Monday, April 24, 2017

Reader's Review: Three Stellar Novellas!

Since these tales were considerably smaller than your average novel (and I basically finished two of them over the weekend, I decided to compile them all together into one post.

Tomoiya's Story: Escape to Darkness
C. A. King

Synopsis from Amazon:

This series is the perfect addition to any Vampire fan's collection.

Space travel. To some it is an advancement; a way to meet new races, learn new traditions; explore new cultures - a chance to expand the mind with knowledge of the unknown. To others, it is nothing more than a new outlet of resources to exploit and destroy. To the naive and trusting it is a recipe for disaster. The question of whether or not venturing into the realm of the stars is worthwhile, is a topic that will be argued for generations to come.

The Universe - vast and never ending. It recycles within itself. What happened before comes full circle and occurs again. Some call it fate - others destiny.

Two different ages - Two vampire princesses.

Two stories - one written in a book - the other about to begin.

Escape To Darkness tells the tale of Allaynie, a vampire whose tears are worth a fortune. A chance meeting on her wedding day changes her whole existence.
Woden, a man to whom greed is merely good business. Hunting is his trade. He'll do anything to collect her unique tears for profit, even chase her into darkness.

My Review: 
I got this book in a bundle along with the first couple books in her other series as a giveaway. I wasn't sure what to expect, but at least I knew there were going to be vampires. I'm not typically a huge fan of that trend, but I decided to give it a try.

I am glad I did! It's not just vampires; it's a whole alien race that is misunderstood by most and hunted down by the rest. She takes the typical vampire lore and turns it into something heart-wrenchingly lovely. We cheer for Allaynie, and shiver whenever Woden is mentioned. I liked it because, as short as it was, it still had plenty of food for thought and inspiration for imagination!  The story carves deep into the nature of prejudice, and the lengths some people will go to get what they want at the expense of someone else. It feels like a prequel to something grand and amazing, because it is. Tomoiya's Story is a series about to begin!
Genre: Paranormal Urban Fantasy
Rating: ****
Burn Artist (Hound of Eden #0.5)
James Osiris Baldwin

Synopsis from Amazon:
When stuff gets too weird for the Mob to handle, hitmage Alexi Sokolsky is the guy they call to fix it.
1986, New York City. The Russian Mafia is neck-deep in a Wall Street heist worth millions, but things heat up when a mage from a rival gang is hired to force the Russians to back down from the deal. As the magic flies and men burn, Alexi must hunt the murderer in a feverish game of cat-and-mouse – not only to protect the Organizatsiya, but his friends and family as well. The only thing is, to honor his contract, Alexi must also save his worst enemy.

His father.

Set 5 years before Blood Hound, Burn Artist is a prequel to the series which reveals more about Alexi’s past. What were the events that shaped him? Why did he murder his own father? And what are his true feelings for his best friend?
My Review: 
After reading Blood Hound and largely enjoying it (except a few really trippy parts that went too far down the rabbit hole for my tastes!) I went ahead and signed up for Baldwin's mailing list, which meant I got this novella for free! 
All that aside, this one made me really excited. It was like a story boiled down to the elements I actually enjoyed about Blood Hound—Alexi being a wizard, tapping into powers and abilities to be able to fight malevolent entities, but also Alexi as a person struggling with how to connect to the people and the world around him. Actually getting to see his interactions with his father help me understand his deep-abiding resentment that still affects him in Blood Hound. And watching him interact with repeat characters, already knowing what secrets they hide that will be revealed later, but for now Alexi doesn't know... Well done. I was very pleased with this story!
Genre: Paranormal Urban Fantasy
Rating: ***** 


Tiger's Shadow (Therian Way #0.5)
Kimberly Rogers
Synopsis from Amazon:
It’s not easy having an older brother. It’s worse when your brother is the paragon of the Therian Way. Madoc knows he can’t live up to his brother’s reputation. Sometimes the only way out of the Tiger’s shadow is to rebel . . .

My Review:

I saved the best for last! Only because out of the three novellas in this post, I am already an obsessed fan girl over the Therian Way series. 

I will read anything from this series. Absolutely ANYTHING. It's another prequel novella, so dealing with the way things were before Baran met Raina... but it follows the trend of "dual narrators", dividing its points of view between Baran and his brother Madoc. Madoc is resentful of the way his brother adheres so strongly to the Therian Way—but not in the same "loosen up, Tiger!" way that Raina is. While Raina wants to see Baran relax to not be so hard on himself, Madoc just wants his brother to leave him alone, wants to get away from the pressure of always being overshadowed by Baran's "religious perfection", and most of all, he's not handling the guilt and the rebellion very well. I see it as introducing his character into the established timeline of the main series, and I am VERY excited!
Genre: Urban High Fantasy
Rating: ***** 
Be sure to check out the Reader's Reviews page for more literary goodness!


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 2 Part 5--"Unleashed"

This week's most-nominated character:Captain Edri Rodan, "The Lion"
Season 2, Part 5
Jaran clenched his fist as the blue lightning crackled around it. Every thump on the wooden surface of the door left a black, singed imprint.
"Beren!" He yelled. He heard his brother scream, heard Zayra proclaim herself queen—

Jaran stumbled back down the hall as he felt her influence buzzing around his ears. Clearly she resented him for the pain he'd caused—but how could he have known? Now his brother was in mortal danger; he could only hope that the Angel had somehow managed to save his brother.

Jaran dashed down the hall. He couldn't do this alone.
"Azelie!" He called.
The fair maiden emerged from the doorway leading to the back courtyard.
"I am here," said her thoughts. "What happened? Where is the King?"

High in the west tower, the door slammed open and Queen Zayra descended. They could hear voices, a lot of shouting—but none was clear enough.
"Zayra," Jaran whispered. "She..."
He couldn't quite form the words, but Azelie read his mind. She gasped. "She killed him?"
Jaran hung his head. "No, at least I hope not. I don't know."
The young woman shook her head. "She is completely insane."
Jaran heard somebody scream in the atrium. "What was that?"
Azelie pursed her silent lips. "I've been trying to find out, but there are too many voices, and some of them have changed. It sounds like Edri is trying to—" she stopped and gasped. "Erlis is free!"
"Free?" Echoed Jaran aloud. "You mean she isn't a dragon anymore?" He turned toward the doorway, but Azelie grabbed his hand. "No! Don't go out there, it's not safe!"

Jaran pulled away just as a series of explosions rocked the ground beneath them. Part of the wall before them collapsed, and he glimpsed a few bodies flying through the air like the toys of some giant child. A bright light filled the space—Jaran knew it could only come from Aurelle—and then there seemed to be a lot of shouting.

"AFTER THEM!" Zayra shrieked. "FIND THEM!"
A wolf howl sent the chills racing down Jaran's spine, and then the castle lay eerily still.
Queen Zayra gave an order, and the scuffling steps of servants rushed to obey, but around the young man and young woman standing absolutely still in the back room, the dust settled and nothing else moved.
We need to leave, Jaran thought.
"That is a wise choice, I think," Azelie's voice responded in his head.
Jaran turned, and his foot scraped against the floor as his shoulder brushed a few pebbles from the crumbled wall.
"What was that?" Queen Zayra's voice came sharply from the next room.
Jaran quickly scuttled toward Azelie and the two friends slipped behind the door leading to the east tower just as servants entered the back room along with soldiers to move the rubble.
"I don't get it," Jaran wagged his head. "How could they just follow her like that? I mean, everybody saw my brother's coronation, didn't they?"
Azelie watched him. "Do you remember how it felt when she sent you out of the room?" She asked.
Jaran nodded. "It was like my body just went numb, and it was just something I was going to do anyway."
"That is her Gift," Azelie stated. "She can enthrall people into doing what she wants, and she can even manipulate reality in small ways when she is sufficiently motivated." The pretty girl shrugged. "She is the reason I lost the ability to speak. She ordered me to stop talking, and I haven't been able to utter a sound since."
Jaran slumped against the wall in the dark, narrow stairwell. "How can we stop someone so powerful?"

