Monday, June 28, 2021

Upstream Updates: Spring 2021

Life Stuff

Whew! I hope everybody's staying cool for the summer! It's only just started up in the Pacific Northwest, and a week later we are hit with a hundred-plus-degree heat wave!
It hardly even feels like it's been only three months since the last Upstream Update, and looking back over how much went on in the last few months of spring is quite shocking, indeed!

Finishing off the school year working the "hybrid" schedule (half the class on Monday/Tuesday, other half on Thursday/Friday, Wednesdays for prepping and remote learning) gave way to a full on four-day schedule, with all 18-20 kids in each class coming for the four in-person days, and Wednesdays still remote. It didn't get any less stressful--if anything, I think we'd gotten used to having two people watching up to thirty kids each, to go from that to suddenly having to keep track of almost sixty kids per staff member... that got to be too much.

The good thing was that one of the "remote facilitators," (what we called the staff who took on the instruction of the students who remained fully remote) was able to plug me into her "Writing Wednesdays", where the kids would be practicing their creative writing, so she would have me on with one or two, to practice generating ideas, vivid descriptions, and engaging vocabulary! I was totally in my element, and I had a ton of fun working through the kids' ideas. My favorite moment was the student who really took the concept of "vivid descriptions and strong vocabulary" to heart, and included the phrase "the stairs possessing the color red" in his narrative. Way to use the full range of vocabulary, dude!

Anyway, it sounds like next year we'll be back to a "regular" five-day schedule, so--yay for that! Barring anything completely extraordinary... I think we've all had our fair share, haven't we? Judging by what I've been able to do in this first week of summer break, I think I'll be ready to plunge full-steam-ahead when September rolls around!

There have been lots of goings-on since March, such as all of my siblings getting together for my sister's baby shower--it's her first, due any day now, and we are all beyond excited! I'll have an update below for the various interviews I've done over the spring, and I will let you know that there are more to come! The thing I'm proudest of about my writing is that I've managed to keep this up--a couple weeks ago, I logged my 400th-straight day of writing, since April of last year! So much has happened, with the new book coming out, spawning plans for a whole series, and a new blog serial (or two or three!) to boot... what fun it is!

The one thing that I've noticed is that my reading kind of slacked off there for a bit, after keeping up my average of 4 books a month for two months... and then it wasn't. But that's all past now, I've got quite the stack of library checkouts, I've hit the halfway point on my reading goal for this year, and I'm making good time through my indie TBR! (Which is especially good, because I keep picking up new books at giveaways in Facebook groups, so the metaphorical "pile" isn't getting any smaller!

Here are the stats:

Words Written:
March: 30,596
April: 26,377
May: 26,639

Books Read: 20/40

Now here is where the real updates begin!


Main WIP: Fugitive of Crossway

Oh boy! We're getting closer and closer to the time when I start picking out and commissioning the official cover!

As of March, I was slogging through Chapter 4 and lamenting its ponderous length... By April, I managed to reach the final "beat" of that chapter and commence Chapter 5... which had the same problem. Fast-forward to mid-May, when at last I find a good finish for Chapter 5... and then I proceed to write Chapter 6 in the space of 2 days.

Such is the irony of what we creatives call "laying groundwork", ladies and gentlemen. It takes forever to write, it feels all kinds of dumb and stupid to be in the middle of it, the real challenge is letting events unfold and conversations to happen just so, to make it feel natural, but also make sense in the way that the author wants the reader to understand what is happening... But once you're through it, you find that the exchange you were setting up for needed all that information, which makes it pretty important--and the scene happens pretty quickly because everything (and everyone) was where it (and they) needed to be.

Of course, then after Chapter 6 came the climax of the entire book, Chapter 7--the chapter I have been waiting for since I first started planning the thing--and by now, I've started on Chapter 8 and it should be smooth sailing from here on out! These next few weeks are critical, because if I can get the last 3 chapters and the epilogue all completed early on in my summer, then there is a good chance I'll be able to cut it down to size (word-count-wise, as I mentioned last time) over the fall, and have a better idea of a release date by then, as well!

The thing that I definitely don't want to do is start a trend of "each book in a series is longer than the one before it"--ahem! Not only because that demonstrates poor planning on the part of the author, but also, I just can't guarantee that the amount of material I'll come up with for book 3 is going to be so much more than what I've used so far for Book 2... and to add the pressure of coming up with still more for book 4?? I'm not going to do that to myself, and I won't make you, my follower, face the daunting choice of having to pay more and more for each successive book in a series. No, this book is definitely going to end up much shorter than it is now!

You know what that means, though, don't you? Yep! First Draft Excerpts, just like I did for Princess of Undersea, long before I knew it was going to be my debut novella, much less launch a whole series six years later! As I'm going through and taking out scenes, I'd rather not let them go to waste, so I'll be sharing the nixed scenes here (at least parts of them, anyway) so you'll know what could very well be missing or very altered in the final draft! In writing Princess of Undersea, the challenge was stretching out the meaningful scenes and making them take longer, adding in explanation so that it didn't feel so much like using someone else's intellectual property--for Fugitive, I went a little *ahem* overboard with my story beats, so there's definitely stuff that I don't need in there--conversations that don't actually need to be spelled out, I can treat it like a scene in a TV show episode, and summarize it in retrospect, rather than force the reader to slog through it all in chronological order.

