Saturday, September 24, 2016

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Part 7--Signs and Wonders

Aurelle Divir, "The Illusionist"

Part 7
"Signs and Wonders"
The patter of small feet clattered over the cobblestones. Children laughed and ran, waving to their friends as they flocked toward a particular alley.
"Hurry up!" One young boy waved his friend along. "She's already started!"
At the eastern courtyard, across from the docks, a young woman sat on a crate, watching tiny figures leap and bound over each other. In a clear voice, she began her tale. 
"There was once a noble elk who ruled the forest. He was fair and wise, ensuring that all the animals were treated fairly, and if any of them had a problem, they could go to the elk and he would help them reach a solution." Her fingers fluttered, and the figures changed. Now a third figure joined the pair of elk and aimed a weapon at them. The tiny elk crumpled as the girl continued. "One day, a man came into the forest and shot the elk with his gun, wounding him terribly. His son was not yet old enough to understand the law of the forest, and so a group of other animals, birds and squirrels and even a wise owl or two, decided to lead the forest animals until the young buck grew older. But being such different animals, and all seeking the interests of his own kind, the Forest Authorities could not agree."
She had quite a crowd now; children stared at the glowing, swirling images, enthralled by their realism, but a bit overwhelmed by the story. Their parents observed with dubious expressions, reluctant to pull too close, yet unable to look away.
The girl bent over her table, watching the figures materialize out of thin streams of light issuing from her fingertips. Ever since she was a small child, barely able to speak, she had been able to communicate and to entertain herself with these illusions. She had no idea where this ability came from, or how it worked; it was far more strange to her that other people did not have this ability. She didn't see anything special about herself. 
"During this time, the Young Buck disappeared, and the forest fell into turmoil. Just when all hope of a happy forest seemed lost, as each attempt of the Authorities to control and restrict failed more and more," she gave a little twist with her wrist for theatrical effect, "two foxes came out of the deep part of the woods, and offered to represent the other woodland creatures from within the Authorities, setting themselves as a balancing voice and a people's advocate to combat the Authorities' self-interest. The other woodland creatures agreed—but with the foxes now in charge, life grew worse than it had before, as the cunning foxes and the stubborn Authorities vied for control of the populace." The foxes began chasing the other animals, and the young storyteller frowned to see her story taking a dark twist yet again. Parents began pulling their children away, whispering about her treason and disrespect. She tried to persevere with the story.
"The foxes soon set themselves up as equal to the elk, thought their policies and decisions were definitely not as fair and equitable to the animals."
"Speak for yourself, you freak!" Someone shouted from the back of the crowd.
The storyteller stood, as the animals in her hands expanded to life-size and scurrying over the ground.
"They favored some species while oppressing and disparaging others as weak or disgraceful!" She cried, as the indignant foxes turned up their noses at the gentle unicorns, and batted the innocent squirrels away.
"What do you think you're doing?" Cried a woman with frilly clothes, clutching her lacy parasol in her upraised fists. "You're crazy and your stupid stories make no sense!" 
Her screeching sent a murmur through the crowd as the dissent swelled louder. 
She couldn't help it; the words came as easily as the images.
"The forest creatures did their best to survive in spite of the foxes, for one day, the Young Buck would return and rule as his father did—"
"Enough!" A burly trader at the front of the crowd shoved aside the people around him and lunged for the illusions. They wafted like smoke under his arms. He glared at the young storyteller. "We've heard enough of your stories! You're a fool and no good to this realm! It's time one of us stood up to your sort and put an end to this plague!" He lunged for the white-haired storyteller.
She screamed and threw up her hands. People gasped, and the man groped at the air just above her head. She stumbled back out of his reach as people pressed closer, whispering.
"She's gone!"
"Where did she go!"
"It's as if she was never there!"
She looked down at her hands. She seemed visible enough; why did they speak as if she were not?
"All right, what's this, then?" A strong, easy voice boomed from the corner of the market. The crowd parted as a soldier wearing the uniform of a Regency Peacekeeping Officer entered the courtyard. 
Several voices tried to explain the situation, complain about the instigator, or blame the Outcasts for the unsanctioned gathering—but he merely waved them all away. They took the hint and dispersed, while the officer took a sentry stance, his hand resting lightly on the haft of his weapon. Once the noise and activity died down, his eyes glided to the corner on the opposite side, where a stack of crates blocked a disused alley.
"Back to your tricks again, Aurelle?" He asked the air.
At his words, she felt the subtle shift of coming into view again. The change in his stance confirmed she was visible.
Aurelle gave a shy smile. "I didn't mean to start a riot," she began, but the officer shook his head.
"That wasn't a riot, young lady; merely a disgruntled audience. And after what they just witnessed, you may find it hard to continue as innocently as you have been."
Aurelle sighed and ran deft fingers through her milk-white locks. "I didn't mean to; the illusions change before I realize what they are doing. It's more than just entertaining children, Rayne," she gazed at him earnestly. "I'm not just a fortune-teller. These are real issues, raising real questions and hopes—"
"And causing real problems and putting you in real danger," Officer Rayne warned.
"What else was I supposed to do?" Aurelle exploded. "You don't know what it's like when I try to ignore the stories, keep them bottled up. I've tried keeping my head down and keeping silent like you told me to." She raised her palms toward him. "Both my arms were nearly numb from the pressure! I needed to let them out!"
Rayne raised an eyebrow. "And the vanishing act?"
Aurelle couldn't suppress an embarrassed smirk. "That was—he was about to break my neck. Would you rather I had let him grab me?" She stared at him, catching him in a direct gaze. Those vibrant eyes drew him in, held him in a way that made him feel— 

Rayne forced his willpower to overwhelm his mind and turn his head, cutting the moment short.
"Just stick to telling fortunes and entertaining children, Aurelle," he muttered.
She sighed. "All right." She moved to straighten her booth again.
"Not here," Rayne stopped her. "It's—"
"Ah! Madam Aurelle Devir," rumbled a booming bass voice. "I thought it might be you; good catch, Officer Rayne!"
Behind him, a whole detachment of Peacekeepers, led by a wiry man with a tight grin, fanned out along the edges of the courtyard. His serpent eyes slithered toward the young woman. "I don't imagine Officer Rayne has told you yet, Miss Devir, but I am afraid you'll have to close down your little operation."
Aurelle frowned. "On what pretense? I've paid all the fees; I carry a license—"
"Which has just been revoked," the sergeant interrupted. "As of this moment, Miss Devir, you are hereby ordered to refrain from any activity related to your status as an Illusionist."
"Refrain?" Aurelle echoed as Rayne obeyed the short hand signal from his sergeant to join the file of Peacekeepers. "For how long?"
The sergeant smiled. "Indefinitely. If at any time you are observed engaging in any activity beyond the sanctioned Regency Broadcasts, you will be regarded is a dissident and arrested." The sergeant smiled at her again, and turned his heel. 
Aurelle stared at the back of his head. Rayne was the only one looking at her face.
"Aurelle," he whispered desperately. "Don't—"
She wasn't listening. "You cannot suppress the truth so easily, Sergeant!" Aurelle announced, extending her hand. A ball of swirling light rose from her palm.
He turned at the cries of alarm from his men. His eyebrows raised and his hands came up in alarm. "Stop! I order you to desist!" He commanded.
Aurelle smirked. "Catch me if you can!" She spun in a circle on one foot, and used the momentum to hurl the ball of light at the ground with all her might. It exploded in a blinding flash, stunning the onlookers. When their eyes adjusted, she was nowhere to be found.

Everyone assured me the headdress was beautiful—but nobody was honest enough to realize how much it hurt to actually wear the thing. It took six servants just to carry my train with enough support so I could walk around. Even in the courtyard, amid the banners proclaiming my name and my image as the ultimate desire, I could feel Their stares. Sure, I was pretty enough, but my greatest asset also contained my fatal flaw: everyone was so obsessed with my appearance that nobody took the time to explain any sort of politics or leadership strategies. My own beauty—the one thing they could use to secure a following for me—They quickly turned into a farce, a vain, shallow concept with no room for intelligence or amiability. I had plenty of both, but with no voice beyond what the Council told me to say, I quickly lost the favor of the people. They needed someone who could demand fealty and keep it. Of course they found a woman who could give them the spectacle they needed, but it seemed only I could tell just by looking at her that this woman might not be able to work the effect they sought. She had ambition, cunning, and a bold, unwavering gaze that could search your soul at a glance. She made no secret about her desire to be the ultimate pinnacle of absolutely everything—including the standard of beauty in the realm. 
I am afraid of her; if I am cursed to be the most beautiful person in the realm—what wouldn't she do to take it from me and for herself?

