Friday, September 22, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 6 (TVB Universe)

For three long, filthy, terrifying days they had crawled through thorn and thistle and clawing limbs. They'd waded through ash and leaf and loam and mopped away sweat and tears.

Today was another day of scuttling through shrubbery, concealed under tree limbs and the dim light of early morning. But today, at least, there were green leaves on the trees. A good sign; no Vaerin had rampaged through this part of the forest yet.

Trying to sneak a group of fifteen through a forest, however, had been even harder than it had sounded. The Caders trailed in a long line, and while some of them had light footfalls… others didn’t. The poorest attempts at stealth only made the group argue more each day, and marching by night didn’t help matters, either. Every stubbed toe or stumble into tree branches elicited someone cursing and someone else shushing and still a third hissing for everyone to be quiet.

Each instance made Mara freeze with terror. They’ll find us. They’ll find us for sure.

But they never did. The Caders must have finally made their way far enough from the Vaerin frontlines.

Despite the arguments and lack of sneaking skills, the group had overall been helpful. Two of the men, Erik and Alan, had actually helped her make a sling out of an old outer tunic so she could carry Ian on her back without using her arms.

And Monroe in particular was a gift from Adonai himself. He led the group with more patience than Mara had in one finger. She couldn’t imagine trying to corral this bunch of misfits.

Monroe pushed a tree branch out of his eyes with his bandaged hand. He glanced over his shoulder, nodding ahead to Mara. “We’re here.”

Mara crawled up to his side in a half-crouch.

Behind her, sitting happily in the sling, Ian gasped. “They’re so tall!” he pointed through a gap in the tree branches to the sight ahead.

Beyond the edge of the forest was a wide expanse of cleared-away grass that led to towering stone walls covered in parapets and fluttering banners. A flock of birds sailed overhead before disappearing beyond the wall.

The Torien border. Mara allowed herself a moment of relief. We made it.

Still, as she stared ahead at the grassy plain between them and the walls, her anxiety returned with a vengeance. No cover. Nowhere to hide. She may not have seen any fire or smoke for three whole days, but Vaerin flames tended to flare up when least expected.

She'd had plenty of experience.

Glancing to Mara, Monroe twirled his hand in a circle overhead and then pointed forward. Then he crawled ahead, creeping out from under the cover of the forest.

Mara turned, but—“I wanna do it!” Ian hissed.

Her nerves felt strung to the breaking point, but Ian’s small request made her chuckle. “All right, Ian. Relay the signal down the line.”

Ian eagerly mimicked Monroe’s gesture.

Someone shifted, revealing their hiding place behind a tree trunk a few paces back. It was the young girl, whose name Mara had learned was Kitti.

Kitti nodded and turned, passing the signal to the person behind her.

They’d all picked up the signals rather quickly; another show of competency that had impressed Mara. As Mara followed Monroe into the empty plain, she wondered whether Monroe had learned those hand signals from his life before the Vaerin attack or if he’d made them up out of necessity.

One by one, the line of Caders snaked down the valley toward the base of the wall. The ominous wall frowned at the group, casting a deep shadow across them as they slinked along its length. It seemed to stretch in either direction as far as Mara could see. How long would it take to walk its length? Weeks? Months?

Fortunately, there’d be no walking its entire length today; Mara could see a great stone gate about a mile down the wall. And what was another mile of walking after two weeks of living nightmares?

Still… they were exposed, strung out in a line in this wide-open area. Each step raised her worry. And worry soon became dread as they trudged past brick by brick, stone by stone. On and on and on they walked, yet their destination never seemed to get any closer.

Mara glanced up at the parapets high atop the walls. She couldn’t see anyone there, but she knew that any ranged soldiers stationed here could see them perfectly. As could anyone from the forest they’d left behind. Mara shuddered.

She felt a small hand patting her shoulder. “We’re almost there, Mara!” Ian whispered.

Mara forced herself to smile.