Once I finish the draft, too, I'll probably take a break from the main storyline to work on short stories for a bit. Two of the three "Tales from Crossway" are complete: "Trading Secrets" and "Unlucky Urcellus", and I just have to finish an extended version of "Yet You Are Young" to call that done.

I will tell you what, though, announcing and planning more of "The Gilded Spurs" back in March spawned a thrilling session of coming up with themes for the other six short stories that will go with the final two books, the "Tales from Outwest" and "Tales from Overcliff." Including (but not limited to): The truth behind who actually sent the letter inviting Mellisande to the town in Outwest; the origins of the wily magician "Antonio The Great"; a story featuring Prince Nathan's mother Queen Theresa (since she is deceased by the start of Princess of Undersea); a "Goldilocks And The Three Bears" referencing story, which I'm not going to give away what in-series details it's taking, because spoilers! Also, readers will get to see the courtship of one King's Steward, Giles--as Ylaine makes good on the promise she made at the end of Princess of Undersea!

As you can see, there is still plenty of fun to be had! But The Undersea Saga is not all I'm writing!

Which brings us to...

Blog Serial-In-Progress: The Clan of Outcasts, Season 3

Part 26 just went live a this weekend, and I only recently began to realize just how this series has just exploded!

Who would have guessed that the simple little series with a bunch of backstories for a handful of characters, coupled with present-day narratives that all connected them together somehow--would wind up being this epic adventure that spanned whole oceans? I mean, the setting is called "The Realm", for crying out loud! Talk about place-holder names!

I remember thinking about how to start it in July of last year--I was going to go back to "the roots", introduce new characters through flashbacks the same way I did for Season 1, filling in a proposed 3-year gap to even tie in a fanfiction story I wrote for a completely unrelated (and yet, now totally canon!) connection to a book series I stan.

Then the flashbacks started getting too long, the way I'd divided up the characters at the end of Season 2 made for some hefty finagling to give each one's perspective on the goings-on, since they were all experiencing different things at the same time, figuring out different pieces to the puzzle, based on whatever they were dealing with.

I knew I had made my plot too ambitious when I kept having to divide up the installments--instead of quick glimpses of the different locations, the way I'd been able to do it sometimes in the first season, it was long, drawn-out scenes rife with action and development, two or 3 at most per "episode." I mentioned how I was running into the problem of being too wordy and getting too detailed in my conversations with Fugitive of Crossway, well--here is a prime example of what happens when that isn't edited out, because when you read my blog serials, those are often not "final-edited", so you're getting the raw story!

Just out of curiosity, I checked the word count of the amount of the story I have so far: 168 pages, 110K words, and I've still got 8 installments to go! Just 20K more words, and it's about the length of Return of the King--but is it epic enough to warrant such an exorbitant word count? What do you think, judging by what you've read of it so far? I do have the ending in mind--which is more than I could say for any of the other seasons, when I'd gotten this far into writing them! My hope is that at least enough people are still finding it interesting, to warrant my excitement over finishing it. I'll definitely see it through, for sure--I'm committed to these characters, and it seems right to finish out the story that I've begun! I'll admit, there's a lot on my blog that seems to be for my own enjoyment, I can't really tell if anybody else is liking it at all... But I'm not ready to give up on my band of Outcasts just yet!

Author Interviews

In the last three months, several interviews have gone "live", such as the DIY Writer Podcast interview, the "TV Interview" I did with the host of Fairy Tale Access, one that I recorded with Elin Wyn called "Pants On Or Off" that was very fun to do, and a blog interview with Romelia Lungu. If you've missed out on the various interviews, and you'd like to find out more about me, and some interesting "behind-the-scenes" facts about Princess of Undersea and the rest of the Undersea Saga (and other projects I'm writing), visit "The Undersea Saga" page tab up at the top of this website, and I have all the interviews linked--stop by every couple weeks or so, because I update as the interviews are published!


Honestly, ten books in 3 months isn't bad--it's not like 10 books in the 2 months like I had by the time of the last Upstream Update, but the fact that I'm already up to 20 books in June is promising--I think I should be able to make my goal this year!

I read a grand total of 2 books in March: Ruby in The Smoke by Phillip Pullman, and Ocean's 11 by Dewey Gram. The latter was a pretty decent heist novel, timing the reveals just right in the narrative so that the giveaway is not spoiled before its time, much like the way the movie was done. The former, however, was a massive disappointment--but I already talked about it in the last update, so I won't be redundant here!

In April, things got a little hectic in my day-to-day schedule, and so I only managed to finish just one book, and that was an ebook: Black Train by Clareesa Savka. You can read my full Reader's Review by clicking on the hyperlinked text.

