always imported those fuddy-duddy Academics from up North or what have you? They wouldn't accept you because you didn't have the formal learning--but it sounds like these Outwesterners ain't so picky."
Mellisande shrugged, rolling her eyes. "I know! But..." she fidgeted with the handle of the mug, running her finger over its curves. "It's change," she said.

Kellan nodded, requiring no further explanation. The way Mellisande wriggled in her seat and didn't look straight at him for several minutes spoke volumes about how uncomfortable she was at the thought of moving towns, setting up to live somewhere else after being in Willemstone for so long.
Mel took another sip of the warm cider. "That being said," she remarked, "I've got all my things packed away in that big chest over there," she gestured to where she'd abandoned it by the door. "Mind if I leave it here till I find out how things stack up where I'm going? I plan on sending for it when I get settled, but I don't see much use for one girl to be hauling two big trunks about."
Kellan nodded. "Sure thing, Mel." He turned to address the men milling about the kitchens behind him. "Oy! Preston and Bill!"

Two surly fellows raised their heads. "Yeh, Boss?"
Kellan pointed to Mel's chest. "Take that to the back loft, will ya? Mark it with this." He scribbled Mellisande's name on a scrap of paper.

It made her wince to see their blank looks as they regarded the paper upside-down. Formally learning from the formally-taught wasn't for everyone in Willemstone, it seemed. "Yeh, sure," Preston (or Bill) grunted, and the two of them hefted the chest and disappeared around a corner.

Mel had no idea where the "back loft" was, but she trusted Kellan, and she didn't doubt it would be secure. She finished the last of her cider and stood up. "I guess I just came by here to say my goodbyes, in case I don't get a chance to later." She reached out a hand, and Kellan clasped it, feeling her smooth skin against his rough palm. She did look at him then, her eyes glistening with gratitude. "You've always been good to me, Kell," she said. "I just hope I can find one person in that whole strange town who reminds me of you, so that I needn't feel so lonely and far away."

Kellan gave her hand a squeeze. "You'll do just fine, Dreamer. Post me a letter when you get settled, hey? I can write back, and you'll always have a little part of Willemstone to connect with you, wherever you go."
Mel nodded. "I'd like that." She hopped off the tall stool and lifted the handle attached to her wheeled chest. "Farewell, my friend."

Kellan raised her empty mug in salute. "Good journey to you!"
Mellisande vacated the premises, full of the awareness that she could very well be launching on the next phase of her life.
<><><><><>

Other Excerpts:

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Reader's Review: "Speaker of Words" by E. G. Stone


Synopsis from Amazon:

The world is broken…
Inspector Maddox Dawes of Kyper Central has one more month until retirement. One more month, that is, until a group of rebellious dissidents to the Republic start painting a mysterious message across the screens:
Nehrun tai hanen
No one knows what it means, and the computers have been hacked by the rebels, erasing any trace of their doings. Dawes must work with the only language expert in the Republic to determine just what these rebels are saying and why.
The answers lie shrouded behind layers of politics, an influx of the drug Dreamscape, and the leader of the rebels, Ske’toa, who always seems two-steps ahead.
The world is broken. But how do you go about fixing the world if the words to express its wrongs don’t exist?
>>>>>>>>>>>

My Review:

I love words. That's why I love books so much. If I hadn't discovered how much I loved teaching elementary students and academic tutoring, I probably would have gone into linguistics. (Who else had the audacity to invent an entire fictional language for a novel that was originally a fanfiction--or even bothered, while writing said fanfiction in the first place, to Google-search the heck out of the original fictional language--in the late noughties, no less--in order to translate lines of original dialogue into that language? Seriously... sound off if you did!)

