The following is a list of the Top 24 final pitches.
Simply click on the title of the manuscript below to view that pitch, or the link to the name of the pitch under the Categories menu!
Agents and Publishers, to vote for your favorites or request a full manuscript, comment on the individual blog with the corresponding title. If you request further materials, please include the email address and a list of materials you would like to see!
Court Sci Fi
By Sir Jared Agard
THE YEAR OF PERFECT SIGHT
By Sir George Anderson
THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS
By Sir Yusuf Baldick
By Sir Myles Christensen
TO KISS THE SKY AGAIN
By Lady Candace Davenport
IDOLS OF PARADISE
By Lady Shianne Edelmayer
THE RED DIVIDE
By Lady Nicole Garcia
By Lady Talynn Lynn
By Sir David Neuner
By Lady Morgan Watchorn
By Sir Trevor Williams
By Lady Diamond Wortham
NO REST FOR THE WICKED
By Lady Phoebe Darqueling
THE GRIMOIRE’S HEIR
By Lady C. Ashwinne
THE HERON KINGS
By Sir Eric Lewis
By Sir Thomas Macolino
PAST STORM AND FIRE
By Lady Christy Nicholas
By Lady Mattea Orr
THE ISLE OF EXILE
By Lady Erin Peters
THE WOLF QUEEN AND THE DRAGON
By Lady Sahar Rahimi
THE BRAVEST OF THEM ALL
By Lady Lorelei Savaryn
THE LILY OF GRACES
By Lady Cristal Thompson
THE DEATH OF CALETTE LANDON
By Lady Bree Wernicke
SHATTER THE SHIELD
By Lady Latrice Willis
Three destroyed outer planets. Two SETI scientists. One question: Can humanity prevent its destruction? #pitprom #sf
Dear Agents and Editors,
What would you do if the world is going to end in ten years? For Jennifer Epstein, a by-the-books senior researcher at SETI, there is only one answer: prevent the apocalypse from happening. Pluto, Neptune, and Uranus have been destroyed by an alien threat. The deck is stacked against humanity.
But Jennifer isn’t alone. She has Samantha Monroe, her excitable but brilliant subordinate. From South Africa, CEO Muzikayise Khulu of Khulu Global supplies his vast resources to the ultimate race for survival. The three find themselves in an unlikely alliance while political brinkmanship, doomsday cults, and untested technologies form ever-growing obstacles.
Will humanity unite to face the greatest challenge of their time, or will it destroy itself before the alien ship arrives?
THE BASKING is a 125,000 word adult hard science fiction novel. Extensive technical and societal research are woven into the narrative and lend authenticity to the story. The book contains an ethnically-diverse cast alongside an evolving LGBT relationship.
Focusing less on the threat to Earth, THE BASKING examines humanity and how they cope with first contact and the existential crisis forced upon them. This will appeal to readers of other science fiction works that explore human nature in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges in the style of Neal Stephenson (SEVENEVES), Ben Winters (THE LAST POLICEMAN), and Allen Steele (ARKWRIGHT).
After more than a decade as a Salesforce consultant, I'm now a full time writer, and proud father. My author Twitter account has over a thousand followers and I'm curating a growing list of newsletter subscribers. My extensive contacts in the technology sector give me insights and opportunities to offer authentic content for readers looking to connect with the concepts of the book.
Thank you for your consideration.
~ Trevor Williams
First Ten Pages:
June 20, 2014
A soft but piercing tone cut through the white noise of the humming computers.
"What the hell?" Samantha Moore, a research scientist, winced as the tone blended with the 90s music streaming from her MP3 player. She yanked the earbuds out of her ears, her eyes wide. She'd worked at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute for six years, but she hadn't heard that particular 400Hz triangle wave tone in years.
Pushing away from her desk, she craned her head around the wall of her cubicle so she had a clear line of sight to the back corner. The tone came from the Very Large Monitor Database—a suite of computers hooked up to four 40-inch monitors which continually fed live data from the Allen Telescope Array. "SIGNAL DETECTED" flashed in the center of the lower-left monitor.
Almost falling out of her seat, she ran to the VLM. Without taking her eyes off the alert window, her mind ran through the possibilities as “Groove Is In The Heart” started to play. She took a deep breath as she sat in front of the four waking monitors, each displaying spectrographic data that should've been impossible.
Okay, okay, okay, is this real? This can't be real, but is it?
"Time to confirm," she said out loud as the tone fell silent upon clearing the alert. Time to see from what area of space the detected signal originated.
As the main riff of the song played, Sam's mind and energy honed on this signal, her fingers typing while scanning local wide-band and narrow-band frequencies. Her first goal was to rule out any Earth-born signals that could've bounced off a satellite and hit the radio dishes at ATA.
"Holy shit," she whispered as the data in front of her confirmed the space-born nature of the signal. Twice. Three times.
No. This can't be real.
Sam chewed on her lip, scrutinizing the formulas on the monitor in front of her that broke down the narrow-band frequency into several distinct sections. She looked for common errors in the software that could've triggered the alert, then looked for modulations in the signal that would indicate a spinning pulsar or a late-type star generating the signal.
The analysis software worked as intended - no stars or pulsars existed in the direction that the signal emanated from.
This just can't.
She glanced at the desk phone to the left of the keyboard. No way I'm calling anyone, she thought. Have to confirm everything. She knew better than to cry wolf when there were false-positives in the past; calling in the entire brigade would result in her being in hot water if it turned out to be anything other than extraterrestrial in origin—something that seemed more and more likely.
She sucked in a large breath of air as she leaned closer to the monitor which displayed the source of the signal: Pluto.
Pluto! At least, all indicators said that approximately seven hours ago the dwarf planet was the source of a possible extraterrestrial beacon.
She typed several commands to process the fresh data even further, triangulating the approximate location on or near Pluto that the frequency originated. After mashing the ENTER key, the displayed dataset made her blink rapidly with a slackened mouth, as if the data was a mirage and blinking would correct it. The signal originated fifteen thousand kilometers over the surface of Pluto and not beyond the planet. With every false-positive in the past, the signals originated from other stars. Detecting one just 7.5 billion kilometers away from Earth was a first. She had to make sure every decibel, every frequency, every number that’s carried forward- that everything was correct. And she checked again. And again.
“Groove Is In The Heart” came to a close. Sam glanced at the date and time in the corner of the monitor. The signal was broadcasting itself for at least seven hours, the amount of time needed for it to reach Earth from Pluto. Everything pointed to this not being a fluke.
"Holy shit," she proclaimed again, her right leg rapidly bobbing under the desk. "I need to call Jennifer. Get more people here now."
She reached for the desk phone and dialed Jennifer Epstein's cell, one of the Senior Research Scientists at SETI and Sam's superior. She rarely called her outside of regular work hours unless it was an emergency or critically important - this signal qualified as both. Her heart pounded in her chest as she kept staring at the spread of information in front of her, the sound of Jennifer's phone ringing from the desk phone speaker.
This is real.
Covered by an open magazine that contained articles on current world events, a smartphone began playing the first six seconds of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, a ringtone selected for all stored SETI contacts. The sound from the phone's speakers was loud enough to cause Jennifer to shift under her cotton bedding. It took three rings before Jennifer flung her hand over to the phone, knocking the magazine and her reading glasses onto the floor from the nightstand. As she mentally ran through the short list of people that had her cell number, Jennifer, now resting on her side, brought the phone to eye level. Though everything was blurry and some of her shoulder-length black hair further obscured her vision, the name on the phone's screen was unmistakable.
Jennifer exhaled as she slid her thumb across the screen, answering the call while she pressed the speaker button, amplifying the excited voice of Sam. "Dr. Epstein! Get here quick!"
"What happened, Sam?" Jennifer queried, her mind still hazy from the abrupt wake-up call.
"I was just, you know, doing my usual graveyard shift, running some algorithms through the latest batch of spectral modulations from Allen - data mining and all that -"
"Please, cut to the chase," Jennifer interrupted, her head now firmly planted back on her pillow and eyes closed.
"Signal detected, doc. Signal detected!"
Ah, this again. Jennifer participated in dozens of events like this, all of which ended with false positives or were new astronomical discoveries that happened to emanate radio waves. One more such event, though exciting, shouldn't get her protégé so frantic.
"Have you run the frequency through normal detection procedures?" Jennifer continued to make herself comfortable in her warm bed, not reacting too much to this news.
"I've triple-checked everything. This is real and coming from Pluto!"
"What?" Jennifer pushed herself into a sitting position against the back of her bed. Her brow raised slightly at the mention of Pluto - a signal coming from one of Earth's own planetary neighbors was a twist.
"We need to bring in the rest of the team pronto, doc," Sam said. "Gordan, Nic, the whole team! Alert the director, too."
Jennifer leaned over the side of her bed to scoop her glasses off the carpeted floor, then opened the drawer to her nightstand and grabbed the thin, black slab that was her SETI-provided smartphone. Unlike her personal phone, this had secured access to SETI's servers which included an app designed to push the same alerts the VRM received. After the screen turned on, she tapped her password.
"Dr. Epstein? Doctor?" Sam impatiently waited for a response as Jennifer swiped down on her phone screen to see the signal notification that was pushed to her phone at 4:39am, along with the signal origin coordinates and frequency: Right Asc: 18h 52m 57.7s Decl: -20° 14' 37.1" ; Freq: 5106.82MHz. The numbers all came into focus as she slid her glasses on. She cocked her head as she scratched the side of her jaw. The frequency presented was far higher than anything they've detected in space before outside of pulsars - except this originated from Pluto.
"Why would there be a signal from Pluto?" Jennifer asked herself.
"That's what I can't wait to find out," Sam said. "Shall I call in the rest?"
Jennifer shook her head, despite Sam not being able to see the gesture. Stay composed. "Once I review the data, we'll decide if having the team on-site at six in the morning will be better than at nine," Jennifer answered. She dropped the smart phone onto her bed and started toward her closet. She eyeballed a button-down shirt and pants that she could quickly throw on for her twenty-minute drive to the office. "However, I'll be there immediately."
Despite it being a weekday, the drive along Route 237 West was uneventful and fast. Jennifer knew the highways around her home well, though she was never a fan of waking up early enough to beat rush-hour traffic. Her work phone, loosely nestled in the cup holder in front of the unused CD player, dinged with text messages from Sam. She picked up her phone and scanned the first message before she placed the phone back down: "Still can't believe it. Nicolas is on the way."
Of course Nic's on the way, Jennifer thought -- he's one of the most obsessed support scientists on her team. Even the slightest variance in a star's brightness would send him into a researcher frenzy to understand everything there was to know about that star. Where his bursts of energy came from, she might never know, but his contributions to the team couldn't be denied.
As she left behind the suburban blocks of Milpitas and looked at the water-starved fields just beyond the Los Esteros Energy Center, thoughts of both the past and future filled her mind. Though she'd been working at SETI for over twenty years, every "signal found" message always found a way to send chills down her spine.
Dried fields gave way to vast corporate parks and the runways behind the NASA Ames Research Center. One thought dogged Jennifer.
If this is really happening, everything will change.
Her personal phone vibrated atop her work phone. The predicted text message from Grace, her mother, arrived on schedule: a verse from the Torah that she likely felt was appropriate for the week.
Hopefully, Jennifer thought as she looked at the message from her mother while hearing her work phone chime once more. Hopefully this signal could bring the change we all need.
Nic's hybrid, a dark blue sedan from 2009 that'd spent way more time in direct sunlight than the paint could handle, was already in the parking lot. Bringing her car to a halt next to his, she went through the motions of turning the car off with one hand while smoothing down her shirt with the other, aiming to keep composure. Nevertheless, her heart raced faster than usual as she took long strides to the front of SETI.
At minimum, she allowed herself a brisk pace from her car to her team's corner of the building where Vern - her pet name for the VLM - churned through data. She passed through the automatic doors as her ID badge reeled itself back against her waist after being swiped. As she got closer, an odd warbling sound filled the air. It was emanating from where she worked. Jennifer swiped her card again and entered the office.
"The amplitude of this section is incredible!" Nic said as he adjusted his glasses. His voice could just be heard over the pitched warbling sound that pulsed every second from Vern’s speakers.
Jennifer started toward Nic and Sam, both of which sat in front of Vern. They were both fixated on the monitors in front of them.
"What is going on..." Jennifer began, but trailed off when she saw the strong spike in the signal on the bottom monitors. On one screen was a live feed of the warbling pulse, each second turning the center of the frequency medium into a jagged spike just past the five-gigahertz level. The screen Nic and Sam were looking over had parts of the signal broken out into static screenshots for analysis. Above them were the remaining two monitors. The right displayed a graphical representation of Earth along with the sea of satellites that orbit it in the form of red, green and blue dots, while the left had a scrolling text-based feed of the signal's location and frequency, with the initial capture of it pinned at the top.
Just seeing and hearing this warbling blast of audio made her skin tingle as blood rushed through her in response.
Sam had one leg extended away from Vern, as if she wanted to run over to her own computer, but was glued to the screen in front of her. "Doc, I've been running this through every spectrum analyzer and pulse reader we have."
"Have you checked all civilian and military sources?" Jennifer asked as she ran to her computer a few desks down on the same wall as Vern, dropping herself into her chair.
"Yes, ma'am," Sam affirmed as she continued swiping through frequency analyzer programs. "So far, AWAC reported back negative. Nic, what's the status on spacecraft activity, NORAD sats?"
"No unusual activity in our neck of the woods," Nic pulled up another window that flashed in the task bar. "Got confirmation on ATA status."
Nic turned toward Jennifer, his eyes beaming through his glasses. "All forty-two dishes reporting green operations, and all are picking up the signal."
As Jennifer's computer awoke from sleep mode, she glanced at her smartphone, which still had the original signal notification on display. "Is there any possibility that our software or hardware is malfunctioning?"
"Looking into that now," Nic stepped back from Vern’s main console and pulled out his sticker-covered laptop to start diagnostics.
"Doc, I have confirmation on sidereal motion for the signal," Sam stated, her leg bouncing on her toes under the desk as she kept her focus on the monitors. "Interferometric positioning still places the signal origin fifteen thousand kilometers over Pluto."
"But that doesn't make sense," Jennifer darted her eyes toward Sam as she brought up astronomical mapping displays on her screen. "Can you confirm when we first received the signal, and confirm again right ascension eighteen hours, fifty-two minutes, fifty-seven-point-seven seconds; declination minus twenty degrees, fourteen minutes?"
"I'll run the numbers again, Doc," Sam said.
Nic's laptop snapped shut as he started for the server room. "So far diagnostics are coming in clean. Gonna directly access the servers."
Jennifer looked at Nic with urgent concern. "Do you think someone could be spoofing this?"
"It wouldn't be the first time," Nic said as he swiped his card on the security panel. The heavy door’s lock opened with a click. "But we now have dozens of safeguards and detection criteria in place that would make such a hack significantly more challenging today. In the past, yes, we had several false-positives thanks to backdoor attacks, but I'm certain this is not one of those events."
Just as the doors to the server room closed, the office door swung open, the wall groaning as the door arched to the fullest extent on its hinges. Jennifer turned to see Gordan Ivanovic, another research scientist who worked alongside Jennifer, marching toward his desk. Like Jennifer and Nic before him, he paused when he saw the signal data on Vern.
"Holy Christ," he said as he ran his fingers through his gray hair. "Where are we with signal confirmation?"
"You're missing the action, Gordan," Sam quipped. "I can use your help analyzing the signal pattern. Did you see the ascension and declination positions?"
"Yes, and I still don't believe it," Gordan regained his composure and threw his messenger bag into his cubicle before walking over to Jennifer. "What are your thoughts, Jennifer?"
"Well, Nic is checking the servers for possible online tampering while Sam could use you over at Vern," Jennifer said as she pointed at one of the spectrum breakout charts on her screen. She allowed herself a quick chuckle. "It would be nice, though, if it weren't another false reading!"
"Agreed," said Gordan as he lightly patted Jennifer on the shoulder before walking to his desk. "Perhaps we can get Kabir on the line to run a check for us."
"Go for it," Jennifer said.
Kabir Reddy worked out of Pune, India, home of the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope which was operated by the Tata Institute. Though Tata drove the goals for the radio telescopes - most of which didn't align with SETI's objectives - Kabir, being one of the view people staffed at the GMRT, used his position to redirect some of the dishes to aid in SETI research. It made perfect sense. Pluto rose over India right about now, and Kabir was manning one of the few radio telescope arrays for thousands of miles.
She heard the server room doors unlock, which prompted her to rotate her chair toward the door as Nic exited. "Give me some good news."
"No unauthorized activity or login attempts over the last four weeks." Nic noticed Jennifer's raised eyebrow in response. "I just wanted to be thorough. But yes, the only thing my audits found was a three gigabyte download of music, which I traced back to Sam's laptop."
Sam turned toward Nic and Jennifer, both of which looked over at her. "Hey, if you want this girl to code, she needs her weekly dose of number one, two, and three hits from the greatest decade for the ears!"
"Oh, not that conversation again," Gordan rolled his eyes.
"Don't worry, I think we may have the greatest song singing from Vern's mouth right now," Sam added as she brought her right ear to one of the speakers, letting the warbling sound flow into her body.
Banished to a flooding planet with an enslaved race ready to revolt, she struggles to survive & decide which side she’s on. #PitProm #SF #F
Hykala, after recklessly challenging her higher-ranked flying partner to a maneuver resulting in serious injuries, is banished to her planet’s harsh surface for a year, her wings locked tight. Never having stepped foot on the surface and ill-prepared for its unforgiving challenges of unknown creatures and biannual flooding, she struggles to enmesh herself in the culture of the wingless Dawk, the surface dwellers she’s only known as household servants. She just wants to survive her year and get back to flying, but the Dawk have other plans.
Mothe, (2nd POV) who lost her wings fifty years previously and now lives as a Dawk, becomes Hykala’s friend and mentor. When whispers of a Dawk revolution rumble across the land, Mothe entangles Hykala in the Dawk’s long-term plans for freedom.
At the end of her year’s adventures, Hykala must decide to either stay and help her new friends or return home. If she stays and becomes fully accepted by the Dawk, she must give up flying forever. But if she returns to the skies, she’ll abandon her new friends to the vengeance of her own race.
TO KISS THE SKY AGAIN, complete at 94,000 words, is a dual POV, Sci-Fi/Fantasy story which will attract readers who love the world-building and rich storytelling of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series and the adventures of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books.
I honed my writing skills as an attorney, winning my cases by writing clients’ stories to make them come alive for a judge. When I retired, I started a non-fiction publishing company where I published two of my own books along with over twenty-five books from other authors. In my spare time, I capture and band migrating raptors and I still dream of being able to fly.
~ Candace Davenport
First Ten Pages:
Cradled by wind and sunlight, Hykala spun through the sky, a mirror to her partner’s flight. The air whistled through blue feathers, sounding a harmonic note to balance the wind-song created with each stroke of Sarwa’s violet wings. Faint shouts of approval for the beauty of their sky dance echoed from the observers scattered across the pale sky, above the wispy clouds. As the two approached their last maneuver of a full spin and back flip, flashes of color merged, separated, and merged again, ending their Doubles Sky Dance with a flourish.
Wings cupping the air beneath her, Hykala floated on her back and yelled at Sarwa, “What the hell was that? You bumped into me on that final flip.”
Sarwa hovered at her side, his wings brushing air across her face with each slow, steady beat. A small frown creased his brown face. “You cut it too close. But we recovered. I doubt anyone even saw the contact.” With a huge grin he added, “Come on. We were brilliant. No other pair came close.”
She and Sarwa never made mistakes in competitions, and for Hykala, anything less than perfection was not acceptable. Although Sarwa was probably right and no one noticed, it still rankled. She slammed her fist into her palm, wanting to take back the last five minutes and do it again, but instead, she took Sarwa’s hand and they flew to the King’s landing pad.
Despite being visitors to these cliff dwellings, raucous cheers erupted for Aardee’s top Sky Dancers as they lightly set down on the crescent-shaped entrance platform to the huge hall carved into the mountainside high above the surface. With their unusual mix of her blue and his violet wings, for years both Hykala and Sarwa had been the pair to beat in any Doubles Sky Dance event.
After the silence of the dance and the whisper of their wind-song, the inside commotion heightened Hykala’s sense of annoyance as they strode across the stone floor, their shimmering flight suits matching the color of their wings. Observers trailed behind them, awe and amazement reflected in their eyes while others touched them as they passed—a story for their children.
Hykala had to shout amid the noise that ricocheted off the cavern walls. “Let’s hope the judges didn’t see your bump, but I think we’re good.” Wings tucked tight to her back and twitching with excitement, she squeezed Sarwa’s hand as they walked toward the awards podium.
Sarwa frowned as he grabbed Hykala’s long braid wrapped in a blue rawhide tie and flicked her face with the tip. “Hey. I’m not taking any responsibility. You got too close.” But then he smiled and bowed, arms outstretched. “We had an amazing flight. We’ll win… as always.”
A constant stream of observers and competitors approached to congratulate them, but all Hykala wanted was for the five officials, their heads bent over score sheets spread across a table, to acknowledge they’d received another gold. Her stomach growled with the smells wafting throughout the vast cavern from the awards feast set out on tables to celebrate the announcement of the final winners. Never good at waiting, she shifted from foot to foot on the hard rock floor—she wanted her gold so she could go eat.
“Stop fidgeting,” Sarwa said. “Go get our other medals while we’re waiting.”
Hykala cut through the crowd to the corner where they’d cached their winning stash. When she pinned the small stars on her flight suit, they sent reflections of golden light onto the cavern’s rocky walls. She brought back Sarwa’s stars and helped pin them onto the front of his flight suit to become a glittering counterpart. Patting his broad chest, muscles hard from years of flying, she announced with a smile, “Now we’re ready.”
As if Hykala’s words had moved along the officials, the head of the Inhikiod Games stood, his long gray hair unbound and tucked behind his ears. He held up his hands for silence. “Thank you everyone for attending this year’s Inhikiod Games between Hapira and Taimana cliffs. Weren’t these Games exciting?” A roar of approval rocked the room. The official gazed out over the crowd and paused, smiling.
Hykala groaned and whispered, “Come on. Come on.”
“Now for the moment we’ve been waiting for—the results from the last event of this year’s Games.” The official looked down at his notes, “The Doubles Sky Dance!”
Hykala gripped Sarwa’s hand so hard he flinched. The room hushed and held a collective breath.
“This was the closest event of the entire Games and a very tough decision.” The official shuffled his papers. “The gold medals go to… Tanela and Setinne!”
A strange hush settled over the crowd and everyone turned to stare at Hykala and Sarwa. The long silence turned into raucous cheers from the Bora Family as their winning pair of indigo-winged fliers screamed and raised their arms, fists clenched.
With his sleeves dropping to his elbows to reveal indigo wing tattoos circling his forearms, the official again held up his hands for quiet. “Before you cheer for the winners and watch their award ceremony, please accept the Bora Family’s thanks to everyone involved in these Games. The lead switched back and forth several times over the past few days, but with the golds awarded to Tanela and Setinne, I’m happy to announce the winner of this year’s Inhikiod Games is the Bora Family!”
Hykala shook her head, her eyes wide enough to match the chasm of Sarwa’s gaping mouth. Shock and disbelief spasmed across her face in waves. “No. They’ve made a mistake. Noooo.” Impervious to the surrounding cheers, Hykala couldn’t remember the last time they’d lost a Doubles Sky Dance—or even an individual race—let alone an entire Games. “This can’t be. This is wrong.” They were the best Doubles Sky Dance team on Aardee and should have won.
She spun around at a tap on her shoulder. The head official motioned Sarwa and her toward a quieter corner.
“You both were brilliant, as always, and I wanted you to know how difficult the decision was in your Sky Dance. The judges split, and I had to cast the deciding vote. While Tanela and Setinne’s dance may not have been as spectacular as yours, they had no errors. That brief contact in your final flip was my deciding factor. I’m sorry.” He smiled, patted both their shoulders, and left before either Hykala or Sarwa could recover enough to respond.
Hykala looked at the retreating official’s indigo wings tucked to his back and grabbed Sarwa’s arm. “He’s an Indigo, just like Tanela and Setinne!” She shook Sarwa’s arm until he swatted at her hand. “That kusog broke the tie and awarded the gold to his own caste.” Her final words ended in a wail.
“Free skies, Hykala. Calm down,” Sarwa said, prying at her grip.
“We were cheated. They got the gold because they’re Indigos, not because they’re better than us. We shouldn’t have lost.”
It was hard to hear anything through the Bora Family jubilation that reverberated throughout the cavern. Sarwa grabbed both Hykala’s shoulders. Turning her so she faced him, he gave her a shake. “Hykala! Our wings won’t turn color because we lost.” After a quick hug he added, “Come on. We should go pick up our silvers. We don’t want to be considered poor sports.”
“I don’t give a flying kuso what people think of me. I don’t want a silver. It’s our gold. We’re the best.”
“Apparently not, since we didn’t win.”
“Since they cheated us out of a win, you mean—that and your bump.”
“Maybe cheated, but I say again, not my fault.” Sarwa shook his head, his eyes flashing. “But no matter who is responsible, there is nothing we can do about it, no matter how brilliant our routine. Now, come on.” He pulled at Hykala’s arm to move her toward the awards podium.
As they waited to receive their silver, most of Hykala and Sarwa’s own Kipaji Family came up and told them they’d been cheated. Hykala struggled to keep a pleasant face as the officials pinned the gold stars on Tanela and Setinne but, inflamed by others from their home, Hykala’s mood worsened. She never lost at anything.
As they left the awards platform with one silver star marring the perfection of their otherwise golden chests, Sarwa looked down at Hykala. “It’s done. Let’s go eat and drown our sorrows. I’m starving.”
She gave him a disgruntled smile. “I suppose I can accept condolences even with my mouth full.” She took his hand and looked up at him. “But we have to do something about our ending so that bump doesn’t happen again.”
Before she could continue, Sarwa squeezed her hand. “Don’t you dare blame me again. But you’re the dance genius. Do what you need to do but don’t make it even harder than it is already. Those last flips are difficult enough. Come on.”
The air thrummed with Inhikiod of all wing colors mingling and laughing as they passed by the extensive table spreads scattered around the large cavern. Smells of roasted meats permeated the air making Hykala’s mouth water. As they maneuvered to get into line, a Dawk, one of the planet’s indigenous, wingless race, bumped into Hykala.
“Hey, careful,” Hykala snapped.
The Dawk ran her hand through her close-cropped hair sported by all Dawk and lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, Miss.”
“Yeah, well, no damage done. Go on.” She flipped her hand at the Dawk. After a questioning look from Sarwa, Hykala grimaced. “Shut up. I’m in no mood.”
“You don’t have to take it out on that poor Dawk. It’s a wonder we don’t have more accidents, as crowded as it is in here.”
Before Hykala could respond, Sarwa held up his hands. “And don’t take it out on me either.” He gave Hykala a mock frown which turned into one of the dazzling smiles she loved.
With a disgusted look, Hykala shook her head. “You’d be sorry if I ever did. You’re just lucky I’m so nice to you.”
Sarwa only harrumphed.
As Hykala and Sarwa moved along a line, two Bora Yellows in front of them looked over their shoulders and laughed. Hykala grabbed Sarwa’s arm, whispering. “They’re laughing at me.”
“Let it go. You don’t know what they’re talking about and who cares?”
“I care. I don’t like to lose. In fact, I don’t like others talking about me and losing in the same breath.” She made a rude gesture at the backs of the Yellows who continued to laugh and overfill their plates with food. “I hate these Boras. It’ll be nice to get home where everyone appreciates us.”
Hykala looked sideways at Sarwa and gave him a sly smile. “Lucky for me since I’m a lowly Blue and not such a high-ranking Violet, I only have to race against them and not deal with them officially.” Violets were the next rank below the Magenta of the King and Hykala was glad she was born with blue wings. As the lowest Royal rank, she had the Royal perks but few of the responsibilities that saddled Sarwa. “No matter. I enjoy beating them at any time… which makes this loss even more galling.”
One of the Yellows, with a full glass in one hand and a plate in the other, tripped and would have landed face-first in the food had Sarwa not caught him.
Sarwa steadied the Yellow, smiled, and patted his shoulder. “Careful now, friend. Had too much fermented juice this afternoon?”
The Yellow stammered through slurred words, “Celebrating, but thank you, Violet sir.” The Yellow straightened and showed them his glass. “But I didn’t spill a drop!” Although the Yellow showed the proper deference to one higher-ranked, his tone made Hykala frown.
Sarwa released the swaying Yellow. “Well, you should hold off on any more drinking,”
The Yellow smirked and raised his glass high. “But I’m celebrating our magnificent win.” He stretched for more food from the serving Dawk, stumbled and tipped the overflowing plate onto the floor and his drink down his front.
With his face as red as the spill on his yellow flight suit, he reached across the table and slapped the Dawk across the face. “Clumsy idiot. How stupid can you be? If you can’t do something as uncomplicated as placing food on my plate, then you should work the mines.”
The Dawk jerked and raised his hand. Another Dawk standing next to him grabbed his arm and spoke furiously into his ear.
Hykala made a move toward the Yellow but Sarwa had a firm grip on her shoulder. He whispered, “Not our problem.”
The Yellow stared at the Dawk and took a stance with his hands in front of his face. “Come on, then. You want a fight? Come on.” His friend also raised his hands and, side-by-side, they swayed together as if in their own doubles dance.
The Dawk, his friend still desperately whispering in his ear, bowed his head. He mumbled, his voice a mixture of anger and fear. “No sir. I’m sorry I spilled your plate.”
Her jaw clenched and eyes blazing, Hykala grabbed the Yellow’s arm, spun him around and spoke in her Royal voice. “You, Yellow. Stop it right now.”
“But you saw what happened. That stupid Dawk made me spill my drink.” The Yellow wiped his front with his hand. “He deserved my slap—more, in fact.”
“You shouldn’t hit your Dawk for any reason,” Hykala replied. “We don’t back home. Now, behave yourself.”
The Yellow grumbled an apology to Hykala, glared at the Dawk and grabbed another plate. He glanced back as he continued to wipe juice off his front. “You’re not in your home, Dawk-lover,” he mumbled. He moved off with his friend, leaving the embittered Dawk to clean up his mess.
Hykala sputtered, her frustration over their loss now focused on the Yellow. She made a move to confront him but Sarwa again put his hand on her shoulder. “Forget it. That Yellow’s not worth any more of our time.”
“You heard what he called me.”
“We’re not home so we can’t get involved with how they treat their Dawk. Stop making a fuss and move. You’re holding up the line.”
Resigned, Hykala grabbed a plate. When it was her turn for the Dawk to serve her, she smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t your fault.”
The Dawk remained silent and sullen, the fading impression of a handprint on his pale skin a stark reminder of what had happened. Hykala shrugged and followed Sarwa off to the side to eat and receive condolences for their loss.
When the large cavern had emptied and mostly service Dawk remained to clean up after the celebration, Sarwa stood and pulled Hykala to her feet. She tucked a few strands of wayward hair behind her ears and rubbed her face with her hands, a pale face more handsome than pretty. Filled with freckles, a broad forehead, and a strong jaw, she was unremarkable except for her golden red hair. Winning a competition didn’t require beauty, so Hykala had never cared what she looked like. She found her own beauty in her flying.
“I know that look. What’s going on in that red head of yours?” Sarwa asked. “Nothing good, I imagine.”
Hykala grinned at Sarwa. “I’ve an idea about how to make the routine even better, and,” she added, “to make sure you don’t bump into me again.” Before Sarwa could respond, she held up her hands. “I’m already planning an exciting new way to finish our routine. If it works out, it’ll take our dance to another level.” Sarwa was not good with change, so she’d always tweaked their routine and introduced even minor changes slowly. But with the day’s loss, she wanted a major shift with a different ending.
A group of blue-winged fliers came up to Hykala. One asked, “Ready to leave? We’ve a long flight home.”
Hykala waved at them and said, “I’ll be with you in a minute.” She gave Sarwa a long hug then grabbed his hands. “Thanks for everything.” She cleared her throat, eyes darting around before settling on Sarwa. “I know I don’t say this enough, but you’re my best friend and I love you for who you are.”
As she jumped off the ledge to join the other Blues, Hykala yelled over her shoulder at Sarwa, “See you later. Safe flying!”
It was almost a week later, after many long, tedious practice sessions, that Sarwa knocked on Hykala’s front door for yet another attempt at perfecting the recent changes to their routine. After giving Sarwa a quick hug, Hykala announced, “Today’s the day we finally master those final flips.”
Sarwa snorted. “We won’t perfect anything this morning, especially where we’re flying.” But a quick smile took the sting out of his disgruntled response.
“We will. I can feel it.” Hykala slipped out of her house and joined him to make their way to Giant’s Hall, the vast indoor mountain cavern where the Inhikiod learned to fly. Because it was raining, they’d practice inside that day. Inhikiod could fly in the rain but it wasn’t pleasant—wet feathers made for heavy flying. Since they had a choice, they chose to stay dry.
It had taken longer than Hykala expected to polish her envisioned changes in their routine. Happy with the result, she’d shown them to Sarwa and, at first, he had liked the idea, until he’d tried and found them harder than they looked.
After many frustrating days of getting close but never perfecting the final moves, he’d complained to Hykala, “I love your idea, but I’m bigger and stronger than you. I’m not so compact and… flighty, which makes a difference in being able to make those turns.”
She’d scoffed. “Of course you can do them. Try again.” He had tried over and over, but the last part still gave him trouble. Now Hykala wanted to try the maneuvers indoors, thinking maybe a change in space would affect how he approached the troublesome turns.
As they walked together along the stone corridor, the violet wing tattoos circling Sarwa’s forearms reflected the light from the okuu lamps lining the walls. Hykala ran a finger over her own blue tattoos and smiled up at Sarwa. “Have faith. I know you’ll get it today.”
Sarwa only scowled in response.
When Jaylie learns her utopia is a slave pen, she must take down the government trying to control her powers—putting lives at risk. #PitProm
Eighteen-year-old Jaylie Haddox grew up trading memories for the food on her plate.
Indigo Children like her have the power to create natural resources in exchange for sacrificing memories. They’re the only humans left alive, but thanks to these powers, humankind has survived inside artificial ecosystems for the last two hundred years.
Or so she thinks.
When Jaylie’s artificial ecosystem collapsed eight years ago, she gained a frightening new power—one that destroys instead of creates. Only Jaylie’s powers stopped demanding memories, isolating her with the realization that society has become addicted to forgetting the bad ones.
That is, until Shaye Lewis, a childhood friend Jaylie can’t remember, fights his way back into her life. He tells her the utopia she calls home is an elaborate slave pen designed to control the Indigo Children’s powers. She’s one of thousands who were kidnapped and brainwashed, and the government won't need its slaves much longer. If she doesn’t lend her power to Shaye’s group of rebels, the Indigo Children will be exterminated.
But the more Jaylie remembers about the day she and Shaye were separated, the more her moral compass wavers. With memories of her old life beginning to influence her present, Jaylie must sort out the difference between who she is and who the world wants her to be before the war decides for her—and whether memories from her past or her present will shape her future.
THE INTERIM is a YA metaphysical dystopian novel with series potential. My manuscript is complete at 116,000 words and combines elements of THE DARKEST MINDS with FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST.
I’m a freelance Japanese manga/novel translator. One of my short stories was a quarter-finalist in the 2017 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Contest and ranked #4 on Coverfly’s Red List for the month of January 2018.
Thank you for your consideration.
First Ten Pages:
Two minutes. That’s how long it took to kill a fifth of humankind.
Wheat stalks whipped my face as the flames chased Bria, Gavyn, and I out of the fields. Explosions were ripping apart the honeycomb network of rafters that held up the mile-high dome that protected Julian, my home Sanctuary, from the outside world. Pipes, cables, and light panels as big as trucks plummeted into the farmland below in smoldering streaks, crushing homes and silencing screams. Sparks sent wildfires roaring through the wheat field in seconds and swelled the climate-controlled humidity into blistering heat, transforming our golden playground into a wall of flames that pinned us against the crushed half of Bria’s red brick house.
The ground shook and lurched, dropping us to our hands and knees in the dirt. Mrs. Fournier, Bria’s mom, lay face-up in a garden of blood-spattered white roses and broken bricks. A rafter pierced her stomach. Broken ribs poked through her navy shirt. Blood dripped from her nose, sliding down her cheek in quivering lines as falling debris shook the earth. She stared up at her daughter with half-lidded eyes that should’ve been purple—the mark of an Indigo Child. They weren’t glazed over; they were drained of all color, leaving nothing but white between the thin black lines encircling her pupil. They looked like a fly’s wings.
The smoke thickened, tickling my throat, prickling my eyes. Ash caught in Bria’s red curls and stuck to my teeth, tasting like dirt. A tangle of beams slammed through a monorail track and sent train cars soaring through the smoky air, tumbling into the neighboring orchard, crushing the dozens who worked there. Even when Gavyn started sobbing and crawled over to grab my sweat-slicked arm, I couldn’t tear my stinging gaze away from the fly wing eyes.
No. No. This made no sense. Surely this could all be fixed?
My Nature turned back time. No matter how broken, no matter how many pieces were missing, my power could restore anything to its previous state. Julian was falling apart quickly—the air was thinning, filling my tight lungs with falling ash and rising smoke. It was a lot to fix, but it was doable. Might as well start reviving the dead first and get everyone to help, right? I’d never tried it before, but nothing was impossible with our Natures. Indigo Children made miracles happen every day.
I peeled my trembling hand out of the blood-soaked soil and pinched a thorn out of my wet palm. A rusty scent latched onto my tongue as the ground jerked me forward mid-reach for those fly wing eyes. My balance teetered on my knees, eyes brimming with tears. If I could just fix those eyes… Those wrong, dead eyes…
A deafening crackle resounded through the Sanctuary. The sound crawled like ants under my skin. Gavyn’s ash-caked cheeks turned up at the sound, and my eyes followed. A crack was zigzagging through the rafterless dome of concrete, thick enough to be visible through the rising smoke. It branched out and spiderwebbed, sprinkling concrete chunks into the flames around us. There was a moment of stillness—Gavyn stopped crying, Bria stopped shaking her mom’s shoulders, I stopped reaching for the discolored eyes—then concrete chunks bigger than the house broke off and plummeted down like earth-shattering rain.
It wasn’t my rattled brain that kept me watching with heart-racing awe, even as Gavyn and Bria cowered and screamed. It was the hole in the enclosure that the pieces left behind, a hole that grew and released the smoke into the world beyond. A hole that, for the first time in two-hundred years, exposed humankind to the sky.
The sky was red.
As soon as I saw it, pain knifed my brain. A yelp tore from my throat, and I shivered—the sweat streaming down my neck and back turning cold. I clutched my head with bloody hands, chest heaving, black spots speckling my sight. Silver threads swirled and gleamed around Bria’s hands, the mark of conjuring a Nature. Her tear-streaked face grew flushed and focused in the sweltering firelight, and then Bria’s Nature-fueled palms slammed into her mother’s motionless chest.
In exchange for a memory, Indigo Children can conjure natural forces through their given Nature. Bria’s Nature conjured electricity. She was trying to bring her mom back from the dead, like I planned to do with my time Nature moments before.
That’s why her actions made sense to me, at the time. Life was, after all, no more than an electrical charge.
The limp head rolled to one side from the sudden impact, unseeing eyes slipping past her daughter. Strange. An electrical charge should’ve zapped her chest and restarted her heart, right? But Bria’s threads vanished into thin air without manifesting even a touch of static. Still, Bria waited, hands folded, watching her mom’s face in silence as more of Julian’s enclosure fell and the blood-red sky expanded.