In May, I was able to complete 3 books: Unearthed by Amie Kaufman, The Purple Door District by Erin Casey, and Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie. Unearthed was... okay. Part Indiana-Jones-treasure-hunt, part astronauts-exploring-an-alien-world-and-discovering-an-apocalyptic-plot, part guy-and-girl-team-up-and-both-have-secrets-and-both-have-high-stakes... The back-and-forth trading perspectives put me in mind of the Lorien Legacies... but they did it better, and the ending wasn't altogether as satisfying as one might have hoped... As in, it wasn't enough of an ending that *someone* (le moi) who didn't really get all that invested in the main characters could discontinue reading the other books in the series without judgment, but ALSO, it didn't give enough of a hint at the next book so that a reluctant reader (*sigh* me again...) might possibly be cajoled into giving the next book a chance in the hopes that the story got better... It wasn't terrible, though!
The Purple Door District, on the other hand, gave me all the GRIMM fangirl-feels, and carried me along under its thrall--I absolutely loved it, and you can read more about it in my official Reader's Review. BONUS: Erin Casey has a BookTok channel and her videos about an author dealing with the struggles of the writing process are SO RELATABLE IT HURTS! But at the same time, she does it with such flair that I'm laughing through the "pain." You should totally check it out!
Five Little Pigs was a delightful return to the wonderful world of Hercule Poirot. I found it fascinating to read the book and watch that particular episode of the TV series at the same time--just the way the episode combined different chapters of the book to give a more complete narrative, while still keeping the clues and the resulting reveal in good order, to not give away too much at once.
(*Brief note: You'll notice there's a book missing from the image above, if you pay attention to that sort of thing; I mentioned and included it in my "books to read" for the last update, but it turns out The Ultimatum by T. Davis Bunn was actually a sequel to a book that I haven't read, and so not only was it really hard to get into, I decided it wasn't even worth trying to procure the first book... so I just nixed it from the list and kept right on going!)

Over the course of the month of June, I've read 4 books, but I counted 5 titles because one of the books I checked out thinking I hadn't read it yet was Poirot Investigates, by Agatha Christie--but, as it turns out, I read it when I first started Hercule Poirot's Casebook, seeing as that collection of short stories was included in the larger anthology! So while I didn't "read" that title just then, I counted it because it happened this year! (Just like I did with The Under Dog And Other Stories back in January)

Anyway, the ones I did read started with A Minute To Midnight by David Baldacci. This was the sequel to Long Road To Mercy, and the second book in his first series featuring a female lead, Atlee Pine.
Don't get me wrong. I love Baldacci, and up till now, I would have said he didn't disappoint in any of his crime thrillers. Maybe in trying to write a female lead, Baldacci kind of falters--which is kind of silly, because his series led by male characters are not over-misogynistic, nor are the female support characters one-dimensional or hyper-sexualized... and yet, I counted seven blatant "THIS IS HOW MY LADY CHARACTER DOESN'T CONFORM TO GENDER STEREOTYPES" instances in the first six chapters... while there were just as many instances of the conformity he tries to disavow, right there in the narrative! Baldacci, you wonderfully prolific maestro--just stick to the guys. Don't try to write a woman just for the sake of "writing women." I mean, on a scale of "James Patterson" (THE WORST) to "Mark Lawrence" (one of the best "Man Writing Women" authors I've read so far!), he's at least somewhere in the middle... better than "Phillip Pullman" (here's looking at Sally Lockhart...) but not quite "Brandon Sanderson", even--and there are several indie authors I can think of who wrote female-led crime thrillers that were very good in my estimation, and this one just... wasn't.

On a brighter note, the other library book I read in June was Renegades by Marissa Meyer--holy heck! It's enough to give Reckoners (speaking of Brandon Sanderson) a run for its money! Similar premise, of a world where some people developed super-powers and became superheroes (called "prodigies"), and the superheroes established themselves as a kind of ruling class, a group dubbed The Original Six setting themselves up as the main authority who sets the ground rules for the others, calling themselves the Renegades, and you're either a Renegade and you're going to follow their rules and requirements to maintain order in the world and you'll be sent on missions to defend innocents and non-prodigies, fighting against those who would use their powers for evil. Meyer populates her novel with diverse characters and intricate backstories--I absolutely loved it all the way through, and I foresee that this will be another series I'll want to have on my shelves in the near future!
Meanwhile, I finished two ebooks, checking off a total of seven Reader's Reviews: A Maze And Grace by Cyn Mackley, the second book in her delightful Goode-Grace Mystery series, and my first indie nonfiction, But I'm Not Depressed by Lia Rees--an insightful deep-dive into the world of neurodivergence and how much modern medicine still has to learn about the brain. You can read the official Reader's Reviews for those titles by clicking the hyperlinked text.

As you can see by the nightstand picture, I have only five more books to go: One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence (I'm about halfway through it already, and enjoying it immensely!); Find Me If You Can by Kelly Blanchard (another signed edition--I'm so excited to get back to the Chronicles of Lorrek!); Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman (because Seraphina was so enjoyable!); and U is For Undertow by Sue Grafton (can't believe I'm so close to finishing the Kinsey Millhone series!) will finish them off--and then, what next? I'll let you know in the fall!

In the meantime...

Catch You Further Upstream!

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Serial Saturday: "Clan of Outcasts" Season 3, Part 26 "To The Rescue"

Part 26
"To The Rescue"

Markus paced the streets of the Harbor like a restless animal. Traders and merchants and sailors clogged the streets as usual, completely unaware of the coup that had just occurred all the way to the north. At least Lizeth possessed the foresight to conceal Hadrian's offspring safely in the Science Tower. He had used his network between dragon and Wyrmling to allow Hadrian to warn her child that he needed to stay put and stay still and quiet. Out of every other area in the White Castle, the Science Tower held the most technological security measures--since Lizeth was apparently advanced enough to understand how it all worked, more than anyone else who used Denahlia's devices--so he had no doubt that she had a contingency that would allow them all to stay hidden and inaccessible to the Crow Queen's forces.