But I digress... Speaker of Words starts out very intriguing--a well-ordered future society suddenly comes to a screeching halt when dissidents attack with a very distinctive slogan: three words in a language nobody knows, a message nobody understands--but the fear is there, all the same.
Inspector Maddox Dawes is so close to retirement, he doesn't want to do anything that would get him discharged (or "Decommissioned") instead--so he's forced to go after these troublemakers, conspirators... these terrorists? Whoever they are, they seem to have a lot of control over the city's systems, and every attempt to continue as before and ignore what happened is met with resistance and a new type of infiltration that lets everyone know: the Republic is no longer regulated and monitored by the Konsulars. The "rebels" have the true control. If only people could understand the message they bring.

That's where the brilliance of E. G. Stone really shines. Maddox isn't keen on words, but when all signs point to the strange message as the key to uncovering the identity of these dissenters, he teams up with the Republic's only linguist--and the story takes a deep dive into the concept of language, verbal and nonverbal, as Maddox and the linguist take apart the words segment by segment to try and discern their meaning. As a writer, I appreciate the notion of finding just the right words to communicate one's thoughts and emotions. Some words are too strong, others are not strong enough for the particular feeling I'm trying to express--and picking the wrong words will result in evoking the wrong emotions, and the message is lost.

I can confirm that Speaker of Words has all the right words, and all the thought-provoking weight of dystopian classics like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and even carries shades of a show like The Expanse (of which I've only seen the first season, but the similarities are there, including an inspector/detective character--who isn't named Dawes--and a character who is named Dawes... but is not a lawman...)

I would give Speaker of Words a hearty *****4.5 STAR***** rating, and couple that with an Upstream Writer Certified DEFINITELY RECOMMENDED endorsement. The premise was good, the world-building on point, I liked the characters, the plot was superbly-executed and paced very well, the dialogue was very precise without dragging conversations or jumping through exposition too fast... The one thing that I'm a little bit "iffy" on was the way it resolved, but it's one of those things where it didn't go "where I expected", but at the same time... I don't think it could have ended satisfactorily any other way. E. G. Stone really knows how to tell a story that makes you think, and I've said before that those are the stories I really like, and the stories that I am sure will last through generations!

Further Reading: (Cyberpunk/Dystopian/Thought-provoking Literature)
The Children of Dreki--N. R. Tupper
       -TYR
The Untamed Series--Madeline Dyer
       -Untamed 
       -Fragmented 
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way 
       -The Truth 
       -The Lie 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 28 "Reunions" (1 of 2)


Part 28
"Reunions" (Part 1)



Thunder crackled, and rain poured over the turrets of the tall black building hidden among the hills of Gybralltyr. Inside, tiny threads of electric energy sparkled in the shadows of the spacious laboratory space.

Mallory smiled as the various stages of her machine surged to life around her. She called this place "The Rook", and it had been her home and the birthplace of her serious efforts toward vengeance. Twelve years since she was cast out of her village, twelve years of hunting and building and tinkering, experimenting on those who had been Gifted by Juros--and tonight's trials promised to be the most successful results yet.

BANG! The door opened, letting a gang of ruffians and a host of foul weather inside.
"Milady, we've got one," rasped the bounty hunter.
Mallory smiled, her long fingers toying with a lock of her red hair. "Excellent," she said. "Put it in the other cage." She gestured to the central component of her room-sized machine, two cages, one already occupied by a quivering inhuman creature. Its broken, dingy-white wings flailed when its eyes recognized the tightly-bound figure thrust into the empty cage.

"NO!" Rasped the delicate voice, "Lyssa!"
"QUIET!" The lead bounty hunter struck the bars above the Angel's head.
"Try not to disturb the test subjects, Thorn," Mallory commented in a dry voice.

The Angel, subdued and forlorn for a while now, began flailing and ranting, shaking the cage with his movement. "No! What do you want with us? You're a monster! How dare you hold us capt--"

Mallory flipped a switch on the control board in front of her, and a rounded bell beside the cage unleashed a terrible blast. The frequency struck the Angel like a physical blow, and he collapsed.

