Saturday, January 13, 2018

Serial Saturday: "The Clan of Outcasts" Finale, Part 2

(Part 2)
For a brief moment, nobody moved. Zayra approached the group and glanced around as if there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, even offering a smile. “Why is everyone staring? I have come to help.”

Denahlia didn’t take her eyes off the woman. “We don’t want your help,” She muttered. “For all we know, you’re here to kill us—“

“Stop!” Azelie stood in front of the Hunter. She turned back to the former Queen. “She means what she says, and she isn’t using her thrall.”

“How is that possible?” Kaidan spoke up. “I saw her memories; Troy made her Gift insatiable and immutable, and the science doctors broke her mind! She has no control over her Gift!”

Zayra tilted her head and regarded him. “Perhaps it was the sight of the memories that the doctors hid that gave me the control I needed.” She glanced between them all. “I don’t want to rule anymore. That was something imposed on me, a bastardization of the motivation I have to use my Gift to make the world a better place. I am here to join the fight against Troy, for the good of the Realm.”

No one moved to welcome her. Zayra stepped closer to Azelie. “Just watch,” she said, “I can prove it.” She turned to the young Paragon. “I want you to have your voice back.”

Azelie stared at her, wide-eyed. A thrill ran through the group, as none of them had ever heard this woman’s physical voice.

“I... I can...” Azelie stopped and clapped a hand over her mouth. The curt, raspy whispers grated over her throat. She winced at the feeling, even as tears welled in her eyes at the realization that at last, she could speak!

Lizeth stepped forward, cradling a single blue flame in the tips of her fingers.

“Here,” she offered, “let me help you with that.” She touched the flame to Azelie’s throat, and the young woman gave a deep gasp.

“Thank you...” Azelie spoke in clear tones now, a strange accent overlaying the voice they had grown used to hearing and conversing with in their thoughts. But by the ecstatic grin on her face, there could be no doubt that this voice was well and truly hers.

Zayra grinned at Erlis.
“Have I proven myself?” She asked.
The old healer maintained an icy glare.

The screaming outside grew more intense as the sounds inside the throne room died.
Edri curled her lip in disgust. “We don’t have time for a stand-off,” she growled. “We have a fiend to catch, before he destroys everything!”

Jade gave a pained grunt, and slumped against the nearest pillar.
“Can’t... move...” she moaned.

Lizeth came around to stand next to her, even as Edri yanked off her left glove to expose her brilliant-blue hand.

“I’ve got this,” the soldier grunted. She gripped the wing, feeling the joints and muscles knit themselves back together. Jade couldn’t restrain a cry of pain, so Lizeth diffused the agony with a spurt of bluefire. At last, the pair pulled away. Jade stood up, waggling her newly-repaired wing experimentally.

“How does it feel?” Damaris asked.
Jade flung her wings wide, bracing for the jab of pain that would tell her if the wings could not bear her weight; it never came.
“It feels all right,” she answered.

Azelie winced, raising a hand to her head. “I’m glad we were able to resolve that,” she said. “Because it sounds like Troy has just discovered Aurelle’s deception, and the others are in danger!”
“What are we waiting for, then?” Velora growled. “Let’s get back out there!”

The group arrived at the entrance to the castle, in full view of total chaos.
The angry villagers were vainly attempting to set fire to the mound of twining branches spewing from Javira’s side of the courtyard, while the glacier overtaking the other side of the courtyard spread a thick layer of ice over the flagstone ground, while the archways glittered with vicious icicles.

“What do we do first?” Denahlia asked, glancing between the two. She recognized some of the villagers facing the threat of flame and root, but at the same time, she could see Beren trapped within the glacier, nearly frozen solid himself, while his power grew far beyond his control.
“Where is King Beren?” Zayra pushed to the front of the group, scanning the frozen surface. “I want to help the king.”

Erlis nodded toward the frozen side. “It might be more prudent for those of us with fire powers to help him, highness,” she glanced toward Damaris and Lizeth.

Damaris spread his hands, willing the balls of flame to consume his arms past the elbow. Those within arm’s reach of him stepped back at the flash of heat.
“Way ahead of you,” he declared.
Kaidan nodded. “I will try to calm my sister.”
Velora flexed her claws. “I will go with you.”
“As will I,” Edri stepped forward.

Velora scowled at her; the memory of the captain’s betrayal still hung fresh in her mind.
Edri merely sneered. “We are both armored; we stand the best chance of surviving those roots.”
Zayra stepped closer to Azelie. “The two of us will work on calming the crowd, see if we can’t wrest thrall away from Troy.”
“And I will fly up the tower to see what I can do for Korsan and Aurelle,” Jade said, spreading her wings and lifting off.

In the middle of the courtyard, Troy was busy shadow-hopping, even in his physical form. He couldn’t quite float as freely as he once could, but at least jumping from window to window up the tower where the illusionist and the mage hid wasn’t so very difficult. He glanced down from his high perch halfway up the tower, just in time to see the group scatter in separate directions. Jade headed right for him.
“Not today, sister,” Troy muttered, hopping to another window, one in the covered walkway just above the ice wall. Grinning to himself, he focused his jacking ability on the young Phoenix and cranked it up.