He made it all the way down to the docks before he finally acknowledged where he was. Hayden, for all his shortcomings, really did a great job restoring the place to working order, after the way those pirates had trashed it. You could hardly believe that such an event had taken place, that would actually call the King and Prince themselves out of the castle to push them back.

His communications implant warbled, indicating a strange signal coming in--broadcasting from Gybralltyr itself. He was tempted to shunt it aside, dismiss it as a foreign connection from an incoming ship, perhaps.

But then there was the signature: three pulses, then two, then four. Denahlia's signature, which she would send him when she wanted him to know she was alright, but unable to talk. Markus felt the hairs on his arms stand up straight as he realized what this meant. He connected with Hadrian, and bid her to track the source of this signal, in the midst of the Abnormal energy. It worked, and when Markus activated the holographic projector in his wrist, he could clearly see the image of a tall cliff, and towering over that, a massive humanoid figure that broadcasted the signal he received. Denahlia had given him a way to find her.
"All right!" Markus cheered under his breath. "I'm coming, cousin!"

He set a target on the location, and turned back to the office, to pack up a few things before heading off to find this place.

Markus secured the office defense systems, and hoisted the bag full of equipment and weaponry onto his back. He headed northward, following the tracker on the road that would take him eastward and out of The Realm. He had only just left most of the people behind, when his proximity alarm stopped him in his tracks. He searched the area carefully. Usually, the alarm only activated when it sensed potential danger that his eyes didn't detect immediately. What threats could be out here?
The radar pinged, and Markus focused on the source of the deflection.

"All right, I can see you," he said, raising his mechanical hand and aiming right at the fallen tree beside the road. The embedded gun locked into place, but he didn't arm it just yet. "Show yourself!"

The dappled light flickered and shifted, and suddenly the region just above the tree sprouted a thin, feminine face in thin air. Her eyes widened when she saw the gun barrel taking the place of his finger, and more of her body came into view. She raised her hands, letting the scenery drape about her from the waist like a curtain. "Don't shoot!" she yelped.

Markus angled his hand to retract the gun. "Who are you?" he asked, eying the array of vials she wore strapped across her chest.

The girl finished removing the camouflaged cloak, folding it away to disclose herself. "My name is Nyella," she said. "I'm apprenticed to Lizeth. She was sending me down to contact Warden Velora, to tell her the recent developments and secure her assistance in rebuffing Queen Mallory's invasion." She tilted her head to gaze thoughtfully at his face. "You must be Markus, the one who gave us that small dragon with the message," she said. "I recognize your voice from the recording. But how did you see me in this invisibility cloak?" She gestured to the space beside her, where the fabric of reality seemed oddly bent and folded--possibly the result of letting the cloak rest in a heap over itself.

Markus shrugged and held up his cybernetic hand. "I have tech enhancements like Denahlia does, even though mine aren't as advanced. One of my implants lets me know about unseen threats." He tapped his temple, and saw on Nyella's cheek the reflection of the laser that would shine through his iris when he did that.
She blinked and smiled. "I would never have expected that, since the rest of you looks so..."

"Normal?" Markus supplied. "Well, you're lucky that most people in this place don't have such fine-tuned peripheral detection systems." He watched her as he bandied about such technical terms, but Nyella didn't seem the least bit fazed by any of them. It felt good to actually be able to talk about such things, without explaining every other word to someone who thought the communications network was a literal line somewhere in the sky.

Nyella sighed. "Well, I'd better get back to finding the Warden--"
"Don't worry about that," Markus said. "She knows already. Edri got in touch with her, and no doubt she's moving forward with her own plan."

Nyella rolled her eyes with a sigh. "So I came all this way for nothing?" She complained. "Now what am I going to do? I can't get back into the castle!"
"Nor should you," Markus agreed. "The more people we can move outside of the Crow Queen's stronghold, the more leverage we'll have to fight back."

Nyella's gaze shifted to the pack on his back. "Where are you going, anyway? Aren't you the interim Harbor Watch?"
Markus shrugged. "I haven't really been doing anything except trying to find where the pirates have gone, and pinpoint an exact location for Gybralltyr. It's the Harbormaster running things now."
Nyella perked up at this. "And did you?" She asked. "Did you find Gybralltyr?"

Markus grinned and held up his mechanical wrist, showing her the holographic map with the location marked. "I have," he said. "I'm headed there now."
"Take me with you!" Nyella begged. "I know I can be of assistance, and these vials carry more advantages than even you would have, all by yourself."
Markus frowned. "Oh really? How so?"
Nyella smiled with the air of a master negotiator. "I'll tell you all about them if you let me come with you."
His gaze narrowed. "How do I know you won't be a liability?"

Nyella shook her head. "I won't weigh you down, I'll keep up with you--and," she picked up her cloak and threw it around her shoulders, until she looked like a disembodied head floating in midair. "If absolutely necessary, I can make it seem like I'm not even there."
Markus snorted with a smile. "All right, come along, then," he answered.

Azelie stepped carefully, clinging to Jaran's hand as they passed through the thick fog of Brinley's portal. Her ears throbbed as the mist swallowed all sound, to the point that she could hear her own blood rushing through her veins.

Just when she was convinced that they would suffocate in the fog, trapped in some sort of middle-realm between realities... The next step carried her through the other side, and Azelie staggered forward into an open field under a cloudy sky.