Gavyn’s shoulders slumped, orange flickering in his purple eyes, staring at the bloody soil sticking to his knees. He was so absent, so far removed, he didn’t notice the silver threads that sprung back out of Bria’s mom’s chest in a thrashing flurry. The gleaming silver spooled and wove together, solidifying from the ground up into a statue made of jagged purple crystals: legs, hips, torso, head. Bulging and misshapen. A not-quite-human shape.
Its sharp jaw unhinged with a crack. Bria’s name in its gaping mouth was nails on glass, a spine-chilling echo from a pitch-black well.
“Come with Mommy, Bria,” it whispered in a crackle of Mrs. Fournier’s soothing voice. It dragged a crystallized foot forward, flames flickering red reflections on the gleaming purple surface. “Come to the Interim.”
As Julian fell apart above us and shuddered beneath us, Bria greeted the abomination of her mother with a smile and open arms.
My headache dulled as quick as it came. Heat flooded my skin again. Wiping my sweaty brow with the back of my hand, I blinked away the falling ash. Why did Mrs. Fournier return from the dead like that? Was it because her body was broken? I reached past the crystal ankles, aiming my threads at her body’s eyes. I stared at the red coating my trembling fingers, waiting for threads that never came, dumbfounded by the limit to my Nature I never knew I had: our miracles couldn’t reverse death. This crystal figure wasn’t Mrs. Fournier, nor her soul. It was the memory of her, infused with Bria’s desperation to see her mom again.
Mrs. Fournier was lost to the Interim, and no miracle would bring her back.
Purple shards tinkled down the statue as it leaned over its daughter’s smiling face. The jaw snapped off and shattered like glass on the ground by Bria’s knees, disintegrating into shimmering dust. Jagged fingers chipped away one by one until the hand was whittled into one clawed finger. Its arm shuddered as it stretched to touch Bria’s cheek, like Mrs. Fournier often did in life. Then the sharp point lowered those few frightening inches, to the vein pulsing in Bria’s sweaty neck.
My brain lulled in the heat, shuddered with each impact to the earth. But my hand rose on instinct; it knew what to do.
Power surged up my right arm and tingled in my fingertips. Wild. Impulsive. Nothing like the rhythmic pulses of time. Threads lashed from my hand in a violent flash, a heartbeat’s burst that ripped the torso off the crystal statue in a blast of purple shrapnel. Without a torso to balance it, the legs teetered, stumbled, then crumbled and dissolved in a dusty, shimmery heap.
My mind swam with euphoria, tight lungs coughing up a laugh. My skin buzzed with energy. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. I knew this feeling. I’d experienced it once before. It shouldn’t have been possible, but a second Nature was awakening inside me. This time, it was pure destruction singing through my every nerve, filling me with glee. As if the power to destroy the world around me was only natural. Teeth chattering, I cracked a smile.
The last shimmers of Mrs. Fournier’s failed resurrection dissolved into the sticky blood. Her tears now dried by the fire’s heat, Bria’s horrified gasp withered into a quiet breath. She sank her weight onto her heels and said nothing, as if detached from the destruction around her.
A shadow darkened our faces. Gavyn shrieked—falling concrete was rushing down at us. Snatching my braid and Bria’s sleeve, he cast the silver pulse of his teleportation Nature around us. The flames, the blood, the fly wing eyes blurred and smeared into grainy color.
In his Nature’s aftershimmer, a white tile floor materialized below us and soft ceiling lights shone above us. Cool air soothed our overheated skin. Water splashed a constant rhythm from a spherical stone fountain. Two women spoke into headsets with cheerful voices behind a long front desk. Music soothed this space so gently, I had to hold my breath to convince myself it was real.
Two men in lab coats turned when we tumbled into existence behind them. My hands slipped with mud and sweat and blood but I crawled over to them anyway, smearing the white tile with copper-scented grime. Through my stinging tears, I recognized my brother Ryner’s puzzled face and nearly fainted.
His presence meant one thing: Gavyn had brought us to Compass Headquarters. Outside Julian. Inside Charlotte. The safety of another Sanctuary.
Gavyn’s wails pierced the lobby. Men and women in lab coats stopped to stare, sparing confused looks at the purple crystals scabbing the swollen fingers Gavyn cradled at his chest. The older man with Ryner—who I later learned was Doctor Nellum, the director of Compass—kneeled in front of Gavyn and twisted his wrist for a better look, scratching his chin at the world’s first case of the Pull.
Tears spilled down my cheeks. My hands scrambled for time’s threads, to reverse the damage done to me—I repaired the torn hem of my dress, cleaned the blood off my shoes, lifted the dirt stains from my socks. I begged my time Nature to take away the fire, the blood, the fly wing eyes, to plunge me into ignorant bliss, but no matter how many times I expanded my mind’s reach in search of the Interim’s mental tug—that stream of consciousness beyond my body that would whisk my memory of that horror away, the memory refused to release my mind from its haunting claws.
And then it hit me: Ever since that destructive new power poured out of me, the rule—the mercy—that every Indigo Child must sacrifice a memory to use their Nature no longer applied to me.
I crawled to my pale-faced brother. He stood petrified and wordless as my fingers curled into his lab coat. “Fix me,” I hiccupped in my smoke-scratched voice. The destructive threads of my new, second power seeped from my hands. Ryner tore out of his coat and backed himself into the small crowd forming behind him, letting the coat flutter to the cold floor at my knees. Purple crystal growths seeped from my hands, spreading like bacteria over the sleeves, the hems, and the four-pointed Compass logo on the breast pocket. Frozen and rigid, reduced to solid crystal, the coat cracked, crumbled, and disintegrated in my hands.
I reached for Bria’s arm with shaking fingers as if she could give me relief. Destruction’s silver threads still thrashed in my hands. When they reflected in her curious eyes, an image of her torso crystallizing and crumbling flashed through my mind. Hollow and helpless, I lowered my arm. As I backed away, Bria tugged my sleeve instead. Her mouth moved as she pointed excitedly at the city street beyond the glass front doors, but I couldn’t hear her beyond the pounding in my ears.
Questions balled up in my throat: How are you smiling? Why won’t you move away? Can’t you see the danger? As soon as they came, realization froze my blood. To resurrect her mother’s soul, she’d chosen to forget Julian was collapsing. No trace of it remained in her brain. It didn’t matter that the cause of her mom’s second death spun in my hands. She couldn’t remember what I’d done. She wouldn’t know to stay away.
Fire and blood and death. Fire and blood and death. Julian’s collapse looped in my mind, clawed my brain and disfigured my sanity, taunting me, goading me, demanding I pick apart its every detail in a meager attempt to reason how the enclosure that protected Julian for two hundred years managed to fall in a single day.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t forget memories, or that every detail would haunt me forever. It couldn’t have been a malfunction of the climate control system, the lighting, or the monorail tracks that brought the entire Sanctuary crashing down on the forty thousand farmers packed inside. The damage was too widespread to pinpoint an origin. Still, I couldn’t shake the thought that it wasn’t an accident. Julian’s destruction was too thorough. Too effective.
Almost as if it was intentional.
The Indigo Memorial’s courtyard would be stunning if factory walls and apartment buildings didn’t loom over the patrons from all sides.
A layer of glass paves the courtyard, separating my shadow from my feet. With the white marble underneath it, it creates the illusion of walking on air. Glass columns encircle the perimeter, each wrapped in metal coils extending to the glass underfoot in a swirling web of silver. Light refracts from the columns with rainbow-tinted clarity, painting the surrounding hedges and cherry blossom trees with the full color spectrum.
The Inter-Sanctuary monorail screeches overhead, and I tense as it echoes off the Sanctuary’s enclosure. It’s been eight years since Julian’s collapse and I still can’t shake the trauma. The supply trains run between Sanctuaries every thirty minutes, and every damn time it passes, there’s a split second where I expect it to come crashing down.
Cursing, I rub the headache budding at my brow. You’re fine, Jaylie. It’s normal. I push through the dozens-thick crowd encircling the Compass representative standing in the courtyard’s center. I try not to look at faces in the crowd—the wilting corners of mouths, the hard lines pressing wrinkles into overworked brows. Some people clench their fingers, shifting weight from leg to leg. Others wipe tears, frowning into wet fingers with confusion. For what most of these people believe is the first time in their life, they’re confronting the problem that is death. The one problem Natures can’t fix.
But that’s what funerals are for: to comfort the living. Not mourn the dead.
And nothing brightens a day like a funeral.
The representative—I’ve stopped memorizing all their names, so I call them the Daves, even the women—clasps his hands in front of his chest as he nods to the funeral guests. His white coat swishes as he paces the crystal-encrusted corpse curled up on ground in the courtyard’s center. Half of the dead woman’s face is jagged with violet crystal clumps. Core material, we now call it—memories in physical form. Judging by how much core material covers the body’s entire left side, it solidified at least one vital organ.
This woman didn’t die naturally. She died from the Pull.
Dave kneels at the body’s side and places a hand on the crystallized shoulder. “Hear us, Mother. Let Vina transcend the limitations of self. Let her memories become one with those who came before her. May the Interim analyze the state of the world she observed and gift your children with the Natures we need to maintain our peace and propel our future.”
What a pretentious load of crap. He makes the Interim sound more understood than it is. It was discovered by accident during the Resource Wars. While the rest of the world was fighting over Earth’s last resources, a handful of physicists invented a passage to explore the multiverse, intending to find a parallel dimension where humans didn’t exhaust them. Instead, they found a conscious dimension they called the Interim: a collective consciousness that’s been recording history since the dawn of time. Like most people, Dave believes the Interim has its own will based on our collective observations, and that it chooses our Natures. But all we know for sure is we can conjure the Interim’s memories of how the world used to be into the present. Memories aligning with our Natures. Nobody’s seen inside the Interim itself. Not even the Daves.
Someone in the crowd hiccups a sob. I frown as Dave approaches individuals who look the most upset, holding their shoulders, purple eyes drilling into theirs as if demanding they match his smile. They force smiles back, but the glisten in their eyes doesn’t leave or spill over; the smile is Dave’s push to hold them over until the end.
The Pull’s silver threads web through the body’s dead skin. In their wake, crystals fester and envelop more of her in a jagged shell. It won’t be long until her body becomes solid core material.
Not all Natures can connect with the dead like Bria’s or mine; in fact, most—terraforming Natures, molecular duplication Natures, for example—can’t. Compass brushed Gavyn and I off when we told them about Bria’s resurrection attempt; just two traumatized kids with hyperactive imaginations. But now, the Daves make these funerals feel designed to prevent resurrections. Have more people attempted resurrections since then? Maybe I’m paranoid. I wouldn’t put it past me. Not after Julian’s collapse.
1944: 17-yo Lucas wants revenge on his abusive father. When his sister turns against him, he must kill her or lose his life. #PitProm
Dear Royal Advisors,
In 1944, 17-year-old Lucas joins the army in hopes of leaving his abusive past behind. When he’s sent back home due to an injury, he decides to finally seek revenge on his eugenics-obsessed scientist father, who forcibly transformed him into an Elite—a genetically-modified person with supernatural powers. But upon his return, he finds that something is amiss.
His sister Eleanor has already murdered their father, and tossed the corpse into a bayou.
Worse, Lucas finds he is no longer the only Elite in the family. After begging to be one of her father’s subjects, Eleanor is now one too, and has adopted her father’s views on genetic superiority. Her plan? Take over the Elite project, then play a sick game of survival of the fittest with unknowing participants. The strongest will earn the privilege of becoming Elites, the weakest get an unmarked grave. Bound by familial ties, Lucas has two choices: kill his sister, or stop her with a carefully-planned lobotomy. The longer he waits to strike, the more people’s lives are at risk, including his own.
THE ELITE is a 66,000-word Young Adult Science Fiction novel with a Southern Gothic twist. It features a racially diverse cast and would appeal to fans of Bioshock: Infinity and Captain America.
I’m currently a part time student at Cal Poly Pomona and work for Los Angeles County as a clerical worker. THE ELITE is my first novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
Chapter One: Normandy
I’m gonna die today.
My heart pounds against my chest, the only thing I hear as the German soldier pushes the cold metal gun deeper into my temple. I kneel before him in the muddied field, my knees sinking into the grass as my hands rattle from nerves.
The only witness to my murder will be the green copses surrounding us.
“Irgendwelche letzten Worte?” he repeats over and over, jamming the rifle’s muzzle harder against my skull every time he says it.
I try conjuring up the fire inside me, in hopes of burning him and breaking free, but it’s no use. My usually heated veins remain as cold as the hail raining from the sky. His finger curls around the trigger, and my addled mind is consumed with regret. I shouldn’t have signed up for this, I’m only seventeen for God’s sake. Now I’ll be coming home in a pine box, and my sister will be left to carry the heavy burden of what needs to be done. My labored breaths are the only thing I can hear now. My vision blurs from the heavy downpour, I close my eyes as I wait for it all to be over.
Gunshots ring out, so loud, that they leave a ringing in my ears. On the third one, the soldier gasps, his grip on the rifle weakening ‘til it falls to the grass. He blankly clasps his hand over the growing splotch of red on his chest. More shots are fired. On the last one, a sharp sensation tears through my gut.
Fear washes over me, and a lump forms in my throat. Searing pain rushes through my torso. I grab my stomach and catch a glimpse of the ground. Droplets of blood stain the grass.
With the little strength I got left, I grab my weapon and spin around, pointing it back toward the trees as I search for the sniper. All I see are a few dead cows in the distance.
While trying to figure out where all the shots came from, I forget about the injured soldier wavering behind me, at least ‘til his legs go out and he falls forward, his heavy weight coming down on me.
We hit the ground so hard the wind’s knocked out of me. My ribs noisily crack on impact, and the bullet lodges even deeper into my stomach. Too weak to push his deadweight off, I lie there gasping for air, digging my nails into the soggy earth. Uncontrollable heat suddenly rushes through my veins, shooting through my fingers, the dampened mud sizzles as my weakened fire meets it.
“Hey!” a man shouts.
Before I can muster up a response, the corpse is dragged off me. I look into his eyes, his boyish, dirt-stained face immediately becomes familiar.
I know him, and I know him well. I’d recognize that gangly figure, and those dark, worried eyes anywhere. He’s my friend, and given his sorry aim, he must’ve been the one that shot me.
The pain hits me all over again, before I can say anything. My stomach—and now my ribs--are throbbing. I bury my face in the grass, cradling my wound, and moaning in agony ‘til he flips me onto my back like a beached whale.
“Lucas?! What the hell are you doin’?” Robert yells.
I sit up, hunched over. He tries to touch me again, but I push him away. “Get the hell away from me.”
“What’s your problem?”
“You shot me, you son of a bitch. And I think I broke a rib. God damn—” The pain shuts me up before I can insult him.
“What’re you talkin’ about? I ain’t shoot you. There’s no way I could’ve.”
“I’m dyin’. I can’t believe it. I’m really dyin’…”
“Take your hand off your stomach and get a good look at it. Ain’t nothin’ there.”
“I can’t, my guts’ll fall out the bullet wound!”
“Stop actin’ like a loon and just do what I tell you,” Robert says. I steady my breathing before hesitantly releasing my hand from the wound. He’s right, there’s nothing there, I stare at my muddied fingers, dumbfounded. “And you said you broke a rib…which side do you think you broke?”
“Both of ‘em,” I utter.
“Both of ‘em? Bullshit, you’re sittin’ up fine.” He picks up my fallen helmet and slaps it on top of my head. “Stop actin’ stupid and get up off the ground.”
My hands violently shake as I buckle my helmet, wincing from both embarrassment and the throbbing pain in my sides. I force myself to stand upright. “Where’d you come from anyhow? Where’s everyone else?” I say.
“I was hidin’ behind ‘em trees.”
“Where’s everyone else?” I repeat.
He hesitates, before finally saying, “‘Member how that bomb went off when we were comin’ off the beach…” He stops himself and swallows hard like he’s not sure how to say it. “I saw ‘im get blown up on impact. Saw ‘im explode. I don’t know how I made it out and he didn’t, we were standin’ side by side.”
“Lieutenant Warner you mean?”
“Shit,” I mutter. “And Thompson was shot, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah… right through the eyeball.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see ‘im go down. But everyone else… they’re gone.” Gunshots ring out in the far distance, we look over in their direction before returning our glances to one another. He’s gone stark pale now.
A nervous queasiness settles into my stomach. “Well if everyone’s gone, what the hell are we supposed to do?”
Before he can answer, a bomb goes off nearby, violently shaking the ground beneath us. Screams of nearby troops that’ve been spotted fills my ears. The smell of sweet gunpowder fills the muggy air, followed by the strong stench of charred flesh. We look at each other, eyes big as saucers, before sprinting toward the trees. Once covered by the abundance of brush, we crawl, eventually stumbling upon an abandoned trench of about five feet and climbing into it.
We kneel in ankle-deep, muddied rainwater. Robert squints as he tries to keep the rain from going in his eyes and points his gun toward the opposite side of the forest. I copy his stance, ‘til sudden debilitating pain consumes my reddened, aching fingers. I swallow hard. It’s happening again. Judging by how painful it is, the fire’s gonna be much worse.
Robert suddenly opens fire, and four men fall from the branches. The world goes deathly silent.
Sharp pain rushes through the tips of my fingers. I grimace, clumsily dropping my weapon as I suffer in silent agony. I pick it up and put it back in its holster. A stronger ache nearly forces a whimper from my throat. It’s only a matter of time. The electric-like sparks inside me aren’t letting up. I’m not gonna be able to stop it.
I ball my hands up so tight, the heat threatens to burn my palms. Desperation sets in as I search for a place to hide, my sights immediately setting on the woods far off from us. “Hey, I’ll be back. I-I got business to take care of,” I say.
“You shouldn’t go too far. And you ought to not stand up, it ain’t safe down here. Ain’t safe nowhere,” he says, never lifting his gaze.
I nod, before ignoring his warning and racing toward the groves behind us. The throbbing in my fingers grows worse as fire threatens to shoot from them. My hands uncontrollably quiver, as I dive over the top of the ditch and race for the trees.
I rush over to a tree, grabbing its weighty, low hanging branch. It stubbornly cracks as I try yanking it from its copse.
Suddenly, a hellish inferno escapes my fingertips. I jerk back, the branch comes with me, snapping in my grasp. I toss it and watch as the fire eats away at it, fighting to stay alive. Eventually, my flames are killed off by the heavy rain. My heart starts racing all over again.
I don’t know if I’m going to make it back home...she’ll probably be there at the dock waiting on me and I’ll never turn up. The whole thing was stupid, me leaving Louisiana cockily thinking that I’d fight through a war and head back home without so much as a scratch. Now I’m gonna pay for this decision with my life. My heart twists in my chest as my vision blurs, from imminent tears. I’m gonna die.
Chapter Two: Falling
At first I have no idea where I am. Then the smell of fresh coffee and burnt toast takes me back home. Back to the diner, where we started planning Pa’s murder two years ago.
We’re sitting in the same booth as last time. Two measly years has changed her a lot. Eleanor looks less like a girl, and more like the woman in the photographs she sent me. Her light hair and stern facial expression is reminiscent of Pa’s, but her blue eyes and delicate features remind me so much of our dear Ma. She glances up from the menu and briefly smiles at me, I do the same before taking a smoke out and discreetly lighting it with my finger underneath the table.
My addled mind is full of so many things, yet nothing at all. The normalcy of it all makes it worse. The laughing people, the bell ringing when another order’s up, that radio playing near the front of the shop. It all feels too perfect.
Then I notice it.
There’s a receipt on the table. I pick it up to read it, but the more I stare, the more the words blur together.
Eleanor takes my free hand, and interlocks her fingers with mine. Her hand is so soft and delicate looking up against mine; with grime under my fingernails, a busted knuckle that still hurts like hell, and a healing cut going across it. This was all her idea, but it seems like I’m the only one paying the price.
“You’re still thinking about it, aren’t you?” she says.
I swallow hard, “I—”
“Just put the receipt down and forget about it.”
I shake my head.
“Lucas, you made the right decision. Bothering ‘em wouldn’t help a thing.”
I stay quiet.
She pulls away from me—that’s when I realize I had a grip on her so tight, she probably lost all feeling in her hand. She clears her throat and smiles. “Anyhow, enough about that. I wanted to show you something.” She pulls a folded-up newspaper from her purse and slaps it on the table. “Look at this.”
I glance over at the newspaper she’s just flung my way and see her on the front page. Standing there in a light-colored dress with a bouquet of flowers, her hair’s in one of those fancy pin-up hairstyles, and her face is all done up―as usual. And she’s got the biggest grin on her face. “Miss New Orleans of 1944… and that’s you.” I mutter, unamused. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks, but it wasn’t too hard to win, I mean, I was the prettiest one there. They all said I look almost just like Betty Grable. Pa was so proud.”
Confused by her gleeful mention of Pa, I eye her suspiciously before defeatedly nodding. Distracted by an unimaginable sadness.
She bites her lip, before sighing and shaking her head. “Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing the right thing. But then I remember all the lives he’s ruined, including yours. All the awful things he’s done to you...”
I don’t answer.
She looks at me, all the playfulness in her voice is gone. “When you do it…how were you planning to get it done?”
The phone near the front of the restaurant rings… my stomach twists, and nausea hits me like a ton of bricks. My heart races. I swallow hard as I watch the heavyset store owner pick up the receiver.
The air grows stifled, I’m sweating bullets now. Every breath feels like my last.
Someone grabs my shoulder and I’m suddenly back in Normandy, laying on the concrete floor of what I’m sure is the lobby of an abandoned church. The once fancy carvings on the baseboards have been marred with blood and dirt. And among the rubble, there’s a shattered statue of who I think is the Virgin Mary on the ground.
Robert’s staring at me like I’ve gone off the deep end, and everything blurs together. I momentarily close my eyes. I don’t remember coming here, and I sure as hell don’t recall us agreeing to stop so we could sleep.
“Lucas, you all right?” Robert says.
“What time is it? What happened?”
“I don’t know what time it is. We were supposed to be takin’ a quick rest but you ended up fallin’ asleep. I didn’t wanna wake you. You all right?”
“Yeah I’m fine.” I sit up, putting my fallen helmet back on.
“Seemed like you were havin’ trouble breathin’.”
“No, I’m all right.” I sigh. “You ever have a dream… and you know it’s supposed to mean somethin’… but you don’t know what?”
“No.” he says. It grows silent ‘til he adds. “Why?”
My voice quivers with every word, as I tell him about the month-long nightmare I’ve been having. I skim over the parts about killing Pa, and go straight to the ending, where I’m all nerves about a ringing phone.
“Then what?” Robert asks.
“I don’t know. Nothin’ I guess. Every time it gets to that point I wake up.”
“Your sister… you mean the pretty one that kept sendin’ you pictures of herself with every letter, ‘til you told her to knock it off?”
“Yeah.” I laugh. “She swore up and down that I’d come back and not recognize her if she didn’t. The little nutcase,” I take a smoke out and light it with a match.
“She may be a nutcase, but she sure is a doll. When this is all over I’d love to meet her.”
“Oh yeah. Well I’d like to meet your sister. The one a little older than you, kinda busty, real pretty face. Man, she’s a hot little dish. What’s her name, Rose?”
“It’d be a cold day in hell.” He pauses. “And for the love of God. Don’t ever talk about my sister like that again.”
The churches bell interrupts our laughter, and the gun shots that follow leave us staring at each other, wide-eyed. We snatch our weapons from their holsters. Robert gets up and motions for me to follow, so I rise and we race to the other room, I trail behind him as he starts climbing the concrete stairs, leading to the bell tower.
Soon as we get to the top, I have my rifle pointed right at the figure hankering over the tower’s edge. When I realize who it is, I hesitantly lower it. I know this blonde bastard. He’s one of us… one I don’t like.
“Carver,” I mutter.
Robert walks over to him, giving him a welcoming slap on the shoulder. “What’re you doin’ up here all by your lonesome, soldier?”
“Shooting some Krauts, that’s what,” Carver says, while still looking out from behind one of the three large bells. “I got them all real good. You hear that? Sweet silence.” He finally turns around, and when he notices me, he laughs. “Man do you look happy to see me.”
“Sure am. I’m thrilled to see the idiot that tried to use me as a human shield.” I grimace as I think about it all again. Gunfire had rang out as we were coming off that beach, and Carver yanked me by my collar, shielding himself with my body, nearly getting me killed. I can still feel the heat of the gunfire, as it narrowly missed me.
“Well, it’s survival of the fittest… you know, I thought you would get that. But after all this time out here, you’re obviously still an over-sensitive pussy.” He turned to Robert. “You found him curled up in a ball crying for his mama didn’t you?”
“Knock it off,” Robert said.
“You’re right, I’m sorry.” Carver turns to me. “Look, it’s really not my fault that you’re a piece of shit. How ‘bout we call a truce?” He holds out his hand, and I don’t take it. “Come on, it’ll only be for a day or two, seeing that someone’ll probably off you by tomorrow.”
I glance over at the window, my grip on the gun tightens.
In 2042, Wesley must escape digital slavery, find his real memories, & take down the Book, a sentient web interface in his vision. #PitProm
Moste Excellent Lordes & Ladyes of PitProm,
THE YEAR OF PERFECT SIGHT is adult science fiction, complete at 96,000 words, roughly Black Mirror in the vein of William Gibson.
In 2040s Manhattan, Wesley lives in constant fear of losing his memory. Like everyone who’s anyone, he depends on the Book—a sentient web interface in his vision—for video recordings of everything he’s ever done. But the Book crashes almost daily, leaving him with terrifying amnesia until it boots up again.
The rebel “nobookers” living in the tunnels under New York can help. Beyond the range of the Book’s signal, these radicals have their own memories. Turns out Wesley’s dependence on vids has caused his weak memory. With enough time off the Book, Wesley’s recollection may strengthen. The nobookers are working to kill the Book, which could end Wesley’s reliance on Book vids and bring back his real memories. Trouble is, the death of the Book will catapult him into his longest, most terrifying amnesia episode yet.
Still, a life off the Book might be worth the pain. Natalie, one of the rebel leaders, feels like a lost love, but she’s missing from Wesley’s vids. The Book is hiding something, and Wesley wants the truth, even if it’s devastating. To recover his past, he’ll have to help the nobookers hack the Book. But the Book is always listening, and it wants him to stay on—even if it means shattering Wesley’s reality.
My fiction has appeared in PANK and other venues. As a marketing writer at a software firm, I work with algorithms and content automation every day. I drew on this experience in writing the novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
NEW YORK, 2042
Chapter 1 | Wesley
“Memory aid—Take a Year of Perfect Sight!”
The words leapt off the filthy tiles of the subway station. Wesley bent and scooped up the flyer, a scrap of red paper and shouting black letters. Just the thing he was looking for, but the crowd was coming and he couldn’t stop to read. The drone taxis were down, and so far, he was beating the rush to the train. He stuffed the paper in his pocket and set off.
His eyesight crackled with the interface of the Book. His whole life was there, pulsing in the graphics that floated in his vision. Notifications blinked over real life, calling him to things that mattered. The Book held it all and served him a personalized version, his own Book, through chips in his brain. Without it, he was nothing. The world’s conversations happened on Social. Everything lived there. His news, his money, his cat memes.
And his past. Without the infinite scroll of memory vids in his Daylog app, he would have no identity.
Trouble was, the random Book outages were happening more and more. When the interface went down for a few seconds, he was fine. When the outages stretched to two minutes, five, sometimes ten, he sank in a formless sea of amnesia.
Hence the flyer and his itching desire to read it.
He stepped out of the crowd into a little corner, a nowhere space beyond the flow of pedestrian traffic. Heart thrumming hard, he unfolded the paper.
Memory aid—Take a Year of Perfect Sight!(*)
Escape your Book videos. Find true memories, true self.
Q line into Brooklyn, Av H stop, follow signs.
(*Not for everyone!)
ThinkTank, his advisory app, circled the text in his sight and commented. <Escape your Book videos? Sounds a little extreme.>
He swiped the app into his sidebar with a flick of his eyes.
The drone taxis were down, another common occurrence, forcing him to take the train home. He was making for the L platform, third level underground. He checked Navigator—confirmed, he could catch the Q in this station as well.
He had sought a memory aid for some time now, ever since he’d first noticed the draining away of recollection whenever he had an outage. The pitch was tantalizing: Find true memories, true self. He almost changed his mind, almost asked Navigator to take him to the Q, but he didn’t. Most likely, the flyer was a bust, like every black-market memory pill he had tried at dubious Chinatown stalls. Besides, he was tired.
He stepped into the crowd again and followed Navigator’s blinking L icon, the trip still running in the app.
Shit—Navigator led him to another descending staircase. He had already gone down two levels underground and lost two bars on his signal. He’d heard of the horror in the deepest pits of the subway, the dead spots where the Book died in every eye. Fights broke out there. Murders happened there, all of it beyond the personal surveillance of his Daylog.
The arrow blinked over the staircase. <L Platform – This way. Next train in 3 minutes.>
All because the drone taxis were down. No choice, he had to get home. He took the stairs, his signal faltering from three bars to two.
Halfway down, his Book died.
His chest tightened. He saw nothing but real life, the grimy walls of the station, the other commuters ashen-faced with their mouths set against anxiety. Electric terror hung in the air, Books dead in every eye. He wasn’t alone in that regard, but without the interface, the strangers around him receded to an infinite distance, another kind of loneliness. The blood went thrum-thrum in his head and his hands shook.
Any moment now, the memories would start to slip.
He could still imagine his profile picture. Less than halfway handsome, messy hair, a guy totally unremarkable on the street. “Wesley Bennett,” he said to himself. His name, his image.
Where was he? The deepest pit of Union Square station, waiting for a train.
Where was he going? Home. Via the goddammned L, because the drone taxis were down.
What did he do for a living? He owned Vidbrander, the marketing software that tweaked people’s Book vids for subtle marketing messages.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
A woman and a man came down the stairs, brushed past him, found a spot on the platform. He knew them—Ann Hayden and Mory Gaspar, two old friends he hadn’t seen in years. Ann was his age, dressed like a young professional, her dark hair cropped close. Mory was older, looking grubby now, thrift store clothes nearly falling off him.
They hadn’t seen him, but he watched them, rehearsing their names. He couldn’t bear to lose it all again, even though his knowledge would come back whenever the L train climbed out of the bowels of New York. Then his Book would turn on and he would get his memory vids again.
Rehearse, rehearse. Ann Hayden and Mory Gaspar. Two old friends. Ann Hayden…
The train came, clattering slowing.
What train? Navigator was dead with the rest of his Book, and the name wasn’t blinking over the tracks. It certainly wasn’t printed on the cars anymore.
What station? Anywhere in New York. He never took the train. At least he knew the city where he lived. Checking—still knew himself, Wesley Bennett, though he couldn’t imagine his profile pic anymore.
And he’d lost their names. Now they were just a woman and her companion, two old friends whom he couldn’t place. Any moment, that knowledge would die, too. He would call them total strangers, never seen ’em before.
He couldn’t get on that train, not with the waters of amnesia rising around him and two old friends standing right there.
He whipped out the flyer, tore it open.
Memory aid—take a Year of Perfect Sight!(*)
Escape your Book videos. Find true memories, true self.
Q line into Brooklyn, Av H stop, follow signs.
(*Not for everyone!)
The doors to the train opened. The crowd pushed past him and found their way in. His old friends boarded in the rush. <Stand clear of the closing doors!> blinked softly in his vision.
The woman turned back, caught his eye, stared in shock.
The man glanced after her, recognized him, turned away. Something terrible hung between them, something unspeakable.
The doors closed. The woman watched Wesley through the glass while the man looked elsewhere. The train began to move, faster and faster. The woman’s eyes tracked Wesley, the last glance, the unspeakable linking of two souls, until the tunnel swallowed her up forever.
He glanced down at the flyer. “Q line into Brooklyn.” The only way out was up the stairs. His Book would turn on and Navigator would lead him to the right train. That, at least, he remembered—his mind always faded in pieces, each fragment snuffed out in its own time.
“Find true memories, true self,” the flyer said.
He bounded up the stairs and pushed off the top step. Like magic, his vision bloomed and his Book resurrected, a sleepless interface filling his sight. He was living again, live again. Social loaded with 57 notifications. His apps loaded, banking, health, stocks. The SocialWear of the moving crowds lit up like Christmas. Their jackets scrolled with comments, pics, heart emojis. Ads flowered on all the station walls, rendered in his sight alone, part of his personal interface. The false graffiti on the walls loaded, too, great looping scrawls of FUCK NOBOOKER TRASH. On top of actual, on top of real life, the Book surpassed reality with itself.
<You’re lucky nothing happened while you were offline,> his ThinkTank advisory app messaged him. <You lost 4 minutes and 4 seconds, but you’re on the Book again.>
He crossed the terminal and caught the Q. Whether it was stupid or smart, he was following the flyer, going to Brooklyn. He needed help.
The stops blinked in Navigator, even under minimize, but he hadn’t set a destination, as the app reminded him with a pulsing warning. He was doing this himself, trusting a piece of red paper.
Foolish. He would fail.
Before he could stop himself, his eyes jittered and he pulled up Social for a quick buzz. He let the content wash over him, let it whisper love to him. His chest released and he stopped holding his breath. Dopamine kicked in. Here it was, the noise, the symphony of everyone he’d ever known babbling in vids and chats and memes. He couldn’t live without this. He swiped farther and farther and let infinite scroll reach up from below to swallow him.
Then he saw the Navigator notification.
<This is Av H. The next stop is Av J.>
<Stand clear of the closing doors, please!>
He vaulted through the doors onto the empty elevated platform. ThinkTank gave him an idiot warning.
<Don’t do that! Not only is it dangerous, but it slows down the train for everyone else.>
He grabbed the action box and thought words into it.
Dusk was falling and the low brick buildings throbbed with mapped ads on his Book. But for a woman smiling into a hand mirror and heading for the stairs, he was alone, lost in Brooklyn on a fool’s errand. He opened the flyer again.
Av H stop, follow signs.
No address, nothing he could load into Navigator. He’d been duped. The hunt was hopeless.
Then he saw the rag of red paper fluttering by the stairs, taped to the wall under weary lamps, letters printed in the same heavy black type.
Memory aid, this way ↓↓↓
He took the stairs under a sickly greenish light and stumbled through the turnstiles into the quiet street. He was getting closer, though the neighborhood was dicey, the tang of garbage creeping through the night. He was so exhausted, he could barely walk.
That was another problem: day after day, he couldn’t stop scrolling but lay in his recliner for twenty-four hours or more, swiping deeper and deeper into memory vids on Social. Those were the bad days, when his body went numb, his eyes achy and twitchy, his breathing compressed to shallow huffs. He was a wreck physically, flat out of calories tonight, as his healthcare app from NHI, Inc. informed him. The search for the memory aid was fast turning into a bust. Unless he missed them in the dark, there were no more signs. Any moment, he would faint.
He stopped in front of a corner bodega. As he turned to head back to the station, he spotted a full sheet of red paper taped to the filthy glass door.
TAKE A YEAR OF PERFECT SIGHT
Memory Aid / Escape Yr Book Vids*
*Not for everyone!!!
He couldn’t catch his breath. ThinkTank spat out all kinds of flashing text. Something about the type of establishment—print your photos here, buy liquor, open twenty-four hours, cash only, frequented by dangerous nobookers.
Don’t do this, Wesley.
Last robbery at gunpoint—ten days ago.
But his memory vids were a crutch. The outages were happening more and more, and he needed new strength to stave off the amnesia in those moments. One day, if he didn’t get help, he would do himself real harm while the Book scrambled to restore itself.
He pushed the grinding door open.
The clerk stared at him with a sad, steady gaze, his body emaciated under a stained polo. That face showed no twitching of the eyes, no veiling or self-absorption, just two holes falling straight into the abyss. Only nobookers revealed their souls like that. Swipe, swipe, swipe, Wesley covered the man’s eyes with apps and windows.
Social circled the clerk’s face. No use trying to connect—he’s not on the Book. Social loaded some nobooker trash memes, but Wesley swiped them away in shame. Never should’ve given those a laugh emoji—the memes had never stopped loading after his foolish click.
Now he met the man’s gaze but couldn’t hold it. His eyes narrowed, eyelids fluttering like wings as he clicked notifications, pulled up Social comments. Anything to keep the man out, to kill the contact.
No. The road to a better self started now. He minimized all windows and met the man’s eyes. “Here for the… memory aid?”
The man pointed toward a black door in the wall. Red letters, white board, EMPLOYEES ONLY.
“No, no… memory aid, see…” He held out the leaflet, gesturing.
“Hey buddy, I speak English.” No accent except a little Queens color. “You narcies.”
“Come on, you’re a narcie. You know, a narcissist? Stuck in yourself, in your eyes.”
“I’m not stuck in my—”
“Hey, buddy. Just go through that door and up the stairs.”
How shameful, his long fall from relatability. He heaved the door open and snagged his foot on a step.
“Don’t trip, ya damn fluttereyes.”
The nobooker slur had never hurt before, but it sure did now. Tears came, clouding the distant horizon of real life.
Swaying and spinning, he climbed the stairs to a narrow hall, badly lit, with doors on either side. The first one on the right was ajar, shapeless under years of black paint. A white plaque with red letters hung there.
He grasped the knob but leaned on the doorpost to catch his breath. A memory vid loaded, footage of seven years ago, 2035, shot within his sight.
The same door, the same lettering spelling out THE DARK. He had come to the bodega before.
Still holding the knob, he played the old vid. In the archival footage, his hand pushed the door open to reveal a room with no light. The darkness filled the frame as he stepped inside. The audio gave him nothing until he slammed the door, when the vid ended in a blast of static.
Alyssa returns to Earth to find humans endangered, infertile + desperate. She protects the only answer. THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS #YA #PitProm
Dear Royal Advisors,
This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper but with a bang.
THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS is a YA Sci-fi, complete at 94,000 words. The dark themes and morality choices will appeal to fans of THE 100 while the societal themes and character-driven plot will attract those who enjoyed CHILDREN OF MEN.
Alyssa was born aboard a spaceship leaving Earth, part of a contingency plan when the world faced nuclear war, and she’s been trained to deal with anything she’ll find on her return. She expects a desolate world and the task of rebuilding humanity from the ground up.
From orbit, Dubai stands alone as Earth’s last city, a beacon of hope for the future. However, once there, Alyssa discovers a world where human infertility has left a society beyond recognition, grief-stricken and desperate.
Out of love for her adopted daughter, Alyssa contends with suspect allies and powerful enemies. As a newly appointed journalist for Dubai’s newspaper, she must seek answers for how the war began. As a fighter, she must outsmart Dubai’s leader, scheming politician Breslin. And, as a mother, she must conceal her biggest secret: Gabriela is Earth’s last child.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations, fields from which I draw in my writing. I was inspired to write this story by a simple thought: the future will have more nuclear weapons, held by more agents. I currently work as a web developer in Oxford, England. When I'm not writing, I'm reading everything under the sun and making absurdly spicy samosas.
My sincerest thanks in advance for your time and consideration.
Sir Yusuf Baldick
First ten pages:
We have a minute of silence for my mother every year. I don’t know why. She didn’t die silent. She died screaming. Silence didn’t commemorate her – it marked the days afterward, staring at the ceiling, trying to forget.
When I was five years old, a large chunk of asteroid debris struck our medical bay. Our parents tried desperately to put out the fires. The ship’s automated system prevented the fire from spreading. The bay hatch slammed shut, with her inside.
