Friday, October 13, 2017

TVB Prologue Poll - Option 2: Ristan Flees


Screams of murder rang in his ears as Ristan ran. They made for an eerie harmony screeching to the rhythm of his pounding feet and his hammering heart: thum-thum-thum.

Thirteen more seconds of sprint speed. Then my body slows from sprint to running speed.

“Traitor!” his pursuer’s voices howled at his heels. They echoed the cry of his own heart: You left her behind. You left her to die.

“Traitorrr!”

Four more seconds.

Despite running for his life, Ristan’s breathing remained even: deep breath in through the mouth, slow breath out through the nose. As easily as if he were sleeping. Each breath gave him energy to move… and precious seconds to listen, plan, think.

How many? He was dying to know. He would have closed his eyes to better listen, to pinpoint each set of his pursuers’ footfalls like a musician singling out each instrument in an orchestra. But fleeing for his life involved keeping his eyes opened. Any obstacle—from the jagged boulders and blackened tree trunks surrounding to the smallest gnarled root—would be the death of him.

And the death of his people, the Zelméon race.

My people. It was getting harder and harder to remember who he truly was. Why? But he knew why. Running under two different names, living two different lives, would put a toll on anyone’s mind.

He’d had three.

Still, the fact he had to remind himself of his true identity at all sent a chill down his spine. I’m slipping.

“We’re going to kill you slowly, Raen!” the voices nipping at his heels giggled madly, the sound of their voices bouncing off the jagged rocks surrounding him. “We’ll pull off your nails one by one. We’ll watch your blood trickle drop by drop until it’s gone—”

“Ohh, but before we do, you’ll get to watch us have some fun with your wife…”

Mari. He closed his eyes. Please forgive me.

Futile—asking her forgiveness after the fate he’d abandoned her to.

No matter what happens,” he could hear Mari’s voice ringing in his ears. She’d sounded so sure then, so set. “The objective is tantamount. Neither of us matter; only the objective.” She’d fallen silent before adding softly, “It’s why I agreed to the Initiative.”

Shouts bounced from the left and the right. They were trying to flank him. More Vádigón voices joined the choir.

Panic crept up the nape of his neck. Immediately he shut off the emotion.

Only the objective.

His hand slipped over the bump covered by his silk tunic. The objective is tantamount.

Not me. Not my feelings. Not my thoughts. Only the objective matters.

Now, the layout of the land. You studied this for years—centuries. Don’t feel; think.

In his mind’s eye, he pulled out a map like he had so many times for real. These rocks are offshoots of the natural geological formations. And within twenty more meters…

The rocks suddenly fell away as if at his very thought. Suddenly the earth met the sky in a thick horizon line and then… nothing.

The cliff.


Fear again shook his bones. Ristan inhaled deeply, purging it one more time. He knew what he had to do.

He skidded to a halt, staring down at the rock wall at his feet. It was a sheer drop—a wall of jagged stone tumbling so far down he could see no ground below; nothing except a gray mist.

The Vádigón’s angry howls were coming closer.

Ristan waited, feet planted as he counted down.

Forty… thirty-nine… thirty-eight…

“—went this way!”

“We’re coming for you, Traitoooor!”

…Twenty-nine, twenty-eight…

A Vádigón’s face burst out from between the boulders, the same as his yet different colors: purple eyes instead of his brown. Vádigón skin was pale white skin like a cadaver; without his disguise, Ristan’s was tan.

“Found him!” The Vádigón hollered as he slid to a halt ten meters away. He flared his tattered wings—useless for flight, just like Ristan’s own, which he and Mari had cut before they’d begun their mission so many years ago.

Ristan turned to face the Vádigón as more of his angry friends arrived from behind the boulders. Six in all had been able to follow him through the forest and underbrush.

He continued his count. Twenty-one…

The first Vádigón to catch up grinned. He stalked closer, step by step. He didn’t even seem to notice his other five friends.

“There you are...” one of the Vádigóns jeered. “Maybe we’ll have a little fun with you first after all.”

“What to do with a murderous traitor like you?” another spat. Rage burned like embers in his eyes. “The generals were right not to trust you.”

“You should have jumped off the precipice,” a third Vádigón snarled. “Seems only right for a coward like you…”

…Two… one.

Ristan threw himself backwards, over the cliff’s edge.

As he fell, the Vadigons’ shouts of anger and surprise were sucked away by the rush of wind. Ristan kept his eyes forward, his arms tucked close to his body, his legs locked tightly together. Then he unfurled his wings.

His shadow burst to life against the rugged cliff face in front of him as light from his wings lit him up from behind.

Even with them torn, that should slow me just enough… Ristan immediately thrust his arms and feet forward.

His black leather gloves were shredded to ribbons almost immediately. Then pain shrieked through his body as the stone and friction started scraping through the skin on his palms.

As gravity dragged him down the face of the cliff, Ristan clacked the heels of his boots together. The spike in the toe of his boot sprang out. He jabbed his toe into the rock. His body stopped. Rock crumbled and fell away from his body.


Finally, mercifully, the scraping and dragging ceased. He now clung to the cliff face with blood-smeared hands and his metal-toed boots. His tattered wings draped from his shoulders like a torn old cape.

He furled his wings quickly, folding them back so small that they became invisible. Their light disappeared.

Now the pain began to screech through his whole body as his hands protested this insane plan.

He wasn’t done yet.

Ristan glanced below. Two meters down and to his right, currently near his right toe, he could see a crack in the cliff wall. He would hide there for the next few hours, nursing his hands and waiting to ensure the Vádigóns had given up the search for their suicidal quarry or until he heard the shrieking of their bloodthirsty beasts, the Kharai. Even if they figured out his plan, it’d take them hours to climb up or down this cliff face to this crevice to try to pry him out.

A few blessed hours of sleep before he had to resume his run. And he was still unsure what to do with his prize in these conditions.

Ristan released the cliff face with his right hand, feeling the cliff face and all of its filth seeping into his muscles and mingling with his blood. Excruciating pain burned his hands. But it was nothing compared to Vádigón torture. He’d seen plenty of that. Though he had yet to see what someone who tried to assassinate the Vádigón king would endure.

