Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Upstream Updates 2020: September

Life Stuff

Back to school?? No dice. For the first week after school "opened", we staff assistants (or "support staff" as we are called) were making up for the lack of student supervision by finding other ways to support the teachers wherever we could: straightening up classrooms, organizing bookshelves and cabinets, running copies, stuffing folders... But all that vanished when word came down that the district was putting all of us--a couple hundred at least--on "temporary furlough", effective in about 2 weeks. Then "Smoke Week" hit (sounds like a marijuana festival, doesn't it??) and schools were closed for one of those two weeks we had to "get our affairs in order" (at least, that's what it felt like) before we would not be reporting to work "until further notice." Not quite laid off, not quite "out of a job", nor even on "standby"--just "furloughed."
I've been coping with the situation by practically throwing myself whole-hog into writing. I've logged 150 days of writing straight since May, making this my most productive year since I even started tracking my word count--maybe even ever!
Reading? Not so much, but maybe that's because I've thrown myself so hard at keeping up with my writing and whatnot that I've slacked on my reading a whole lot. That might also be because I've got some pretty thick books that are not wholly enthralling enough to keep me reading for long stretches. More on that later!

Monthly Stats:
Words Written: 36,830
Books Read: 2/4


The Last Inkweaver

Guess what??? That really difficult sequence of scenes that was giving me such trouble and taking a really long time? 8 chapters and roughly 50 pages later... It's finished! I got them from "point A to point C" (in other words, the beat just before this one, all the way to the beat coming up) and I managed to piece together the notecards for the follow-up beat... Which, of course, came out drastically different from where it was originally headed, since I'd diverged so much from the draft before. I guess that makes this Draft 4, then? Something like that, I suppose.
Now I go all the way back to where I left off to write the "trouble" part, and keep piecing together what I had from the earlier draft, along with what I need to write anew so that it comes off better than it did the other time. Also making sure that lines of dialogue or references to sequences that no longer exist are dealt with, and that new lines are inserted to create a sense of continuity with the new events that have been written into the beginning.

I keep telling myself that this sort of thing is normal for the writing gig. We write the same four beats over and over again, each time discovering a little bit more about the characters, the world, and the story as a whole, cohesive piece. It doesn't mean it "wasn't any good" the first time around--and there are still shades and hints of things from Draft 1 that have survived a whole lot of rewrites--but the more I make it all the way through to the end of the story, the more I can figure out about how everything leads to that ultimate end!

Fun fact: my parents recently discovered an old printed-out copy of Draft 1--I remember how immensely proud I was when I finished it, now to look back on it, I just think "Boy, I've come a long way as a writer!"

The Undersea Saga

It's not long now before Princess of Undersea becomes a brand-new reality! So far, everything seems to be on track to be able to release October 17th--just have to make sure I have everything uploaded and ready for launch!

Meanwhile, I've been piecing together the sequel, and I think I've decided on a plot that just might work! Again, it's 11 chapters--so at the very least, I know I can keep the books at a consistent length--and I already know the 3 stories that are going to serve as the "Tales from Crossway", so that's going to be fun to provide. I will say, it's kind of not exactly "Pinocchio" in the way that Princess of Undersea related so closely to "The Little Mermaid"--but it should be a smashing story that provides readers with all the feels and paves the way for interest in the rest of the series!

Speaking of the rest of the series--what do you think of the thumbnail for this section? I made it--so those aren't like the "official" title fonts or anything... but I was kind of thrilled to find symbols that matched the feel for each story: a fancy heart that looks like a pendant for Princess of Undersea; an angular sun/star that is kind of reminiscent of a circus tent for Fugitive of Crossway; a cog for Fury of Outwest; and a flower for Queen of Overcliff. PLUS, those four colors are going to be like the "color theme" for each cover: Book 2 is going to have that dark red tint, Book 3 has kind of more purple in it; and Book 4 will definitely have more blues and stuff. I put it together just to see how those colors would look side-by-side, and I really think the jewel tones work really well together, don't you?

Also, as a fun little piece, just in the last week, I've gotten to fill out a couple author interviews: one with Michael Baker on his Thousand Scars Blog, and one with Melissa Sell--those were really fun, and I got to talk about some behind-the-scenes information about Princess of Undersea in particular, so check them out!

Priscilla Sum

We're almost done, folks! Once everybody got into the hidden temple, it was "a work of Riordan-ish art" to come up with feasible traps (but not too much) that presented a sense of peril, but not enough to make one think "Well, how the normal worshippers access the temple on a regular basis, then? They weren't trying to kill each other off thousands of years ago, were they?" The answer is, of course, no they weren't, so the "riddles" had to be just perilous enough, but also have a clever, "obvious" answer.

Now they're all out again, and I have to get things in order for the Big Climactic Face-off--which, as I'm writing it out, is not quite what I thought it was going to be when I wrote the "fake climax" for the "Flashes of Inspiration" series two years back. (For one thing, it's going to be in first person--I'd framed it in third person when I skipped ahead to write that bit!) It's just a little bit different, but in a good way! We're almost there! And so far my Muse seems to be cooperating, so I intend to stoke that urge and keep it going for as long as possible!

The Clan of Outcasts, Season 3

And here's another prime example of a project that just keeps changing, every time I go to write it!
I spent "season 1" having a heyday with all the flashbacks to introduce my main characters, and then in "season 2" I could move on and just tell a straight-up story because the readers already had enough background information.

This time, I set it three years in the future from the end of "season 2", mainly because I wanted to see if it would be possible to include references to a fanfiction I wrote, tying the world of The Clan of Outcasts in with another world from a series of which I am an ardent fan. For that to succeed, though, I needed to imply that the particular character I used for the fanfic was gone for a whole year, without telling anyone, and she'd rather not dredge up what she found out there--but many changes had happened, all the same.

Not to mention that there were quite a few new characters I wanted to bring in, but it wasn't like I could just "flashback" my way through their stories like I did for "season 1", because they weren't characters that the readers meet all at once--and there's another plot going on behind it all, moving forward in the manner of "season 2", so the challenge became where and when to fit in those flashbacks.
Of course, I don't stop there, now, do I? Perish the thought!

