Saturday, January 23, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts", Season 3, Part 12 (2 of 2)

Part 12
"Keep In Touch" (Part 2)

The Brigadier's Ransom creaked and rocked on the tidal waves and currents that trudged by underneath it. The morning's disruption had dissipated into an uneasy stillness.

Reva sighed as she toyed with the loose ends of the tack lines. They were all in order, and had been since they moored at the dock. It wasn't her fault Sally liked to pick fights--so why did it feel like the Captain had put her in time out? Her eyes wandered over to the Elfin swashbuckler seated on the foredeck, placidly tending to that shining sword that, as far as Reva knew, barely saw combat. Yet the way the others treated her, one could easily assume that she was as deadly as she was docile. Reva snorted and shook her head, ducking to avoid a swooping raven.

"Oi, Keaton!" She shouted up to the nest on the foremast. "Watch where you aim those things!"
The wiry young man with the long rat-like ponytail reached out an arm, and the raven landed on it. Reva rolled her eyes. He had an affinity for those winged scavengers that bordered on obsession, it seemed sometimes. They took to him well enough.
Behind Reva, someone sniffed.

"What do you care about those things getting too close, Reva?" Cori, the ship's navigator, sniffed and leaned against the railing beside her. She eyed the brown-haired rigger up and down. "Their claws barely scratch you, and you never style your hair, so it's not as if they could ruin it!" The tall, slender redhead reached up to smooth down an errant lock of hair on her own perfectly-coifed head.
Reva tilted an eyebrow at her friend. "I don't like things flying at my face, is all."

"If that's true," came Keaton's heavily-accented voice from above them, "then I don't know why you signed on to be a rigger!"

Reva scowled in the direction of the fore-topyard, her boots resting on the top of the railing as her hands found purchase on the taut rigging. "Half a minute!" she howled. "I'll show you why I'm the best damn--"

"Reva, get down, and stop your shouting!" The boatswain, Watson, came staggering up from the galley, a half-full tankard in his hand. He squinted against the lengthening shadows around her as Reva landed lightly on the deck again. He ran the back of his wrist over his nose. "You want something to do?" he grunted. "Cook needs to pick up some more provisions in the market," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the small, dark-skinned girl in the ragged dress cowering behind him, "and she needs somebody to go with her."

Reva curled her lip. "You expect me to babysit the pipsqueak in this squalor-hole?" She smirked and added, "After the rabble-rousing you all did just an hour ago?"
Watson glared at her. "I expect you to do as you're told!" he snarled. "Take Seline with you if you're feeling jumpy. They trust her."

Reva glanced up toward the Elf. Seline's pale-gold pixie cut never looked messy, greasy, or overgrown--as if some kind of magic preserved her appearance exactly the same day in and day out. The rest of the crew might smell like the ripe end of a barn after a week at sea, but Seline hardly smelled like anything, at least as far as Reva could tell.

Seline came to stand next to Reva as the galley-maid handed her a large basket with several bags inside. The expression on the young girl's face was a mix of fear and apology. Reva let her lips tighten in a small scowl. She was nobody's packhorse--least of all the pipsqueak!

Beside her, Cori had perked up at the idea of an excursion into town. "Can I go too?" She asked.

"No," Watson objected almost immediately. "You stay on the ship."

Reva just about pushed the galley-maid down the gangplank with the basket in her hands as Cori's complaints reached her ears. Maybe by the time they got back, Haggard will have found this "old shipmate" he was looking for, and they could leave.

Denahlia frowned at the long list of alarm messages from several locations throughout the Harbor. Markus had used the admin privileges to dispatch all the Peacekeeper troops, for who-knew-what reason, and yet there were still tripped alarms because he didn't know enough to turn them off, or even inspect them. She checked on them, saw that nothing was currently amiss, and re-armed them. She had other matters to attend to before she could get to the bottom of why he was currently rifling through her database.

She sidled up to the butcher shop on the edge of the marketplace. She found out very early on that a lot of the businesses who were used to being extorted by the authorities and bribed with protection in return for information on whatever and whomever passed through their shop were even more willing to deal with someone who was actively invested in their benefit, rather than just threatening them if they couldn't provide. Few people made a point of watching a man covered in blood wielding a knife capable of splitting bone for any length of time--but also, they were unafraid to conduct business and carry on conversations in front of him.