She rolled her eyes at Thorn. "Now look what you've made me do--it doesn't work when they're hurting! I can't have you in here if you're going to interfere with my experiment."
Thorn sneered at her, but turned heel, signaled his men, and left.

Once the Hunters cleared out, Mallory turned back to the cage.
The Angel had recovered somewhat, and was even now struggling to return to a more upright position. "You..." he gasped heavily. "You don't know... what you're doing..."

"I know what I want you to do!" Mallory seethed. "I know exactly what I'm doing. The trouble is that you aren't doing what you're supposed to." She gestured to the opposing cage, where the female was just beginning to stir. "Hence the necessity for the other half of this little equation."
The Angel scowled. "We are not equations!"

"No, you're abominations!" Mallory seethed. "You're the only beings capable of awakening my brother's true self--why won't you help me?"
The Angel lapsed into stony silence.
"Tengar? What is happening?" murmured the woman, opening her eyes at last.

The Angel lunged desperately at the side of his cage. "Lyssa!"

At the sound of her name, Lyssa's eyes widened, and a thick darkness coalesced in the bars of her cage--but when it cleared, she was still there. She frowned in confusion. "What--"

"Don't yield to her, Lyssa!" Tengar gasped. "She is a monster and she's trapped us in her infernal machine--"

"I AM WHAT JUROS MADE ME!" Mallory roared, and both Abnormals cringed as the charged cages inflicted searing jolts of pain through their bodies. "He is the real monster, here! And you--" she scowled at Tengar. "If you won't give me the Gift I need, then I'll just have to take it from you myself!" She threw the switch, and the process began.

"Please!" Lyssa begged, trembling all over, so that her shadows leached out of her skin--although they could not reach outside the cage. "You don't have to do this. There is a kingdom called The Realm, a Gifted King has given birth to a Gifted son, and he is ready to welcome the Gifted into prominent places--"

"Too late!" Mallory cackled as the next phase of her machine crackled to life. Gears and cranks shifted and rattled. Soon the extraction process would begin. "I know all about King Balwyn's integration efforts--the fool thinks that by putting Gifted people in places of power, and strategic positions of employment, he'll appease both sides and achieve peace in his kingdom." She scoffed. "Who does he think he is? Why should any Gifted person answer to a King? I'll show them what real power looks like, when I'm done!"

She crossed the room as the power of the machine crackled around the cages, causing both Abnormals to grimace and cry out in pain.

On a table at the side of the room, a large body lay shackled. The strangely tall figure rolled his eyes back and forth, but he could not move, and could not see what was going on at the other side of the room. All he could see was the grinning face above him.
"My dear, sweet brother!" Mallory gushed. "I am so glad to have found you at last! In just a few minutes, you can be yourself again! We'll be together--we'll open the Gate..."

"Never!" Tengar grunted, even as he felt the energy coursing through the bars of the cage leaching the power from his body. "You will... never... reach... Justicia--"

"Nobody asked you!" Mallory shrieked. She dashed over to the pair of metal contacts attached to the churning machine. Yanking them from their supports, she brought them back to the table and placed them on either side of her brother's head. The crackling machine surged, even as the man's body jerked and flailed against his restraints.
"N-no!" He stammered breathlessly. "S-stop! It hurts!"

"Shh, shh, dear," Mallory soothed him like a mother quieting a fussy child. "It'll be over soon. You will be Gifted, I promise!"

"Stop! Please!" he begged again.

The more agitated he got, the more calmly she responded. "You'll understand once it's over. Just let it happen, let your true self break free! This is who you were meant to be!"

An alarm beeped, but she could barely distinguish the noise over the screams of her subjects and the clatter of the machine.

CRASH!! A high window at the side of the room shattered, and a large ball of light careened into the room. Mallory ducked instinctively--but scowled when she saw what followed: a lithe young woman armed with a dagger that glowed brightly in the darkened laboratory.
"Save them, Polaris!" the woman shouted. "I'll find a way to shut it down!"

