Thursday, December 31, 2020

Hit List: 20 Books From 2020!


What with the libraries closing down for a large chunk of the year, you wouldn't think that I could have found all that much to read... and you'd be right, mostly. The thing is, although I generally do make a habit of going to the library quite frequently... I also do have a fair amount of books that I own that I haven't read yet, so while all that was going on, I took the opportunity to get through some of those books! Then the libraries reopened (for no-contact hold pickups, anyway) and I was able to at least get a few books at a time... But at any rate, rather than just giving you December's books, I decided to go over all the 40+ books I read this year, and give you "20 books for 2020", my Top 10 Indie Books (the Reader's Reviews from this year) and Top 10 "Standard" books--a mix of library checkouts and bookstore purchases!
In more or less "Ranked" order, they are:

#20: Song by Jesse Teller

The breakout read of the year--the book I had no "thematic context" for, I had no idea what I was in for, a book that's been sitting in the queue for a year, at least, and lo and behold: I liked it! You can follow the hyperlinked text to read my Official Reader's Review about it!

#19: Prey by Michael Crichton

One thing for sure: Crichton books are always a good time. He has a tendency to start out slow, setting up all the "science" behind his ideas, drawing from both real sources and fictionalized entries--but once the plot gets going, the payoff is always worth it! Prey is no exception. It starts out kind of funky, a little boring, and it takes a deep dive into creepy quasi-horror after about the halfway mark! A computer programmer whose wife works for a company that has developed medical-grade nanotechnology, except that his wife goes missing and then he gets called out to the development lab, where he finds out that they need his help because they've "lost" a swarm of these nanobots that are learning and evolving as they are loose in the Arizona desert!

#18: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

A friend recommended me this book after I talked about how much I enjoyed A Monster Calls--and then the movie was announced, and I just had to give in to my curiosity! The premise was fascinating and the execution managed to stay interesting all the way through, keeping the plot moving at a good pace. There were a few stylistic choices that ranged from unorthodox (using font styles and art to illustrate text, kind of like the way The Book Thief and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close did the same thing) to annoying (misspelling intentionally to highlight the narrator's education level--the teacher in me died a little bit every time I came across those words!!) but on the whole, I really liked it, and in particular I'm actually really excited about the way the movie is depicting the "Noise" that is the key to the whole premise!

#17: Deception by Katika Schneider

Talk about sitting on the queue for a while! This one had to wait for quite a while because of the way I felt about the ending of the first book--but as it turned out, viewing this book and its predecessor as two halves of the same book really does wonders for my mental state! Follow the hyperlinked text to read my Official Reader's Review about it!

#16: Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter

Charming Victorian-era paranormal investigations--the whole Jackaby series is absolutely rife with that period goodness, and some good old-fashioned urban fantasy that I definitely enjoy! This one, especially, delves into the background of one of the ghost characters who was fascinating enough in the first two books, but now she gets her own time in the spotlight, bringing her out of the shadows, as it were, while also moving the series arc along and giving further connections to a villain that just keeps popping up when he's least wanted! Fantastic book.

#15: The Bhinian Empire duology: City of A Thousand Dolls and Empire of Shadows by Miriam Forster

Another indie title that was sitting in my queue for a very long time, written by a friend-of-a-friend--I thoroughly enjoyed the first book, and upon the next trip to the library (actually, the last and only "trip inside the library" I would take all year!), imagine my surprise to find the sequel sitting right there on the shelf! The world-building is the most awesome part of it, and the lore developed for the series is absolutely amazing! You can read my Official Reader's Reviews for these books by clicking on the hyperlinked titles above.

#14: The Fallen by David Baldacci

The fourth book in the Amos Decker series, this one was pretty decent, and I liked it the best between the two Baldacci books I actually read this year, mostly because I really like his character Decker, and the dynamic between him and his "partner" through most of these conflicts, the female federal agent Jamison. I really appreciate the way Baldacci writes his characters, with a realistic level of flawed, not too many "overtly perfect" characteristics--granted, he still has a long way to go in the realm of writing stories from the perspective of a female protagonist, but at least his female "sidekicks" are realistic enough and relatable to boot! His mysteries are, of course, all twisted and keep you guessing and on your toes and one or the other of the main characters ends up in mortal danger--a great addition to an excellent series!