Denahlia put on her biggest smile and swaggered inside. "Tertus! Good morning!"
The brawny man set down his cleaver and barely glanced in her direction. He turned his back on her to deal with a pile of cut meats on another counter. "Madam Watch," he returned amiably, "Good to see you."

Denahlia leaned against the wall, resting a hand on the counter. "Everything all right, Tertus? Business as usual?"
Tertus didn't turn around, didn't engage--merely grunted.
Denahlia stood a little straighter. "Something I should know about?" She asked.

This time, Tertus turned. He looked straight at Denahlia and said in a low voice, "No."

The former Hunter frowned. With a wave of her hand, she accessed all the footage from her camera mounted in the corner (much to Tertus' chagrin, but he didn't know enough about it to really object, so it stayed.) She saw a few moments in the last two days where a few customers got a bit out of order, but none of them stayed long, and there didn't seem to be any evidence that things were amiss when she looked around now.
So why was he acting so strangely?
"Tertus, why the could shoulder?" Denahlia cajoled him, trying to keep her smile.
"I've got nothing to say to you!"

Denahlia's wrist implant sent a electric shock buzzing against her skin. The pirates she had flagged as suspicious were moving through the busy marketplace--why were they still here? She ignored it and voiced her query to Tertus, hoping that his initial reticence was only temporary, like a bad mood. "I'm looking for information on a certain black-market hire."
"Don't know anything."
"Come on, Tertus! You said once that you're good for that kind of information!"
"No good."
"Tell me if you've heard--"
"Not happening."
"Somebody paid for a knife--"
Denahlia couldn't finish before Tertus whirled on her. His face was an impassive mask. "Get outta my shop," he growled.

She opened her mouth to speak again, and he just pointed to the door.

Denahlia sighed and walked out. She visited a few more haunts of her regular informants, but the reception was the same every time: They didn't know anything. Raedyn who? They couldn't tell. They wouldn't talk. She headed toward the marketplace, where the "threat level" was steadily increasing, still with no sign of Markus or any kind of security activity happening to mitigate the growing threat. The closer she got to the central market, the more she saw signs that troubled her: smashed doors, broken crates, ruined merchandise--and the repeated motif of some kind of bird silhouette painted on the wall or the door. Some places she could have sworn it was merely a random smudge, a chance occurrence--but the more she saw it, the more she got the feeling that it had been deliberately placed... But why?

She found Hayden's office and banged on the door.
"All right, all right!" he hollered back, fumbling with the door. He nearly dropped his pipe when he realized who stood at his door. "Den--Ah, Madam!"
"Hayden, what the heck is going on around here?"
He fidgeted, badly discomfited. "Um, what do you mean? Nothing's--It's nothing!"
Denahlia glared at him. "Nothing? The Market is a mess, someone's vandalizing the walls and doors of this community, there's unrest brewing on the streets as we speak--and you call that nothing?"
Hayden shrugged. "Your... Um, well, Master Markus told me he had it all under control."

Denahlia crossed the room. Even now, she could hear some shouting going on, and when she flicked her wrist to display the x-ray scanner, she could see a couple of the pirates jeering at another crew out in front of the tavern. She huffed and opened her mouth to dispense orders to her Harbormaster--but just then, a warning sign superimposed over the viewing window. Denahlia read the alert and her heart dropped into her belly. Markus had accessed the one file she had intentionally wanted buried beyond any outside knowledge.

She needed to get up to her office now. Denahlia turned heel and marched back out the door. "Hayden, if you don't get Peacekeepers down there to arrest the ruffian currently picking pockets in the Marketplace, then I'm going to find a Harbormaster who will actually do his part to ensure the safety of the Harbor!"
Hayden was scrambling for the intercom to summon the squadron before the door even closed.

Denahlia reached the stairway to her office just as Haggard was making his way down the winding steps. She threw her cowl over her head and stepped aside, averting her face, in case he recognized her. When she finally entered the courtyard, Markus met her at the door with a satisfied grin on his face.
"Denni, you're back!" He said. "Did you stop the assassin in time? Is the Queen safe?"
Cold fury gleamed in her eyes. "Markus Gardiner Firron, what have you done?"
Markus' smile dimmed. "What do you mean?" he asked in obvious confusion. "I'll have you know I handled that pirate captain with professionalism and diplomacy."
"Diplomacy!?" Denahlia felt her pulse accelerate as the adrenaline coursed through her veins. "What were you doing going through my files at his behest? You call giving out redacted information to known criminals diplomacy?"
Markus snorted. "Criminal? Hardly! Haggard was all politeness... He just wanted some information on an old crewmate, and the only name he had was Harlock--you only had the one file, it wasn't like I gave him access to a bunch of secrets!"
Denahlia glared at her cousin. "You idiot!" she seethed. "HARLOCK IS PRINCE BEREN!"
Markus stumbled back a step, his prosthetic hand reaching out to steady himself on the wall. "W-what?" His face paled. "Then I just... That file I gave him..."