That thought motivated him to work through the pain. Hand over bloody hand, Ristan just barely held on despite the anguishing pain and the slickness of the blood. Finally, mercifully, Ristan managed to lower himself down to the ledge. He wedged himself into the crevice, which was just barely wide enough for him to fit sideways. There was still a portion of his shoulder that jutted out, and he had to keep his knees tucked so close that breathing was uncomfortable.

But he was as safe as he’d get behind enemy lines. Behind enemy lines after he’d finally blown his cover after centuries of serving as a double agent.

Ristan felt sleep fast approaching, and he chuckled. Commander always said I was only picked for this Initiative because I can fall asleep anywhere.

Sleep took him. And Ristan knew nothing until he awoke hours later to the chill of pitch-black evening.

---
Be sure to leave me any feedback, questions, or comments down below! Check back next week to vote for your favorite prologue and enjoy the continuation of Exodus!

Thanks again for all your support!

Photos (in order of appearance):

[Excerpt from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]

Friday, October 6, 2017

TVB Prologue Poll - Option 1: A Bedtime Story (Revised)


I hope Mama can play with me soon, Jaranin thought as he shivered.

He didn’t know why he was shaking; he wasn’t cold. The fire and the soft blankets Mama had made kept Jaranin toasty warm.

Burrowing into his bed of blankets had pushed some of his messy brown hair into his eyes. He brushed it away with a grunt as the lonely wind moaned outside. The breezes rattled the shutters—clackity-clack. Too noisy.

Not like inside; here, everything was quiet. Even the fire burned without a sound.

To his right, Naomi shifted in her seat and sighed. Her bones creaked like her wooden chair.

She’s awake? Grinning, Jaranin threw off his blankets. “Naomi!” he squeaked excitedly. He ran across the wood floor on bare feet: tip-tip-tip-tip. Draping himself across her lap before she could react, Jaranin gazed up at her wrinkly face and her pretty blue eyes. “Naomi, will you tell me a stowy?”

Naomi’s sad frown slowly turned into a smile. “A story?” she whispered as she cupped her hands under his arms and hauled him onto her lap. “Now… what story would a little boy like Jaranin possibly want to hear…?”

“Lexirous!” It took all his strength to keep from shouting, but he matched Naomi’s whisper. “Tell me about Lexirous!” He squirmed.

“Ohhh, of course!” Naomi nodded wisely. “How does that story begin, again?”

It was all part of their game, Jaranin knew. He asked her to tell him this story almost every night. “Once upon a time!”

“Yes, once upon a time…” Naomi smoothed his hair and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “there was a very brave man named Lexirous,” she murmured in a sing-song tone.

Jaranin piped in, “He lived in a city far away!”

“He did indeed.” Naomi rocked him back and forth. “It was an enormous city with marble walls that glowed silver in the moonlight. But the people there did wicked things.”

“Except Lexirous,” Jaranin added.

Naomi nodded. “As wise as he was brave, Lexirous knew the city’s wicked deeds would not go unpunished. He warned the people that a great evil would come to destroy them.

“To fight the evil, Lexirous forged a powerful sword—a blade that could defeat any enemy. In the sweat of his smithy, he poured his very essence into the blade, making it stronger than any other weapon. He called it…”

“The Victor’s Blade,” Jaranin whispered reverently.

“Naomi?” came Mama’s hoarse voice from the next-door room.

Naomi plopped Jaranin on the floor and hobbled toward Mama’s half-open bedroom door.

Mama tried to cry again: “Na—” but she couldn’t finish; she choked, coughing and gasping.

“I’m coming, dear. I’m coming,” Naomi shouted as she slipped into the bedroom, pulling the door mostly-shut behind her.

Jaranin stayed sitting right where Naomi had left him. He could hear Mama talking to Naomi, but they both spoke quietly. Trying to peek through the crack of the door, Jaranin leaned over. He nearly fell over. Still, he couldn’t see their faces; just Mama’s hands pressing a book into Naomi’s lap.

He thought he heard Naomi crying. He jumped up to his feet, swinging an imaginary Victor’s Blade. Don’t cry, Naomi! I’ll protect you from the evil!

But there was no evil to fight. Sighing, Jaranin plunked to his seat.

He couldn’t come any closer; days ago, Naomi had told him it wasn’t safe for him to go into Mama’s room any more. Mama was ill, Naomi had explained.

I wonder what “ill” is. He missed snuggling next to Mama and falling asleep in her warm hugs. Maybe “ill” means sad. Mama and Naomi both seem “ill” all the time.

That made him feel “ill” too.

Toddling over to his bed, Jaranin grabbed a blanket in a big fist. He dragged it over to the fireplace and pulled it over his head.

Now he felt cold.

Naomi won’t finish the story tonight… It made him feel even more sad. But I know the rest!

Jaranin whispered, “An’ just like Lexirous said, evil came to tha city…”

Many years passed. And, just as Lexirous had said, a great evil came to the city.

No matter how hard they tried, no one could defeat the evil. Swords could not pierce him. Shields shattered when he touched them.

Jaranin stared at the fire. It was pretty, but it wasn’t jumping and popping and crackling happily like it did when it was very hot. Now it sat quietly, just like him. He drew his knees to his chest.

With the Victor’s Blade in hand, Lexirous left the city gates to fight. And as he crossed blades with the evil, Lexirous proclaimed:

“I am tha protector of this world!”

I was chosen to fight you. I have forged the blade of your bane. My purpose is blessed. And now I will end you forever.

“For only by my blood will tha Dark be slain…”

Jaranin rested his chin between his kneecaps. Now he was watching the last glowing coal in the fire. It used to be orange. Now it was red. And soon it would be black.

The house creaked softly. The voices in the bedroom had gone quiet.

Jaranin glanced over his shoulder at Mama’s room. Funny; Naomi had closed the door. She never closed the door.

Maybe Mama needed good sleep. I’ll pray that she sleeps good tonight.

Jaranin turned back to the fire. The little coal had gotten very bright. So pretty!

But then it went out. Now it was black, and there was no more light from the fire.

It was so quiet.

---
Be sure to leave me any feedback, questions, or comments in the section down below! Option 2 prologue is coming up next Friday. And on October 20th, come back to vote on your favorite and to continue the thrilling tale of Exodus!