Mallory screamed in fury, and launched herself at the intruder--but the ball of light appeared in front of her, and dealt a concussive blast that sent her tumbling backwards.

It also knocked the first-stage components out of place.
Alarms blared as the machine went haywire, sending sparks all over the place and disrupting relays as gears and connections dropped.

"NO!!" Mallory wailed, grabbing the contacts from her brother's head. The woman had already started to cut his bonds, while the ball of light struck the cage supports with powerful waves of energy. The captive Abnormals slumped lifelessly inside, and Mallory laughed.

"Ha! They're dead! You're too la--" A sudden backlash of energy cut off her words. The forces still coursing through the contacts seeped into her skin, and Mallory could feel it twisting and changing her. "AUGH!" She wailed, dropping the contacts. She reached up to grasp her head in her hands, but they were already morphing into something else. Feathers sprouted through her skin, and her nails hardened into claws, her feet into talons. Shadows shifted over her eyes, and when it cleared, Mallory spread a pair of dark wings, and croaked with a long black beak. A crow!

Mallory focused on being human, and in one dizzying heartbeat, she was. She could shapeshift!
Thorn and his men dashed into the room, and Mallory gestured to them. Immediately, instead of six Hunters, she watched as six large crows took off around the room, chasing after the ball of light and swooping to attack the woman.

Mallory looked at her hands. Not only could she shift her own appearance--but she could turn others into birds, which were still under her control!
"It worked!" She turned to her brother, who had managed to come off the table and onto his feet. She smiled up at him.

Her brother took one look at her and frowned. A heavy, pale fog gathered behind him, and when she took a step toward him, reaching for his hand, he backed away, ducked into the fog, and vanished.
Behind Mallory, her machine and the work fueled by twelve years of ambition and revenge came crashing down into darkness. She could sense the woman lunging toward her, knife at the ready, and she jumped into the air, transforming into a winged woman--not completely in her crow-form, but enough to be able to speak while flying to safety.

"You've ruined everything!" she snarled at the woman. "You don't understand what you've done! I will have my revenge on you, and I will have my revenge on Juros--and anyone else who gets in my way!" She shifted once more--and became an entire flock of crows, with a shared consciousness, but also able to disperse into smaller targets. Mallory disappeared, leaving her damaged Rook and ravaged experiment behind.

The woman watched the crows disappear under the light of the moon. The helpful star came to hover beside her.

She smiled. "We did it, Polaris," she mused. "We didn't exactly stop her or save those poor..." she frowned as she recalled the two figures who weren't quite human in those cages, "whatever they were. But we made sure that whatever vileness was going on here would never happen again."

She held out the knife, and the star vanished, winking into the crystal embedded in the hilt. The woman sighed and looked back over the fortress. "It's not a bad place," she mused to herself, also half-talking to the star that had been her constant companion for a few years now. "And it's near enough to the Gate that we could keep an eye on everything that tries to reach the island." She climbed back down and ran her hand over the strong stones of the wall. "A little fixing up, re-building, and re-decorating--we could make this place a safe haven for that Key, to keep it hidden, and keep it from falling into the wrong hands." She smiled, imagining what the space would look like when it was finished. "I like it! I think I'll call it--The Roque."
>>>>>>>>>>>>


Zayra hugged a little closer to Beren as she watched the petrified woman carefully.

Tessa hadn't stirred from the spot where she stood. Her head wagged, and her mouth moved, but she could barely form words, much less full sentences.
"You... But that... It's not..."

Polaris tried to allay her confusion, kneeling before her. "I am the entity who has been imprisoned in the knife you carry. I have defended you for as long as it has been in your possession. My name is Polaris."
Tessa gulped hard several times before she could rasp, "Y-you're a star?"

Polaris smiled a little. "I share a name with the star, but I am not the star, myself. The ball of energy was just a visual aid so that you would be able to know whenever I was available to you, and not completely concealed in the knife. I am an Abnormal, a servant of Juros."