Down below, Damaris felt the fire coursing through his whole body like his skin might explode.
“Oh no…” he murmured, before the flames covered his whole body, and still grew.
“Damaris,” Erlis noticed his condition and stared at him with concern. The dragon scales unfolded over her arms as she reached for him. “Calm down.”
“I can’t!” Cried the boy made of flame. “It’s not me! I can’t control it!”

Lizeth set her mouth. “Troy,” she muttered, glancing around at the shadows, as if he might appear. She couldn’t distinguish his shape in any of them. “At least he’s melting the ice,” she pointed at the massive dent in the glacier, clarifying and widening by the moment.
“If we don’t get him calmed down before he reaches Beren, Damaris will start melting him!” Erlis declared, trying to grasp the boy’s hand and finding only flame. “Damaris,” she tried again. “Listen to me! You’ve got to let go of your fire; the more you struggle, the more hold Troy has over you!”
“I’m trying!” Damaris screeched. “It won’t let me! It’s pulling me apart!”

Lizeth could see them approaching the dull, solidified form of King Beren. “I’ve seen this before,” she told Erlis. “When I first began manifesting my Gift, I didn’t know what it was, either, and it felt totally beyond my control.” She turned to the nexus of flame before them. “Damaris.” She called to him softly. “Breathe.”
“Just breathe.”
“It’ll burn me! I’ll die!”
“I’m trying!”
“Look at my flame,” Lizeth held her palm out, a bubble of flame the size of her head dancing and swirling over it. “My flame is your flame. Now watch what I do.” Concentrating on the ball, she reduced it till it was no bigger than her eye. She clenched her fist, and it went out.

“How did you do that?” Damaris wailed, even as his flames spiked higher, dangerously close to the frozen king.
“Breathe, Damaris,” Lizeth said again. “My flame is your flame. You can make it smaller. Picture its size, and picture it getting small enough to fit in your hand.”
“Are you sure I’m not just unlucky?” Damaris stopped, inches away from Beren’s body. He wasn’t as frantic, and the flames didn’t escalate as much as they had.
“You have control over this, Damaris. Troy can reach you in your fear, but if you put away your fear, you put away his power over you.”
“Okay,” Damaris replied. “Breathe.”
The flames reduced, down to about the boy’s own height.
“Breathe,” he told himself again, and the fire receded from his head and feet, concentrating on his arms.
“Breathe.” The third time, it slowed until he held two orbs of spinning, swirling fire in his hands. He looked up at the two women, flames dancing in his eyes. “I did it!”
Lizeth nodded to him with a grin. “Now let’s free the king!” Blue and gold mingled in steady concentration, while Erlis plunged her dragon’s claws into the ice to scrape it away.

On the other side of the courtyard, Velora, Kaidan, and Edri could barely see anyone through the mass of roots blocking the way and furthermore barring any exits along the outer wall. Edri drew her sword and began hacking away at the vicious branches, but for every one she cut, three more grew and twisted into its place.

“Javira!” Kaidan called. “Where are you?”
“Kaidan!” they could hear her voice over behind the corner, where a new mass of tangled roots sprang up. “Help me! It won’t stop!”
The trio fought their way back to her, but the closer they got, the more frustrated Kaidan became. He winced as his hand brushed over the branch.
“What’s the matter?” Velora asked, yanking a root out of the way to widen the path.
“It’s my Gift,” Kaidan muttered. “I haven’t had the time to get used to it, so whenever I touch a root, I get a little bit of Javira’s memories coming to me.”
Edri reached up to swing at a thick overhead root, when it suddenly shifted away from her blade. “What the—“

All three of them froze as the roots seemed to peel away before them, forming a clear path. Justin clambered down from the top of the pile and joined them, moving the roots with his mind. “Please,” he said, “allow me.”
Velora watched with mild interest as a red-faced Edri sheathed her sword, and the four of them walked comfortably amid the twisting, curling roots to Javira, who sat on a throne of roots while fresh ones curled out from under her hands. The longer they grew, the more she amassed around her person.

“Help me,” she begged her brother.
Kaidan wagged his head. “How?”
“You can reach into my mind, can’t you? That’s how your Gift works; perhaps you can turn off my thoughts, knock me unconscious or something!”
Kaidan sighed. More roots curled and spiraled around them, but Justin kept them from overwhelming completely.
“I’ll try,” he said, gritting his teeth and preparing to climb up toward his sister.

Velora saw the root headed for him almost too late. “Look out!” She lunged for him, boosting his position out of the root’s way. Kaidan flailed to regain his balance, and his hand brushed the exposed part of Velora’s wrist. She fell back with a cry as an entire wall of roots crowded between them.

“Velora!” Justin cried, crouching beside her as she covered her head with her hands. Roots surrounded them completely, cutting them off from the Twins.
Edri waited for the young woman to stand up, but Velora continued to writhe on the ground. “What’s happening to her?” she asked, drawing her sword to cut away the roots.
“I don’t—“ Justin backed up as Velora bounded to her feet with a snarl.