Even in slumber, Velora sensed movement in their little camp. When she opened her eyes, the light of dawn had barely cracked the horizon—and Harlock was already leaving. 
She sat up, and Jay chimed a warning.
Harlock whirled around to see Velora watching him.
"What are you doing?" She asked.
"Leaving," he answered.
Velora bared her teeth. "We had a plan!" She hissed.
"And it's a great plan," he answered. "You and Aurelle are perfectly capable of carrying it out without me."
"We need you to cover our tracks!" 
"Not necessarily; you two are resourceful, I am sure Aurelle already knows how to do that." He shouldered the small pack he brought. "I have business at the castle."
Velora sneered. "Business? What business? You don't even remember who you are, what business could you possibly—" she lurched backward as Jay broke away and flew straight at Velora's face.
Harlock shrugged. "Jay says it's important. I need to be gone when the Hunter arrives."
"Why?" Velora demanded.
He threw up his hands. "She won't say! Trust me, I want to have my fun with this Hunter as much as you two, but apparently I have—"
"What, better things to do?" Velora rolled her eyes. "Fine then, Mystery Man—go off on your super important business, follow your fairy right to the very doorstep of the people who hate us." She turned away and scuffed at the ground with her feet. "I guess you aren't one of us, after all."
She heard him shuffle, shift his position like he wanted to say something—but at last she heard nothing, and when she turned around, he was gone.

Aurelle awoke to the sound of Velora raking the trees with her claws, but when she finally got the young Wolf to calm down enough to tell her what happened, she seemed to handle the news with far more understanding.
"How can you be so calm?" Velora exploded. "We've faced the Hunter before, she'll be ready for us this time—Harlock was our best chance at the element of surprise!"
Aurelle flexed her hand, and a puddle of water appeared in her palm. Carefully, she cupped it, and the droplets rose to form a trickling fountain. Velora watched in amazement, distracted from her frustration by the sight. 
Aurelle smiled. "Maybe we don't need Harlock after all." She flicked her wrist, sending the jet of water streaking toward Velora's face—but though she flinched, the wet sting never came. The water dissipated like all of Aurelle's illusions. The Illusionist laughed at the stunned look on Velora's face.
"I think we stand a pretty good chance," said Aurelle. "As long as we follow the same plan: distract them all, and pick them off one by one before they realize what's happening."
Velora extended her claws. Finally, a fight! "And then what?" She asked. "Scare the Hunter off? Send her running back to the castle?"
Aurelle tilted her head as the illusions spun in her hands. "I was thinking of getting her far out of the way—like maybe the Wilderness. I'm sure Korsan will have a welcome or two to keep her busy." She cast a keen eye toward Velora. "Does this please you?"
Velora grinned. "Does it ever!" She cried.
An hour later, the Hunter and her band of Thugs entered the forest. Everyone wore armor with thick leather reinforcing the vulnerable chinks. She had seen what the enemy did to the soldiers she left behind, and she wasn't going to take that chance again. Everyone carried a bell, and the Dennahlia had trained herself to know the sound of each one as it clanked. She would know where her soldiers were, and whether one went missing at any given moment.
Such as now.
Dennahlia stiffened; one bell had missed a step. She almost didn't notice, because as soon as she flinched, it had rung again—but there was something artificial about the sound.
"Hold!" She barked, and all noise ceased. "Sound off!"
The bells clanked one by one; sure enough, the errant bell still rang when it was supposed to... But it wasn't the same ring. Dennahlia waited till the last ring died down, and then raised her hand. A concealed pistol unfolded around her wrist and discharged—
The "missing" Thug fell down dead. The Thug standing next to him stared at the Hunter in confusion and horror. "What'd ye do that fer?" He muttered.
Dennahlia was still trying to figure out what had happened. He still wore the bell—why had the sound changed? How had she come to believe that this one was out of place?
"They're here!" She cried. "Spread out and find them! Look to the trees, don't trust the shadows!"
The Thugs growled happily at the thought of a cunning enemy; they loved knocking over the smart ones. 
Dennahlia herself climbed a tree for a better vantage point. She had been fooled on the ground, so it was time for unpredictable. She listened for shouts and looked for speed amid the lumbering bodies. She could see her whole crew from here. She counted twelve—but how could she still have twelve if one was already dead? She narrowed her eye, and the bodies below her glowed bright red. They all looked very similar in size—till one of the red bodies stretched out blue claws and felled his neighbor.
"WOLF!" Dennahlia shrieked. The red faded to the green of her night-vision, and Dennahlia scurried forward in the pandemonium. She followed the forest path. The moon shone in the western sky. She kept it's light over her right shoulder, heading north toward the capital city. The edge of the treeline lay just ahead, the Huntress broke though the trees—and ended up in an open clearing lined with craggy rocks. She looked up toward the moon—but it hung solemnly in the sky behind her. She stood at the edge of the Wasteland, heading due east and further than ever from the castle. 
Behind her, a howl resonated across the sky. Dennahlia quickly retracted the tiny concealed pistol and drew her twin handguns. She would be ready for whatever came.
Black dots swam on the horizon, bobbing around the crags. Her green night vision slipped back into place, and Dennahlia felt the dread creeping up. 
Wolves, scores of them, all racing toward her position. There was no way she could fend them off with just her arsenal. They would converge on her in a manner of minutes. She heard crashing in the bushes as more emerged from the forest, growling threateningly. There was only one thing left to do. 
She crouch low and gripped the edges of her cloak. Building momentum in her feet, she launched into the air. As soon as her feet landed she ran. She could run fast, faster than any animal alive. She would outrun the wolves. She raced northward, still keeping her original destination of the castle. As long as she kept moving, the wolves could not drag her down. She let off a few shots, but it didn't seem to deter them any. She ran so fast that her eyes could not keep track of her surroundings—
One moment she was running at full speed, the next, she tumbled sideways into a slope full of pain a knives. Darkness overtook her, and the pain stopped—

Then nothing.

Part 8: "Scales" >>>>>

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Reader's Review: "Skeins Unfurled" by K. M. Vanderbilt

Synopsis from Amazon:
When the murder of a god shatters a thousand years of peace, chaos reigns among the known worlds. Even the Norns, blinded and stripped of their powers, cannot see how it will end. Left without guidance, some gods choose to make their own fates. Others cannot. Old ties are torn apart while new ones are forged. And amidst that tenuous balance, ancient secrets emerge. War looms on the horizon. In a struggle where battle lines constantly shift and allies just as quickly become enemies, nothing is sacred. For some, the end comes sooner than Ragnarok. 
My Review: 
What is more unique than a multiverse theory? Try a multi-pantheon premise. Tyr presides over most of the other pantheons, regarding few as his equals. Amid the network of heavenly realms, each has their own series of arch-gods, gods, and spirits. After Baldr is killed, Tyr uses the reputations of the others to get Loki banished to the abandoned corner of Asgaard, while trying to satisfy his lust for complete control by restricting the movements of other gods. They are all cut off from their worshipers, and Tyr hopes that this will conserve the power of the gods and they are better off without all the meddling.
Adding to the mix is the "svartalfs" (dark elves) whose own realm is dying. The arch-god Forbelo has in his possession a "breadth key", an artifact of immense power. (If I recall, it essentially gives the bearer access to all realms everywhere, or something). Tyr wants it, but Forbelo would rather keep it safe, so Tyr doesn't mind "keeping" Forbelo himself. But there is a goddess Anjaeraste who desires to usurp Forbelo and claim the breadth key—only Forbelo knows where it is, and he would die before revealing that to her. This, out of all the others, is a side of mythology I hadn't heard before, and I really enjoyed it! I couldn't even tell if Vanderbilt had invented it all her own, or it was based in another culture--which is pretty much exactly the place a mythology writer wants to be. Well played!