#13: Broken Empire: Aftermath and Fortunate Son, by E. A. Copen

These aren't part of the same series, but they're both by the same author so I decided, instead of eliminating one or the other, I simply had to have both of them included in my Top 10! Aftermath is Copen's first foray into the intergalactic setting, and she pulls off her plot with the same level of finesse she displays in all her paranormal/urban fantasy settings! 
And Fortunate Son was a welcome glimpse into the pre-Paint-Rock Judah Black, before she became a federal officer, back when she was on the force in Baltimore. You can read my Official Reader's Reviews for these titles by clicking the hyperlinked text above!

#12: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

I had one thing to say after reading this book: "HARRY DRESDEN YOU ABSOLUTE HOBGOBLIN!" Not even kidding... Much of the subject matter of the actual crime he is called in to solve is pretty cringey stuff, but it was the subplot that really got me going! I don't want to spoil it too much, but out of all the books in the series thus far, THIS is the one that you shouldn't miss!

#11: Veiled Rose by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

I read Heartless, the first book in the Tales of Goldstone Wood series, on the recommendation of a friend... six years ago. I enjoyed it, moved on and forgot about it for a few years after that, and only recently have I been looking and waiting for a copy of this book to magically show up at the library, after seeing a few other books in the series. (I like to read them in order, so what??) It was just my luck that putting this book on hold meant that it was there for me at last this year--and I can confirm that it was well worth the wait. The stories don't seem to connect, other than I think they occur within the same fantasy world, but the style is just so breathtakingly beautiful that you want to read books like this really slow, to drink in all the rich and vivid detail!

#10: In Numina by Assaph Mehr

Boy! This was the year to get around to reading sequels so many years after reading the initial books, am I right? This one too... I read the first book in the series, Murder in Absentia, about four years ago. In my defense, this one didn't exist at the time, but I admit it's been out for at least a year and I'm only just now getting to it... but again, worth the wait. You'll see why when you follow the hyperlinked text to read my Official Reader's Review about it!

#9: Verona: The Complete Mermaid Tales by Pauline Creeden

It's mermaids, duh! What's not to like? This one was interesting to read through because although it's a series of four novellas, two of them are basically the same core sequence of events, told from different perspectives, and those serve as the prequel to the initial novella, from which the reader can then go on and read the sequel, which wraps everything up so nicely. I'd read one of the prequels, and the initial novella, but to have the additional information of the second novella, and to read how it all ends up was a fascinating experience! You can read my thoughts about it in the Official Reader's Review by clicking the hyperlinked text!

#8: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

This one was an impulse checkout, I'll admit. I had been interested in it most of all because of the strong suggestion of dragons on the cover, (I'm always curious about dragon books!) but I didn't really know what to expect--and I definitely didn't expect what I got! It's a rich and vivid world, with plenty of amazing lore and a variety of characters that each had their own personality... I absolutely loved it, and it was really a bright spot in the month when I read it!

#7: Ace of Clubs by Patricia Loofbourrow

Three books in, and I've loved every moment of this wildly inventive series! The Red Dog Conspiracy is prime reading for anyone who loves steampunk, murder mysteries, and clever wordplay! You can read my Official Reader's Review by clicking the hyperlinked text to find out more about it!

#6: Splash of Truth and Dawn of Destiny by Amy Hopkins (Dawn of Destiny also by Michael Anderle)

Once again, I couldn't make up my mind between two books by the same author--I will say that, left to her own devices, Hopkins is a masterful storyteller and her Talented series is on-par with my all-time favorite fantasy series(es... whatever the plural is...)! Splash of Truth was a spectacular treat of a read! Dawn of Destiny only felt like a slight departure, because technically she was writing in conjunction with another author (in this case, Michael Anderle), so there was already some established background and parameters she had to work with, but she did do a fantastic job, at any rate! You can read the Official Reader's Review on both of these titles by clicking the hyperlinked text above.