The more he talked, the more Tessa seemed to relax. She stepped forward and reached out to touch his shoulder--but her fingers appeared to slip right through the jacket he wore. She frowned. "You're not real?"

Polaris hung his head. "What you see and hear before you is only a part of my essence. The part that is tangible is imprisoned within the knife itself, the glow of the gemstone, if you will. When you hold the knife," he gestured to where it lay on the marble floor of the Great Hall, "I can feel your touch, but you won't be able to feel mine until I am free of my imprisonment."

Tessa's knees buckled, so Aurelle and Erlis fetched a chair for her to collapse into. She drew a trembling hand across her brow. "This is just like in the stories, when the innocent heroine discovers an enchanted object with a genie or a fairy trapped inside!" She looked up at the silver-haired man standing before her. "How can I set you free, then? I dislike the thought of anyone compelled to serve me against their will!"
Zayra quickly glanced at Polaris, but he betrayed no sign that he knew anything of the terrible price of his freedom. Instead, he said, "It is nothing that you can do, my lady."
"Please, there must be something!" she begged.

Seline stepped forward before Tessa could compel Polaris to tell her what he plainly did not want her to know. "I must speak with Polaris right now," she said. "Lady Tessa, why don't you see about opening rooms for all of us to stay here?"
Tessa sighed, but she agreed, and left the room.

Once she was out of the way, Seline waved her hand in the air. "I've adjusted our privacy," she informed Polaris. "Now you may speak, and only we may hear you. Tessa won't hear anything you say."
"Thank you," Polaris replied.

"So what were the terms of your imprisonment?" Beren asked. "What is the price for your freedom?"
Polaris winced. "When Juros first informed me that I would only need to serve and protect the mortal who claimed my blade for three years, and after that once they died I would be free, I thought that three years would be the extent of my confinement." Polaris sighed. "And then I met Tessa, and got to know her in those three years..."

"And by the end of it," Cori cut in, "you realized that you didn't want her to have to die."

Polaris nodded and hung his head. "It's selfish of me, I realize that--but the more I think about it, the more I don't want Tessa to die, because the thought of returning to Justicia without her..." He shook his head firmly. "As long as I am defending her, it does afford her some level of longevity--she is actually much older than she looks, because time in The Roque passes differently, so the longer she spends here, the slower she ages."

"Why couldn't you bring Tessa with you, back to Justicia?" Azelie asked. "Is it because she's a mortal?"
"Mortals still have an afterlife that's under Juros' jurisdiction," Jaran answered. "Remember the battle, when we all felt the mighty gust of wind driven by our father?"

Seline nodded. "It is not all mortals that are allowed to enter the afterlife, in a celestial realm alongside Justicia," she explained, tucking her wings behind her back. "But only those mortals who have been Gifted."
Polaris nodded. "A Gift is like a standing invitation into the afterlife; Tessa is not Gifted, mostly because there haven't been any angels on Gybralltyr for a very, very long time, and she hasn't ever really needed Gifting as long as I've been there to protect her." His eyes lit up and he looked at Seline. "But then again, here you are--an Angel! Would you Gift Tessa, so that we might ascend to Justicia together?"

Seline opened her mouth to answer, but before she could make a sound, Denahlia jumped up as if she'd been thrown across the room.
"We've got trouble!" she declared, and raced toward the front of the mansion.
Everyone followed her, including a mystified Tessa.
"What's happening?" she asked. "Where is she going?"

Reva stood and began inching toward another door, taking advantage of the fact that nobody was watching--but her escape ended swiftly when Bronn confronted her, baring his teeth and growling until she sat down again.
Brinley smiled at her friend. "Good choice, Bronn. Keep her there."

Out in the grass before the mansion, Denahlia stood with both hands in the air.
"What are you doing?" Beren asked.