Denahlia nailed her cousin with a hard stare. "You just might have put the rulers of this Realm into a whole new world of mortal danger." In the window between her hands, she began drafting a message to the others at the palace. "No word about who might have hired Raedyn, nor why they would want to come after the Princess. A pirate captain has asked for a man named Harlock..."

Denahlia winced as a pyschic pulse lanced through her brain. Beside her, Markus clapped both hands to his head and grimaced. "What is that?" he groaned.

She heard a shrill whine--a sound she never expected to hear, ever since she set up the device that produced such a sound as a warning that it would activate. Her eyes honed in on the orb sitting in the corner, a placid piece of decoration disguising a powerful device that could only be deactivated if the threat that triggered it were removed...
And the initial sequence had already begun.
"What's it doing, Denahlia?" Markus asked, as the noise and the flickering lights increased into a large beam extending through the ceiling, into the sky above them.

Denahlia grit her teeth and watched the progression of the flickering holographic dome forming over the Harbor. She had to get the mental message out.
Azelie? Denahlia thought frantically, hoping against hope that the Queen could read her thoughts from this distance. Azelie, I hope you can hear me! There are pirates here, looking for Harlock! They want Beren--we might have caught Zayra's murderer, but they are all still in danger! Azelie, don't let Beren leave--

She hadn't finished thinking through all the information when the bright cluster of lights flashed, and what little sheen of the dome they could see vanished to an invisible spectrum of light.
Denahlia leaned back, as Markus tilted his head, feeling the marked difference in connection and access within his cerebral implants.
"Denahlia?" he asked. "I... I can't get online. What's going on?"

Denahlia slumped as tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. Burying the file should have been enough--she should have destroyed that file once Beren reclaimed his father's throne. "It's no use," she said. With a tilt of her head, she indicated the glowing orb. "That's a psychic dampener, and it also works on any kind of distance technology--satellite, wireless, anything sending signals in or out. We're cut off."
Markus stared askance at her. "But why?"

Denahlia's chin trembled. The last report she could access came from the dampener, notifying her of a strange transmission, and its point of origin. She glared at Markus. "Because someone that you all didn't keep track of just tried to transmit some kind of information out of The Realm, and that signal is what triggered that device to activate!"
Markus frowned. "So... we can still physically leave the Harbor, right?"

Denahlia shrugged. "Sure... but isn't that what these pirates would want? We're impotent where we would do the most to defend the Harbor, and if we cross the barrier, it could scramble these delicate pieces of tech we have embedded in our bodies."

Markus sighed and joined his cousin sitting on the floor. "I don't understand. Where would you even get tech like that, and why would you set up something like a dampener?"

Denahlia sighed. "It was for my own protection, I guess. See, a couple years ago, somebody hacked into my implants and I ended up conscripted into an assassination plot on another world. I didn't want that to happen again--I just didn't know that it would put the whole Realm in danger the next time it happened."
Markus twined together his long fingers. "So..." he murmured, "What do we do now?"

The twisted spires and angled buttresses gave a looming, clawed effect to the castle's appearance. Inside the great dark throne room, she waited on her obsidian throne, her long, dark nails drumming on the glossy surface of the throne's arm as she stared maliciously into the shadows gathering around her.
At last, she heard the rasping croak she had been waiting for, and a large, ugly black bird flapped into a landing on the windowsill.

At her crook-fingered beckon, the crow hopped into the air once more, but instead of flying upward, it seemed to drop straight toward the floor. Booted feet hit the stones, and in one more flap of its wings, the crow was no longer a bird but a man, dressed in shiny black chainmail. He knelt before her throne.
"What is your report?" she asked.

"The Knife has been lost to us, Milady," the man-who-had-once-been-a-crow answered. "They have him now."

Her dark lips scowled, but her brow did not furrow. "I suppose this is what comes of paying for efficiency, not skill. No matter, I still have a piece in play. And what about the other matter?"