"Jaran?" Korsan's voice resounded from above.
Jaran and Azelie looked up at the two familiar faces on the landing above them.
"Korsan!" Jaran raced up the steps. Aurelle stood just behind the old Mage. "But you were in there," Jaran gestured back toward the main hall. "How did you get back here?"
Aurelle smiled. "I turned us both invisible in the flash, and we snuck back here."
Korsan nodded. "We both knew that being outside the castle wasn't safe because that would be the first place Zayra would search for us, and we couldn't get far—I'm still pretty weak from the dragon's claws." He reached down and fumbled at his belt. Horror spread across his features as he looked down. "Blast!"
"What is it?" Aurelle asked.
"My talisman," Korsan answered, "it's gone!"
"What do you use it for, anyway?" Asked Jaran. "I see you holding it from time to time, but I never understood why."
Korsan slumped into a nearby chair. "It serves as a reservoir of magic so I can cast spells without taxing myself. It also protects me from being harmed by other Gifts."
Aurelle watched him. "That's why you could still recover after being injured so badly by Erlis."
Korsan nodded. "I don't know where it could have gone," he said.
"It might still be here in the castle," Azelie offered.
The Mage stared at the young woman. "I wondered why you didn't speak..." he murmured slowly.
Aurelle sighed and glanced toward the door. "It must have come off when we were trying to escape Troy."
"Who is Troy?" Jaran tipped his head.
The Illusionist shivered. "He calls himself an Abnormal, and Gifts don't really affect him. He's the one who has been messing with our Gifts—causing the surges."
"That was him?" Jaran's eyes widened; didn't the Angel in Beren's room claim to be an Abnormal as well? Were they possibly related somehow? "But why would he do that?"
Korsan stroked his beard. "He claims that he is only allowing Gifted people to achieve their full potential—"
"But at the same time," Aurelle interjected, "his surge in Edri turned poor Velora into an actual wolf." She scoffed, "He doesn't seem to care about that like we do. And he's got Zayra's trust, so that tells you how dangerous things are going to get for us."
Jaran huffed and began pacing. "We have to find Beren, make sure he's okay."
"Where did you last see the King?" Korsan asked.
Jaran's face fell. "After the coronation, Zayra surprised us. She forced me out of the room—Jade was there—"
"I'm sorry," The Mage interrupted. "Jade?"
"She's the other Abnormal," Jaran explained. "Remember when we first met my brother, when he had no memories and this fairy companion named Jay? Yeah, apparently this Troy person cursed her to be tiny like that unless she could bring the Crown Prince, my brother, back to sit on his throne. So now she is human-size again."
Korsan nodded slowly. "So Jade was with your brother when Zayra expelled you from the room?"
"Yes," Jaran replied.
"Then perhaps we can hope that she managed to protect the King; she has certainly managed to do that so far."
"But what do we do now?" Jaran demanded.
Before anyone could reply, the door to the tower opened.
"What's this?" The sergeant cried. "All of you stay where you are! Nobody move!"
He had a line of sight on Korsan and Jaran standing at the top of the stairs, but Aurelle moved only slightly. She gripped Azelie's hand and faded into the wall behind them.
The Mage and the prince stood helplessly as more soldiers stormed up and grabbed their wrists to drag them back into the open. No one noticed the two ghostly forms drifting along behind them all the way to the throne room. Twenty servants crouched under a thrall so thick, Jaran could practically see it; they did nothing but scrub at the layer of soot coating the stone, scrub till the marble showed underneath, scrub till their hands were raw and bleeding.
Upon the blackened throne, a young woman in a pale dress sat, his brother's crown upon her head. 
"What have we here?" Her eyes lit up when she saw the prisoners.
"We found these two hiding in the east tower, your highness," said the sergeant. He shoved Jaran roughly in the shoulder. "Kneel before the queen!"
"No!" Jaran grunted. "Rather, it is she who should kneel before me!"
Queen Zayra pinched her lips at his response. "The man said kneel, boy!" She rose to her feet; the soot did not so much as stain her dress. "Kneel before me!"

It happened again; his mind blanked, and before he could focus enough to think, Jaran was already kneeling. Korsan dropped to his knees beside the prince. 
"I cannot resist without the talisman," hissed the Mage. "My only consolation is that she may have my body, but in my mind, I am bowing to the True King of the Realm, King Beren."
Jaran tried to use his mind to convince his body to stand, but it was no use.

Above them, the Queen gloated. "Ah, Troy was right! Power feels good. I amass an army of souls, Gifted and unGifted, all mine to command." She sat upon her throne. "And now with a prince and a wizard at my side, there is no one in the Realm who can stop me!" She laughed heartily, setting the vaulted ceilings ringing with the sound that chilled Jaran to his core.
It was the sound of madness, all-powerful and unleashed.

Kaidan watched the stranger very closely, but though Troy met his gaze with twinkling, black eyes, there was something unnerving and incorporeal about his features. 
Beside him, the Hunter tensed. "What do you mean, achieve our full potential?" She hissed, her hand gripping the hilt of the knife on her hip.
Kaidan leaned forward. "I'm more interested in how you propose to garner all that prestige and power. How would you know what we deserve?"
Troy grinned. "I know, dear boy, because I experienced it once. A long time ago, Gifted humans were revered as deities. Myths portrayed them as the children of gods, and legends extolled their every accomplishment as a genuine miracle for generations!" A sneer flickered across his face. "Then technology came, and the unGifted could suddenly make machines to mimic what the Gifted could do, and suddenly the people didn't NEED gods anymore."
Javira remained upright, a sharp contrast to her brother currently leaning over the table with a hungry gleam in his eye, drinking in every whispered syllable Troy uttered. "So why should we presume to undo this progress society has made? Isn't it just a thankless cry for attention?"
Troy transferred his attention to her. "Tell me," he whispered, "are you truly happy with the Gift you wield? Knowing that it was never intended to be yours anyway, knowing that your own Gift could have been the thing that saved your mother, instead of causing her death? Are you happy, Javira, that this Gift, forced upon you by your father, motivated your mother to kill your father and herself? Are you content with influencing the death of those you love?"
Javira opened her mouth to speak, but the grief gripped her throat as the tears trickled down her cheeks. "I didn't..." she stammered pitifully. "It wasn't me!"
Troy smiled. "But think about it, my dear: it couldn't possibly have been anyone else."
"ENOUGH!" Denahlia roared, slamming the knife blade-first into the table. 
The spell was broken. Javira felt Kaidan's arms around her as she sobbed and tried to regain composure.
The Hunter glared at the cocksure Shadow. "No more games, Troy. Either you tell us what you are really up to, or I will run you through again—only this time, I cut you into little pieces so you can't come back again!"
Troy leaned back and raised his black-gloved hand. "Whoa, now; there's no need for such extreme measures, Madame Hunter. I am fully prepared to guarantee everything I am offering. This is no game."
Kaidan viewed the man with slightly less awe, after what he had just done to Javira, but the guarantee sounded nice. "So what would you offer?" He asked. "What is this utopian future you think you can guarantee?"
Troy folded his hands. "I'm offering the chance for Gifted people to rise up and take power."
"In the Realm?" Denahlia snorted. "They already have power. Balwyn's whole family was Gifted, and now under King Beren, they are no longer outcasts."
Troy shook his head. "I'm not talking about merely being accepted by unGifted as functioning members of society. We are Gifted; we should be masters over the rest of our race!"
Kaidan felt the thrill at his words. Masters! Unstoppable!
Denahlia snorted. "And you are the only one who can make it so?" She sneered.
Troy shrugged. "Consider the upgrades I've given you; do you honestly think you could have done that by yourself?"
Denahlia hesitated, but Troy went right on talking. "And it might interest you to know that King Beren isn't on the throne."
Denahlia frowned. "He isn't? But I saw the proclamation announcing his coronation just yesterday."
Troy smiled. "I paid a visit to the palace, myself. I tried offering the same things to the others, but unfortunately my idiot sister was there, and she spirited the young king away to who-knows-where. The only person to take me up on the offer was that marvelous little Queen you have locked up in there."
"Zayra?" Javira cried.
Denahlia rolled her eyes. "You gave an upgrade to Zayra?" This could not end well.
Troy shrugged. "Like I said, she was the only one to agree with me. Jade had already sunk her impeccable claws into the minds of everyone else there."
Kaidan blinked. "But if Zayra is now in charge..." he trailed off as the inspiration leached over into his sister. 
Javira smiled. "We've had her once; we can get her again."
Troy grinned. "And the Gifted shall inherit the earth, and all dominion shall be given over to them," he quoted.
Javira frowned. "But there are so many unGifted," she said. "Surely they would not take very well to someone asserting control over them."
Troy shrugged. "That's where Gifts like thrall come in handy. I would say get rid of them all and create a society of only Gifted people, but as matters stand, unGifted are suited for servitude, menial labor, and little else. Every ruler needs their lackeys, and we'll have plenty of rulers to go around!" He threw back his head and laughed.