To make things even more complicated, I had enough characters to split them all up by the handful, so instead of having one or two locations between which to divide up the focus in each installment, I've got like four or five, and sometimes that's not even including a flashback I might need to give the reader more backstory about a character, so that they can still follow what's going on in the "present day" plot line!
I've got 2 segments posted so far--mainly because there were a couple weeks where the plot for Priscilla Sum kind of dried up... but she's back at it now, so I might get back to finishing that up so then it's just "all Clan of Outcasts all the time!" Be sure to drop a comment (or click a reaction) to let me know how you're liking it!

Speaking of Clan of Outcasts...


Do you have Wattpad? Have you looked at those first installments of "Season 3", but you're a little confused as to what's going on? Would you like to read it all the way through from the beginning, just to get to know the characters better?

Since submitting The Clan of Outcasts for the "Wattys 2020" award, I've garnered one solitary read. One person clicked one chapter one time. What gives? Is nobody interested in a story like that? I can almost guarantee you don't see a whole lot of this type of story! Go on and try it for size--let me know at which point you just completely lose interest... I ought to know if that's my problem, as long as it isn't something else that's just turning people off!

Meanwhile, I've just finished reposting Red, The Wolf on there, and I've also started adding my Once Upon A Time fanfiction, Poor Unfortunate Soul--obviously the story of Ariel, as it would have been told in Season 1 or early Season 2, back when the show was actually concerned about creating a good contemporary adaptation of various fairy tales, and not just a cash-grabbing "Real Housewives Of Disney"! Fun Fact: I consider Poor Unfortunate Soul to be "Draft Zero" of Princess of Undersea, since that was where I put a lot of thought into re-telling the story of The Little Mermaid!


And now we get to the less-exciting bit.

The two books I marked as Read in the last month were Dawn of Destiny by Amy Hopkins and Michael Anderle, the "Reader's Review" book I managed to post this month, and The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala.
I've already posted my review of Dawn of Destiny, so if you want to know what I thought of it, you can follow the hyperlinked text to the review.

That second one was interesting because I don't do a lot of nonfiction reading, and besides, I'm pretty sure it was the first time I made a "purchase request" of the library, and actually got it! (I made another request that still hasn't been filled--it's probably obsolete by now, since I am pretty sure it's been six months... worth a shot, I guess!)
Firstly, for those who don't know, the letters INFJ refer to the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. There are four primary areas that they've identified as factors that contribute to one's personality: Where you focus your attention – Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I); the way you take in information – Sensing (S) or INtuition (N); how you make decisions – Thinking (T) or Feeling (F); and how you deal with the world – Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).
As for the book itself--the more I read it, the more I realized it emphasized the fact that I'm really almost evenly split between INFJ and INFP--and when it comes to my personality as a writer, I'm definitely more on the INFP side. So there was quite a bit of "INFJ-specific" information that didn't quite help me where I needed it.

The points that helped me the most, though, was when she started talking about in general the personality type category she calls "Sensitive Intuitives": the ones with the "Intuition" and "Feeling" combination. Many of the things she posited about this group in particular hit home with me in a lot of ways; she shared things that are true about the way Sensitive-Intuitives function (based on her own experience and observation, and her understanding of the theoretical science behind the personality categorizing) that are a bit of what I've noticed about myself over the years--but never really understood why. I appreciated the bit of affirmation that said, "Here's why; this stuff that you've been experiencing is totally normal and it happens to everyone who disseminates information and makes decisions the way you do."
I did make notes of the different exercises she recommends for writers having trouble in the areas I've struggled with off-and-on... One thing I will say, I think I did learn about this book and put in my request near the beginning of the year, when I was, indeed, struggling to get words on a page and find time to really get into the discipline of writing... But ever since I've been out of work, I've really found my stride and I haven't struggled in the same way at all since then! So... Thanks to this book for really driving home and defining those things that I was coming to terms with the hard way? Who knows?

Meanwhile, in the realm of fiction reading, I've got four books on my nightstand and one ebook that I'm plowing through.
In terms of "Reader's Reviews" books, I'm currently coming up to halfway through Deception by Katika Schneider. I read the first book in the series Tales of the Fallen, Devotion, a few years ago, and I had very mixed feelings about it, as you'll probably notice by my review. It's just tough when you get attached to certain characters over others, but it seems to run at cross purposes for what the author wants to tell in their story (trying not to be spoilery here!) and I'm really trying to give the other characters their chance to prove their mettle and make me care about them here in the second book--and I have to say, it is working, just a little! The world-building is still absolutely on-point and the pace was a little slow at first because I had to find characters to care about... but now I do care, so it really does feel like the pace is picking up! Here's hoping the rest of the book is smooth sailing.
Meanwhile the next book is one that I'm reading as an ebook, and that is Ace of Clubs by Patricia Loofbourrow. Her series The Red Dog Conspiracy is really a work of genius, and there is no shortage of characters to love and enjoy there! I'm finding the same old feelings dredging up, in the midst of shocking revelations and more intrigue and mystery than ever before! All you readers will have those two reviews to look forward to in the next month!

And lastly, the remaining books on my nightstand, the other library checkouts, are as follows:
Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik--the start of it was a lot of wartime skirmishes, so there were a bunch of technical jargon and sequences that I wasn't really invested in... but Temeraire is definitely more dedicated to keeping Lawrence within reach, no matter what kind of trouble that lands the two of them in--rather entertaining to see humans try and intimidate a dragon!
I also started Blood Rites by Jim Butcher--it's almost as good as reading another Grave Reports novel... ALMOST. But really, I do enjoy the Dresden Files. He still stays entertaining, with every book.
The one I picked up most recently and I'm exercising great restraint to finish the books I'm already reading before starting that one, is The Masked City, the second book in The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman. I absolutely adored her first book, and I'm excessively excited to read this second one... but I know it's going to go a whole heck of a lot faster to read it than reading these other four, so I must wait!

So that brings me to the end of what all I have for you in the way of updates. Next time I post one of these, I'll be talking about the new release--hopefully I'll have some reviews to share with you--and I hope there will be a lot fewer projects to talk about as I finish them up! In the meantime, feel free to comment and let me know what books you've been reading, or if you're a writer, what projects you're working on! I read all my comments, and very often I respond, too! As always...

Catch You Further Upstream!