"It's Markus!" Denahlia replied. "All of a sudden I'm picking up his signal! Markus! Can you hear me?" She dropped one hand to press her fingers on the side of her head. "You're where? Here? What were you thinking, coming after us? She's what? Okay, I'm listening. You're sure about that? Who's with you? Where are you, exactly?" She listened for a moment, walking off toward the side of the clearing. "What's all around?" She stopped short. "Birds? Oh no! Markus, you and Nyella need to--" She winced at something she heard. "Markus? Please tell me you're running! Markus! Can you hear me?" She scowled and looked up at the sky. "NO!" yelled Denahlia.


"What happened?" Jaran asked.
"Who is Markus?" Cori wanted to know.

Denahlia frowned and gulped like she was holding back tears. "Markus is my cousin," she explained for the benefit of those who didn't know. "He's... Like me," she gestured to her and and face. "His left side is all metal and robotic parts. We both have tiny machines implanted in our ears to let us hear each other when we're on the same landmass."
"Did he come here looking for you?" Azelie asked, merely because she sensed as much from Denahlia's thoughts.

The young woman nodded. "I guess things have gotten pretty bad out in The Realm--Queen Mallory has completely overrun the White Castle with her forces."
"I figured that was going to happen!" Jaran seethed.
"That sounds awfully familiar," Zayra murmured to Beren with a small grin.

Denahlia continued with her account, "He says he found his way here by following Hadrian's tracker, and that he has Lizeth's assistant with him."
"Nyella?" Aurelle tilted her head. "What is she doing, running off like that?"
"They ran into each other when Lizeth sent Nyella to find Velora and get reinforcements," Denahlia answered. "But he told Nyella that Velora already knew about it, so she begged to come with him."

"So they made it all the way to Gybralltyr by themselves?" Beren asked. "I'm beginning to feel like maybe we took the long way around, going by sea!"

Denahlia's face fell. "That's the bad news: they followed Hadrian's signal through a thick cloud, he said, and while he was trying to talk to me, a flock of many different kinds of dark-feathered birds swarmed them..."
Cori and Seline exchanged a knowing stare, and at the same time, they concluded, "Keaton."

"And the birds basically chased them right to where Captain Haggard, Goddry, and Sally were waiting for them!"
"Those blackguards!" Beren seethed. "Why are they still here? They probably are holding Markus and Nyella captive on the Ransom."

Denahlia held her hands palm-out in front of her. Closing her eyes and focusing, she nodded. "I can ping his signal coming from somewhere off the coast--probably back in that bay where the ship is anchored--but something is blocking our ability to communicate." She dropped her hands, and her whole body seemed to wilt. "I hope they haven't hurt him," she whimpered.

Aurelle stepped forward and laid a hand on Denahlia's shoulder. "I'll help you rescue him," she said.
"I will too," Cori added. "After all, you're going to need someone who knows every inch of that ship."

Azelie, Jaran, Zayra, and Beren all exchanged a somber glance.
Zayra spoke first, sighing and leaning on her husband's shoulder. "I want to go home!" she cried. "Even if it's just for a little bit, before there is no more home to return to."
Jaran stroked his chin. "As King it is only fitting that I do what I can to help rescue my kingdom from the threat of the Crow Queen."

Kaidan stepped forward, leading Quilla by the hand. "If you're going back to The Realm, I want to return as well--and it's only fitting that we should reunite Quilla with her brother."
The young woman's face glowed with happiness. "I get to see Risyn again?"
Beren grinned. "I'm sure he's survived thus far--your Gifting would be a great help to us."

"How are you going to get back to The Realm, though?" Brinley asked. "If the birds are already swarming, you might be caught before you can make it all the way back to the portal we used."

Jaran glanced toward Tessa, who was hovering at the edge of the group and watching everything with an anxious expression. "There might be one way we could do it," he said.