The soldier kept his head bowed. "The search continues, Your Majesty. No word yet on whether anyone has found--"

"I know what it is!" She snarled before he could finish. "But that bloody Gate is useless unless we have The Key!" She shifted in her seat and stood up, stepping past the bowing messenger to dismount the dais. "Send word for all of them to head for The Gate at any cost." She sniffed, closing her eyes and drawing in breath as if she could scent all the knowledge she needed. Her eyes narrowed. "We must gain entrance before He finds out what we're up to!"

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 12 (1 of 2)

Part 12
"Keep In Touch" (Part 1)

One Year Ago....

Hayden Archer was an amiable man of few aspirations. He accepted the post of Harbormaster on the eastern coast of The Realm because it was his understanding that the Harbor was a fairly sleepy place. Especially after King Balwyn died, and the Royal Council started running things, the Harbor became a hotbed for all sorts of criminal activity, but it was the sort of activity that got hushed up pretty quickly, and didn't end up bothering anyone, so long as those in charge were willing to look the other way. Besides, once the Peacekeeper forces arrived, any "authority" the Harbormaster was supposed to have became something of a farce--the Peacekeepers were the true enforcers, and they didn't answer to him at all. The only thing anyone expected the Harbormaster to do was to keep record of which ships went in and out of the docks, the names of their crew, and any cargo they claimed. Once all that information was entered into his large ledger, his job, as far as anyone was concerned, was done.

Those were the days, Hayden thought now as he huffed on his pipe, hoping that the sweet scent of tobacco filling his lungs would carry him away on the fumes that escaped his lips. Unfortunately, they came knocking before that could happen.

Bam-bam-bam. "Wakey-wakey, Watchman! We know you're in there!" growled a voice.
Hayden groaned and covered his head with his hands. "I'm not in!" he shouted back. "Take a number and lodge your complaint at the Office of the Harbor Watch!"

Bam-bam."Hang the Office! I'm a Realmish citizen, and as long as Madam Denahlia is gone, you're Acting Watch, and therefore all her duties are your responsibility!"
"I need those permission papers before the soldiers confiscate my merchandise!"
"It says here that I'll be taken to court if I don't have a vendor's permit! Where am I supposed to get one of those?"
"How much longer do I have to wait to get my security deposit refunded?"

Hayden scowled at the letter tacked to the wall above his desk. "Denahlia Firron is engaged in the service of a private and confidential client until further notice. Apologies for the inconvenience."

How dreadfully stiff and formal--and completely devoid of any of the usual detailed explanation Denahlia would give. How much longer would this client need her "services", anyway? It had been a year already. Who else knew about this?

Knock-knock. "Watchman Hayden, this is Captain Bernard of the Harbor Guard!"
Hayden knew better than to ignore this particular complaint. He opened the door. "What is it, Captain?"
The armored soldier snapped a salute. "Just letting you know, sir, that we've had word of another incident involving the Silver Bandit. Several windows in a shop smashed, but all the stolen merchandise has been recovered, and the thieves were found locked in a storm cellar next door."
Hayden groaned and rubbed his eyes. "Again? That's the fourth time this year! And do your men have any more leads on this vigilante?"

Captain Bernard scowled and shook his head. "No sir; every time we get close, it is always a dead end. Funny how the Bandit only seems to strike the merchants who have something to hide, or round up the thugs who are causing us trouble," he stroked his chin and a small smile played around his lips. "Sure makes our jobs a little easier, even though what he's doing is technically wrong."

Now, why can't I get the Silver Bandit to come out here and do things to make my job easier? Hayden thought to himself. "Well, clean up the mess, and keep a wary eye out." Maybe the Silver Bandit was working in league with Denahlia--maybe she was testing him, seeing how well he functioned without her!

Hayden glanced up to the cluster of buildings overlooking the former Peacekeeper garrison. The foremost of these was the space Madam Denahlia claimed as her offices, clearly visible from Hayden's small shack. The windows were usually open and lit up when she was inside and ready to receive business requests and meet with clients. They had been dark for some time now.
As the soldiers marched away, Hayden's eyes caught a flicker of something up by the Watch Office.
Was it?
Could it be?

Hayden felt a rush of relief when the lights of the office glowed brightly in the glow of sunset. Someone was moving around inside! That relief subsided into fear, as Hayden realized what else that might mean: someone was moving around... but could he be sure it was Madam Denahlia herself, or someone else who had figured out a way to get inside?
He secured his own office door before making his way up the streets to the office bloc.