Brinley, Bronn, and Jaran were already looking around, so Azelie examined their surroundings as well. She felt a rush of relief when Aurelle and Erlis broke through after her. Azelie turned to embrace her husband.
"We made it!" she gushed.

Brinley spread her arms wide. "Welcome to Gybralltyr!" She announced, although with the foggy portal and a thick forest on one side, and high crags all around, and under a blanket of high grey clouds, this legendary location didn't seem like much to look at.
"Where in the Realm is this?" Erlis asked, shivering and wrapping her arms around herself.

Aurelle shook her head, the talisman-stone gleaming brightly around her neck in the gloom. "I don't think Gybralltyr is actually in the Realm," she answered.

Azelie tensed and she cried out, "Shh! I can hear someone--no, make that lots of someones!" The thoughts rang through her head like a crowded marketplace.

At the same time, Bronn let out a curious growl and pawed at the ground, waving his nose in the air as he tracked some scent. The five people watched the grizzly as he swung his head in Jaran's direction, sniffing and snuffling, and then turned back again and started off toward the edge of the clearing.
What is it, Bronn?" Brinley asked. "Where are you going?"
Bronn stopped and turned back to moan something at Brinley.
The miller ran a finger over her blue tattoos. "What's that? There are more of them? More of who?" She looked over at Jaran. "More of him?"

Jaran squinted. "What's that supposed to mean? How can there be more of me--"

Erlis sniffed and her eyes widened. "It's Beren! Bronn knows your scent, and he smells it coming from afar--because you are brothers, you'll have a similar scent!"
"Beren?" Azelie cried. "We've found them already?"

Jaran stepped away from his wife and opened his hands, sending the lightning arcing down from his shoulders and into twin balls of energy in his palms. "Let's go give those pirates a reckoning they'll never forget!" He seethed.

Aurelle frowned. "What about the dagger? Getting our friends back and fighting the pirates isn't going to stop the Crow Queen!"
"I can hear their thoughts!" Azelie squealed. "Zayra too! Should I let them know we are here?"

Jaran pressed his lips together and knit his brow in thought. "You might as well let Zayra know," he said. "Since no one can see or hear her anyway, and she won't necessarily be able to let the others know too soon." He glanced over to their impromptu guide. "I know this isn't what you bargained for," he said. "We asked you to bring us to the place where the dagger might be, and you've done that."

Brinley raised a hand to forestall any further conversation. "Whoa, whoa--are you just going to walk away from me like that? You think I'd pass up an opportunity to show those dirty pirates that I not only survived a doomed trip to Gybralltyr, but I came back by my own choice, just to give them what-for?" A hungry glint lit her eye, and she pulled out the scythe she'd tucked into its sheath still hanging on her belt. She flourished it with expert precision. "Let's go rescue some prisoners. The dagger will still be there when we've sent those pirates packing."

Azelie grinned. "I've never heard Zayra so excited about anything--she says to be careful as we come, since there are traps scattered throughout the city." Azelie indicated a direction ahead of where they stood. "She says she can see the traps, though, and if we enter the city from that direction, ahead, then we'll be able to intercept the pirates without setting off any traps, ourselves."

Jaran beckoned everybody close, and even Bronn shouldered his way between Aurelle and Brinley.
"All right, here's how it's going to be," he said. "Azelie, you stay hidden and act as our lookout--make sure you can tell us if anyone is coming, or if anything is going on that we should know about. Aurelle, you keep those illusions coming, keep them disoriented and distracted, while Bronn, Brinley and I lead the offensive charge. And Erlis," he looked at the young woman whose Elfin features only served as a reminder that she wouldn't want to use her ability as a dragon in a fight at all.

She simply nodded. "I'll separate Beren, Denahlia, and Kaidan from the rest, and get them to safety."
"You can bring them to my hiding place," Azelie offered. "I'll make sure it's secure and has room enough for them."
Jaran nodded. "We'll want the element of surprise to give us the advantage, so everyone wait for my signal, which Azelie will relay with her telepathy. Find somewhere you can hide until that moment comes."
"Yes, sire," Brinley responded immediately, while the others nodded. The five friends dispersed, full of grim determination in light of what they were going to attempt.

Captain Haggard glanced up at the ghostly crags thick with fog as they passed. The further they traversed into Gybralltyr, the more his uneasiness grew. 
No pirate crew had ever made it this far--but perhaps no pirate crew ever had so many Gifted people making things easy for them. He watched the girl with the special unlocking powers as she bent over yet another puzzle. Her shortcomings had cost him two valuable pirates--but at least he could trust that the traps hadn't killed them, just restrained them. 
Perhaps a few hours of confinement would do Sally some good, cool that hot temper of hers while she waited for them to go back and retrieve her. Keaton, though--that was a loss he regretted, if only slightly. The young man had been an efficient fighter and sailor when it counted, but Haggard couldn't help feeling that there was something about the young man and his singular hairstyle that made him uneasy.

Just ahead, the street narrowed, as the path took them between long, high walls, like a huge trench of some kind. Haggard hesitated; he didn't like the feeling of being herded to a slaughter like so much cattle. What sort of traps awaited them in a scenario where there wasn't much room to avoid them at all?
The narrow trench ended, opening up into another wide square, but as soon as the last person in the single-file line--Seline, as it happened--reached the end of the walls, a massive bolt of lightning struck the ground right in front of Denahlia, sending everyone staggering backwards a pace or two and shielding their eyes from the brilliance of it.