Earth stretched out before us, through the observation window of the bridge. It was a beautiful sight, but the reflection in the window wasn’t me, standing with the others. It was my mother, hand pressed against the glass, leaving an ashen imprint as she was engulfed. I couldn’t blink away the vision. I watched her burn, the flames casting shadows on her face. She mouthed my name as she died.
All of our parents died during the sixteen-year trip aboard this ship. None of them died well. Fires. Suicide. Broken tethers during spacewalks.
A head full of messy brown curls pressed closer to my thigh. Gabriela. My little troublemaker wrapped around my leg, another orphan on our deathtrap of a spaceship. But she had me, her makeshift mommy. She’d be better off than I was. She already was. Four years old and already all smiles. I didn’t remember smiling as a child.
Earth was gorgeous. Like it had never been touched by a bullet, let alone a nuke. We wouldn’t be able to tell if a nuke had hit from here. The misty white clouds flitted amongst the seas and landmasses, never stopping. The ocean covered thirty different shades of blue and became alluringly light as it reached the shores. I dug my fingernails into my palm.
This was where I should have been born. This is where my entire race was born. And we’d spent our whole lives being taught that our purpose might just be to repopulate this vast planet. We were only hours away from finding out. I wanted to cry.
“I don't want to do it either. I'm just saying, we might not have a choice.” Yumei argued, stepping in front of me, blocking my view of the planet in the window.
It still shone behind her, illuminating the particles floating in the command room and making her white hairband look like a halo. The hairband tucked black locks behind reddening ears, anger making her less angelic.
“How can we not have a choice? There would literally be no one around to force us.”
“Do you want to be alone forever? Has this life been so much fun?”
“I won’t be alone. I have Gabi.” Yumei grimaced. Gabi was her sister, but she’d never wanted much to do with her. Yumei watched her mother die giving birth to Gabi, and she’d never been able to forget it. She had more nightmares than I did.
“Besides,” I added. “If we’re needed, then we’re already alone forever. More children won’t make up for the lack of literally everyone else.”
“There’s a big difference between it being just the eight of us and restarting the human race. We need to breed.”
“Can we stop using the word breed?”
“Isn’t that we’re discussing?” Yumei let a smirk roll across her lips. The lips were a bold ruby red; she was wearing her mother’s old makeup. Clearly, not all of her mother’s things were as off-putting as Gabi. “Breeding Earth back to population.”
“It would take generations.” I waved her away.
“Depends on how fertile you are, I guess.”
“You’re naive. This is why we were sent in this stupid ship. This is why our parents were forced. This is why we spent every hour of every day in lessons.”
“I know that.”
“I’m not ignoring it,” I snapped. “I’m not spending my life popping out babies.”
“The human race goes extinct because you can’t stand the thought of spreading-”
“Don’t be gross.”
Yumei took a deep breath. “This isn’t gross. This is biology. Don’t you remember what we got taught? Don’t you see our responsibility? Gabi, the four of us and the boys. We’re going to be the last nine people left on Earth.”
“You don’t know that yet.”
Yumei’s eyes spoke the words she wouldn’t. Time would prove one of us right. About an hour’s time.
I rolled my neck, trying to get the tension to dissipate. I couldn’t let myself worry about something I had no control over. Earth was in our future whether we wanted it or not.
It had been a long time coming. Now that it was here, it felt too soon. It had taken eight years to get to the edge of the galaxy and then eight years back. A sixteen-year-long contingency plan in case humanity was wiped out. Our ship was the most expensive boomerang in history.
Gabi was beginning to doze against my thigh. I gave her a little shake.
“Moooom! I’m tired!” Gabi whined, jerking to attention. She’d exhausted herself playing with Leo this morning while I showered.
“Sorry, sweetheart, but you won’t sleep tonight if you sleep now.”
“I’ll sleep now until tomorrow,” she declared, hands covering her face.
“You’ll miss us going into Earth’s orbit. It’s only an hour now.”
“We’ve been into orbit tons of times, Mom.”
I tweaked her nose. “Never Earth’s orbit.”
“I want to sleep!” she demanded. Time to bring out the big guns.
“Even though Leo promised to watch a movie with us tonight?”
Gabi bounced up to her feet, eyes widening. “Leo’s coming? But, but...” Her face turned with confusion. “He said that he was gonna be at the firing range today.” Leo was always at the firing range.
I shrugged. “Guess he changed his mind.” He probably realized that tonight may be the last time we would ever do movie night.
Gabi brightened. “But what are we going to watch?” she asked, straightening her yellowing dress, lined with stencils of tree trunks and leafy branches. The design had been bland on the curtains. As a dress, it was cute, ignoring my sloppy stitches and loose threads.
“Maybe one of your movies. I know you and Leo like to sing along together,” I teased, rumpling her hair.
She shook her head to remove my hand and shot me the cutest glare. “You sing, too!”
I poked her tummy. “Not like you two. The other girls will need their earplugs.”
“You don’t like my falsetto?” Leonardo stepped in, sweaty hair sticking to his forehead, his VR headset hanging around his neck.
Gabi’s squeal was the only warning Leo got before she barrelled into him. Leo lifted her easily over his head and onto his shoulders. I wished I could pick Gabi up that easily. She got heavier each day.
“Chiquita!” Leo hollered. He shot me a quick wink and raised his brow questioningly. The brow meant ‘has she been okay?’
I nodded my head a little, and he smiled back. This was how we communicated around Gabi. All eight of us did our fair share of looking after Gabi, none of us wanting her to feel as neglected as we’d felt growing up, but Leo and I were the main parents. His little sister. My little monster.
“Leo, over there!” Gabi clutched her fingers into Leo’s dark bedhead and pointed around the bridge, directing her horse with imperious abandon. They had different mothers, but they were so alike. Leo’s hair continually threatened to break into the curls Gabi’s had, though he never let it grow that long. Gabi’s jawline was thankfully softer. Leo had a stupidly defined jawline, like a caricature of a handsome man. Best of all, they had the same South American dark bushy eyebrows. I adored them. But that was my little secret.
“Mommy, look!” She tugged excitedly at my hair from atop Leo’s shoulders.
“Leo’s been teaching me countries. That’s Spain! And look, Mommy, that’s the shoe shape! That’s, that’s, umm, that’s…”
“Italy,” I finished.
“Mommy! Don’t tell me!” She wrinkled her button nose.
“Sorry, sweetie.” Leo grinned, out of her sight.
The landmarks in front of us were as new to me as they were to her. I found them as jaw dropping as she did. I wanted to identify every landmass. Turkey. Egypt. China. Was that the Great Wall? I couldn’t be sure.
I examined Earth through the window, searching for something new, something that differed from the image I knew from textbooks, from videos. Something to prove that maybe people were still down there. Still building monuments. Still making mistakes, fighting, making up. Still alive.
I’d do anything to know we weren’t needed. Four girls and four boys, or The Rebirth: the name of our ship and the solution for the expected end of the arms race where everybody lost. A shiver ran down my spine. They probably weren’t expecting all of our parents to fail to make it back. If Yumei was right, there wouldn’t be anyone left to disappoint.
The hatch to the command room hissed and creaked open. Will zipped up as he entered. His head was bristle short, like a worn-down hairbrush.
“Did you at least wash your hands, Willy?” Yumei asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, clearly unconcerned. “Had to take a leak now. Don’t want to miss this.” Will collapsed into his chair. “We’re moving into orbit in the next thirty. I want to keep an eye on the radiation counter. It might tell us whether Earth was nuked.”
“It might tell us who didn’t wash their hands,” Yumei said, airily, not looking away from her tablet.
Will flicked a toggle on the panel. “Everyone to the bridge.” His voice emanated throughout the ship. We didn’t need the intercom, really.
The ship wasn’t huge, but the kitchen was on the other side. If it hadn’t always been my home, perhaps I might find it creepy. The lights flickered continuously, and the low glare of the LEDs didn’t help the Rebirth escape its shadows. The ship was long and thin, shaped like a pencil, making the command room the point.
I leaned across him and added into the intercom. “Bails, can you bring me some food?”
Will gave me a withering look.
“What? It’s my favorite,” I quipped. It was beans and rice. It was always beans and rice. Our supplies and rations had mostly gone. Now we relied on what we’d grown. Some vegetables and a little fruit. Rice, beans, potatoes. I was hungry for something different.
Will had similar thoughts. “Just wait. Pizza. Curry. Noodles.”
“And ice cream.” I added.
Yumei pursed her lips but said nothing.
Bailey clambered through the hatch. “Bailey!” Gabi squirmed out of Leo’s grasp and bounded over to her. I couldn’t help but smile at my little girl. She greeted everyone she saw like she hadn’t seen them in years.
“Spoiled brat,” Leo said, amusedly, watching Gabi settle down in Bailey’s lap and immediately help herself to Bailey’s meal. Rohan crouched through the hatch. His beard was patchy, like he’d been interrupted halfway through shaving, showing hints of a baby face. He claimed his beard grew so fast he had to shave it every week. I thought he did it to irritate Will, who’d never developed anything beyond a peach fuzz. Sameera and Michael followed, both looking tired. Sam played nervously with her mauve headscarf. Michael had his hands clasped behind his back, solemn.
“Whose funeral did I miss?” Leo jibed. “Come on, guys, we’ve been waiting for this day since forever.”
“Just nervous,” Rohan bit out. “Lot of things could go wrong.”
“We’ll be fine,” I said with confidence I didn’t feel.
Leo looked carefully from Rohan to me. “Well, when we get down there, what’re you going to do?”
“There’s not going to be anything to do,” Yumei huffed.
Leo bounced on his toes, ignoring her. “I’m going to look for my mom. Dad told me she was in the military too. There’ll be records of her. I might be able to find where she lives.”
I had to keep my face still. It wasn’t often any of us brought up our childhood and Leo never brought up his dad, Gustavo, our arms and fighting trainer. Our parents had been unorthodox teachers, strict and demanding out of the fear of losing humanity’s accumulated knowledge. Gustavo was something else entirely. He thought that a lesson wasn’t learned unless you were bloodied and battered, barely standing and barely conscious. The next lesson couldn’t come unless you had physically proved something to him.
Eventually, we’d proven something to ourselves.
“Same.” Will fiddled with the stress ball on the desk. His father’s. “Mother was part of NASA too. You know they flipped a coin to decide who’d come.”
We did know. He told us all the time. I shoved down the envy that rose up. Mom refused to talk about my Dad. Refused to acknowledge his existence. My earliest memory was walking in on Mom crying in her bed, her whole frame heaving as she sobbed. Black eyeliner ran down her face. When she noticed me, she hurriedly wiped her face and ushered me out. Mom cried a lot in the earlier years, clutching photos of a family that became further away with every second.
I’d never found those photos.
I doubted I’d be able to find out who Dad was, let alone find him.
“I should like to find a library,” Michael said, as if to himself. I hid my smile. He was settled in his favorite chair, one hand over the other and eyes closed in contentment. Bailey had been using him to practice her hair cutting again, the sides of his shaped-up fro were shaved almost to the skin. Michael was the only one of the boys who didn’t complain when she got her scissors out.
“I’m going to find a map, get a fire started and find some food. Then I’ll try very hard not to tell you ‘I told you so’ when you find the planet empty.” Yumei scowled at me.
“Well.” Will flipped a switch on his panel. “We’re about to find out.”
The ship hummed and whirred along, the result of a dozen different modules and electronics working at once. I’d become used to the ambient noise. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard true silence. Certainly not since Gabi was born.
“What is that?” Will muttered to himself, eyebrows knitted together. He put his hand up to stop the questions.
He bit his lip. “Our scanners are picking up a huge ship on the far side of the planet, roughly above Saudi Arabia.”
“What? Like a rocket taking off?”
He shook his head. “No, like a ship. Hovering above Earth,” he said, flatly.
Rohan’s eyes widened. I knew what he was thinking. Technology must have progressed rapidly since we’d left, if they were capable of such a thing. Was it a sign that the planet was occupied?
He clenched his fist. “Life on Earth?”
“I knew it!” Leo said.
“Are you serious?!” Sameera covered her mouth with both hands.
“Not necessarily,” I added, seeing Leo about to pump his fist. “It could have been there for years.”
“But, still,” Sam said. “We had no records of it when we left!”
Yumei sniffed. She spent a long part of her day communicating only in contemptuous sniffs. This time, she wasn’t wrong. This didn’t feel right. My stomach quivered.
Sam gave her a cross look. “I’m just saying.”
“An old ship with that kind of technology?” Rohan scanned the globe through the large viewing pane. “Where is it?”
“It hasn’t come into view yet. It will once we get pulled into Earth’s low orbit. Then we’ll be orbiting Earth once every ninety minutes. We’ll see it easily then, and they’ll see us, too, probably, if there is anyone in there.”
“How close will we pass?” I asked.
“Not very. They’re not in orbit, as far as I can tell.”
“What?” Rohan said. “Stop being so cryptic, Will.”
Will glared back at him but conceded. “The sensors say they’re still in the Earth’s atmosphere, so technically not even in outer space. Around sixty miles above ground level, just breaching the thermosphere, but almost perfectly still.”
“Almost perfectly still?” I echoed.
“Yeah, doesn’t make any sense. Nothing should be able to have that little movement. It’s like the thing is anchored.”
Rohan snorted. “Anchored to Earth, sixty miles below?”
Will gave him a dark look. “I’m only saying what I’m seeing.” Something flashed up on the screen in front of him. “Alright. We’re going into low orbit.”
The comms panel crackled. It hadn’t made a sound for years. Always on, always broadcasting. We never got a single response.
The crackling stopped.
For a moment, nothing.
And then, a rapid onrush of clicking noises, like a drill on helium. A squeal. A high-pitched whistle.
Static followed. I didn’t move a muscle. Goosebumps tingled on my skin. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Gabi bristled in my lap.
Rohan closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “What was that?”
I cleared my throat. “I have absolutely no idea.”
“Aliens?” Leo clapped his hands together.
“Don’t even joke,” Bailey said. She didn’t look all that certain.
“Is the frequency just picking up anomalies?”
“Could be. But it’s pretty consistent,” I countered.
Rohan implored me with widened eyes. The others never really voted me and Rohan as leaders of our little group, but they accepted it anyway. I shook my head slightly at him. This wasn’t good. And Leo genuinely did think it was aliens. Rohan nodded, playing absently with the kalava tied around his wrist. He was lucky to have even one memento of his mother. I knew what to do.
Will ignored us all. “Alright, okay, alright,” he murmured to himself, before clearing his throat. “Almost in orbit now.”
“Wait.” I cleared my throat. “Stop. Everyone silent, don’t say a single word. Turn off everything but the thrusters.”
“What the hell are you talk-?” Will started.
“Turn it all off. Lights, the electronics, the heating, everything.” I growled. “Quickly.”
He stared at me, nonplussed.
That moved him into action, and he started flipping every switch on the panel. Leo’s cautioning hand on my shoulder got shrugged off. Gabi whimpered in my arms.
“Mom?” she whispered.
“Shh, it’s okay.” I shifted her weight in my arms, rocking slowly from side to side. She wasn’t so light anymore. Even on beans and rice.
The humming and whirring of the ship’s systems dissipated, until we were left with the smallest buzzing noise, the ship’s artificial gravity device, and the familiar thrum of the ship’s thrusters. The lights flickered once, twice, and off, leaving us dark, bathed only in the glow of the Earth. Gabi’s whimpers grew more pronounced. A shiver ran through me. I held my hand up to stop the others from muttering, before nodding at Will’s unasked question.
The thrum got louder as he used some of our last remaining fuel to fire the engine the opposite direction, decelerating us enough to drop into the Earth’s orbital field. It was a delicate task; too much and you came to a standstill or started going backwards, too little and you didn’t catch in the capture trajectory and went straight through, potentially burning up in the atmosphere.
The ship slowed, creaked and rumbled. I looked to Will for guidance. He had his own hand up to stop the comments, distractedly scanning the ship’s sensors. A full minute later, he nodded. We were in orbit.
I sighed in relief and sank to the floor, resting against the bridge electronics. Silent, we watched, entranced, as the night crept across the planet as the landmasses and seas and clouds below darkened slowly until they were almost pitch black. The clouds flashed and sparked blue with lightning, like electrified spiderwebs.
“No, no, no.” Leo moaned.
“What, what’s wrong?” I asked.
He sighed and smacked his head against the panel behind him. “No lights, Lyssa. There are no lights.”
It took me a second to realize what he meant. I’d seen pictures of Earth from space in our textbooks. I’d seen videos from the International Space Station of Earth at night. And there are always, always, bright yellow lights, from great glowing balls in dense cities to the smallest dots for the towns. No lights meant no people. A whole side of the Earth with no people.
Sam let out a keeling wail before jamming her hand to her mouth.
I felt cold, ice enveloping me feet first, crawling up my toes until it made my heart shiver and skip a beat. I squeezed Gabi tighter to me.
My mind rebooted. A dozen thoughts, hastily discarded. Maybe they were underground? Maybe they were hiding? Maybe they lived on the other side of the Earth.
Gabi, playing with kids her own age, rolling around and dirtying her dress in the grass, in a dress I hadn’t fashioned out of curtains. Finally, exhausted, she’d drop down, staring at the blue skies above. An idle fantasy, idyllic and now destroyed.
I blinked the sting of tears away and raised my head to stop them trailing down my cheeks. Not in front of Gabi. I didn’t want her to know she’d just lost her chance at a normal life.
Above the observation window, messily written in blue crayon, our ship’s name. The Rebirth. Bailey had put it up there on my sixth birthday, standing on my shoulders. Back then, it was a small but thrilling act of rebellion, before we knew what rebellion was, chafing against the strict structure our parents set for us.
Now it was a constant and literal reminder of our purpose.
Would we fulfil it? Could we do what we’d brought up for?
Build a home among the corpses.
Restart the human race.
Pass on all we’d learned.
I imagined myself years from now. In front of a blackboard, teaching a dozen kids, pregnant once more. Outside the window, the sun was dim, weeds cracking through the concrete, not a sound for miles.
Perhaps that was a future that wouldn’t come to pass. Perhaps we’d find answers on Earth. Perhaps we’d learn that billions hadn’t died for nothing.
One thing was for sure.
They didn’t die silent either.
A teenage girl crosses a deadly red desert to face death on her own terms before the desert swallows her whole #PitProm #YA #SF
Dear Royal Advisors,
In the forest, there is one rule when it comes to the red fever. The strongest live and the weakest die. When a suspicious rash snakes up the arm of seventeen-year-old Tova, she knows her only chance of being cured lies in an elusive city of glass, located across a bloodstained desert that swallows people whole.
Together, with her friend Kreed, she steps out from behind the wall that has protected her from the dust for her whole life, and into the infamous red. While Tova’s will to live is driven by hope, Kreed is determined to not let the girl he loves die alone. Braving the deadly terrain, the two must fight illness, war birds, a sandstorm, wolves, earthquakes, unrelenting heat, and limited water. If Tova can survive long enough to make it across the red desert divide, she’ll learn the truth about the world she lives in, and have to choose which side she stands on, before the desert swallows them all.
THE RED DIVIDE, complete at 68,000 words, is a young adult science fiction that explores themes of man vs. man and man vs. nature, that would appeal to readers of The Road, Under the Never Sky, and In a Handful of Dust, where a girl’s desire to overcome an untimely death shifts into something to fight for instead.
I am a member of SCBWI and a graduate of numerous advanced writing workshops. I am currently working on my next novel. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
First Ten Pages:
One day the Red Desert would swallow them whole, and when it did, there would be no climbing out.
The first step of a free climb usually excited Tova. The danger. The anticipation. The sensation of something inside of her warning her to stop. Tova scanned the rock for the most logical place to start. She looked up and heard her father’s voice in the back of her head. Climb and you’ll find me. It was the last thing he said to her before he trekked out into the Red.
“Rope or no rope?” Kreed reached toward Tova, offering her a section of his cord. Translated as, did she want him to lead?
The last thing Tova wanted to do was climb tandem, attached to Kreed, and tempted to depend on his strength instead of her own. “No rope,” she said.
“Come on, Tova. Clip in.”
“No.” She wiped her sweaty palms against her pants. “I’m only using my rope for backup.”
The instant Tova’s feet left the ground, her mind cleared. Free of everything but this. Her focus narrowed. Where should she put her hands next? She reached up and curled her fingers around a knob and bent her knee up to her chest, jamming her shoe into a foothold. She spider-monkeyed her way up the mountain. Edging and smearing. Wedging her body into cracks.
An hour passed before she entered the most challenging part of the route, an area of protruding sharp rock. She twisted and lodged her body into awkward positions, her forearms shaky and weak. She tightened her grip and glanced up to the shelf above, where her father’s name was carved forever with hers, Dagen and Tova, etched inside a triangle, underneath the overhung ledge of black rock. If only she could burrow her way into the mountain, in this spot where she felt closest to him. But she sensed herself slipping, her sweaty palms making it difficult to hang on. She had to keep moving. Around the brim she stretched, gripping onto an old metal hold bolted into the rock, and she tiptoed gingerly across a thin ledge, until the route above her opened. She climbed and climbed, all the way up, where she gripped the lip of the peak and pulled herself up over the top.
Kreed lugged himself over the rim shortly after her. He unclipped the rope attached to his harness, dropped it next to Tova’s, and stood beside her. “Feel that?” he said, slightly out of breath, staring out at the view.
“What?” she said.
“Static.” Kreed held his forearm out for Tova to see the hairs on his arm rise.
Tova scratched at her wrist and stepped away from him. “Earthquake weather,” she said.
She moved toward the edge of the cliff, rising over the rugged foothills, merging with the speckled grass below. She looked out across the canopy of ancient redwoods, past the river, beyond the mouth of the ravine bordering the stream. Her gaze took her all the way to the wall dividing the forest and sand, where she searched for any sign of her father. Climb and you’ll find me. She always looked to find him up here. She closed her eyes and imagined him emerging from the desert, covered in a filth of red dust. And in her mind’s eye she ran to him, and said all of the things she couldn’t say each time he left. I love you. I need you. I’ll never let you go. But what she should have said was goodbye. And that was her biggest regret.
A slight breeze nipped at the back of her neck. She took in a deep breath and invited the crisp air and pine to flood through her.
“How often have you been coming up here?” Kreed said from behind her.
Here it comes. She squeezed her eyes shut even tighter. “Every day this month.”
“Do you think that’s healthy, Tova?”
The stain of the red sand horizon bled through the image unfolding inside her head. “Shhhh…” she said. “I can almost see the whole desert from up here.”
“Is that why you come up here?” Kreed said. “To see the desert?”
Each time Tova’s father left Sequoia to survey the desert cracks, a piece of her went with him, and climbing to the top of this cliff was about the only peace she had left. “No,” she said. “That’s not why I come up here.” And he knew it.
Kreed released a heavy sigh.
He didn’t get it.
Tova’s body tensed. She opened her eyes and spun around to face him. Loose rock scratched beneath the soles of her climbing shoes. “I know you think it’s pointless.” She looked up at him. “But he’s coming back. I know it. Any day now. I don’t care what you think. The desert can’t have him.”
At this point,” Kreed said, “even you have to admit the odds are against him.”
“I know that better than anyone,” she snapped back. “He’s trekked out there like a hundred times. Why is this time any different?”
“He was supposed to be back weeks ago.”
“I don’t expect you to understand.” Kreed thought of himself as a realist, but even a realist could comprehend hope, and she didn’t understand the point of him trying to take it from her. “What has the desert ever taken from you?”
Kreed pressed his eyebrows together. “You’re not the only one who’s ever lost someone.”
“He’s not lost!” she said.
“You know what I mean.”
Kreed lost his mother to the red fever, just like Tova had. The only difference being, Kreed’s mother died in the comfort of her own bed. He said goodbye, even if he was too young to remember. Tova’s mother died of the red fever, barely five years ago, somewhere out in the red, and Tova didn’t get to say anything. Tova needed closure. She needed permission to move on.
“This is different,” she said.
“Is it?” Kreed said. “Getting sick has the same outcome as being swallowed by sand. It’s why no one goes out there in the first place.”
“It’s not even close to being the same thing. But thanks for that image, Kreed.”
All I’m saying is, Dagen’s never been out that far.”
“Except he has,” Tova said.
“You can’t really believe that story?”
“Why would he lie about something like that?”
Her father knew of a place located on the opposite side of the desert, located somewhere south of the San Andreas Channel. He described it as a coastal city made of glass; a utopian place built that promised a cleaner way of life. He called it Viridian.
“I’m not calling him a liar,” Kreed said. “But maybe what he saw was a mirage? Have you ever considered that? If Viridian exists, why hasn’t anyone else seen it?”
“Like you said, everyone’s too afraid to go out into the red.”
For a long moment, they didn’t say anything. They played a match of who would break first. Something they had done since they were kids. It had always been this way between them, both of them digging their heels into the ground. At nineteen, Kreed was only two years older than Tova, but in this moment it felt like so much more. A familiar silence divided the air between them, and Tova wasn’t sure how to break down the wall.
Kreed reached for Tova.
She shrugged him off. “No. I refuse to become a cynic like you. Don’t you believe in anything?”
“I don’t know what I believe.” He said, keeping a wary eye on the wisps of red dust feathering the desert horizon.
Tova didn’t know how to respond to a comment like that. Kreed used to believe in all sorts of things. He used to indulge in things like magic, and fairies, and the possibility that the forest that sheltered them from the dust wasn’t the only one that existed in the world. Over the years he seemed to have grown jaded in regards to their childhood fantasies. It was the shift in their relationship that Tova had tried to ignore. Kreed had become practical, and cautious, depending on his rope more and more.
“You weren’t there when my mom got sick, so you don’t know. He loved her too much. My dad wouldn’t lie to her. Not about that.”
“Stop. You said if you came today, you wouldn’t do this.”
Kreed flashed his empty palms. “Do what?”
“This!” she said.
“One of us has to be willing to face the truth.” He picked up a rock, tossed it between his hands, cocked his arm back, and threw it off the cliff. “I just think you should consider the possibility that your dad isn’t coming back.”
“He always comes back!” She stood her ground.
“I didn’t come up here to fight with you.”
“Why did you come?”
“I’m just—I don’t know how to put this…” Kreed paused, then opened his mouth to say something else.
Tova cut him off mid-breath. “I’m fine. You know. You don’t have to worry so much.”
He nodded slightly, but narrowed his eyes. “I’m not worried.”
The way Kreed studied her pulled her in, making her hyper aware of the reddish-brown bands circling his pupils, like the inner growth rings of an ancient redwood. What did he see in her hazel eyes? The life he saved, or the life he almost lost?
Then the outside corner of his eye twitched.
He was lying.
Kreed worried too much. He always had.
Tova turned away from him, picked up the marked center of her climbing rope, and began to butterfly coil it around her forearm and palm. The rope ran easily through her fingers. She’d done this very thing a thousand times. The task usually absorbed all of her attention, but as she inspected the rope’s woven shell for signs that the core had been compromised, Kreed continued to watch her.
His gaze hot against her skin.
Tova shifted her weight onto her back leg. It was impossible to concentrate on anything with him looking at her like that. She hated when he did this and he knew it. She gave into him and stole a look over her shoulder. His brown eyes locked with the irritation in hers, so intense it was like he was searching her core for signs of compromise. She scratched at her wrist again.
Tova turned away and stared into the haze streaked sky.
If only she could cry, maybe she’d feel better.
Tova couldn’t remember the last time she cried. There was a numbness that seemed to grow inside of her each time her father left. With each of his treks stretching over greater amounts of time, detachment had become her new normal. A defense mechanism to survive.
Kreed picked up the rope flaked at his feet. He fidgeted with it as if he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Tova couldn’t stop watching his hands. The way he twisted his fingers with the cord reminded her of the way he used to loop his index finger around her pinky when they were young. That felt like a lifetime ago. His hands were different now. They were larger and stronger. Not the hands of a boy, but not quite the hands of a man.
Tova’s attention fixated on the silvery scar lining his index finger. The twin scar to hers.
“So what do you do when you come up here?” he said, with slight caution in his tone.
The gravity in his voice broke her stare. “I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Think. Not think.” She gazed out into the distance. Her eyes snaked north along the river.
“It’s breathtaking,” he said.
Could he tell that she held her breath right now? And not just any breath. But that last breath she took before she sank into the river five years ago. She couldn’t let go of it. Not even up here. No matter how hard she tried to exhale, it was always there, weighted and heavy, as if that one pocket of air had grown roots and attached itself deep inside her lungs.
She returned to watching Kreed’s hands.
The more he tried to untangle his rope, the more knotted it got. His restless hands made Tova anxious. However, something in his guarded stance told her he needed a little space, so she resisted the urge to reach over and fix it for him.
Instead she asked, “Is something on your mind?”
“Yeah…” Kreed stopped fidgeting with his rope. “Us.”
Their eyes met.
Kreed clustered the rope into one hand. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he said.
Tova knew what he wanted to say. Her heart stopped, suddenly afraid of the affection she had for him. Her insides twisted and knotted like the rope bunched inside Kreed’s hand. “Okay.”
“Promise you won’t get all weird on me,” he said.
She couldn’t promise that, and he knew better than to ask. Every major muscle in her body tensed. Everything was about to change between them. Maybe she shouldn’t let him speak at all. She squeezed the rope tighter as she wrapped it around her forearm; the friction of the braided cord burned the flesh across her palm. She reached the end of the rope and instinctively tied a knot.
“What is it?” she said, aware that her response came out a bit too forced.
She inched closer to the edge of the cliff, in an attempt to untangle the mess inside of her. She dragged her feet against the ground. Rocks tumbled over the rim. A sheet of her black hair swept past her cheek.
It was over five hundred feet to the base.
Her lungs seized.
Her stomach dropped.
Her adrenaline kick started.
Her brain urged her to take a step back, but she held herself there, staring down, until she overcame the visceral fear of falling, but the feeling came in waves, tumbling inside of her. Tova’s wrist burned, and Tova wondered if this is how her mother felt when her mother first realized the Red Fever could kill her.
Kreed placed his hand on Tova’s shoulder, and gently pulled her back, away from the ledge. Instinct urged Tova to run away from him, but Kreed wrapped his arm around her, the weight of what he wanted to say, grounding her in one spot.
He took her right hand inside his and turned her, so that they were face to face. Tova reached across her body to apply pressure against her burning wrist, but he stopped her. He looked down, turned her arm over, and dragged his fingertips over her irritated skin.
He stopped abruptly and widened his eyes. “Tova–what’s going on with your wrist?”
Tova looked down to see the rash on her wrist, red, raw, almost bleeding. She didn’t even realize she had been scratching so much. It had gotten worse since this morning.
Tova pulled her arm away from Kreed. “It’s a spider bite or something,” she said. “I can’t stop scratching it.”
That’s no spider bite.” Kreed placed the back of his hand against Tova’s forehead.
“See. Nothing,” Tova said. “I feel perfectly fine.”
Just then a shot echoed through the air, like a faint hum of hope screeching through the atmosphere. It was the sign she’d been waiting for.
Tova spun around and saw a smoke flare soaring into the sky from the middle of the desert. After her mother’s death, to help ease Tova’s anxiety about his desert treks, her father came up with a code. One flare meant he was on his way back to the forest, and two flares meant he wasn’t coming home.
She paused for a moment, keeping her attention fixed on the desert. If she didn’t move, it was like at any moment she might lose herself. Float right off the mountain and never come back.
“Race you down.” Tova hooked her rope into her rappel device. She dropped one end of her rope off of the cliff and secured the other end around a tree.
“Wait! We’re rapping?” I thought we were hiking down the back?” Kreed tugged at his rope and scrambled to untangle it. “Just wait, would you? Is this why you come up here? Slow down.”
“I want to be there when he reaches the gate.”
"It’s called a distress flare for a reason.”
Tova gave Kreed one of those looks like, really, then tugged on her rope to take off the slack, sat in her harness, and pushed off of the cliff before he could say anything else.
When Sarah joins a fear-response VR TV show, she must overcome her past failures to keep the contestants--and herself--alive. #PitProm #A #T
Most people run from their fears, but Sarah MacGowan is willing to fly across the country to face hers. Despite being an accomplished medical student, she is struggling to close the emotional wounds inflicted by her failures during a demoralizing experience abroad that earned her the moniker Dr. Death. Desperate to move on, Sarah agrees to participate in Fear Factory, a new virtual reality television show that pits contestants against their worst fears, where she hopes to win back her confidence in addition to the coveted prize money.
When Sarah’s prescription medicine numbs the arena’s response to her fears, she is relegated to the role of spectator where she watches her fellow contestants suffer unimaginable horrors inside the virtual world. Sarah believes that the opportunity to restore her confidence is lost, until one of the competitors is critically injured inside the arena and she is the only one around who is able to administer the required medical treatment.
Sarah blames herself when the contestant succumbs to her injuries. As the virtual simulation nears completion, she believes that the nightmare will finally be over. But the arena is just getting warmed up and its true purpose is about to be revealed. The game show is a cover for a clandestine operation to develop a fear-response simulation for the government. What’s worse, it requires a human host to control the artificial intelligence from inside the arena. Now Sarah must overcome her fears and act before the blood of another contestant is on her hands.
FEAR FACTORY is a standalone Adult Sci-Fi/Thriller with series potential. It’s complete at 99,000 words and was shortlisted for the 2017 Cygnus Award. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
First Ten Pages:
“Most people run from their fears, but we’re gonna fly you across the country to face yours. Congratulations Sarah, you’re going to be a contestant on Fear Factory, where virtual meets reality.”
The phone slipped from my hand and bounced on the threadbare carpet. Dr. Anders’ muffled voice beckoned to me from the floor. “Are you still there?”
I slid off the bed and fumbled to align the receiver with my ear. “Sorry. Yes, I’m still here. Thank you so much, Dr. Anders. I don’t know what to say.”
“Thanks is plenty. I’m relieved that you’ll be joining us for the inaugural taping. I was beginning to worry you might decline.”
For a moment, doubt tried to gain a foothold in my mind. Everything was moving so fast. It was like spontaneity had sucked down a Red Bull. I didn’t have time to consider the enormity of the invitation. The television show, the prize money, an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas. As if that wasn’t enough, a check for $10,000 was waiting for me when I arrived at the studio. All I had to do was show up.
“Is there any reason I should decline?”
“No. And you have no idea how glad I am that you didn’t. From what you just told me, you’ve been through a lot recently.”
I nodded before realizing that he could not see me. Silently, I beat myself up for droning on about my experiences at Projects Abroad. I couldn’t help it. It still dominated my every waking thought.
“Yes. That’s true. But I am ready to move on.”
I’ll never truly be ready to move on, but I needed to move somewhere. If that somewhere was Las Vegas, then that’s where I needed to go.
“Good. I hope you’re right. We need you at your very best.”
My best was the one thing I couldn’t give. Not after all I had been through. Medical School had prepared me for everything. Almost everything. Ghana was a different story. “I always give my best. But sometimes my best isn’t enough.”
“Yes, of course. I don’t suppose any schooling could have prepared you for the horrors of the real world. And I do sympathize with your plight. It must have been hard to lose so many children. You are a very brave woman.”
“The children, they were the brave ones.” There was little more I could say. The young faces were branded in my mind. Fearless children who deserved a chance. A chance I couldn’t provide in a land where one in ten die before reaching five years of age.
After Ghana, I no longer trusted my instincts. Finishing near the top of my class meant nothing if I couldn’t convert knowledge into results. Doctors don’t save lives with pens and paper.
Ghana was supposed to provide the experience I needed to be a successful pediatrician. Instead, all I learned was failure. It didn’t matter that most of my patients were beyond saving. They were children. Children who deserved a chance. For the first time in my life, I doubted myself. I desperately needed a win before beginning my residency.
“What is your worst fear, Sarah?”
With more time to prepare, I would have anticipated this very question. Fear Factory was advertised to be a television show predicated on fear response. Like other game shows, I presumed that strategy was the key to winning. Unfortunately, this was a new show with no history to draw upon. A show rooted in the virtual world where anything was possible. The only limiting factor was imagination.
The silence quickly turned awkward. “Spiders.” It was the first thing that came to mind. A lie. I hated spiders, that part was true. But I certainly wasn’t afraid of them. After all, they formed interesting shapes when I stepped on them, like ink blots or snowflakes. No two were alike.
Dr. Anders didn’t hesitate to call my bluff. “I can’t imagine being in Ghana for five months would have been a pleasant experience if you were afraid of spiders.” He paused long enough for his words to gnaw at my fragile confidence.
“That’s okay, Sarah. You don’t have to tell me your greatest fear. Our technology will ensure that it will be revealed with or without your consent. There are other fears buried deep in your subconscious, waiting to be exhumed. We’ll uncover those as well. Then we’ll see just how afraid of spiders you really are.”
I gasped at the thought. The arrogance in his voice was unmistakable. But he unwittingly offered a clue about the virtual arena.
“How does the arena determine our worst fears?”
I immediately wanted to retract the question. I honestly didn’t want to know. More aptly, I didn’t want to know what I would have to face. The real world was bad enough, but at least it had limits.
His hearty laugh stabbed at my ear. “I’m sorry, Doctor MacGowan, but that information is proprietary. Besides, I honestly don’t know how it works. All I can tell you is that the technology will pinpoint your worst fears and bring you face-to-face with them.” Again, the timing of his pause was impeccable. “Are you confident that you’re up for the challenge?”
I answered before considering the ramifications of my decision. So many months had passed since I completed the extensive online application and psychological profile. It made the application to Columbia Medical School look like a permission slip for a third grade trip to the museum. A significant undertaking for a wafer-thin chance to be on television, but I filled it out anyway.
Now my flight was set to depart JFK in less than ten hours. The timing was perfectly awful and awfully perfect. I had nothing better to do. The daily consumption of Netflix and Shiraz was taking its toll on my mind and body. I needed this.
I would have been happy to pass the time with Brad. But he had found other things to do while I was halfway around the world. Actually, he had just one thing to do and I didn’t even know her name. Some flexible brunette he picked up at the gym. Our gym. He didn’t even like yoga. Now his Facebook account was loaded with pictures of them. It was like I no longer existed. I wish I could say the same about him.
Dr. Anders excused himself and hung up the phone. I tapped the receiver against my forehead, frustrated that I didn’t ask more questions. It didn’t matter. As the host of the show, he wasn’t about to divulge anything of significance. He would have deflected my questions or outright declined to answer.
Soon, I would find myself face to face with my greatest fear. Failure. It was the only fear I openly acknowledged. I knew I wouldn’t face it directly. Failure is indirect, always pointed away from your goal. It isn’t real. No more real than virtual reality itself. Yet, I knew I would have to overcome it. Or fail trying.
Christine strutted onto the plane bound for Vegas and sighed. This was her last chance to turn things around and she wasn’t about to let anyone stand in her way. She already had the inside edge, the competition was hers to lose. Her protracted path to the competition was unlike that of the other contestants. Or so she had been told.
She offered a half-hearted wave to the cheerful flight crew. One of the flight attendants flashed a blinding smile.
“We hope you enjoy your flight!”
You should aim higher than hoping I enjoy the flight.
She snapped her ponytail over her shoulder and strode down the aisle. A rotund, balding man occupied the seat adjacent to hers. His tired pinstripe suit spilled over the armrest. Sweat beaded on his forehead, which he wiped away with a crusty handkerchief.
The disheveled businessman retrieved his portfolio from her seat. “Sorry.” He returned to his iPhone where he struggled to type with his sausage fingers.
Christine slid her purse under the seat before turning to sit down. She gripped the bottom of her dress to keep it from riding up her slender hips before easing into the seat. The businessman made no effort to avert his wandering eyes.