"You forget, Shadow."
The laughter died in his throat when he felt the cold edge of a knife on his neck.
Denahlia, her turquoise-colored, hypnotic gaze glowing next to him, whispered savagely in his ear.
"I have seen and felt what it is to have so much power that you depend on someone else to give you orders." She swept her gaze around the room, igniting a turquoise gleam in many more pairs of eyes. A group of burly seamen drifted forward and surrounded the Twins.
"It's called being a mercenary, and you want to know something funny about mercenaries? We hate being on a contract." She pressed the blade closer and deeper with every utterance of the word. "We hate abiding by someone else's rules, whether we get paid or sent away with the bullshit line about keeping our lives." A nod from her, and the pirates grabbed the two siblings. Troy still wouldn't dare to move, even as the blood beaded around the blade now puncturing his skin. 
"And we really don't take kindly at being called somebody's lackey." She brought the knife down hard, aiming for Troy's chest, but the knife connected with the back of the chair he had been sitting in. Troy himself vanished.

Scowling but not venting her frustration, Denahlia sheathed her knife and gestured to every unGifted person in the tavern. They all gathered around her.
"Javira!" Kaidan hissed. "Do something!"
"I'm trying!" She whispered back. "Whatever she's done to them, they won't respond to me!"
"Shut up!" Denahlia barked. "This Hunter is calling her own mission this time! You two are headed back to the palace dungeons where you imprisoned so many others, and we'll just see how much power the Gifted ones have when the entire population of unGifted are unleashed upon them!"

Jade carefully drew her wings close about her as they crested yet another dune in their trek toward the forest. She glanced at Beren, marching stolidly next to her, but his face had solidified into a permanent frown as his mind focused on something else besides their endless walk. At least, she hoped he was thinking about something else right now, and not about the last time he had been with her in the wilderness, heading toward the forest. The guilt hit her again as she remembered how furious he had been, taking her actions as betrayal simply because he lacked the memory to know how necessary it was to do what she did. Now here they were, wandering the wilderness yet again, ostensibly no closer now than they had been before he got his memories back.
The words came out before she considered them. "I'm sorry."
Beren blinked away from his thoughts and glanced at her. "Hm, what?"
Jade sighed and ran her finger along the edge of her wingfeathers. "I was just thinking of how much trouble I've caused, all for the sake of what I thought was right--all the lies and half-truths, when I thought I couldn't reveal who you really were. I'm sorry for not telling you the truth sooner."
Beren sighed; his face held slightly less anger now when she knew he was recalling those moments. This made her wonder what he had been so frustrated at just moments before.
"I forgive you, Jade," Beren said softly. "Like you said, you were doing what you thought was right, and looking back on it now, I can agree that it probably was. Neither of us could have predicted what happened to us along the way." His eyes drifted to the healer walking calmly ahead of them, recalling how she had been the first person to meet him upon his return to the realm he was meant to rule. "All the friends we've made--"
"And enemies uncovered," Jade added wryly, thinking of Troy and the havoc he had only begun to cause among the Gifted population.
"That too," Beren agreed with a nod. He glanced at Jade--more specifically, at her wings. "If you don't mind my asking, how exactly was your brother able to shrink you like that, and make it so that you would not be able to change size till I had reclaimed my father's throne?"
Jade shrugged. "To be honest, I never expected him to do something like that, either. One moment we were talking, and the next, I was small enough for him to hold in his hand. Perhaps he gets the ability from the same source as his power to manipulate Gifts." She shook her head. "I'm his sister, and I don't even know. All I do know is that he should not have escaped, and his campaign of corruption is my responsibility, and as such it is my duty to see that he is stopped."
Beren stopped and peered at the Angel closely. "Escaped from where?" he asked. "Where did you two come from? How is it your responsibility?"

Jade instinctively wrapped her arms and her wings around Beren as a jet of fire blasted toward them, and the warning came too late.
Once the danger had passed, Beren shoved the feathers out of his way as he stormed toward the young fire-starter. 
"What do you think you're doing?" he screamed in Damaris' face. 
The boy cringed before the enraged man. "I'm sorry! I was just holding the talisman and I felt the fireball building up in my other hand, and it's normally not that large and I totally wasn't expecting it to do that, I wasn't aiming for you on purpose, I swear--"
"Damaris," Jade came up behind Beren and laid a hand on the boy's arm. "It's all right, calm down."
Damaris heaved a shuddering sigh and his chin trembled as he tried not to burst into tears. He held up the talisman. "This thing is really powerful. I can't help feeling that Korsan is in mortal danger every moment that he doesn't have it."
Jade nodded. "I know; we're going the safest route I know. We don't want to take the normal paths because unfortunately those would take us right into danger and it would take even longer to be in any capacity to return his talisman safely, without it falling into the wrong hands."
Erlis joined the group. "I think we've been walking far enough for one day," she said. "We should rest for a bit before continuing." She pointed to a concave wall that served as a decent shelter against the elements. "That looks like a good place."
When they were all seated, Damaris handed the talisman to Erlis and attempted to start a fire for their little camp. The ensuing fireball required Beren to quench more than half of it to get it down small enough to be useful, but no one voiced any resentment. Erlis even shared a recollection in an attempt to console him.
"You remind me of a young assistant who used to help me in the palace apothecary," she mused. "She could produce a blue flame in her hands that was perfect for brewing the most delicate medicines, though she was often frustrated that it was good for little else." She smiled. "Now there was someone who had a bit too much control over her flame. She was always afraid to let it grow any bigger than the small ones."
"Hmph," Damaris grunted. "I had hoped Korsan would teach me how to control the flame, but everything happened too fast for him to have any time. So now I'm a danger to everyone around me." Unlucky! crowed the voice from his past. "I've always been unlucky," he mourned aloud.
Erlis grasped his hand, her dragon-scales protecting her from the small gouts of flame dancing on his skin. "I am sure if we make it at least as far as the harbor, we can find this woman, and she can train you."
Damaris raised hopeful eyes to the woman beside him. "You really think she could?"
The healer nodded. "Absolutely." She glanced over at the King and the Angel. "As long as the others don't mind a small detour."
Beren prodded the fire with a stick. "I guess I wouldn't mind seeing just how many Gifted people there are in the Realm, if I am ever going to take my place to rule over them."
Jade smiled. "That, I think, is also the key to making sure my brother cannot damage the Realm too deeply. He wants to separate the people and keep them weak and dependent on villains like him; the best way to combat that is for us all to band together and unify of our own accord." 
Erlis offered her other hand to Beren. "Troy made a lofty speech about Gifted people reaching their true potential--I say we show him what the Outcasts are truly capable of!"
Beren took her hand and smiled. They would stand together on this, no matter what.
Edri could feel the tension building as they delved deeper into the forest. The alpha wolf--Velora--darted through the undergrowth ahead of them, her powerful senses combing the area as she raced forward. Abruptly, she stopped.
"What is it?" Edri pushed forward.
Velora immediately turned and snarled at her, not relenting until Edri stopped at a respectful distance and waited for the wolf to move.
The leaves bore traces of blood. Velora whined and scraped at the ground the rough symbol of a crown. The blood belonged to King Beren, then--but how had he survived such a fall from the castle tower?
"King Beren?" Justin grunted behind her. "I thought we were supposed to find the Mage and his illusionist friend."
"I know!" Edri snarled. "But if there's one thing I also know about these Outcasts, it is that they tend to band together. Find one, and others aren't usually far away."
Justin scuffed his boot on the ground. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else but right there, but at the same time, a certain compulsion kept him from just walking away. Velora let out a sustained growl, but continued tracking the scents deeper into the forest.