Soldiers!” she shrieked, glaring at both Justin and Edri. “Everybody scatter! It’s an ambush!” She threw back her head and howled before charging straight at Edri, claws outstretched.

“No!” Justin lunged between them, throwing up his hands to push Velora away. Her strike caught him across the face, leaving three long scars across his forehead not unlike Edri’s own. As the young Wolf reeled, Justin explained. “She touched Kaidan; it sounds like she’s stuck in a memory of being a hunted refugee in the woods.”

Make a break for it,” Velora growled, crouching in an aggressive stance. “I’ll hold them off!”

“Velora, stop!” Edri cried. “You’re not an Outcast anymore! We’re trying to work together!”
“She can’t hear you,” Justin said, glancing in her direction.
That brief space of time was the window Velora needed. She lunged, catching Justin in the throat with her claws. A spray of red erupted below his face, and he sank without a sound.
One down,” Velora growled, her claws dripping as she stared at Edri with a feral gleam in her eye. “I’ve saved the best for last.”

Edri felt her breath harden in her lungs, as the lion surged forward within her, eager to put this young pup in her place. She firmed her stance and flourished her sword.
“You should not have done that!” she growled, and the two women collided with mighty screams.



Episode 1: "Upgrades"  
Episode 2: "Strategic Maneuvers" 
Episode 9: "The Justification of Jade" Part 1 and Part 2
Season Finale: >Part 1< >Part 2< >Part 3<

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A Birthday Retrospective!

And just like that, five years pass!
This last year has been amazing for predominantly one reason: I am no longer solely banking on this blog for writing endeavors. Having a book published is a wonderful thing, and it has definitely motivated me to be more purposefully productive, as I am no longer just posting in a little-known, buried-in-the-internet place (seriously, when has Blogger ever been a high-traffic area?), but I have something credible and concrete to distribute myself, or point people to. Plus, the positive experience I have had in publishing has given me the boost I needed to jump in and participate and get even more published!

As a fun 2017 retrospective, here are some numbered things having to do with my writing: 

Published Anthology short story 

YEESS! My short story that began as this random prompt actually made it into an anthology! DREAMTIME DRAGONS is available on Smashwords and Amazon, and I am proud to be a part of this project along with authors I’ve actually reviewed such as Nils Visser and Assaph Mehr!!

Blog Hops

Yes, after the Summer Splash of 2016, I got the hang of blog hops, and had the pleasure of participating not just in one but TWO blog hops, one month-long in August (The Book Lover’s Blog Hop) and one week-long bash in December (The Bookish Christmas Blog Hop). Tons of fun, and sharing the visibility was a great experience!

“Clan of Outcasts” posts on the Top 10 "All-Time Viewed" Blog Posts!

This was an exciting discovery to make! Five years and nearly 650 posts means that for any post to end up near the top of the All-Time Post View list, it needs to be up for quite a long while to beat out the posts that have been around longer! 
I am just really glad that enough people have enjoyed that series (or have at least clicked on the link when I share it) so that at least three posts made it up there with posts that have been around since practically the beginning of this blog! The specific three posts are “Part 1: The Storm”, “Part 12: Exchange,” and “Part 13: Trust Me.” Feel free to read through the series if you haven’t yet! The LAST PART is coming on Saturday, and if you’re reading this now I hope you’ll be there for it!

Tie-in short stories for “Princess of Undersea”!

One thing you need to understand about "Princess of Undersea" is that I am perfectly content with the way it turned out. As I've said before, the last thing I wanted was to go for the cliche "and-they-lived-happily-ever-after", and furthermore, I also didn't want to get stuck adding "just a little bit more" or run the risk of letting scenes continue ad infinitum because I got halfway through without a real secure idea of how to end them... So yes, it was a pretty softly-open ending, and there were a few angles I could have explored--but it just took me a few months. Truthfully, out of all these, "Give Me What I Need" was the only one really planned from early on... the other three all came up as part of the recent "A to Z Challenge" series, so they mostly happened on their own. What I mean is that, yes, I had a nebulous idea of what went down in the background, and it influenced the way I wrote the actual scenes in the book, but now they are actual, viable stories! I do have one more that I'm saving for a special moment, but I'll talk more about that in a bit! Meanwhile, enjoy these stories!

Months (How long the WIP-Of-The-Month lasted)

On the one hand, it was a great idea and it served its purpose well! I didn’t do so well the first month, but February, I finished The Water-Man, March I completed “The Starborn Legacy,” a short story wrote for an anthology that didn’t end up manifesting (nobody’s fault!); April was the month I tried to dive back into The Amazon Triangle... and I have been there ever since. (Still wondering if I am going to post weekly/monthly check-ins this year... maybe so! Accountability really helps!) This year it’s about not so much churning out the stories and “finishing something” and more about being intentional with my productivity, progressing with a purpose!