The phone slipped from his sweaty hands and disappeared between the seats. He labored to unclip the seat buckle that was buried in his midsection. The cheap suit crunched beneath him with each movement.
Christine held her hand up. “Oh please, allow me.” She delicately reached between the seat, her head inches from his groin. She pinched the phone between her fingers like a dirty napkin and dropped it in his lap. “Here ya go.”
A gasp escaped her voluminous lips as the plane jerked away from the terminal. She despised flying. More so, she hated giving up control. People make mistakes. Pilots are people. Leaving her fate in the hands of another was utterly terrifying.
A tone chimed throughout the cabin. The flight attendant stepped into the aisle and held up a mock seat belt before eagerly demonstrating how to insert the shiny metal clasp into the buckle.
People who don’t know how to do that shouldn’t be allowed in public unsupervised.
While the flight attendant continued miming the recorded safety instructions, Christine turned her attention to the airline catalogue. A firm finger poked at her shoulder. “You’re going to want to listen to this part, Christine.”
Christine forcibly grabbed the flight attendant by the arm. “Hey. How did you know my name?”
Without retracting her smile, the young woman plucked the trifold card from the seat pocket and handed it to her. “I noticed you weren’t paying attention. I strongly advise that you review these instructions.” She handed Christine the card. “You never know when you might need them.”
The flight attendant’s hips swayed as she walked to the front of the plane and disappeared around a partition. Christine glanced at the safety instruction card. Every cartoon image featured a dark-haired, slender woman in a black dress. Even the watch on the woman’s hand bore a striking resemblance to her silver Bulgari.
She crammed the card in the pocket as the plane rounded a bend and raced up the runway. Christine let out a deep breath and gripped the armrests. The front of the plane lifted effortlessly from the tarmac. Her stomach dropped, gravitational forces pulling her back towards the ground.
The plane banked to the left and continued its rapid ascent into the pillowy clouds. A shallow breath escaped her lips. The first since the plane left the ground. Four and a half hours to go.
Fumbling through her bag, she dug out a paperback novel and stared at the cover. Disturbing imagery. A pudgy little toddler with golden locks of hair falling gently across her brow. Both of her eyes were covered with strips of black electrical tape forming a letter “X”. The picture gave her the creeps.
The plane shook abruptly. Panicked, she flung the book over her head and braced herself. She reached diagonally behind her to the man who caught the book with his face. “Sorry.”
Christine ironed out the pages that had creased during its brief, maiden flight across the cabin. The plane shook again and she dug her fingers into her neighbor’s arm by mistake. The businessman patted the back of her hand with a sweaty palm.
“Don’t worry sweetie. This is nothing. I’ve flown more than 50,000 miles without any issues.”
Christine kept her eyes fixed on the seat in front of her and gripped the armrest even tighter. “You must have been relieved when you finally landed.” A wry smile curled her lips.
Before he could clarify his previous statement, the plane dropped like a rock, promptly wiping the smirk clean off her face. It must have been a hundred feet. Or ten. It didn’t matter. Every muscle in her body tensed.
Christine glanced up the aisle towards the front of the plane. The flight attendant smirked at her from behind the drink cart. Before she looked away, Christine emphatically mouthed words that weren’t appropriate for the minors onboard.
Several minutes ticked by before the clouds gave way to bright, blue skies. Ready for a distraction, Christine snagged the book and flipped past the title page and heartfelt tribute from the author.
Before reaching the opening chapter, a caption piqued her attention. She flipped back to the front and turned the pages one at a time. And there it was. Two lines that leapt off the page and seized her by the throat. She snapped the book closed, using her finger as a bookmark.
Around her, the passengers were either asleep or quietly passing the time. The businessman sat with his laptop open fussing with the font on a spreadsheet. All was calm. Everything was normal.
Christine slowly cracked open the book. The pages flapped in her trembling hands. It was still there. She didn’t know how or why, but there it was. The air locked in her throat. Two sentences stood alone on an otherwise blank page:
The plane is going to crash
You are going to die
Beyond the foreboding words, the remainder of the book was empty. Every single page was blank. A terrifying thought crept into her mind as she tossed the book onto the floor.
Are those words somehow meant for me?
If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. Everyone knew that she despised flying. Normally, there would be a small collection of empty Jack Daniel’s bottles stuffed in the seatback pocket by this point in the flight. To think that someone she knew, someone she trusted would have the audacity to exploit her fear was unforgivable.
Christine looked out the window. The blue sky was gone as blackness now swallowed the plane. She glanced at her watch. It was the middle of the day. Without warning, the plane shook violently and started into a shallow dive. Christine planted both of her feet flat on the floor and stared at the rough spun fabric on the seat in front of her. The flight attendant leaned into the drink cart to keep it from rolling towards the front of the plane.
Above her head, the fasten seatbelt light blinked in rhythm with the warning tone. Beep. Beep. Beep. Christine rocked back and forth, covering her ears and closing her eyes.
No, no, no. This isn’t happening.
The plane dipped further. The seatbelt cut into her waist as she lurched forward. Unable to hold back the drink cart any longer, the flight attendant dove across the laps of unsuspecting passengers. The cart raced to the front of the plane and smashed into the cockpit door. Glasses shattered. Panicked screams filled the cabin. Christine’s scream was drowned out by the commotion.
Christine’s short breaths became less and less productive. Her lungs burned from the lack of oxygen. It wouldn’t be long before she passed out. Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing under the circumstances.
The plane continued its rapid descent. Luggage rained from the overhead compartments. Coats, garments, briefcases. A roller suitcase struck the woman across the aisle. Blood spilled from her fractured nose.
The lights flickered. Christine clutched the lap belt, unsure whether to unbuckle it or yank the strap tighter. Gravitational forces forced her back against the seat. The pressure in her ears built to an intolerable level. Piercing alarms shrieked throughout the cabin and drowned the pilot’s instructions.
The lights cut out. Only the faint glow from the panel above her head stood out in the darkness. A symbol appeared in place of the non-smoking sign. It was strange, unrecognizable. Two counterpoised letter F’s in a circle. Only one word beginning with an “F” came to mind and it accurately described the current situation.
The emergency lights slowly illuminated along the floor. Masks dangled overhead and swung wildly. Christine quickly placed it over her mouth and tugged the straps on either side until the plastic dug into her cheeks. The slow flow of oxygen offered little relief as the plane continued its steep descent.
Lightning erupted around the plane. Each flash was followed by an instantaneous clap of thunder. The plane bounced around like a wet sock in a dryer. Violent motions. Side to side. Up and down. Twisting and turning. The pilot instructed passengers to assume crash position. Robotically, the passengers around her calmly placed their heads between their legs. Tears formed in Christine’s eyes. The end was near.
Rummaging through her purse, she retrieved her phone and pressed the power button. The home screen logo hung there. She tapped her finger impatiently on the phone screen, her hands jerking with each erratic movement of the plane.
She pressed the phone icon and called home. No answer. The machine picked up. It was her mother’s corny greeting, sung to the tune of an old country western song.
Jesus, Mom, no wonder you’re still single.
Christine shook the phone as if that would somehow bypass the recording.
“Mom? Mom? My plane is crashing.” Christine sobbed uncontrollably. “Mom. I love you! I love you! I’m sorry. I love you!” Not bothering to hang up, she tossed the phone onto the floor.
A deluge of emotions washed over her. Images flooded into her mind. Scattered memories, out of sequence. Images of a life about to be cut short. Fantasies of life events that hadn’t happened yet. All of it scrolled past her tear-filled eyes like an old film.
Flashes of lightning illuminated the ground. It was near. Her ears bled from the rapid change in altitude. Unable to process the situation, she laid her head in her lap and accepted her fate. A faint blue glow emanated from her watch, but she was too distracted to look, too distraught to care. A reassuring calm washed over her as the plane plummeted towards the ground. Then she felt the impact.
Europa's fate hangs in the balance as Max races to solve the mystery of dead astronauts, stolen super-chemicals, and girls. #PitProm #mg #sf
Dear Royal Advisors,
I am honored to have been selected for the PitProm court. Based on your interest in science-fiction stories, I hope you enjoy my recently completed novel, EUROPA ACADEMY.
In a time when space travel is as common as a trip to the Bahamas, 13-year-old Max Parker’s biggest dream is to follow in the footsteps of his father’s space adventures. Unfortunately, his family doesn’t go to space anymore, not since his father’s disastrous final mission. When his parents suddenly change their minds and accept an invitation to move the family to the newly constructed city on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, it seems like all of Max’s dreams are about to come true. Unfortunately, Max can’t seem to stay out of trouble. As far as Max is concerned, trouble is just a code-word boring people use when they mean exciting adventure. And he has yet to meet an adventure he could resist. But when Max’s exciting adventures intersect with a real-world cold case of interplanetary proportions, he’ll have to decide whether his fondness for adventure and the possibility of saving the entire solar system are worth his life.
EUROPA ACADEMY is complete at 87,000 words. It’s a near-future science-fiction novel meant for an upper middle-grade audience. Imagine Andy Weir’s ARTEMIS (minus the profanity and sexual innuendo) mixed with Alexandra Monir’s THE FINAL SIX (plus actually reaching Europa), and you’d get pretty close to EUROPA ACADEMY.
Utilizing my background in mechanical engineering and extensive research of orbital dynamics, the book is a solid blend of accurate science and poignant family-centric storytelling. Through close contacts in teen blogs, local libraries, and school systems; I'm poised to reach my target audience at a grassroots level. This is the first in a five book series, though EUROPA ACADEMY has a self-contained story and can function equally well as a standalone novel. The other four books will continue the story of the struggle against the power-crazed Xenon League with four of Max's friends each having a book. Book 2 features an Asian protagaonist, Mei Li, as she and Max partner for Europa's version of the Iditarod.
I've included the first ten pages with this query. The full manuscript is available upon request.
First Ten Pages:
“Any last words?”
Max tore his gaze away from the towering heights of the old rocket hangar to look at his best friend, Jonathan.
“What kind of question is that?” Max shot back.
“You’re strapped to an antique jetpack!—That we rebuilt!” Jonathan pointed out. “The fuel lines might leak, the combustion chamber might explode, the nozzles might shear off—”
“I’ll be fine,” Max said, cutting him off. “Besides, we’ve got the safety line, right?” He tugged on the long rope snaking through the gantry railing high above him. “You’ll catch me if something goes wrong.”
Jonathan shrugged. “Maybe.”
Max smiled at his pessimistic friend and looked up at the cavernous space above him. Rays of late morning sunlight streamed in through the tall windows.
He had anticipated this moment for the last five months—ever since they had found the pieces of the jetpack and started reassembling it. He wasn’t about to let some minor details ruin his dreams of flying.
Jonathan’s voice brought him back. “It’s great that you want to take time to think about your craziness, but if we get caught in here, we’ll be grounded for the entire summer.”
“Pssh. I’ll show you craziness.” Max pulled his flight goggles down over his eyes and seized the control handgrips. “Let’s do this.” He squeezed the throttle, and the jetpack roared to life.
Max’s stomach dropped as he rocketed upward. The nozzles’ deafening blast drowned out his triumphant scream.
Take that, gravity.
Thirty meters up, he eased off the throttle to hover, but the jetpack lurched and bucked, fighting him for control.
Jonathan quickly pulled in the slack from the safety line.
“We need to fix the throttle,” Max yelled. “It’s way too sensitive.”
Jonathan nodded and shouted something in reply.
Max tightened his grip on the control-stick in his left hand and nudged it slightly. The jetpack tilted sideways as the vectored nozzles shoved him around the massive, empty expanse.
He felt like a bird! A strange metallic hummingbird that shot flames out its backside—but a bird all the same.
The jetpack’s exhaust swirled through the musty morning air with the pungent smell of a billion tiki torches.
Max maneuvered back and forth inside the huge hanger, testing his abilities.
The jetpack had freed him from the confines of Earth’s surface—from the curse of spending his entire life on the ground.
His heart and mind soared as he imagined streaking over the rooftops of his neighborhood. He would make a grand entrance on the first day of school, buzzing the front office and doing a low loop around the classroom windows before gently touching down on the front commons. Even the popular kids would know his name.
This jetpack would change everything.
He was now flying level with the bottom windows on the hangar door. Haltingly, he maneuvered over for a better look outside. The skyscrapers of downtown Houston dwarfed everything else on the horizon. Max squeezed the throttle, hoping to catch a glimpse of his neighborhood, when he felt a sudden lurch. Glancing down at the fuel indicator, he saw that the needle hovered above the large letter “E”.
This can’t be right.
“We should also double check the fuel gauge,” he yelled down to Jonathan. “It says I’m about to run out of—”
One of the side access doors clanged open. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood silhouetted in the doorway.
The man gaped at Jonathan then squinted up at Max, clearly trying to make sense of the bizarre scene.
They would have a hard time explaining their way out of this one.
Max instinctively squeezed the throttle, and the jetpack thundered, launching several meters higher. Then suddenly the pack sputtered—gulping its last drops of fuel—and Max’s stomach rose in his throat. The harness felt oppressive, like it wanted to drag him down with the dying rocket.
He was falling.
Sinking dread coursed through Max’s body.
The ground was so far down.
His brain had barely registered the idea that he was about to die, when the safety line brought his free-fall to an abrupt end.
Max looked down to see how close he had come to certain death. Jonathan dangled a meter off the floor, clinging to the opposite end of the line. He kicked and thrashed as he fought the combined weight of Max and the jetpack.
“See, I knew you’d save me,” Max said with a laugh. His body sagged with relief.
The jetpack belched one last fireball and fell silent. Max sunk even faster.
“Max. Do something.” Jonathan’s voice rose in unison with his body—several meters off the ground and still rising.
“Don’t let go!” Max yelled back as he grasped in vain for Jonathan’s side of the line.
“Gee, thanks. That’s a huge help.” Jonathan could be so sarcastic sometimes.
They both picked up speed—Jonathan up and Max down.
“Help us!” Max cried out to the stranger below them. At this point, he didn’t care if they got in trouble. He would gladly trade future trouble for immediate rescue.
The lean figure standing in the doorway shook off his bewilderment and rushed across the hangar floor. Rapidly covering the distance, he lunged and caught the free end of the rope.
Max jerked to a stop, grateful again that he had let Jonathan convince him to use the safety line.
Max and the jetpack swung lazily back and forth, like the pendulum in an old-fashioned clock. The two boys hung eye-to-eye, twenty meters off the ground.
Jonathan clung to his end of the rope glaring at Max as he swung past. “I blame you for this. Why can’t you ever think things through?”
Max shrugged. “Life’s too short for that.”
“Funny you should mention a short life.” Jonathan’s look shot daggers.
“You know, it would serve you right if I just left you two hanging there,” their rescuer called up to them, shaking his head in exasperation.
After an extended silence, the man chuckled then tugged hard on the rope. Max lurched slowly upward as his friend was pulled back down by the kind stranger. With Jonathan back on solid ground, the man fed the rope out, hand-over-hand, and slowly lowered Max and the jetpack back to the floor.
“Thanks,” Max said with a sheepish smile. The man would probably drag them to the nearest police station for trespassing. At least, that’s what the scowl on his face said.
“You two are in big trouble,” he panted. “Space agency facilities are still government property.”
Max looked around nervously, not knowing what to say. He glanced at his friend, who managed a feeble, “Sorry.”
The man was built like an Olympic sprinter and looked to be in his twenties. He had dark brown skin, short-cropped hair, and wore the gray-green uniform of a fighter pilot. The name above the pocket said Tucker.
“Where’d you get this jetpack, anyway?” their rescuer demanded.
The boys glanced at each other, reluctant to confess their secret project.
“Uh, we found it, sir,” Jonathan offered.
“You found a jetpack. Lying around?” He clearly didn’t believe them.
“Actually, we found the pieces, and we put it together,” Max chimed in.
The man raised an eyebrow. He looked more closely at the boys. “You’re what . . . twelve years old?” he asked.
Max puffed out his chest. “Actually, I’m thirteen now.”
“Not that it’s improved your decision-making skills,” Jonathan muttered.
Max glared at his friend.
“You two . . . built a jetpack?” The man thought it was a joke.
“Well, it took us a long time,” Jonathan added.
“No kidding?” The stranger’s expression of disbelief melted into a smile. “Let’s take a look at it.”
He helped Max wriggle out of the harness, and then he turned the jetpack over for closer inspection.
“This is a JB-19.” The man sounded like a kid on Christmas morning. “I didn’t think any of these survived decommissioning.”
“We found it in some old boxes in an abandoned shop,” Jonathan explained.
“Wow. This would be so much fun to fly.” He seemed to have forgotten Max and Jonathan were even there.
Max still wasn’t sure if they were in trouble or not.
Finally, the man set the pack down at his feet and straightened up.
“I’ll need your names so that I can report you to the proper authorities.” His voice was all business.
Jonathan sighed. “Jonathan Perez,” he said pointing dejectedly to himself, “and Max Parker.”
“Wait, we’re actually in trouble?” Max exclaimed.
“If you’re sons of Perez and Parker, the astronauts, then you’re definitely in trouble.” The man gave them a stern look, though Max could see a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “What would your father say about your horrible piloting skills?” he asked Max.
“Uh . . .” Max wasn’t sure what to say.
A huge smile broke out on the stranger’s face, and he started to laugh.
Max and Jonathan cautiously laughed with him.
“He would say Max’s little sister could fly better,” Jonathan said with a wicked grin.
Max shot his friend a dirty look, but that only made the other two laugh harder.
“Ha ha. Very funny.” Max couldn’t help smiling.
“Jake Tucker,” the man said, shaking hands with the boys. “You are one lucky kid, Max,” Mr. Tucker continued, “and not just because we got you down in one piece. If anyone else had caught you in here, you’d be in deep trouble.”
“You mean . . . we’re not in trouble?” Max asked.
“Oh, you’re in trouble, just not deep trouble,” Mr. Tucker said.
Max’s slowly lifting hopes came crashing back down.
“I’ll need to talk to your fathers about this when I see them,” Mr. Tucker continued. “Luckily for you, I just got back from flying a long mission, otherwise we’d go tell them right now.”
“Flying a mission, like in space?” Jonathan said.
“You’re a pilot?” Max asked in awe.
“Yep,” Mr. Tucker replied. “I fly one of the new Catarium-drive shuttles.”
“Wow!” Max exclaimed. “Can you take us up for a ride sometime?”
Mr. Tucker chuckled. “Another time. OK?” He glanced at his watch. “Hey guys, I’ve got to be somewhere in a few hours, and I’m hoping to get some rest first. You boys better get out of here.”
“Right,” Max said.
He and Jonathan hefted the jetpack and lugged it toward the door. “And thanks again for saving us, Mr. Tucker.”
“Hold on a sec.” Mr. Tucker jogged over to them.
Max tensed, wondering if they were in trouble again.
“First off, you don’t have to call me Mr. Tucker. My friends call me Jake.”
Jonathan laughed. “We can’t call you—” Jake gave him a stern look, and Jonathan caved. “—OK, OK, Jake it is.”
Jake smiled at the boys, then looked down at the jetpack. His expression turned guilty. Max tightened his grip. “I’m sorry to say this, boys, but I need to take that . . . for safekeeping.”
Max protested. “But Mr. Tucker . . . Jake . . .”
Jake held up his hands. “I know, I know. You boys have worked real hard on this, but I gotta be the adult here.” He reached for the harness and pulled the pack away.
Max’s arms weren’t the only part of him that felt empty.
Jake considered them for a moment. “Listen, I’ll make you a deal. If I can make sure the pack is safe, and if it’s OK with your parents, then we’ll figure out a way you can fly it without killing yourselves.”
Max felt a little better. They weren’t in trouble, and maybe they would fly the jetpack again.
As they headed to the door, Jonathan asked Jake, “So are you keeping it for our safety or for the jetpack’s safety?”
Jake looked down at the gleaming, rocket-shaped pack, then flashed the boys a broad smile.
“Maxwell Scott Parker! Why didn’t you answer any of my messages?”
Max let the front door swing shut behind him. His mother stood in the doorway to the kitchen with her hands on her hips.
“Oops,” Max said sheepishly.
“Oops is right, young man. We’ll talk about this later. Go get ready. We’re going to be late.”
Just then, Max’s older sister, Kelli, rushed past, her long brown hair—normally in a ponytail—cascaded behind her. She looked ready to go to church. Then Max noticed that his mom wore her Sunday best as well.
“Where’re we going?” he asked as he headed for his room.
“The funeral. Hurry.”
Twenty minutes—and one high-speed car ride—later, Max was sitting quietly at the back of a graveside service. They really had been late. His parents almost never used the Rush setting on the car’s guidance system.
A dozen rows of white folding chairs stretched out in front of him under a large tent awning. Unfortunately, the last row of seats didn’t quite fit under the tent, and the hot Texas sun beat down on the back of his neck. There was no breeze to speak of, and the thick, humid air smelled of fresh cut grass.
Jonathan sat with his family in the row in front of them, but not close enough that they could talk. Max contented himself with sending Jonathan messages reliving their morning’s adventure and asking whether Jonathan had gotten in trouble for making his family late to the funeral. Max smiled at Jonathan’s description of being forced to change his clothes in the car on the way to the funeral—luckily he only had brothers.
Max was about to swipe a response when Kelli elbowed him.
“You’re being rude,” she whispered.
“C’mon, what am I supposed to do?” he whispered back. “This is so boring. We didn’t even know this girl.”
She pointed to the printed program. It was on actual paper, which Max thought was weird. “Her name was Mindy Baker. She joined the space program at twenty-one, and she was twenty-three when she went on the Europa exploration mission.” She put the program down. “And it’s still rude, even if we didn’t know her.”
Max stuffed the phone back in his pocket. “You can’t tell me this is how you wanted to spend your first day of summer vacation.” Max kept his voice low. “I mean, the least they could do is have the casket open. What’s the point of coming to the funeral of someone who died in space if we can’t even see the body?”
Kelli gave him a warning look.
“Now you’re being rude and insensitive. Besides, I doubt the body would be suitable for a viewing after fourteen years in space,” she said in a barely audible whisper.
“Humph.” Max folded his arms and slouched down in his chair.
There were so many other places he’d rather be at this moment. He gazed out across the cemetery. The first-quarter moon rose over the tree line. He’d much rather be there on the moon than sitting here, dressed in a shirt and tie, baking in the afternoon sun.
His dad had been to the moon about a dozen times during his career as an astronaut. His parents had even gone to the Lunara Bay Resort on their honeymoon—sort of what you get when you marry an astronaut.
But ever since his dad retired from the space agency after returning from Europa, no one in their family had so much as left the atmosphere. He had classmates who had been to space—mostly to the SpaceDisney station. Yet Max Parker, son of a famous astronaut, had never flown higher than a regular supersonic transcontinental. It was embarrassing.
Each mirror Emery enters feeds her addiction to alt realities. To save her sister, she must conquer more than her own demons #PitProm #YA #SF
Seventeen-year-old Emery Glass is a Mirror Maker. She can create a mirror and walk through the reflection into an alternate reality. To return, she simply breaks the mirror, and the reflection world ceases to exist.
Then classmates start disappearing. Including Emery’s sister. To find her, Emery will do anything: break the rules, create her own mirrors, even fail the Trials and get exiled from the Academy.
After her first broken mirror, Emery is instantly addicted to the thrill of leaving reality.
After the second broken mirror, she finds her sister’s journal and learns the truth behind her disappearance.
Mirror number three generates a reflection Emery plans to use to rescue her sister. Perfect camouflage.
The fourth broken mirror puts Emery face-to-face with her sister’s abductor.
But when the fifth mirror shatters, Emery finds herself on the wrong side, trapped in a maze of mirrors. With the abductor after her, Emery must break the bonds of her addiction, or she’ll lose herself and her sister, forever.
MIRROR BREAKER is a 70,000-word YA science fiction novel, appealing to fans of Marie Lu and Leigh Bardugo.
I am a stay-at-home mom and own my own business. I’ve interned for three small, independent publishers and four literary agents. I got my start writing professionally as a ghostwriter for a celebrity who writes children’s books.
First Ten Pages:
My little brother, Gates, lied about me dying.
Of course, it’s best everyone thinks I’m dead. He’s smart enough to know that. What he doesn’t know is tonight, a thousand mirrors will shatter. The real me lost in the glistening shards, swirling like snowflakes during a winter storm.
I stare into the compact, fingers curled around its jagged edges. My face bleeds across the mirror, fracturing at the broken slice of glass. I study the cracked line, barely the size of a hair strand. It glows the color of the ocean before a storm, black and gray rolling across the icy blue water to conceal its beauty, its mysteries, its dangers. I slide my finger along the splintered glass, challenging the weak spot. It branches out like a drunken spider web, accelerating until it reaches the edge. When there’s no place left to run, the veins blacken and seep over the edge of the glass.
The mirror requires magic to manipulate images. I try to imagine what I’ll see once the magic works properly. I have yet to make it work the way it’s supposed to, but when I master the technique, I know it’ll be a deceptively ordinary reality. I press my finger through the crevice, feeling for the line of symmetry on the other side of the reflection. It’s there, if you have the ability to find it, projecting a carbon copy of everything in line with the mirror. I imagine myself casting back, dragging the fibers of this world into the reflection.
Like every time before, instead of the syrupy sensation I’m supposed to encounter, I get a sting. When I pull my finger from the breach, it’s sliced along the tip. I wipe the blood on my leg and swallow the thrill of the magic working inside me.
Broken glass, broken mirror: I am both.
I clasp the compact and trace the crease where it closes, twirling it between my thumb and forefinger, as I try to separate the interior fog clouding my thoughts.
Every day, the First City airs my story on WatchBank. I didn’t cause the fire that killed Princess Chevon. They still charged me with treason. The entire story is ludicrous. I’ve never been to the First City where she lives. They forced me into hiding until I can clear my name.
Sometimes the wanted poster flashes four or five times a day on the com-screens distributed around The Shadows. Many of the sector’s worst criminals live there. I suppose they think I’m famous amongst the villains.
In the nicer areas of the ward, such as Glass Hill, it’s broadcast only once a day on the cyber kiosks. It looks out of place mixed in with the stories that spotlight first-class citizens. Or the celebrity webcasts. The telecast that features my made-up criminal story doesn’t belong in the glitz and glam of the iridescent-blooded nobles.
Other than high society gossip, the kiosks run government propaganda. Hype pieces about magic and the evil it brings. Abolition. Revolution. Segregation. Anti-succession. With elections coming soon, the political ads can drive even the kindest people over the edge.
Now that I’m a fugitive, I have to work on a new disguise. I hope I can come out of hiding soon and live life again. Being the most-hated girl in what feels like the entire universe isn’t easy.
The sun glistens off the river. Early morning is my favorite time of day. This part of the ward, named The Shadows, is packed with street urchins, criminals, and homeless, their clothes tattered and faces unwashed. But this early in the day, most are still sleeping off the late night rumblings. Gates will be here with whatever food he’d scavenged from the table without notice. Sometimes I’m able to stretch the bread and cheese over several days. Sometimes I share it with an orphan girl who camps out in the empty warehouse across from the culvert I call home. Temporary home.
Footsteps approach and I crouch behind a rusted drain pipe. The sun has already heated the metal. It scorches my fingers and I jerk away, tumbling backward. The mirror compact in my pocket rattles. By the alchemy spirits, if it cracked more, it may be destroyed.
“Emery? It’s me,” Gates whispers. “You okay?”
I kiss my burn and rub my bad ankle, and then check my mirror. There’s no further damage so I stuff it back into my pocket and pull Gates around the drain pipe and into the hidden safety of my culvert. We’re invisible, but I can see a straight path to the broken and useless gates that are supposed to shut the entrance off from the main road.
“I’m hungry. What’d you bring me?” I shield my eyes from the glare. Gates cast a shadow over my body. “Did you to stay away from open places? It’s important no one finds me.”
He kicks the crumbling wall. “I couldn’t find you. Why’d ya move out here? I liked the warehouse better.”
“It got too crowded in there. You sure no one followed you?” I scan the area for soldiers. I can’t risk getting caught. Not before I change my appearance.
“I’m not five years old.” He fidgets with the knot on the bundle of food he brought me.
“I know. Sorry I’m jumpy.”
A helmet conceals his face. He seems on edge. As he pulls the helmet from his head, his gaze is fixed on the ground. Gates is the only person I can trust. I feel the muscles in my shoulders tighten, my heartbeat quickens.
“It’s okay. But everything’s not good at home,” he says.
I don’t know what to say, if I should soothe him, or panic. I hug him, because I know how sensitive he can be. Since our father has been sick, he’s been the man of the house. Such a huge responsibility for an eleven-year-old boy. But I can tell he’s worried about something. I watch over him as much as I can, without making him feel insecure or babied, but I’m useless while hiding. The grief I feel when he’s hurting, or afraid, threatens my very being.
I forget about my rumbling stomach and throbbing ankle. “Just tell me. No need to sugarcoat it. I’ll fix whatever the problem is.” I keep my words calm and my pitch level. Swallowing hard, I steel myself for whatever he’s about to tell me.
Gates takes both my hands and draws in a deep breath. “It’s Finley. She’s gone missing.”
It’s so quiet, you can hear a pin drop on a cotton pillow. My stomach rolls, nauseous.
I’m desperately hoping I heard him wrong, that he’s mistaken or been misinformed. When our mother was chosen to serve Master Colbalt, Finley was furious. She’d talk to her friends at school about the dangers of Ward segregation and magic being used for good. She mocked and publicly criticized the Chief Masters of the First City. Saying such things could lead to an arrest.
They chose Mother to serve in the First City because of her alabaster skin and hair. That way, she doesn’t blend in with the multi-colored hair and skin tones of the nobles. When they took her, Finley got really vocal. Stop the segregation. Remove the ban on magic. Abolish the Defenders. Then one day, my father fell ill. Friends of Finley started disappearing. Stopped coming to school. The doors on their houses barricaded with quarantine signs posted in their front yards.
As I step closer to Gates, I glance at his eyes, still smoldering underneath his forced and mature expression. His push into adulthood hurts me. He should be playing in the woods, catching tadpoles and building tree forts, not trying to manage a house and take care of Father.
“Are you sure?” I’m trying to convince myself he understands the difference between missing and away from home. Of course he does, I’m positive. I rephrase my question before he can go on the defense. “What happened?”
His face is masked, expressionless. But his eyes are brimming with tears. “She never came home last night after classes. Her Trial results were bad.”
It’s not unusual for Finley to stay out all night. But getting low Trail rates? Her score always ranks high, sometimes even higher than mine. Even when competing with classmates who can afford to buy good grades, or fake their Trial results with blackmarket magic, Finley has always done well.
Students who fail the Trials are exiled. As if the testing wasn’t stressful enough, family and peers are allowed to watch. The top finalists are thrown into in a fierce battle of wits. The winning Ward is showered with gifts. The losers banished to places like The Shadows, a mark engraved on their body. If you have a mark, you are exiled from everything and everyone you love.
Maybe Gates is thinking the same thing I am because his eyes darken, replacing the tears that threaten to fall. He turns away, looking over his shoulder. I want to tell him everything is going to be okay, but in the distance, I hear marching footsteps and the drum beat of the Defenders.
They found me.
They must have followed Gates, and he led them straight to my hiding place. He turns to me and I see him pale, as the blood drains from his face, his neck, even his arms. His helmet falls to the ground, hands clenched into fists, body stiff.
“I’m sorry, Emery! I didn’t mean to. Please forgive me,” he whimpers.
A smothered cry escapes my throat. “No, this can’t happen. Not like this. Not now. Gates, run! Get out of here,” I say through clamped teeth, hoping the Defenders are far enough away they’ll never catch him.
But it’s too late. Soldiers surround the culvert. One drags me though the opening, binding my wrists and forcing me to my knees. Gates is crying hysterically. He’s on his knees in front of me, his arms around my neck like an unbreakable lock.
“Stop it, Gates. This isn’t your fault,” I say forcefully, because it’s killing me inside to see him in such agony. I will not let my little brother see me cry. His last vision of me must be strong. It’ll be him and father left to muddle through the Trials, alone. It’s hard enough to watch a family member who attends the Academy go through their yearly trial when you have the support of other family with you. I have to set a good example of courage.
One of the soldiers pulls him to his feet. His helmet rolls away and stops against my knee. Inside, I see words sketched in wobbly handwriting. They read, “To Gates. There is no escape without courage.”
A gift from Finley. Why had she written that? Did she know this day would come when she gave it to him for his birthday last year?
The Lead Defender, in his bold purple sash and plume of feathers atop his helmet, reads me the Punishment According to Betrayal treaty and motions for me to start walking toward Glass Hill. Defender Two drags Gates in front of me. I’m forced to watch him stumble and trip as his skinny legs and short stature can’t keep up with the soldier’s rigorous pace.
As soon as we reach the Glass Tower, in the center of the Ward, they march me into the Retribution Room and Gates is taken to the Rehabilitation Building. Maybe he won’t have to watch my Trial, but it’s usual for family members to sit in the front row. They call it the family box, but it’s not really a box. It’s an extra-long cushioned couch with high armrests on each end. They’re so tall, your arms can’t reach them, but you can lean your shoulders against them.
The room is empty and I stand in the waiting area until I receive further instructions. I thought they would arrest me. I don’t know why they brought me to the Academy. I walk toward the window and glass crunches under my shoes like a million shards are underfoot. When I look down, nothing is there. The floor is clean, shiny. I see my reflection staring back at me, as if daring me to do anything to change what is about to happen.
I rest my forehead on the window and stare at the glass garden. The colored orbs and crystal stalks do their best to add a cheery countenance to the day. The sound of ripping glass swishes in my ears. There’s a tiny split in the glass window. I trace the line with my finger.
An army of footsteps echoes in the hallway. Friends I’ve known my whole life will now be my jury. If I fail, I’ll soon be nothing but a memory to them. My heart sinks. It’s time.
I push away from the window and wipe the foggy ring left by own breath. I’m standing in the foyer of the glass tower. The tallest building on this side of campus, it cuts through the skyline like a jagged glass sword. Designed as a bulwark of protection, there’s no stopping what is to come.
My friends and classmates enter the foyer, chattering around me like I’m not even there. It grates against my brain like sandpaper on concrete. To them, I’m invisible, their peer on trial. Rules are you’re not allowed to talk to a person on Trial. But one day, I’ll leave a mark they can never erase.
Then something unexpected happens. We take the window-box elevator to the top floor. The world outside blurs past. The shiny, metallic panels around each building hang in rigid rows like tin soldiers lined up for war.
The elevator stops and we step into the most-hated place on campus. The Watching Room. A glass partition separates this area from the Numbing Room.
I don’t know why they bring me here instead of court. It’s mandatory that every student at the Academy watch a student who has failed the Trails get their Turning. When you are turned, you have your magic, your talent, your gift, and sometimes your intelligence taken from you. Then you are sent away, never allowed into the Ward again, unless by some miracle you get another Trial and pass it with a perfect score.
For a brief moment, I feel a tiny flicker of hope that this has all be a mistake and I’m simply being forced to watch some poor schlep have his dignity taken from him before he’s exiled.
When I look through the one-way mirror, the other side of the room is empty. My fingers press against the glass, trying to block the glare, but I see only sterile, white walls and sterling silver machines. I cup my hands around my eyes. There’s enough luminosity in the other room I can read the flashes on the flatscreen of the machine closest to me, but no name is displayed yet.
I prop my foot against the floor guard and slip my hand inside my jacket pocket. The glass beads of my bracelet jingle, a cheerful sound out of place. The glass beards were made from the most exquisite ebony, painstakingly crafted and colored by the Master Artesian himself. A gift from my father on my sixteenth birthday last year, right before he fell ill.
I stand in front of the one-way mirror of the watching room as close to the loudspeaker as possible. The only sound I hear is shuffling feet as a nurse enters the room, her patient following behind her, though a tad bit groggily. I press my forehead against the glass and squint for a better view of who it is, led by two Defenders toward the numbing device.
My stomach is churning again and my palms are sweaty and shaking. I’m hoping, pleading with the alchemy spirits that it’s not Gates, that it’s not Finley.
The nurse shuffles over to the machine and presses several buttons. The Defenders finally move from in front of the person strapped to the chair.
I try and process the cruelty of the Trials, but there’s not time to catch my breath. The loud speaker crackles and the voice of Mayor Ronan Silverwater across the airwaves. His picture lights up the WatchBank.
“Hello citizens of Glass Hill, students of the Academy, and welcome today, to even the poor class of The Shadows. The Trial of Emery Glass has begun. As you see, the Trials from this day forward will be aired live for all to see. We encourage all students to work diligently to avoid the humiliation to your family and friends. Even the world, as we all watch.
“In an effort to abolish lies and deceit and as a measure to find the hidden magic still slipping into our beautiful wards and cities, the rules for our Trials have changed as well. What are the rules? Let the Trial begin, and you shall see.”
This can’t be real. Why is my Trial the first one to air over WatchBank? New rules and hidden magic? I swallow hard and tighten my shoulders. I can’t show weakness. For all I know, the WatchBank has me displayed live right now.
The loudspeaker in the corner crackles again, this time coming from the other side of the two-way mirror. “Will this hurt a lot?” Her voice squeaks, but she clears her throat and tries again. “I mean, how long will it take?”
Someone behind me snickers. “Seriously? She already knows the answer. Why would she ask that?”
Another kid laughs. “How many of these has Finley attended? What a wimp.”
My throat stings and my eyes burn. I want to say something, but I’m angry and I don’t want to cry. I won’t give them the satisfaction. I will not stand Trial with blotchy eyes and a snotty, red nose. Tears are not an option.
Another voice behind me pipes up. “I bet five ebonies she breaks down in tears. Who’s in?”
People file into the glass box on the other side of the watching room. More students file in and it’s so crowded I can’t breathe. I don’t know what they expect from me during my supposed Trial. Are they watching how I’ll react to seeing my sister turned? Is that my test? Do they plan to bring Gates here, too? He’s not old enough for Trials yet, but with the secretive new rules, I don’t know what to expect.
From behind me, I can hear ebonies getting tossed in the betting bowl. Sounds like falling rain on a tin roof. Every student in the room must be placing bets, guessing if she’ll try and run, break out in tears, or go willing. I know Finley. She’ll stay put. And then she’ll find a way to beat the Trial in no time. She takes after mother, that’s for sure.
The nurse takes a large syringe from a tray and stick it into an IV hooked to Finley’s arm.
“What are they giving her?” I blurt out. I clamp my hand over my mouth. Finley thrashes in the chair and her painful cries blare through the partition.
The loud speaker comes to life again, with Mayor Ronan’s voice. “You will know soon enough, Miss Glass. There’s going to be a competition. A competition of magic between you and your sister. You both enjoy spreading propaganda on the good in magic. Prove its worth. The winner will be given extraordinary gifts. The loser will be put to death. May the best sister win.”
140 Character Pitch:
11yo Epson has an alien in his backpack. If he and his three classmates fail the alien’s deadly tests, the world ends. No pressure. #PitProm
Dear PitProm Royal Advisors,
Test anxiety is intense, especially when the fate of the world is at stake.
My middle grade science fiction novel, Intergalactic Backpack, pits a socially anxious sixth grader against a series of alien constructed death-tests. It’s a combination of the awkward developing friendships in The Sandlot and the epic nerd vs. alien battles of William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig. The book is complete at 47,000 words.
Eleven-year-old Epson Dean has never liked exams. Or stress. Or people.
But when an evil alien shows up in his backpack, Epson must confront his fears and pass three deadly challenges to prove humankind deserves to exist.