Thanks again for all your support!

Photos (in order of appearance):

[Excerpt from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]

Monday, October 2, 2017

Taking a Break from Exodus - But Please Enjoy Upcoming Excerpts!

Hey everyone!

Fate itself seems to want to leave poor Mara and Ian in limbo. As seems cruelly appropriate given the twists and turns of Mara's story (Exodus), travel plans have forced me to put the project on a two-week hiatus. I want to make sure I have enough time to bring it to a satisfying conclusion.

BUT FEAR NOT! For these next two weeks, you shall not be excerpt-less!

And... I need your help!

For the next two weeks (October 6th and the 13th), I'll be posting the two most recent prologue options for The Victor's Blade. If you read them and think they stink, let me know why in the comments! If they leave you with questions or confusion, comment on that too! Or if you want to brag on why YOUR choice of a prologue is the best option--well, you know what to do!

Then, on October 20th, vote to let your voice be heard! Which prologue is your favorite? Which deserves more love--and which deserves to be forgotten?

Many thanks to everyone who voted in the previous poll about what content you enjoy seeing most on Fiction and Fantasy! I'll be sure to keep your preferences in mind as I create content in the future.

I can't wait to hear all your feedback, and I'm hoping you enjoy reading these upcoming prologues as much as I had fun writing them.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 7 (TVB Universe)

WARNING: The following content may not be suitable for young readers or audiences sensitive to violent content.


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

Mara’s heart stopped.

She latched onto the first thing within reach—Monroe’s arm. She squeezed so hard, her nails dug into his flesh.

But she couldn’t hear him complain. She didn't hear anything; not the horrified shouts of her fellow Caders, not the barking of the soldiers in the gatehouse overhead.

All she could hear was the hissing of Vaerin machinery, like a dragon from fairy-tales, about to burst from the forest behind them.

Monroe didn’t shake her off. He was frozen solid too.

And then, a burning ball of fire tore its way through a tree's crown, arcing over the grassy knoll. Aiming straight for them all.

But Mara was still frozen. No. Please, no. Tears gathered in her eyes. Please don't let it end like this.

More dimly than her dreams, she felt Monroe grab her around the waist. Her body slammed into the gate; suddenly, she was suffocating. She couldn't breathe. She was being crushed.

So this is what it's like to die, Mara thought as she closed her eyes. And we were so close.

Only then did she realize that Monroe was shielding her with his body, pressing her against the gate. And then an overwhelming wave of pressure and heat slammed into her, and she really couldn't breathe.

The Vaerin flames.

White light engulfed her, and she was breathless as well as blind; but it only lasted for a moment. As the light died down, Mara felt like she could breathe again... only to swallow a desperate breath of air tinged with the smell of smoke and burning.

Monroe released her. As if her ears were full of water, she could only vaguely hear Monroe and Ian screaming.

Monroe broke away from her, waving his hands in the air. He was headed for a ring of fire only a three meters away from the gate, a ring of fire that surrounded the blackened crater where the Vaerin fireball had hit.

Don't let the fire get on you!” Monroe was shouting. “Don't let it spread! Drop to the ground or roll against the wall to try to douse it!”

Of course she knew all this. She'd seen people die to the fire. They all had, hadn't they?

Well, now she'd seen one more. As she staggered to follow Monroe, Mara stumbled past a body lying face-down on the dirt. She couldn't even tell who it was.

Three people had caught fire from the attack, and they were all screaming in agony. One crumpled to their knees and was no more. One was rolling against the wall as instructed. The last was the oldest of their group, a silver-haired man they all called Hare. Erik and Allan were desperately trying to beat the fire off him with their shirts; Monroe rushed over to join them.

Run!” Monroe yelled, turning to the rest of the shell-shocked group as they all watched in horror. “Get out of here! If you stay, you die! Save yourselves!” He tore off his shirt and began to try to help douse the flames on poor Hare.

But where can we run? Mara wanted to ask as she took a step forward, toward the heat and the dancing flames left by the Vaerin fireball. Where can we hide from them? There's nowhere. Nowhere...

Ian's shriek shattered her stupor. “MAAAARAAA--”

His wail was cut off by the sound of another thoom and another ominous hisssss.

She almost didn't go down the alley; she could still hear her friends from university behind her, all making fun of her, saying she was going to get mugged in a run-down town like this.

But it's Mara,” she heard one of them comment as she kept nosing down the alley, “so she has to stick her nose into things she has no business investigating.”

She ignored them, because as the group had been walking by, she had seen something halfway down that alley: a little bundle huddled under a ragged cloth and half-buried under a pile of rubbish.

It was a boy, she discovered as she crouched beside the tiny bundle.

He peeked out from under his cloth blanket. His face was striped with dirt and tears. A little boy, and he couldn't be more than three years old.

Where are your parents, little one?” Mara asked as she felt her heart breaking.

Mommy and Daddy are dead now,” he said blankly. His face was a clean slate; emotionless.

Dear Adonai, she thought to herself, does he even know what he's saying?

But then the little boy's eyes hardened: a mixture of anger and then a flood of sorrow and all too much emotion for such a little one. "Vaerin killed them to get aether," the boy explained.

Her heart throbbed from the look in those eyes. “What's your name, little one?”

Ian.” He looked up at her with his big, round eyes. And sorrow finally won over the anger. His eyes welled with tears that spilled over his hollowed-out cheeks. He held his arms out toward her, inviting her. Begging her.

Her friends were right.

She always stuck her nose into things she had no business investigating. And it always got her into trouble.

Mara crouched down, wrapping her arms around him. "I'll be your new mommy, Ian."

Mara staggered at the sound of the blast.

And I won't die. I promise.”

Her eyes hardened with resolve.

She took Ian's little hand, which was slapping her on the shoulder, trying to get her to wake from her stupor. She kissed Ian's tiny palm as her eyes followed the arc of the blinding fireball. It was almost painful to look at. But based on the projectile's trajectory, it would fall short of the gatehouse.

Mara spun on her heel and raced back to the gate, slamming her body and fists against the drawbridge. “Let us in!” she howled like a wounded animal. She didn't care how she sounded. “Let us in! Let us in!” she demanded as she pounded with each word.