Reviews for "Princess of Undersea" on Amazon

Who knew this would be so difficult to get just 10 reviews? Maybe that was a bit f an oversight on my part, for not having things like Advance Review Copies or a Street Team in place to guarantee reviews... the verbal feedback has been pretty positive, just hasn’t quite made it to "The ‘Zon" yet.
I will say... that "special short story" I mentioned earlier? Yeah, so when I first published, I promised that the first 10 reviewers of "Princess of Undersea" would have characters named after them, or would get to design their own character in this short story, PLUS that as soon as it hit 10 reviews, I would make public the EPILOGUE I wrote shortly after releasing the book (because I guess it did take a few weeks for the full scene to coalesce!); I recently put that epilogue on a GoogleDoc and I've been sending the link out to reviewers--all six of them! Introspecting about how I react to the number of reviews I get, and what I am willing to do to get them... It really motivates me, as a reviewer, to prioritize communication with the authors I've been privileged to support! They work hard and they need to know their efforts are appreciated! 

Reader’s Reviews that got over 70 views

Speaking of reviewing.... One thing that I discovered after featuring indie reviews on my blog is that the attention that I bring to their book by my review gets returned when they share my reviews with their network, boosting the signal for both of us! Blogger or GooglePlus by itself would never get me the viewership that I've seen, especially on any one post--so I really owe this addition to the list to those authors who shared links to my blog on their Twitter feeds (because I don't Tweet, so that's not an outlet I have access to) and on Facebook, as well. (Though for that one, I have more of a presence there, so it becomes a joint effort.) Anyway, the one review I noticed that got the most views this year alone was a little-known book called Cadeau, Volume 1: Who Can You Trust? by Connie Olvera, which has garnered over 200 views! I believe I do have her to thank for spreading the link around, because, as I've mentioned before, it isn't often that a blog post from only a few months ago cracks the Top Five All-Time! Of course, running a close second is P.A.W.S. by Debbie Manber Kupfer, Devotion by Katika Schneider, and A Spell in The Country by Morgan Smith, all of which got over 90 views. The remaining three reviews that cleared the 70-view mark are The Longest Night Watch an anthology featuring a whole bunch of extremely talented authors, American Goth by Cyn Mackley, and Grave Dealings by R. R. Virdi (which is a feat in itself, because unlike the other titles listed here, this one is only about a month old!) and I am definitely ecstatic that these titles and these authors are getting the visibility they deserve!

Blog posts that exceeded 100 views this year

... and that's only counting ones that were posted this year! I chose this criteria because there are, of course, a lot of posts on my Top 10 All-Time-Viewed list that have been there since... well, since they were the only posts one could view on my blog! The blog posts in question are as follows (listed in order from the greatest number of views to the least; you will likely see repeats from earlier in this post):

-The Clan of Outcasts, Part 13: Trust Me
-Reader's Review: Cadeau, Volume 1: Who Can You Trust? by Connie Olvera
-The Book Lover's Blog Hop: "Who is Your Favorite Author?"
-The Suggestion Box, Vol. 4: The A to Z Challenge, Letter D 
-Introducing: The Book Lover's Blog Hop!  
-The Book Lover's Blog Hop: "What's The Best Read of 2017 So Far?"
-The Clan of Outcasts, Season 2 Part 1: "Upgrades"  
-The Suggestion Box, Vol. 4: The A to Z Challenge, Letter I
-The Suggestion Box, Vol. 4: The A to Z Challenge, Letter H

Short Stories/Flash Fictions

One of the things I started doing more often once I got the hang of blogging (and subsequently ALMOST ran out of fresh "old" material to excerpt) is writing flash fiction. Partially inspired by the success (and ease!) of the Suggestion Box series, I started doing "flash fiction." Now, the commonly-regarded definition for "flash fiction" is supposed to be right in the ballpark of 1,000 words, but the more I wanted to write these fun little short stories, the more I realized that even though they only took a few hours from conception to completion, my stories were rarely under a thousand words. I called them "flash fictions" anyway, and ended up with several "miniseries".... nine, to be exact. Each one inspired by a single prompt (except where noted) and all of them exceptional fun!
-Arthur and The Egg (Incompletely posted, since it was published in the anthology Dreamtime Dragons)
-The Starborn Legacy (Not here on my blog at all, since it was written for an as-yet-unpublished anthology, but >HERE< is a post describing the story!)

Chapters added to The Amazon Triangle

All right, so maybe this one was a bit of a stretch... but it's an accomplishment worth noting, I think!
It began as a couple random scenes with zero context... and grew into an epic adventure that I am fairly certain will wind up being the longest project I've ever written. Will it ever become a published work? I certainly hope so, with such a marvelous cover as this one! It's been quite the process, getting the whole story out--so many times I've been "almost done" for the last eight months, only to discover, when I sat down to write, that there was wayy more action than I anticipated, so the events that I expected to fit into one chapter were actually spread into three... but I've learned lots, and had a lot of fun doing it! And now I can say with relative certainly that I *AM* two-and-a-half chapters from the end at last!
Wattpad Stories Started or Completed in 2017

In the summer of 2015, I joined the online story-sharing platform of Wattpad, for the sole reason that an author I followed on Facebook started posting a serial story on there and I just couldn't stand missing out on reading it! Once I joined Wattpad, I tested the waters and found a reasonably receptive audience for my own stories that had gotten somewhat buried on either Facebook or this blog, plus it was really fun to tease out a brand-new "Wattpad Exclusive" story, too! I really enjoy the way Wattpad is easy to use, to update, and to share. Not to mention that the addition of a cover really spruces up the place more than, say, the Fanfiction site where I typically posted my stuff. All in all, I think it's highly recommendable, and I hope you enjoy these little glimpses! (You'll need to set up an account to have full access; but don't worry! It's pretty secure, and it's free!)