As he neared the office door, he could hear a series of strange noises issuing from the inside. It sounded like Madam Denahila's voice, but she seemed to be talking to someone.
Hayden stepped over the threshold into the courtyard surrounding her building, and his body came to a complete stop, as if he had slammed into a wall he could neither see nor feel. Immediately, the air filled with the clamor of many bells and whining horns, and someone burst out of the door into the Office of the Harbor Watch.

It should have been Madam Denahlia, but it was not the pink-haired ex-Hunter that had waltzed into his office a year ago saying that she had just been appointed Harbor Watch by King Jaran himself. This woman had short-cropped dark hair with a brilliant-white streak through it, and sported a fresh pink scar over one eye. She recognized him immediately.

"Hayden?" she called over the noise. A quick gesture from her hand, and all sound faded into silence. Hayden regained control over his limbs, but he still stood there in the gateway, reluctant to step forward again, lest whatever had captured him before would do it again.
"Madam Denahlia?" he asked.

She nodded, beckoning to him. "Yes! Come inside, I have a few things to show you."
He balked. "But... you look... different. And where did you go? Why didn't you let me know you were going to be gone? What happened to keep you away for so long? Why didn't you send word all this time?"
She was already inside her office, so Hayden didn't have much choice but to follow her, if he wanted answers--and he certainly did want them.
He got as far as the doorway, when Denahlia caught his eye and ordered, "Wait!"
Hayden froze right where he was until she came over to him and handed him a small round brooch of some sort. "Put this on," she said. "I've already entered it into the system."

Hayden examined it closely. It seemed to be a smooth gem set in some kind of strange metal. He didn't see a clasp or a pin or any sort of way to affix it to his tunic, but when he pressed the back of the setting against his shoulder, he felt it stick, and when he dropped his hand, the gem remained attached to his clothing. No amount of tugging would remove it.
"Where did you get all of this?" he gazed around at the new objects littering the office. Every available surface was covered with lenses and objects of different sizes and shapes, some black, white, and silver in color, and multiples of the same object grouped together. Small dots of various colors blinked from within them: red, blue, green, and white, in different configurations. "What does it mean?"
Denahlia sighed, running her fingers through her short hair, just the way she used to do when it was long and purple-hued. Hayden caught sight of a short red scar running down the back of her wrists, to match the one on her face. "Look, I'm sorry for leaving so suddenly," she said. "To tell you the truth, I didn't know I could just be taken out of The Realm and transported somewhere else so suddenly, either. It just happened."

"Who did this to you?" Hayden asked. "Why did you disappear? Where did you go?"

"Hayden, please." Denahlia bent over one of her side-tables and fiddled with the set of devices there, tapping out some kind of pattern with her fingertips. "I can't tell you anything of that nature--I don't know who took me, I can't tell you where I went, nor why I was brought there." She looked up at him. "But I promise you, I learned much while I was there, and all this, I've brought back, to make The Realm safer than ever against outside threats!" She pointed to the set of round devices with lenses, each no bigger than a chicken egg. "See those? They are infrared cameras, capable of detecting things in the dark based on heat levels--much like my eyes could. I'm going to put them on the walls around the castle, throughout the city, and down here in the harbor. They're all synced with the digital surface of my desk, right here." She swept a few devices aside to show him the way her desk lit up at her touch, flashing and moving and displaying a map of the whole Realm at once. She tapped again, and the map filled with small moving squiggles and dots that Hayden gradually realized were people--Madam Denahlia had somehow brought the entire Realm to her fingertips.

Hayden didn't understand about half of what she said, and when he tried to make the map move and shift with his touch, nothing happened.
Denahlia sniffed. "Sorry, it only responds to my touch, unless I give you permission."
"Permission?" Hayden asked, thoroughly befuddled. "How can you ensure that whoever took you away and kept you prisoner won't do it again, if you don't know who was responsible for that?"
Denahlia kept her back to him. He watched her shoulders slump. Finally, she turned around. In her hands she held a large silver orb with many blinking lights all around it.

"This is what will protect me," she said, "protect all of us. I'll keep it here in my office, and it will cover the entire Harbor, from the edge of the City down to the Forest. If it senses any outside interference, it will throw up a shield that cuts it off--whether that interference comes from technology or magic." She left the orb sitting on a stand all by itself in the corner of her office, like some bizarre piece of decorative art. Strangely enough, it didn't seem altogether out-of-place with the way her office looked.
Hayden scratched the back of his neck. All of these new things and the ideas Denahlia talked about made his head spin and his skin crawl.