"Ambush!" Watson roared, and the pirates leaped into action.
Arrows whizzed by everyone's head, so close they could hear the snap of the bowstring and feel the breath of air displaced by the shot--but on closer inspection, none of the arrows made any contact. Goddry drew his thick swords out of the dual sheaths on his back, as sword blades matching his own came hurtling out of the gathering grey clouds around them, but his parries and counterstrikes found no purchase. Not only that, but a bolt of lightning found the end of his sword and sent it flying, while delivering a painful shock to his hand.

Watson saw the shadowy shape in the gathering fog just above him, and he went for it, swinging his cutlass. He struck--but the shadow was nothing more than discolored cloud in the shape of a person... or was it? He saw it appear a second time, once again just beyond his arm's reach. He followed the compact, round shape, chasing after it with a dark chuckle... until the dark shape stood on its hind legs. Watson realized his mistake only after he'd fully committed to his present course, and he didn't have time to adjust his velocity. Bronn carried out his own revenge on the person responsible for trapping him in the first place.

Elsewhere, Brinley swung her scythe at the female pirates, feinting and attacking at all their points of exposure, without leaving herself vulnerable for too long. The taller one was handy with a blade, deflecting all of Brinley's blows, but the young rigger found openings to cut and pierce, for herself.
"What are you all doing here, anyway?" Brinley asked.
"We can't answer that," said the rigger, advancing toward her and forcing her to swing her scythe at an odd angle. "But you shouldn't be stopping us, if you know what's good for you."
"Just give us the prisoners, and we'll leave you alone," Brinley replied, although she knew she probably shouldn't be speaking for people she'd only just met.
Brinley! Look out, there's a third pirate sneaking up behind you! Azelie's voice sounded like it was reverberating inside her head, and for a moment, Brinley lost focus.

"Hi-yahh!!" A tall, lithe body leaped down from the rocks, brandishing a long knife aimed for her neck, and Brinley had to bend and twist out of the way to avoid being stabbed. Where was Bronn when she could use some support? Brinley tried reaching out in her mind for her friend--but what she found on the other end was heart-wrenching. Bronn responded, but with great effort, as if he was in much pain. When Brinley wondered who was responsible for his injury, Bronn communicated what he saw: a great big man, broad and dark like an oak tree, striking at him just before an avalanche of hailstones dropped out of the sky, driving him away. Brinley directed her friend to seek out Azelie, so that he could nurse his wounds in safety, and she slipped away from the pirates engaged in fending her off. Now that she knew she was fighting by herself, she needed to find a different advantage.

"Up here!" Called a voice, and Brinley squinted up to the shattered wall of a building behind her. A hooded figure shifted slightly, revealing their position, although it was hard to distinguish them as the dust from the rocks around them powdered the hood and turned it the same color as the stones. Brinley ducked behind the wall and picked her way up to the other person's position, using the fallen stones as stairs up to what remained of the second level.
The hooded person turned and studied her closely. "Do I know you?" she asked.
Brinley held out her hand, as her tattoos glowed in the dim light. "Brinley," she said. "I brought your friends here."

"Denahlia." The woman shook her hand, and Brinley felt a small jolt of something that made her gasp and flinch--but as quickly as it happened, it was over, so she ignored it. "I'm supposed to be the person in charge of the Harbor, back in The Realm." As soon as she finished speaking, Denahlia gave a small jerk and she focused keenly on Brinley's face in a way she wasn't sure about. 

"Wait... How exactly did you get here so quickly? It took us at least two days by sea."

Brinley shrugged. "There is a portal near where I live, in the southwest corner of Wildhaven. Your friends came to me needing to find Gybralltyr, and that was the only way I knew of to get here."

Denahlia was still watching her, staring and blinking hard, as if trying to peer inside Brinley's mind. "And... why exactly did they need to come here so badly? It wasn't just to rescue us, was it?"

Brinley wrinkled her nose. "Why, were you not hoping to be rescued?"

The dark-haired woman's lips tightened. "I'm not kidding!" She said with a sudden edge to her voice. "They wouldn't bring a stranger with them on a simple rescue mission. What are you doing here?"


The stones beside their heads exploded as someone with a gun started firing.
Denahlia lunged forward and growled, "We have to move!"

Brinley matched her movements, scrambling down the rockslide at the back of the building and continuing on through the city.

"Don't let 'er get away, lads!" Haggard's voice grated out over the melee. "We need that girl to open the Gate!"

Kaidan ducked and scurried between heaps of rubble, staying as far away from the fight as he could, without losing himself in the labyrinthine corridors. He wasn't much use in combat situations--his Gift was more suited to negotiation situations and battles of wit than actual fighting with swords and guns. His best defense was to reach into the minds of the pirates he'd already touched--which is to say, all of them--and find the moment they'd seen him... and then just remove that part. He'd see it in their eyes, how their gaze would unfocus, and the moment he slipped around behind them, they'd start running another direction.

Kaidan! Azelie's voice reached his mind. Where are you?

He ducked behind a large column and thought his response. I'm currently losing myself in the ruined city, doing my best to stay out of anyone's line of fire!

Come this way, she called to him. I've got a secure location away from all the fighting. I'll keep you safe. She sent him a visual image in his mind, of a large area surrounded by crags on all sides, with very few points of entry.
Kaidan fought to keep from shouting aloud as he saw a worrisome sight. Azelie! There's a bear on the other side of that clearing! It's watching you--be careful!
The bear's with us, Kaidan, Azelie answered. I'll explain everything when you get here.
Kaidan braced himself, and then charged out from behind the column--right into Seline's line of sight.