-The Water-Man (Completed)
-The Telmar Trilogy: The Legend Of Telmar, Her Ladyship Of Telmar, and The Legacy Of Telmar (Completed)
-The Day of Reckoning (Completed)
-Angels Take Milwaukee (Completed)

Authors represented in "Dreamtime Dragons"

Yes! Another plug for the anthology! And a chance to scope out some authors you may not have heard of yet. These people are wonderful. What bits I did glimpse of the work done by other contributors was exciting and well-written, and my second experience with publishing (this time in a charity anthology) came off every bit as positive as the first time! Take a look at these sites:

-Assaph Mehr
-Leslie Conzatti (Me!)

Original Mock Book Covers made

(More, if you count the TEN different iterations of the cover for The Last Inkweaver that I copied and re-saved in the process of finding a good font!)
One thing that blogging has taught me over the years is that having a good thumbnail image is key! Also with Wattpad, posting a story almost always requires a cover, or you get a LAME placeholder image akin to the generic male/female silhouette for a profile image.... so I started making mock covers for all my stories, even the short ones on my blog. The sum total of effort I would put into a cover was to open it with the "Preview" application, use "Annotate" to add a text box, and choose a font and color I felt fit the title best.
I found having a cover to be extremely motivating, not just for my writing, but also the feedback I would get from people over my "really cool/amazing cover" that just needed a great, completed story to go with it! Over the last year, I've amassed quite the collection; check them out below!
Be honest... Which one (or ones!) catch your eye? More info available upon request!
Bloggers in the Book Lover’s Blog Hop

The wonderful thing about being in a worldwide group of hundreds of writers? Chances are somebody knows what they're doing. Take this group, for example. I had never really participated in a serious blog hop (as in "one that went further than my blog") until the Summer Splash, and so when a random author was looking for bloggers to participate in a month-long blog hop, I jumped for the chance! It was great; she had GoogleDocs for the schedule, each day, deadlines spelled out so we could all have time to set up our posts before the Hop began... and we all participated as well as hosted, giving that support and visibility to each other. It was great, and I enjoyed getting acquainted with these people! Check out these blogs!
-Jo Lindsell
-Leslie Conzatti (Me!)

Reader’s Reviews

And to finish off this count-up, as it were, I managed to squeeze in 23 Reader's Reviews this past year! (Real count is 24 books read, but I didn't get the review for the last one written before 2018 began, so it didn't count!) It's been a great year for books, I have to say! And the fact that The Upstream Writer is now home to no less than 85 featured indie reviews (not counting the 3 years' worth of "general" reading lists!) is nothing to sneeze at! Check out these reviews, and maybe pick up something new to read for 2018!

Kalla by Amber Morant

I hope you enjoyed this little “highlights tour.” Be sure to comment on anything that strikes your fancy, and I will continue to keep you informed of my exploits, and hopefully continue producing entertaining content for many more years to come!

Catch You Further Upstream!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Serial Saturday: "The Clan Of Outcasts" Finale Part 1


"The Finale"
(Part 1)

Edri slunk past the cages, ignoring the barrage of scents that assaulted her, even from these cages long-since-abandoned. She picked up her head as her nose caught a whiff of the person she wanted: Zayra, former Queen of the White Castle.

“Your highness!”

Zayra sat at the edge of the pen originally designed for zebras, according to the plaque overhead. She sat with her head bowed, her golden hair draped limply to conceal her face. She barely moved as Edri approached. The soldier threw herself at the Queen’s feet.

“Your Majesty, at last I have found—“

“Why do you do this?” Zayra lofted her head, a vague disorientation in her gaze. “I am broken; I have no thrall over you—yet you still refer to me as your queen.” She shook her head. “It is over, Edri. I am dethroned, and furthermore, now I know the full truth of what I am.” Sobs gathered in her throat, choking her words. “I am a monster! A heartless leech that feeds on the freewill of others, sucking them dry to the point of death, and then casting them aside like garbage!” She covered her head with her hands. “I murdered my own parents without so much as a second thought! Why did I do it? What manner of creature am I, that I would do such a thing?”
Edri watched the young woman vent her sorrow. Perhaps it was true, what she said about the thrall. Edri certainly didn’t feel the dense fog crowding her thoughts and reshaping then anymore. Yet one thing did still remain.