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 2

Part 2
"The Strange Stone"

Aurelle sat with her hands folded in front of her. She kept her eyes focused on Denahlia's shoulders--it had been too ingrained in her psyche never to look the Hunter straight in the eye. It had taken a while to learn why exactly that disturbed people so much, but the Gift she carried was so bizarre, so unlike anything Aurelle had ever seen--and she'd definitely seen her fair share of Gifts.

Denahlia leaned back, arms folded. "Taking up arms in peacetime now, are we?" She nodded to the weapon which the Harbormaster and his team had so tactfully relieved her of.
Aurelle snorted. "Well, somebody had to--"
"Come on, Aurelle!" Denahlia grunted. "Are you really so bored up in the White Castle that you had to come all the way down here just to stir things up?"
"I wasn't stirring anything," Aurelle finally looked Denahlia in the eye--but her gaze had lost its strangeness. Aurelle tightened her lips. "In case it's escaped your notice, Madam Watch, things are already stirred up--"
"You're not helping the situation with your vigilante tactics!"
The illusionist rolled her eyes. "Vigilante... I'm just doing what you should be doing."
Denahlia drummed her fingers on the desk. "I'm sorry if my work ethic isn't up to your standards, but I can't patrol the Harbor if half the time I'm getting called in it's to straighten you out!"
Aurelle's lip curled. "Apologies, Madam Watch; I guess old habits are hard to break."
Denahlia tilted an eyebrow. "Old habits? What old habits? For as long as I've known you, you've never been one to slip into combat so frequently."
Aurelle kept her face buried in the folds of her collar. "Shows how little you know me. What was I supposed to do? Just sit by and let the Harbor run amuck? Somebody had to step in, and you were gone--"
"Oh boy! Here we go again," Denahlia's face darkened, but her eyes didn't quite glint the way they used to. Instead, the angry red scar over her right eye swelled and darkened. "I step out for what amounts to--"
"A year, Denahlia. You were gone for an entire year, without so much as a message at any point, telling us this important reason why you would leave your jurisdiction in the hands of a skittish cadet--"
"Hayden is a perfectly capable Harbormaster, I wouldn't have left if I didn't believe he could handle it."

Denahlia’s hand came up, and Aurelle felt a tingling sensation creep in from her hands and feet, up her limbs toward her core—like a weighted blanket had just dropped over her. She tried to lift her hands, to resist the pressure, but her body went numb.
“Don’t. Yell. At me.” Denahlia growled, her blue eyes piercing Aurelle’s own. She closed her fist, and Aurelle felt the pressure on her body lift abruptly.
The illusionist raised her eyebrow, staring at the young woman’s empty hands. How had she altered her own Gift? Didn’t it used to be her eyes that could accomplish these superhuman feats?
She stared at the dark-haired woman. “What happened to you while you were gone, Denahlia? Where did you go?”
Denahlia glared across the desk. Her memory wanted to bring it all back, dredge up the events that transpired over her absence. She didn't want it. Those experiences, that life had no place in The Realm. "Nothing happened. I left, I came back."
"With a new scar on your face, and that strange thing you do with your hands." Aurelle's gaze cut into her.
Denahlia's lip curled. She pulled out the requisite form and signed it. "This is the last time I'm covering for you, Aurelle. Next time you decide to flaunt Harbor policies, you will answer for it."
Aurelle opened her palm, and a strange building emerged over her palm. It was straight and angular--nothing like any building in the whole Realm.
Denahlia winced and waved her hand, and the illusion shattered in a million pinpricks of light. "Get out of my office."
Aurelle stood, but she couldn't resist one last barb. "You can't just vanish on people and expect everything to pick up right where it left off without telling anybody, Denahlia. That's not how you treat friends."

The Harbor Watch beckoned over Aurelle's shoulder, and the door opened of its own accord. "When I decide you should know the story of my absence, I'll tell you. Until then, it's my business. Friendship or enmity has nothing to do with it."

Aurelle exited the office. As she rounded the corner that led to the street, a young man leaning against the wall stood and advanced toward her, smiling as he removed the pipe from his lips.

"Miss On-Again-Off-Again, is it?" He teased.
Aurelle gave a pinched smile and a mock curtsey. "Good day to you, Harbormaster."
Hayden chuckled, his gaze wandering over to the door leading into Denahlia's office. "She's a strange one, but she does the job."
Aurelle snorted. "When she's around," she muttered.
His smile never dimmed. "I've heard a lot of stories about her--she's been through a lot." He blinked as Aurelle held up her hand and tried to conjure the strange building again. It wouldn't form. "Well..." Hayden stammered. "I guess you've all been through quite a lot in the last years."
Aurelle chuckled. "You don't know the half of it." She paused and then heaved a sigh, shaking off some flood of memories. "Well, I suppose I ought to be getting back to the Castle."
Hayden took a long puff on his pipe. "Come back and visit again--and try not to cause trouble next time, eh?"
Aurelle smiled and waved as she walked away. "I'll do my best."
Hayden watched her leave and then turned to wander down toward the docks. He dodged to avoid a full wagon swaying by, and nearly collided with a man heading in the opposite direction.
"Hey, watch it!" The man snarled.
Hayden fumbled his pipe, caught it, and nodded to the man. "Dreadfully sorry--I hope I didn't spill any warm pipe-weed on you!"
The bearded man seemed a bit taken aback by Hayden's winning manner. He lost his ire immediately. "Oh, no harm done. Say... I've just arrived in these parts, and I'm looking for directions to a tavern--the Phoenix Inn, I believe it's called?"
Hayden smiled. "Ah! I know the place. Just take this road here," he pointed to the main street curving away from them. "It'll take you straight up toward the city. You'll turn left once you pass the City gates, and the Phoenix Inn will be just ahead. You can't miss it!"
The stranger smiled broadly. "Thank you kindly, sir!"
Hayden nodded and shook the man's hand. "Welcome to the Realm!" He surveyed the busy pier at the base of the road, and puffed happily on his pipe. Whatever Madam Denahlia and Lady Aurelle were arguing about, it couldn't have been something to drive a wedge between the women. One didn't have such disagreements in a Gifted Realm such as this!