The fireball hit, and Mara turned so she was between Ian and the concussive blast, like Monroe had done for her. But the power of the blast alone nearly plastered her to the drawbridge and crushed the boy all at once. Again she was deafened; again she was blinded; again she couldn't breathe from the power of the blast and the wave of heat as the fireball belched up flame that spread like nothing natural she'd ever seen.

How strange... Mara thought as she turned back to the gate, staring up at the gatehouse with tears in her eyes, that the Vaerin should kill us for using magic when they use it to power their war-machines.

Please, open the gate!” Mara bellowed, pounding on the drawbridge again. “Open the gate! Don't let us die!”

Other Caders had joined her, pounding on the gate, weeping and wailing. They were desperate. They were humiliated.

They were being hunted down like animals. And soon they'd be roasted alive.

Please...” Mara begged, throwing one last fist against the wooden drawbridge. But there was no answer, of course. She couldn't even hear the soldiers scrambling and yelling to one another any more. Had they all run away?

Had everyone abandoned them?

Please...” Mara sobbed as she sunk to her knees. “Someone help us...”

She rested her forehead against the drawbridge, lost to her sobbing.

“Adonai...” she whispered.

Had everyone abandoned her?

Toying with that kind of energy is far too dangerous,” came the voice of her Magus.

I just wanted...” she whispered, “to find a world where you could live without fear.”

Suppose your new worlds are real. Suppose the variations in aether levels really are due to aether overflow from one world into another—”

I want to get to other worlds.

Can’t be done.”

You're wrong.

It would take a tremendous amount of energy and an extremely skilled mage. But it can be done. First, identify the area of highest aether concentration—

Mara's eyes shoot open. An area of high aether concentration...

She knew this. She knew the signs. She knew how to find a high aether concentration, even without her instruments.

Why are we in a run-down town like this, anyway?” whined a student. “This place looks beyond help, even for the Cader Royal Mage Academy.”

That's because they were attacked by Vaerin,” another whispered.

We don't know who did this. You can't just assume it was Vaerin,” Mara snapped. And she smacked her whiny classmate. “And don't say that! These people need our help!”

Collecting excess aetherflow. We know,” another classmate sighed. “It's just... don't you feel like these extracurricular 'assignments' are somewhat beneath us by now? Why can't they have lesser schools take care of these situations?”

Because the Cader Royal Academy specializes in training to handle excess aetherflow,” Mara replied. “No one else has classes on it; we're the only ones experienced enough to handle that high a level of aether. It might kill a lesser mage-in-training.”

At least the levels are so strong we don't need our measuring tools,” still another classmate commented. “You can hear it humming.”

She could. And the closer they'd get to the point of the highest aether concentration, the more she'd be able to feel it tingling her skin.

But as her classmates continued to talk about the assignment, a little motion in the dark alley caught her eye...

Mara looked up through her tears. And for a while, she can't believe it. It must be an illusion.

Caders shouted and wept all around her. More had caught fire. More tried to douse the flames. Monroe yelled for them to wake up and run.

Ian had his arms wrapped around her neck. “Mara...” he whispered. “Mara, please wake up... We have to go, Mara...” he sobbed.

Her hands shook. Her skin was tingling.

“We're on the border of Torien,” she whispered. “The Vaerin haven't been through here with their war machines yet.”

They haven't been taking the aether away from this area.

And even over all the noise, she could hear it: the dull, low hum of a high aether concentration.

Mara clapped her hands on Ian's arms. Squeezed them gently. “We're getting out of here,” Mara announced. And then, as she struggled to her feet, she said louder, “We're getting out of here!” to all the Caders. Those not dousing flames looked up at her.

Follow me!” She barked, charging down the line of wall away from the way they'd come, away from the gatehouse.

Follow me.

We're leaving.


---
Previous (Part 6) ----- Next (Coming Soon!)

Can't wait for next week's entry? Check out the story from Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photo by Alessio Rinella; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

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.

---

Can't wait for next week's entry? Check out the story from Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photo by Ales Krivec; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

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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Photo by Jez Timms; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Friday, September 8, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 4 (TVB Universe)



“What do you mean, Torien closed its borders?” barked one woman as she jumped to her feet. Her blonde hair whipped around her chin; her spittle flecked Mara’s face.

Stoically, Mara flicked spit off her cheek. She’d been expecting such a reaction; she’d responded the same way.

A dozen voices joined the blonde woman’s cry of dismay.

“They can’t do that!”

“Surely that can’t be right.”

“We have to get to the border right away, explain our situation!”

“We’re on the brink of extinction!” the blonde woman shrieked, flinging her arms wide.

“Calm down, Saundra!” Monroe lay a hand on the blonde woman’s shoulder.

The blonde, Saundra, swatted his arm away. “We have small children!” Here she pointed to Ian, who thankfully was too terrified by the raised voices to be paying attention. His face was permanently buried in Mara’s shirt, wrinkling the fabric as he clenched it with sweating fists.

“They couldn’t possibly turn away a half-orphaned boy!” Saundra insisted.

Mara felt her blood boil immediately. Leaping up, she stood toe-to-toe with the other woman. “Don’t call him an orphan!” Mara snapped, pinning Saundra down with a glare.

“Oh, now you care about stragglers?!” shouted a man across the table from Saundra: a lanky man with tangled red hair and auburn stubble. He leaned forward, his chest only a few centimeters above the burning candle on the table, to shout in Saundra’s face, “If you’d had your way, we would have left hours ago. You wouldn’t have any ‘children’ to hide behind at all!”

I care about our survival, Alan!” Saundra clapped her hand to her chest.

“My family could still be out there!” The man protested. “How would you feel if—”

“And my family was executed! Because in case you’ve forgotten, I’m not a Vaerin murderer!” Saundra slammed her palms on the table. The candle trembled. Hot wax splashed down the candlestick and its brass holder.

Monroe set his arms between the two of them. “Both of you—”

Tears glistened in Saundra’s eyes; her gaze bored into Alan. “Their sacrifices mean nothing if we all get killed waiting. We had no way of knowing more Caders would show up while we were talking, so don’t pretend like you’re some all-seeing prophet or that your loved ones matter more than anyone else’s!” She reached out, grabbing a fistful of Alan’s dirt-smeared tunic—and knocking over the candle in the process. The flame began to lick the wooden table.