The diabolical tests force Epson and three of his classmates to face extreme heights, boy bands, pool parties, fast food restaurant mascots, and deadly alien creatures from all around the galaxy.
One F means meant the end of all humankind, but, no pressure, right?
I’m currently a middle and high school art/film teacher and the voices of my students are infused into this story. Previously, I spent ten years as a Special Education Teacher where I learned how hard it is to turn reluctant readers into repeat-readers. I want to be a part of that movement. I believe this novel has the characters, humor, and action that will get kids hooked. Intergalactic Backpack is my fourth middle grade novel.
Thank you for your time.
Sir Jared Agard
First Ten Pages:
Chapter One - When Epson Met Proctor
Something bad was gonna happen. It always did.
I laid on my bed in the fetal position, planning all the ways I would embarrass myself on my first day of sixth grade.
A button would pop off the dorky shirt my mom told me I had to wear. Or maybe someone would talk to me and my whole head would turn bright red like an overripe tomato. My underwear would pop out of the top of my pants. I’d laugh and a booger would come shooting out of my nose.
There was no escaping it. I was a disaster. My life was over, and I was only eleven.
“Epson. Can I come in?”
“Uh, yeah.” I sat up on my bed, adjusted my headphones, and plastered a smile on my face. Mom and Dad couldn’t see me freaking out. They were already worried enough. Last year they’d talked to a school counselor because I didn’t have any friends. The counselor had called it “social anxiety.” I called it survival. I kept to myself to avoid humiliation. Unfortunately, humiliation always found me, no matter how well I hid.
Mom cracked the door open and peeked in.
“All ready for tomorrow?”
I pointed to the stacks of supplies on the floor. “Almost. Did you find a backpack?”
I tried to see it but I couldn’t. She held it by the strap, just outside of my doorframe.
“I’ve got it right here.” She fake-smiled and walked into my room, still keeping the new pack hidden behind her. “I lucked out. There were only three backpacks left and this one was on clearance.”
Clearance. The word sent shivers down my spine. My mom was great. Maybe even a candidate for Mother of the Year, but she did have one solid weakness. She couldn’t resist a deal, even if it would mess her kids up for life.
“What’s wrong with it?” I tried to see around her.
She leaned to the right to block my view. “Oh, come on! Be open-minded. It’s not my fault you guys set your backpacks on fire when summer started.”
“That was Julius! That wasn’t my fault, either.” My older brother always did crazy stuff that ended up making my life worse.
“Well, you should’ve at least told me about needing new ones before yesterday.”
She had a point, but speaking up isn’t really my thing. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst. She swung the backpack in my lap and headed for the door like a coward.
“No way, Mom!” My voice cracked.
She stopped and turned around, her eyes darting to the left and then the right. “Don’t be so dramatic, Epson. It’s a backpack. It’s for carrying books and binders. Who cares what’s on the front?”
I stared at the pack in horror, the nylon straps crinkling in my clenched fists.
Safari Sally stared back at me.
Sally, of course, looked overjoyed to be on the backpack of a boy whose head was doomed to the insides of toilets and trashcans. She held her magical butterfly net high above her white safari hat and proclaimed her tagline in massive pink letters:
Today is your greatest adventure!
Sure, Sally. If getting my butt kicked was the definition of adventure. I glared at my mom. This had to be a sick joke.
Mom backed closer to my door.
“Please, tell me this is for Teddy.”
“Of course not. Teddy wanted blue. This one’s black.” She nodded as if that settled the case. Her hand gripped my doorknob.
“I can’t take this to school.” I nudged it with one finger, like it was made of something toxic. It fell off my bed and flopped to the floor. The stress burning in my stomach raged into a forest fire.
“Oh, don’t look so glum. No one will even notice. They’ll be too distracted by your sparkly personality.”
Yeah, right. No Mother of the Year Award for her. She stepped into the hall.
“Pack it up. Make it yours. It just has to get you through sixth grade. Now, get some sleep. You need to get used to having a bed time again.” She closed the door behind her.
No need to be worried about embarrassing myself at school. My mom had literally slapped a target on my back. I reached down and picked the backpack up off the floor. Maybe I could steal a roll of Dad’s duct tape and transform Safari Sally into a gray silver blob.
“Epson Dean. Alone at last.”
I jumped. Where had that voice come from? My fingers traced the cord of my humungous headphones. There was no music playing. And even if there was, why would some random singer say my name?
“Epson Dean? I know you can hear me.” The voice sounded fancy like some rich British guy. The backpack in my lap inflated like a bag of microwave popcorn. I tossed it off me and bolted for the door.
“Oh, my. Far stupider than I had imagined.”
I wriggled the doorknob. It held fast, like it had been super-glued. I used both hands. No luck.
“Have a seat, Epson. Let’s talk.” The backpack stood up, its strap gesturing to me.
“MOM! MOOOOOOOOM!” I shouted, pounding my fists against my flimsy door. But the door was no longer flimsy. It felt like it was made of cement. My voice absorbed into it, no echo of sound from the hallway. I’d officially lost my mind.
“You wouldn’t want to break the rules before you even learned what they are.”
I glanced over my shoulder. The backpack waved its strap at me. Yeah, this was not happening.
“HELP! MOM! DAD! HELP!”
“Ah. Yelling for help. Good plan except it’s not. Would you like to know why?”
“Reason number one: If you tell anyone about me, you fail the test.”
“Reason number two: I can control light and sound waves. I’m absorbing yours right now.”
“HEEEEEEELLLLLLPPPPPP!” I continued my useless door pounding.
“Reason number three: Simply put, you look pathetic. Please stop before I lose all respect for you.”
My fists throbbed but still no sound came. It was like watching TV with the volume muted. I turned and faced the possessed backpack.
“What are you?” I asked, still panting from my attack on the door.
“I am your test administrator. A Norell-Floggersaff. My name is unpronounceable by your kind, so you can call me Proctor.”
“Proctor?” My whole body shook.
“That is what you call someone who gives a test, isn’t it? You would correct me if I was wrong, wouldn’t you? I’ve only been speaking English for a few hours.”
I took a step closer, curiosity overpowering my fear. “W–what are you?”
“Open the backpack and have a look.”
And then fear overpowered my curiosity. I backed away.
“Come on, Epson Dean. We have work to do. Let’s get to know one another and then I can properly introduce you to your tests.”
I crept forward, my eyes locked on the backpack. It had to be a trick. Or maybe a dream. I grabbed on to the zipper, holding it tightly in my sweaty hand.
And there he was: A glowing head made completely of light, floating in the darkness of my backpack. No body or neck or anything. Just a bald head. Blue sparks crackled around him as he opened his blank white eyes. His forehead wrinkled when he saw me, and a sly smirk stretched across his face.
“Whoa.” I leaned closer.
“Well,” said Proctor, “You’re rather plain, and a bit fat, but you’ll do.”
I barely heard him. “W–what are you?”
“You’ve already asked that. Three times. Not too bright, are you? Oh well. The choice has been made. No way around it.”
“It’s like you’re made out of light,” I whispered. He looked cool. Jagged forks of lightning licked the darkness around him like electric snake tongues.
“Very good. I am made out of light. Pure light. A Norell-Floggersaff, remember? It is my job to test your planet’s dominant species. And you, my lucky human, have been randomly selected to represent humankind.”
“You’re my test subject now.” He smiled at me like a game show host awarding a prize.
“Tests? What tests?” My mind raced. Out of all the people in the world I was the one who ended up with a Safari Sally backpack full of alien. I’d always thought I had the worst luck on the planet. Now I had proof.
“So, a quick overview of the rules: You can’t tell anyone else about me or the tests. You can’t throw me in the garbage or leave me on a bus or give me to someone else. Most importantly, you can’t die. There’s no dying allowed. Do you understand, Epson?”
My mind was blank. I couldn’t think. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open.
Proctor smiled at me again. “Don’t you want to know what happens if you fail?”
I couldn’t respond. My lips had stopped working. I made my head to nod.
Proctor glowed bright, spinning like he was on an axis. His head smoothed out and became round like a ball. Little continents and cloud accumulations appeared over the face of the globe. It was Earth.
Lightning struck in a bazillion places all at once, raking the surface of the planet. My jaw opened even wider. Proctor’s face reappeared on the planet as it spun to a halt.
“W-what…what was that?” I forced my quivering lips to move.
“That’s what happens if you fail the tests, kiddo.” The smile returned to his lips. “I wipe humans out of existence.”
Chapter Two - First Day
My stomach was in a knot, all twisted. Everyone was stressed. The kid on my left nibbled at his fingernail while bouncing his knee up and down like a jackhammer. The girl sitting in front of him ran her fingers through her hair, over and over, as if one strand out of place would mean the end of the world.
And then there was me, more freaked out than any of them, because if I screwed up on Proctor’s tests it would be the end of the world.
I jumped in my seat.
Oh no. Not here. Not now.
Proctor’s ramblings and the threat of the destruction of all human beings had kept me up most of the night, so I wasn’t in the best mood. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry about my classmates listening in on Proctor’s insults. He spoke by aiming sound waves right into my eardrum, so no one else could hear him. Just me.
“Maybe odor and intellect are related in humans, hmmm? Your tiny brain would need to expend more energy to conjure even the weakest thought, thus expelling copious amounts of burn-off in the form of sweat and pungent gases.”
It should’ve been easy to ignore him. I didn’t even understand half the words he said. His smug voice was so annoying, though, like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.
I shifted in my plastic chair, trying to listen to my teacher and just relax. But there was nothing relaxing about Mr. Mattock or his classroom. Sixth grade was nothing like elementary school. No warm-and-fuzzy stuff all over the walls, just four straight rows of desks, ten deep. It smelled like a hospital and felt like a prison. And Mr. Mattock was the warden.
“There will be no tomfoolery in my class,” he said as he marched down the first row, dropping a worksheet on each desk he passed. “And no monkey business!”
“The fumes are centralized in your armpits,” Proctor continued. “You slopped on gallons of that antiperspirant and it’s not working at all. Fun fact: You smell so bad because you’re issuing an apocrine sweat, easily categorized due to its location and foul odor.”
“That is a fun fact. Now shut it.” I muttered back through gritted teeth.
“I can calculate the moisture level in your armpits if you’d like.”
“Oh, who wouldn’t like that?”
He went silent, probably completely focused on collecting my sweat-data.
I scanned the room. Mr. Mattock pivoted and continued up the next row. With his back to me, the coast was clear. Other students were busy chatting or doodling so I snatched up my backpack. I was careful to hug it to my chest so no one would see the embarrassment printed on the front. Attempting to cover Safari Sally with duct tape didn’t feel like much of a priority after hearing about the tests.
I hoped beyond hope that he wouldn’t be inside, that all I’d see was books and a binder like the rest of the normal kids.
Ha. Yeah, right.
Proctor’s head floated in a black cloud just above my supplies. I waited for him to say something but his mouth was too busy chomping on the last orange crumbs of my Cheetos.
Great. He’d already eaten my entire lunch, and it was only first period.
Stranded in a Martian desert, a cybernetic soldier teams up with her friend-turned-enemy in a desperate attempt to survive. #pitprom #SFF
Dear Royal Advisors,
Separated from her unit after a brutal accident, Nadema finds herself in the middle of an inhospitable Martian desert unable to call for help. As a half-organic robot and the former commander of a Nobu armada, Nadema has always been treated like a walking warhead. Her limbs can be replaced as easily as car parts, and the idea of vulnerability is laughable. Now, with her systems fragmented and her memory failing, she thinks she’s doomed to die. But when she runs into an old friend-turned-enemy – the recalcitrant, traumatized Hara – she realizes that she must utilize every resource that she has at her disposal, including her unwilling companion, in order to make it back to her family alive. If she doesn’t, she risks not only her death but the annihilation of Hara’s people at the hands of her vengeful brother.
Complete at 136,000 words, IDOLS OF PARADISE is a character-driven adult space opera where PITCH BLACK meets AN EMBER IN THE ASHES. IDOLS OF PARADISE has series potential.
I have a Minor in Creative Writing from OCAD University, and have created educational scripts for Make A Change Canada. I’ve also worked as a content writer for BBTV, and have written a byline for Film Daily as a freelance contributor. Additionally, I’m one of the co-hosts for the podcast Metamashina, where we discuss genre fiction from the feminine gaze. This is my first novel.
Thank you for your time and your consideration of my query.
First Ten Pages:
Chapter I: The Silence
When Nadema began to remember her accident in bits and pieces, the most important thing she recalled was that she was very good at adapting.
Like all toddlers taking their first steps, her initial attempts at moving were a series of accidents that involved running into a succession of objects. Heartfelt efforts at walking were met with bumps to the head and bruising limbs, and no one came to pick her up. Nadema wasn’t young, but she felt like it in that moment, a newborn in an adult’s skin barely bigger than a child and just as frail.
WARNING, a small, tinny voice declared from the side of her head as she fell to her knees, then staggered upwards. Not a man nor a woman, but familiar perhaps. Scrawling numbers tracked across her vision from right to left, and it took Nadema a moment to place them. WARNING, CRITICAL SYSTEMS MALFUNCTION, the person said. RESYNC IN PROGRESS.
Processor, she realized. I’m speaking to my processor, but all the came back was static.
Around her the world was stained a hazy shade of orange, the same color as the sand-choked sky. The light of a nearby star blazed downwards, turning the hue of her skin a warmer shade of ivory. ‘You aren’t supposed to be here,’ someone had told her when she’d first woken up in the grasslands, hours ago, and those words were the ones that Nadema remembered the most when she thought back through all the white noise. It was in the shudder of goosebumps running up her arms. The twitch of a finger. A sluggish stream of black fluid had slowly dripped its way past her lips. She’d been thinking of something else before this, only it had been of a different time and a different place. A pocket of dark matter, with the singular memory of a planet shattering before a streak of white light. Why was she in a field of poppies?
RESYNC IN PROGRESS, her processor continued. BOOT CONFIGURATION AT 36%.
“I know,” Nadema said. She felt like crying. Her processor hadn’t stopped glitching since she’d woken up. “I know. Be quiet.” It couldn’t.
A breeze wound through the sand-choked poppy field that surrounded her, stirring up dust and making the flowers undulate. Nadema clenched her fists and looked down, dipping to the right as she fought to stay up. Her armor—tarnished, scuffed, and falling off her in pieces—had once been bright red. Now it was mostly missing from her arms and bottom left leg. Beneath the gaps in the metal, hundreds of scars ran across her arms in a sprawling network of aging lacerations. She didn’t remember why she had them—the wounds were healed—so she tentatively slid her palm along the ridges, watching as the marks pulsed white beneath her fingertips. The she looked up again, coughing on the black fluid that still stained her lips. Oh, that star was bright. Had it been this big before her accident?
BOOT CONFIGURATION AT 74%.
“Shut up,” she begged. “Please.” Her heads-up system ignored her.
Nadema stared at the star until she should have gone blind from its light, but didn’t. She should have gained energy from its heat—absorbed through her skin in a grid—but that failed to happen. When she’d first woken up amongst the poppies, she’d tried to absorb the elements around her in an effort to increase her energy—running her hands over the too-hot sand to soak in its heat, her fingers vibrating against the flowers with a metallic hum until the petals wilted. Unfortunately she couldn’t repurpose the matter. Her skin remained dull, splotched with purple bruising. Now she could taste dust on her tongue and dust down her throat, and when she ground her teeth sand scraped between her molars. Nadema’s lungs burned as they searched for oxygen, the grit beneath her fingernails irritated her too-sensitive skin. She knew she’d been in an accident, but she had no recollection of what the accident was or how she’d ended up here. What was her mission, before this?
Right, she thought. Remember your training. You know how to deal with this.
Run local_triangulation.exe, she told her processor, fighting the escalating panic as she took her first steps. Which way to go? Towards the star? Nothing came back from the data stream, but her legs almost gave out. Run communications.exe, she tried next. Run backup_gen.exe. Neither worked.
‘Little One, why did you run?’ that voice asked her, rattling around inside her head. Nadema couldn’t stop sweating, and her hands shook like she had some sort of nerve damage. Something cold and hard dug into her spine.
RESYNC IN PROGRESS, her systems trilled. BOOT CONFIGURATION AT 74%. WARNING, MULTIPLE EXTERNAL ERRORS DETECTED. IONIC EXPOSURE EXCEEDS RECOMMENDED SAFETY LIMITS. CRITICAL SYSTEMS MALFUNCTION IN PROGRESS. PLEASE RETURN TO THE NEAREST DREADNOUGHT FOR IMMEDIATE REPAIRS.
Nadema gagged, coughing so violently she spat out blood. It was black, too.
“Okay,” she told herself. Her words echoed in on themselves, like her voice box was broken. Nadema’s gaze darted back and forth, from the blood flecking the grass to the sun above. “Okay, you can do this. Find a dreadnought.” Mission first. Family second. Self last. The directive was hard-coded from birth.
‘Why did you run?’ the voice asked again.
“I don’t know,” she replied, swallowing thickly against the sand. She put a hand to the front of her throat, where the armor was still mostly intact, but beneath its carapace-styled shell her skin felt bruised, too. The wind moaned and the poppies danced.
No one answered her.
Once the resync was complete, Nadema hit execute on her systems check with a fervor, cataloguing outside information at unsafe speeds as she attempted to sift through the synesthetic overload that ricocheted around her brain. Something was definitely wrong.
INTERIOR SPINE INTACT, the report came back. She kept on walking. IRREGULARITIES WITH EXTERIOR SPINE DETECTED. HEAD OPERATIONAL. LIMBS ATTACHED. IONIC SHIELDING NON-OPERATIONAL. MULTIPLE ARMOR BREACHES DETECTED. MULTIPLE CRITICAL MALFUNCTIONS DETECTED. CONTUSIONS TO THE LEFT PARIETAL BONE, SQUAMOUS SUTURE, OPTIC CANAL, ATLAS AND AXIS. RIGHT FALSE RIBS EIGHT-TO-TEN FRACTURED.
The list went on and on, until Nadema shut it off.
The accident must have been bad, she decided, trying to dampen her anxiety. She’d been in accidents before and she’d always made it out okay. Seeing double—and tripping over her own feet—she ticked off her list of objectives. She needed help, but out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by poppies she was vulnerable. A queasy feeling in her gut told her that no one thought she was coming back.
You work best as a team, she reminded herself, and she continued to march through the poppies. Teams have food, and water, and communications terminals. Find yourself a new one. They’ll be at a dreadnought. She had no problems asking for help when she needed it, nor was she picky with the source.
The numbers trekking across her vision were mostly junk, filled with urgent warnings about failing organs and ionic contamination. One of them—THIS UNIT IS SUFFERING FROM ADVANCED MULTI-SYSTEM FAILURE, PLEASE RETURN TO THE NEAREST DREADNOUGHT FOR IMMEDIATE REPAIRS—repeated more frequently than the rest, but she ignored it. So long as her spine was intact and her head was attached to her body, her nanites would try to fix the damage. She just had to make it to a repair station before the damage got worse, or—Father forbid—decay set in. If she did that she would survive, Nadema was sure. Her protigenitor had always said she was good at adapting.
Some of the other data was still good.
Nadema knew that the external temperature was three hundred and twenty-two degrees Kelvin. Her internal barometer told her that her body temperature was five degrees lower than normal. The wind travelled at ten knots, threading in from the northeast. She also knew that the nearby star’s name was Gogam from the charts stored in her datahive, and that it would set in sixteen hours. The rest of her memories were scattered and discombobulated, bleeding into each other in a catastrophic tangle. Her instincts told her that if she followed the edge of the field she might find an escape. Escape was a new word of hers, and like all data she found relevant Nadema hoarded it. She clung to information about herself, too.
The crimson armor that covered her body from chin to toe was severely damaged, bordering on useless. A memory warned her that it’s distinctive color would give her away. No one had found her after her accident, so she was probably in hostile territory and would have been better off ditching it in an effort to blend in, but Nadema had spent her entire life in metal. She felt naked without it, so she kept it on.
‘Be careful who you talk to,’ the voice warned. ‘They’ll kill you.’
“I know,” she said. It made her feel a little less lonely, to talk to the emptiness. Her tremors and the sweats were getting worse.
The giant star remained steady. Nadema smelled dirt and dust and the perfume of poppies. She saw no signs to indicate any sort of civilization. No sounds of life other than the whir of the flies. She walked west for a time, because west was home and when in doubt it was the direction they were trained to follow. When west brought her nothing but grass and more grass Nadema decided there was nothing to be gained by following that particular rule and changed her course to march east instead. She trudged for hours, but when east yielded nothing she grit her teeth against the pain in her legs and went northwest, towards the day-wards trajectory of the star. Gogam was huge and its core was decaying, but its path was slow and predictable. The days are always like this, even though the star’s a bit closer, she told herself. Your internal navigation is fried.
The internal warning signals from her HUD went off again. THIS UNIT IS SUFFERING FROM ADVANCED MULTI-SYSTEM FAILURE, it trumpeted. PLEASE RETURN TO THE NEAREST DREADNOUGHT FOR IMMEDIATE REPAIRS.
Nadema swatted at her head. It can’t be that bad, she thought. Advanced multi-system failure was something that happened to other people. Weaker people who were not her, or people who were not her father’s favorite.
‘My beautiful girl,’ someone whispered from her memories.
The warning persisted. Nadema reached up, ripping open the skin behind her ear and removing a soft white wire to sever it between her nails. After that, there was perfect silence. The visual glitches were still there, but the noise was not.
“Complete the mission,” she chanted. A half-remembered song came back to her in the newfound silence: a lullaby. Nadema began humming it as she stayed along an unerringly straight path, following the pre-planned trajectory in her head. Eventually her marching led her to another edge of the field. She didn’t realize it was there at first, so wrapped up she was in studying a star map that she’d recovered from her local datahive.
This system has one star, she mused, looking over the chart in her head with her second set of pupils. She had three in either eye, and could focus on multiple data points at once—reports were easy enough to run in the background on minimal power. She took another step. This system has three planets, but it used to have nine. Where did the others go?
A sudden drop-off into open air greeted her internal question. She’d reached the edge. Nadema cursed, scrabbling backwards to keep herself from tumbling over the side.
Ahead of her the land sheared off into an abyss. The air crackled with static behind a storm front that was as opaque as a vat of aging soup. Nadema looked down at the expanse of open air, and a crushing whiteness flashed through her memory, leaving her stricken. Her breath clutched in her throat and she swayed to the side as her mind curled in on itself. It reminded her of the pale light that had come before. Of falling.
WARNING, ARMOR BREACH.
In her mind’s eye she saw it: exploding ships, planets shattering into a sea of dust. A monolithic tenor spoke to her through the silence of the Void, but the memories were not her own. She couldn’t control the input. These aren’t my memories, she reminded herself, breathing too hard, but it didn’t work. They’re someone else’s. Not yours, never yours, don’t panic, it’s just a virus. They’re not yours, abort, abort, run abort.exe--
‘But these are your memories,’ the voice said. ‘Or did you forget that too?’
The world around her flickered into blackness, oscillating like the light between the blades in an exhaust fan. Nadema stumbled and her left ankle gave out. She vomited. I can’t be sick, she thought as she sunk to the ground. I’m never sick. She passed out then, limbs akimbo and bile on her lips.
When Nadema woke up it was still midday and the star was at its zenith. She was sprawled on her stomach, her left arm and leg dangling over the side of the cliff.
RESYNC IN PROGRESS, her HUD warned. BOOT CONFIGURATION AT 13%.
Nadema bit down on her tongue, clenching her fingers against the grass. The skin along her back burned beneath the star’s relentless glare.
Remember your training, she told herself as the resync completed, fighting back tears. Find yourself a new unit. Go home and get repairs. You’ll feel better soon.
What training? something inside her screamed. What repairs?! You’re decaying!
I’m not. I can’t be. People like her didn’t decay.
Two 12/year-olds are press-ganged into being the protagonists of an unfinished fantasy novel: one to be the hero, one to die. #PitProm
I am seeking representation for my metafictional middle grade fantasy novel, TITLE PENDING, which is complete at approximately 84,000 words.
Twelve-year-old Main Character and Dead Boy forgot their real names when they were summoned to be the protagonists for an unfinished fantasy novel. Scared and confused by this new world where everyone is named after their role in the story, they just want to go home. Except that's not possible, not until they defeat Villain and the plot is finished. At least, that's what Traitor Figure tells them, and who knows if he's trustworthy or not.
But when Villain unexpectedly abandons his invasion of The Good Kingdom and sends the rising action downhill, the kingdom is thrown into a panic. Without a good antagonist they can't make a plot worth reading, and their world will fade away into the obscure nothingness that awaits all forgotten stories. So our young heroes‒‒along with a disturbingly ladylike Feisty Princess, a Mentor Figure with a false beard, and several other supposedly 'traditional' characters‒‒are sent off on a quest to find Villain and fix the rapidly unraveling plot.
Readers who enjoy the satirical comedy of BROODING YA HERO: BECOMING A MAIN CHARACTER (ALMOST) AS AWESOME AS ME and the fantastical world and narrative style of THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING will appreciate the much shorter title of TITLE PENDING and probably the contents within as well.
As for myself, I am a Philadelphia native with a B.A. in English Writing from Wheaton College. A few my short stories have been published in literary magazines such as Sun & Sandstone and Kodon. Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
In which something sinister, violent, and vaguely supernatural happens as part
of the book's hook, which compels you to read the rest of the actual novel.
Plot Hook woke up that morning, as always, with a vague sense of dread. However, this was perfectly natural when the ultimate purpose of your life was to die in some nasty, horrible way, so the dwarf didn't think much of it.
He got out of his cot and shrugged on the dented steel breastplate and greaves that composed the entirety of the uniform he'd been issued before being packed off to the lonely watchtower at the edge of the Dark And Scary Forest. Plot Hook didn't mind being alone. He'd been allowed to bring his personal book collection with him, and the solitude provided him time to read. Even so, when he'd heaved the enormous trunk onto the boar-cart, his mother had shaken her head sadly, sure that all those expensive books would be lost or destroyed in the inevitable carnage. Nobody knew exactly how the dwarf was going to die, but everyone was sure that it would be fittingly shocking, and that meant violence on a grand scale.
Yawning, Plot Hook walked down the steps from the loft where he slept and made himself a pot of coffee. The room below his loft was a simple kitchen with a small table and only one chair. Plot Hook never got any visitors. Once the coffee was brewed, he poured the entire pot into a mug the size of a flower vase, along with two sizable dollops of cream and a single teaspoon of sugar. He checked to see that the thermal enchantment on the mug was still working. The last time the enchantment had given out the coffee had grown cold within an hour, spoiling both the coffee and Plot Hook's entire day. But there was nothing to worry about today. The enchantment was still running hot.
Plot Hook tucked his book under his arm and, mug in hand, made his way up the winding staircase, past his loft and up to his post at the top of the tower. The building where Plot Hook lived and worked was small by watchtower standards, just a rough stone column thirty-five feet high and twenty feet around. But when the dwarf opened the trapdoor and stepped out onto the viewing platform, he had a clear 360-degree view for miles around, both of the Dark And Scary Forest in front of him and the Peaceful Buffer Zone at his back.
Plot Hook settled into the armchair in the center of the otherwise empty roof. The military-issue canopy, complete with the latest in anti-weather enchantments, kept the normally chilly air quite cozy and snug, something for which he was constantly grateful. He swiveled his chair so it faced the forest, away from the rising sun, and opened his book to where he'd left off last night. Nothing ever happened in the buffer zone, just rabbits frisking, birds singing, that sort of thing.
Nothing much happened in the forest either, for that matter. Although there was occasional roar of a troll, and at night the wolves could make quite a racket howling at the moon. But all in all, Plot Hook's life at the watchtower was as peaceful and relaxed as the day he'd arrived over a year ago.
However, like all forms of earthly peace, this one was only temporary. As the yellow rim of the sun crept out from the underside of the earth, Plot Hook spied something over the pages of his book. It didn't look like much, only a black dot in the distance. At first the dwarf wasn't even sure it was there at all; it could have just been a trick of his imagination. But the more he stared, the more he was convinced that this was no trick of the eyes. He watched the speck for some time, the seconds turning into minutes, the minutes chugging along into hours. It was definitely growing larger. Occasionally he would try to resume his reading, but his eyes skimmed over the written lines without actually absorbing their meaning. So eventually he gave up and watched his doom approach.
At first Plot Hook thought it might be a dragon. A dragon would certainly qualify as a kingdom-destroying disaster. But as it drew closer, he saw that it was flying far too slowly to be a dragon. Moreover, it didn't have wings. It actually looked more like a lump of coal. Plot Hook realized that he was annoyed. This was taking a really long time, and he couldn't even get a proper look at whatever this thing was. He didn't have a field glass, though it seemed obvious in retrospect that he should have been given one. As it was, he just had to content himself with squinting and waiting.
After another hour had passed Plot Hook decided he had the shape of it. It was a giant floating Evil Lair. The approaching object looked like a castle hewn out of a single black rock the size of a small mountain. And as if the ominous black coloring wasn't enough to give it away, Plot Hook could now see the outlines of several pointy towers. The dwarf figured it was about time he made his report, so he reached under his chair and pulled out a small wooden box. He pressed his thumb against the side of the box, which sprang open at his touch, revealing a small crystal orb. Plot Hook took the orb out of the box and held it to his lips.
"This is Guard Whose Death Is The Signal Bad Things Have Started to Happen And The Plot Has Begun." Considering the gravity of the situation, the dwarf had decided to use his proper name instead his less formal nickname. A few seconds later there was a crackling noise from the orb, and a small voice, echoic and distorted like someone speaking from inside of a church bell, answered.
"We hear you, Plot Hook. What's the situation?"
"It looks like today's the day," Plot Hook said. "I've got a visual on a giant floating castle. Never seen anything like it before. Looks like an Evil Lair if you ask me. At its current speed, I'd say you've got perhaps ten days before it reaches the castle."
"Any hostile activity?" The voice, distorted though it was, still sounded disturbingly eager to Plot Hook.
"Nothing yet. But if I haven't checked back in with you in an hour, assume the worst."
"Will do!" The orb fell silent.
Plot Hook set the communication crystal down and looked back to where the Evil Lair loomed. It was close now, less than a mile. For a moment Plot Hook considered running. If he ran down the stairs and legged it across the Buffer Zone he could probably find shelter somewhere before the Lair reached him. Nothing that big would land just to search for one measly dwarf. And besides, he'd done his official job. He'd warned the kingdom.
Yet Guard Whose Death Is The Signal Bad Things Have Started To Happen And The Plot Has Begun hesitated. If he didn't live up to his name, then what was his purpose? He glanced at the book in his hand, only thirty pages left. Surely his death could wait until after that?
But when he stood up, and something caught his eye. Now that the Lair was close enough, Plot Hook could see what looked like a half-dozen polished tree trunks protruding from niches in the stone walls. It was such an odd sight that, despite the imminent danger, Plot Hook stopped in his tracks to take a closer look.
The bolt of olive lightning that hit the tower was almost as big as the tower itself. There was a boom of thunder that set the creatures in the Dark And Scary Forest to howling in fear. The Evil Lair passed over the smoking crater where Plot Hook's tower had once stood and glided steadily on towards the defenseless Kingdom With A Name That Is Just A Random Series Of Syllables That The Author Thought Sounded Cool.
In which the main characters are introduced and characterized, followed by something dramatic and unusual, and you decide whether or not you want to keep reading this book.
In the grand tradition of these things, this particular story begins Once Upon A Time. As for the location, it began in Vaguely Midwestern Small Town in the USA. It was Friday in late May, and even in the early morning the spring day was showing summer tendencies. It was the kind of day that sweats sunshine and pants a hot breeze thick with the scent of newly blossomed flowers.
Our protagonists were walking to School Named After Some Long-Dead White Guy. Before the plot starts back up, a brief description of the heroes is warranted. The one on the right is Main Character. You can tell because he's taller. (That's not the name he goes by right now, but to keep things from getting confusing later on, we'll stick with calling him Main Character from the beginning). He's a decent-looking kid, just enough to be admired but not enough to alienate him from the reader. Perhaps a little too skinny, but that's normal for a seventh grader. He's got tousled, sandy hair and soft, blue eyes. Fate has decreed him to be a hero, though he doesn't know it yet.
The boy beside him is shorter and a little out of shape. He's baseball player fat, like Babe Ruth. We'll get to his name later. (It's awkward, but it's only until chapter 2, so bear with it). He's got thick, black hair, the kind that never really needs combing, and brown eyes so dark they may as well be black; these eyes are hidden behind a set of square-rimmed glasses. He's very funny. He's also fated to die before the end of this book.
The boys arrived at school fifteen minutes before the bell rang, just enough time to weave their way through the crowd, hit up their lockers, and settle into their usual seats in homeroom. Or it would have been.
"Hey, dweebs!" The postpubescent boom of Generic Bully's voice parted the crowd of children like an Old Testament miracle, leaving Main Character and his friend in direct line of sight.
(Of course his parents were not quite horrible enough to name their child Generic Bully. But that is what he is. So, that is what we shall call him until the Author does enough research into baby names to pick one. Now, back to our tale).
Main Character groaned aloud, cursing their bad luck. Usually their tormenter was late to school, but today it appeared he'd been waiting for them. Generic Bully was a large boy, with stooped shoulders and a potbelly already starting to bulge from underneath his shirt. He marched toward the pair, palm extended.
"Where's your lunch money?"
In silent response, the boys held up their bagged lunches.
Bully frowned, as if he found the idea of bringing a lunch from home personally offensive. "Okay then, hand it over. Not you!" He glared at Main Character. "Your mom's a terrible cook. You, what do you have?"
The dark-haired boy glanced inside his bag. "Sorry," he said, an edge of defiance in his voice, "just pig's feet today. Ow!" He rubbed his shoulder where Bully had punched it. "Fine. Egg rolls, cheesy potatoes, and oxtail soup. Oh, and a Capri Sun," he added, somewhat wistfully.
Main Character seethed as his friend's lunch was placed reluctantly in the bigger boy's hand.
Generic Bully opened the bag and inhaled like an addict breathing in paint fumes. "Smells delicious. See ya later, dorks."
As Bully turned away, Main Character took an unconscious step forward, paper bag clenched in his fist like a weapon. But at the last moment he came to his senses and stopped. "You know," he muttered as Bully vanished in the crowd. "One day I might just kick him in the nuts. That'd show him."
His friend patted him on the shoulder. "We both know that wouldn't end well. Besides, he'll be heading off to high school next year. Let's just keep our heads down and stay out of his way until then."
Main Character shook his head. "That's not good enough. What he's doing is wrong."
His bespectacled companion just shrugged. "Well, until you decide to grow a bigger spine and fight him, or lose what little you have and tattle, you're in the same boat as the rest of us."
Ms. English Teacher's class was the last period at the end of a very long day. Finals started next Wednesday, and the kids were beginning to feel the anxiety that comes with all big tests. Aware of this, Ms. English Teacher had set aside the last twenty minutes of class for any review questions the students might have.
Main Character sat in his chair by the window, wishing that she had just let them leave early instead. The sun was bathing the world in white-gold light. A breeze stirred the emerald leaves so that Main Character swore he could hear them rustling through the thick glass of the window. He sighed. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin. Instead there was only the nasal intonations of Teacher's Pet.
"Excuse me, teacher, but could we go over Freytag's Pyramid again?"
Ms. English Teacher smiled. "Of course we can." She took up a piece of chalk and quickly sketched a design on the board and labeled several points.
Teacher's pet continued to talk as Ms. English Teacher's chalk scrapped along the board. "So, I know exposition is the part where the author sets up the story for the audience." But what about stories that aren't told chronologically?"
Main Character stopped listening. They'd already gone over this stuff a long time ago, multiple times. She was just trying to suck up to the teacher by asking questions that made her look smart. The questions she was asking definitely wouldn't come up on the final. He looked over at his friend, who was making a great show of paying attention while actually doodling a Chinese dragon in the margins of his notebook.
The hefty boy noticed his look, and an unspoken message passed between them. He adjusted his glasses and looked around the room. It didn't take him long to notice Nervous Classmate Number Eight. Nervous was staring dejectedly at his notebook, mechanical pencil tilted in his limp hand, the picture of resignation. He'd asked so many questions this year that Ms. English Teacher had started passing over his upraised hand in favor of other, faster students.
The dark-haired boy tilted his head ever so slightly in Nervous' direction. Main Character nodded, and during the next lull in the lecture, he raised his hand.
"Could we go over the difference between colons and semicolons again?"
Everyone groaned. Except for Nervous, who looked unabashedly relieved. He'd been confused by colons and semicolons ever since Ms. English Teacher had gone over them in February.
This was a game Main Character and his friend liked to play. Whenever Teacher's Pet got carried away with asking useless questions, Main Character would ask about a subject another student was struggling with. It wasn't a very exciting game, but it helped to pass the time before the final bell.
Generic Bully was waiting for them by the front door after school ended.
"Thanks for the lunch, doofus." He tossed the paper bag back to its original owner, who caught it against his chest and looked inside. It was empty except for some dirty containers. "Make sure you get those back to your mom now," Bully said with a deep guffaw. "Wouldn't want her asking any questions about her missing Tupperware. See ya Monday." And he walked away with a bounce in his step that belied his heavy body.
The boys watched Bully leave with dull, sullen eyes. Then they turned and walked down the front steps toward home. Birds were singing, the sun was shining, and all around them their classmates were chatting about their weekend plans. Several of them waved, mostly Main Character's friends from the baseball team. The boys barely noticed. Bully had put them both in a foul mood.
"What a tool." Main Character looked around angrily. His gaze settled on a tuft of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. He destroyed it with a single savage kick. It didn't help much. The feeling of helplessness he'd felt in front of Bully still clung to him like a foul second skin.
His friend watched as the green stems flew up into the air then drifted down to the concrete. "Forget about it. How about we just head back to my place and get something to eat?"
Main Character agreed, but he couldn't resist pointing out that he had offered to share his own lunch.
His friend wrinkled his face in disgust. "I'd rather starve."
Main Character winced. "She's not that bad of a cook."
"She made you tuna casserole with raisins and Cheetos. Come on, let's cut through the woods to my house. I'm hungry."
The Grove Named For A Local Folktale stood between the cul-de-sac where the boys lived and school. Legend had it that twenty years ago some students had tried to cut through the woods after vandalizing the school and were never heard from again. Like most folktales, it was utter nonsense, disguising a different kind of danger. But the boys did not know about the danger, because it was disguised. As often as not, they avoided the grove, not because of any story, but because it was filled with insects and undergrowth that made for an uncomfortable journey. But it did cut their walk from twenty minutes to ten, and they were eager to get home.
There were three things one noticed when entering the Grove Named For A Local Folktale. First, the light faded, as if God had turned down the sun's dimmer switch. The second was the smell. There was no trace of hot asphalt or gasoline in the air of the grove. Instead the rustling breeze carried with it the earthy scent of mulch and the lighter aroma of new leaves. And lastly, so subtle that it almost went unnoticed, there was the absence of outside noise. It was as if the trees absorbed the sound of cars and pedestrians. All of these things combined to turn any trip through the grove into a surreal experience. Even though the boys knew that civilization was just a few hundred yards away; it was as if they had stepped into another world.
Which perhaps explains why it took them a few minutes to realize that was exactly what they had done.
Banished on a quest to test her claim to the throne, Ravana must free a dragon from enslavement to stop its attacks on her people #PitProm
The king is dead, leaving the Wolf Tribe without an heir. The elders, blinded by greed and ambition, seek to seize power for themselves until a dragon attack forces them to change their plans. As they cower in the castle, leaving the people to fend for themselves, rumors abound: have they angered the ancestors?