Princess Zayra surveyed the map spread out upon her desk. She would need to add a few names to the census--and where to fit them all? Perhaps organizing the community according to similar Gifts wasn't the best idea. It had made sense at first, putting all the water-types together, keeping those with telepathic connections to animals together with the shapeshifters so that the animals had room to roam without bothering the humans. She pursed her lips and stared at each thin boundary line marking out the lots. There seemed to be too many of one sort, and very few of another. What would it look like if she dispersed them in equal groups, including a group of diverse Gifts that could benefit one another, instead?
"It really is beautiful, isn't it?"

His voice never ceased to thrill her, and Zayra welcomed his soothing touch on her shoulders. She read the name over the top of the map. "Wildhaven--a sanctuary for Gifted people." She turned to look at her husband, Prince Beren. "Did you ever think The Realm would have something like this?"

Beren leaned against the desk and stroked his beard. He had started growing it the day after Jaran's coronation, and three years later, it had become thick, full, and well-maintained. He kept it short at Zayra's request; she loved to run her fingers through it, but she didn't like the idea of it hanging down over his neck.
"To be honest, I don't even think my father would have come up with such an idea," Beren replied to his wife. "He wanted to integrate the Gifted, but I don't think he had any contingency for those whose Gifts made it difficult for them to integrate."
Zayra nodded. She'd seen how trying to accommodate the Gifted population had only fostered unrest in the kingdom--for a time, it was only too easy for one side to antagonize the other, whether it was unGifted rejecting any sign of Giftedness, or the Gifted trying to set themselves up as superior over the unGifted. At one time, she was a major player in the push to control the Gifted population--unscrupulous manipulators sought to use her Gift against other Gifted ones, and it nearly caused the collapse of the entire Realm.

Zayra closed her eyes and felt that old hunger growing inside her; she knew she was drawn to power, and her Gift made it so she could leach a Gift off of another. When Beren desired to marry her and make her a princess, she had sought to channel that Gift into being able to seek out other Gifted people from among the community, to communicate understanding with them, and to give them one of two options: either they could live among the unGifted as a normal citizen, using their Gift publicly to benefit the kingdom--or they could move to Wildhaven, the village set up in the area that was once a barren wasteland, to live and thrive among other Gifted people in harmony and acceptance. The empty wilderness had soon filled with people who caused it to become a fruitful valley once more, and more and more Gifted individuals were coming in from far and wide to find a home in The Realm.
Zayra gestured to one of the newest letters on her desk. "Have you seen the latest arrivals?" she asked. "Apparently one young woman showed up with an animal friend the other day."

Beren glanced over the letter detailing the newcomer's profile. "Animal friend? What was it this time? A snake, or a dog?"
"Neither," Zayra smirked. "It was a bear, actually."

Beren coughed. "A bear? Oh dear. Wouldn't she be better off with Velora in the forest, you think?"
"On the contrary," Zayra tilted her head, "I thought they would get along splendidly in the corner between Lyona and Berto. She seemed more keen on putting down roots somewhere without worrying about someone trying to hunt her friend."
Beren nodded. "Ah, good point. Yes, the bear wouldn't have much to worry about alongside an alligator and a leopard."

A soft knock interrupted the couple.
"You wanted to see me, sire?" asked the gentle voice.
Beren and Zayra turned. Beren grinned. "Erlis! How are you feeling?"

The dark-haired half-dragon sighed and hung her head, letting her dark hair drop forward. It caught on her pointed earlobes, emphasizing the newly-developing feature even more. "Still changing, I'm afraid. Between Lizeth's tinctures and the amulet-stone, we've been able to stall the progression somewhat, but as far as reversing the process..." She sighed, feeling for the glowing blue stone hanging from her neck. It was hard enough to feel human when half her body was covered in bright-green dragon scales. When she suddenly began developing elfin characteristics, like pointed ears and heightened sensitivity in all her senses, she felt herself distancing even further from her old humanity.
Zayra reached over and caressed her arm. They shared a special bond, from the time Erlis had tried to provide Zayra with a transfusion to "heal" her of her dangerous Gift, which had resulted in Erlis turning fully into a dragon. "Stay strong, and don't give up hope," she murmured. "We'll find an answer somehow."
Beren stepped away from the desk and coughed. "Meanwhile, Erlis... I did want to talk to you about something in particular. Excuse us, my dear," he nodded to his wife.
Zayra nodded. "When you see Anahita, let her know I have some letters for her to write," she said.
Beren and Erlis left the room, and Zayra resumed studying the map.
A sudden swell of power behind her caused her to whirl around with a gasp. "Oh!" She blinked as the nexus of power coalesced over the form of the dark-skinned Gifted Mage, Risyn Nysir. His deep-violet eyes held her gaze.

"Is my lady well this evening?" he asked.
Zayra focused on her breathing and on settling the compulsion to draw on the darklight power Risyn carried within him. "Yes, Risyn, everything's fine."
"The portents whisper otherwise," he answered. "Trouble brews afar, and it spreads like the black pitch--"
Zayra moaned; Korsan had his moments of doom and gloom, but this apprentice he'd left behind took the tendency to a whole new level! "Then by all means, tell the King, if it's so urgent!" she couldn't restrain the edge creeping into her voice. The longer she stood near Risyn with no outlet for her sensitive affinity, the harder it was to suppress.
Risyn didn't seem to notice the effect he had upon her. He tilted his head. "I cannot discern its urgency, only that it is building, and should it reach the Realm--"
Zayra screwed up her courage and rushed right past him, to the door. "I can't deal with this right now..."
She nearly collided with someone in the hallway.
"Ooh! I'm sorry!"
Zayra felt her old ire stir itself. Of all the faces to run into when she was in this state--Azelie, the Queen of the Realm, the one she had been taught to view as a rival, as her nemesis. They had developed a true friendship over the last three years, but Zayra was no longer in the mood.
"Watch where you're going!" she snapped.
Queen Azelie frowned. "I'm sorry, I had no idea anyone was in there, I just--" she peeked over Zayra's shoulder. "Were you interviewing a new arrival in there?" she asked.
Zayra could feel her Gift spiraling out of control. She focused on the stones, on the cut of her dress, the feel of her fingers--anything but reaching out and strangling the former "Paragon of The Realm"! "No, I was talking to--" she gestured back into the room, but Risyn had already teleported somewhere else. A headache began to throb in her temples. "Never mind."
Azelie frowned, rubbing her head as well. "That's strange, because I thought I heard... I mean, in my head it sounded like... Oh well..." She wandered off, glancing through each door that she passed.
Zayra shook her head and descended the stairwell that would lead to the science tower. She needed a break from all the Gifted pressure around her, and some time with Lizeth and her unGifted assistant would provide the relief she sought!