Shouts, scrambling, panicked cries of “The fire!” “Snuff it out!”

Monroe juggled the candle upright, hissing at the hot wax.

“Monroe!” Alan cried. “Are you all right?” Several others echoed the question. Saundra stared at Monroe’s singed fingers in horror.

Monroe clenched his hand before giving both Saundra and Alan a gentle shove. “Sit. Down.”

As Alan and Saundra stumbled backward into the Caders behind them, the room went silent. Every eye locked onto Monroe.

Massaging his forehead with his good hand, Monroe sighed. “Mara, where did you hear about Torien closing its borders? Many of us have been hiding here for the past few days.”

Mara glanced around the room. Monroe’s jaw squared with tension. Alan’s blue eyes cut into Saundra like a knife. The blonde didn’t notice; Saundra refused to meet Alan’s gaze, instead glancing from Ian to Mara and back.

Mara caught Saundra’s stare for a second. Then the blonde diverted her eyes… back to Ian.

I pity you, Mara thought, but I don’t trust you.

Deliberately, Mara bent down and picked the boy up, pretending she couldn’t feel Saundra’s stare burning into her skin. As Mara cradled Ian against her shoulder, she shot a wordless glare at Saundra. But there were others around the room who were eying Ian with the same starved look. Under the weight of Mara’s stare, each one of them glanced away.

So you’ll use a boy, but you can’t stand a woman’s gaze. Mara felt her stomach wrench. My brave countrymen.

“I read the statement on a public notice,” Mara finally answered Monroe’s question. “Nailed to the wall of a guardhouse, on the way to the second safehouse.”

“And that was three days ago?”

“Yes.”

A few sharp intakes of breath.

Mara hesitated to say more. Should I? Despite the wolves’ looks, they didn’t deserve an additional blow any more than she had. But the notice had seared into her mind; its words almost came of their own volition: “‘The country of Torien does not condone the acts of violence committed against the Cader people,’” Mara recited, “‘but neither will it interfere in matters of Cadrean politics.’”

Insanity. It made her feel sick all over again.

The shack stood utterly silent. Mara watched her fellow Caders: brows wrinkling in anguish or in dark, quiet rage. No secrets here; they were all thinking the same thing she had been three days ago: Torien’s washing their hands of the matter.


That, and—They’re just as guilty as the executioners.

Sobs began to echo around the room.

Mara could handle seeing their anger, their hatred, the disgust and rage. But to hear the others sob over the news… Mara had to turn away; her heart throbbed with fresh fear. Suddenly it was real all over again. This whole farce.

Mara crumpled to the floor. And when Ian crawled into her lap, whispering if she was all right, she just blindly clutched him to her shoulder.

“So what do we do now?” asked one feeble voice across the room.

What, indeed?

“But… you’re from Rhodan,” piped in the adolescent girl who had spoken earlier. “Aren’t you… a mage?”

Apparently Monroe wasn’t the only one who could turn heads. All eyes locked onto Mara.

Why are you looking at me like that? She nearly demanded. You really think one single mage would make a difference?

“No,” Mara replied flatly. “I’m not.”

Several shoulders drooped, the Caders deflating as they released pent-up breath.

The girl protested. “But Rhodan has—”

“—One of the highest rates of licensed mages per capita, yes,” Mara snipped off the end of the girl’s hopeful statement. “But I’m not a licensed mage.” And anyone un-licensed, who doesn’t have the appropriate schooling, would never be skilled enough in magic to be any help here. But she didn’t bother adding that; everyone here already knew.

Still, Mara could feel gazes burning her skull. Judging from some looks… they didn’t all believe her.

I guess I can’t blame them. Have to hold onto some hope. Or strangle some scapegoat. She sighed. “I was enrolled at the Cader Royal Mage Academy,” she confessed. “But before I could graduate, I was… forced to leave.” Mara shifted Ian in her arms, glancing at him self-consciously.

Everyone’s gazes rolled from her to the boy. There were a few understanding nods in the crowd. But everyone looked crestfallen.

“Adonai help us,” someone whispered.

“Adonai?” the man with sad eyes muttered. He was still sitting against the far wall, and now he offered a half-hearted, half-sane laugh. “You mean the one who’s letting Vaerin slaughter people in the name of their god? Who’s content to watch children be burned to death just because they were born Caders?” His cold eyes stared ahead, lifeless even if they weren’t actually blind. “If that’s Adonai, he can die too, for all I care.”

Mara’s jaw dropped. Pain squeezed her throat shut.

“As if he were ever ‘alive’ to begin with,” grumbled a pale young man. “This god nonsense is what caused the war in the first place.”

Others started babbling, arguing immediately. Monroe had to step in again, separating Caders before they turned on each other.

“We’re all tired,” Monroe murmured, barely keeping his voice low and even. “Let’s all find a spot to rest. Alan and I can take first watch.”

The direction was easy for Ian; he was already dozing from sheer exhaustion in her lap. For Mara, however, it was a tall order. She set her head against the wall in the corner of the shack, sitting upright because there wasn’t nearly enough room for everyone to lay down.

Even without the uncomfortable position, the little sounds of a dozen strangers, and the terror of death, her heart hurt far too much for sleep.

But what hurts worse? The thought whirled as she heard someone snuff out the candle.

What hurts worse, Mara—the fact that someone would say all that about Adonai…

…or that you’re thinking the same thing?

Mara reached out in the darkness, wrapping her arms around Ian and cuddling him to her chest.

She needed something, anything, to cover up the hole in her heart. I’m hemorrhaging.

Where are you? she wondered while the thick air slowly suffocated her.

Are you even there?

The long hours ticked away. But her ache remained, because of course there was no answer. No audible voice whispered to her in the darkness; no hand of God arrived to etch his presence on the shack wall.

Mara felt tears well against her shut eyelids, and she was too tired to fight them off any longer. Where are you? Her emotions rolled back and forth; her mind tipped. Her world was capsizing in the middle of the storm. Where are you? Where are you?

They were the last words Mara remembered before she mercifully fell asleep.