RAVANA isn’t one to sit idly by while others suffer. She is willing to risk the wrath of the ancestors themselves if it means saving her brother from his foolish attempt to contend for the throne. But in doing so, she never meant to contend herself. Or win. And while the choice of the ancestors is clear, the elders are determined to punish her for it. Instead of crowning her, they accuse her of witchcraft and send her on a quest to defeat the dragon—though Ravana knows it’s not the true enemy.
Along the way she befriends DRAYCEN, a mysterious stranger with his own score to settle against the beast. Together they journey into the heart of the Eagle Tribe, which has been at war with the Wolves for as long as anyone can remember. They risk discovery and death at every turn, but Draycen seems to blend into this foreign environment a little too convincingly…
THE WOLF QUEEN AND THE DRAGON is a 90,000 word coming-of-age story that can be read as a standalone, but I’ve already written and begun revising the sequel, The Witch’s Revenge, which is set a few years later. Fans of Tamora Pierce, Shannon Hale, Laini Taylor, and Marie Rutkoski will enjoy my novel’s enduring friendships, diverse characters, humor, and romances.
Thank you for your consideration.
First Ten Pages:
“That’s impossible, girl! Dragons don’t exist.”
Ravana blinked at the old man. She pressed her lips together and nodded once, slowly, her black eyes masking her irritation.
Perhaps he was right. After all, what did she know? She’d only spent the past day treating the wounded. She’d only spoken to tens—if not hundreds—of burn victims, each of whom had described the fire-breathing creature in the same vivid detail. She’d only heard a first-hand account from her best friend, who had actually helped guard the city from the beast. But yes. Perhaps they were all wrong.
Her eyes moved from the man to the tent around them. Healers and volunteers rushed between the wounded, who lay in rows of blankets on the ground. The cries of infants and children pierced the air as mothers and fathers tried to soothe them while tending their own wounds. The heat within the tent, radiating from their burns, was almost unbearable. But perhaps it was all an elaborate scheme to deceive the skeptical man.
Ravana closed her eyes and sighed. She wasn’t there to convince him. She was there to care for him.
She knelt at his side and took his pale white hand in her bronze ones. “What do you remember?”
His brow furrowed, and he stared, not really seeing her, before he shuddered. “There was screaming outside… And then my roof… My roof collapsed…”
Ravana nodded slowly. “I’m told you don’t have any serious injuries. You are one of the lucky ones.”
His eyes narrowed. “You were told? You’re not a healer?”
“I’m a shepherdess. I’m just a volunteer.”
“Why didn’t they send me a real healer?” the man bellowed.
“Because you don’t have any real injuries,” a familiar voice said.
Ravana looked up to see her best friend, Phoenix, dressed in a leather tunic and leggings, a sword strapped to her belt. Her once-white shirt and her tanned skin were covered in soot.
Before the man could respond, Ravana pushed a small vial into his hand. “You’ll want this for the smell.”
He plastered the peppermint ointment under his nose and breathed in deeply before settling back down against his blanket.
Ravana returned the vial to a pocket in her leather dress and rose to greet her friend.
“Have you rested?” Phoenix asked, offering her a water flask.
Ravana shook her head, suddenly parched, and took it gratefully. “There hasn’t been time.”
While others had abandoned their homes and villages and flocked to the city of Alliam for protection, Ravana had sought to be of assistance. Despite her parents’ pleading that they stay home, she’d arrived at Alliam with her brother the day before and fallen into work, changing bandages, giving comfort, and taking water to victims of the creature’s attacks. The healers hadn’t even questioned what she was doing or offered her anything beyond the briefest instruction.
“You need to make time,” Phoenix insisted. “Or you’re going to end up on one of those disgusting blankets yourself.”
“I’ll be all right.”
Phoenix narrowed her eyes. “It’s just like that time...”
Ravana held up her finger. “Don’t say the hail storm.”
“I was thinking about the bridge and the boy, but since you mentioned it, the hail storm.”
“You risked your life for a lamb.”
“For a lamb,” Phoenix insisted, pressing her fingers together for emphasis. “For a lamb.”
“I didn’t risk my life...”
“You broke your leg.”
Ravana shrugged and wove her long, straight black hair into a braid. “It wasn’t my leg; it was my arm. And I saved the lamb.”
“No one cared about the lamb.”
“I cared about the lamb.”
Phoenix shook her head, clearly not recovered from the incident.
“You have to get over that,” Ravana said. “We were ten. It was seven years ago. And what does it matter? You found me. Everything turned out fine.”
Phoenix narrowed her eyes. “You know, you wouldn’t need as much rescuing if you weren’t so keen on getting yourself into trouble.”
Ravana felt a sting at the accusation. She gestured around the tent, then said in a forceful whisper, “You know who needs rescuing? These people. Someone has to help them, since the elders won’t. And a little hunger and tiredness isn’t going to stop me.”
Phoenix cocked her head. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Forget about that.” Ravana brushed the question aside with a wave of her hand. “Is there any word?”
Phoenix accepted the change in topic with a resigned sigh. “No one has seen the dragon again today. It might have moved on. But I heard reports of more villagers heading this way.
You should take a moment to rest before they arrive.”
Ravana glanced around the tent, which was already teeming with activity. Beyond, other tents had been set up end-to-end, each as full as the last. “There’s barely any room to walk in here!”
“There’s nowhere else to go.”
“Nowhere else?” Ravana echoed through clenched teeth. “We’re in the shadow of the castle. These people should be inside its halls, not out in the open where the dragon can so easily attack them again.”
“You know full well the elders are using the castle to prepare for the choosing ceremony today.”
Ravana looked down at her friend. “And you know full well I don’t care about the choosing ceremony. And why by the Moon do they need the castle when the ceremony is by the river?”
Phoenix shrugged. “Preparations?”
“And why the rush?” It made Ravana’s blood boil that the elders would be so frivolous as to hold the ceremony while the Wolf Tribe was under attack. They had delayed the event long enough while it suited them. But to use it as an excuse to avoid helping their people…
“Maybe they think a king would be better able to protect us from the dragon,” Phoenix suggested airily.
Ravana grimaced. If the new king were to be anything like the old one, she would rather be ruled by the dragon. It was just as well he hadn’t left an heir. For years, even before his illness, he’d given the elders free rein to act as they wished—to the detriment of his people.
The tent entrance flapped open and more injured people flooded in. The sight of their blistering wounds made Ravana grateful for the scent of peppermint.
She rushed forward to a man she recognized as the grandfather of one of her friends.
“Thank you,” he said weakly as Ravana helped him, careful to avoid contact with his burnt arm and chest. He hissed in pain as he settled against the ground on a newly abandoned blanket. Ravana didn’t allow herself to dwell on why it was vacant.
“The healers will be with you soon,” she said with a smile.
He returned the gesture. “I know you,” he said, his voice strained. His face hardened as he stared intently into her black eyes. “Remember this day, child,” he said, waving his finger.
“Today is the darkest day in the history of the Wolf Tribe.”
Ravana’s brow furrowed.
“The elders have closed the gates to the city. They said no other villagers can be supported.”
Ravana’s eyes widened. “You can’t mean…”
“People behind me were turned away,” the man confirmed. He added bitterly, “Wolf people turning away Wolves. I expected as much from Owls or Foxes…”
“But Alliam can support all the Wolves. Isn’t that why the elders insisted so much of the grain and produce be sent here for safekeeping? In case the outer villages were attacked?”
He shook in outrage as a healer stepped forward to assess his wounds. As she worked, Ravana fumed over the complete disregard the elders had shown for the people in the months since the king’s death. And in the wake of the dragon’s attack, they’d done nothing to ease the people’s suffering. They hadn’t even arranged for the healers’ tents. Villagers and city dwellers had made those offerings. The people were left to fend for themselves while the elders were distracted with ceremonies.
She was shaken from her musings when the healer handed her a balm and squeezed her arm as she left.
Ravana gently applied the scented lotion to the man’s wound. It numbed the skin and provided temporary relief, but had no healing properties. She’d learned in the brief moments she’d spent with the healers that none of them had seen anything like the blisters inflicted by the dragon’s fiery breath.
Ravana started when Phoenix gripped her shoulder.
“I have to go!” Phoenix said, eyes wide. She gestured toward the entrance of the tent, where a familiar tall, broad-shouldered youth walked in. Phoenix slipped through a slit in the back of the tent to stand just outside. She peered through the opening as Finn looked around, pushing his glasses back up his nose with the tip of his index finger.
Ravana’s lips betrayed her in the faintest hint of a smile.
Phoenix removed a hair clip, smoothed down her straight, light-brown hair, and slid the clip back into place. “I’ll wager he’s going to ask me to join him at the ceremony again…”
Ravana tilted her head to study her friend. Phoenix was well on her way to becoming one of the youngest members of the Wolf army, and on the field, no man could fluster her. But in recent months, Finn had had a disconcerting effect on the Wolf girl, treating her with a tenderness she apparently found unsettling.
Phoenix glanced back at the tent entrance and yanked the slit closed to conceal herself as Finn paced over to them. Ravana tried to appear aloof, but all thoughts of Phoenix left her when she caught Finn’s gaze. His brow was creased in concern, sweat beading on his rich brown skin.
“What’s happened?” she asked, standing up and stepping forward instinctively.
“It’s Ryker,” he said, not waiting to catch his breath. “He’s contending.”
Her eyes widened as she grasped the significance of his words about her brother. “Where is he?”
“He was on his way to the river.”
“That’s impossible,” Phoenix said, parting the slit and stepping back into the tent. Finn didn’t seem surprised to see her. “If he’s not too young, he’s smart enough to know he could die.”
“He turned twenty-five last week,” Ravana said, looking at each of her friends. “He’s old enough.”
“Did you know he wanted to be king?” Phoenix asked.
“He would need to be sponsored by one of the elders,” Ravana protested. “My grandmother would never allow that. She knows the risk.”
“She was the elder who sponsored him,” Finn said, his brown eyes serious.
Ravana shook her head as they turned to leave the tent. She had to get to him. She had to stop him. Ryker was going to get himself killed.
Finn led them through Alliam’s eerily deserted market place and farther from the towering, cold gray stone of the castle. Empty stalls lined the streets. Vendors hadn’t even bothered to set up their wares or produce, either on account of the dragon or the choosing ceremony.
When Ravana and Ryker had parted at the city gates, he hadn’t even hinted he was contemplating contending. She’d assumed he had wanted to help victims of the dragon’s attack, as she had. But she couldn’t remember anything from their conversations on the road to confirm her assumption. She had come to Alliam to help strangers but had accompanied her own brother to his death.
What would she tell their parents? Had they known? No. They wouldn’t have let them travel alone if they had.
She tried to clear her thoughts as Finn led them out of the city, past clay-tiled wooden homes as empty as the market place, and then along the forest path. Even the birds were silent.
As they neared the river, Ravana gasped at the number of people congregated for the ceremony. From her vantage point, she could see Ryker on a grassy stretch before the forest, on the other side of the bank. Her pulse quickened as she squeezed between the onlookers, ignoring the grunts and hissed protests as she made her way to the front of the crowd. She only stopped when the river rocks crunched under her boots and the water lapped around them.
She felt a poke in her ribs and heard a woman behind her complaining. But her voice sounded like it was a great distance away. “You, girl. Move. You’re too tall to stand in front.”
“Her brother is contending,” Finn said gently.
Ravana didn’t spare a thought for the woman’s reaction. She didn’t care. Ryker was beyond her reach. She wanted to call out to him, to beg him to abandon his folly. But she was too late.
He and two other men stood beyond the sparse reeds on a patch of grass, facing the crowd. An elder paced behind them, dressed in elaborate robes and chanting the verses of the ceremony in an ancient tongue, calling to the ancestors to select the most worthy sovereign to lead the people of the Wolf Tribe to prosperity.
History told that many men had perished in their attempt to be king, punished for their arrogance to assume they were worthy to lead the people. Ravana had never imagined that was a risk her brother was prepared to take.
She watched his stoic face as three white marble-like vests were brought forward, each carried by two men. He knelt with the other contenders so the jewel-studded stone could be fitted like armor around his chest. The stone was heavy enough on the surface, but it would soak water like a sponge and be an impossible weight for any man to bear.
As the leather-clad soldiers helped Ryker to his feet, Ravana bit her lip and looked around, desperately searching for a way to reach her brother.
Phoenix held her back. “It’s too late,” she said, her blue eyes heavy. “I’m so sorry.”
“Trust,” Finn said calmly.
There was silence as the elder addressed the people. “These fine men represent the very best the Wolf Tribe has to offer. They are brave and true, and they are prepared to sacrifice their lives to prove their worth. Aymesh of the House of Elya, Ryker of the House of Ilma, Tau of the House of Makin. It is my honor to deliver you now into the hands of the ancestors.”
There was a moment of calm, a moment of hesitation, as the men were still. It felt as though all the Wolves—contenders, elders, and onlookers alike—were frozen in time. Ravana clung to hope. There was yet a chance. They could still turn back.
But then Aymesh stepped forward, and the other two followed.
Phoenix’s hand tightened on Ravana’s arm as the contenders strode into the water.
Ravana held her breath as they disappeared under the surface, as if gripped by a beast beyond. Her heart beat faster and faster, competing with the rhythm of the ceremonial drums, which was building into a crescendo. But still none of the men rose to the surface. The elders exchanged glances.
Something was wrong.
According to legend, the ancestors would select the most noble and kingly of the three to defy the laws of nature, and he would float to the top despite his load. But as her lungs burned, she knew they weren’t coming up. And as much as she loved her brother, she couldn’t hold her breath any longer. She surrendered and gasped for air.
Phoenix released her grip on her arm, and Ravana didn’t hesitate. Forgetting herself and an ageless tradition, she rushed out onto the river until she stood between the banks, looking down at the murky water, frantically seeking a sign her brother was alive. But she found nothing. The water was too deep.
An oppressive silence settled around her. The ceremonial drums stopped. A hush fell over the people on the banks. She looked up to catch Phoenix’s gaze, her eyes wide. She was gripping Finn’s arm; his brow was furrowed in concern. Behind them, the crowds of Wolves stared at Ravana. People she had known her whole life and strangers all looked at her as though she had done something unforgivable.
Confused, Ravana looked down at the water, and stepped back in alarm. She was standing on the surface. She spun around to look at the elders, who stared at her with mixed expressions of anger and awe. Her fear for her brother was momentarily eclipsed by a stab of panic for herself.
She wanted to run. To escape. To save herself from their gaze, their judgment, and their punishment. But as her eyes fell to the surface again, all thought of herself melted away. Ryker was down there.
She dropped to her knees and tried to reach under the water, but while it moved freely, it was as solid as ice to her touch. And she couldn’t save him.
“Please,” she begged of the elders, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the silence. “Please release them.”
The men and women exchanged glances, and the elder who had performed the ceremony stepped forward.
“Please,” Ravana repeated. She willed her voice not to crack. “They’ll die…”
For an agonizing moment the Elder Babak regarded her before he waved his hand, ordering his soldiers to rescue the contenders.
Ravana stood, watching helplessly as the men entered the water. Moments felt like hours as they bobbed to the surface for air and dived back down to continue looking. She had almost given up hope when they dragged two limp bodies from the river. Ravana ran across the water, her boots leaving ripples on the surface.
She dropped to Ryker’s side as the soldiers tried to revive him. His black hair was plastered against his face and shoulders like a shroud. She held her breath until he finally spluttered and coughed up water. She leaned forward, but his gaze swept past her and settled on the nearest soldier. Between bouts of coughing, he managed a single word. “Who?”
The soldier looked to Ravana skeptically, and the creases of confusion on Ryker’s brow smoothed out as his face hardened. “What have you done?”
The coldness in his voice startled her, and she stood and stepped back.
“Seize her!” Elder Babak cried.
Ravana didn’t have a chance to react. Guards grabbed her from either side. She struggled at first, but the accusing look on her brother’s face had a sobering effect on her, and she allowed herself to be led away.
Behind her, Phoenix yelled across the river in protest.
When a fairytale shine hides a deadly curse, Ameryst will do anything to save her sister’s life, before she falls victim to it #pitprom #YA
In YA Fantasy THE BRAVEST OF THEM ALL, Syrendale citizens find their mate at the Maiden Night Ball, and sparks fly through the air each time a match is made. But at the age of eighteen, life for one daughter from each family holds a very different fate. The daughters selected as their family’s Maiden give themselves to the sea and transform into the noble creatures that guard Syrendale’s cliffs.
Ameryst has always longed to match, and is thrilled to learn her beloved younger sister Verabelle has been chosen as the family’s Maiden. But when a young man from the world outside calls the Maiden Night tradition into question, she finds a long-forgotten path to the shore in hopes of finding affirmation that the Maiden magic is real. That’s when she discovers the disturbing truth.
There is no transformation. Only bones and tarnished Maiden brooches litter the shore. Terrified, Ameryst hatches a plan to save her sister’s life. She will protect Verabelle, even if it means forgoing her chance at matching and leaving Syrendale forever. Or if it means sacrificing her own life to save her.
After timid, bookish Verabelle is pinned their family’s Maiden, she struggles to summon the bravery she will need to jump off Syrendale’s cliffs when her time comes. When Ameryst suddenly and without explanation disappears into the night, Verabelle is left searching for answers as to why. As Maiden Night approaches, Verabelle discovers an eerie connection between Syrendale and the world of one of the stories her father left behind before he died. A story of a world trapped under a curse, where a sacrifice of women’s lives is hidden under a fairytale sheen. When Ameryst returns and confirms her worst fears are true, Verabelle must find the courage she never thought she had. Because when Syrendale’s lies are laid bare, Verabelle might just be the only one who can save herself from the Maidens' macabre fate.
THE HAZEL WOOD meets THE GIVER with a hint of CARAVAL, my story combines the trials of love and sisterhood within a dark fairytale conflict and setting. It is told through the viewpoints of Ameryst and Verabelle, and is complete at 84,000 words. I hold a B.A. in Creative Writing, work as an instructional coach in urban schools, and am a wife and mother to three.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
First Ten Pages:
“Are you destined to be a Maiden,
Or to find your love so true?”
I was not destined to have adventures, but still I sought them. Made of ink pressed to paper, I had thousands of companions, and I joined them on journeys to distant places far outside the border of Syrendale’s wall. I stood beside them, unflinching, as they faced the trials of danger, through love found and lost, and as strength overcame their weakness. In these ways I had seen and experienced more than many through the pages of my books.
“What world are you lost in today, my dear Verabelle?” Iradella had entered my room without notice and plucked the book from my hands. She paged through it with false interest and placed a finger on her chin.
“Oooh, is this the one where a handsome prince comes to sweep away a helpless maiden, leading her to everlasting bliss? Oh my, Verabelle,” she said, her words sickly sweet, “you do prefer such fanciful tales.”
My muscles clenched and I grabbed to retrieve it. “Give me back my book.”
Iradella twirled away from me, her dress puffing out as she spun, her snow-white curls catching the light. “Not until you tell me how you want to style your hair.” I reached up and touched the wig I had remembered to place atop my own mousy strands and knew it sat askew, and that it was tangled from neglect. We all wore hair the color of snow when venturing outside our homes, but some of us embraced the tradition more tightly than others.
Before I could respond, Ameryst burst through the doorway and pursed her lips at our oldest sister.
“Iradella,” she said, her voice edged in irritation. “Give her back the book.” When Iradella didn’t move, Ameryst made a lunge for it. Iradella lifted my book high above her head, a sly smile on her perfectly polished face.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “We can’t let her go to The Pinning like this,” Iradella nodded towards me.
The Pinning. I had apparently lost track of the hour.
Ameryst looked me over and sighed in quiet agreement with our oldest sister. “We might still have time to do something.”
Iradella tossed my book to the floor where it slid into a corner and pointed to the bench at the foot of my bed. My cheeks grew hot, but I stayed silent. It wouldn’t have made a difference to complain. In the end, Iradella always got her way.
“After all, love,” she said. “We all know Syrendale women’s hair is perfectly white in any light!”
So few people saw us, and only the merchants employed by Lord Hagbarth himself interacted with the outside world, it was rumored that all those outside the wall believed our hair to simply grow the color of snow. To them, we were a pristine people in a far away kingdom. Some of the girls at school had wigs so expensive and of such a high quality they could claim it to be true. But the fat belly of the owner of the wig shop told a different tale. And however the tradition had started, we, all of us, whether rich or poor, willingly played the game.
Scowling, I fought the urge to scratch the itch produced by stiff netting and false hair pulled too tight and plaited with grey ribbon to match my dress. Iradella smiled, clearly pleased with herself at my reflection in the looking glass before flouncing back downstairs to wait with our mother.
The fate of a daughter in Syrendale rested on the outcome of today’s ceremony, held when a family’s eldest daughter reached the age of seventeen. The decision was made behind closed doors between the parents, who knew the girls best, and the Elders, who were trusted to be wise. We would not know who was chosen as our family’s Maiden until an Elder pinned the brooch upon the collar of one daughter’s dress only a short time from now. I counted on The Pinning to define me. To tell me who I was called to be. But I was also terrified. Terrified my call would ask too much of me. More than I was able to give.
Ameryst rested her hands on my shoulders. “Don’t be scared, Belle. I’m certain it’ll be me. I’m the one who runs headlong into any situation. Why would they doubt I’d take the noble leap when my time came?”
I tried to still the sound of my heart beating as it echoed in my ears. Ameryst was right. She was by far the boldest among us. She would be a good choice. But her voice betrayed uncertainty, and the words she spoke lacked the usual spirit behind them.
“I’m sure it won’t be Iradella.”
“No. I would think not,” Ameryst said. “She’s far too eager to match.”
“Well I’m eager to keep all of us here, in the same house. Like always.” I blinked back the tears I had been holding at bay for weeks, but they began to fall anyway. “I don’t want you to go away. Is becoming the Maiden what you truly want, Ameryst? Do you feel it as your call?”
“My dear, sweet baby sister. We don’t all shout our heartsong from the rooftops. For hearts are fragile things.” Ameryst wrapped her arms around me from behind and pressed her cheek close to my own, meeting my eyes in the reflection of the looking glass. “And we rise to the call we are given.” She wiped away the narrow stream of tears that wound their way down my cheeks. “Besides, the Maiden doesn’t give herself to the sea until the age of eighteen. We’ll still have years together. And, if it’s to be me, when the time comes for my transformation, you can visit me on the cliffs and know I am numbered among the noble creatures who keep you and all those we love safe.”
My sister’s warmth slipped away as she let go and turned me away from the looking glass and knelt so her face was level with mine. She tucked a curved finger underneath my chin. “Head held high now. This is your first chance to be seen by the boys’ parents. It won’t do to sniffle.”
I pressed my lips and brows together. A reminder we would be on display was not a comfort. The couples who had given birth to Syrendale’s sons would be in attendance at the hall. We had yet to see their young men, but today was the adult’s first opportunity to take stock of the ladies who would soon be eligible to match them.
“Girls!” My mother called. “It’s time.”
“Let’s go,” Ameryst pulled me up and smiled as though everything was certain to be fine.
I took a deep breath and forced my shoulders back as my chest expanded. I grabbed my book where it had been flung and tucked it into the front pocket of my dress before following Ameryst down the stairs. Whatever the outcome of today, I had another world to escape into the moment it was over.
We walked in silence through the cobbled streets, past row upon row of stone cottages with ivy creeping up the walls and curling around the doorframes and windows. Our family joined with the dozens of others whose eldest daughter made them eligible for The Pinning today. My mother walked in front of me, her dress hanging loosely on her narrow frame. My dress, a hand-me-down from my two older sisters, had required a meticulous search for buttons to replace the originals which had come unstitched and fallen victim to a dustpan or a cobweb-ridden corner. Though she was a gifted seamstress, things had been difficult for my mother in the years since Father passed, and she saw to the needs of her daughters before tending to her own.
The sound of shoes clacking on the cobblestones echoed against the buildings and filled the otherwise quiet spaces between us as we approached the town square, the dividing line between the homes of the families who gave birth to daughters and the families who gave birth to sons. At its head, almost aglow in golden sunlight, stood the formidable Town Hall, a building which, as a child, I liked to imagine was a castle. Sculpted dragons guarded its corners and three spires reached to the clouds in an attempt to prick the sky. The face of a giant clock looked ever eastward to the lawn, Syrendale’s most expansive park and curated garden, dotted with the twisting branches of ancient trees. The site of the Maiden Night Ball. The far edge of the park ended at the Syrendale cliffs, beyond which was an endless and shimmering sea.
Inside the hall, Iradella gasped as she looked up, her eyes wide with a level of wonder I knew reflected my own. Elaborate columns framed the spaces between corridors extending in all directions, and in front of us a grand spiral staircase spun upward toward a domed ceiling, painted in a background of midnight blue and hundreds upon hundreds of bright and brilliant sparks. I had not yet seen the sparks that flew above lovers’ heads on Maiden Night, but I had seen pictures in the stories from our land. The ceiling made me feel as though I was in a moment frozen in time, the sparks mid-burst, contrasting the dark sky beyond. We followed the flow of people around the back of the stairs, our faces to the heavens.
The dim lighting of backstage offered us the ability to observe each other and otherwise shuffle our feet. My mother smiled and squeezed my hand before tucking a strand that had broken loose from my snowy braid back into place. All the daughters wore their most sensible dresses. Iradella had begged our mother to add just a thin trim of lace to her sleeves. This was an important event, but, as my mother had so often reminded Iradella in the days leading up to The Pinning, it was not a party.
Some of the families present accompanied only one daughter. These were the families who had lost a child to sickness, or who could not afford multiple mouths to feed. Those families had only raised a daughter in order to satisfy their requirement to provide Syrendale with a Maiden. One year from now, when the girls turned eighteen, their parents would return home in relief at Maiden Night’s end, knowing their stomachs would each day be just a little bit fuller and that they had made their contribution. The daughters from those families knew from an early age what their destiny would hold, while I, on the other hand, counted on the result of the ceremony to tell me who I was meant to be.
The drape on the side of the stage opened without warning and the stage master, an aged man composed of innumerable points and angles, ushered us into rows behind the deep blue curtain separating us from the rest of the auditorium. Ameryst was placed in the middle between myself and Iradella. Our mother took position behind us. Once settled, the seven Elders of Syrendale moved directly in front of our family, followed by Syrendale’s ruler, Lord Hagbarth himself, at the very front and center. He wore a black velvet coat and tails lined with silk, the sea blue shine of which I could just see when he billowed the coat out behind him like a cape. He did not look back at Syrendale’s daughters.
The curtain parted just enough to allow Lord Hagbarth and the Elders to walk through, and as it closed behind them a hush fell over the room.
“We have gathered today to participate in one of the most solemn of Syrendale traditions,” Lord Hagbarth began, his voice confident and crisp, reaching even to where we stood behind the curtain. “The time has come for each of these families to select their choice for Maiden.
“The women they designate as Maiden will hold the greatest honor of all Syrendale’s children. To take the leap off our hallowed cliffs at the age of eighteen, and to transform into the noble creatures, the Sea Maidens, who ever guard Syrendale’s shores. Their responsibility is great, and their bravery unmatched. Each family, which will soon stand before you, has made their choice as to which of their daughters shall hold this highest honor. From today on, those designated as the Maiden shall wear the Maiden Brooch as a sign they are set apart and destined for that purpose.” He paused, allowing the drama of the moment to build to completion. “And now, the newest daughters of Syrendale.”
The curtains parted with a flourish and Lord Hagbarth and the Elders stepped aside. My sisters and I now stood at the front of a cavernous auditorium facing the crowd, a mass of murmurs and moving shadows beyond the glare of the stage lights. I swallowed, but found my throat dry as a bone, and I clutched Ameryst’s hand as my eyes blinked in an attempt to find focus. My free hand moved to where my book rested in the pocket of my dress and I pressed against it, wishing I were home, the pages of my story washed in sunlight from the window and hidden away from these eyes I could not see beyond the lights and these people I did not know.
On a black velvet tray in the hands of Lord Hagbarth now sparkled row upon row of The Brooch of The Maiden. Each identical, the snow white silhouette of the profile of a young woman raised up above a jet black background. Ornate, winding silver tendrils formed the border of the brooch, each ending in a silver flower, at the center of which was a clear and sparkling precious stone. Partially visible behind the woman and atop the background was a thin and curving silver letter M. Underneath the M, in small and scrolling print, was a number. A number a clerk would record on a list, tying the brooch indelibly to the Maiden’s name.
After the crowd again quieted, each Elder removed a pin from the tray and approached the families standing in the front, including mine. Their shining shoes clapped against the planks of the stage floor and echoed across the hall.
My chest rose and fell in a series of shallow breaths. My nostrils froze in a permanent flare. I stole a glance at my sisters. A smile played at the edge of Iradella’s lips and her hands remained at her sides. I wasn’t surprised, for she relished any moment she could be on display. Ameryst’s face was filled with more conviction than pleasure and her grip on my hand was solid. She had prepared well for this moment. Far better than I.
“And which daughter shall have the designation in your family to be the noble Maiden?” asked the Elder before us. Bile crept up in my throat and my stomach turned with a fury. The moment was here.
My mother shuffled behind me. My eyes were on Ameryst as she held her breath and braced herself for the weight of two hands upon her shoulders, signaling she had been our family’s choice.
Instead, I felt weight on my own shoulders and an increased pressure on my right hand. My body turned to ice. Ameryst’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped a moment before she thought better and pressed her lips shut. I turned back to see pride exuding from my mother’s face.
It wasn’t meant to be me. Ameryst said it wasn’t going to be me. For so long I had wanted to know my call. But now, I wished I could go back to before. Before the heat of these lights. Before the sweat on the back of my neck. Before my mind froze on the image my body, falling through the air. Before knowing my family’s honor depended on my fall.
The Elder leaned in as he secured the heavy pin and spoke to me, his warm breath hitting my ear.
“Maidens are noble. Maidens are brave. It is you who is called to keep Syrendale safe.”
He lifted his eyes to our mother. “Congratulations, Mrs. Chetworth. We look forward to the day when Verabelle receives the ultimate honor and takes the noble leap.”
One daughter from each family, now bearing the insignia of the Maiden, stepped forward to the edge of the stage and the shadowed figures beyond the lights applauded for us all.
“Ameryst?” I lifted my eyes and whispered to my sister. “Do they really think I’m brave?”
My sister drew her arm around me and pulled my body close. “Oh yes,” she whispered back, her eyes trained on the roar of the crowd. “You must be the bravest.”
And I wondered how many of those standing with me, how many who had gone before me and wore the pin felt the same turning in their stomach the moment they were chosen. The moment they realized they would have rather had a choice. But we donned our precious wigs and covered our fear with plastered smiling faces as we stared down a life planned out for us. Our endings, already written. Our stories, carved in stone. I looked down at the brooch, lifting my fingers to it and running them along the raised contours of the profile of the snow white woman and the letter that now marked my fate.
A disillusioned nun quits the cloister, unwittingly taking leadership of a peasant insurgency against a brutal dynastic war. #PitProm
Sister Alessia swore to take no part in the dynastic wars raging across two kingdoms. But when a warlord slaughters her patients and forbids her temple hospital to care for victims from the “wrong” side, she throws off her bloodstained habit and quits the cloister rather than submit.
Still determined to save lives, Alessia attracts a gathering of brutalized peasants, smugglers and deserters fleeing the conflict. Except many also crave vengeance, using her roaming forest camp to launch guerrilla raids against the forces of both sides— to steal, to survive, and to get some payback. Alessia struggles to temper their fury as well as tend wounds, finding herself consenting to ever greater violence to keep her new charges safe.
Both warring factions unleash spies, mercenaries and mass crucifixions to exterminate the lowborn insurgents. While fighting to keep hidden, Alessia uncovers a foreign conspiracy to prolong the war by financing both sides. Trapped between two armies, she’ll be forced to risk the lives she’s saved in order to present proof of the plot to the very forces hunting them; determinedly seeking to convince all sides to bring the bloodshed to an end.
THE HERON KINGS is a 111,000-word fantasy that will appeal to fans of Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country and Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky. My short fiction has been published in Nature: Futures (SFWA-qualifying market), Electric Spec, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Allegory, the anthology Into Darkness Peering, and other venues detailed at https://ericlewis.ink/.
First Ten Pages:
A fresh spurt of blood spattered into Alessia’s face, painting a smear across her cheek. She didn’t flinch this time, barely noticed it with all her attention focused on the task at hand—the sharp instruments, the rent flesh, her own precise movements. The soldier lying before her howled, and the walls of the temple chamber echoed it back tenfold.
“Mother of gods, stop—!”
“Oh, shut up,” said Alessia, bracing her elbow against his clavicle to try and stop the squirming. “And hold still, you’re only making it worse.”
“You’re makin’ it worse! It hurts!”
“Good! That’s how you know you’re not dead. Which is probably what you deserve, but not… quite… yet.” She stabbed her needle around the jagged hole in his side again. One last time and it’d be over, one last time he screamed.
“Aargh! Damned evil witches, damned temples—”
Alessia slapped her victim, hard. “Insult me all you like, but you will not blaspheme against the Polytheon in here. There, done. You’ll live, for what it’s worth.”
With the bleeding stopped Alessia turned away, bone-weary. Across the nave a dozen and more like scenes played out— some with screamed profanities, some with moans, and some in silence. The sisters flitted about like angels of death, praying for the lost souls of some and sending others back into the world for another measure of misery. She dipped her hands into the basin set in the midst of it all, the water near scalding though she’d been scrubbed too numb to feel it. A young acolyte rushed past to replace the pink rags on the altar with fresh before disappearing again.
“You enjoyed that.” The accusing voice behind made her flinch, even after three years. Still, she tried and failed to hold back a little grin.
“Is it not proper,” Alessia said, turning slowly, “to take joy from one’s work, Mother?”
“Don’t play clever with me girl, you know very well what I mean.” Mother Tanusia was herself covered in gore that lent her glare of disapproval an unsettling aspect.
“Well why not? Hard to drum up much sympathy— these men are the lucky ones. Those they killed not as much.”
Tanusia shook a gnarly finger in Alessia’s red-streaked face. “That is not your concern, nor mine! Nothing outside these walls is, I’ve told you a thousand times.”
“I know, I know. Where’s this lot from, anyway?”
“Who can say anymore,” Tanusia sighed, “some pointless skirmish not far away, come to us from both sides. Hard to believe, but it was less savage when it was professionals doing the fighting. These poor fools know nothing but to hack at each other like lunatics. This war has to end soon, they’re running out of men to fight it.”
“Maybe they’ll start drafting women.”
“Don’t you even think that! You just try to find new reserves of patience, and sympathy. Be a shame for a bright thing like you to turn cynic so young.”
“And remember, this temple serves as a hospital, not a torture chamber. Try to find some feverfew, or willowbark, something before you cut men open again.”
“Yes, Mother.” As Tanusia turned away to some other task, Alessia’s patient put an emphasis on the point by crying out anew.
“And will you please shut him up!”
Alessia and a few other sisters dozed on benches in the corner, too tired even to stagger back to the dormitory. Those who were going to die had mostly done so, and the ones who weren’t lay unconscious on the cots that littered the space. Fatigue only somewhat blunted the shock when the temple’s wide double doors boomed when struck from outside, then rumbled open. What now? she thought with consternation.
Two columns of armed men marched into the nave led by an aged, grim-looking brute with black sable draped over his shoulders and dull mail armor from neck to knee. He carried a high-crowned helm in his right hand while the left cradled the hilt of a long, ugly sword at his hip. “Who’s in charge here?” The warlord wrinkled his nose at the stench of putrefying viscera while scanning the long nave, taking in the rows of wounded, the sisters, the acolytes, the bits of discarded bandage strewn about.
“Go fetch Mother,” Alessia whispered to Sister Livielle, “quickly.” She stepped forward. “May the gods light your path, Lord...?”
“Taurix,” the man spat. “High Marshal to King Pharamund.”
“Taurix. Welcome to the temple of the Artameran Polyth—”
“Whatever. I’m told that piece of cack Ludolphus what calls himself a general passed this way. Is that so?”
Alessia curtsied as she’d been taught to do before the high and mighty, ridiculous in her cold blood-drenched habit. “I’m sorry, but we don’t ask the names of those who visit, only that they come and go in peace.”
Taurix sighed. “He would’ve left some wounded men with you.”
Is he serious? Alessia looked him square in the eye. “As you can see we get wounded with some regularity; you’ll have to be more specific. There is a war on, you know.”
Taurix stared back down at her unblinking, and for a few seconds Alessia was sure he was going to run her through with that nasty sword. Oh, that was stupid, she thought. Instead he broke into a hard chuckle. “It’s well that you keep that mouth behind these walls, girl. Few live to speak that way to a lord of the Marches a second time.”
“What goes on here?” Mother Tanusia’s voice boomed as she strode from the rectory office. “So, has the royal struggle finally spread across the sea to Holy Artamera that an army invades a house of the Polytheon?”
Taurix turned to the woman, noted the stripe on her habit that signified her authority. “Not at all, Mother. At least not yet. In fact we’re grateful for the care of His Grace’s soldiers! Your house should look to be richly rewarded once these treasonous rebels are put down.”
“That we should live to see that day is all the reward we desire, my lord,” Tanusia replied with barely-concealed sarcasm.
“Yet, it seems you’ve made an unfortunate mistake,” he said with an evil sneer, his tone suddenly become lighter and even more terrifying.
“Indeed! For I see that in addition to the king’s loyal defenders, you have among you a number of those very traitors.” Taurix tossed his helmet to another of his company, then stepped slowly over to a fellow with an amputated leg lying on one of the cots, insensate from the brandy it’d taken to calm him. Though blooded and torn, his tunic still bore the green badges of General Ludolphus and Countess Engwara—the “treasonous rebels.” “Allow me, Mother, to lighten your burden.”
Before any could react he plunged his sword through the man’s belly and the cot, the tip stopping just short of the stone floor. The man jerked, eyes wide. Alessia let out a short, shrill scream and the acolytes and most of the sisters scattered from the nave in horror.
“No! How dare you!” Tanusia roared with such fury that some of Taurix’s own men took half a step backward. She ran to the doomed patient just as he slipped away into death, gurgling blood. “This house is sacred ground, you’ve no right—”
“Don’t lecture me, woman. Your temple’s inviolate only so long as you keep your oath to take part in no wars.”
“We’ve taken no part!”
“No? Look around— giving aid and comfort to the enemy seems to me to be very much taking part.”
“It’s an absurd world we live in, Mother.” Taurix moved to the next patient and raised his sword again. Alessia moved to dive between him and his victim, and with the barest thought the lord turned and struck her across the jaw, sending her flying backward. “Go among them,” he said to his retinue, “root out the traitors.” While Taurix dispatched the man beneath him the others fanned out across the chamber, checking each patient for identifying badges or marks. A few wounded tried to crawl away, succeeding only in making themselves targets. Screams rang out anew.
Powerless to stop the slaughter, Tanusia crept along the wall to where Alessia lay dazed, watching helpless as nearly half the lives they’d fought to save were snuffed out. “You...sick butcher,” the Mother hissed.
“Spare me the dramatics. As that cheeky bitch on the floor pointed out, there’s a war on! If you dare harbor criminals again, expect to be considered a military target. Next time it won’t be a smack in the mouth. Understood?”
Tanusia glared up at Taurix as she cradled Alessia in her arms. “Yes,” she spat with bitterness.