Velora squinted, trying to see deep into the center of the object delivered to her by Gavin. She weighed it in her hands, even sniffed it to try and detect what mineral it might be.
Gavin had told her, three different ways, exactly the spot he found it. She made him describe it and verbally retrace his steps until she could picture exactly the spot to which he referred--a spot that contained no mineral deposits, no geological well of any sort, to justify the existence of this large crystal. The one thing she hadn't tried yet was cracking the thing open to see what it was like on the inside--but she was running out of methods of identification. Was it a message? A gift? An accident? An omen?

Velora picked up the hammer and chisel. She tapped the crystal once or twice, just to test its malleability. The surface remained unscathed, and didn't give easily under the impact. One small chip wasn't going to do too much damage--and maybe Lizeth had something in her crazy science laboratory that would be able to identify it.
She braced the chisel against a flat surface, raised the hammer, and--
Velora's downward swing came to a halt as a curling ivy vine caught her wrist. She snapped it with a jerk and dropped the chisel, baring her teeth in a wolf-like snarl at whoever would dare sneak up on her like that.
Golden eyes and a thick mop of dark hair curling behind pointed earlobes greeted her vision, and she dropped all signs of aggression. Her expression relaxed and she nodded in respect to the figure dressed in shining leather and a silky green tunic that blended in with the foliage.
"Greetings, Spruce. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
The young Elf all but glared at her. He pointed over her shoulder. "Surrender that crystal; it is the property of Elvendom."
Velora blinked. "This?" She looked back at the small obelisk. "What is it, exactly?"

He advanced closer, like he was just going to pick it up and be on his way. "That is none of your concern," he answered. "It is imperative that you yield the item into my custody."
Velora's alpha-wolf instincts clicked into place. "A strange crystal somehow materializes on the mortal plane right in the center of my jurisdiction, and its importance is such that an Elvish prince comes personally to collect it--I should say that concerns me greatly!" she warned.
Spruce shuffled in his soft leather boots. He held her gaze with an even expression for a long moment, but he broke off with a sniff. "Chief Velora, I understand that these are circumstances beyond your scope, and I commend your determination to protect the area assigned to you by King Jaran--but if you will not hand it over willingly, I must warn you--my brother has been notified of its existence, and its presence here. He will not be so easily dissuaded."
Velora planted herself squarely between the Elf and the crystal. "You really aren't going to tell me anything about this thing, are you?"
Spruce maintained his stance. "You know that I, more than any other Elf, cherish the opportunity to impart knowledge from my realm to yours. In regards to this particular situation... I'm afraid I have no choice. You must hand it over."
Velora pressed her lips, mulling over the cost of resisting a people group as powerful as the Elves, Gifts notwithstanding. "How long do I have?" she asked quietly.
The Elf prince's shoulders relaxed. "I can delay my brother and buy you three days' time. At this time on the third day, you must enter Elvendom yourself to deliver the crystal, or nothing will stop him from taking it by force."
She nodded. "Three days it is, then."
Spruce folded his arms. "So be it." His body seemed to melt back into the brown and green shadows around him, and a moment later he vanished entirely.

Velora regarded the crystal with renewed interest. So... the Elves were willing to risk diplomatic outrage to regain this thing, and yet Spruce, of all Elves, had absolutely nothing to say to her on the subject?
Velora sighed and reached into the collar of her jerkin. On the end of a leather cord tied around her neck, she bore a glowing blue stone. It pulsed against her palm, filling her mind with thoughts of the bearded old Mage who had given it to her before disappearing without warning. When she closed her eyes, she could picture the other talisman-stones, pinpoints of blue in a hazy grey landscape. She focused on each one till she found the one she sought.

Following Korsan's instructions, she cleared her mind and focused on the face of that person, placing them squarely in the forefront of her mind, as if they stood right before her.
"Erlis, it's Velora."
She sensed the half-dragon react to the sudden psychic connection, and respond. "Velora--what's wrong?"
Velora smiled. "Nothing yet, but I think I've found something that might be of interest to you."
"Really? What is it?"
"I can't tell. The Elves want it very badly, but my source won't tell me anything about it. I was hoping maybe you could help me identify it."
"I can make my way down to the Forest at first light tomorrow."
"Thank you."

Velora released the connection and tucked the pendant back into her collar. She was going to find out about this strange crystal, if it took her three days and she had to demand the information from the Elves herself!

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Prisicilla Sum" Part 29

Part 29

The mouth of the temple area just inside the wall was flanked by two huge statues of spear-wielding guards. The sun streamed down through a collapsed portion of the ceiling overhead, and as my eyes sought out the sky, I found myself looking right into the face of my mom.

Well, it was supposed to be Auraea. Same thing, at this point! The face was almost exactly the same as I always remembered it, but her hair--usually slicked back and flat-ironed to a sleek sheen--was carved as a swirling, loose mass. She looked more like a wind goddess with her chiton billowing around her body. The detail on every stray lock of hair, every fold and wrinkle of fabric, down to the toes that were roughly the size of my palm, was meticulously formed.

A brilliant light blazed from the face, and I barely heard Kayce shout “Look out!” before hands yanked on my shoulders and something went whooshing past my head. The air filled with high-pitched squeals as I ducked and covered.

“What was that?” Derrick hollered.
“Everybody okay?” asked Tony.
Kayce watched the morphing shadows clinging to the walls high above us.
“Bats,” he said with a shudder.
“Ugh!” Jordyn pulled a face and shrank off to one side. “I hope none of them decide to poop on us!”
I sighed. “Well, at least it wasn’t something worse!” I gave a nervous laugh and adjusted the straps of my backpack. I certainly hoped bats would be the worst thing we faced in this temple. “Come on, you guys. Let’s keep going in.”

"But stay close," Tony warned. "We'll be safer in a tight group, in case things spring out at us again."
We all huddled against one another and inched forward, hands on the backpack in front of us, hugging close to the pedestal supporting the statue.