---

Want more? For a different take on this story, check out the microfiction from Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photo by David Monje; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Update: Broken Photo Links - and Incoming Fixes!

Breakups are hard. Especially when you're breaking up with a lousy photo uploading service.

Unfortunately, the old photo uploading site I began using at the start of this blog has apparently undergone some less-than-desirable questions, resulting in lots of broken links. Many apologies to anyone trying to read some of the old posts only to see some big old ugly "PHOTO UNAVAILABLE" messages.

I've been able to reupload most of the photos (only had to replace one so far), but many of the 2016 posts from March onward seem to have broken images.

I'll be doing my best to fix these throughout the week.

If you happen to see any broken image links, please let me know in a comment and I'll get right on it!

In other news, look forward to the next installment of Mara's story this Friday!

From Him, To Him

Friday, September 1, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 3 (TVB Universe)

We made it. Mara felt warm tears of relief trickle down her cheeks. There sat the safehouse, barely more than a wood shack under the crown of an enormous oak.

But fear scorched away Mara’s tears of relief. Voices were coming from the dimly-lit shack.

The past two safehouses had been completely empty. She’d assumed she and Ian were some of the last Caders left; that only they’d learned about both the houses and the oncoming Vaerin massacres in time.

Had she been wrong? Were these other survivors… or were they Vaerin, waiting in an abandoned house to spring their trap?

As her whole body ached and her throat burned, Mara wasn’t sure which she dared hope.

She set Ian down in a bush—one of the few green ones left. The forest fires hadn’t touched this area yet. No need to hush the boy; he knew what to do. He settled under the bush’s thin branches and remained still.

Then Mara crept toward the safehouse.

It had one single window on the side, which she avoided at all costs; no need for Vaerin to get a quick peek at a helpless Cader crouched just outside their house. Instead, she skirted the shack and made her way to the back wall, where she knelt and pressed her ear against the wood siding.

The voices inside were soft and they were many, but she could make out every few words.

“—all agreed… dangerous to stay here.”

“No, we’re most certainly… could be mor—”

“—can’t stay for the sake of a few…”

A man’s baritone voice interrupted them all: “Enough.”

That one word extinguished all the other voices.

A sigh. Then the baritone continued, “We could spend all night arguing around this. We already know from Erik’s report that the fires are spreading. Saundra’s right; we can’t risk everyone here for the sake of a few more who may or may not be out there.”

Someone started to protest, but the baritone voice cut them off, “Believe me, Alan, no one wants to stay more than me.” He paused. “You’re not the only one who’s hoping their family escaped the executions.”

Caders. Relief flooded Mara’s chest. She relished the emotion as if it were a cool drink. Survivors.

She raced back to the bush, rummaging around to fish out Ian. Her hands were shaking as she grabbed the boy. And, hopefully, friends.

Behind her, she heard the shack door swing open; it slammed against the wooden wall. “Don’t move!” shouted the baritone voice.

Mara whirled, Ian already in her arms.

“I said don’t move!” the baritone voice repeated from the doorway of the shack. The voice still had no face; all she could see was his silhouette blocking the doorway, his body backlit by wan candlelight from the shack.

This time, Mara obeyed.

Four long-legged strides took the man to the bushes, where Mara stood frozen. The mysterious man was tall and slender, but any further details were impossible to make out in the night.

The man paused before stretching an unthreatening palm toward her. His voice became far more soft, understanding. Perhaps even a little embarrassed and relieved. “Forgive us; we thought you were Vaerin.” Then he gestured to the shack. “There’s not much room left, but please, join us. You must be exhausted.”

“I’ve been running for twelve days,” she croaked wryly. She hardly recognized her hoarse, scratchy voice. “I guess ‘exhausted’ is one way to put it.”

She thought she could see the man smile. He held out his hand again. “My name is Monroe.”

Mara clasped his wrist, and he took hers; the customary greeting for Caders, but she wasn’t about to put Ian down to do it. Not on her life. Although holding a five-year-old in one arm and clutching someone’s wrist with the other was no easy task.

“Mara,” she finally bit off.

“Welcome aboard, Mara,” Monroe said gently.

She’d been wrong to be so curt with him. I have no idea what he’s lost to get to this place.

But it was too late to apologize now. Monroe was already leading her into the shack; he ducked inside ahead of her. The whole place was only lit by a single pale candle, but it still took Mara’s eyes a few seconds to adjust to the new light.

“She’s one of us,” Monroe reassured the shack’s inhabitants as her eyes finally took in the scene.

Twelve sets of hollow eyes—thirteen counting Monroe—stared back at her from faces across the spectrum of skin tones and facial features that the Caders were so well-known for: lily whites and olive golds and sunkissed tans and deep browns; broad or thin noses, wide eyes or almond-shaped, thin lips or luscious ones. Monroe himself had creamy light-brown skin, a shock of ebony curls, and a trimmed beard that framed his high cheekbones and tall, noble face.

“Looks like Alan was right to vote we wait,” muttered a woman with brown tresses who was sitting near the back of the room.

No one disputed it, but tension hung thick as wet leather. Some of those eyes felt like they were singeing Mara worse than the flames.

Mara felt her way along a wall until she collapsed in a heap, Ian in her lap. Shifting uncomfortably, she let the boy free; but Ian only cuddled closer and looped his arms around her neck.

She’d come to expect a similar scalding look from the few Vaerin travelers she’d encountered. She’d even become used to those stares from her fellow Caders once they’d seen her “child” or The Magus.

But to get those looks now, in the middle of a war? Yes, they were two more burdens, two more mouths to feed. But they were also two more survivors. Didn’t that mean something when their people were being exterminated?

Not friends after all. Mara hugged Ian to her chest.

“Everyone,” Monroe began in a soft voice, “this is Mara and…”

If he’d been waiting to see if the boy wanted to introduce himself, he was disappointed. The little one miserably buried his face in Mara’s shoulder.

“And Ian,” Mara finished briskly. “We came from Rhodan Village.”

“Rhodan? They have a lot of powerful mages there, don’t they?” an adolescent girl whispered, incredulous. “Especially for a little town.”

“I heard that was one of the worst,” murmured a short man with sad, dark eyes.

Ian whimpered, and Mara clutched him tighter. “Please,” she said quietly, but it may as well have been an order.