#5: Spinning Silver and Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

These were very close, but in regards to the scope of the story and how much I actually loved (rather than just skimmed through), Spinning Silver is the reason these two are in my #5 spot. I absolutely adore the way Novik writes her fairy tale style, from the call-backs to tales like "Beauty and the Beast" for Uprooted, and now Spinning Silver, which smacks of classics such as "Rumplestiltskin" but also "The Snow Queen" (not the Disney-ified version! The original Hans Christian Andersen tale!) 

As for Throne of Jade, I appreciated it because of the unique way she's infused dragons into an alternative version of the events surrounding the Napoleonic Wars... but at the same time, she's done so well mimicking the adventure novel style of the era that it reads rather textbookish! (Can you imagine... a textbook with dragons!)

#4: Behind The Mask by J. D. Cunegan

Oh, we're getting near the top of the list! And of course, this one is here--I absolutely love the Jill Andersen series, dare I say even more than the TV show that served as the biggest inspiration for the characters! You can read more about it in the Official Reader's Review by clicking the hyperlinked text.

#3: Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence

In an age when "men writing women" is the subject of ridicule all across the Internet, it pleases me to report that Mark Lawrence definitely qualifies as "one of the good guys"! His Book of The Ancestor trilogy is an absolute triumph, treating not just the cast of majority female characters with due respect and admirable realism, but also showing strength and dignity in disabilities, making those realistic and relatable as well. Holy Sister rounded out the trilogy with a sense of immense satisfaction and enough movement through the whole plot, even as it flipped back and forth between the present and the past, so that it never once felt boring or dragging. I highly, emphatically recommend anything this man writes!

#2: The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

But of course, the Number 2 Spot must be given to the book that has just about every kind of fantasy world-building facet all rolled into one: a magical library, Fae lore, and Dragon lore! Masked City delivered on every level, both in character development, twisty mysteries, gut-clenching peril, and absolutely glorious visuals! Irene travels through alternate stages of reality to rescue her protege, Kai--when you work for The Library, the concepts of "only in books" and "only in the real world" are entirely interchangeable! It was so good, in fact, that I actually sat in the library parking lot and blitzed the last few chapters so that I could finish it before I had to return it! This is definitely a series I want to own someday.

And finally, my pick for The Number One Book Of 2020 is...

#1 They Must Be Stopped by Kelly Blanchard

Everything I loved about every other book on this list, pretty much, comes as a feature in the Chronicles of Lorrek series: the massive lore, the fantastic medievalish fantasy worlds, cyberpunk elements as well, dragons, intrigue, danger, excellent food for thought, fantastic wordplay, spectacular characters--I mean, this series has everything! You can read more details about it in the Official Reader's Review by clicking the hyperlinked text.

Of course, those twenty-plus titles weren't all the books I enjoyed this year! As I said, I had to weed out quite a few to get down to the Top 10, so the main ones I still wanted to mention, I'll list down here, as "Honorable Mentions"!

In the "Standard Book" category, the runners-up were: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith; Until We Meet Again by Michael Korenblit; Anatomy of The Soul by Curt Thompson; Magnus Chase and The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan; and Final Witness by Simon Tolkien;

Out of the Reader's-Reviewed books, the ones worth checking out (by of course clicking the hyperlinked titles) are: Hugo by Pamela Poole; Anamatus by Derrick Tribble; Excelsior by George Sirois; and two novellas, Head Over Heels by S. E. Anderson (tying in to her Starstruck Saga series); and Grave Tidings by R. R. Virdi (a tie-in to his series The Grave Reports)

I hope you enjoyed this list! What are some books YOU enjoyed in 2020? Leave your recommendations in the comments! 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Reader's Review: "In Numina" by Assaph Mehr

Synopsis from Amazon:

This is a story of Togas, daggers, and Magic – for lovers of Ancient Rome, Hardboiled detectives, and Urban Fantasy.
A rich landlord finds tenants are abandoning his apartment buildings, spouting tales of horrific events and whispering that the old gods - the numina - came alive and cursed the buildings.
Enter Felix, a professional fox. Dressed in a toga and armed with a dagger, Felix is neither a traditional detective nor a traditional magician - but something in between. Whenever there is a foul business of bad magic, Felix is hired to sniff out the truth. Now he must separate fact from superstition - a hard task in a world where the old gods still roam the earth.
In Numina is set in a fantasy world. The city of Egretia borrows elements from a thousand years of ancient Roman culture, from the founding of Rome to the late empire, mixed with a judicious amount of magic. This is a story of a cynical, hardboiled detective dealing with anything from daily life to the old forces roaming the world.