Alessia spat into the cloth, the blood her own this time. The whole right side of her face throbbed. Punishment from the gods for enjoying my job too much. The damage seemed limited to one lost tooth— a far lighter penance than her patients had suffered.
Livielle touched her gently, like she was a drifty snowman to collapse at the barest mishandling. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Alessia answered, trying a weak smile and feeling another trickle on her chin. “Fine enough.” They’d finished the disposal of the new-made corpses, and the dark work weighed on them both. “I just can’t believe Mother groveled before that bastard, said ‘yes, lord’ like some fellating harlot...”
“What else could she do? What could anyone do?” For once Livielle forgot to pretend shock at such crude language.
“I don’t know. Something.”
“Like get her face bashed in? Didn’t do you much good.”
“That was dumb. But I couldn’t just stand there and watch those people get stuck like pigs.” Alessia flung a blooded rag into a bucket, very tired all of a sudden.
“Best not think on it anymore,” said Livielle. “At least no other sisters were hurt, though a few acolytes had nightmares, poor dears.” She leaned in closer. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but...you already have a bit of a following.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Charging a monster like that, are you kidding? Sister Evandri’s calling you ‘the warrior priestess.’”
“Just a little one. The gods won’t mind.”
“Well it’s stupid,” Alessia scowled. “Tell her to stop it. Anyway the question now’s what to do about—”
“Sisters!” The cry came from Eudo, a simpleton who tended ground at the temple, and the only male with leave to come and go without escort. He tottered into the nave with a trembling lip.
“Eudo,” Alessia asked, speaking softly to try and calm him, “what frights you so?”
“Peoples is come!” He danced from one foot to the other and whined.
“More soldiers, like yesterday?”
“No, lowfolks. Some looks hurted.”
“No rest for the wicked,” sighed Livielle. “Very well Eudo, open the doors and we’ll get—”
“Wait.” Mother Tanusia appeared between them. “We must know where they come from first...who they bend knee to.” Some light, some strength had gone out of the woman since the confrontation. She would not meet either of the sisters’ eyes, nor even Eudo’s.
“What’s that matter?” asked Livielle.
Alessia already knew the answer, and her stomach churned at it. “Because we can’t risk the wrath of the great warlord a second time. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Tanusia nodded. “I’ve no choice. I won’t endanger the lives of the sisters and acolytes.”
“But charity is one of the gods’ commands,” Livielle insisted, “doubly so in time of war! How can we not—”
“If that beast decides to pay us another visit we won’t be providing charity to anyone at all. It seems this war has elevated a very different breed, and we must navigate them as best we can.”
Alessia felt bile mixing with the blood in her mouth. “So we pick sides and turn away whoever happens to be on the wrong one? What happens when Engwara gets herself one of these breed, comes and says the exact same thing? Who do you obey then? Or will you just shut out the world entire and wait for them to burn the temple down around us?”
Tanusia’s face reddened. “What would you have me do? What course would you suggest, sister?” Alessia just quivered in wordless, impotent rage. “Then hold your tongue and be content.”
She sent Eudo to a high window to question them. The peasants were the few to escape Taurix’s latest raids, and they piled against the door crying “Help us, by the gods!” because they’d been preached to all their lives about the charity of the Artameran Polytheon.
“That’s it then,” said Tanusia when Eudo brought an answer, defeated. “They’re Baroness Brathilde’s landbound. Whether they will it or no those people are enemies of Taurix, of Pharamund. We mustn’t let them inside.”
The gathered sisters stared at Tanusia as if she’d grown horns. “You can’t be serious,” Alessia said. “You’re condemning—”
Tanusia cut her off with a swipe of her hand. “The doors stay shut! That’s final.”
“Aye,” growled Alessia, “well gods damn us then.”
The wounded pushed higher and harder against the doors and pelted the building with cries, with curses and finally with rocks. Tanusia shut herself inside her cell with fists tight against her ears. Two days it persisted, and more than once Alessia moved to unbar the doors only to find Eudo parked there like a stone gargoyle, even to sleep. If she tried to sneak past he’d pop an eye open and whine, “Mother said no,” obedient to Tanusia’s command even if he did not understand it.
The pleas outside faded, then were gone. Tanusia emerged from her cell red-eyed and ordered the bar lifted. The doors opened and the late-day sun poured in orange light carrying with it a too-familiar smell, and as they swung inward bodies stiff with rigor mortis dropped to the ground. The outsides of the doors were riddled with gouges matched by splinters buried under the fingernails of the dead.
Tanusia closed the door to the tiny cell behind her. “There, now tell me what was so important it couldn’t wait until chapter.”
Alessia took a deep breath, steadied herself against a night table. “I would not speak of this in chapter, Mother. I…”
Tanusia frowned. “What is it child? If you’re still angry about what happened with the villagers, I’m sorry but I’ve already—”
“It’s not that. Or rather, it’s not just that.”
“Then spit it out.”
Breathe. “Mother, I find I cannot obey both your commands in this and those of the Polytheon as I understand them. So I’m here to beg for my release.” The silence between them screamed in Alessia’s ears. Tanusia stared at her, unmoving. For a terrible moment Alessia was afraid she’d not been clear. “I mean—”
“I know what you mean, I heard you. If this is some attempt at coercion…”
“It’s not. I know you won’t change your mind. If the screams of those people couldn’t do it… But I can’t— I won’t endure another day like yesterday. Innocents suffer every hour and no one does anything about it. ‘It’s war,’ they say as though that makes enough excuse, and move on. The one refuge they have is the temple, and now you say we only welcome folk lucky enough to fall on the right side of some damned line on a map? How can I accept that?”
“You can’t,” Tanusia nodded, “not being who you are. I admit I feared something like this. I was hoping it’d pass by…but no. You must do as you feel the gods demand. You have that luxury. I’ve more complicated responsibilities.” She gave a wan smile. “To think, only days ago it was I chiding you for being too ungentle, now here we are. Your knife cuts deep, child. Are you absolutely sure of this? Where would you go? It’s not safe out there for anyone, nevermind a woman alone.”
“I…I hadn’t thought much of that, I was so dreading this moment.”
“Ah, then I suppose I should be flattered.”
“Carsolan, or Murento, somewhere I can practice physic without restriction—”
“There’s no such place! Oh, you haven’t thought this through at all, have you? This damnable war’s left its mark on every corner of Argovan and Bergovny both. It’s not just battles anymore. If temples are no longer sacrosanct, then nowhere is. You may come to regret this decision, sister.”
Alessia set her jaw, determined. “I’m full of regrets, Tanusia. I can bear a few more, but not like yesterday’s. Call me sister no longer.”
“Very well. Take a day to gather your belongings and make your goodbyes, but no more. I can’t have your choice infecting the others. They’ll miss you terribly, especially the acolytes. And Livielle. And…I will miss you.” She drew Alessia into a tight embrace, tears welling up. “I do hope you know what you’re doing.”
That night the temple sisters sang their evening prayers. It was a dour melody, made haunting of late and no less so for being one voice the weaker.
A knight of the church & a heretical forger must put aside past enmity to steal the Church's holiest relic & save the last city. #pitprom
For centuries, the Lily of Graces has protected Brighton from an unnatural wilderness bent on the city’s destruction, only now, the Perimeter is failing. Devout Church Knight, Eli St. John, is certain that the only way to regain precious ground is to bring the artifact closer to the frontlines, but the Church isn’t exactly going to hand the Lily over. If he’s to pull off the heist of the century, he’s going to need one hell of a magical counterfeit to fool them. That means calling on the Forger, an unsanctioned enchanter in a city where Church officials persecute rogue magic.
When Eli knocks on Cole Danziger’s door one stormy winter night, she knows he’s trouble, even before he gives her a bad fake name and asks her to commit high treason. He may not know who she is—yet—but Cole hasn’t forgotten the last man to see her sister alive. If he wants her help, he’s going to pay dearly for it: with answers or his life.
To save the last city in the world, Cole and Eli must confront their pasts, expose a centuries old political conspiracy, and contend with a magical artifact who just might have a mind of her own.
Set in a post-apocalyptic, post-restoration secondary world, THE LILY OF GRACES is a character, relationship, and suspense driven work that tackles the complexities of place, memory, family, and home. With retro world-building and a well-balanced cast of characters including underrepresented identities and own voices, LILY explores difficult themes such as trauma, grief, and broken family dynamics with humor and hope.
Complete at 122,239 words, THE LILY OF GRACES is a standalone novel with series potential, and the first book in a proposed seven book series Forgeries of Grace. Three books have been completed.
The full manuscript and a brief synopsis are available at your request. Thank you for your consideration.
Cristal G. Thompson
First Ten Pages:
History was liar, and so was Eli.
The small brass tile beneath his foot read Brighton Historical Landmark, or it would have, if not for a century's worth of sea green tarnish. He didn’t know when the last time anyone from the Historical Society had been on this side of the city, but he was willing to bet it hadn’t been in his life time, or that of his parents. History had never been en vogue, not even with the bicentennial closing in. No, in Brighton, history rotted like a two day old corpse before it was forgotten.
Too much had been forgotten here. Or maybe not enough. The overhead lights shone dimly through hobnail glass. The fixtures had been white once, but not for a century. Maybe more. They cast the hall into shades of sepia, just another unkindness heaped atop the worn-down brownstone to which Eli had been directed. The carpet was threadbare and musty, pattern and color as faded as Dockside, and in as much need of demolition as the rest if anyone had asked him.
Not that anyone would.
Eli counted doors as he passed, listening beneath the roar of winter storm for sounds of occupancy, sounds of trouble. The late evening news crackled with static behind the first, fading to silence halfway down the hall, but the next three held back only echoes of emptiness. It was hard to feel alone in a city of a million lost souls, but by the time he reached the half-glass door at the end, he felt as abandoned as whatever good sense he might have once claimed.
The door was freshly painted—a crisp practical navy—and the air was sharp with resin and solvent, the scents stronger than the rain or the rot. Ripple glass gleamed, not a smudge or fingerprint to be found on its cold surface. Nothing in this part of Brighton was clean anymore and Eli had to pull his fingers back from the single word etched faintly in the center.
Eli stared down at the heavy slip of vellum in his hand. The business card was embossed with an address and no more. He glanced at the iron number and letter above the door. 3D. He was in the right place. If such a place could ever be the right one. He slipped the card into the inner breast pocket of his coat and wondered for the hundredth time what he was doing here.
A foghorn shattered the still night. The plaintive sound was much too close and Eli startled, feet planting from long habit as he reached for his gun. On hot days when the wind hit just wrong, he had smelled the dank sea rot, heard the distant noise of that same horn, but that was as close as he had ever come to Dockside. This was not the part of town a respectable person found himself in under any circumstances.
But then, Eli wasn’t respectable anymore, and his circumstances had spun far beyond any that he might once have imagined.
The voice that called through the door was rich and sultry and tactile. A most treacherous brand of female. That low mezzo traveled through the thin glass, revealed cracks in the seal around the door. Eli stood, one hand inside his jacket, fingers brushing the composite grip of his favorite gun.
Creator’s light, he needed to get himself together.
Eli dropped his hand as the door knob began to turn. He took a step back and to one side as the door opened. There was no point in giving anyone a bigger target than he already was.
“Are you coming in, sugar?”
She was tall. Eli saw her eyes first, great pools of limpid near-violet framed with sweeping lines of black and expertly thickened lashes. She must collect secrets, he thought, with a quick frown at the sudden fancy. Her eyes were crowded with the shadows of them and they were too numerous to have been all her own.
“Or are you going to stand out there all night waiting for the trash collectors?” she continued in a slow drawl that touched places in him long quiescent. She dropped her g’s, but the coarse accent didn’t quite match the rest of her. He wondered how often she used it, what it would take to have her speak to him in her own voice.
Eli mumbled an apology as she stepped back in invitation. She had the face of a painted Canova, cool marbled perfection, gentle serenity ruined with the application of ruthless color. Her hair fell softly to her shoulders, loose waves too rich to be what so often passed for strawberry blonde. Eli thought the sharpness of her makeup a blasphemy, but it was her face, she could do as she wished. She was not for his gaze for all that she hung in the doorway framed by the colors of stained parchment and night sky. The exaggerated curves of fine crimson wool turned the lines of her suit into something almost obscene. He found himself staring inanely at her feet. The sensible black pumps were of quality leather, but the nearly transparent wash of silk that shimmered down her calves turned them into something deadly.
“Benedict sent me,” he managed to mutter as he followed her into the room.
The office was small, nearly barren, and fastidiously clean. The walls were the same whitewash as the hallway, but fresher. A steel desk dominated the center of the room, battleship grey paint mostly worn through.
“Not me.” The woman nodded toward another half-glass door on the adjacent wall. “You want Cole. I’m just the secretary. Can I take your coat and hat?”
Some secretary, Eli thought, ashamed of his appreciation. He handed her his hat, shrugged out of his wet trench and passed that over with care for the water dripping all over the floor.
“’Just the secretary’ my ass.”
The door swung open and a woman stomped out, a dervish of agitation and impatience in every step. She wore grey slacks with brown suspenders and a white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up strong, tanned arms. Beneath a scattering of freckles, she had the most honest scowl Eli had ever seen.
“You are killing me with that draft, Tandy,” she complained. She brushed between them, tread heavy, and closed the main door to the office with mostly restrained ire. “Killing. Me.”
“Sorry, Cole.” Tandy smiled, sounding anything but. She crossed the small office in long, rolling strides, sat with effortless grace on the edge of the small ladder-back chair behind the desk. The antique was as unexpected here as she was. In Brighton wood was for the wealthy and the Church. Tandy inclined her head slowly in Eli’s direction. “You have a visitor.”
Cole deigned to notice him then. Eli wondered how many men came to the office so late at night that she could afford to overlook one. When she snapped her gaze to him, it was all he could do not to flinch at the demand.
“Benedict sent you?”
She wasn’t quite hostile, but he was definitely under the impression she wasn’t glad for the possible work.
Her brown hair was longer than was fashionable; she gathered the waving locks into a merciless twist while he tried not to gape down at her. Benedict had led him to believe he would be welcome.
“Go on then.” Cole shoved a pen from Tandy’s desk through the knot at the nape of her neck and nodded toward the partially ajar door she had just come through. “I’ll be along.”
A gust of wind pushed the storm in through the open windows behind Tandy, rattling horizontal blinds and casting glittering raindrops against the warm light of the office. Eli didn’t believe himself to be a superstitious man, but he was having a hard time not seeing the weather as a portent.
“Don’t touch anything,” Cole added in clear dismissal.
Eli obliged reluctantly, offering Tandy a polite smile and nod of farewell as he stepped into the other room. It was easily three times the size of the outer office, and not so much an office itself as a live-in library, with floor to ceiling bookshelves taking up most of the walls, and a large window seat that pulled obvious double duty as a bed. The light was dimmer here than in the reception area. There was but a single weak bulb in the fixture overhead and the ceiling tiles were the same navy as the front door, cluttering the room with secrets and shadows.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait and have me walk you home?” Cole asked from the other room.
“Oh, darling,” Tandy demurred, a smile in the words, “you know I’m the most dangerous thing out there.”
Cole laughed. The sound was low and smoky and Eli suddenly felt that he was intruding even though there was no way the conversation was intended to be private. He stepped farther away from the open door, squeezing past a large desk of ancient carved wood, conspicuously clear in a room of almost pleasant clutter. There were scars across the leather top, stains of ink and paint? They could have been blood, he supposed. She was the Forger.
“I’ll see you for breakfast, wench,” Cole said. There was a rustle of movement, then another refrain of Cole’s dark laughter. “Was that for me or for him?”
“Whichever one of you needs it,” Tandy retorted pertly. “Be careful.”
“I always am.”
“Liar.” The accusation was fond and then Tandy’s heels clicked across the hardwood floor.
Eli heard the door open and close behind her and quickly finished his circuit of the room, narrowly missing, in his unease, the pot-bellied stove in the corner. There was a large sack of peat on the floor beside it. The scent of scorched earth mingled with notes of lemon and sage as they wafted from the copper pot atop the stove. A kettle simmered beside it, over-filled to a faint, watery whistle.
“Careful,” Cole said from the doorway. Beside her mouth was a perfect print of Tandy’s red lips. “It’s hotter than it feels on a night like this.”
Eli jolted and spun fully toward her, nearly falling over the back of an overstuffed velvet armchair.
“You could move something out there, you know,” he groused, sidestepping to the narrow perimeter of the room and glaring at the bookshelf closest to him rather than at her.
“I could,” Cole replied. “But then I would have only myself to complain to for the constant interruptions.” When she spoke again she was closer, and Eli had to fight every instinct not to reach for his gun again. “If Benedict sent you, you didn’t come to borrow a book, so what do you want, Mr…?”
He turned to face her, giving the name so easily that anyone else would have believed him. It was common enough, but certainly nothing so trite as Smith or Doe. Cole’s eyes narrowed, something dark shifting in the muddy, mossy green and despite having her by at least six inches and fifty pounds, Eli nearly took a step back.
Two centuries ago, there had been forests around Brighton. Great towering hardwoods with deadly shadows. The early city had been built from those trees, and the Church had beaten back those shadows with the ordinance of their Creator. Eli’s great-grandfather had been one of the first lumber barons, and in his parents’ salon hung landscapes from those early years, vast, moody forests of emerald and ochre. The kind of mysteries that even the young knew killed. Eli had nearly forgotten those paintings, and the accompanying wash of cold shame that had always followed that first fearful leap of his heart.
That is until he met Cole’s suspicious stare.
“You might want to try something less obvious.” She rolled those green eyes heavenward as she turned away, and they were no more dangerous than his, if more mocking in her irritation. “Mr. Williams.”
If Cole was betting, and she did so on occasion, she would put money on Mr. “Williams’s” name being something proper and stalwart, something old and blue from the lost continents, maybe a forgotten king or a revered saint. The hat and jacket Tandy had taken from him were cheap, but the quality of his shoes put him from Old Towne—how the hells had he made it to her door without trouble, Cole very much wanted to know—and if he couldn’t trace his lineage right back to the Arks she would eat one of hers.
“So what are you?” Cole asked, pulling her handkerchief from her pocket and scrubbing Tandy’s lipstick from her cheek.
She turned back to him, took a step into his space to see if he would give ground and how easily. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a powerful build that his nondescript, but still too expensive, suit did little to hide. Another man might have been clumsy with the bulk or arrogant, but despite his difficulty navigating her cramped office, Cole could see that he was neither.
“What am I?”
He might have seemed a bit too fascinated by Tandy, too uncertain in his interactions with the beautiful singer, but he wasn’t nearly so uncomfortable with his body. He had settled somewhat now that they were alone.
“Warden?” she asked, more to rattle him than in any true guess.
He stepped back against the armchair he had nearly fallen over, sank his fingers into the faded green velvet as Cole slipped past him to turn on one of the lamps.
Cole jerked her chin up, snapped her eyes to his like a punch as he blinked in the sudden illumination. Dirty marshal maybe, but he didn’t have the look of corrupt law enforcement. His stare was at once too direct and too fluid. He didn’t think he had anything to prove so he didn’t bludgeon her with his gaze.
He stared blankly over her shoulder and she brushed by him again, crowding to test. He was graceful and cool. Blonde and blue like a warrior angel, jaw chiseled just so. His skin was light, dusted faintly with sun and five o’clock shadow. She might not have noticed the tension beneath it if she hadn’t been looking for it, but he smelled of blood and death and she knew he wasn’t clergy—at least not one of the sanctimonious bureaucrats most common to the Church nowadays—and he wasn’t smooth enough to be a politician.
The last was thrown half in jest but his glance shifted almost imperceptibly as he turned again to face her. Cole smiled; Williams didn’t. His stare shifted from summer to winter, suddenly cruel and empty. Oh, he was a knight, alright. She knew that look far too well.
Cole hopped up onto her desk, pushed back to center and folded her legs tailor fashion before her. “You…” She paused to let him wonder. “...have just become my most interesting client, Mr. Williams.”
He smiled then and she wasn’t expecting it, not with such brittleness in his eyes, but his lips curved almost against his will, something rueful, as bitter as the night outside.
“And here we haven’t even gotten started,” he replied.
Cole nodded toward the chair before him, reached behind her for one of the desk drawers. “Drink?”
“Perhaps,” he considered, blue eyes warming to cool distance as he stepped around the chair and sat. He settled back against the velvet, dark suit adding shadows where Cole preferred light. He studied her at least as hard as she was studying him, but she had the advantage. She knew what he saw.
“Yes.” He nodded politely. “I believe I will. Thank you.”
The mannerisms were definitely Old Towne. Benedict always did send her the most interesting work, but she could have done without the hassle tonight. Cole pulled a bottle of bourbon from the drawer, top shelf stuff, a gift from Zeke that had been more for him than her. She set it on the desk before her, reached back for two mismatched glasses.
“The bourbon will have to do,” she said, deliberately seeming to misinterpret Mr. Williams’s look of surprise as disapproval. “I save the whiskey for second dates and real names.”
She poured them each two fingers of liquor, slid his glass toward him so that he would have to reach to retrieve it from the edge of the desk. Cole watched his hands. He hadn’t offered his when Tandy introduced them, nor she hers. There was a lot to be learned from a person’s hands. Hers told the story of her entire life, but only one or two could read it. Mr. Williams’s were steady, his fingers calloused with too familiar wear. She waited until he had the glass in his grip, waited another breath for him to lift the edge to his lips.
“So, what’s an axeman doing on this side of town?”
To his credit, he didn’t flinch, and he didn’t deny her deduction, which meant he wasn’t a fool. He met her carefully bored stare with something like challenge as he savored his first swallow of bourbon.
“I need a forgery.”
The words echoed deep against the bottom of his glass and he took a second sip as if he were waiting for the sarcastic quip that teased her tongue. Of course, he needed a forgery. Cole raised a brow, but not her glass. He scowled when she didn’t ask again, but Cole had learned long ago not to beg anyone for their secrets. Like as not, they would heap them at her feet in their own time. She waited while Williams finished his bourbon in one elegant gulp. He set the glass back on the edge of her desk without a sound.
“The Lily of Graces,” he said, not quite meeting her eyes through the harsh light of the reading lamp. “I need an exact copy.”
He wasn’t the first to want a copy of the holy relic, but he was certainly the first affiliated with the Church, and there was something dangerous in his addendum. An exact copy, as if he knew what that meant.
“Why?” Cole smirked. “Someone steal it?”
“Yes.” He took her untouched glass from the desk, knocked the contents back without asking. “I did.”
Dreams of hist Iceland R more vivid than Val’s bad marriage. They turn real & shes caught b/t 2 brothers & their sorcerer father #HR #A #PitProm
Dear Sir/Lady PitProm:
PAST STORM AND FIRE (98,000 words) is a completed historical fiction/timeslip novel with a romantic narrative which weaves between modern Miami and medieval Iceland. I hope to explore this book’s series potential with you[D1] .
Val and Karl’s house is destroyed by a hurricane, which inspires her to write a historical romance novel set in Iceland rife with sorcery, sexy Vikings, and a volcano. Val’s dreams reveal historical facts later proven true, which both frightens and intrigues her. Her obsession with writing puts a strain on her already troubled marriage, but she’s terrified of being on her own.
In her novel, Val becomes Vigdis. She evades two amorous brothers and their drunken father. The brothers fight a duel, forcing her to make a very public choice between them. Their father refuses to bide by her choice and tries to use black magic to enchant her. A volcanic eruption throws their entire world into ash and fire. The line between past and present grow blurred as Vigdis lives everything Val dreams of – true love, children, and family.
An attractive Icelandic professor of history helps Val investigate the history behind her visions, but her husband draws the line – give up her writing or he’ll leave. Val must decide whether to resurrect the shambles of her marriage or take her chance in Iceland to discover if her dreams truly do come from the past.
I’ve previously published nine novels, including The Druid’s Brooch Series published by Tirgearr Publishing. I’ve been a presenter at the Steuben County Library Writers Conference for the past two years, and have given presentations on historical fiction research at several other venues. I’m active on several social media platforms. Feel free to visit my author website, www.GreenDragonArtist.com, to learn more.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration, and I truly look forward to hearing from you.
First Ten Pages:
August 24, 1992, Miami, Florida
No window or door let in a breath of air, and Val grew entombed within a sarcophagus of sweaty doom. The central air conditioner kicked on with a whine, working overtime in the hot, humid August night.
Karl entered with her glass of white wine. She smiled and gulped most of it down, savoring the sharp, cool liquid. “The news just upgraded the hurricane to a hundred and fifty miles an hour.”
“Thanks, Karl. I really needed that update.”
“We’ll be okay, Val. It’s not like we’re on the coast or anything.”
She flashed him a brave smile. They sat silent for a long time, staring at the talking heads on the news wax poetic about the impending disaster.
Val had considered evacuating, but leaving was like giving up. Besides, where would they go? Her father’s house? He summered in Vermont and his house in west Florida stood empty. She had no guarantee her father’s house would fare any better, and panicked refugees choked all roads north.
The wind rattled the boarded windows, making her shudder and wish she had checked them once again before the storm hit.
Val wished someone would tell her everything would be fine, but she was used to being the strong one, the effective one, the motivated one. At least Karl brought her booze. Alcohol helped a lot.
She resisted the temptation to crack the door open to look outside. The sky would be dark and she wouldn’t be able to see much. For now, they still had power.
The weatherman’s words became hypnotic, and Val drifted into a semi-dozing state from the constant drone of his voice. Her mind shaped the meteorological terms into exotic meanings, sentences that made a certain surreal sense. Puzzled, she jumped from half-understood statement to nonsense.
She startled awake when the sound stopped, along with all the light and the hum of the air conditioning.
“Damn it.” She stood, fumbling to find the small flashlight she’d kept by her chair. No, that’s a pen. Where did the stupid thing go? Something fell on the floor; probably the drink coaster. Ah, found it. She gripped the heavy cylinder, fresh with four new batteries, and clicked the light on.
“Karl? Are you awake?”
Neither of them had gone to bed as they’d propped the mattress against the sliding glass doors. They both sat in their living room chairs. Karl lay reclined in his, snoring. Val decided to be kind and let him sleep. She made her way to the breaker room in the garage and flipped each off. She didn’t want any fires starting when the power came on abruptly.
The howling outside didn’t sound like wind. Instead, a train rumbled next to her house. The walls rattled and shook and, suddenly, Val wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Any place but here in this stifling space, waiting for Mother Nature to pluck this laughable cardboard box from its flimsy foundations and toss her into the air like a demented Dorothy.
With a gulp to keep from crying, Val walked to the bathroom and glared at the bathtub, the most secure spot in the entire house. They’d filled the tub with water so they could flush the toilet if they lost power. Unless she wanted to strip down and take a bath, the tub wouldn’t be a good hiding place.
At least the bathroom had no windows. No place for the glass to shatter, covering her with a thousand shards, creating a sucking vacuum and pulling her out into the fury. The white noise of the storm outside became a blanket, a shield between her gibbering soul and the panic which threatened to burst through.
She sat on the bathroom floor and curled her arm around the pipes under the sink. They seemed secure and strong, and the comfort kept her tears at bay. She envied Karl his slumber and ignorant bliss.
A crash made the house shudder, and she whimpered. Val hadn’t been a religious person for many years. However, her Catholic childhood resurged through her fear, and she prayed under her breath. Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of--
Another crash heralded shattering glass somewhere. Had a window broken? They’d covered all the windows except the tiny ones in the back of the garage. They hadn’t found enough wood, and the outside of the garage was stucco. To nail anything over that would have damaged the wall. If that window broke, not much would be damaged in the garage—unless the break let wind get in and yank their house from its foundations.
Val wished Karl would wake. She wanted him to hold her and tell her they’d be fine. But rousing him would be unfair. Let him sleep through the worst.
Crash! Slam! Val cried unashamedly now. She gave up trying to identify the sounds or analyze what they meant. She only prayed over and over they would survive this horrible storm.
With a bizarre suddenness, the noise halted. The pressure still pounded in her head, but the wind ceased. The stillness and quiet became unnerving.
Val kept waiting for something new to happen, but the stillness grew until the pressure became an oppressive weight upon her soul. The soundless air became a living thing, wrapping around her like a stifling wool blanket. The silence grew worse than the storm’s din had been, more suffocating than she’d ever experienced before.
She needed to escape, to be outside. Surely the eye of the storm had arrived. With a curse at her idiocy, she searched for the small transistor radio they’d bought and turned the dial until the crackling resolved into sound.
The first station aired nothing but prayers. She moved the dial into the FM range and tuned to her favorite rock station, WSHE. They should be broadcasting news on every local frequency rather than music.
After fiddling with the dial, past the ironic tunes of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and “Riding the Storm Out”—what psychopathic DJs had chosen these?--the somnolent tones of an older weatherman said something about pressure and storm surge, and she fine-tuned the dial until the signal came in clear.
“The eye just passed over Homestead Air Force Base…” Homestead lie miles south of her. Could the eye be that large? The eye marked the greatest swath of destruction from a hurricane. The sudden increase of full-speed winds on the opposite side of the eye-wall would be devastating, much worse than the gradual increase in wind speeds on the other side. If no wind blew outside, she must be in the eye. But how far from the edge? If they sat near the northern edge, the winds would return with ruinous speed at any time.
As much as she needed to get a breath of fresh air, she didn’t want to risk opening her sealed house to the danger of the monster storm.
Instead of stewing about a decision she’d already made, she paced. Val walked from boarded window to boarded window, flashing her light on each one to ensure each board remained firmly in place. Thankfully, she’d double-checked Karl’s work on the boards on Saturday; otherwise she’d worry herself sick over the possibility of them coming off. She would still worry, but at least she had confidence in their sturdiness.
She should have left the radio on, something to fill the dead silence. No, we should conserve the batteries. The power may not be on for days.
When the tempest returned, the storm roared with furious vengeance, pummeling the wooden sides of the house with violent rage. The freight train returned, barreling toward her with mindless menace. With a sudden panic, Val ran back to the bathroom and almost jumped in the tub, wet clothes be damned.
Another object slammed into the wall outside. The sickening screech of wood and metal filled the room.
Damn! How the ever-living hell did Karl sleep through this cacophony?
She’d best go wake him and bring him into the safer room.
With great trepidation, she emerged from the small, dark room and found Karl, still snoring in his lounge chair.
“Karl? Karl, wake up. We need to go to the bathroom.”
He didn’t open his eyes but mumbled. “What? What do you mean, we? I can go to the bathroom by myself. I don’t need your help.”
She shook him again. “Wake up, Karl! The storm is getting worse. We have to move somewhere safer. Get up!”
Reluctantly, he grumbled and tumbled out of the lounger, not bothering to push the footrest down. He stumbled into the bathroom with her and they sat on the cool tile floor.
He squinted at the full tub. “You woke me for this?”
A crash and a sickeningly long creak shut him up.
More crashes, and the freight-train wind hit again. A huge whomp made them both flinch, and they laughed off their reaction with a slight tinge of hysteria.
Karl held Val’s hand and squeezed. “We’ll be fine, Val. This is a good, sturdy house.”
She sincerely hoped so, but neither of them were experts in housing construction. She worked as an accountant in a second-chance college, and he worked as a janitor at a different college.
Yet another horrendous crash and ripping sound snatched Val back to reality. Boards creaked and groaned and she smelled something which made her shiver despite the mugginess.
The scent of fresh air.
Somehow, somewhere, the airtight seal had been broken in their house. She held her breath, waiting for all to be blown away by the indiscriminate fury of the storm, away to some place in another world, like the Wonderful Land of Oz. With luck, she’d get dropped at Disney World, or better yet, Key West. They had plenty of parties and alcohol in Key West. She’d party her troubles away and forget stress from work, a destroyed house, and a marriage with more stress than love.
The air increased, and she squeezed Karl’s hand more tightly. Why hadn’t they evacuated? They might have headed north to safety. Karl’s ex-wife, Marjoree, and his son, lived in Georgia. Val detested the manipulative bitch, but better staying with them than dead by drowning or a house crashing on their heads.
The wall of sound seemed to be moving away from them. She breathed a little easier.
Hours later, she painfully uncramped herself from a sitting position. More time passed before she mustered enough courage to open the bathroom door and survey the damage. Before she did, she sent up a brief prayer of heartfelt thanks for their survival. They weren’t out of the woods yet, but they hadn’t been blown away, either.
The wind had died to an almost inaudible whine. Did she want to see the damage? Did she want to open that door and see everything she owned in tatters? Perhaps nothing more than a couple roof tiles cracked, or the door from the garage broken open. She knew the window of the garage had broken earlier.
With a deep breath, she put her hand on the bathroom doorknob and twisted.
The door wouldn’t open.
With a grunt, she shoved shoulder on the door. She gained an inch. Her panic rose. “Karl, I need help!”
Together, with several curses and yells, they pushed the bathroom door open about a foot and squeezed through the crack.
The rain fell in the house.
To be fair, the rain fell outside the house, too. But since she could see the clouds above, the difference seemed irrelevant.
Val didn’t know why the bit of ceiling remained over the bathroom. Possibly the braces attaching the tile walls stayed stronger than those to the wooden outside walls. She didn’t know and didn’t care. The wind still blew, but the rain had almost stopped as she turned in a slow circle.
Ruin surrounded her.
Val crossed herself. “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy.”
As far as she could see, nothing stood higher than her head, except for random wooden planks sticking up at rakish angles out of piles of trash. Her mind refused to grasp the swathe of destruction. Nothing looked familiar. Her living room didn’t exist. Instead, a pile of furniture, bright swatches of clothing, naked wood, roof shingles, leaves, and unidentifiable debris cut a swath around her and beyond. She glanced down and realized she stood in a pool of water, the strong breeze making it ripple slightly in the dim iron-gray light.
Karl’s recliner lay on its side, impaled by a large branch of wood. Val shuddered.
A gust of wind almost pulled her off-balance, and she grabbed Karl’s arm. He stood, mesmerized by the complete transformation of everything they had known.
“Where’s the car, Val?”
She glanced toward the driveway. Then she remembered she’d parked their car next to the garage for safety. With dubious hope, she gingerly picked her way through the junk to see around the piles. A gleam of red rewarded her. While it didn’t look destroyed, the car remained buried under countless chunks of house. The debris might be hers; it might be someone else’s.
Her purse. She should find her purse. What had she done with it? Right. They’d put the valuables in safe, presumably waterproof places. The dishwasher, the refrigerator, the stove. Without a proper iron safe, they’d gotten creative.
She searched for the kitchen. Nothing looked the same; she had no frame of reference for the rooms. A pile of electronic spaghetti next to the recliner might have once been the television. There, that looked like the fridge, under that fabric. She’d never seen that pattern. The garment had been ripped in many places, but the old-fashioned flower print flashed bright in the dim light.
She yanked it down and patted the fridge, thankful to find something where it should be. Next to the fridge stood the dishwasher, which she jerked open. She found her purse inside, safe and sound. Her wallet, social security card, passport, credit cards, car keys; all she needed to get by in modern life. If she’d been thinking more clearly, she would have kept her purse close.
She handed Karl his own wallet and surveyed the area. She couldn’t even see their bed. It should have been twenty feet that way, under a pile of branches.
“Karl, I think we should excavate the car. If we can get out of here, we should head north. There’s no way we can sleep here tonight, so we need a hotel room.” Karl looked at her dubiously, frowning and wrinkling up his eyes. He always did that when he thought hard. “What?”
“I don’t think we’re driving out of here.”
She turned to look where he pointed and let out a low whistle. He didn’t exaggerate.
Country Walk had been full of tall trees. All of those trees, it seemed, now lie in the road. Big, thick pines crisscrossed the roads in all directions.
Val tossed her hands into the air. “Great. Just great! I have no idea what we should do.”
She sat on the ground, squishing in the water, and burst into tears. Val sobbed hard, unable to stop, even when Karl came over and put his arm around her in awkward consolation.
She cried in frustration and fear. She cried for her future. She cried for all the things she had just lost, so many things she couldn’t even take a mental inventory. Everything gone—everything. All her furniture, toys from her childhood, her photographs, her mother’s favorite shirt. Everything destroyed in a thunderous maelstrom.
When she finally felt cried out, voices intruded upon her misery.
Her next door neighbors, Jerry and Clara, picked their way over. “Hey, Val! Are you two okay?”
She nodded, pulling herself to her feet. Her bottom got soaking wet. She didn’t care. Everything had gotten soaking wet. She gripped Karl’s hand. “Safe and sound, at least our bodies. Our house, on the other hand… well, our bathroom is still standing!”
Her quip elicited laughter tinged with more than a bit of hysteria from them all. It went on much too long.
Val noticed Jerry held Clara’s hand tightly. “Our garage came through fine, and we had that weird little cellar we used for wine. That’s where we hid. Luckily, it’s tile-lined, so no water came in.”
Val surveyed the surreally blank horizon. “So, what’s the plan?”
No one said a thing. They glanced back and forth at each other with blank expressions.
Clara snapped her brightly-manicured fingers. “Well, they have to send FEMA in, right?”
Karl asked, “What’s FEMA?”
Val rolled her eyes, but Jerry saved her from answering. “It’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They take care of folks after disasters like this.”
Val looked around, spreading her arms. “How the hell are they going to get anything to us?”
Clara smiled. “Good question. They’ll probably set up some central distribution center. Maybe someplace like the Walmart down the road. Something with a big parking lot and easy access.”
Karl’s eyes lit up. “Maybe they’ll send in helicopters!”
Val glared at Karl. “Easy access. Right.”
With a chuckle, Clara shrugged and raised her hands, palms up. “Okay, relatively easy access. Sure, there will be a lot of work clearing the roads, and it may take a while for them to get out to us. But… can you hear that?”
They all listened while the unmistakable roar of a chainsaw cut through the neighborhood.
In 1871, a reluctant medium reenters the fray to solve her partner’s murder as her criminal past comes back to haunt her…literally. #pitprom
VIOLA “VI” THORNE’s days of grifting and running errands for the dead should have ended years ago when she left Peter eating steam on a Chicago train platform. No one in California knows she can speak to spirits, yet there’s a dead stranger at her doorstep begging her to recover his buried gold in order to pay his debt and save a life. The unlikely companions find themselves racing horses, cheating at cards, and tangling with bandits, and that’s just before lunch.
Once Vi finds out who is responsible for telling the ghost her location, she must face the past she thought she’d buried. Peter appears as a spirit to bring her a warning of those who want to lure her back to New Orleans and are willing to kill for it. Vi may play the damsel in distress when it suits her, but she won’t let herself be rescued if she can use her “special talents” to earn Peter’s forgiveness and atone for the only deception she’s ever regretted. During the journey, her long-repressed powers begin to grow in unexpected ways, threatening her mind as well as her body. She stops in Chicago to get help from an estranged and recalcitrant aunt with knowledge of the supernatural and unwittingly gives her enemy's ghostly assassin the opportunity to strike.
Historical fiction gets a paranormal twist in No Rest for the Wicked, which is 94,500 words long and intended for adult fantasy readers looking for a complex female protagonist at the helm. It is the first installment in a planned 5-book series that will take Vi and her companions across gaslit America in 1871.
When I’m not penning speculative fiction, acting as co-editor for SteampunkJournal.org, and sharing articles with my fellow writers on OurWriteSide.com, I am the Creative Director for a creativity competition for grades 5-8. I love attending conventions and have been a frequent guest speaker at events like the International Steampunk Symposium. You can find my Gothic short story, "The Vigil," in the Chasing Magic anthology, as well as my contributions to the novel Esyld's Awakening, which were both published by the Collaborative Writing Challenge in 2017. I coordinated and contributed to a Steampunk fantasy novel called Army of Brass that launched April 2018. My latest short story, a horror retelling of Pinocchio entitled "The Marionette," can be found in The Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales anthology published earlier this month.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
First Ten Pages:
September 30, 1871
About two miles as the crow flies from Sacramento, California
Viola Thorne preferred to bathe by moonlight. Perhaps it was the quiet chirps of the crickets or the splash of stars above, but something about the nights here at the end of the world called out to her.