After an agonizing half-hour of trudging past stone, they finally reached the gate. The drawbridge was drawn over a portcullis that was four times higher than Mara’s head.

“Who goes there?” came a nasally tone from the gatehouse directly overhead. Again, a glance upward revealed nothing; no faces, no people. There was just the gatehouse, a lifeless box of stone and lacquered wood that sat above the drawbridge.

Monroe immediately stepped forward. “My name is Monroe of Curtabelle,” he shouted up to the gatehouse with as much volume as he dared.

I wonder if he feels it, too, Mara wondered. The sensation she felt wasn’t only the dread of standing out in the open. It wasn’t just the fear the Vaerin had cultivated. It was more than that: an uncanny sense they were being watched… and that no one cared.

Monroe cleared his throat. “We’ve traveled across Cadrea, hunted like animals. And if you don’t open this gate, we will die like the rest of our people.”

No reply from the wall.

Mara stepped forward to stand at Monroe’s side. “We have women and children. We’ve been hunted by our shared enemy, the Vaerin—”

“Torien’s borders are closed,” came the nasally, disembodied voice from the gatehouse. “We are not receiving any refugees.”

Monroe frowned. “And we’re not waiting around to die down here!” His normal composure crumbled; he trembled from head to toe. In anger? In fear? With the dark shadow that crossed his face, Mara thought it might be a mix of both.

“Didn’t you hear the girl?” Monroe shouted. “We have women and children down here, all of us innocents. We are no soldiers looking to stir conflict. We're survivors who have braved flame and fear of execution to reach your border. You are our only hope! Turn us away and the Vaerin will have fun killing us in the street for sport.” Monroe thrust a threatening finger up at the gatehouse. Mara couldn’t see anyone in that gate, but she was sure they could see the fire in Monroe’s eyes. “Speak with your Captain,” he growled in a tone that was equal parts threat and order.

“We’re completely exposed here at your gates,” Mara urged. She resisted a glance behind her. She felt her throat constricting with each second they wasted here. This was their only chance. If Torien really wouldn’t let them in… there was nowhere left to go. Where could they hide that the Vaerin wouldn’t eventually find? Even that seemingly-peaceful forest behind them could be swarming with Vaerin right now. It was too peaceful. Too quiet. “The Vaerin are on our tails. We have no idea how soon they’ll show up. Please, you have to make an exception—”

“I have no power to make any exceptions. If you wish to plead your case against a royal Torien decree, I can have the Captain notified. But you’ll have to wait outside the walls.”

“And how long will that take?” Monroe asked, every shred of even his godly patience threadbare.

“Better part of a day just to notify the Captain’s outpost. And that’s not including the deliberations your request will necessitate.”

“Better part of—” Monroe sputtered. He hammered his fist against the wood. “You cold-blooded murderer!” he barked. “If it were your people on the other side of this overgrown fence, you’d tell them the same thing?”

Mara shoved Monroe aside as she urged, “There’s no enemies in sight yet; if you open the gates now, you can have them shut before they even get here!” she gestured backward to the empty field.

“That is not our concern. We do not allow anyone across the borders. Those are my orders.”

Monroe’s face was glowing with rage. “And would you keep to your orders if this—” he pointed to Ian’s fear-pale face, “were your son? If she—” This time, to Mara, “were your wife? If crazed men were hounding them, men who drooled at the thought of stringing them up in the streets—”

“I understand your duress, sir, but I can only follow proper international protocol. It’s out of my—”

A concussive thoom rumbled in the distance, followed by a telltale hiss from the forest behind.

Mara’s heart stopped.

“Vaeriiiiiiiiiin!” a dozen Cader voices shrieked in agony.

She didn’t need to hear their cry. She didn’t need to see the burning ball of fire arcing from the forest over the plain and toward the wall.

She didn’t need to because she’d known they would come all along. She’d known how this story would end the moment The Magus had told her to run.

Previous (Part 5) ----- Next (Coming Soon!)