The plot is complex and yet the Norns themselves could not have woven it better. Loki is a complicated villain—one is almost sympathetic to his plight as his nature as a Jot√ľn troll is constantly reiterated, and Tyr would rather see him and his sons (a wolf and a world-serpent) banned from existence. Tyr is also presented as an even bigger jerk than all the rest, as his response to any threat to his power would be to annihilate and subjugate. And yet Loki still makes those selfish and amoral choices that we would expect from a "trickster god" like him--especially when placed in contrast as an opposite to the sun-god Freyr. Loki uses the beings who worship him to accomplish his own diabolical purposes, whereas Freyr wants to see the "weaker" mortals rise up in their own sort of glory, as well as reinstating the gods. Some profound life lessons on the nature of true leadership are surely found here!
Freyr is a sympathetic protagonist as he has a genuine concern for repairing the breach between the realms, Midgard included. Yet even he is not without flaws, as the nymph Vatten soon points out the arrogance in Freyr's bearing. 
Speaking of Vatten... "Midgardians" Vatten, Emise, and so many others are fantastic characters, were so vivid and fascinating that I wanted to keep reading if merely for their sakes. The interactions between the characters brought out the various dimensions and rounded out their characters very well, also giving the reader plenty of food for thought! As things in the "celestial realms" are steadily worsening, the gods' best hope just might lay with the mortals they abandoned long ago.

I would give SKEINS UNFURLED a solid *****4.5 STARS*****—a bit tedious and at times too confusing in parts, but definitely 5-star in terms of complexity and depth of the plot and the characters! This is pretty heavy reading, I'd say it's more "New Adult" than "Young", and definitely a good fit for those who enjoy classical mythology, maybe even grown-up fans of Rick Riordan's books (which I think are fantastic!) who are looking for something similar, but on a more mature level. For sure I am looking forward to the rest of the Breadth Key Cycle!
Further Reading: (Mythology/Traditions/Urban Legends/Religious Mythology)
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Part 6--Prey

Dennahlia "Black Dahlia" Firron, "The Hunter"

Part 6

Black Dahlia—one of the many names they called her, and the name she used for this latest job. She took great pains to ensure that no one ever knew her real name. She sat at her customary stool in the tavern, nursing a mug of ale. Lord Mulberry would likely not miss the cache of gold and jewels from his collection for some weeks—and in the event that an inquiry began, she had several letters in her possession that would induce most of the peacekeepers to look the other way. She grinned and fingered the gold, jewel-encrusted brooch tucked into the leather straps of her glove. Gratuity, she called it. 
"What is it with girls and shiny things?"
The question issued from under the dusty hat in a corner behind her. She had dismissed him as a passed-out drunk when she came in, but now she mentally berated herself for not realizing when he woke up. She affected a nonchalance, drawing the hand with the brooch through her cropped, violet hair as she pulled the straps of leather back to their places either fingertips. Meanwhile, she pretended to inspect the empty hand in a similar fashion. "What is it with boys and their great big sticks?" She nodded to the subtle reveal of his waist, decked with a utility belt and near-complete arsenal. 
The hat came up. "They say female thieves take their cues from magpies: always after what belongs to others, always hoarding useless trinkets," his eyes twinkled as he spoke, "and prone to making loud screeches just because they enjoy the sound of their own voices."
"That's interesting," she responded, holding his gaze and leaning closer. "I hear the men take their cues from roosters: crowing about their own achievements, strutting about with no purpose except to dominate as many females as possible, obsessed with their peckers, trying to make themselves as big and colorful as possible in a desperate effort to be noticed by these females—and when it comes down to it, they're too stupid to figure out anything taller than a ten-inch fence."
She felt his fingers close around her wrist at the same time she remembered which hand it was. She kept her expression neutral as he twisted her hand palm-up and pulled out the brooch.
"Looks like you're the one who should be worried about a fence here, sweetheart," he teased.
"I've got my network," she pulled her hand away, reaching for the jewel—but he just held it out of her reach.
"Ah-ah!" He chided her like a child. "You want this back, you gotta do something for me."
The Black Dahlia raised dubious eyebrows at the man before her. "You look like someone I'd hire for a job, not the other way around."
He grinned, straight white teeth showing between grungy, scruffy lips. "You, of all people, should know better than to judge a book by its cover."
Dahlia rolled her eyes and pulled away; the man fairly reeked of a trap, and she felt better keeping her autonomy while chalking up the brooch as a loss. 
"I've never been much of a reader," she mused, turning her back on him.
"This one will get you lifetime," he called at her back.
The force of the implication stopped her in her tracks. 
He noticed. "That's right; you do this one mission and, if you come out the other side, you retire and you'll never have to work again. You'll be paid to just go on living. Heck, they might even call you a hero."
Hero—perhaps she could come out of hiding, start using her real name again; it did sound too good to be safe.
She turned back slowly. "What do you mean, if I come back?" She demanded. "I don't do suicide missions."
His bright blue gaze seemed to cut right through hers. "Not unless the cause is worth fighting for," he said.
His words seemed to lance a nerve center; her whole body went numb at the memory of—
"No!" She barked. "I take the job, I name all the terms. It's my body, I decide what risk it takes."
He grinned at her. "You can sure name them, but words do not guarantee implementation, especially not your words." He stood, still holding the brooch tightly in his gloved hand. "So, do we have a deal?"
The Dahlia pressed her lips and relaxed her stance. "I'm still thinking," she responded.
He shook his head. "Not good enough; either you accept the offer—"
"Or you can tell your employer to find another Hunter if she dares," the Dahlia hissed. She was rewarded with a flicker of his eyelids. "Don't presume to know me so well if we've only just met. I have plenty business on my own. You're going to have to sell a little harder if you want me to accept." She turned heel and began walking away.
"Very well," he said behind her, "I suppose we are doing this the hard way."
She heard him stand up, heard his hard-soled boots clacking behind her, but he never addressed her, so she kept walking as he fell into step behind her.

The minute they both emerged from the tavern, she felt the clink of cold steel around her wrist. She twisted, but he held.
"Dennahlia Firron!" The sound of her full name hit her like a blast from her own pistol. 
The man pulled up something on a chain hanging inside his jerkin and held it out. "You are hereby arrested for thievery and the marketing of stolen goods, and remanded into the service of the Twin Regents!"
One glimpse at the Royal Seal dangling in front of her face, and Dennahlia—the infamous Black Dahlia—wilted into compliance. She glared at the twinkling blue eyes. "You could have just told me who they were!" She snarled.
He shrugged as people gasped and pointed at this man leading the esteemed thief through the streets. 
He chuckled. "Would you have believed me? As far as I can tell, it probably wouldn't have changed your answer any."
Dennahlia feinted and wrenched—but her bonds held. "Of course not!" She grunted. "Everybody knows you have to be crazy to put yourself on the payroll for those two." She tried another maneuver, stopping suddenly and thrusting her body toward him. He merely sidestepped and she stumbled backwards.
"I see what you did there," he mused. "I'm not crazy; I'm not on the payroll. Just an independent contractor—with a hefty bounty for bringing you in."
"Bounty hunter?" Dennahlia twisted to stare at him in surprise.
"Not usually—but they promised a hefty fee to whoever could bring them a Hunter—and they specifically named you. Naturally, as the only one in the room capable of actually finding you, I had to volunteer my services."
She rolled her eyes. "Naturally."