Kayce and Derrick, in front of the rest of us, watched the floor for subtle cracks or indications of trip wires or uneven tiles.
Derrick pulled to a halt right alongside the statue. "Wait," he said.
I glanced around. We hadn't even made it twenty paces from the doorway. Was there a trip wire or something?
"Did anyone else hear that?" he asked.
I glanced from side to side, listening for a stray rumble or the subtle click of a booby trap releasing.
"Hear what?" Kayce asked.
Jordyn's voice came hoarse over my shoulder. "She's... watching us!"

We all looked up as carefully as we dared. Sure enough, the head on the statue had angled so the huge face loomed large, the gem-like eyes (actually, they could have been real large gemstones) fixed directly on our position.
"It's just the perspective," Tony reassured her. "We've all seen artwork that look like the eyes are following you around the room."

"The Eyes Do Not Know You...." Wasn't that what the inscription had said? Were these the eyes it referred to? What was the consequence of not being "known" by the goddess? Did it count that I was adopted by the goddess herself--or not, because none of us were of Greek descent?

Kayce sighed in the stillness and inched forward over the dusty ground. "Let's just keep moving forward--"
"Stop!" Derrick squawked, and as a whole group we stumbled backward over one another as the space in front of us disintegrated before our eyes.

I almost ate Kayce's backpack as my feet got tangled with Jordyn's ankles. Derrick was still flailing at all of us as he fought his way toward the front again. "Get back, get back, get back!"
We made it back to the front of the statue's feet just moments before the rumbling and crashing stopped. Sand, dust, and stones had fallen away to create a hole about four feet wide beside the base of the statue's pedestal.

Tony nursed his banged-up knuckles and brushed the sand out of his hair. "Well," he sighed, "I guess we're not crossing on that side."
I looked around at the massive array of mosaics and carvings around the room where we sat. "Is there anything that could give us an indication of how to get into the temple safely?"

Derrick huffed. "Why do you say that?" he gestured to the pathway on the other side. "There's plenty of room on that side."
I shot him a skeptical glare. "What makes you think the same thing won't happen?"
Derrick stood up and walked over to that side while we watched. "It's like Tony said, the perspective makes the statue's head look like it's staring toward her left side. If we cross on the right, then--"
A stone-on-stone scraping sound rumbled through the space. We all watched the massive head slowly rotate on some hidden axis, over to face Derrick as he moved. The gemstone eyes flashed, and the ground cracked right where it had on the other side.

"Derrick, look out!" Jordyn screamed, and the young mechanic jumped up onto the raised dais, alongside the statue's ankles.
"It's the eyes!" Kayce breathed. "Just like the inscription said! The eyes do not know you!"

Derrick couldn't take his eyes off the gaping drop-off right next to him. "Great! So how do we rectify that?"
The head began to turn again, and I saw that it was headed right for us. I grabbed Jordyn's hand and lunged forward. "Everybody head for the ankles!"

The floor beneath us shook and snapped, and we surged forward toward the statue's feet.
Tony got up and hauled me by my backpack onto the narrow surface. Jordyn grabbed onto the edge just as the floor under her feet gave way. I grabbed her elbow, and Tony went for her backpack to support her. Together, we hauled the slender girl onto the platform.
"Okay, important question," Derrick said as we crouched under the sculpted skirts of the goddess. "Can anybody see her eyes from here?"
I glanced straight up from my position as the rumbling fell still. "No, I think we're good."
By this point, the entire floor of the temple entrance had been reduced to one section at the front of the doorway, and a single pathway immediately behind the goddess.

Kayce crouched down in front of our last bridge to safety and studied it. "What do you want to bet her head turns all the way around, and the moment we get out there, it'll break away, too?" he murmured.
"If this whole room collapses," Jordyn squealed, "How are we going to get out?"
Derrick blew a raspberry. "The things they never show you on adventure films," He grumbled. "I bet Indiana Jones or Lara Croft never had to worry this much about backtracking!"
Kayce chuckled. "Thats true; I mean, they're always running out to escape some massive collapse, so the movie doesn't show them being as careful on the way out as they were on their way in."
"But this isn't the movies, anyway," Tony pointed out. "This is real life, so we have to think about these things."
Derrick glared at him. "Well, okay, smarty-pants--got any ideas?"

Tony rubbed the back of his neck as we all pondered over the problem. "Maybe the inscription holds the clue to how we're going to get through this?" He studied the portion of the floor that still remained. “There has to be some way we can make sure that the head doesn’t turn and the eyes don’t see us when we go across this floor, because we’ll need it to get back out again.”
Kayce slicked his dirty hair back. Streaked with dirt and clumping into sagging strands, it wasn’t the same platinum coif he’d had at the beginning of the trip. It stayed flat against his scalp. “We already tried going one at a time, and that didn’t work.”
My anxious hands searched for something to fiddle with as my brain wrestled for a solution.
“Hey, Pris,” Jordyn nudged me.
I blinked and realized that my fingers were wrapped around the locket hanging from my neck. “Got any insights?” my dark-haired friend asked.
I dropped my hands. “No—Me? I don’t... I didn’t—“ I stopped stammering as my brain caught up with my mouth. The inscription came to mind yet again. “The eyes do not know you—“
“So they’re just going to blast you into oblivion,” Derrick finished. “That part, we understand.”
I leaned forward. “But the next part...”
Kayce picked his head up. “Repent? Like a confession or something?”

Jordyn looked upwards, to where the legs met the folds of Auraea skirts. “What if this actually is the physical manifestation of the goddess?”
Derrick snorted. “Yeah, right, Jordyn! Somebody’s been reading too much Percy Jackson!”