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From Him, To Him

Friday, September 15, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 5 (TVB Universe)

“You’re daydreaming again.”

It’s a man’s voice. Familiar. Warm and playful. Fun and teasing.

Mara lifts her head, shielding her eyes from the rays of sunshine that stream in through the tower window. She turns to see her visitor.

It’s him!

Her heart skips, but she tries not to show it. She coolly smooths over the mess of papers scattered across her desk and pretends not to notice he’s arrived.

The man pauses behind her chair, grinning under his neatly-trimmed beard. He takes a thoughtful bite out of the yellow apple in his hand. “Studying hard, I see.”

Mara laughs. It’s a tinkling sound like the wind-catcher hung in her tower window, the one she uses to gauge the position of the stars and measure aether levels. “More than The Magus, at any rate,” she teases.

“I’ll have you know,” he replies without missing a beat, “that I am hard at work ensuring the Cader Royal Mage Academy’s most promising student—” he leans over her chair, poking her nose with his fingertip, “—lives up to her full potential as a future licensed mage.”

Mara flicks the man’s dark brown ponytail out of her face. Smiling demurely, she arcs a brow. “Oh? And who might this promising pupil be, O Magus?”

The Magus smiles back. “Oh, no one in particular. Just the prettiest mage in Cadrea.”

“Only in Cadrea?” Mara scoffs. She turns away in mock displeasure.

“Well, I haven’t traveled outside the country.” He shrugs. “There’s something here that I just can’t leave, you know.” He rests his forehead against hers, staring deeply into her eyes.

“Holds you down like a ball and chain,” Mara smirks.

“The worst sort of prison. You couldn’t even imagine,” he manages to say with a straight face.

Mara giggles. She closes her eyes, tilts her head to one side, and kisses him.

When she pulls away, his eyes are still closed as he savors her kiss. She loves that look on his face: stunned and delighted, as if her kiss were a sweet, hot drink that warmed him down to his toes.

It takes a moment for The Magus to recover. But he manages. “So!” he pipes up as his eyes snap open. “What are you working on, Love?” He rests his chin on her shoulder while gazing at the flood of papers and books on her desk.

Mara twirls her index finger in his ponytail. “Mmm.” She frowns. “Still working on my thesis.”

“You mean the paper about portals?” The Magus pulls away to plop himself on the least-messy corner of her desk. First he tosses his mostly-eaten apple over his shoulder and out the tower window. Then his attention turns to her notes. Plucking a stack off the desk, he begins to peruse. It isn’t long before his eyebrows rise. “You’ve certainly been doing your homework.” He glances up from the sheets. “And all this on hypotheticals.”

“It’s not as hypothetical as you’d think!” Mara grins, picking up one of her main sources, a book so heavy she could hardly hold it in one hand. “Concurrent universes—that is, other worlds—were all but proven by Magus Devaro and Magus Philial’s works in astronomy and quantum mechanics.” She sets the book down and reaches for another. “And when you factor in Oboros’s mathematical calculations—”

Tossing the stack of notes back onto the desk, The Magus raises his hands in surrender. “You’ve convinced me. You really do believe there's other worlds out there.” He winks.

But she hardly notices his playful banter; she’s already getting lost in her research. “And not just different versions of our world like many have suggested,” Mara murmurs as she picks up the stack of notes so she can review them for the three hundredth time. Contemplating, she taps her lips. “But other unique worlds, just as real as our own. New peoples, new histories, all separated by the thinnest of veils—”

“—The aether,” they finish in unison.

Glancing out the window, The Magus crosses his arms and sighs wistfully. “Doesn’t sound so bad, leaving this world and finding yourself in a brand-new one.” He scratches the back of his neck. “No more Academy restrictions tying your hands. No more Vaerin or Cader nonsense.”

Mara’s grin fades. Her gaze follows his out the window, to the blue sky and sunlight outside.

Another world, just out of reach.