“No titles, please. I am no better than an UnGifted citizen. The only reason I came to live at the castle was at the behest of others. Call me Zayra.”
“Zayra.” The name still felt queenly to say. “If you believe nothing else, trust me when I say that I am not here because you took my freewill.” She placed a mailed hand on her breastplate. “I came because I gave it to you, without reservation.”
Zayra gave a shaky half-smile. “Your zeal is commendable,” she remarked, “but I am not worth your loyalty. I am certain it belongs rightfully to another.”
Edri frowned. Would Zayra plan to reinstate the Twins, then? Surely Troy would succeed in killing off the Princes and their allies before they could find a way to stop him! With a shake of her head, she refocused on her present. “Where you lead, I will follow,” She pledged.
This time, Zayra truly smiled. The tears fell no longer, and she took a deep breath to draw herself upright.

“That’s precisely what I am counting on, my bold, brave Lion.”

Jade stood with the others in the middle of the room as the battle raged anew, this time coming from scores of angry villagers tricked into believing that their king wanted to take their rights, their land, and their lives to serve his purpose. Tricked because of lies her brother told. 
Someone’s coming!” Azelie announced, just before a young man with curly red hair entered the darkened throne room.
“What’s HE doing here?” Denahlia cried.
Kaidan held up his hand. “Peace, Hunter. I know how much you mistrust me because of the way I misused you in the past—“
“More like you just used me,” Denahlia muttered.
“—but my sister has explained the situation and I have come to help.” He glanced around at the other three: the Wolf, the Dragon, and the voiceless Paragon, who nodded.
“He is telling the truth,” she said. “I believe him.”
“Great,” grunted Velora. “Let’s get this done, then. What do we have to do, Jade?”
The Angel regarded her brother’s body through the open door of the cage. “We need to get his Shadow back into his body by activating each of his senses. That means—AHH!”
She screamed as a huge mass of darkness coalesced and wrapped around her like a giant snake.
“So!” The voice boomed in the large empty room. “This is where you’ve been hiding from me, eh?” Troy’s face grinned as the tendrils of shadow wrapped tighter around Jade, pulling and twisting her body, and yet covering her mouth to muffle her cries. “What were you planning, Sister?” He saw the cage, and an instant of fear glanced across his face. He covered it with an angry scowl. “My cage? My body?” The shadows threw Jade across the room, only to pick her up and bind her again when she landed. “You were going to trap me again?” Troy guessed, using the shadows to pick her up and slam her down on the ground. “You think this pitiful gang of messed-up humans is going to be able to stop AN ABNORMAL?”
The tendril wrapped around her neck, squeezing tighter with the same force as an actual limb, yet there was nothing that Jade could feel. She couldn’t speak, but she could think.
Azelie met her gaze and nodded. She said nothing, and her words were hidden from Jade, but Kaidan moved into position alongside the body. 
Jade couldn’t see what happened next because Troy tossed her again, and she slammed into a blackened pillar.
“Good night, Jade!” Troy spat in disgust. “Haven’t you done enough? The destruction of this Realm is your fault, you know!” He flung her back against another wall. “You dared to spread the Gifts where they did not belong. You refused to give them the power they needed. Why? Were you afraid, Sister?” His shadows gripped her hard as his face came close, sneering at her. “Afraid they would become too powerful for you? Afraid that if they reached their full potential, they wouldn’t be so impressed with you and your amazing wings?” One of the shadows wrapped around the bone at the top of her wing and wrenched in the wrong direction. Jade grimaced and couldn’t restrain a scream. 
Troy relished her pain. “Did you really believe in Juros’ plan, to normalize and integrate Gifts into the Realm? Did you honestly think such a thing would even work?” He twisted her wing until they both heard a pop, and Jade could barely breathe through the pain. “There are dozens of UnGifted out there right now who are ready to prove you wrong, Jade.” He dropped her body and let it plummet to the floor, the dislocated wing flopping uselessly behind her. “Those stupid yokels were all too easy to manipulate, even if I couldn’t affect them directly! They would NEVER accept something like you or me. We will NEVER belong among them.”
Jade tried to move, tried to signal the group somehow, but she couldn’t. 
“Do it!” She thought, hoping that Azelie would get the message.
Seconds later, the pressure on her limbs slackened. 
“What?” Troy gasped, as she shadows slipped from his control. “What did you— Ow!” 
Jade felt a surge of hope; how long had it been since Troy felt pain? She forced herself to look back toward the cage. Kaidan knelt with his hand on Troy’s physical body. She could see the tether of light now stretching from the body to the nexus of shadow that was Troy’s incorporeal form. Setting her jaw against the excruciating pain of her wing, Jade turned and shoved Troy’s shadow-tendrils aside—they had more substance now, like an icy sort of slime. 
“Hey!” The slime lunged for her again, grabbing her leg, but she saw Denahlia crouch down next to Kaidan. 
“This is for all the trouble you caused me with your system upgrades,” The Hunter muttered, reaching to cover the top of his head.
Still in the air, Troy grimaced, and his face changed. “Argh! I can’t see!” He whined. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The eyes on his physical body opened, and he stared straight at Denahlia. “Oh, hello!” Cried his voice from above. “You are meddling with things you don’t understand. Stop this!”
The Hunter glared at those eyes. “Never,” She enunciated very clearly. 
“My turn!” Velora said, kneeling and placing her hand over his chest.
Immediately, it began to rise and fall.
“What are you—“ Troy’s voice broke off with a choke. When he spoke again, his voice issued from the body in the cage.
“Well, this is a strange situation. I suppose I can still adapt, though!” The tendrils of Shadow still writhed and wrestled the wounded Angel, who tried to stay as far away from the cage as she could, to give the others the best chance of succeeding.
“This party is boring,” Troy’s body said. “Let’s set it on fire!”
Immediately, the broken stained glass window filled with the fiery form of a Phoenix, as Damaris glided down toward the group huddled around the cage with a screech.
“No!” Jade called, struggling madly against the shadows, “stay strong!”
The flame from the swooping phoenix illuminated the room, so that she could see Erlis and Azelie joining hands. The Dragon had no fear of fire, and she knelt along with the young Paragon. 
“You won’t get away with this!” Jade hissed at the shadows surrounding her. “You cannot escape this time!”
“What was that?” Troy responded. “I can’t hear you.”
Azelie smiled as her touch had opened his physical ears. Erlis leaned over him. 
“Then listen closely,” she whispered. “It’s time you had a taste of what you’ve done to all of us.” She gripped his shoulder, and the body began to writhe and scream.
“ARGH! NO!” Troy shrieked, as all the shadows, every last part of him that remained in the room, rushed to be absorbed into the body in the cage. The body itself thrashed and flailed, but everyone held on, until at last, he lay still. 
The five allies looked at each other.
“Did it work?” Velora asked. 