A warning.

And they all seemed to notice. Mara could almost feel the other Caders take a sharp breath at the tone of her voice, at the threatening knife’s edge just barely hidden under her word.

“We still have more to discuss,” Monroe cut in. The tension slackened at the sound of his voice, but not by much. Monroe glanced to Mara, gesturing around the room. “We were just working out our plans for moving forward.”

He paused uncomfortably. Someone coughed near the back of the shack. Nobody deigned explanation.

So. It was up to her to take the bait. Mara cleared her sore throat. “…Which is?” she asked, staring blankly at Monroe.

Monroe continued, but he hardly answered her question. “The safehouses were set up in a southerly direction,” he began.

Mara struggled to withhold her irritation. That was useless information; The Magus had explained as much when he’d snatched her and Ian out of bed, whispering that they needed to run. Now. That the Vaerin invaders weren’t showing mercy to the towns that surrendered to them. That they were gathering up any magic-users, licensed mages and untrained amateurs alike.

Tears crept into Mara’s eyes. She pretended they weren’t there.

“They were designed as a pathway of sorts,” Monroe continued, “a path to the border.” He rapped his knuckles on the shack’s only furniture: a small round table that held the lonely candle. “The goal was to guide any survivors into the neighboring country of Torien.

“Once we cross the border, we’ll be refugees. The Torien government should provide us safety from the Vaerin.”

Safety. The Magus’s words rang like iron in her ears: “You just have to make it to Torien. The border’s two weeks from here if you take it slow,” he’d said as he’d pressed a kiss to her forehead.

It’d all sounded so hopeful. So tempting. Up until this very point, she’d thought that if they could just make it to the last few safehouses, if she could just get Ian away from the frontlines, they’d be all right. They’d hunker down; they’d hide; they’d be safe.

But now that she was here, looking around the shack full of faces… Mara’s heart sank. So he sent us to our deaths, after all.

But The Magus hadn’t known. How could he have known things would turn out like this?

“Your plan has one fatal flaw,” Mara murmured, nervously running her fingers through Ian’s downy hair.

Silence. No one disputed her. Maybe some of them already knew. Maybe they’d already heard while on the run, like she had.

Either way, it had to be said.

With a sharp breath, Mara blurted out, “Torien issued a statement three days ago. They’ve closed their borders. They’re not letting anyone in or out.

“They’ve abandoned us.”

---

Want more? Check out the microfiction based on Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photo: Twisted Words by Jack Cain; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Update: Delayed Post!

Hey all! It's been a busy week in the life of me between finding some new jobs and undergoing two straight days of training Monday and Tuesday. As such, I didn't get a chance to check up on the blog until today--only to find, to my dismay, that I'd never posted last week's excerpt!

Apologies for the late post. You should be able to see it up now.

I'll still be posting the third installment as usual two days from now (this Friday). Let me know what you think of the story so far, or if you have any questions or suggestions for how to make it even better!

From Him, to Him

Friday, August 25, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 2 (TVB Universe)


Why? What earned us this much violence?

A plume of fire burst through the black smoke at Mara’s left elbow. Close. Too close. Keep running, Mara.

She and Ian had made it to two safehouses so far. But each time they’d arrived at one, flames had crept upon the house within hours. Mara had no idea if the Vaerin knew her location and were aiming their flame-spewing war machines to trap her or if the bone-dry forest was doing all their work for them.

Either way, it was too dangerous to stay still and hide. But it was also dangerous to run.

Still, she’d chosen the latter. At least she’d dictate when she died rather than wait to be burned alive.

They could have just taken our land, she thought as she shifted Ian higher on her back to relieve her cramping muscles. She pursed her lips, fighting back tears of terror and rage. But that’s not enough for them. They have to see us all burn, too.

Her lungs were searing, as hot as the forest fire she was just barely keeping ahead of. Her chest ached with every cough and her singed skin screamed with every step. It was getting hard just to keep one footstep pounding in front of the last.

Thud. Thud-thud. Thud.

From her back, Ian screamed a warning before she even felt a new gout of flame that reared just ahead. Mara’s hole-pocked boots skidded on the dry, dusty earth as she ground to a halt. Staring into the dancing yellow flames, Mara felt her horrified heart miss a beat. Had Ian warned her a split second later, they would both be falling headlong into the fire.

Mara spun on her heel.

If only there were aether here. If only I could manipulate these fires.

But there was no more aether. The Vaerin conquerors had drained it all just before they’d begun marching onto the Caders’ land.

They’re using our aether against us. The irony had never slipped her mind. The Vaerin are using the source of my people’s magic to exterminate us.

Mara felt the oppressive heat pulsing behind her. Flames arced roughly east on her right and north from behind, from the direction she and Ian had come. There was only one gap in the flames to her left side, to the west. But that was likely where the attacks were coming from.

Which way?

Ian whined another warning. The new flames from behind must have been licking against his skin: she could smell freshly-singeing hair.

“Hold on, Ian!” Mara cried. She tilted, turned, and staggered west, bent double from the heavy load of the five-year-old boy on her back.

Her only hope was that the southern fire ended before she encountered the Vaerin fighters. She could go around the new line of flames and continue south.

South, the direction of the next safehouse. South, the promise of relief from this burning smoke that was killing her lungs.

South, just out of reach. Mara ran parallel to the southern line of fire, but it stretched on as far as she could see.

She wove between the blackened trees. Years ago, she’d seen a tree struck by lightning that’d looked much like these. But that’d been one single tree; this was an entire forest of charred trunks and stumps.

“Mara…” Ian mumbled pitifully. He coughed twice. Then he released her arm to try and cover a third cough. “How much longer?”

Mara dared a glance over her shoulder. Ian’s blue eyes shone out of a pool of ash-smeared skin. Two tear streaks and a trail of mucus made lines down his face to the corners of his mouth. She wondered if she looked as filthy as him.

Was this all they were? Two soot-blackened specters racing between pillars of charred bark?

“Fifteen more minutes. Hold on a little longer,” she urged, though really she had no idea how much longer. She’d lost her sense of time shortly after The Magus had sent them away. He’d hoped to keep them ahead of the Vaerin attack.