My Review:

When I first started out featuring these Reader's Reviews on my blog, I decided that rather than reading a whole series all at once, I would space them out. This allowed me to read a decent mix of genres, and it also meant that I had "something to do" while waiting for the next book in a series to arrive, if it hadn't been released yet.

In the case of Assaph Mehr's series, it also meant that it took me four years to finally read the sequel to Murder in Absentia. But boy, was it worth it!

I hardly felt the distance as the narration dropped me right back into the middle of Egretia. Hardly any time had passed since the events of the first book, it seemed, and at once I felt at ease with the foreign, archaic terms and the easy, vivid storytelling of the narration from Felix's point of view. And of course, it didn't take long for things to get really interesting!

The pacing of this mystery is fantastic. Mehr wastes no time: as soon as all the characters are in place, the mystery commences, and by then it's too late for foolish mortals to turn away! It's one thing to read about a "haunted house" in a contemporary setting, where the ghosts of ages past run thick and plenty--but how to present the "haunting" of a house in a setting that's already ancient, and thick with magic and mythology? Mehr pulls it off, in splendid form!

The colorful cast of characters is on full display at every turn, not just Valerius, Felix's employer, but also Cornelia, cousin to Valerius and mother of Aemilia, the feisty, curious sidekick Felix never asked for; I enjoyed trying to decipher the meaning behind the confused babblings of Araxus, the man driven mad by magic, and yet "more sane than you or I", as the saying goes; the taciturn Borax, ex-gladiator who has almost gotten used to the madcap peril that seems to follow Felix wherever he decides to mess with magic--which is often; and, most of all, the fiendish Ambrustus, almost the ruthless "Count Rugen" to the conniving, cruel, and clever "Prince Humperdinck" of the piece--Numicius, the man who can, in my opinion, "go sit on a rusty nail and get tetanus!" Of course, you'll need to read the book to find out why! For now, I can just tell you that it was awesome, there were times when I wasn't sure if Mehr was going to kill off our intrepid hero (or one of his sidekicks!) and so I felt compelled to keep reading!
The lore and history Mehr packs into the story makes it feel like a piece of real ancient history recorded by a firsthand observer--even though I know Egretia is an invented fictional setting, the real-world connections to civilizations like Greece and Rome bring it to life with greater impact than merely a "faraway kingdom." Of course, then there are the pop culture references... not the least of which is the Muppet reference that I noticed right away and gave me a giggle every time it came up! (Again... just read the book! You'll know it when you see it, trust me!)

It should come as no surprise that I am giving this book a full and heaping *****5 STAR***** rating, and to that I would also add the "coveted" Upstream Writer Certified TOTALLY RECOMMENDED endorsement. If Dresden Files is your jam, but you're also kinda low-key into classical philosophy and ancient civilizations--then look no further than the Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magic!

Further Reading: (Also By The Author/Ancient Lore/Alternate History/Paranormal Genre)
Stories of Togas, Daggers And Magic--Assaph Mehr
       -Murder in Absentia 
       -In Numina *(This book)
The Grave Reports--R. R. Virdi
        -Grave Beginnings 
        -Grave Measures 
        -Grave Tidings (novella) 
        -Grave Dealings 
Alexi Sokolsky: Hound of Eden--James Osiris Baldwin
        -Burn Artist 
        -Blood Hound
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way 
       -The Truth 
       -The Lie
The Red Dog Conspiracy--Patricia Loofbourrow
       -The Alcatraz Coup 
       -Jacq of Spades 
       -Queen of Diamonds 
The Cadeau Series--Connie Olvera
       -Who Can You Trust?