The eyes snapped open. Hands gripped Erlis by the arm and tossed her into Kaidan and Velora on the other side, while Azelie felt a blow against her side that knocked her away. Troy stood, as strong as ever, and walked out of the cage with a laugh. 
“You idiots!” He crowed, as Damaris swooped around, herding the group into a small cluster. 
“You thought that returning me to my body was going to stop me? Jade probably told you that returning me to the cage would trap me, weaken me...” he leaped halfway across the room in a bound, making his way to where the injured Angel struggled to her feet. “Well?” He snarled, kicking her back down again. “DO I SEEM WEAK TO YOU?” He laughed again and leaped to the wall with the broken window.
“Stop him!” Jade yelled. 
“Gladly!” Denahlia replied. She switched to her hypnosis vision—but she only had a few seconds before a fierce pain lashed through her head. “UGH!” 
“Aww,” Troy goaded her. “Are your special abilities too much for you? Here, let me help.”
Denahlia felt the pain subside and looked up at Troy. She blinked.

Nothing happened. 

“What have you done?” She yelled. 
“Never forget, Hunter!” Troy snarled. “I have all the power over you!” 
Velora advanced toward him. “You might control these others, but you don’t control me!” She flexed, letting her wolf abilities come forth. If he so much as twitched, she would tear into him.
Troy smiled. “Or do I?” He pointed at her, flipping his hand palm-up. 
Velora’s animal instincts took over, and instead of attacking the man in front of her, she turned and lunged for the smallest, weakest person in the room: Azelie.

“Get away!” Erlis warned, as the group scattered. 
“Have fun with that one!” Troy crowed, vanishing from the room. Shortly thereafter, Damaris landed with a screech.

“Lizeth! We need you!” 
The medic heard the cry as she vainly tried to help as many wounded villagers as she could, in an attempt to convince them that the Gifted were not the enemy. 
“Hang on!” She repaired another broken bone and headed toward the castle.
Troy was back, after they had worked so hard to supposedly stop him. Is that what Jade had wanted all along? He teleported many places, popping up next to anyone with a Gift and either rendering them impotent (like Justin, who couldn’t lift so much as a pebble anymore) or sending their powers wildly and violently out of control (like Javira and Beren, so much that the castle courtyard was buried in tree roots on one side, and a glacier on the other, with the frightened, aggressive, confused villagers trapped in between); it was hard to tell which side would prevail, but one thing was certain: the battle wouldn’t last forever. 

So what else did the Angel have planned for them?

The moment Lizeth neared the door to the throne room, she had to dive out of the way as a sword neatly split her in half. 
Velora, a crazed gleam in her eye, charged and swung at anything that moved—much like a cornered wolf. 
Lizeth ignited her bluefire, attracting the attention of Velora, but stifling any more aggression as the young woman shied away from the flame. 
“Stop,” Lizeth commanded, holding out the flame toward her.
Velora still gripped the sword, panting heavily through bared teeth, but she didn’t move as Lizeth advanced slowly, step by step.