Edri knew the conflict Justin felt because she battled it, herself. There was her natural compulsion to do the right thing, to defend the innocent from injustice--but that was steadily being overridden by Queen Zayra's thrall, disguised as her fierce loyalty to "a soldier's duty."
She glanced at Justin. "I've wondered, since the last time we talked," she began.
He snorted. "You mean the time you took a lion's claw to the face for the sake of a man who could make flowers?"
The resentment built inside her. Edri returned to her soldier's training to squelch it back down again. "Yes; if you knew I was Gifted, all that time ago--"
Justin smirked. "Yeah, I knew."
"Why didn't you turn me in, then?"
Justin stopped and faced Edri. She half-expected some kind of noble struggle, about knowing what was right and wanting to do things for the benefit of the Realm.
"Honestly?" Justin retorted. "I knew that the moment I turned you in, I would never see you again."
Edri squinted and frowned. "What do you mean?"
Justin rolled his eyes. "I like you, Edri Rodan! There, I said it," he threw up his hands. "I didn't understand what these Gifts were, or why it was such a crime to have them if at least some people were harmless and others did good things with their Gifts, but I knew that the minute I reported what I knew about you, possibly both of us could end up dead." He snorted and wagged his head. "And now look at us, wandering through the woods and beholden to a lunatic queen who should have been Outcast a long time ago--"
"Shhh!" Edri froze in her tracks as alarm bells triggered in her intuition. It was far too dark in this part of the forest, far too quiet. She couldn't see anything--not even Velora, though she could still hear the panting somewhere in front of her.
"Velora?" she whispered.
The panting continued, overlaid by a long, sustained growl. The bushes rustled all around them, and Edri realized something was very wrong.
"AMBUSH!" she screamed, and the whole forest came alive with fur and teeth and claws.
Velora howled as her pack descended on the pair. Justin used his telekinesis to keep the beasts at bay, creating a bubble around himself, taking down the pack by snapping bones and throwing the wolves against the trees. 
Edri depended on her armor to protect her, struggling to get the metal plates into the snapping jaws whenever she could. Her heart accelerated in her chest. She found it harder to breathe as shadows danced in front of her eyes. Desperately she fought on, but she knew it would only be a matter of time before one of the wolves got the better of her. Sure enough, the keen sting of a claw found its way into her unprotected side, ripping it open. Edri went down with a cry--but as her hands connected with the ground, she felt something twitch inside her, like slipping into another suit of chain mail. Her senses dilated, a new strength filtered into her muscles, and with one last painful wrench, Edri knew she had become something else. She opened her mouth to scream in Velora's face, but the sound that came out was a roar of such magnitude that it sent the wolf pack practically tumbling over themselves to get away. She saw Justin staring at her in horror, his back pressed against a tree where the pack had cornered him.
"Edri?" he whispered hollowly.

She looked down at her hands and saw the massive paws of a lion. Fierce, loyal, and impenetrably strong, she had become the thing she had so long contained inside. Edri turned on Velora; as an alpha wolf she had been very much a threat to the two humans, but now that one of the humans was a fully-grown lion, the alpha wolf looked small and vulnerable. 
Edri didn't doubt that Velora knew this. The she-wolf crouched before the king-of-beasts, whimpering softly. Edri raised a paw to send the pup flying across the forest in retaliation for the ambush. Velora barked once.

A second wave of wolves, nearly as large as the first, leaped out of the bushes where they had waited while Justin and Edri slaughtered their pack-mates. Edri wasn't entirely sure of her new lion form, so when these efficient creatures attacked this time, she could not defend against their speed and agility. Jaws and claws ripped into her sides and flanks. Edri could crush a few spines and swipe at the wolves heading for her soft throat, but all too soon, her world spun and her vision went black as all sound faded.

A stiffness and a piercing, burning sensation jerked Edri back to wakefulness. She tried to moan, but the sound didn't come from a human voice. She was still a lion, then. A woman crouched next to her. Edri could smell her, though her eyes refused to focus. One thing she did notice, though it didn't make much sense as she drifted back into unconsciousness: the woman seemed to be tending Edri's wounds with her bare hands, spreading a poultice over each and then cauterizing it with a blue flame cradled in her palm...

Season 2, Part 6: "Bluefire" >>>>>>>>

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reader's Review: "Backyard Dragons" by Lee French

Synopsis from Amazon:

Portland has a dragon problem.

Now genuinely a Spirit Knight, sixteen-year-old Claire wants to know everything about the job. Fate dumps a dragon on her and she only has more questions. She knows how much she needs training and wishes she could snap her fingers to learn everything at once.
Justin can answer Claire's questions, but between his demanding young daughters, his sarcastic horse, and the recent loss of his own mentor, he'd rather just be a Knight. No one told him adopting an apprentice would devour all his free time and dredge up the past.
In this sequel to Girls Can't Be Knights, Claire and Justin face dragons, ghosts, witches, echoes, and memories. Their survival and the fate of Portland may depend on Justin's intellect.

They're doomed.

My Review:
With how much I enjoyed Girls Can't Be Knights, coupled with the fact that this one DEFINITELY promised dragons, I was all gung-ho for this!
Then it all seemed to topple over sideways. But it was okay, because of several reasons I will explain. (Beware of spoilers... there shouldn't be too many, but I might drop hints that may constitute spoilers... advance at your peril... unless anything short of a point-blank give-away doesn't really ruin it for you... that's all I want, is to avoid ruining a perfectly decent book!)

So the basic conflict from Book 1 (The Spirit Knights declining to recognize Claire as a knight) was in fact NOT resolved as I expected it to be, and still manages to drive this book. 
What's different? Justin is tired. He's too tired to continue the trend from the first book and engage in improving his relationship with Claire, with raising his own daughters, and supporting his wife as much as she supports him. He's tired so that isolates him... and because he is pretty much the only person Claire trusts, it isolates her from the things Justin hasn't explained yet.

The dragons are definitely there, and one of them bonds with Claire—but Sleepy Justin can't tell her much about them, because he doesn't know, so Claire has to do it herself.
The dragon also reveals that somebody powerful has all the dragons bound and under a spell in his sister-in-law's back yard—but she's only a minor garden witch, so she couldn't possibly be that powerful. So who else is going around imprisoning dragons and gathering power to destroy the Spirit Knights and the Palace that is all that remains of their dimension? What will it take for Claire to finally gain recognition as a full-fledged Spirit Knight when the very Heart of the Palace is demeaning and dismissive toward her?

While the narrative's starting point really felt like a huge step backward from all the development that Book 1 promised, I will say that it dealt with the conflicts and character choices well enough. I bonded with Claire too much, I think, to really understand why she had to go through such crap as she did in this book. The "trials" to gain her official Spirit Knight weapon seemed almost teetering on the brink of "too intense for kids", and not very fair for a young teen who has JUST found a home, to be suddenly thrust into a circumstance that a) forces her to watch people around her die, and b) causes her unfathomable pain, and could potentially lead to her death. 

And that's not even the central conflict.

All I can say is, the ensuing crux of the overall series arc has GOT to be something truly world-shattering, because this book felt like a massive jump from the last one and a whole lot of build up for not enough closure. (There was closure, all right... but there were also threads left wide open...) 

That being said, I would still give this a *****5 STAR***** rating. I do recognize the relational themes and life issues that the story tries to address, about trusting the wrong people, about getting "emotionally blind" and taking too much of your attachment to other people for granted, that they could be neck-deep in something terrible but you wouldn't know it because you can't see past your assumptions of them; of the likelihood of a teenager to actually go through some of the extreme situations metaphorically represented here, and that the reality of their struggles should not be dismissed or discounted because of their age. The trauma is real. 

Lots of insights to be had here, and not to be missed!! I haven't given up on this series yet! Onward, Spirit Knights!
Further Reading: (Urban Fantasy/Young-ish Reader/Decent Series)
The Alexander Legacy--Sophronia Belle Lyon
       -A Dodge, A Twist, and A Tobacconist
       -The Pinocchio Factor
The Fair Folk Chronicles--Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins
        -Foul is Fair
        -Street Fair
        -A Fair Fight  
The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny
     -A Halloween's Curse 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 2, Part 4--"Potential"

This week's most nominated character:
Jade "The Angel"

Season 2, Part 4
The moment Queen Zayra left the room, Aurelle felt her senses return, and she immediately went for the body. 
Korsan lay stretched out before her, his robes torn and his sides scraped by the huge claws.
She looked up at the dragon with tears in her eyes.
"You did this!" She snarled at Erlis, choking on her sobs. "How could you?"
Erlis dipped her head in remorse, glittering tears brimming in her own golden eyes. They splashed down onto the wounded wizard, hissing as they made contact with the bleeding skin. A foam built up, and as it dissipated, Aurelle saw that it left behind whole skin. Her claws had damaged him, but now her tears healed him.