“I heard the rumors...” Mara murmurs, resting her hand on his. “That some of your fellows in the Inner Circle are stirring up trouble for you again. That they want to unseat you.

The Magus shrugs. “Can’t please everyone.”

“Can't please everyone?” she repeats, incredulous. “More like can't please those blind-sighted idiots!” Mara slams her fist on the desk.

It must have startled The Magus. He stares at her, surprised. Alarmed.

But she ignores his concerned look. “What’s wrong with a Vaerin being the current Magus?” She demands of no one in particular. “It’s only taken this long because magic isn’t part of the Vaerin culture. That’s no fault of yours, and they know it.” She claps her palm to her chest. “Would they really say I'm so different from you, just because I was born to Cader parents? What does it matter what part of the country we came from?”

The Magus’s smile comes forced this time. He takes her hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. It looks like he appreciates the thought, but… “If only everyone felt that way.”

They both fall silent.

“But back to important matters,” The Magus shifts the subject as easily as he’d slid onto her desk. “Suppose your new worlds are real. Suppose the variations in aether levels really are due to aether overflow from one world into our own—”

Grinning, Mara prods The Magus’s knee. “Now who’s been doing their homework?”

He pouts and rubs his kneecap. “You’re not the only studious one,” he sniffs before continuing, “Now, say all that’s true. Then what you’re really researching is…”

“How to get to those other worlds.” She nods.

But here The Magus shakes his head. “Can’t be done.”

“Of course it can!” Mara leaps from her chair, pointing to a third open book, running her finger along a paragraph she’d underlined. “It would take a tremendous amount of energy and an extremely skilled mage, but in the end, it’s quite simple. First, identify the area of highest aether concentration, and next—”

“It can be done in theory,” The Magus interrupts, also pointing to her underlined passage, “but it’s impractical.” He frowns, like a father scolding his precious child. “And toying with that kind of energy is far too dangerous.”

“More dangerous than using that same energy to shoot fire or manipulate water—like we do every day?” Mara teases.

The Magus rolls his eyes. “Well, now that you mention it, you’re absolutely right: energy levels so high that they’d tear you limb from limb are tame compared to tossing a magic water ball.”

He’s being sarcastic, but he’s no longer joking. He isn’t laughing any more.

Why aren’t you laughing with me?

The world distorts, tinting a shade of blue.

But it is possible. We can go to other worlds. We can get away from here. We can make it to a world where there are no Vaerin or Caders.

We can find a world where no one will ever give you or Ian those looks ever again, my Magus.

Why won’t you go with me?

You just have to make it to Torien,” whispers her Magus, though this time from a different memory. Now he’s not warm and playful; he’s desperate. He’s terrified and barely keeping his fear reined in. He’s whispering breathlessly: “The border’s two weeks from here if you take it slow.”

He’s shoving a map in her shaking hands. “I learned there's a series of safehouses some Caders have set up leading to the border. These are their locations. You’ll be fine as long as you're careful.

I swear, don’t make me plan a trip to the underworld to find you, Mara.”

She knew what came next: his tender lips, pressing into hers.

No. Don’t tell me goodbye. Don’t stay here. Don’t send me away!

She wanted to reach out, grab onto him, pull herself into that kiss until it became a part of her. Maybe then… maybe then he’d never let her go.

Maybe this time he wouldn’t stay behind.

But then she was tasting the salt of his tears, which streamed down his cheeks.

Now run.”

Mara woke herself with a ragged gasp. “Magus, no!”

Her sticking sweat plastered her clothes to her body. Her shirt clung almost as close as the hot, humid air that hung in the dark shack. The suffocating breath of fifteen Caders.

So it’d been the dreams again. The memories. And as always, they’d disappeared like morning mist.

Tears bubbled up, and Mara closed her eyes to hold them at bay. She clapped her hand to her mouth. Stifled a sob.

No one was allowed to see her cry. Not even in the darkness.

Previous (Part 4) ----- Next (Coming Soon!)

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From Him, To Him