She had her sword drawn, and he didn't have a chance to dodge back into hiding before she had it up and ready.
"Caught you!" she declared. "Don't try to run, or I'll be forced to injure you severely."
Kaidan froze, locking eyes with Seline. He distinctly remembered running his hand against his arm, the memory of the skin contact was as good as the act itself. He prepared for the flood of memories--

Nothing came. Kaidan only had his thoughts in his mind.

He was so distracted by this that he failed to see Goddry sneaking up behind him, until the savage whip cracked and wrapped around his neck.

"Good work, Seline," he rumbled, as Kaidan flailed and clawed at the leather cord constricting his throat. "Made it easy for me. Let's get this one bound and go after the others."
Dark flecks danced in Kaidan's vision as he choked, and his vision spun and unfocused. He could feel something dragging his body down to the ground... and then...

Air! Kaidan choked and gasped as the pressure left his throat and his body tried to make up for several minutes without breathing, all in that first few seconds. He inhaled so hard that he began to cough.
A gentle hand patted his shoulder. "Easy now," an even voice prompted him. "Just slow, breathe nice and easy."
Kaidan focused intently on voluntarily controlling his lungs, until his heart stopped racing and he could breathe normally again. He glanced over at the person next to him: Seline, with her pale face, close-cropped hair, and softly-pointed ears.

Kaidan squinted, trying to figure out what just happened. "Y-you... How did--" He rasped out the words. He shook his head and attempted to form a coherent sentence. "Where's Goddry?"
Seline smirked and nodded over her other shoulder. Kaidan looked across and saw the big man slumped against the wall.

"He's not dead," the Elfin swashbuckler explained. "I just knocked him out a little. He'll wake once we're long gone."
Kaidan finally registered what events led up to his near-demise, and he scrambled away from Seline on all fours, before he could finally find his legs and stand up. "Don't come any closer!" He said, feeling for the wall behind him. "I'm armed--"

"With what?" Seline asked, standing before him and drawing her sword. Her eyes traveled down and back up. "I see no weapons."

Kaidan's mind raced. Why couldn't he at least see into her memories, the way she could see into his? At the very least, he should be able to make her think he had his weapons on him, but Seline just kept watching him. He kept his body poised to run, if she tried to lunge at him. "Why did you just save my life?" he asked.
Her lips twitched. "You think that just because I'm sailing with this crew of miscreants and thugs, it means I am also in league with them and support their causes?"
Kaidan didn't feel the need to respond, because that was in fact the exact thing he thought. What had Cori been implying about some of the others earlier?

Seline sheathed her sword and shook her head. "I fight for my own reasons--which is why I'm not fighting you." The lithe Elf turned heel and simply walked away. Kaidan stared after her, dumbfounded, waiting until he was absolutely certain she wasn't secretly lying in wait around the corner. At last, he recalled the memory of the path Azelie had sent to him, and thought to her, Azelie, I'm headed your way!

Beren dodged over walls and around corners, freezing the ground behind him as he went. Reva and Haggard chased after him, driving him back toward the booby-trapped portion of the city, hoping that the ancient ruins would do their work for him.

He saw a brilliant flash of light, heard a sharp snapping sound, and Reva let out a cry.

"Incoming!" called Jaran, and landed right beside him. Beren planted his feet and culled the moisture out of the clouds overhead, creating a wall of water between them and the Captain, and sending it rushing down through the streets.
"Thanks for the rescue," Beren told his brother. "I was beginning to think that we'd reach the Gate before anything like that would happen."

Jaran thrust his hand toward a pile of rubble, zapping it with a bolt of lightning that dislodged several stones and sent them rolling across the path behind them. Haggard waved his cutlass and shouted something at them--but at this point, the remaining members of the crew were Cori and Goddry, who looked like he'd been rolled down a hill, himself. Beren wondered whether the others were waiting just ahead--or had they already recaptured Denahlia and Kaidan?
"Of course I'll come after you," Jaran answered. "You're my brother."

Beren caught sight of Goddry dragging Denahlia out of hiding--but the cyborg was not pulling any punches as she fought back. She wrapped her feet around his ankles and kicked upward. Down he went.

Beren turned back to his brother. "How did you get here so fast? We have the only map, and according to it, the only way to reach Gybralltyr is by operating this massive mechanical Golem, something only Denahlia could do."
Jaran squinted at him. "I don't know of any Golem," he said. "But we found someone in Wildhaven who had actually been here before--"
"You're kidding!" Beren gasped. "Who?"
"Her name is Brinley."

Beren barely registered Jaran's reply as right in front of them, Cori emerged with her gun drawn, aimed directly at him, it seemed.
"Look out!" He yelled, shoving his brother out of the way as she fired. The bullet grazed his shoulder, first nothing but pressure, and then a white-hot throbbing as the blood poured out of the wound.
Jaran sent a bolt of lightning headed right for her. She fell back with a cry--but at the same time, they heard another body drop right behind them.
Beren tried to staunch the bleeding with the cloth of his sleeve as he turned and peered over the ruined wall.
What remained of Watson--looking as if he'd been mangled by a large animal--lay with a bullet hole in his head.
Beren winced and turned away, jaw tense as if he was going to be sick. Jaran glanced too, and felt his own face flush as his mind tried to figure out what just happened. "How did he... You don't suppose she--"
Beren shrugged. "I guess we'll find out when she comes to."