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 9

Part 9
"See Me"

Beren sat at the long table, swirling the last sip of raspberry port in his glass before finally setting it down so the servant could clear his plate.
Jaran had been in rather a good mood today, perhaps an attempt to draw attention away from the fact that Queen Azelie had been getting steadily more distracted as the days wore on. At first, they had all just assumed it was nervousness at actually being able to pull off a surprise party for someone who could actually turn her own telepathic powers against her--but these last few days, she had been almost frantic, completely put off by something that she seemed rather reluctant to talk about.

Speaking of talking about things... His conscience reminded him. Zayra, herself, wasn't handling things well. This influx of struggle didn't strike him as an indication of a Shadow jacking (he shuddered as he recalled the ease with which Troy could turn their powers catastrophic at his own whim) but she was definitely not the composed, collected woman she'd finally become, in the last year or so. It was as if all the acceptance and affirmation he gave her, all the practice sessions where she could maintain a controlled environment and learn the boundaries within which she could successfully regulate her Gift, the way she learned to perceive it as a benefit and find opportunities to use it in a supportive role, rather than letting it consume her... all of this was slowly being unraveled somehow. Yesterday, Beren had hoped it had something to do with anxiety over another birthday passing, and that the party would somehow fix things.

Today, he realized he hadn't seen her since breakfast that morning. He stood with a frown on his face, and headed out toward the long corridor that led to the various rooms in the wing, and the Great Hall that connected to other towers in the castle. Zayra didn't strike him as the person to just vanish from his life without saying something. She frequently retreated when in the group settings, a steady discipline grown out of refusing to sink back into the old habits of craving the spotlight all the time, but to go an entire day without seeing her... now that was odd.

He passed by the door of her parlor, but kept moving when he saw it closed. Zayra never closed the door when she went in, one of the servants would do it for her whenever she went out. If it was closed, he could safely assume she hadn't yet been by to open it.
A sudden thought crossed his mind, and Beren turned down the hallway where they'd hid the presents. Azelie had worked closely with Aurelle to craft a most clever ruse specifically geared toward Zayra's perception, convincing her that there was no door at that specific point in the wall. Only Anahita had the key, as well, so that the others wouldn't even have the inclination to slip up in front of her. Now that he'd thought about it, she had been dropping some hints about some event coming up. Part of him could assume that it was the coronation anniversary--but could she suspect something about a celebration all centered around her?

"Your Grace."

Beren flinched and a sudden layer of frost materialized over most of the door. He covered his surprise with irritation as he turned. "Ah, Risyn, just the man I wanted to see."

The dark violet eyes fixed on him. Somehow, Risyn always managed to stand where the most shadows gathered over his features, no matter how bright the electric lanterns were, all along the wall. He bowed low. "I anticipated as much. How might I be of service?"

"Oh, nothing too surreptitious or conspiratorial," Beren kept his tone light to hide the worry suddenly gripping his chest. "I'd just wondered if you've seen my wife recently."

Risyn's expression never changed--he hardly even blinked--as he answered, "I have seen people coming and going all day, but Princess Zayra does not tend to cross my path."

Beren sighed; it was true, ever since Korsan left a year previously, having spent two years training Risyn to succeed him, Zayra had flatly refused to transfer such a level of trust from the master to his apprentice, and many times she had voiced to Beren her complaint of his strange methods for harnessing his Gifted affinity for magic, so different from the way Korsan utilized it. She actively avoided him when she could, and remained withdrawn and unfocused whenever an interaction couldn't be avoided.
"I'm sure she'll come around at some point," Beren stammered. "Thanks anyway." He continued down the hallway toward the Great Hall at the center, sending a mental message to his sister-in-law as he did.

Azelie, I'm looking for Zayra--can you find her for me?
The telepathic response came a few moments later. She's in the castle--in fact, I'm picking up her thoughts from the vicinity of your rooms, if that helps.

Beren pressed his lips in frustration. She wasn't in his room, he didn't think she'd be in hers--so where could she be? Was she avoiding him, and if so, for what reason?
It doesn't much, he said. But thanks anyway. At the very least, he could know that she was somewhere in the castle, or else Azelie wouldn't be able to reach her so quickly. Beren came to a stop at the end of the hall when Azelie's next thought reached him.
She seems really frightened about something, Beren.