They arrived at the castle and the bounty hunter dragged the erstwhile thief all the way to the Inner Court, where a wide marble balcony overlooked the courtyard at the center of the castle. 
There they stood, the infamous Regents: young, pale things in black clothes with deep, crimson hair. The girl wore hers straight down her back, while her brother's hair curled softly around his face and rested at his shoulders.
The Lady Regent clapped her hands and smiled when she saw the Black Dahlia. "Oh! You found her!" She cheered. 
The Lord Regent just stared. Dennahlia refused to make eye contact with either of them. 
The enterprising bounty hunter took the opportunity to step in. "I certainly did! And in record time, I might add. Now if you will just deliver me the reward, I will be on my way."
"Of course!" said Her Ladyship. "My brother will get it for you." She nodded to the young man at her side, who glanced at the man and tilted his head, indicating the exit. 
Now the Lady Regent was alone with Dennahlia. Her Ladyship sighed.
"Miss Firron, I have heard so much about you!" She gushed. "They say you can find almost anyone, and anything, even in the deepest shadows of the blackest night, when most people can't even see their hand in front of their face." She trained her weird gaze on the young Hunter's face. "I want you to find somebody."
Here it was at last. Dennahlia appreciated the forthrightness. She was exceptionally good at finding people, though she always assumed she merely had a knack for it. "Who's the target?"
Her Ladyship opened a display screen and accessed a rather grainy image of a man in a long robe with a white beard growing from his chin, and long white hair. From his hand dangled a talisman of sorts, but Dennahlia couldn't tell what color it was, from the poor picture.
"He is a Mage named Korsan; he served King Balwyn, and then when the King died, the Council foolishly decided to banish him. I want you to go to the wilderness, find him, and bring him back." She paused. "Secretly."
Dennahlia tilted her head. "Why secret?"
Her Ladyship pressed her pale lips. "It was discovered at his sentencing that he is one of those Outcasts."
Just the sound of the word made her want to recoil, though Dennahlia was not entirely sure why. It was only a recent discovery, that there were those living among the normal humans with power so much greater than it should have been. They could do things that weren't normal. The Lady Regent was still watching her carefully.
"You know what this means, don't you?" She asked Dennahlia. "He was the last person who could actually work true magic, not just manipulating something in his surroundings like the Outcasts do. It makes him dangerous, out of sight."
Dennahlia smirked. "You want him in arm's reach?"
A smirk played about those pale lips. "If you can," she challenged.
Dennahlia nodded. "Let me at him."
The Lady Regent nodded. "Very well, you will rendezvous with your team at the barracks. Do this one thing, and I can make it so you live the rest of your days comfortably in retirement." She beckoned a soldier forward, and he offered Dennahlia a small bag filled with coins.
The former thief evaluated the bag as she recalled the bounty hunter promising the same thing. "You'd give me hero status?"
Those eyes again, and a small smile. "Of course."
"Consider it done." Dennahlia accepted the advance and nodded to the Lady Regent.

She was on her way to the garrison when a voice stopped her. "Hunter!"
Dennahlia turned to find the Lord Regent striding toward her, a paper in his hand. "Something else we need. There was a caravan tasked with delivering a suit of armor for my sister," he explained. "It was supposed to arrive at the harbor today but it didn't. See if you can find it."
As Dennahlia accepted the paper with a drawing of the armor, her eyes registered an unnatural sheen staining the leather of his black gloves. She could smell it's essence on the paper he'd held. Her mind identified the material instantly.
Meanwhile, he'd caught her staring. "Something wrong?"
Dennahlia looked into his eyes and found the same piercing gaze his sister had. She swallowed. "There is blood on your hands, Milord," she stated.
He smiled in a way that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Well, so there is." He walked away.

Meanwhile, Dennahlia tried to squelch the dread rising in her ever since she smelled the blood and somehow knew the source.

The blood belonged to the bounty hunter.

"Hold still!"
Damaris felt his limbs trembling as he held the sides of the contraption taut. Korsan wove a glittering spell over its surface, and when the circle closed he instructed. "Now let go!"
Damaris released the mechanism, and the spell held. Korsan blew across a finger held to his lips, and the light of the magic disappeared—taking the visibility of the trap with it.
Damaris rubbed his hands till they glowed with heat; this was the fourteenth trap they'd placed in the vicinity of the cave, and his muscles ached. "Are we done yet?" He whined. 
To his relief, Korsan appeared to be heading back into the cave. The old Mage's shoulders slumped; he hadn't needed to work so much magic in a long time. He pointed with his staff.
"Go on ahead of me into the cave," he told him. "I have one more ward to lay, and once I do, we will not be able to leave the cave until it is safe to do so."
Damaris hesitated. Ever since being trapped in a burning building, he'd hated enclosed spaces. "What if it's never safe again?" He blurted.
Korsan stopped and regarded the young boy with much sympathy. "Someday," he assured him. "It will be. I have seen the future, and it is much better than this. We might be innocent prey for now, but soon the predator will be overthrown. All we can do now," he said as they settled in and he began the tedious process of forming boundary wards, "is wait."

A predator could just as easily become prey, Velora thought, and prey that decides to fight back and win at any cost could conceivably turn the tables and become its predator's predator—provided it had enough willpower and intelligence to outsmart and overpower the enemy.
She left her musings as Harlock completed his strange story—waking up in a boat, finding a half-dragon who healed him, and a boy who could shoot lightning, and hearing about this idea of Gifted people—and finally introduced the small fairy. "This is Jay," he said. "I don't know where she comes from, but she was in my pocket when I first awoke in the boat. At first I mistook her for a living star, but she has a body and wings—she just glows all the time."
Jay emitted a stream of jangling noises. Harlock glanced at Velora and flushed like he was worried she would be offended.
"What?" Velora snorted. "I didn't understand any of that."
Harlock frowned. "Really? It sounds the same as the common tongue we all use."
Aurelle shook her head. "Not to us, it doesn't. Anyway, I know this half-dragon of whom you speak. Her name is Erlis. I met her in the harbor after we were both dispelled from the central city and ended up in the harbor town at the same time."
"Yeah, she's pretty good at what she does," Harlock mused. 
"So now you know why we are here," Aurelle continued, "but what brought you to the forest? Did Erlis send you?"
Harlock shook his head. "No; Jay sensed the danger last night and she warned me to retrace the Hunter's steps to find her camp. I had no idea I would find anyone else, but it's a good thing." He nodded to Velora. "That's what Jay was talking about earlier. The Hunter is after the armor and a faction called the Outcasts. I am guessing that's you guys—so if you know of anyone else, chances are good they are at risk too."
Velora recalled finding the armor; had the survivor group been assigned to deliver it? To whom? "What's so special about this armor?" She asked. "Why would we all be at risk if she doesn't even know how many there are? Heck, we don't even know!"
Harlock shrugged. "Oh sure, ask the guy who can't even remember where he came from. I have no idea about the armor, just that it's very important. The Hunter works for the Twin Regents; that makes her a threat. She also has a reputation for being flawless at her job; that makes her relentless. As long as there is an Outcast still alive, she will not stop—why are you laughing?" He whirled on Aurelle, who vainly tried to suppress her giggles.
"Outcasts... Are how the Council and the Regents regard Gifted people. The Regents issued the Outcast Ordinance banning the use of Gifts unless authorized by the Council—about the only thing they managed to agree on—and it seems they have themselves a Hunter willing to seek them out rather than just getting rid of the ones who cause trouble."
Harlock glanced around the clearing full of bodies. "Trouble, like dispatching an entire military detachment?"
Velora grinned. "Guess that makes you one of us, pal!" She teased.
Aurelle smiled. "Are you gifted as well?"
Harlock rubbed the back of his neck. "Kind of, I guess," he admitted. "I sort of found out by accident that I can manipulate water."
Velora lifted her head and sniffed. "Any water?" She asked.
Harlock shrugged. "Maybe; I only used water from the harbor." He stared at the strange girl. "Why?"
Velora looked between them. "It's going to rain soon, which would make the trail very difficult for anyone but this Hunter, I'm guessing. Also, she probably won't have any idea that we already know she's coming."
Aurelle could see ideas taking shape. Already, the designs formed against her palm. "I see!" she said. "With our combined gifts—your reflexes, his water manipulation, and my illusions—we could lure her into an ambush."
Velora smiled. "The predator becomes prey," she affirmed.

Part 7: "Signs and Wonders" >>>>>

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Reading Lists 2016: Ranked Reading List 4

#10. The Eternal War (TimeRiders #4) 
Alex Scarrow
Heh. Blah. Too many open ends and not enough endearing moments. I actually made "rank predictions" based on how much I liked previous books in the series... But this one came out a bit weaker in the storyline than the rest. Almost like the author was saying, "I know I have spent the last three books focusing on the two forefront main characters and it worked out just fine, but in the interest of fairness I am going to change things more drastically than ever AND I will make a HUGE deal out of the "poor, neglected" secondary characters... Just for a change."
Unfortunately, it didn't work. It was change purely for change's sake, and it fell flatter than I would have liked... Bummer.