“Just hear me out, okay?” Jordyn leaned against the massive arch of the foot behind her. “Think about everything we’ve experienced since coming here: the freak storm, the earthquakes, the discoveries—“
“The accidents and coincidences,” I supplied, thinking of my parents stirring up the Great Lakes.
Kayce shot me an accusing look, "That necklace--"
"All this stuff," Jordyn cut him off, still trying to drive her point home, without realizing the narrow scrape she nearly rescued me from. "It's gotta be leading us somewhere, doesn't it?"
"You think the organization doesn't realize what's actually going on under the surface?" Derrick asked the group.
Jordyn nodded, Kayce rolled his eyes, and Tony remained silent, so I replied carefully and with plenty of conviction, "I think there is a whole lot that we don't know about the people who were supposed to supervise us." I gestured to the room around us, and the statue standing over us. "I mean, that's why we decided to strike out on our own, isn't it?"
Kayce stiffened. "We left because they were wrong," he maintained. "We figured something out and they didn't."
"And what do we have to show for it?" Tony snapped at long last. His eyes flashed as he spoke--they might have even turned a little golden-orange around the edges again. "We're stuck under this stupid statue with only one chance of getting out of this room and no idea what we might find next!"
His voice rang off the stones around us. Since when was he so passionate about our mission?

"Back to what I was trying to say," I said. "What if repent in the inscription was intended in more of the literal sense?"
Derrick scrunched his thick brows in confusion. "Like, how literal? Do we need to say something to the goddess, some kind of pass phrase or something?"
I shook my head. "That's not what it means. The word for repent is not a verbal apology, but it carries the connotation of leaving something behind. Turning around, and walking the other way."
I watched the others carefully, gauging their reactions to my words. Tony had a small smile on his face. He nodded to me. "So if the inscription tells us to repent, we're supposed to... walk the other way?" He glanced back toward the entrance, where large portions of the floor were still missing.
Kayce studied the path ahead of us. "Now I get it!" he mused. "Every time the statue has turned, one of us looked up at it, and then the floor would collapse." He glanced at me. "What if that was our mistake?"
I shrugged. "Only one way to find out." I stood and brushed the dust off my shorts. "We're going across that pathway, and while we do," I held up my finger and pointed around the group, "nobody look back at the statue."
Jordyn pulled her elbows in close to her body, grimacing as she fought the urge to do exactly the opposite of what I said. "What if you're wrong?" she whimpered.
Then we all die and it's basically my mom's fault, I thought. I grabbed her hand and gave her a comforting smile. "Just think of it like having the faith of a real worshipper."

We all linked hands, Tony in the front, then me, Jordyn, Derrick, and Kayce at the back.
"Eyes forward everybody," Tony muttered, as much to himself as to any of us. "Here we go!"
We marched forward onto the trail, keeping our heads bowed and our eyes on the back of the person in front of us. Halfway across, we could all hear the scraping stone of the statue turning, just like we feared, and the wall in front of us was bathed in a brilliant green light.
"Don't look back!" I called as the ground beneath us started to shake. Jordyn squeezed my hand so hard that I was sure my fingertips would pop at any moment. Small pieces of silt and debris broke away from the walls, and the cliffs on either side of us--but one by one, we passed through that doorway safely.
The pathway on the other side veered sharply to the right, and Tony had to squeeze a little to get his backpack through, as did I.

"Keep going!" Derrick hollered desperately as a true earthquake built underneath us.
"I'm trying!" I called back, clinging to Tony's sweaty hand as he rounded a second corner. Back and forth the trail snaked, giving me the feeling that we might actually be traveling on a slight decline. The walls were barely further apart than my outstretched elbows--but with the backpacks it felt even more cramped.
I couldn't even reach up to brush away the dust and dirt falling on my head, but then Tony let go of my hand at the same moment I burst out from between the narrow walls into a wide, dome-shaped room. Kayce stumbled in on Derrick's heels, and the earthquake faded into absolute stillness.

The room was so quiet that I could hear my own pulse drumming in my ears.
"Everybody okay?" I heard Tony's voice coming at me from above and behind me--but it was weirdly muffled, like it was coming out of a tube or something.
"I'm fine!" I hollered, feeling my way toward somebody, anybody!
"Ow, geez!" Jordyn's voice resounded right in my ear. "Did you have to yell like that?"
I wrestled my backpack off my shoulder and dug through the pockets to remember where my flashlight was. "Sorry," I muttered.
"I said sorry!"
"What happened to your voice?"
".... Stay close!" Kayce's voice came from behind me again, along with Derrick shouting, "Where is everybody?" but again, the sound was distorted, like listening to the radio at very low volume.

I turned on my flashlight, and I could see Jordyn standing right next to me. She squinted and shaded her eyes. "Oh, there you are," she said. "Weird, I thought you'd moved."
I shook my head. "No, I've pretty much been here the whole time."

"Hey!" Derrick's voice came from the shadows to our right, while two more lights snapped on across to the far side of the room. Kayce and Tony, maybe?
One of the lights wobbled. "You've gotta come see this....found it... toward the light..."
Jordyn took a step toward the bobbing lights. "Do you think they've found something?"
I turned back to where I heard the voice coming from. "Derrick might have. I'm going to go check it out." I shifted the beam of my flashlight so she could see where I was pointing. "Go follow them, just to stay close to someone with a light. That must be Kayce and Tony. I'm going to see if I can find Derrick."
Jordyn nodded, and we parted ways.

I panned my flashlight slowly along the wall. I could see thick crags, and the odd patch of decorative filigree.
"Derrick!" I called. "Where are you?"
"Over here!" he replied. "Where are you?"
I couldn't see him, but at one point, I saw a shadowy gap along the wall. Moving closer, I discovered that it was a small opening behind a natural cutaway in the rock wall. From one angle, you couldn't even see it because the angles were so tightly aligned. From the other side, I saw a narrow doorway, and when I shined my flashlight into it, I could see the flicker of another light in the darkness.
"Is that you, Derrick?" I asked cautiously, creeping forward.
"Check this out!" his strained whispers seemed to come from the very stones themselves.

I squeezed through the doorway, and found myself in a room--an empty, dark room. Where was Derrick?
Something glinted on the back wall. I pointed my flashlight at the thing and gasped.
A massive mural of Auraea's face dominated the entire surface. Her eyes, once again, were filled in with huge green gemstones. This depiction resembled the woman I knew as my mother even more than the statue had.
"Whispers... fate... your fate... The whispers...They whisper... destiny... They whisper your fate..."