It's not just stress, is it? He thought back, entertaining the hope.
No, this is more than that. Something has her terrified, and she needs you! I think it--
Her thoughts cut off like someone whispering gently and then fully slapping his ear. Beren felt the unfamiliar scramble of his own thoughts rattling around on their own. Azelie? he thought tentatively. What happened? Are you all right?

I'm sorry... I mean, I'm fine... The thoughts came in wispy, barely-discernible bursts, as if Azelie had suddenly moved very far away to finish the conversation.
Beren rolled his eyes and groaned. He didn't have much choice but to return to Zayra's rooms. He knocked softly on the door. "Zayra, are you in there?" he called.

The room on the other side gave no answer. Beren lifted the latch, and the door fell open. At least it wasn't locked. He stepped inside, looking around. "Zayra?" Had she fainted, perhaps? Was that why she couldn't answer? What had she been so frightened about, according to Azelie?
"Zayra, my love!" Beren called loudly, his voice rebounding off the walls. He noted the small table in front of the open window, and an unfamiliar gilded box on the floor. Had someone given her a gift early? He picked it up, noting the velvet recess lining the interior, but whatever had been inside was there no longer.

A chill breeze coasted over his shoulders, and Beren snapped the lid of the box shut with a small shiver. The stars twinkled in a clear sky, and he could feel the warmth from the sun still radiating from the windowsill--so why did the night feel so cold all of a sudden?
Shouting erupted in the Great Hall of the castle. Beren heard someone calling his name.

Azelie's thoughts came through clearly at last. Beren, come quickly to the Great Hall. It's important.

Is this about Zayra? He thought, as he set aside the box and left the room with the door standing wide open.
Just come, was all Azelie would say.

Down in the Great Hall, Beren saw Azelie and Jaran holding each other, looking very worried, while Erlis loomed against the wall, her eyes shifting nervously as she fidgeted with the talisman-stone around her neck. Anahita looked up when he entered, and curtsied when she saw that he noticed, but she had a worried look on her face. Risyn was there also, with his arms crossed and the closest thing to a frown on his face. Aurelle came into the room behind him, with the Clissander twins sauntering close behind.
The two people Beren didn't expect to see at the Castle were Denahlia, her cropped, dark hair gleaming in the light of the glowlamp chandelier, and Velora, who stood along with one of her wolves sitting calmly at her side.
The two wardens were giving Jaran some kind of report.

"The Harbor is secure," Denahlia said. "I've left Hayden in charge, as well as my cousin Markus, who showed up randomly a few days ago."
Azelie's lips twitched. "And you're sure you trust him?" she asked.

"Is he capable of filling in for you, watching the Harbor?" Jaran seemed more than a little twitchy, Beren thought.

Denahlia stiffened. "I'd trust him with my life," she answered.

Velora nodded to Beren as he joined his brother. Her gaze darkened. "We're almost all here... but where's Princess Zayra?"
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Aurelle leaned in with a bewildered expression. "Has the ship I told you about arrived yet?"

Denahlia seemed reluctant to give the Illusionist any of her attention, even as Jaran and Azelie wanted to know, "Ship? What ship?"

Beren felt the temperature drop again--though he seemed to be the only one who noticed, and his eyes were drawn to the foreboding Mage scrutinizing everything without speaking. The longer Denahlia talked, the more his expression changed.

The Harbor Watch threw up her hands. "You told me that a ship was coming, but you didn't give me any pertinent information! Ships come and go from my docks every day, and we do our best to watch them--"
"But this one came along through my illusion, so it's important!" Aurelle insisted, finally gaining Denahlia's attention. "It keeps coming, every time I open my hand. I've seen a dark flag on the masthead, and it has a wide keel."

Beren watched Risyn shift posture, rocking from one side to the next. His arms dropped, and his fingers wiggled--this was about as ruffled as he'd ever seen the Mage.

Denahlia waved her fingers, too, but a strange warping of the light in front of her palm gave evidence of something only her eyes could see. She nodded to Aurelle, "Now was that so hard?" she teased. "Just from that alone, you must mean the Brigadier's Ransom."