#9. P is for Peril (Kinsey Millhone #16)
Sue Grafton
This one is one of the good ones. Considering that among the characters is one from a previous book that I didn't enjoy much. Kinsey is quickly swept up in a soap opera of scandal and drama when a woman comes to her about the disappearance of her husband—and chief among the suspects is his ex-wife, who resents Kinsey's involvement. Throw in a miraculous advertisement for a small studio apartment from two brothers who may or may not have murdered someone, and a nursing home embroiled in insurance fraud, declaring medical expenses for deceased patients.... Kinsey is up to her ears in Peril, but that's never stopped her!

#8. Trigger Mortis (A James Bond Novel)
Anthony Horowitz
Pretty good, felt like a real Bond film... At least, the Daniel Craig version. Fast cars; strong and "independent" women (like the one who simultaneously teaches him motor racing and wins his regard... And the "reporter-not-a-reporter" who sparks his affections), outrageously cold villains who "just want to watch the world burn..." Coupled with a desperate motorbike chase... This could totally be a film and I would not be surprised. Horowitz has done a great job with his tribute novels, first for Sherlock and now Bond--I like to think Sir Ian Fleming would be pleased with the homage, if not gratified for the respect paid to a character he invented.

#7. Grave Peril (Harry Dresden #3)
Jim Butcher
Yet another exciting installment of the Dresden Files! This one felt a little "out of continuity", with the sudden (but understandable) absence of Murphy and the addition of a character named Michael (who, given Harry's occupation and the nature of this series, could very well actually BE a reincarnated Templar knight or something!) with a wife and kid—but then again, there were a lot of things that seemed to directly follow the events of the previous book, so I wasn't sure what to make of the things... But I really liked the book! The way the plot stacked up, the awesome character development moments, the red herrings that seemed so convincing but turned out to be false... Really good! 

#6. United As One (Lorien Legacies #7)
Pittacus Lore
Wonderful ending to a great series! I have been hungering for this moment ever since "The Fall of Five" when I first had to begin the long wait for each successive novel, fully expecting each to be the last... Only to run smack into the cliffhanger at the end... But FINALLY THIS IS THE LAST ONE FOR SURE NOW PEOPLE!! And I could not have asked for better closure for all the characters involved. Great and awesome characters and a neat premise that fits together like a tightly-crafted puzzle. I wasn't sure at about halfway through as it seemed to teeter on the precarious edge of "doing too much", but it all swept into resolve, and I really like the conclusion of the matter.

#5. The Hero of Ages (Mistborn #3)
Brandon Sanderson
Holy crap, that ending, though! I can honestly say that I wasn't ready for this book. Strange that it has felt like "falling action" ever since the end of the first book. It's like certain specific characters die to give closure to the end of the first book, and every single "supporting character" feels the fallout for the rest of the series. I loved the character development that went on. Quite possibly my favorite part of Sanderson's style is he takes a scenario that would otherwise feel like a history textbook for a nonexistent world, so why should we care—then he makes us care about the world because we care about the characters living on it. These locations and place names and interim rulers were so far-flung that many of them would have sailed right over my head—if their existence had not borne special significance to the characters I liked. The ending was a real head-scratcher, I had to read some scenes several times to understand what was going on—but all in all, it came to a close and I liked it.

#4. The Golden Yarn (Mirrorworld #3)
Cornelia Funke
Beautiful, stunning as ever... BUT STILL NOT THE END!! It's been a year (or more) since I read the first two books—and even that was right at the end of my "Cornelua Funke book binge" when I read pretty much all of her other printed works, so it's not as if I had any other stories of hers to read till I discovered this one—my WORD, I love this woman's style! It's beautiful, it's dark, it's ethereal, it's magical—she takes the magic of fairy tale and fantasy and kicks it up to a whole new level. She basically recreates "typical" fantasy magic to fashion her own breed, with its own set of rules and parameters. I quite enjoyed this book, long though it was—right up until the back cover when I discovered that she still has not one but TWO MORE books to release in the series! Be still my heart!

#3. Queen of the Tearling (Tearling #1)
Erika Johansen
Oh my gosh! SO BEAUTIFUL!!! But WHO IS THE FETCH???? This is the book where all the cliches happen in Act 1—and are promptly pointed out by the self-aware narrative and systematically dismantled by a very capable author and fashioned into something quite unique and wondrous to behold. I am completely smitten with this book and all the promises contained therein. It's fantasy of an ornate and medieval nature; it's paranormal magics and dark rituals with shadow creatures; it's noble characters and traitors you don't see coming; it's a simple peasant girl raised with all that she needs to be queen—except the knowledge that she in fact was one. It's a princess having to fight against the legacy left by her mother and struggle through the process of establishing a new legacy—and hoping that the radical changes will gain a foothold before enemy nations roll in to wipe out what is left of her little kingdom. It's so many questions I never knew I had but now I cannot rest until they are answered. It's definitely my favorite "new" book!

#2. Blue Lily, Lily Blue (Raven Boys Chronicles #3)
Maggie Stiefvater
Holy moly. Another left hook to the feels-box. DANG it just keeps right on going! Gansey and Adam and Ronan and Blue... The more Gansey tries to hunt down Glendower's tomb, the more the Grey Man steps in to either aid or hinder them, the more Greenmantle is just a jerk-face who is trying to get there first—the more of Henrietta and Cabeswater secrets they wind up unearthing, the more perilous their lives become... I forget so much when I am reading these books. I forget that Noah is dead, I forget that Ronan's family may or may not actually exist, I forget which boy Blue is actually falling in love with, I forget that there won't be an actual "happily ever after" because literally EVERYTHING THAT OUGHT TO HAPPEN WILL IN FACT KILL THEM BOTH. It is truly some kind of wizardry that keeps me so firmly entrenched in this series. I am a fly on the wall of 300 Fox Way and there is no going back. On to the next (and final) book!

#1. The Wheel of Osheim (Red Queen's War #3)
Mark Lawrence
Superbly satisfying ending to a spectacular series! Should the opportunity present itself, this will likely be the first out of all his series that I would willingly own. Easily Number One on this list!
I loved the fact that Lawrence used Jalan and Snorri to basically explore and expand the world he has projected, in a way that just wasn't possible or practical with a character like Jorg. I love the lightness of it; after the incredible pain and anger and bitterness and dark of the Broken Empire trilogy, the Red Queen's War comes as a welcome extended sequence of comic relief. I definitely laughed many times over the series. I let myself actually enjoy the various characters to the point of attachment—and the addition of such magical entities as Baraquel, Aslaug, Loki, and the revelations they brought were both amazing and awesome. I felt considerably more satisfaction and closure at the end of this one than I did at the ending of Emperor of Thorns—and the tie-ins to the modern world were even more brilliant this time around. Well done!
I am in the midst of amassing the books for the fifth list--Stay tuned! Head on over to my Facebook Page for quicker updates and more pictures! Catch you further Upstream!
Previous Ranked Lists:
List #1
List #2 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Part 5--Blemish

Captain Edri Rodan, "The Lion"

Part 5

The words burned hotter and deeper than the three fresh wounds on her face. Captain Edri Rodan caught herself questioning her actions—had she taken the right course after all? She shook her head. A good soldier didn't second-guess herself.
A palace guard, Justin, scooted off his bunk to intercept her on the way to hers.
"Is it true?" He asked. "What they're saying? Did you actually interrupt a circus?"
Edri pursed her lips. "I did what was necessary," she said.
"You're saying that was necessary?" Justin snorted. "That man deserved to die; now because of you the Council has been forced to assign him janitorial duties to keep him out of sight!"
Edri huffed. "If they intended him to die, they should have left off the armor!" She sneered at the cowardice of the Ruling Council. Everyone knew that the Twin Regents held the real power—but the Council had been around since the start of King Balwyn's reign, and they would do what it took to maintain power over the people. 
Justin still regarded her carefully. "They say he walked away without a scratch, yet everyone saw him get hurt multiple times."
Edri swallowed; she definitely would have preferred facing down the lion again, if it meant avoiding questions like these. "So? Maybe it's his Gift; you know they only sacrifice Gifted people in the circus."
"It's not a sacrifice!" Justin retorted.
"What else would you call it?" Edri demanded. "They broke no law, goodness knows they did not volunteer, they are given no weapons—"
"He's lucky the Council allows the provision of armor nowadays," Justin offered this weak defense as Edri let her unfinished remark hang between them. She remained silent and went about adjusting her boots.
Edri brought up her head. "Excuse me?"
"The Gifted man could make flowers; everybody saw him doing it when the lion attacked. Everything was just flowers and blood. Then you stepped in, and his wounds were gone." He never said it directly, but she saw the knowledge in his eyes.
"People with gifts just need to learn to hide them," she quipped, and tried to walk away.
Justin's voice chased her. "Aye," he said. "They do."