Only a quick glance to her left told her that the line of flame was not letting up in fifteen minutes.
Ian coughed violently against her shoulder.

“Please, Adonai—” Mara found herself breathing a prayer to a God she hadn’t believed in for two weeks—not since the Vaerin first began to round up her fellow Caders for routine executions. Please, Adonai. Do what you want with me, but get Ian to the next safehouse. Her eyes flooded with tears.

What makes him so special? slammed the thought against the walls of her mind. Why would this little boy on your back matter to an unmoving God? What makes him any more special than the corpses you saw the Vaerin parade through the city square as they proclaimed they were our new masters?

“Please, Adonai,” Mara breathed again. I’ve believed in you this long… Surely it couldn’t be for nothing? “You’re our only hope of getting out of this alive—”

A sharp crack pierced the forest, followed by an ominous creeeeeak. Mara whipped to face the sound and saw its source immediately: a tree to her left had taken too much damage from the southern fires. It was tumbling toward her.

Mara and Ian both shrieked. She threw herself backward, trying to cover Ian’s head with one arm.

The smile of her mother. The Magus’s deep voice, his lips brushing against her own as he told her to run.

The taste of his tears. It all flashed through her mind faster than it a gasp.

Mara’s back hit the hard ground. The tree landed with a boom that shook her core.

As she relaxed her grip on Ian’s little body, Mara pried her eyes open. She and Ian were unhurt. Propping herself up on an elbow, she took in the scene, eyes wide with disbelief.

Twigs scraped against her trousers. The bulk of the tree’s nearest limb lay maybe a few centimeters away from her feet. But they were untouched; just a few loose blackened twigs decorated Ian’s hair. She resisted a matronly urge to pluck them out.

But Mara had also noticed something even more important: the tree trunk had stamped out a section of the southern flames, forming a bridge just wide enough to safely cross.

As she scrambled to her feet, fresh tears leapt into her eyes. Thank you.

“Fourteen more minutes?” Ian asked as he clamped his arms around her neck from behind.

Mechanically, Mara looped her arms under his legs and hoisted him back up. She nodded, blinking the tears and stinging smoke away. “Fourteen more. Keep your head in my shirt as much as you can, Ian.”

She felt his head waggle in a nod against her back as she clambered onto the log and edged her way across.

Flames burned angrily on either side. She kept her arms out for balance, forcing herself not to imagine falling in and Ian burning.

The flames’ heat licked at the sweat coating her palms and arms. She felt like she had to hold her breath, but that would only make her dizzy. She kept breathing.

Mara’s feet hit the dirt on the opposite side. A peek backward revealed the yellow fire was already starting to lick up the fallen trunk.

“Thirteen,” Ian murmured.

Mara forced a grin through her tears. She pressed a kiss to one of his little hands. “Let’s see if we can make it ten.”

Was that you? Was it really you, even after everything that’s happened?

Are you really there?


There was no reply; only the flames crackled.

As her legs shook with terror and gratitude, Mara staggered onward, heading south.

---

Want more? For a different take on this story, check out the microfiction from Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre
 
Photo: The chimney [sic] by Ricardo Gomez Angel; originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Friday, August 18, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 1 (TVB Universe)

Mara's feet pounded the ground in an uneven drum beat. Ba-thump. Ba-thud-thum-thump. Thud-thud. She staggered downhill, over the pock-marked earth that had once been covered in grass. The first of the fires had killed anything green days ago.

Another hacking cough rattled her body. The collar of her shirt did nothing to block out the hot black smoke that burned her nostrils.

She couldn't see a meter in front of her, and it wasn't due to her long honey-yellow hair flying in her eyes as she ran. Mara pitched through a dark tunnel of smoke. Whenever she'd hear the tell-tale crackle of flames to her right, she'd veer left. When she'd feel the heat of hunting fires off to her left, she'd veer right. Nothing but another fox on the Vaerin's hunt.

She could only stay ahead of the fires for so long. The Vaerin may not be able to see her, but she couldn't see them either. Sooner or later, they'd hem her in with the forest fires they were so fond of. And then they'll have another two Cader corpses to decorate the city square.

The five-year old boy clinging to her back whimpered. Ian buried his face into the nape of her neck, as if he could hear her thoughts.

"Shh," Mara whispered, but her shushing was choked off by another coughing fit. If only she could get out of this smoke! "Almost to the next safehouse."

Ian's arms dug into her neck, a feeble squeeze in reply.

Orange tongues of flame erupted behind her. As the percussive force of the heat shoved her, Mara's legs buckled and she tumbled forward.

Ian! was all she had time to think before she was rolling, rolling down the rest of the hill--her head slamming repeatedly against the dirt.

Her body ground to a halt at the base of the hill. "Ian!" She risked a shout as she struggled to her hands and knees. But no, she was too dizzy to rise; her head still spun.

"Mara!" His little voice warbled just within arm's reach. Crawling over, Ian slid his little hands beneath her arms, trying to pluck her up off the dirt.

The dizziness cleared enough for her to stagger to her feet. Their hands found each other despite the smoky haze.

"Up, up, up!" Mara hissed as Ian climbed onto her back. She looped her arms under the crook of his knees. With a grunt, Mara struggled to rise from her crouch. But she was too tired, he was too heavy, and she stumbled a pace before crouching back down.

Tears blurred her vision. Hopeless. Helpless. Her legs trembled beneath her. Her chest burned with smoke, stung with exertion. It all threatened to choke her along with the smoke and ash.

And, perhaps worse, the moment of weakness brought an unbidden flash of memory:

The boy's face was striped with dirt and tears. "Mommy and Daddy are dead now." His eyes hardened, impossibly perceptive and impossibly adult. "Vaerin killed them to get aether."

She crouched down, wrapping her arms around him. "I'll be your new mommy, Ian. And I won't die."

Those last words echoed like a refrain: I won't die. I won't die.

Then they crystallized into a vow.

I won't die.

Mara growled. Forcing herself to her feet, she hoisted Ian higher on her back and then resumed her off-balance pace.

Keep moving. Don't you dare stop.

Because if you stop before the safehouse, we both die.


---
Next
 
Want more? For a different take on this story, check out the microfiction from Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photo by Henry Be; originally posted on Unsplash.com.


From Him, To Him