"And?" Aurelle prompted, as a glowing parchment appeared in thin air at a wave of her hand.
Denahlia shrugged. "What can I say? It's crew has a history of piracy, but all their paperwork was in order and we haven't had any problems yet. The most we can do is keep a weather eye on them."
Beren leaned over to the King and Queen. "What's all this about?" he murmured. "Why did we all need to be here?"

Jaran nodded toward Velora. "These two came walking in with warnings that we are all four in danger--" He glanced around his brother, as if Zayra was tucked into his pocket somewhere. "Where's your wife?"
Beren huffed. "That's what I'd like to know!"
"She wasn't in her room?" Azelie inquired with a small frown.
Beren shook his head. "No, I didn't see her anywhere, nor any evidence of foul play."

"Foul play?" Aurelle whirled around, distracted from her own conversation by the last words of his.
"What's this about?"
"Okay, everybody!" Beren marched forward, his own frustration coming out in beads of water clinging to the back of his hand. He faced the gathered crowd. "Here it is: while you all are worried about rumors and speculation about someone trying to come after us--my wife, the focus of tomorrow's celebration, is missing."
All chatter fell silent. Eyes darted from one side of the gathered group to the other.

Velora's eyes narrowed. "Exactly how long has she been missing?"
"I saw her at breakfast this morning," Beren said. "I just assumed she went off to do her own thing--she's been really focused on settling people in Wildhaven lately, making sure they're all equipped for the cold season."

Anahita cleared her throat and stepped forward. "I came into her parlor to help with the letters, as usual, but she wasn't there. I went down to the kitchen to help Damaris clean up from breakfast, and he was working on the cake. Her Majesty," she nodded to Azelie, "came down to look for something, and I left with her--and when I came down again immediately afterward, Damaris was gone!"
The wolf at Velora's side came to its feet, and the Alpha placed a reassuring hand on the animal's head. "Shh, Sable, it's all right." She eyed the rest of the group. "That's two of us missing--"

"But they aren't missing!" Azelie insisted. "I can still hear their thoughts sometimes, among everyone else's."
Jaran started pacing. "They can't have gone far, then--"
"But who would take them?" Aurelle mused.
"That is assuming that there is someone else involved," Javira pointed out. "They could have just gotten lost. There is a lot of unused space in this castle."
"For this long?" Kaidan objected to his sister. "Every point in this castle leads back to the general areas."
The redhead shook her head. "Not every point," she replied.
Beren squinted at her, as he saw Azelie begin to nod as if she knew exactly what Javira was talking about. "What do you mean?"
Kaidan reached for his sister's hand, but she stepped away, bowing to the King and Queen. "Follow me, your Majesties."

The whole group followed the young woman out to the gardens, while Azelie kept her head on the side.
"I can still hear him," she muttered. "Damaris... He's shouting from somewhere inside the walls."
Javira came to a stop outside, beneath the disused West Tower, not far from the kitchens and cellars but a fair distance from the dungeons, situated more on the north and eastern sides of the castle. She pointed to a mound of roots almost as tall as a man and wide as Beren's outstretched arms, clinging to the lower portion of the castle. "I placed that there to cover a tunnel that ran deep into the walls. I don't know how far it extends, nor where it leads to, but I figured it ought not be there anyway."
Azelie scurried forward and placed her hand on the barrier of roots. "I hear Damaris!" she said. "He's in there!" She paused a moment, and when she lifted her head, a smile broke out over her face. "He can hear me now, too! He says he's been completely surrounded by the roots, and he's not at all sure where he is."
Beren inched forward, hope pounding in his heart. "Is Zayra there with him?"
Azelie shook her head. "I don't hear her as clearly as I did before. Damaris is completely alone."
Jaran turned to Javira. "Well?" he prompted. "You made this barrier--now take it down and let Damaris out of there."
Javira shrugged and started directing the roots, prying them loose and letting them slither away. She was only about halfway to making any sort of opening when Azelie yelled, "Stop!" and clapped her hands to the sides of her head.
Javira lowered her hands and glanced at the young queen. "What is wrong?"