Finally, as Lizeth stood an arm’s length away, she made a desperate lunge and caught Velora’s sword arm. The young woman let out a howl as the bluefire spread over her, but when it receded, she was herself again, gasping for breath as her knees trembled. She dropped the sword.
“W-wh-what was that?” She stammered. Velora turned to see the others staring at her in terror. “What are you—“ she stared at the sword on the ground, and then at her hands. “What did I do?”
Lizeth patted her on the shoulder. “Nothing terrible, I think.”
Velora shook her head. Damaris screeched and stepped toward her.
Lizeth smiled. “At least he can not control you anymore, young man.” She reached out and mingled her bluefire with the flames of his feathers. Blue overwhelmed the gold, and as it died, Damaris stood in place of the Phoenix. 
“Damaris!” Velora was the first time step forward and hug the boy.
“Ugh, I am so glad that’s over!” He grumbled. "Have I mentioned how much I hate flying?"
“What happened in here?” Lizeth demanded. “I thought you were supposed to stop Troy, not give him a second chance to destroy us all!”
“It was my fault,” Jade staggered over to them, her wing dragging behind her. “I thought that if Troy returned to the cage he would be trapped in there just like in Justicia. I didn’t expect him to regain vitality and escape.” She stared at the empty cage. “We need to get him back into that cage again.”
“But how?” Kaidan asked. “It’s not like we can get him to come back in here again. And he can just mess with our Gifts if we try to get close to him.”

“Perhaps we can be of assistance?” Asked a voice that made everyone tense in fear. They turned toward the side entrance of the throne room as through the door came Zayra, the Mad Queen, followed by Captain Edri, her fiercely loyal bodyguard.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reader's Review: "Jacq Of Spades" by Patricia Loofburrow

Synopsis from Amazon:

Kidnapping. Murder. Betrayal.
Can you ever truly hide from your past?
In a far future US, the once-beautiful domed neo-Victorian city of Bridges is now split between four crime families in an uneasy cease-fire. Social disparity increasing and its steam-driven infrastructure failing, a new faction is on the rise: the Red Dogs.
22 year old Jacqueline Spadros was kidnapped from her mother's brothel and sold to the Spadros syndicate ten years ago. The murder of her best friend Air that night as he tried to save her from them haunts her nightmares. Now unwillingly married to one of the city's biggest drug lords, she finds moments of freedom in a small-time private eye business, which she hides in fear of her sadistic father-in-law.
Air's little brother disappears off his back porch and the Red Dogs are framed for it. With the help of a mysterious gentleman investigator hired by the Red Dogs to learn the truth, Jacqui pushes her abilities to their limits in hope of rescuing the child before the kidnapper disposes of him.
Dark, gritty, multi-layered Victorian-inspired detective neo-noir that keeps the reader guessing to the very end.


My Review:

What is the last book you read that absolutely carried you away with a breathtakingly fantastic world that was at the same time innovative and nostalgically familiar? The book that immersed you in the experiences and thoughts of its characters, while at the same time giving you something real and tangible that you could relate to on an intellectual level?

This is that book.
I downloaded it sight-unseen, knowing nothing about what it contained, only that the books came recommended by an author I enjoyed and trusted--those kinds of "network recommends" have yet to steer me wrong!
JACQ OF SPADES is no exception.
I loved Bridges. I loved everything about this book: the pacing, the characters, the design of not just the new topography, but the society formed around it. I loved the intrigue and the constant card references; I loved the build-up of suspense, the secrets, the lively peril and marvelous subtle ways Loofburrow dug in against both patriarchy and toxic masculinity that pervaded a Victorian-era society, without ever doing the thing that an author with less tact would do, which I refer to as "force-feeding" the reader with certain ideas, or "beating one over the head" with a certain paradigm. Loofburrow exemplifies in her character Jacqueline just exactly the sort of woman who is not only keenly aware of such social norms, but also of how wrong they are. Statements like "no one ever asked me" and descriptions of subtle microexpressions rather than directly labeling the emotions, as well as observations about her own social limitations paints a sympathetic character, and wins us over when she can use these supposed "restrictions" to her favor.
I loved it all the way to the end, where it left me breathless, pawing at the screen of my device as if that would make more pages appear. The mystery is thick, I'm still guessing--and there is really no telling how it's all going to turn out!

Most definitely, I would rate this book every last one of *****5 STARS*****. In fact, with the level of quality displayed in these pages, I would also add an Upstream Writer Certified HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. If you're a fan of steampunk, Victorian-era detective novels, or you're bored and want a long series full of clever puns and massive amounts of intrigue, I hear The Red Dog Conspiracy series is projected to run for at least thirteen books (one for each card value in a deck, I assume?) so it appears I am happily destined to be a Loofburrow fan for a very long time!

Further Reading: (Steampunk/Great World-Building/Compelling Plot)
-Domechild--Shiv Ramdas
-Warriors of the Edge--Katie Bridges
-The Boy Named Topaz--Jeffrey Gartshore  
The Untamed Series--Madeline Dyer
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way
       -The Truth
       -The Lie
-Sky Knight--Sandra Harvey
Dawn of Steam Trilogy--Jeffrey Cook
      -First Light
      -Gods of The Sun
      -Rising Suns  
Punk Anthologies--Jeffrey Cook et al.
      -Sound & Fury: Shakespeare Goes Punk, Vol. 1
      -Shakespeare Goes Punk, Vol. 2: Once More Unto The Breach
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed
        -I Still Have A Soul
        -I'm Still Alive
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland
     -Dance Into The Wyrd
The Cadeau Series--Connie Olvera
       -Who Can You Trust?