The ominous hissing voices overlapped and repeated the same few words and phrases, blowing past me on a breeze that sent a chill down my spine. I inched forward.
"The eyes... don't know you... you don't know... don't you know... the eyes, the eyes..."
I reached up and ran my fingers lightly over the large, smooth stone in her left eye. It wasn't faceted like a cut gemstone, but smooth, like a colored pane of glass. Through this, the beam of my flashlight caught on something shiny and metallic within the eye. I stopped and focused on it closely. What was that?
The ground wobbled beneath my feet, and I immediately dropped to my knees as another earthquake began. The ceiling and walls of that little room cracked and snapped, sending pebbles and dust raining down all around me. A hollow wailing started, like wind whistling through a narrow alleyway, and I felt it wash over me. My mind immediately conjured the idea of the wind-sprites, trapped somehow behind something, but I did not dare lift my head while things were falling on it.

I squealed and tumbled back onto my butt at the sound of a larger crash right in front of me. The shaking subsided and stopped, and when I finally picked up my head, I saw that the left eye gemstone had fallen out of its recess. Inside the hole, I could see something curved and metal.
I walked toward the mural, feeling the breezes coming out at me through the empty socket. Sitting inside that rounded hole was a bracelet of some sort. It looked to be made of bronze. I held it up to put on my wrist, but one thing stopped me: a pair of wicked-looking spikes on the inside. Just wearing the thing would risk puncturing the skin. Perhaps this was not so much jewelry as some ancient torture device. I stuffed it in my pocket.

In the corner of my vision, something moved along the far wall. I pointed my flashlight at it.
A second mural, but this one was different. It appeared where there hadn't been a mural before--perhaps the earthquake revealed it? In the mural, I saw the ocean with its curling waves, and an island coastline that looked a lot like Fourtouna. Rain pelted from clouds overhead, curling and swirling with high winds--and on the shore of the island stood a large red demon with a scowling face of pure evil, fangs bared as it extended a clenched, clawed fist. The design of the figure dominating the mural looked familiar. I squinted closer; where had I seen it before?
I gasped. The demon in the picture held something in its hand: a human, tiny and pitiful in its powerful grasp. Not just any human, though.

A female.
A girl with short dark hair.

"The walls whisper your fate... This is your fate... He comes for you... Egamad awakes..."
My heart pounded and my head swam and I could barely breathe as I wriggled and wrestled my way back through that little door.

The room outside was brighter than it had been before--partially illuminated by a large cistern of something flammable. I could distinguish the four figures of my friends spread out across the room.
"Pris!" I could hear Jordyn's call happening right next to my ear, even though she stood about fifteen feet away. "There you are! We've been looking everywhere for you!"
The sense of dread wouldn't leave me. Something was coming. Our presence here had awakened it. What had the voice said?
Egamad. The spirit associated with the amulet I'd given Tony. The demon Mom's letter tried to warn me about.
I frowned as I squinted toward Jordyn. "How are you doing that?"
I sighed and cupped my hands around my mouth. "I said how are--"
"Turn and aim your voice at the wall," Kayce's voice instructed, sounding every bit as close as Jordyn did. I squinted and scanned the room till I saw him: standing at the far side of the dome, with his back to me! "The shape of the dome projects your voice. It also deadens sound inside it. We can only hear each other if we speak at the wall."
I turned around and followed his instructions. "This is so weird."
"But awesome!" Derrick spoke from another corner. "Boy, you missed it, Pris! We found Auraea's altar! This is it! This is the temple!"

The hollow roar from the small room with the mural built with a ferocity that caught in my throat. "Guys," I prayed that everybody could hear me, "we need to get out of here now."
"Aww, but this is so cool!" Jordyn complained.
"No, I mean it!" I wanted everyone to understand how urgent the situation was--but we couldn't do that if we weren't looking at each other. "Everybody head for the doorway."
"What's your hurry?" Tony asked. "I think I want to see what else is down here."

Anything else we could have said to one another was cut off as the room began shaking more violently than it had before. The rocks groaned and cracked under the pressure, and I could feel parts of the floor shifting and lifting under us.
I turned around, flipped acoustics or not. "EVERYBODY RUN!!" I screamed.
Jordyn reached the doorway at the same time I did. The guys would have farther to run, but by the time I reached the pathway in front of Auraea's statue, I could hear Derrick and Kayce shouting at each other behind me.

Enough of the walls had collapsed that it didn't matter that most of the floor was missing--we could pick our way across the large boulders to the door with the archway. The ground rumbled and rocked, with more stones tumbling and collapsing behind us.
I threw my body in a tumbling roll onto the ground as it kept shaking. Jordyn landed behind me, and I saw three more bodies hurtle through the archway. We lay still and dared not move until the shaking stopped.
I picked my head up as silence reigned around us.
"Did we make it?" I asked.
Kayce groaned and coughed as he sat up. "Ugh, man! That was, like, the least fun obstacle course ever!"
Egamad awakens... I immediately checked on Tony as the rest of the group sat up. He was laying down still, but when I crawled over, he gave a huge sigh and sat up.
"Oh man! That was a close one," he murmured. "Good instincts, Priscilla."
I nodded to him, hiding my worry behind a smile as my eyes traveled down his arm, all the way to his bare wrist.
"Tony..." I said, the trepidation mounting in my chest again. "Where's your bracelet?"

He blinked a moment, as if he couldn't remember. "Huh? Oh, right--I think it might have fallen off while we were trying to escape the collapsing temple." He stared at his wrist, the way one does after taking off a watch. "Odd, I never noticed it."

Right on cue, a gurgling roar escaped the dark opening behind the carved archway, and a billowing black cloud of smoke belched out of it. We all climbed to our feet and watched it curve away from us and disperse into the shadows of the forest. To me, it seemed that a few of the smaller wispy plumes had bent into the large horns, round jaws, and smaller fangs matching Egamad's depiction.
"That was weird," Derrick snorted.

A series of splintering cracks split the air, and the trees began swaying against one another. The ground beneath our feet separated, and as we watched, roots and vines began slithering toward us like a nest of snakes.
Kayce staggered back as a root popped out of the ground and nearly grabbed his ankle. He took off running back the way we'd come at full tilt.
"LET'S GET OUT OF HERE!!" he screamed, sending us into a frenzy after him.

The jungle was alive, galvanized by a demon who wanted revenge on the gods who had trapped him in the gem that was no longer his prison. Egamad was free--and he was coming for us.

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