Tessa frowned when he approached her and bowed low. "Milady," said King Jaran, "you have been a most gracious host. We have heard that this knife you bear has the power to stop the Crow Queen, even as her power increases so that she cannot be slain my normal means."

Tessa gasped and placed a hand on the hilt of her knife. "Polaris?" she gasped, and immediately, he appeared at her side, the ball of energy humming by her shoulder. Tessa took a step back and shook her head. "No, I cannot give him up."

"Nor would I want to leave her, even if I could somehow stop the vile Queen," Polaris declared in a voice only the Gifted could hear. "I cannot leave her unprotected."

Erlis, who had till now stood silently by, let out a ragged gasp, and briefly hid her face from everyone. When she finally turned, in that same moment, her cloak and her limbs seemed to unfurl at the same time, unfolding and elongating until a crimson-red dragon stood in their midst. Erlis the dragon growled and stamped her feet.

Azelie spoke up on her behalf. "She swears that as long as she is here, Tessa will not be unprotected."

"You can count me in on that, and Bronn as well!" Brinley declared, flexing her bare arms. "Nothing and no one is getting into the Roque on our watch."

Seline spread her wings and lifted a short distance into the air, drawing her rapier and saluting with it. "As an Angel and a Servant of Juros, I have an obligation to protect the Gate while I am here, and I will lay down wards so that none may enter the city without my knowledge."
Zayra fiddled with the amulet hanging around her neck. "If you're guarding the Gate," she said to Seline, "perhaps I should give you this as well--"
"No!" Seline almost didn't let her finish. "It is imperative that the Gate and the Key remain separated, so that there is no chance of it being opened. It is good that you keep it with you and return to The Realm. Just keep it safe, and be sure to never take it off, don't let anyone see it, until all this is over."
Zayra couldn't hide the worry on her face, but she nodded.

Jaran accepted the knife, and Tessa gave him the belt and sheath to go with it. Polaris eyed Jaran dubiously, but he didn't have much say in the matter. "I serve the mortal who holds the knife," he muttered to himself. He did turn to the group gathered around Tessa, and bowed. "Thank you all for stepping up to defend my lady while I am gone. If trouble should arise, do not hesitate to call my name. Even if she does not bear the knife, I will still hear her and come to her aid."
"Understood, sir," Brinley replied.

Denahlia caught Seline's attention. "I guess that takes care of everyone. Once Markus is free, we can join you in bolstering Gybralltyr's defenses, now that most of the traps have been sprung."

Cori raised her hand. "Not everyone," she said. "What about Reva? Are we just going to keep her prisoner?"
Seline shrugged. "She's one of us now, and she owes Tessa for saving her life. Either she agrees to help defend the Roque, or--"
"Bronn will tear her to shreds," Brinley threatened darkly.
Erlis wagged her head and let out a low groan.
Denahlia shrugged and nudged Cori with her elbow. "I don't think we'll need to worry much about Reva. Let's go take on Captain Haggard!"
The three rescuers headed on down toward the cove.

Polaris looked at the six people waiting to return to the Realm. "Are we ready to go?"
Jaran glanced around the small cluster, and nodded to Polaris. "Ready; everyone hold hands."
Beren, Zayra, Azelie, Jaran, Kaidan, and Quilla all grasped each other's hands in a circle, and Jaran could see rather than feel Polaris place a hand on his shoulder. "It's going to get cold--shadows aren't very warm, and I'm going to need a lot of them to transport all of us."

Jaran closed his eyes and braced himself. True to the warning, the temperature around the small circle dropped considerably, and Azelie fought the urge to let go of Jaran's and Quilla's hand, just so she could wrap her arms around herself and shiver.

Those who were watching could see a dense blackness gather around the seven figures, growing thicker and darker, until the last flicker color disappeared behind the shadow, and then it was gone. The shadows, the people, Polaris... everything vanished in the space of a blink.

Tessa sighed. "I guess it's just us, then," she said, and beckoned for everyone to return to the Roque.
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