Edri shivered as she went out of the barracks, checking the cuff of her left glove as she moved toward the assignments post. She hoped to be on Wall duty; she needed the solitude.
She searched for her name, but none of the areas bore it. Edri frowned as she approached the courier. If any soldier missed their assignment, it was the courier's duty to know all the positions and rotations, and a soldier had only to ask him.
"Edri Rodan, Sixth Battalion, reporting for duty," she announced.
The courier let a small smile twitch across his face. "No you're not," he said, producing a folded paper. "This is for you."

Edri accepted the note and stepped aside to read it. The seal bore an unfamiliar crest—but then again, the Twin Regents had only recently claimed authority. If any seal were unfamiliar to a soldier of the realm, it would be theirs.

"To Captain Edri Rodan of the Sixth Battalion," it began. "Your brilliant display of bravery during today's circus has brought your name into our regard. We are agreed that it was certainly by your hand that this man was saved today. Our castle could definitely use such a one as you, with the skill you carry in your hands. We await no other response than for you to present yourself to us. You are hereby assigned special duties of patrolling the castle grounds for as long as you choose to remain a soldier. The choice is yours. By all means, continue in your marvelous service to the realm."

Edri stared at the flourishing signatures underneath. Words like "brilliant display", "hand", and "peculiar skill" jumped out at her. In time with her thoughts, her hand burned and throbbed.
It was over; they knew, and they were letting her know that they knew. She was probably saved from being pressed into the circus purely because such a brutal demonstration would not get rid of her like they wanted. No, this method of keeping her forever within sight of the palace was a much crueler fate, Edri thought. Still... As long as they assumed she was not a threat, perhaps they could coexist in their mutual non-disclosure—particularly as it seemed she had a skill they needed. Edri sighed and prepared to report to her new post. 
Twenty paces to the arch, twenty more to the corner; wheel right, ten paces, then down the corridor to repeat the process. Captain Rodan knew her route by heart. She timed her paces to the rumbling thunder as the rain poured outside. This storm had rolled in early the previous day, and it had not reduced intensity since it began. 
Edri's ears hummed and her left hand seemed to throb and swell; the Prince was using his gift. Those who had been around during King Balwyn's rule spread rumors that the Prince had a special gift like the Outcasts, that he could produce lightning from his hands—and, in political spite in the face of the Outcast Ordinance, the Council kept him hidden and protected from the Twin Regents, using the lightning for their own mysterious scientific "experiments" rather than shunning him like all the others. Being so close to the tower now, the sensation bothered her, but she wondered if she would actually be there long enough to get used to it.
She had just turned the corner for the hundredth time, when several things happened all at once.
Someone shouted up on the wall.
A terrific explosion rent the sky and nearly threw Edri off her feet, armor and all. 
In the confusion, the young soldier heard a cry for help. She couldn't be certain; the terrific crash left her ears ringing—but then, in the stunned silence afterward, she heard it again: a confusion of shouting and wailing coming from high in the tower. The sounds of people in pain reached her ears. Edri Rodan the palace guard abandoned her post and raced up the long corkscrew staircase to the tower chamber.
More yelling.
"Stop! Please stop!"
High-pitched cackling. "Dance, my minions! Don't stop!"
She reached the corridor outside the antechamber. A few of the more scientific Council members stood by the door, quaking with fear. They looked to Edri immediately when she appeared.
"Don't go in there!" One cried. "She's quite mad!"
More cackling issued from inside the room, and the noise of metal clashing.
"What happened?" She asked.
Another scientist gulped. "We tried everything; it was never supposed to be this way—"
Edri didn't know who spoke, but she felt an odd pull and twist of her stomach at the voice.
She recalled the explosion just a few minutes ago. "Where is the Prince?" She asked.
The man squinted at her. "You know of him?" He caught himself. "Oh, I mean, the Prince has vanished."
Edri frowned. "Into the storm? He can't have gone far—"
"Never mind that!" Another councilor spoke to the first. "What are we going to do about Her?"
Edri gestured to the door. "Who is she?"
The scientists were all shuffling awkwardly and muttering. "Should have told... Should never have turned out... Needs to be stopped..."
Edri rolled her eyes. "Well, if none of you are going to do anything about this hoyden, I will!" She burst through the door—
And stopped in amazement and horror.
A young woman jumped on the voluminous feather bed like a child; her silken gown hung in tatters from her body. A group of soldiers gathered in the middle of the room. Edri spotted a severed hand on the floor, but no sign of the soldier it belonged to. The strangest sight of all were the hardened guards and burly soldiers engaged in jigging in time with her movements.
"Eenie-meenie-meinie-mo!" The woman sang, as the soldiers danced before her. "Who will chop your neighbor's toe?"
She stopped and pointed, and Edri watched in horror as the man, shaking with fear, slowly drew his sword and drove it deep into the boot of the man next to him. 
She lunged. "Stop!" She cried as the victim cried out in pain. She stared at the wild-haired woman. "Are you doing this?" But how?
The woman trained her weird gaze on Edri.
"Didn't you hear?" She lolled her head back and whispered, "I am the queen—" now she shrieked, "I AM THE QUEEEEEN! I DO WHAT I WANT, AND EVERYONE DOES WHAT I PLEASE!" She hopped down onto the back of the soldier curled up in abject obeisance on the floor. "Look at me!" She demanded.
He raised his gaze.
"Bark like a puppy!" She said.
He gave three enthusiastic yelps. 
Edri stared at the fantastic scene unfolding before her. "But how?" She cried. "No one person has that much power!"
"Of course I do!" Snapped the self-appointed Queen. "Now BOW TO ME!"
Edri listened, but her own body betrayed her training, as she bowed low to this woman who could have been nothing but a commoner like herself.
The Queen stared at her as she stood, apparently seeking some other command of this stranger.
"You are different," she mused, peering closely. Finally, she stepped back. "I know what you are!" She scowled upon the young soldier. "You're UGLY!" she pronounced.
Edri fought the tightness in her chest as the word seemed to reach out of the woman's mouth to choke her. 
"You should just stab yourself!"
It made sense when she said it. Edri barely noticed the dagger in her right hand. 
"Do it!" The woman cheered.
At the first bite of steel in skin, Edri felt the urge to continue just as strongly as her body screamed at her to stop. Those were someone else's hands, someone else's side the dagger pierced—but when she was done, she had three new scars, and blood on the blade.
The queen's eyes bulged. "Do that again!" She cried.
Edri moved again, this time slashing at the meat of her leg, but still, nothing came of it.
She felt the heated stares of the men standing at the edges of the room. It was now or never. She slipped off her glove and held her left hand for all to see. The skin there glowed with a bright blue light. Edri stood without moving.
"What is it?" Asked the Queen.
"My gift," Edri answered. "I can touch people and animals, and heal their wounds." She turned to the man who had been stabbed in the foot. "May I?"
He nodded, his face already ashen-grey from blood loss. The red liquid bubbled out of the slit in the leather as he hobbled forward. Edri bent down and placed her glowing hand on the boot. She held it for a few seconds as the entire room held still and watched. Finally she pulled away.
"Does it hurt anymore?" She asked.
The man stared at his boot, confusion twisting his features. "No," he stammered. Abruptly he stood, putting weight on the foot; then, as his eyes widened in surprise, he slowly pulled his foot out. Everyone counted five toes; there was not even a slight scar on his skin.
The Queen pulled her lips together in a pinch. "Leave us!" She announced.
Edri didn't feel the strange compulsion, but at the same time, the entire group shuffled out of the room. When they were alone, the half-dressed woman sat on the stained and tattered couch, staring intently at Edri.
"My name is Zayra, what is yours?" She asked.
"Edri Rodan," Edri answered.
"You have a gift, Edri Rodan," Zayra mused—but the way she said it sent chills down Edri's spine. "I have a gift too," Zayra continued. "It's not very popular among others. Sometimes I lose my memories."
Edri saw the madness hovering at the edges of Zayra's gaze. "You want me to try healing your mind?"
Zayra grinned coldly. "Yes! Make me better, more controlled—that must be the way!"
Edri gulped. "I don't know if I—"
"DO IT!" Zayra shrieked, grabbing Edri's wrist and placing it on her head.
Both women screamed. Edri's ears rang with a cacophony of voices, disturbing images full of darkness and horror. Just as suddenly as it began, the noise and the visions ceased. Zayra slumped over in a dead faint. 
Edri leaped to her feet.
"Help!" She called. "She's fainted!"
A flash of red on her shoulder caught her eye. She stopped and peered at it; somewhere during the attempt to heal Zarya's mind, he hair had gone from blonde to a deep scarlet color.
There was no time to think about this, as those gathered in the hall swarmed the room, with the one remaining council member shouting out orders.
"Quickly now, the room must be repaired! Take away the soiled linens and bring fresh ones. She must continue believing that she is a queen!"
Edri slipped on her glove and approached the man. "Why is this important?"
His eyes bulged. "How dare you question! You must never do so again. She trusts you as her protector, so you will act as her personal guard. This kingdom needs a ruler, so we're doing everything we can to give them one!"
From castle grounds to within the tower itself. To anyone else, it might feel like a promotion. To Edri Rodan, and (if the visions were any indication) to Zayra, all these trappings were no more than a lovely noose, a scarlet brand they could not escape.