Korsan inhaled a long, shaky gasp laced with pain. His hands immediately groped for the glowing blue talisman.
"Korsan!" Aurelle cried, grasping his shoulders.
"Aurelle..." he muttered weakly. "What—" his gaze fell on the dragon in the room. "How—"
"It's Erlis," Aurelle explained. "The mad Queen, Zayra, forced her to propose a blood transfusion, to heal her damaged mind."
Korsan shook his head. "It will take more than Dragon's Blood to cure that one!"
Aurelle scowled. "Yes, we've noticed that. Anyway, the transfusion caused Erlis to become wholly dragon," she glanced up into those eyes. "At least in appearance, anyway."
Korsan met the dragon's gaze as well, peering deeper with the aid of his magic. "True, the Erlis we know is still in there, buried underneath this fearsome appearance." Damaris helped him to his feet as Aurelle asked, "What about you? Last time we were together, you said you had some important business—so how did you end up getting caught by Queen Zayra?"
Korsan sighed heavily and wagged his head. "So much has happened, Aurelle. I fear—"

A commotion in the atrium interrupted his words. 
"I must see the Queen!" A female voice declared.
"Not a chance!" Growled a man. "You said if we got to the castle you would heal her, now she's almost dead, so you've got just SECONDS before I crush the life out of you!"

Aurelle, Damaris, and Korsan hastened out of the damaged throne room.
Of the three people standing in the atrium, Aurelle recognized two: Edri, who had been the unwitting bait in a trap laid by Zayra, and the pale, bleeding body laying on the ground. 
"Stand back!" The man stepped in front of her, his hand open toward her. Aurelle felt the push of energy hampering her movements, and she did not resist. The man's eyes lit up when he saw the Mage.
"Korsan!" He cried. "You're alive!"
His hand flew up and the door to the north tower slammed in Edri Rodan's face. Justin switched his concentration to the soldier herself, dragging her slowly to him. Once they stood practically nose to nose, he seethed through clenched teeth, "And just where do you think you're going?"
"Justin!" Korsan stepped forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. "She isn't doing this on purpose. It is what Zayra did to her. She doesn't know!" He raised his talisman, muttered the words of a spell, and touched Edri's forehead with it. 
Her eyes lolled, eyelids fluttering, and finally she took a quick breath. "Wh-wh-what?" Her eyes fixed quickly on Velora. "Oh! That's right, I need to heal her before she dies!"
Edri looked down at her body. "Um, why can't I move?"
Korsan shifted into Justin's line of sight and nodded solemnly. Justin released Edri.
The young healer immediately crouched at Velora's side. "She barely has any life left. I hope I'm not too late!" She splayed her right hand, watching the skin turn blue all the way up her arm. Through a rip in the shoulder of her blouse, everyone could see the glowing blue light around her shoulder.
"Here goes," said Edri resolutely, and pressed her hand firmly on Velora's chest.

The young woman cried out in pain almost immediately. Her wounds knit so quickly, it almost looked like the blue hand absorbed the wounds as a sponge absorbs water. Still, Velora screamed, and her limbs thrashed of their own accord.
"Edri!" Justin warned. "It's done, you don't need to go further!"
"No!" Edri retorted. "Not yet! I need to—"
Velora heaved one deep, rasping breath, and the next sound to issue from her mouth was distinctly a wolf howl. Justin and Korsan together yanked Edri away as Velora's body began writhing and changing. Grey fur sprouted from her skin, and her arms and legs shortened while her nose lengthened and her chin all but vanished. When the growling and snarling ceased, Velora the woman was gone, and a large, grey alpha wolf stood amid the tatters of her clothes.

Before anyone had quite recovered enough to say anything, a black cloud slipped in through a nearby window, and as everyone watched, it solidified into a pair of black-gloved hands, which clapped slowly as the rest of a body appeared in thin air: a black-robed man, clean-shaven with straight dark hair and glinting eyes. He finished applauding and laughed.
"Well done!" He crowed, pointing to the wolf. "Now that was brilliant!"
Justin gaped. "You're the one I needed to warn everyone about!" He pointed at the stranger. "You're Jade's brother!"
"The shadow?" Korsan gasped.
The man smiled and gave a flourishing bow. "One and the same! My name is Troy, though I must say I am not the shadow, mind you, just a Shadow—for there are many shadows in this realm, wouldn't you agree, Sir Mage?"
Damaris peered at him from behind Aurelle. "What happened to your chest?" He pointed to the very distinct rip in Troy's tunic, on the right side and very distinctly stained with blood.
Troy waved a hand. "Only a minor setback, I assure you it was well intended. Not everyone likes what I can give them."
Aurelle didn't like the feeling this man gave her. "What do you mean, what you can give?" She demanded.
Troy only grinned wider. "I see you've acclimated to your upgrades nicely, my dear—though the same cannot be said for your friend, there." He winked at Damaris, walking toward them purposefully. "I'll bet you are the one responsible for this throne room, eh?" 
Aurelle prepared to stop or divert him if he got too close, but a moment later, he had passed right through them as easily as one of her illusions. 
He stopped and gasped as Erlis roared at him. "Ah, and there's my prize! My dear, you selfless thing! I've been searching everywhere for you!"
Erlis the dragon snarled at him and breathed fire in his face, but Troy only waved it away like a puff of smoke. "Now, let's not have that!"
Korsan dove between them. "You will not touch her!" He said, brandishing his staff as the talisman flared.
Troy stopped and spread his hands with a magnanimous smile. "Oh relax, Sir Mage. I'm not here to cause trouble just now. I am here to help."
"What could the likes of you possibly want with helping us?" Aurelle asked. "And why are you so keen on Erlis in particular?"
Troy tilted his head, a strange gleam in his eye. "Erlis... so that's her name..." he mused. When Damaris built a flame in his hand, Troy continued. "I want to help for the same reason I gave your friend there shifting powers." He gestured to Velora. "The truth is, I see your potential—and your pitiful Gifts could be so much more, if you let them!"
"More?" Korsan echoed dubiously.
"Shifting?" Asked Justin, glancing at the wolf.
Troy shrugged. "I suppose she just needs to figure out how to get out of that form. This one, though," he turned back to the dragon with a sly grin. "She can do it, so she deserves the change." He gathered a cloud of shadow in his hands, so black that it seemed to absorb all light and color, and touched the cloud to the dragon's chest.
Erlis threw back her head and roared in pain. The dark cloud continued to expand and grow, overtaking her whole body, until her head dipped into the cloud and the dragon vanished completely. 
"What have you done to her?" Korsan cried.
"Oh, relax, old man!" Troy spat. He held out his hand to absorb the cloud, and when it was gone, a lone figure covered in a robe bearing the royal crest lay huddled on the floor.
"Erlis!" Aurelle ran forward and touched the woman's shoulder.
She flinched back and snarled deep in her throat—but then Erlis noticed the difference. She looked down at her body, noticed her hands... both human hands. Erlis gasped and raised her hands to her face, where she felt no scales. 
"I'm not half-dragon anymore!" She said.
Troy grinned modestly. "Not if you wish it," he affirmed.
Erlis allowed Aurelle to help her to her feet. "Not if I—" she looked down at her hands again. Concentrating very hard, she made a fist and flexed. The skin color deepened to vibrant blue-green and rigid scales appeared like a gauntlet. When she released, and thought about her human hand again, the scales vanished, and she was whole. She stared at Troy in astonishment. "Who are you?" She asked.