"Harlock!" A small body hurtled toward them, and Jaran watched the young woman huddle beside his brother. "I'm so glad I found you! Seline almost got Kaidan, and I haven't seen Denahlia--"
"Duck!" Jaran called out, as Goddry charged toward them, guns drawn, ready to fire. Jaran released a bolt of lightning at him and braced for impact as it didn't seem to slow the man down at all--but just as he ducked his head, he saw a series of glittering plates of armor spread over them, seeming to emanate from the girl's body, and Goddry slammed into it with a shuddering thud.
The three of them caught their breath, and the armor disappeared.

Jaran stared in fascination at the girl, but she could only stare at the large body sprawled in front of them.
"Did I kill him?" she asked in a small voice.

Jaran pressed his fingers against the quartermaster's neck, and he shook his head. "No, he's still alive, just unconscious, I believe." He pointed to the girl. "How did you do that? Where did that armor come from?"

"Sh's Gifted..." Beren slurred, paling as sweat beaded on his forehead. "Quilla... m'broth'r... Jaran..."

The girl nodded to him. "Jaran, you're Harlock's brother? I'm Quilla--I guess you knew my brother, Risyn, as well."

Jaran couldn't find a response for that, as his brother's worsening condition absorbed all his attention. "He's injured, we need to get him back to Erlis." He glanced at Quilla. "Could you shield us as we go?"

Quilla nodded, placing her hands on the shoulders of both brothers. The glistening armor returned, and as they passed through an archway, Jaran heard the patter of several small darts glancing off of them.
He stopped walking, jostling Beren's body hanging between them. "What was that?"

Quilla set her face in determination. "This city is booby-trapped," she said. "We probably sprang one."
Jaran advanced with more caution, following his wife's thoughts until they found the small hovel on the far end of the city, where Erlis met them at the entrance.

Jaran nodded to Quilla. "These are our friends. You can let down the armor."

Quilla complied, and Azelie let out a strangled cry when she saw the damaged prince. "Beren!" she gasped, as Erlis eased his body down onto the ground and set about patching up the bullet wound.
"It is not a grievous injury," she said. "He will be all right."

"Help!" A female voice cried. "Help us!"
Quilla glanced out the narrow entrance and immediately threw up her arms in front of her. Her Gift responded, and the only way in to the cave was completely barricaded by a translucent window. They could see Cori--the woman who had shot Beren--standing just outside, with Reva's body sagging against her shoulder.
"Please!" She pounded on the armored pane. "Let us in!"

Kaidan, from his seat next to Seline, almost nodded to Quilla to comply--seeing as he already knew Cori could be at least sympathetic to their side, but Jaran insisted, "She's the one who shot at Beren!"
Kaidan frowned. "Shot at? I've seen Cori's skill," he said. "If she was shooting at him, he'd be far more gravely injured!"

Azelie placed a hand on Quilla's shoulder. "Go ahead and let them join us. She means us no harm, and we're leaving this place anyway."
Quilla withdrew the armor, as Brinley looked up from tending to Bronn and asked, "We are? Where are we going?"

Azelie beckoned to everyone and pointed to an empty space before her. "Zayra saw a man lurking around the city when we arrived, and he seems to know where there is a safe place."
"Safe?" Denahlia responded. "Like the woman with the knife who supposedly lives here?"
At the same time, Seline tilted her head to one side and asked, "Who is Zayra?"
Aurelle rejoined them, panting heavily. "All right! I think I lost Haggard. Boy, that was fun! I--" She stopped and paled when she saw Beren wounded. "Zounds! What have I missed?"

"We're moving," Jaran explained, as Azelie seemed too intent on keeping track of Zayra to respond. "Azelie's following Zayra, who says she saw a man skulking about the ruins, watching us..."

Aurelle pointed ahead. "Who, that man?"
Jaran, Erlis, and Denahlia focused intently on the space she indicated. It did seem, with the deepening shadows and swirling fog, that they could almost distinguish a man with flowing white hair drifting over the crags and through the trees--but at the same time, it could have been a trick of the light, as the man's form flickered in and out of existence.

Jaran gave up trying to watch this mysterious figure, and instead focused on his wife, whom he knew he could trust.

All the same, no one quite knew what to think as they emerged from the trees right in front of a large mansion, built, as it were, in the middle of nowhere. The others dropped back and let those supporting the wounded members of their party toward the front, but just when Azelie lifted her hand to knock on the grand door, it swung open, and a young woman in a gleaming red gown greeted them.

"Oh, you've come at last!" She said briskly. "I've been expecting you. This way, please," she indicated a series of rooms off to the side. "There will be plenty of room for your friends in the ballroom. I've got cots, hot water, and bandages ready. Is everyone hungry? I imagine you haven't eaten in quite some time, and after the fight you've just had, you're probably starving. I'll bring soup for everyone once you're settled in."

As Denahlia stepped through, the door swung shut behind them. She frowned at it in confusion.

"Excuse me," Jaran coughed, as the woman led them down her hallway. "But--who are you, and what is this place?"

The woman turned and smiled brightly. "Oh, forgive me! Where are my manners?" She curtsied daintily. "My name is Tessa, and this mansion is called The Roque--my home."

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