She loaded a bunch of the sensors and little things she called cameras into a box and handed it to Hayden. "Here, help me set these up."
He looked at the array of strange little things. There were no gears, no clockworks, no way of knowing how they worked, or switches to turn them on and off. "What are they?" he asked.
"Think of them as my eyes and ears," Denahlia said. "When we're done, I'll be able to connect with any region of the Realm with a snap of my fingers." She snapped her fingers to demonstrate, and the entire office went dark. A second snap, and everything came back on again. "This cramped little office will become the most integrated space in the whole kingdom."
Hayden followed her out of the courtyard. A chime rang out as he left, and he could feel the invisible barrier snapping into place. No one would be able to access the office until they returned. He frowned. "Won't people notice?" he asked. "They don't like to be spied on, you know."
"Of course I know," Denahlia snorted. "I myself was a King's Eye, remember? But with these beauties," she picked up an egg-shaped sensor and set it back in the box, "people can go about their business as normal, and they won't even know they're there. They can ignore us, but we'll be watching them every step of the way."
Hayden thought about the Silver Bandit, and how impossible it had been to catch him--but perhaps with this new system, they'd be able to see him before he struck again. His days of being isolated and uninformed were quickly coming to an end.

Present Day...

Velora rubbed her fingers over the Token in her pocket as she made her way down the eastern road to reach the Forest, the one that led right past the cutoff to Wildhaven, rather than the main thoroughfare that stayed more central, heading almost to the Harbor. It had been a while since she'd had any cause to go anywhere near the Gifted haven. The whole time, her mind travelled all around the matter of the stranger Raedyn. She shuddered to think how close he'd been to actually killing Zayra without any of them really realizing it. Would her blood become visible once it leaked out of her body? They probably wouldn't have heard her scream, the way things were now.

And what about that? What manner of magic would turn a person into something of a ghost--worse than a ghost, because at least ghosts could interact somewhat with the world around them. Zayra was extremely limited in what she could do, as far as interacting. As long as Azelie could keep reading her thoughts, she at least had that one last avenue of communication with them--but what if that faded?
Sable's warning growl brought Velora's attention back to the present, and she stepped aside to avoid the creeping vines that had nearly grabbed her from the far side of the tree.

"Warden coming through!" she announced, and the vines withdrew to the sound of someone gasping. A lithe young woman dashed out from among the trees, heading through the deep forest to the safety of Wildhaven. Curling ivies carpeted the trees as she passed, and Velora had to watch after her with a chuckle. Perhaps she might stop in on the community on her way through, look for someone who could interact or somehow connect with ghosts--maybe then she could confirm what plane of existence Zayra occupied, whether she was gradually slipping into death or just remaining in limbo until somebody could figure out how to bring her back again.

A golden glint flickered in the shadowy air between two trees. Velora smiled and pulled the Token into her hand. What luck! A portal was just what she needed right now. She wouldn't wait around for Spruce to come to her--she'd take the matter directly to him.
Sable whined when Velora stopped. The wolves were never very comfortable where Elves were involved. The Alpha smiled to show her pack-mate that there was nothing to fear, and gestured for the she-wolf to wait there. Sable stayed standing and alert, her ears aimed forward, her eyes watching everything that moved. Velora displayed the Token in front of her, braced herself, and stepped through the portal.

A tingling sensation not unlike Jaran's lightning swept across her skin, and the Token felt like a live bee buzzing in her hand--but when she opened her eyes and stepped forward, she found herself at the crossroad that cut through the forest and led right to her office--on the opposite edge of the entrance to Wildhaven. Velora frowned as she looked down at the medallion in her hand.
"Whatever happened to common courtesy?" she complained to the empty air.