"What have you done to my dragon?" Cried another voice.
Everyone gathered in the atrium to witness the approach of a young woman wearing the crown that until recently had been on King Beren's head.
Troy whirled around and gave a flourishing, deep bow.
"Your Majesty!" He gushed. "How wonderful to—"
Zayra raised a finger. "Hush!"
Troy fell silent at her command. The Queen glared at everyone present until her eye fell on the captain.
"Edri!" She cried.
Edri looked up, and their eyes met. The captain gasped and immediately threw herself forward, down on one knee, and presenting her sword. "Milady," she said softly, "I have returned to your service."
Zayra smiled, even as she glared at the rest of the group. "And so you have. Stand with me, Captain."
Edri stood up, and took her place at Zayra's side.
The Queen's eyes searched the crowd. "And what have we here?" She admired Justin. "Another soldier of the Realm?"
Justin raised his head, the same enamored glint in his eye. "Yes, your majesty."
Zayra nodded. "You two shall serve me well together," she said, and Justin slowly ascended the steps to stand opposite Edri.
"Where is the King?" Korsan asked, stepping forward. 
"He is deposed," Zayra said, lifting her chin. "I am Queen of the Realm, and I have no use for insubordination!" Her eyes grew wide and she flung her hands straight out. "YOU WILL ALL KNEEL BEFORE ME!"
Everyone crouched except Troy and Korsan. His talisman shone brightly. Zayra's face tightened. "KNEEL, WIZARD!"
Troy took a single step, and instantly appeared at Zayra's shoulder. He whispered gently in her ear.
Zayra smiled. "Wolf!" She ordered, and Velora snapped to attention. "Attack!"
Immediately, the wolf rounded on Korsan and lunged for his throat.
"NO!" Erlis cried, leaping for them, but it was too late to do anything. Korsan and Velora crashed to the ground, and the whole room erupted in a brawl. 
Aurelle, Erlis, and Damaris did everything they could to try and separate Korsan and Velora before she wounded him too severely. 
Zayra gestured to the two soldiers. "Go, my guardians!"
Justin thrust out his hand, and Erlis flew back against the wall. Edri gave a mighty leap and roared, her sword at the ready to enter the fray.
Damaris flung balls of fire at the wolf, keeping her occupied, till a scaled hand gripped his arm. "Come with me!" Erlis looked at him with yellow eyes. 
Damaris glanced back at the fight. Aurelle threw an illusion that flashed brightly in everyone's eyes, and when it cleared, she and Korsan were gone.
"AFTER THEM!" Zayra screeched. "FIND THEM!"

Damaris and Erlis ran from the castle. Justin, Edri, and Velora raced south, toward the forest, but the Dragon and the Phoenix headed east, toward the Wilderness.
"Wait!" Damaris cried. "Stop!"
Erlis slowed her pace as they hid in some bushes just beyond the castle wall.
Damaris flopped down, panting heavily. "Why..." he gasped, "why did we run?"
Erlis still watched over her shoulder, eyes wide in fear. "That man, the one with all that power..." she whispered.
"Troy?" Damaris asked.
She nodded. "He was the one to poison King Balwyn all those years ago. He posed as a Healing Mage and called himself Chelom, but it is definitely him."
Damaris shoved his hands in his pockets. "So what does this mean?"
Erlis sighed. "If he's back, and he's more powerful than any of us realize... this could be dark times for the Realm."
Damaris tensed and his face blanched.
"What?" Erlis asked him.
"It gets worse." Damaris lifted a trembling hand from his pocket. Hanging from a frayed cord was a familiar blue stone.
"Korsan's talisman!" Erlis gasped.
Damaris started to tremble. "It must have broken off when Velora... When the wolf attacked him."
"Oh, this is bad," she murmured. "You saw the way it protected him from Zayra's Gift, didn't you?"
Damaris gulped. "And now that I have it..." he mused.

The healer flinched when someone called her name, but before anyone could do anything, two people emerged from the forest: a young man in fine clothing (if a bit muddy, scuffed and torn as if he'd been walking through the forest a while) and a young woman dressed in white, with a pair of large white wings at her back.
Erlis and Damaris both bowed to him.
Beren stepped forward and took Erlis by the hand. "Erlis! You're back! I mean," he stammered, "you're, erm, human!"
Erlis nodded. "King Beren, it is good to see that you are well," she said, "when Zayra proclaimed herself Queen, we feared the worst."
Beren nodded. "Well, to be honest, the worst very nearly happened! Zayra did try to throw me off the tower," he gestured upward, "but Jade was there to save me," he gestured to the Angel standing next to him.
Erlis peered at her closely. "Have I seen you before? I should think I would remember an Angel."
Jade smiled. "The last time we met, Erlis, you were half-Dragon and I was shrunk down to the size of a fairy, unable to communicate with anyone except Beren, whom you knew as Harlock."
"Yeah, about that," Beren interrupted. "How did you get rid of the dragon form?"
"I didn't," Erlis replied. "That was the work of the Shadow, who calls himself Troy."
Real terror showed plainly on Jade's face. "Troy is here?" She whispered.
Erlis nodded. "And he's helping Zayra take over."
Beren's jaw tightened. "Tell me something, Erlis: while you were there, did you see my brother Jaran, or another beautiful woman there?"
Erlis shook her head. "There was only Captain Edri, who has returned to Zayra's thrall, and it was she who also turned out friend Velora into a wolf."
"Velora was there?" gasped Jade. "There should have been two there with her, an older Mage and a younger soldier."
Erlis nodded. "Justin is under Zayra's thrall, just like Edri."
"And she has them all chasing after Korsan," Damaris supplied.
Jade shook her head. "The Mage can protect himself—"
Damaris held up his hand. "But I have his talisman."
A chill silence fell upon them all.
"So without his talisman," said Beren slowly. "Does that mean he's vulnerable?"
Jade nodded soberly. "More so than with it," she answered. "We need to find him and make sure he's safe."
"Safe?" Beren snapped. "What about Jaran and Azelie? How are any of us safe with your brother is in league with Zayra, if he's as dangerous as you say?"
"I say that because I know your potential!" Jade burst out. "All of you together are stronger than he is! We still have a chance, if we can unite against him!"
Potential... Erlis smirked. "Your brother said the same thing," she remarked. "Only, he seemed convinced that we needed his help to achieve them."
Jade wagged her head. "Therein lies my brother's power. If you accept the change that he gives, then it allows him to hold power over you, to keep you from ever using it against him. But the truth is, the Gifts are powerful enough as they are. He wants to divide, scatter, and destroy. We must fight him!" She looked at the three earnest faces before her. "Are you with me?"
Beren nodded. "Let's get that crown back!"
Erlis and Damaris exchanged but a single glance and nodded.
"We stand with the True King, Balwyn's Son," she affirmed.
Damaris smiled with flames in his eyes. "Let's go rescue the Mage!"

"Six shillings a body!" Said the harbor master. 
Denahlia handed over the money and accepted the writs of passage. She sauntered over to where her companions waited by the local inn, smirking at how conspicuous the twins were. 
The Hunter had to wonder whether the two youngsters didn't get out much before they arrived at the castle. Certainly they hadn't spent their lives on the streets like she and Rayne had. They sat, as impeccable as if the dust dared not mar the sheer blackness of their clothing, their hair still coiffed and their eyes straight ahead. 
"All right!" She announced as she plunked down next to Rayne. "Passage is booked, we'll be out past the nautical border by sundown."
Kaidan looked up at her and nodded his approval. "Your continued loyalty to us has been appreciated and will not go unrewarded, Madame Hunter."
Denahlia shrugged and took a pull on the stein before her. "Let's get one thing straight: I am loyal to only one person, and that person is me. You two are merely paying clients, and the moment you are satisfied that I have fulfilled the assignments you gave me, I am free to do as I please. Now," she gestured to the case at Javira's feet. "You have the armor that was stolen, and as far as I know, the Mage is on his way to imprisonment or death at the Castle. Do you consider these terms acceptable?"
Both twins looked up and met her gaze. Their eyes looked strange and glowing. When Denahlia blinked, looked down at her drink, and returned her eyes to the pair before her, the weird glow was gone—but so also was her apprehension about working with them.
Kaidan quirked a smile. "I do hope your commitment to autonomy does not preclude you from joining some friends whom you played a part in rescuing—"
"A part? Get real, I pulled off just about the whole darn thing!"
"Whom you rescued," Kaidan amended, "in drinking before we go?"
Javira signaled the barmaid and she brought over four fresh foaming steins. Denahlia gripped the wooden side, but still toyed with the decision whether to actually partake. Javira calmly slipped her hand over Denahlia's, giving her a reassuring squeeze. 
"Please," she whispered, "Stay with us. Fight with us."
Denahlia snorted and jerked out of her grasp, taking a gulp of the ale. "Fight what?" She sneered.