Azelie winced. "Damaris... you're hurting him. The roots that you are moving have closed in around them, and if you keep going, without knowing where he is, those roots could crush him!"
"Let him burn himself out, then!" Denahlia snapped. She bent down against the barrier. "You hear that, kid? Fire is the surest and safest way to get yourself out of there. Just burn it all down!"
"No!" Beren clapped a hand on the young woman's shoulder. "What if he hurts Zayra?"
The strange, glassy eyes fixed on him, and for the first time Beren noticed the jagged scar tracing over Denahlia's left eye. When had that happened? "You heard the queen," she remarked. "Princess Zayra isn't down there. It's just Damaris, and we all know that the Phoenix is impervious to fire." She nodded to Azelie.

Seconds later, a plume of smoke issued from between the roots, and they could hear the faint snap and crackle of a fire brewing deep within the recesses. The whole group drew back gradually as the flames increased, and once the flames reached the outside of the wall, a small dark shape hurtled from among them, and both Beren and Anahita moved in to douse the flames with water.

Damaris threw himself on the ground, basking in the cool, wet grass, gasping the fresh air as if he hadn't had the chance to breathe in all the time he'd been down there.
Anahita came racing over as soon as the fire was out. She assisted him to a sitting position and offered him water from her own hands. "What happened?" She asked. "How did you get down there inside the walls?"
Damaris slurped the water and caught his breath. He brushed the last few embers out of his shaggy hair and looked around at all of his worried friends. "I don't know how I got there," he said. "One moment, I was talking with Anahita about some things that had gone missing around the kitchen, and the way she kept moving things and reorganizing pantry shelves without my say-so--"
"Which I didn't!" Anahita insisted, flicking a bead of water at his face.

"And the next moment, right after she left to go find Lady Zayra who was missing," Damaris shuddered and grabbed his shoulders. "I heard something down in the cellar and went to investigate, and then something grabbed me and I blacked out, and when I came to, I was in a tiny room with no door, and I couldn't tell if it was in the castle or under it!" He looked over at Azelie. "Boy, was I glad to hear your voice! I was beginning to wonder if anyone would even notice I was missing!"
Beren scowled and shook his head. "That still doesn't explain what happened to Zayra!" He glanced toward the blackened hole, as if he wanted to go in himself to search for his missing wife.

"Yes, or who exactly is responsible for grabbing Damaris," Jaran grunted. He watched Velora lead her wolf over to the hole, keeping a firm hold on a long leather leash as the wolf crept further in for inspection. "Denahlia," he glanced toward the young woman who was gesturing toward glinting bulbs mounted at even intervals around the edge of the walls. "Do you think this kidnapper is the person you needed to warn us about?"

Denahlia shook her head. "No, the job Markus mentioned was the retrieval of an item at any cost--even if it meant murder. That's why we were so keen on keeping you all safe."
Beren appeared at his brother's side. "You're kidding me! So not only do we have a mysterious bogeyman apparently living in the walls of the castle, but my wife might have met her fate at the hands of a murderer?"

His words precipitated a loud crash from the direction of the gazebo. Even at this distance, everyone could see the mound of shrubbery and dirt surrounded by large shards of pottery. Something shifted the dirt and vines around, but no one could quite tell what it was.
Kaidan and Javira shared a look that only Azelie noticed, because she heard among their thoughts words like portal and forest creature--but Velora and her wolf reached the site of the shattered vase, and Velora kept the animal back as she stared at a point just beside it.
"Beren!" She called. "You're going to want to see this!"

All of them gathered behind Velora. The decorative stones stood out among the layer of dark potting soil, spelling out two words: SEE ME. Beside it, a trail of uprooted flowers led to a circle made of vines, just closing in place. Denahlia raised her hands and Beren could see the way the light wobbled and bent between her spread palms, allowing her to see what their naked eyes could not--but with the way she still frowned and lowered her hands, he could tell that she still couldn't see what was there to see.
"See Me?" he read aloud. "See what?"

Azelie was staring at the space just above the circle. She uttered one word. "Zayra."

Beren gawked at her, and looked back at the circle. He nudged the vines with his foot, even going so far as to step inside the circle--but he could see, feel, and hear nothing. "Zayra?" He gasped. "What does this mean? Where is she?" he started to look around, but Azelie shook her head and pointed right toward him, to the space he now invaded.
"She's right there," she said. "She says you're standing right against her."

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