"Our courtesy extends only as far as we allow," said a voice behind her, as Prince Spruce materialized out of a golden shimmer of his own. He smirked at her, "and we Elves are anything but common."
Velora pinched her lips. "After all the negotiating and making nice we've done to keep favorable relations between us," she retorted, "how come you get to show up unannounced in my realm, but I don't get to do the same in yours?"
Spruce shrugged, fiddling with his leather cuffs. He flicked a golden ball of light at a bush, and immediately two branches cradling a goblet of wine emerged. He took a sip before replying to her question, "We don't let you, that's why. And, given our current strains upon the High Prince's tolerance of you mortals just now, I sincerely hope that your attempt to approach us means that you've complied with the conditions of our last request?" he raised an eyebrow, but there was no missing the danger glinting in his strange golden eyes.
Velora relaxed into his casual aloofness, offering a smirk of her own. "You're not getting Markus, if that's what you're after."
Spruce's expression betrayed no frustration. "And the dragon? Have you found it? Captured it, at least?"
"You're not getting that, either," Velora replied. She couldn't manifest things the way Spruce did, but she at least found a large stone to sit upon. Spruce hesitated for a long moment, watching her with disdain in his eyes only. Finally, he waved again at another bush, and it rearranged itself into a comfortable throne-like seat for His Majesty, situated directly in front of Velora.

"And why not?" he asked. "Is this some trick you're pulling because your afraid the Elves might make a power-play?"
Velora snorted. "Isn't that why you made a point of keeping me out of Elvendom just so you could arrange to parley with me on your own terms, even if it means coming to me yourself? To answer your question," she went on before he could reply, "I can declare with reasonable certainty that you won't be able to reclaim your dragon because based on the information I've gleaned, it is entirely possible that she left your little sanctuary of her own volition."
"Her own volition?" Spruce sat forward, his fingers digging into the tangled branches of the shrub. "But that means--"

"She didn't want to lay an egg inside Elvendom. She wanted it out here," Velora gestured to the forest around them, "in The Realm, which means she gets to stay in The Realm until she chooses to return with her Wyrmling." She grinned at the Elvish prince. "See? I know a thing or two about your customs. I pay attention!"
Spruce leaned back in his chair and squinted shrewdly at the woman across from him, pressing his fingertips against each other. "And where is the dragon now? What assurances do I have that you will not intentionally implement measures to prevent it from returning of its own accord, should it decide to do so?"

Velora's temper flared out of her eyes. "She's going to do whatever she wants, as far as any of us are concerned! I don't even know where she is, the last time I saw any dragon was when my man got swept into a portal when attempting to be a good steward and keep it safe--and you lot decided to use him for leverage against me!" She finished this last with a bare-toothed scowl. She held up a finger and wagged it at the Elvish prince. "You listen to me now, sir! Dragon sovereignty means that you cannot hold any of us responsible for her choices and actions--and therefore you have no grounds to continue holding my man!"
Spruce waved his throne back into a bush and stood before Velora, sighing as he turned over a small rock with his soft boot. "Very well, I will inform my brother of these developments and see if I can't smooth things over with him."
Velora raised an eyebrow. "And Gavin?"

Spruce opened his mouth to answer, but just then, a trio of croaking crows flapped overhead, making plenty of noise as they chased each other from tree to tree. Velora shrugged it off, but the Elf remained riveted on their behavior, watching them until they were far out of sight. He looked back at her with more concern in his eyes than she'd ever seen before.
"It is an omen," he murmured, and turned to step back through the portal.
Velora called after him, "What is? Tell me what you mean!" but Spruce was gone.
A twig cracked under someone's foot, and Velora heard a groan. She turned just in time to see Gavin himself, scuffed up but none the worse for wear, leaning against a tree and panting as if he'd just run a very great distance. He grinned shyly at her.
"Reporting for duty, ma'am," he gasped.
"Gavin!" Velora faced him, relief flooding her mind. "I was beginning to worry I'd never see you again."

The young ranger coughed. "Well, I thought I was going to spend the rest of my days as an Elvish prisoner-of-war, which I might have, if that man with the metal arm hadn't busted me out!"
"Markus?" Velora asked with some incredulity. "I thought he took the dragons and left you behind."
Gavin shrugged. "Well, he did at first. I don't know how long I spent just sitting there in that cell, but then all of a sudden there he was again, ripped the door right off its hinges and dragged me out again. I've been wandering these woods looking for you..." he ducked his head with a smile. "And Sable, too. Where is she, by the way?"

A familiar howl echoed through the forest, and the sleek grey wolf came bounding down the path. Wolf and ranger reunited, and Velora finally found something in this whole horrible day that actually turned out right for once!
She waited until Sable settled at Gavin's side before clapping him on the shoulder. "Gavin, before you return to your old post," she said. "There's something I want you to do first."
He nodded. "Anything, ma'am!"