"I'm so glad you asked!" Cried a voice that made Denahlia tense. Beside the table, a young man dressed in black clothing materialized out of the shadows.
The Hunter swore and went for her dagger. She'd cut him once, she could do it again.
Troy raised his hand. "Good to see you again, too, Madame Hunter," he grumbled.
The Twins stared at this newcomer. "Who are you?" Javira asked.
Troy smiled. "One who has stood by and watched long enough, little dewdrop!"
Kaidan and Javira both gasped upon hearing their mother's special name for Javira. "What do you mean?" He asked.
Troy leaned on the table. "I mean that there is entirely too much waste of power in this kingdom. King Balwyn couldn't figure out how to integrate a people who were not meant to integrate—Gifted and UnGifted. Then the Council comes along and tries to control and manipulate the Gifts," he turned his gaze on the Twins, "then you two come up with the grand idea of banning the Gifts—but look how well that worked out for you!" He gestured to the tavern with a shadowy hand.
Javira grasped her brother's hand. "Our Gifts are not our own," she declared, a hard edge to her voice. "There was no other way to prevent the gross misuse of power that was exercised over us, than to get rid of the Gifts entirely."
Troy smirked. "What if the trouble wasn't the Gifts, but the small-minded ones who wielded them?" 
The Twins sat silent, and he continued. "My dears, I am here to show you how to achieve your full potential, and return to you the prestige and power you deserve!"

Season 2, Part 5: "Unleashed" >>>>>>>>
The Clan of Outcasts Series:
Episode 1: "Upgrades"  
Episode 2: "Strategic Maneuvers" 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Works-in-Progress Wednesday: Excerpt 1 from The Amazon Triangle!

And here we have April's WIP-of-The-Month!
 Original Excerpt: Amazon Part 1

Revised for the novel:

Part 1:
They walked on in silence, as the dense moisture in the air thickened and deepened. Edith gasped for breath, and she heard the steady huffs of both Ben and Justin grow louder as the mist curling around them deadened more noise around them.
A few paces in the lead, Ben had slowed to a complete stop. Justin and Edie came up behind him, but he didn’t move.
“What’s up?” Justin asked. Ben’s gaze remained fixed on the wide, dark river beside them. Algae and moss coated the vines hanging into the water, and in the stillness, they heard the odd grunts and cries of various animals deep in the jungle.
Edie crept forward, all her nerves on edge though she didn’t know why. She slid her hand along Ben’s shoulder, feeling the tension through his sweat-drenched shirt.
“What’s wrong, Ben?” she asked softly.
“Shh, quiet!” he snapped. “Something in the water.”
“What, like fish?” Justin mused.
Ben squatted carefully and slipped the pack off his back. Opening it and reaching inside, he pulled out a small portion of a jerky stick. He paused, holding it over the water, as if bracing himself for some big event.
“Something big,” he told Justin, tossing the wad of jerky into the pool.

The murky blackness flashed white with teeth and tongue as massive jaws snapped open at the presence of meat on the water. All three humans scrambled backwards, Edie just barely snatching the pack from the edge of the river as she moved.
“Blast!” screamed Justin. “We need to go!”
“Which way’s west?” Ben, ever the level-headed one, still wanted to make sure that they would not get lost, even in their panic.
“This way!” Edie held the compass attached to the pack she now wore on her back. “Follow me!”

They crashed through ferns and brush as they sought to put enough distance between themselves and the monster in the pool. Edie’s keen ears heard the steady splashing, like listening to a boat plowing through the water—except this “boat” could kill them, and probably would, now that it realized their presence.
“Way to go, tossing that jerky,” she snarled over her shoulder at Ben. “Why not go ahead and stick your whole arm in there?”
“All I saw was the eyes,” he complained back at her, panting heavily from the exertion, “How was I supposed to know just how big the thing was?”
Tree!” Justin shrieked, and the trio stopped short of slamming into the large, moisture-slick trunk of a fallen tree across the path they were taking.
The plashing didn’t slack any. “It’s trailing us!” Edie shouted.
As if the mere mention had been its summons, the massive beast lunged out of the bushes next to them, pulling itself onto land with stubby, clawed feet. A caiman, but far larger than any predator the three friends had ever seen.
“Run!” Ben shrieked, taking off into the foliage.
“Ben!” Justin yelled. “Get back here, we need to stay together!”
They were all running now, crashing through the bracken in an effort to distance themselves from the threat now skimming along the ground behind them. The snap and crackle of the branches was the only clue as to its location, and each human’s only objective now was to put enough distance that one didn’t hear the ominous sound.

Ben ran in a blind panic; some part of his mind still insisted that he should slow down or what if he wound up breaking his ankle and couldn’t run at all? The rest of him, however, was full of terror and would not let him break pace, even for a second. He ran until it registered that he couldn’t hear any other sound except his own raspy, heaving breath. He slackened just in time to break through the wide-leafed bushes and come to the edge of a wide clearing. He spun in circles, his wide eyes not daring to miss a single twitch as his mind imagined the caiman hiding within every shadow. The dark, spackled coloring would be extremely difficult to distinguish in the dying light around him—but if it wasn’t after him, had it gone after Justin… or worse, Edith? Where exactly had they ended up in this mad dash for survival? How far off-track was he? It would be nearly impossible to find his way without the compass or a map, and with very little idea of the sun’s position.

A flutter overhead just about made him jump out of his skin. He watched in amazement as an enormous black toucan opened its brilliant yellow beak and cawed out a warning, just instants before the caiman burst into the clearing and shot right for his legs, jaws wide open.

It felt like intense pressure on his thigh at first, then the pain slammed into him with the force of an industrial-grade pile driver. The caiman jerked its head to the side, its jaws still firmly clamped around Ben’s leg, and he sailed through the air and smacked on the hard-packed clay mud. He felt his nose snap with the impact, and blood gushed down his face, but the caiman still twisted and rolled a second time, intent, it seemed, on separating the leg from the rest of his body. Ben almost caught himself wishing for that very fate, as he lost all feeling in that appendage by now, anyway. After one more twist that very likely dislocated his hip completely, Ben felt the ground scrape along his back as the caiman began to drag him into the underbrush, in all likelihood back to the river, where it would drown its prey and consume at its leisure.
A powerful shriek rent the air, and stopped the caiman in its tracks. The caiman gave his body another shake, as a low growl rumbled from the middle of the clearing. Again, the shriek resounded from somewhere above Ben’s head, just outside his field of vision, and the caiman abruptly dropped the leg in its mouth and twisted aside to deal with this new threat to its intended meal.

Sprawled on the ground and hovering just on the fringes of unconsciousness as he was, Ben heard the scuffling of creatures behind him and tilted his head (careful of the blood pouring out of his nose) to see what had dared interrupt the monstrous caiman.

A black panther charged squarely at the caiman—but this ferocious feline was much larger than any other species Ben had ever witnessed. Compared to the caiman, whose head was slightly longer than Ben’s whole leg, this panther seemed almost big enough to ride on—a strange comparison, given that it was in the process of slashing and ripping at the vicious caiman at the moment. The scuffle drew near him—so close that the caiman’s tail whipped him in the side—but Ben was beyond the point of caring by now. The caiman snapped and flailed mercilessly, beating the lithe panther back away, and would have made for Ben’s head to snap it clean off—
But the bone-crushing crunch never came.

Instead, Ben felt a sudden, burning weight over his body, and a profound lack of breath as his mouth and nose suddenly filled with thick, putrid fur. The paw with the wicked-looking claw was just a hairs-breadth from his face, and he saw firsthand just how massive it was, as the panther effectually covered him with its body and snarled at the caiman.
No one moved for several moments, and Ben heard no sound except the extended growl rumbling through the panther’s body. Its head was aligned with his own, so when it screamed one last time at the caiman, the sound reverberated right into Ben’s ear, deafening him for a brief moment, much like a flashbang grenade.