Erlis the Healer regained consciousness without opening her eyes. She slid the tip of her tongue between her lips, tasting the scent of her two house guests on the air.
One guest; the other scent was already cold.
Erlis sat up quickly and stared into the shadows, which seemed to brighten with her focused gaze. 
"Jaran!" She hissed. "Wake up!"
The young prince stirred and rolled over slowly. "'Mmph, what is it?"
"Harlock is missing."
Jaran's eyes popped open and he jerked upright. "Blast! Where could he have gone?" Wasn't it just yesterday that he had tried to recall any memory of his former life, and pronounced all attempts utter failure?
Erlis curled her lips in a pensive smirk. "Apparently he may have remembered more than he admitted to us."
"That's not fair!" Jaran protested. "Why wouldn't he trust us, after all we did for him?"
Erlis tilted her head. "Do not look at me, Highness; it was not my actions that caused him pain yesterday."
Jaran flushed and shrugged. "I was trying..."
"I know." Erlis nodded. "Stay here, I'll gather some things for breakfast and see if I can find any sign of him." She put on her thick black robe and slipped out of the house. As she turned, a thin object fluttered to the ground. Jaran waited till he could not hear her footsteps before stopping to pick it up.
Shining red against the black material that matched the cape Erlis wore was an embroidered crest—not just any crest, but the one belonging to his family. Erlis came from the palace! Was she a plant, intended to intercept him on purpose and return him to the council?
"I have not actually worn that patch for some time."
Jaran flinched so hard that he pulsed, but Erlis ducked out of the bolt's trajectory. She picked up the patch when he dropped it. 
"You!" He spluttered. "You once served in the palace?"
Erlis nodded. "I was a healer when your parents were alive. Until—" she stopped, pressing her lips too late as she wished the word unsaid.
Jaran pressed her. "Until what?"
She fixed him with a glare that radiated from her golden dragon eye.
"Until they weren't," she stated, and swept past him into the house.
Jaran didn't take the hint to drop the matter. "I never really knew my parents. Everyone treats their death as some big secret."
Erlis took a seat near the fire, but her body was still tense and rigid. "Enough, Jaran," she warned.
He kept talking. "I know they were both very ill, but I could never find out more than that. Do you know what happened?"
Erlis was staring out the window, concern etched into her face. "Be silent, Jaran," she insisted.
He huffed. "No! I mean it! If you were a healer, couldn't you help them? Tell me how they died! Why are you keeping this from me?"
"QUIET!" A rumble of dragon roar underlaid her voice as she yelled at him.
Jaran finally turned to see what she was looking at.
A Hunter—The Hunter—stalked down the lane, a furious scowl on her face. She gestured to the palace soldiers—wearing the black livery of the Twin Regents—and pointed down the alleys. "Find whatever Thugs you can; bring them to the edge of the Wilderness. We'll find him if it's the last big hunt of my career!"
When Jaran turned to look at Erlis, she was already staring at him.
"Your parents' death is a mistake I will have to live with the rest of my life," she said quietly. "That is all you need to know."
Jaran felt an uneasiness settle in the pit of his stomach. "What is the Hunter doing here in the harbor?" He asked. "Whom is she hunting?"
Erlis raised an eyebrow. "Whom do you think, dear runaway prince?"

"The Hunter is coming," said the milk-haired person.
Velora grinned and tapped the tips of her claws against each other. "Let him come," she's seethed. "My pack will take care of him."
The newcomer cast her a withering look, but did not reply. Instead, she nodded to Damaris. "And what will you do?" She observed the tongues of fire wreathing his wrists. "Burn the Hunter to a crisp?" Before he could reply, she approached Korsan. "Seriously? This is all you could enlist? A cub and a two-legged matchstick?"
"Hey!" Both Damaris and Velora lunged for her, but they collided with each other, as the woman with the white hair observed them while leaning casually on the opposite wall.
The Mage shrugged. "I did no recruiting; these were already here when I returned from foraging, Aurelle." He winked at her. "One could reasonably suspect you of planning something."
Aurelle snorted. "If I did, I would have chosen better allies." She stood and walked back among the group. She glared at Velora.
"The Hunter is no ordinary woodsman. She is the single biggest threat to the continued existence of the Outcasts. If she's tracking any of you, she will find you. If she loses a fight, she has a way of escaping, only to return with an even bigger army. Do not make the mistake of underestimating her."
Velora huffed. "I'm read—" before she had finished speaking, Aurelle lunged forward, bumping against Velora's breastplate. Velora involuntarily looked down to see a handle protruding from her breastplate, blood seeping down the hilt. It had been so sudden, she didn't even feel it. The keen edge of a knife pressed against her throat and Aurelle hissed in her ear from behind, "You were saying?"
Velora reached up to her throat—and felt her neck, unscathed. She looked down at her chest again, and the knife had vanished, taking the grisly wound with it. The armor was not even scratched.
Aurelle regarded her. "I'd say you have a ways to go, young pup." She sighed and walked right past the stunned Velora.
"So, Korsan, if these are all we have, we best get them trained before the Hunter shows up."
Korsan chuckled. "I assume you bought us some time?"
Aurelle smiled. "A little; but she'll be back, and with a fresh army." She nodded back at Velora. "That's nice armor; I'm assuming you picked it up on your way out of the forest?"
Velora sniffed. "How did you—"
"You and your pack left a mess and plenty of trail for the Hunter to find. You need to learn about covering your tracks. You might assume that you're invincible enough to withstand anything that follows you—but unless you are the most powerful being in the world, you are better off just not leaving a trail."
Korsan stood and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I will stay here and train Damaris to control his flames."
"Barricade the cave after we leave, won't you?" Aurelle recommended.
"Don't get caught," Korsan replied.

Velora followed the woman out to a dune just outside the cave. "Where are we going?"
"Back to your mess," Aurelle replied. "No doubt the Hunter left troops behind to guard the area. We'll just give them some motivation."
Velora groaned. "But it's going to take a whole day, maybe more, to get there!"
Aurelle smiled. "Not the way I travel." She gripped Velora's arm. "Hold tight!"