Velora glanced to the skies before she issued her instructions. "Just before you reappeared, Spruce and I saw a couple crows, and he said something about it being some kind of an omen."
"Omen?" Gavin scrunched up his face. "Like bad news, or a coming plague or something?"
The Forest Warden wagged her head. "No idea. I want you to go through the archives Lady Aurelle made for us about the forest and its animals. Look for anything pertaining to crows and what sorts of omens might be associated with them." Maybe if we find something, it'll give us a hint as to what's actually going on around here, and if I should be worried! she thought to herself.

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Reader's Review: "Adaline" by Denise Kawaii

Synopsis from Amazon

Children are raised in a world run by computers.
Boy 1124562 has never left the lab. He believes nothing exists beyond the steel walls until a friend shows him a world so thrilling, it can only exist inside his imagination.
Readers will love exploring this high-tech world. With danger lurking around every corner, even reluctant readers won’t be able to put this book down.

My Review:

I first saw this book out on a table at the Rose City ComicCon, back in 2018. It was advertised alongside a bunch of other books, it came highly recommended by the person manning the booth, and I put it on my Goodreads "Want To Read" list.
Then the next day, an author/blogger I follow posted her review of it, and got excited for it all over again--because I had just picked it up and added it to my Big Long List Of Reader's Reviews, and it was looking more and more like a story I'd like.

Now that I've read it, I can say with the utmost certainty: I like it very much!

It follows the trend of a lot of sci-fi dystopian tales aimed at young adults, detailing the strict programming and controlling methods of the authority figures through the eyes of a boy born into the system who has no idea about anything beyond the walls and ceiling and routines that are his whole world. But in the rigorous environment of testing and tablets and data-mining, the impossible happens... Boy 1124562 begins to dream. More than that, he begins to become more and more aware of his dreams, the fact that they are dreams, and the different ways he can apparently interact in them. A mentor figure teaches him more about them, takes time to explain and explore what is going on, all while keeping the "anomaly" secret from those who would seek to eradicate it, even at the expense of the individual, in the name of "safety and functionality."

Adaline harkens back to the classic sci-fi of Asimov and even further back, to the style of the earliest uses for science fiction: a way to explore the reaches and the extent of the power that science can bring, and the thought-provoking observations such exploration brings. Kawaii deftly weaves a balanced story within a relatively simple environment. I could see the whole thing fitting into an indie film format with a modest budget. But its within the framework of simplicity that the true skill shines, in that the story itself is rather complex and offers the reader many relatable truths to ponder, beyond their application within the actual tale. The concept of control, of accepting what you are told without question, the way repetition is often used to avoid discussion--the more someone is told something and compelled to repeat it back, the less likely they are to question or even think critically about it. The idea that "going against the norm" is a threat to your community, and that "same is safe" and "conformity guarantees survival." There is something to be said for consistency, but without creativity and the ability to see a situation from alternate perspectives, without feeling like your own viewpoint is at all threatened... what do we become?

I have read stories where the author intentionally gives only the barest minimum of distinguishing features to the characters--the risk is great for characters with only a few letters or numbers as a designation to remain nebulous, blend together into the background, or to confuse the reader.
Not so with Adaline. Even though characters like 71, 62, 99, and even the Maintenance Man and the Nurses don't actually get names, or even have any marks of appearance that set them apart from others, Kawaii gives each one a carefully-crafted personality that shines in her writing. I really got into this story and I felt that a lot of the ideas really resonated with the way I felt about creativity and individuality, and advocacy, to name a few of the concepts explored in this spectacular adventure!

I definitely give Adaline the full *****5 STAR***** rating, and I am going to add to that the Upstream Writer Certified DEFINITELY RECOMMENDED. If you like sci-fi dystopian stories without the muss and fuss of smut and teen drama, there's an amazing world awaiting you in this pleasant and satisfying adventure!

Further Reading: (Sci-Fi Dystopia/ Solid World-Building/Thought-Provoking)
The Untamed Series--Madeline Dyer
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way 
       -The Truth 
       -The Lie 
The Jill Andersen Series--J. D. Cunegan
       -Blood Ties 
       -Behind the Badge 
The Children of Dreki--N. R. Tupper
The Red Dog Conspiracy--Patricia Loofbourrow
       -The Alcatraz Coup
       -Jacq of Spades 
       -Queen of Diamonds 
       -Ace of Clubs
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed 
        -I Still Have A Soul 
        -I'm Still Alive 
        -Do You Trust Me? 
        -You Left Me No Choice 
        -They Must Be Stopped