When his hearing returned, he no longer heard the growl—which meant that the caiman had probably yielded its prey to the more adamant predator. Now they were alone, the panther and the man—and he was wounded, bleeding, and nearly dead. As the panther bent its massive head down so close to Ben’s own that he could feel the whiskers brush his cheeks, it occurred to him in seeing that muzzle larger than his whole head, that it would take very little effort for the panther to decide to twist its head just slightly, snap Ben’s neck in its jaws, and drag him up to some tree somewhere to be devoured.
The young man fought not to move so much as his eyes as the massive creature snuffled in his face, filling his mouth and nose with the rancid stench of death on its breath. There was no point in holding his breath, as the panther most likely already knew he was still alive, but maybe as long as Ben stayed very still, it would at least disregard him as any sort of threat.

The panther swung its head down Ben’s body, nosing along till it discovered his injured leg. He saw the muscles in the panther’s haunches tense, and the lips pulled back to reveal the gleaming, yellowed teeth. Any second now, the predator would be partaking of the meal that the caiman had been denied.
Something warm, wet, and flat slapped against his leg. Ben bit down on his tongue as the rough scraping sensation slid over the open gashes from the caiman’s teeth. The panther lifted its head, its long pink tongue lolling from its mouth. When Ben didn’t make a move, it bent down again and resumed licking his leg.
The sting was stronger than sandpaper being rubbed over the raw skin, and it didn’t let up. Once it had covered his entire leg in saliva, the panther shifted its position to straddle Ben’s body, and began licking the blood off his face. Now he had the heavy stench of rotted meat to accompany the stinging scrub of the tongue. Ben wondered how long he would have to hold his breath to just pass out entirely—and never had he wanted so badly to be unconscious than he did at that moment. True, the panther had not eviscerated or dismembered him—but this slow torture by inches was almost as bad as all that, especially when the panther accidentally bumped his broken nose. Why did it bother cleaning him up? Were panthers really this fastidious?

Still straddling him, the panther bent its head down toward Ben’s chest, opened its mouth wide, and caught a mouthful of the front of his shirt. When it lifted its head again, Ben’s body lifted slightly off the ground. Hanging from the panther’s mouth by this improvised sling, pretty much only his heels dragged on the ground (and the rest of his mangled leg). Padding carefully, the panther began dragging Ben in this manner back into the jungle, toward a mysterious destination. The blackness in his vision was becoming thicker and darker, and at last, Ben could feel the numbing sensation of loss of consciousness. Sounds faded long before his vision did, but one last flickering thought occurred in Ben’s mind before he blacked out completely: I hope Justin and Edith are safe.

Did you enjoy the rewrite? Stay tuned for more excerpts, or read the whole thing for yourself on Wattpad!

Monday, April 3, 2017

WIP-Of-The-Month: Building A Short Story

March's WIP: DONE, in spite of 2 weeks of
"no phone/no notes" issues! I AM UNSTOPPABLE!
I used to think I couldn't write a short story to save my life. All of my ideas blossomed into multi-chapter affairs, which in turn spread the story out so far as more and more details filtered in, that I would get burned out and either wind down to a lame finish... or I would end up not being able to finish at all. Even the "flash fiction" one-shots I would attempt consistently ended up longer than the traditional >1,000 words, even if such a thing only took me a couple hours.

Then I invented the Suggestion Box challenge. There would be no way for me to over-plan, because I HAD to get it done in one week. At the same time, having four elements to tie together helped ensure that the story could become a reasonable length. The Suggestion Box taught me a thing or two about story development. And even when I compiled all the lists from that series into a longer, 5-part story for NaNoWriMo, I had plenty of words to use, and I just went for drawing it out as long as I could. It went fairly well, and I had a couple pretty interesting stories to make the word count.
The one story, "The Legacy", told about a girl whose father is a theoretical physicist and her mother is the daughter of a well-known explorer who spent most of her life searching for the Fountain of Youth. The explorer's daughter never quite forgave her mother for being so absent, and so she resolved to keep her own daughter close and to never travel, herself. All that changes when the daughter discovers the Persian silk scarf the explorer sent her, and notices the code that her grandmother had designed into the scarf, and that leads them to a safe deposit box that holds the map to the Fountain, and access to the funds necessary to be able to make the trip. Of course, by the time the mother gives in and agrees to let the daughter pursue the map and the fountain, it's too late for her, and by the time anybody actually finds anything in the location on the map, even the daughter is too old to travel.
The second story, "The Vega Effect", is connected to "The Legacy" because the scientist father ends up being the foremost pioneer in space colonization efforts, so naturally, space colonies and terraformers would regard him quite favorably. This story out of all the others really tapped into my horror side (mild-ish though it may be...) since it involves a Terraforming Investigator tasked with the job of figuring out what killed everybody in one settlement, and he only finds out after the pilot who brought him all this way ends up betraying him and he ends up succumbing to the very same plague without ever getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Of course there are way more details than that, but you get the basic gist: complex, widespread plots, well-populated and definitely not going to fit in less than 10 thousand words apiece.

Four Years Later... (present time)

Sometime about the end of last year (or the beginning of this one), I volunteered to be part of a charity anthology benefiting the International Bipolar Foundation in memory of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. At first, I viewed it as the perfect opportunity to polish up one or the other of these stories I already had written, thereby costing me minimal effort to be published yet again! 

Then I found out that the word count limit was 7,500 words. 

So there went any chance of me just touching up an existing story and calling it good. If I was going to end up rewriting the whole thing anyway, I figured that combining elements of the two stories was the best way to deal with this situation.

But how in the world was I going to do that... with LESS words than even one of those stories??

Breaking It Down

To solve this issue, I had to think of each story as a series of parts, and not one indivisible unit. A few years back, I used The Suggestion Box as my example for a "How To Story" post... now I'm going to try and use "The Starborn Legacy" as the example for "How To Short Story."

The first part was setting: both stories begin on Earth, but the focus in "The Legacy" shifts to an undiscovered "buried city" that is the site of the Fountain of Youth, while "The Vega Effect" centers, of course, on terraformed colonies in another part of the galaxy. I decided that since the anthology would have a "celestial" sort of theme, a far-future space colony would be a good choice for the setting.

From there I needed to move on to the premise: which would I use? The mysterious dying colony and the grumpy, sarcastic pilot with something to hide, or a mother and daughter trying to relate to one another, with emotional baggage from an absentee explorer matriarch in the family? After a bit of deliberation, I picked the mother-daughter story, with the added twist of the scientist father being part of the team investigating this failed colony where everyone just dropped dead all of a sudden. There would be the drive to figure out why they collapsed, and the possibility of an explanation or a cure—on top of the mother/daughter drama.

Which leads us to the conflict: Where would my principal story land? On the one hand, I have a treasure hunt that the mother and daughter embark on together, to show support for one another when they finally come to an understanding. On the other, I have a lone investigator who winds up missing the hints and clues dropped by a character who is revealed to have been somehow the villain all along, and that particular story does not have a happy ending. 
Solution? With the shorter word-count space, I could only build up the relationship conflict so much, before I had to go right into the climax. Then, there was also the dimension of actually bringing the "mysterious virus" to bear on the actual characters, throwing them even closer to the peril. The result of this turned out even better, as instead of the "Fountain of Youth reveal" adapted from "The Legacy" being something cool but irrelevant, I was able to actually figure out a way to make the discovery of Natalys relevant to my characters. I also turned being Starborn into something awesome and positive, instead of freakish and terrible. 

As for what remained of the resolution... well, okay, by that time I had gone over my word limit, so it was just a matter of giving things closure as quickly as possible. It didn't end up as detailed as I would have liked, but I think it will suffice. For now, it is off to Beta readers, and I am optimistic that they will assist me in figuring out what is extraneous verbiage and what I should have been focusing on. 


So there you have it! Everything you need to know about "The Starborn Legacy"! I hope I didn't spoil it too much. And I hope you will consider picking up a copy of the book when it releases! It's a good cause, and the authors and artists involved are great!

In summary: A short story has far less to it than a full-length story. The "3-Act" plan (Intro->Problem->Solution) is still effective, even in the confined space of only a few thousand words. And even long, drawn-out stories can be simplified effectively.

Catch You Further Upstream!