Velora felt smothered in darkness till it suddenly dissipated, and she stood in a thicket of trees. She looked around for the gleam of white hair, but not even her keen, wolfish eyes could discern anything.
She opened her mouth to call for Aurelle, when she felt a hand tighten on her wrist.
"I'm right here," said a voice. "Don't. Say. Anything."
Velora squinted at her wrist, but all she could make out were the soft indentations of fingers on her skin. 
"How are you doing that?" She asked the air.
Light shifted softly till it formed the shape of a person. "Part of my Gift," Aurelle whispered. "I can create the illusion of invisibility by bending light around me, or making you believe that all you can see is empty forest." She tugged on Velora's wrist, forcing the young woman to crouch low in the bushes. Finally, Velora could see her, concealed in the undergrowth and watching something else carefully. Aurelle beckoned to Velora. "Come see the consequence of leaving your mess behind."
Velora crept forward, peering between branches to see a blazing bonfire at the center of a camp teeming with castle soldiers.
"The Hunter would have brought them, leaving them behind in case the quarry shows up, meanwhile she's probably gathering a bunch of Thugs to come back and overpower the person she's after."
Velora had to agree that it was definitely not a good situation. 

No less than twenty soldiers gathered around the campfire. At any given time, five of them carefully watched the perimeter of the camp, while the rest ate and slept as they waited for their rotation. 
"So tell me, Wolf," Aurelle mused. "Would your method be to invite your wolves out for a snack and try to overpower the men before you lifted a finger?"
Velora glared at her. "Of course I would!"
"What if your pack was back in the wilderness and there's not enough time for them to get here?"
Velora's eyes narrowed even further. Her claws bit into the branch she held. She took a deep sniff, the heavy scent of sweaty, unwashed men and old food bolstering her frustration. 
"Then what would you suggest?" She growled at the aggravating woman.
Aurelle only smiled, and her image faded into the shadows of the forest. "You become the Wolf. Use your senses to weed out the easy prey, use your claws to silence them. We take them out one by one until there are none left."
Velora scowled. "What exactly is your gift, anyway?"
Aurelle raised her eyebrows. "I'm an illusionist; I can make people see things that aren't there."
Velora sensed a shift in the wind. Her instincts triggered a moment before she noticed a spark hovering over the fire—hovering, and not moving. She peered closer as the spark slowly moved in lazy whorls, up to the shoulder of the soldier on the far side of the camp.
Finally, Velora pointed. "Things like that?" She asked.
Aurelle, who had just been in the act of vanishing, abruptly became solid again as the soldier noticed the glowing "ember" on his shoulder.
"That's not me," she murmured.

Pandemonium erupted in the camp. 
"Fairies!" Screamed one of the soldiers. "It's fairies attacking us!"
Weapons materialized and blasted in all directions as the little ball of light dodged easily among the frenzied men.
"Move or be discovered!" Aurelle's voice rang, galvanizing Velora into action. The two women joined the frenzy, taking down the soldiers one by one as they scrambled in blind panic. When the last soldier fell, Aurelle and Velora stood in the middle of the clearing, with the fairy between them.
A body of a slain soldier—a sniper, by the looks of it—dropped out of the treetops, and a second followed it, this one landing on his feet.
Velora and Aurelle stared as the man reached out and cupped the fairy in his hands. He was dressed like a sailor, with dingy trousers and wearing no shirt, his dark hair loosely tied back at the nape of his neck. Velora noted that he had broken the sniper's neck before tossing him down. He glanced warily from the claws to Aurelle's glowing eyes.
"Who are you?" Aurelle demanded.
The man opened his hands and let the fairy fly up to burrow in his hair. "My name is Harlock," he answered, "and I'm afraid that's all I can tell you. I would have offered help sooner but I didn't know you were there until you attacked." He grinned. "So who might you be, and what possessed you to attack armed soldiers in the woods?" 

Part 6: "Prey">>>>>

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Reader's Review: "Blood Hound" by James Baldwin

Synopsis from Amazon:
 My name is Alexi Sokolsky: blood mage, occult scholar, and hired killer. Three things that should convey me some immunity in the dog-eat-dog world of the Russian mafia.
Fat chance. In reality, I think too much, drink too little, and if there's one thing the underworld teaches you, it's that there's always a shark bigger and hungrier than you.

Life gets tough after a man turns up dead in our territory, his mutilated body scrawled with demonic sigils. It gets tougher when a key ally of my Organization is kidnapped by a secretive death cult... and I'm the errand boy sent to hunt them down and bring him back.

Then I get captured, nearly killed, and am immersed in a sea of cosmic horror the likes of which I've never known. The stakes are nothing less than the daughter of GOD Itself... and she's calling to me for help.

My name is Alexi Sokolsky: blood mage, occult scholar, hired killer... and hapless pawn in the great game between Everything and the NO-thing trying to destroy it.
My Review:
Well, here's what I can say: I am developing a keen sense of my own tastes for the "paranormal crime solver" genre. From Grave Reports to Supernatural to Dresden Files—I began to notice myself comparing things to these others as I read Blood Hound. And it stacked up pretty well, I'd say.

The hero is a surly Mage, living alone in less-than-stellar conditions and few actual friends. He is forced to work with people who happen to have more social influence and authority (and money, I think) than he does, but they also have less understanding of the parameters of magic than he does, either too afraid of it, or passing it off as "woo-woo." His superiors want him to do what no one else can and solve this problem they have in a very short time, with no concern for his peril as the bad guys seem to have no regard for him as a person, and this are willing to cut him down as brutally as they like if he gets in their way. 
These things seem to be the hallmark of the genre, and Baldwin plays it up well. Where he deviates here is in the culture of his Mage, and thus the whole tone of the book. Where Harry Dresden had Western Catholic roots for his magic system and his perspective, and Vince Graves displays more of the modern Protestant beliefs and mythology (also espoused in Supernatural)—Baldwin does something unique in actually choosing Russian origins for his characters (the Russian Mafia of New York, in particular) and Eastern Orthodoxy/Jewish Mythology for his magic system. (That's, I think, where things got a little weird for my taste: any time the storyline got too deep in the religious aspect, especially in regards to re-constituting GOD—something I have never been comfortable with—it seemed to lose a lot of the drive and appeal, but it always resumed itself once the "dogma" was out of the way) The dialogue and narration are spattered with Russian terms (so fun!) and the social hierarchy and interactions between the characters were so well-done that by the end I think I was practically reading most of it in a slight Russian accent (in my head.)
The mystery, the crime Alexi has to resolve, is a very good one. I found just enough hints to keep me occupied with suspicions as I read—then plot twists would come along and blow them away with a single gasp! I very much sympathized with Alexi; that is to say, I very much enjoyed the characters who were his friends, and very much disliked the ones who were his enemies. 
The magical concepts introduced were very well-done, from the idea of Phi as a magical substance and Phitometry as the working of that magic, to the concept of the Gift Horse and the culmination of Alexi's mission—which, in the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, is all I will say about that. 

With a title like BLOOD HOUND, it should be no surprise that this book is pretty violent. Lots of broken limbs, exploding body parts, and gore in general; Alexi is a hit man, it's part of the job. The deeply religious mythological aspect also produces some disturbing images that did a rather effective job of scaring me. But if you're the sort that doesn't mind that sort of stuff, and you are in the market for a good urban paranormal series to follow, BLOOD HOUND and the rest of the "Hound of Eden" series is definitely one to follow! Baldwin does a very good job at evoking the right emotions through his writing, and communicating the more crazy-twisted parts of the story in the right words so that it is clear what is going on.
That being said, I would give BLOOD HOUND a ****4 STAR**** rating. It's not the best I've read, but it's fairly decent in it's own right, and delightfully unique in its treatment of the classic tropes. Baldwin demonstrates himself as a very capable writer. I would definitely be interested in giving further installments a try!
Further Reading: (Weird Tales/Horror/Urban Fantasy/Breathtaking Thriller)
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd  
-Grave Beginnings--R.R. Virdi