After weeks of aching muscles, she’d managed to reinforce the natural hot spring with stones from all over the ranch to build the perfect niche for soaking. Sulfurous steam rose off the water and eddied around her head and shoulders while the rest of her luxuriated in the gentle currents of heat.
A half-empty bottle of whiskey kept a waxed paper parcel company on the edge. She reached inside the package and pulled out a fragrant hunk of soap—the last of what she’d brought from back East four years earlier. No telling when she’d be able to get more, but she worked the bubbles through her hair and scalp with gusto. The smell of lilacs rose from the lather to combat the reek of rotten eggs emanating from the spring. Vi breathed it deep into her lungs as she closed her eyes against the tide of foam.
A sensation as light and dangerous as hornet wings fluttered on the back of her neck and slowed her hands. Miles away from anywhere anyone might possibly want to go, she should have been safe from prying eyes here in the pool, even in broad daylight.
All the same, someone was watching.
Unwilling to let the peeping Tom know she was on to him, Vi went back to washing her hair. She listened for the telltale crack of a twig or the whisper of cloth to indicate the direction of the infiltrator’s approach. If it came down to it, she could always reach out with her other sense, but that was reserved for special occasions these days.
She leaned her head back to rinse, the lather floating around her tinged a dull red from the henna she used to muddy her identity. Though the chance of being recognized way out here remained remote, Vi favored distancing herself from her old life wherever she could. Her chestnut hair was a small sacrifice for obscurity.
The frontier night stretched out quiet and undisturbed before her, yet the prickling awareness spreading across her shoulders told her the invading presence somehow drew nearer. Beneath the water’s surface, she brushed her fingers against her garter and the knife she always kept strapped to her calf. Having a jack rabbit for a stalker would be far more likely than encountering some poor soul wandering the prairie, but naked and alone (and if she was being honest, more than a little inebriated) out in a distant corner of her ranch, she couldn’t take that risk.
With a deep breath, she reached into herself and quested for the feelings that always tickled at the edges of her awareness. Reaching out with her mind, she washed through the waiting embers of her long-repressed senses. They flared to life, hot and sharp despite her years of denial. Vi allowed the unexpected feeling of satisfaction to curl the corner of her mouth before she returned to the task at hand.
Her audience stood behind her, his decidedly unrabbitlike outline burning bright and blue inside her skull. In one fluid motion, her blade flashed moon-bright and hurtled toward the place he stood. A hollow “thunk” told her it had hit the tree behind him, just as she’d expected from the color of his aura.
“Are you crazy?” the ghost cried, patting his chest where the knife had passed straight through him. “You could kill someone like that!”
He took a few noiseless steps away from the offending blade, as if it intended to jump out of the tree and bite him.
“You’re already dead,” she mocked. “What are you so worried about?”
“What if I wasn’t?”
With a shrug and a few splashes, Vi made her way over to the makeshift stone bench beneath the water’s surface and settled upon it. “I knew what I was doing.”
“Then what, pray tell, did you hope to accomplish with your little trick?” The insubstantial form crossed his arms and peered at her from under the brim of his transparent bowler hat. Even in death, the fine cut of his clothes marked him as an outsider the same way his accent marked him as a New Englander.
Vi twisted her hair into a coil at the top of her head before breathing out a contented sigh and resting against a pillow of moss. “I was hoping it would make you go away. So, if you don’t mind?” Her fingers fluttered in a gesture of dismissal and she closed her eyes.
A few silent seconds ticked by, and she dared to hope he’d go. Then his curiosity shattered the quiet again. “Where did you even pull that knife from?”
He craned his neck as if he could see beneath the silver ripples of the pool. Vi’s head snapped forward, face red from more than the heat of the spring. “It was strapped to my leg, you degenerate! Now go away. I want to finish my bath in peace.”
The ghost removed his hat and simpered, “Please, I must speak with you.”
“No. What you must do is move on and stop bothering the living. I’m out of the business of running errands for the dead, thank you very much.” Her hands traced shallow furrows in the water.
“But you don’t even know what I want.”
“It’s my wife, you see—”
“There are these men and—”
“We owe them some money—”
“I can keep this up all night,” she warned.
“But, they’re going to—”
Vi raised her hands above the water and moved them like a conductor as she sang to the tune of a new song that had been making the rounds. “I’m not interested in helping, all the live-long day.” She let her hands drop back into the water with a splash.
If he could breathe, his chest would have been heaving in anger. In his current state, the ghost had to settle for pulling a sour face. “Well, I had to try. My wife is—was—my whole life.” He donned his spectral hat and turned to leave, mumbling to himself, “He warned you she wouldn’t help.”
“Yep, he was right,” Vi called lazily. Then the water surged around her as she sat forward with sudden interest. “Wait. Who warned you I wouldn’t help?” After the lengths she’d gone to to disappear, there shouldn’t be anyone for hundreds of miles who knew about her “special talent.”
“Will you help me if I tell you?” the ghost asked, hope written in the lines of his gently glowing face.
Vi squinted and sniffed. “I can guarantee I won’t help you if you don’t.”
The spirit smiled and waved his hands in imitation of her earlier display. “I’m not interested in telling, all the live-long day.”
She glared at the ripples on the pool. Not knowing the identity of her referrer was going to eat at her, but the information alone wasn’t worth the price of dealing with this guy.
Hat in hand, he tried again. “Forgive me. Please? I promise, I’ll tell you the whole sorry tale of how I found out about you as soon as you agree to help me.”
“No wonder you’ve gotten yourself into trouble,” she spat. “You shouldn’t offer to pay someone up front; you need to hold onto whatever it is for leverage.”
“All right. Then I promise to tell you after you help me.”
“Nope. Still not interested. It would take a lot more than that to get me involved.”
His face fell for a moment before he brightened. “Well, there’s always the gold.”
Vi’s smirk returned. “You didn’t say anything about gold before.”
“You didn’t let me get that far!” The spirit took a few eager steps in her direction as he began, but his restlessness kept him pacing as he spoke. “I spent all I had getting out here. So, I owed money for my prospecting equipment, but I wasn’t having any luck panning. When they came around to collect, I told them I’d go out again and try farther up the river. They gave me until noon tomorrow to pay my debt, but I don’t think anyone really expected me to find anything.”
“Of course, they didn’t. The big strike in these parts happened when I was a girl.”
He stopped walking for a moment. Even in his insubstantial state, greed glinted in his eyes. “But I did! I found enough to pay them back and make up our losses from the trail.”
“And then you died. That’s a poor stretch of luck.”
“Yes! I was jumped a few hours’ walk from here by some bandits.” He pointed out into the distance behind Vi and her hot spring. “They took my equipment and my mule, but they didn’t take my gold.”
She chuckled. “They must not have been very good bandits, then.”
“No, you see, I buried it,” he said with a hint of satisfaction. “I knew there might be people like them roaming around, so I dug a hole before I went to sleep and stashed it there.”
“And we see how well that worked out for you.”
“Well, yes, they were rather unhappy when they saw I was a prospector but wouldn’t give them any gold.” He allowed himself a gratified laugh, but the next memory sobered him again. “They beat on me for a spell, trying to get the information, but I knew if they took the gold, that was the end for me anyway. You see, ma’am, if I don’t get that gold to Salty somehow, they said they’d kill her. They’re going to kill my wife! I can’t let her pay for my mistakes.”
“Ugh, of course. Another man, another woman caught in the crossfire.” Vi gave the water another contemplative splash. “That sounds like Salty all right.”
“You know him?”
“He puts on airs like he’s some sort of businessman, but there’s a big difference between business and his way of doing things.” She wrung the final drops of water out of her hair before letting it spill loose across her shoulders. “Even so, we have an understanding of sorts.”
“So, you’ll help me?”
“No.” She stood, water streaming down her torso. “But I’ll help your wife.”
The ghost turned away in a flurry of embarrassed splutters. No surprise there—the frontier always ate up and spat out the honorable ones like tobacco. If he were an ordinary man, she’d have been more self-conscious about her nudity, but as ghosts are generally limited to looking and nothing more, she tended to treat them like furniture. The air was cool after her long soak in the spring, and she climbed onto the bank to retrieve her clothes.
“Well, if we’re going to be working this job together, I suppose introductions are in order.” The final button fastened, she grabbed her whiskey and took another swig. The world tilted and blurred pleasantly as she moved to retrieve her knife from the tree. “I suppose your mysterious informant told you I’m Vi, and you are…Oh, sorry. And you were…?”
He whirled back, a pained expression on his face. “I don’t see what is so funny about all this.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, making a show of shoving her foot into an oversized boot to avert her eyes. “This isn’t my first time talking to a ghost, but I suppose this is the first time you’ve died.”
“Obviously,” he retorted, a giggle bubbling up and receding into weary sigh. An uncomfortable silence followed, and Vi cleared her throat. “Ah yes, my name. It’s Tobias.”
“Okay, Toby, this ‘buried treasure’ of yours, it’s marked with an X or something?”
“Not exactly…I’ll have to lead you there.”
Vi pulled on her second boot and straightened. “When do we leave?”
The song of the prairie night disappeared, banished by the blush of morning.
Though picturesque, it was definitely not a time of day Vi usually considered possible. This went double for mornings after a late night full of whiskey and steam.
“Wake up, Vi!” Tobias called for what seemed like at least the thousandth time.
She dragged her stiff tongue around her sour mouth before groaning, “I heard you.”
“It’s about time,” the ghost grumped. “We need to get moving if we are going to get to the gold and back before twelve.”
“Is there time for coffee?” Vi pinched the bridge of her nose.
Her ability to glare remained unaffected by the hangover. “Let me rephrase that: There is time for coffee.”
Tobias fussed while she lit a lamp and built the fire in the stove. As Vi poured the dark powder into the pot, she frowned; it was almost gone, too. Unlike her favorite soap, coffee was a cargo hauled by the regular steamboat traffic on the Sacramento, but the price varied depending on supply and demand, and she hated to haggle when she didn’t have any power. After all, if she didn’t buy it, someone else definitely would.
Vi took stock of her other supplies. With her spartan approach to existence on the ranch, it didn’t take long. One cup, one plate, one fork—one person making an effort to make as small a dent in the world as possible didn’t need much. Her place in town was nicer if she needed creature comforts, but sometimes whiling away the long nights, she had to admit a partner for cribbage wouldn’t have gone amiss. Of course, it was safer for everyone this way.
When steam rolled off the water, she tipped the contents of one pot into the other and leaned into the fragrant plume. The very smell of coffee helped clear away some of her whiskey-induced cobwebs, and she almost remembered how to smile again.
While her breakfast steeped, Vi gave yesterday’s shirt a quick sniff and deemed it passable. On the other hand, the skirt she’d been wearing wouldn’t be the best for horseback, so she pulled out one of the pairs of trousers she’d picked up after meeting some gauchos on her way around the horn. The chiripá over-layer may not be flattering, but it sure kept a body comfortable in the saddle.
She started toward the door, then remembered her uninvited guest. The poncho she pulled over her head made her voice come out porridge-thick. “I’m going to go get my horse ready while the coffee’s brewing.”
“I’ll come with you. I could use a stroll.”
She grabbed the lamp and went outside, the ghost trailing behind. A barn slouched a few paces away, appearing as perturbed by the earliness of the hour as Vi. The only one happy to be awake was Smithy, who nickered a greeting when she pushed the barn door aside. He got a pat and a smile before she started checking the tack. Though no stranger to riding, she’d only learned how to take care of the equipment herself when she’d come out West. Now, the soft feel of the oiled leather and the clean glint of metal in the lamplight gave her a swell of pride.
“Any chance you’ve got two horses?”
“No, I’ve only got Smithy.” Vi gave the black gelding’s broad back a few strokes with a brush before grabbing a saddle blanket from the railing where she’d left it to air out. It cracked like a whip as she flapped it, sending a cascade of black hairs dancing. “But even if I had another horse, you can’t ride.”
“How would you know?” he whined. “I did fine on my mule.”
She shook her head, sending the room into momentary, bleary haze. It was hard to keep the annoyance out of her voice with last night’s excesses pounding inside her skull, but she tried to treat his inane question with patience.
“It’s not personal. It’s spiritual, er, or scientific, or something. I don’t actually know the specifics.” Vi massaged the space between her brows and the pain receded a few paces. She smoothed the saddle blanket across her mount, then turned around to retrieve the saddle. “That is to say, I had someone try to tell me about it, but I wasn’t a very good listener. But you must have realized you can’t touch things, right?”
A little groan escaped her throat as she heaved the saddle up onto Smithy. Despite the weight dropped unceremoniously onto his broad back, Smithy remained still and obedient under her touch.
“Well, of course,” Tobias chuckled. “If I could dig up the gold myself, I wouldn’t need your help. I’m not completely incompetent!”
Vi made her adjustments and looped the leather straps into place. Once she tested the cinch, she gestured between the ghost and the waiting saddle. “Okay. Hop on.”
With a sniff, Tobias walked into the stall and reached for the pommel. Inevitably, his hand passed right through it. Next, he tried a stirrup, but his fancy, posthumous boot never made contact, sending him toppling through Smithy and onto the ground at Vi’s feet.
The only thing stopping her laughter was the pounding between her eyes. “I’ll keep the ‘I told you so’ to myself, shall I?”
The ghost got to his feet, his head sticking up through the saddle just enough to see the surprise in his eyes. The horse gave a twitch at the sensation of having a phantom pass through his midsection.
Tobias took a step backward to view Vi across Smithy’s back rather than through it. “What about those stories?” he demanded, voice reedy with embarrassment. “The ones in the monthly. Ghosts knock on walls and move things. And people can see them.”
She shrugged and took the bridle from its nail. “Sure, some ghosts can do plenty. The longer it takes you to cross over, the more likely you’ll figure out how to move things. Not that it would be a good thing if you could, mind.”
“Why not? That seems like a pretty fine consolation prize to me. I could at least write messages.”
Vi sighed. “Honestly, it doesn’t happen often. And it would mean it is harder to pass over when the time comes. Getting yourself seen by the living without some help is even rarer.”
Tobias stroked a neat, semi-transparent mustache. “What kind of help?”
“Some ghosts learn how to crawl inside of objects,” she evaded. “Heirlooms and the like. Though for some reason, there are certain materials that they never touch.”
“Could I do that? Haunt something and then you carry me?”
Vi gave an exasperated, theatrical shrug. “Like I said, none of this is common. And believe it or not, I’m no expert. As far as I know, ghosts just sort of wander about, occasionally making demands of the living.”
The bit clacked against Smithy’s teeth as he took it. Vi rubbed his velvety, black snout with one hand as she drew the bridle over his ears with the other.
“Are you sure I have to walk all the way back out there?” the ghost bellyached.
“Well…” She smirked. “You could always run, instead. It’s not like you’ll ever get tired.”
“Nice to know death has some advantages.”
“Absolutely! Think of all that pesky eating and belching you won’t have to do anymore.”
The dead man sulked while she finished getting ready to leave. With a broad-brimmed hat on her head and her supplies stowed in her saddle bags, Vi mounted up. Smithy had never gotten used to the slow pace out West, so he pulled at the reins, eager to be given his head. She kept him to a walk for the long miles to keep from leaving her guide behind.
The twitter of cardinals and towhees joined the horse’s heavy footfalls as the morning progressed. Using her hand to shield her eyes, Vi squinted at the pale streak of the rising sun as it struggled over the Sierras and under her hat brim. The rainy season was due to return within a few weeks, but at the moment the rolling foothills were covered with parched grass and the occasional clump of stunted trees. The rain would be good for the prairie, but her body had been through too much to favor the cold. She planned to close the ranch house again for the season in the next few weeks. There was less protection from gossips and prying eyes in town, but it was a small price to pay for the heat of a radiator during the damp winter months.
“So.” Tobias broke the silence. “What brought you all the way out here?”
“An annoying dead guy, about yay high.” She passed her hand through the top of his head and he lurched away. “Anybody you know?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I mean what brought you to California?”
Vi returned her gaze to the horizon. “How far did you say we need to go? I’ve got things to do, you know.”
“We’re getting close…I think.”
“You think?” The reluctant medium hit him with a glare before reaching into her saddlebag and retrieving her flask of coffee.
“Yes, we’re getting close. But you didn’t answer my question.” Vi focused all her attention on unscrewing the top and taking a long swig of the gritty brew. “Come on,” he prodded. “Why are you in California? Were you born here or…?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, savoring the freedom to behave so poorly. “My life story is both terribly interesting and something I have no intention of telling you.”
The ghost stopped walking and crossed his arms in consternation. “And what’s wrong with me, then?”
Vi pulled Smithy to a stop, twisting in her saddle to face him. “I like my privacy.”
“Uh-huh. So, you’re saying it has nothing to do with me being a spirit?”
She made a show of acting hurt and surprised. “How dare you? There are plenty of spirits I like. Whiskey, for instance. Rum…”
He grimaced. “You obviously don’t like ghosts, though I can’t really see—”
“Look,” she snapped. “When I finish this little errand of yours, you’re going to pass over anyway. Why do you even care?”
His ethereal face didn’t have any blood in it to start with, but he grew paler and stuttered, “Pass over?”
Despite her better judgment, Vi felt sorry for him. “Well, sure. That’s the point of all this, isn’t it? To finish your unfinished business?”
“I guess I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” Tobias said sheepishly. “I only wanted to help Bonnie.”
Vi turned away from the longing in his voice and gave Smithy a squeeze to get them moving again. “That’s your wife?”
“Yes,” the ghost sighed, falling in step beside her. “She’s an amazing woman. Dropped everything and came out here with me on this damn fool enterprise. Now, she’s going to be all alone….”
The pause stretched on for too many footfalls. Vi finally blurted something to break it. “Malaeska.”
“Um. Bless you?”
“It’s a name,” she chuckled. “Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. It’s a dime novel I read as a kid.”
“I’m answering your question. It’s what inspired me to come to California.”
“What, didn’t think I could read?”
“No, that’s not it.” He thought for a moment. “It’s, well, a rather romantic thing to do, following a book. You don’t strike me as the sentimental type.”
She snorted. “Ah well, Malaeska is why I chose California, but it has nothing to do with why I left in the first place. That wasn’t sentiment, it was one hundred per cent pragmatism. It was time to move on.”
They crested the hill they’d been climbing. Tobias pointed to a clump of trees at the bottom of the trough and they meandered their way through the scrub. As they reached the edge of the copse, a huge snore ripped through the morning calm.
“Were you traveling with anyone else?” Vi hissed, tightening the reins and bringing them to a stop.
“No!” Tobias whispered back. “And I didn’t see a single house between my strike and town.”
The sun was high enough now that a trickle of sweat ran down the back of her neck. “Well, shit. You know what that means?”
“It must be that gang! The ones who killed me.”
“Yep,” she drawled, leaning forward to pat Smithy’s neck. “Things just got a whole lot more complicated.”
Nelle defies her family to save the kingdom & princess she loves from a traitor’s poison SLEEPING BEAUTY w/ 100% more crossbows #PitProm
Dear Royal Advisors,
My YA fantasy, SPUN, is a darkly funny 80,000 word adventure centered on a diverse cast of characters and a f/f feminist romance. It’s sure to appeal to fans of Gail Carson Levine and C.J. Redwine.
Nelle, the miller’s daughter, dreams of taking over the family business. However, her plans to become the royal miller of Lointaine and win her independence are threatened when she’s attacked by a rejected suitor and her confidence disappears. Bebe, a mysterious stranger, repels the attack with a few well-placed shots from her crossbow. Nelle falls hard for her rescuer, but before she can discover if her feelings are returned, Nelle learns that Bebe is actually the Princess Aube—who, to Nelle’s dismay, is engaged to Prince Ehrhart in order to secure an alliance and sidestep a brewing war.
When Nelle learns of a plot to kill Aube, she rushes to help, even if it means watching the princess marry Ehrhart. Armed with her trusty crossbow, she defies her father’s wishes and risks their livelihood to sneak into the castle and save her beloved. Inside, everyone is succumbing to what looks like a resurgence of the terrible sleeping sickness that devastated the kingdom seventeen years ago. Nelle is terrified, until she realizes Ehrhart is poisoning everyone from the kitchen maids to the king in order to steal the throne and divide Lointaine up as spoils. Nelle must stay awake, escape the castle, and overthrow Ehrhart to save her family name, her love, and the entire kingdom.
I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. Most recently I've had a short story accepted into the upcoming anthology Dreams, Nightmares, Visions, Hallucinations from Transmundane Press. Thank you for considering my novel.
First Ten Pages:
“Roust yourself, Nelle! The cock's crowed an hour now. It won't do. People need to make their bread!” Marguerite Moulin shouted toward Nelle’s loft.
Nelle listened to her mama’s footsteps hurry away as she finished reading one more forbidden sentence aloud. “On the other hand, the miller might need to raise the runner stone; if the grain is milled too finely it will be unfit for baking.” Nelle whispered it three times, trying to commit the information to memory. Papa still wouldn’t let her do more than make deliveries at the mill, but when she finally convinced him, she needed to be ready.
She slammed the book shut, wrapped it carefully in a flour sack, and hopped down the ladder. After her deliveries were over she’d have to sneak the book back into her father’s office at the mill.
In the kitchen, her mother stood skimming cream off the milk in a large white pan. “Tom’s about to start his deliveries. Lay abed, you'll get behind. The sun waits for nobody. And on this of all days, Nellie. You know we can’t afford a late delivery at the castle, not with the heap of guests they have to feed. Here’s your lunch. Don't forget—”
“Okay, okay, I’ve already got my water skin, Mama. Thanks for lunch.” Nelle dropped a quick kiss on the back of her mother’s head where her dark hair was speckled with gray. “I'll go directly to the castle from Tabbott's and be back by supper.”
Her mama smiled and smoothed a stray lock of Nelle's thick dark hair behind her ear. “Okay, but don't lolly. We're having roast chicken tonight and only warm biscuits melt butter.”
Mama's cheek felt cool under Nelle’s lips. She snuck a pancake from a stack on the counter and burst into the barnyard at the side of the house. Moppet, their grizzled wolfhound, trotted over and nuzzled his cold nose into her hand. Though certainly he'd already been fed, Nelle handed him a sizable chunk of her pancake.
Midsummer sun swooped down hard on the little yard, and hurried her along to the barn. After a brief struggle with the barn door, she slipped into the dusty, cool interior, that smelled of beasts and grain. The dicky cart sat waiting for her with their donkey, Sally, already hitched to the small wagon. Nelle looked around in surprise. Tom, stuck his head in through the opposite barn door. Past her brother, she spied the big draft horse, Gus, hitched to the larger wagon.
Her brother grinned. “The usual? I’ll take the far farms and the western stops if you manage the town and castle, Needle. That is, if you think you can make it up the hill in time?” Tom teased her, using his pet name for her since she was little.
“I’ve only been doing it every day since I was thirteen. I’m not a skinny little child anymore.” Nelle stowed her lunch, water skin, and the illicit book under her seat in the dickey cart. She wedged them beside a long thin package wrapped in sacking. It was her companion on all deliveries and she gave it a quick pat for luck.
Tom tucked his books and fishing gear in the big wagon and waved as he pulled away.
The lazy slouch will probably bang off early to the stream for reading and fishing. She rolled her eyes and led Sally out of the yard. When they were little, Nelle paddled after her big brother as he wore a triangle path between the stream, woods, and town lending library.
Out in the street, the cobbler’s apprentice raised his hand as she passed. “Better get a move on, Nelle. The roads are fair clogged this morning.”
A dozen steps later a second man, a local tinker named Bernard, winked at her. “Wait till you see the castle road, Nellie.”
“Moulins like a challenge!” Nelle called over her shoulder, hurrying away before Bernard could talk her ear off. She wasn’t that late, but she wasn’t early, either. If she brought in her flour late on such and important day Mistress Jamison would cut down the castle’s flour order with the Moulins to a pittance and their hopes of earning the royal seal would be gone.
However, Nelle didn’t get far before someone called her name again. After that, the greetings didn’t let up. As a child, Nelle had assumed she and Tom drew such attention because their father, John Moulin, owned a local mill. Everyone ate bread. They were famous. When she was seven Tom called her out for being a dunce.
He had placed a finger between the pages of his book to mark his spot and looked at her with pity. “Do you see many other kids about, Needle? Listen, nobody likes to talk about it, but you know our older sister Katie?”
“The one who died?” She’d whispered, fearful and hopeful that Tom might finally tell her what had happened.
The echoes from the past faded into the morning sunshine as the dark bent of Nelle’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted. Her best friend, Annie, had caught up with her. A heavy basket of plums perched on Annie’s narrow hip. “Morning, Nellie. Bit late today, aren’t we?”
“Bloody hell, not you, too.” Nelle picked up her pace, but Annie followed suit.
The little blonde woman huffed. “I’m just saying, you won’t have time to chat with Charles if you’re hurrying off to the castle.”
“You know plain well I don’t want to chat, or do anything else, with Charles Eaves. He’s mean as a gibbet, and just as hard.” Nelle stepped over a large pile of dung already drawing flies.
“Nelle Moulin!” Annie clucked her tongue. “Hard to catch is all well and good—”
“I don’t want to be caught!” Nelle interrupted.
Annie went on as though Nelle hadn’t spoken. “—but men are liable to have their minds changed by anything that tents their trousers. This town is fair dripping with Eaves.”
“Or someone married to an Eaves. Though that part’s still a mystery. All the Eaves’ being varying degrees of unpleasant.” Nelle brushed a fly from Sally’s face.
Annie, whose cousin was married to the baker, Augustus Eaves, narrowed her large eyes. “Be that as it may, there are lots of them, and every one of them wants flour.”
Nelle scoffed. “Like I care a fig for what an Eaves thinks.”
Inside, however, Nelle wasn’t so confident. So far the Eaves’ all bought flour from her father, but things not always need be so. Three years ago, the largest mill in the kingdom and the former royal supplier, had burned down. Now, every miller in Lointaine was scrambling to fill the void. Annie didn't know everything, though. She was sweet, but she was a bit of a loose lipped know-it-all when her man Walter got her tipsy.
Nelle hurried to change the subject. “How’s Walter?”
Annie took a deep breath and launched into a kiss-by-kiss account of Walter’s latest attempts at courting. It was far more than Nelle wanted to know about any man. She had no fear of getting into trouble with the young men about, not for her own part anyway. Though by seventeen she’d had a few offers, there wasn’t anything about them that tempted Nelle. Her own Mama had been fourteen when she’d grown heavy with Katie, but it was much more than that. Nelle liked children fine, she just couldn’t countenance the way you grew one. This might spell trouble for her in the future, but she was still young enough that it didn’t matter so much.
Annie and Nelle made plans to meet at the midsummer festival later in the week, and parted ways when Nelle stopped for her first delivery. After emerging from the baker’s, Nelle was jostled by the flood of traffic pouring down the high street of Lointaine. She’d never seen anything like it. Navigating the streets demanded all her attention, but Sally knew the way well and Nelle’s first few deliveries were uneventful. Usually, most days were uneventful, but she tried not to dwell on it. At least the celebration at the castle promised a little excitement.
Once past the blacksmith's and tailor’s, Nelle had to stop to let a long entourage of high-walled carriages pass. She chafed at the delay and hurried on to The Knight's Inn. Though, only out-towners and the inn's owner, Dave Tabbott, called it that. A knight had stayed there once upon a time, but it was over a hundred years ago. Everyone had called it Tabbott's, before and since. The people of Lointaine knew the history of their own folk, without room for change.
Nelle headed for the loading yard at the back of the inn, down an alley behind the buildings on the main street. The yard appeared empty, but when she hopped down a large, meaty hand clamped onto the back of the cart. Nelle gritted her teeth. Charles Eaves delighted in taking her unexpected, like a snake striking.
His voice was soft. “Why, Nelle Moulin, bright as the sunshine this morning, aren’t you?”
“Good morning.” Practice kept distaste out of her voice.
Charles took two long strides toward Sally's bridle and grabbed hold, using his large fingers to stroke the animal's head. His hard blue eyes fixed onto Nelle's bodice, and it was clear from the slow way he pawed at the curves of Sally's cheeks that his mind was imagining choicer bits under his grasp. The donkey was too dumb to move away. Sally stretched her neck up and whickered at Charles' pockets for a treat. Heat from the rising sun brought a small trickle of sweat between Nelle’s shoulder blades, but she didn't move.
Charles offered a bit of grass to Sally. “Bit late this morning, Nelle. I hope nothing disturbed your beauty sleep last night.”
Nelle narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like him thinking of where she lived and where she slept, up in the loft. It made her come over cold despite the bright sun. “Not a bit. I just offered Mama some help this morning. You know how hard she works, what with my being gone all day and nobody to help out at home.”
Charles flushed a little ruddy around his collar.
She grabbed the first bag of flour, choosing the largest on purpose. Delivering for her father’s mill was hard work and Nelle had the strength that came from lifting fifty pound sacks of flour and grain daily. “I'll bring these round to the kitchens.” Nelle hoped this would move the man out of her path. She didn't have time to waste sparring with Charles.
But he only stood there with his hands still exploring Sally's head and neck. His blond hair was cropped close to his head except for a longer shock on top he swept to the side. Sally, seeing no more food on the horizon, had lost interest, and blew about in the dirt at her feet.
Finally, he moved. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Nelle.” Charles grabbed two bags and hoisted them to his wide shoulders.
Nelle was so surprised at the sudden apology that the cat caught her tongue and sat on it. She nodded, and followed him to the kitchen door.
A blast of warmth wavered in the air around the open door along with the clink of dishes from inside. The cook, Gordie, yelled something fierce at one of the under servants before he noticed them standing in the door. “Nelle! I'm down to my last cup. We’ve laid on a few more visitors than usual, well-wishers for up at the castle who must have missed their invitations in the post. I don't suppose you've anything to spare this morning?”
Nelle often carried extra bags as customers sometimes changed their orders at the last minute, but the larger delivery to the castle today meant she only had a few.
“I have a fifty and three tens, a couple of fives. How much do you need, Gordie?” Nelle took the small slate she used for accounting from the pocket of her apron.
Gordie blew out a gust of air that ruffled his thin mustache as he considered Nelle's offer. “I guess I'll have the fifty and one of the tens. Just put 'em up with the rest.”
As they unloaded the flour Nelle tried to avoid Charles, but despite her best efforts he managed to be behind her whenever she turned or directly in her path as she crossed from kitchen to cart so that she had to squeeze by him. As a result, the delivery took twice as long as usual. Nelle eyed the swiftly rising sun warily, feeling desperate to head for the castle road.
When she was finally ready to leave, Nelle led Sally away quickly, but Charles ran in front of her.
“Nelle, are you going to the midsummer festival?” He stepped closer, using Sally to mask his movements. Charles grabbed Nelle’s hand to stop her leaving. “Unless you’d like to see me tonight?”
She flushed with anger and ripped her hand out of his grip. Luckily, she was saved from saying anything she couldn’t take back by the arrival of the wagon from Wermer’s breweries.
The drivers, Dickie and Bert, waved at them as their wagon trundled past. “Oy, Charlie, how about a hand, lad? You're sure to get a bit of something to wet your whistle with us. Flour only leaves you stiff and dry.” Raucous laughter bounced off the high walls of the inn yard, like a murder of crows hopping around their dinner.
Charles followed the beer wagon, his pale cheeks now blotchy and red, before throwing her a glance over his shoulder. “I’ll see you later, Nelle.”
“I deliver to Tabbott’s everyday.” Nimbly, Nelle mounted the cart and clicked at Sally. They were both eager to be gone.
The shade under the trees was a relief after the sun of the open road. However, this was the fourth time she’d had to pull off into the grass. It was getting old. Large carriages, some with as many as six horses, kept forcing her to take shelter at the side of the road while they blew past. At this rate, it might be faster to walk the flour up the hill herself. Nelle took a long draw from the waterskin in her cart, then dragged Sally into a break in the traffic.
Five minutes later, the tell-tale clopping of hooves brought Nelle’s head around.
“Horse piss. Not again.”
With an aggrieved sigh, Nelle led Sally off the road. This time she wasn't alone, though. A small group of merchants sat under a cluster of nearby oaks. In the center of the group sat Edgar Wermer, her father's oldest friend and owner of a large brewery.
He waved her over. “Come on, Nellie, might as well stop with us a minute while yonder overdressed, pompous beggars rip up the hill.”
Nelle steered Sally under the trees where the donkey whiffed about in the grass for crab apples. Nelle settled onto a large rock, but before she could open her waterskin Edgar stuffed a small pewter mug into her hands. The fizzy scent of hard cider made her mouth water. Wermer’s was famous for its ales, beers, and spirits, though Nelle didn’t have much taste for those. The truth was, after her sister’s death, Nelle wasn’t supposed to take drink from anywhere except her family’s own well. She loved cider, however, as Edgar well knew.
His dark eyes and skin crinkled as he smiled. “Not much call for it up at the castle, so there’s plenty more where that came from.”
“Thanks, Edgar.” She drank deeply, and let the cool, heady buzz dance in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. She was breaking her mother’s most important rule, but nobody had ever proved that tainted water was the source of the illness that had killed her sister, along with half the kingdom. Besides, Edgar was a family friend and had never had an issue with his breweries.
From the shade of the trees Nelle scanned the road. Three huge carriages rushed past and a dozen mounted soldiers thundered in their dusty wake. Nelle swore inwardly and squashed down her frustration at the passage of time she didn’t have. She tried to distract herself with the familiar faces around her. A wine merchant, a handful of farm delivery men, and some musicians chatted about the enormous celebration at the castle and how wonderful it was for their businesses.
Humphrey, a dairy delivery man, removed his pipe from his mouth and smiled. He was a stooped older gentleman who drove a special cart more like a walking closet with special ventilation grilles, and shelves lined with fresh hay. “Second load of butters and cheeses today alone! Why I’ve not had this much custom since the princess’ christening. That was the first time I’d smiled since the sleeping sickness took away my Sara.” Humphrey’s smile faltered.
The group stayed quiet for just a moment too long, before one of the musicians shouted, “Give thanks now, as tomorrow might be nothing but the tarnished underside of today’s shining platter!” The men laughed and they didn’t stop until their mirth built into a harsh frenzy.
Nelle didn’t join in. She shifted uncomfortably on her rock and gazed at the steep ridges of the surrounding valley. It was always like this when the people of Lointaine gathered. She heard her younger self asking Tom, again. The one who died? Two years before Nelle’s birth, a terrible sleeping sickness had swept old and young alike from the land. Her older sister Katie was one of the first victims. Even up at the palace they'd lost the young prince and princess.
Nelle shivered at the idea of that terrible time. Never having seen it herself, it was usually a bit thrilling to pull out these dark stories and look inside them at her pleasure. Their kingdom had suffered a great loss, and its pall seemed to settle over everything since. Nobody had ever given them an answer. Not the priests, and not the doctors. Neither the hedge witches, nor the oldest legends could account for the sight of lively sons and daughters lying down to sleep never to wake again. Their bodies wasting into skeletons, their souls lost wandering who knew where?
All of this had passed Nelle by. She wasn’t even born when the sleeping sickness slaughtered the townspeople, killed her older sister, and left Lointaine a creaking carcass of survivors. The men beside her had fallen quiet again. The silence stretched around them, took shape and unfurled its dark cloak before slipping away into the trees beside the clearing.
Edgar cut into Nelle’s musings. “I’m off to meet with the master of the king’s cellars. There’s a fresh crop of dandies dropping by every hour up there ahead of the big announcement. Nobody wants to feel the snub of being left out. Word is, the prince arrives today.”
Nelle, only listening to Edgar with one ear, finally spied an opening on the road. “Thanks for the drink, but I can’t keep stopping, I’m late enough as it is!” She hurried over to Sally and grabbed the reins. When she turned Edgar stood in her path.
He glanced at the others over Sally’s brown neck. “A quick word, Nellie. Do you still carry a dirk with you on your rounds?”
When a nomad excels in the army she only joined to face the guard that killed her mom, she must pick revenge or her own prosperity. #PitProm
Audacious young Mika isn’t afraid to fight a kingdom guard, especially when they spy on her nomadic tribe without reason. And when she's accused of scamming marketplace patrons, she readily defends herself against the arresting guards. Her actions result in the deportation of her tribe. But the xenophobic commander of the king's army chooses a much harsher punishment—slaughtering the group, including her mother.
Mika flees to another kingdom where she meets Amblyn, a female commander and the ex-lover of her mother. Craving retribution, she plots to kill the man that destroyed her life. But she needs the right skills for the task. With Amblyn's help, Mika trains to become a kingdom guard.
Determined to be a formidable opponent, Mika fights to maintain her cultural identity as she tackles a new language, new weapons, and bigoted peers. Her friendship with Amblyn, and a secret romance with a top commander's son provides a solace she unknowingly longed for. She becomes rather content with guard life. But Mika discovers the man responsible for her tribe's demise is a guest at the Olympics-style games she will compete in. And she'll have to decide if getting the vengeance she desperately wants is worth risking the friendship and love she desperately needs.
At 92,000 words, the adult fantasy SHATTER THE SHIELD is the first in a series. This story blends the “legendary person” concept from THE NAME OF THE WIND with the training and female relationships of RED SISTER. I have a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. When it comes to writing, I like to infuse my experiences as a Black woman into my work, and challenge perceptions of race and gender.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
Something moved through the woods.
Mika craned her neck to the left, bobbing her head to get a better look. Even through the dim firestone lanterns spread around the Sanga camp, and the woods a few feet away from her, she saw the rustling of wide bushes and tree branches. And what appeared to be a figure.
She glanced at the crowd in front of her, an intimate group of just over thirty people, all family and friends. Their eyes were on Mika and the two close friends standing next to her, Lewa and Malani. She shot another look at the woods, which were now still and dark. Had she really been the only one to see something out there? No one else made a move.
The plucking of the linti strings floated through the soft drumming and a melodious voice. Mika snapped to attention. Despite the small knot of concern in her stomach, her arms moved in tune with each lyrical inflection. Spinning around, she thrust her arms upward, and accentuated each rotation with the stomp of her right heel. She leaped into a split, her arms up again as she landed. The only sound from the crowd was the shifting of the bodies that sat on blankets in front of her.
She stepped back, now in line with her friends. The voices of the crowd rose and hands came together as the drum thundered. With leaps, body rolls, foot stomps, and shaking hips, they made use of the small area between the crowd and the musicians. The tiny, bright red beads attached to the sides of Mika’s black drop crotch pants slapped against her thighs, and her thick braids bounced around her head. The drum beat grew louder and louder. She launched herself into the air one last time.
With one final pluck of the linti and a softening drum roll, Mika’s feet hit the ground. People rose off the blankets, shouting praise and whistling at the three friends. She soaked it all in as she tried to control her breathing.
Malani backed away, leaving the two girls alone. The drum started again, its tempo creating a stir among the crowd. The familiar beat could only mean one thing: a rutha game. Anticipation set in as everyone returned to their spots on the blankets.
Rutha games were reserved for solstice events; this was just a going away party. The tribe leader Haki selected the rutha masters that would have the honor of putting on an exhibition match to show off their skills. Mika and Lewa had only spent three years learning the swift kicks, elbows, flips, and cartwheels of the traditional martial art. Initially, Haki wouldn't even allow them to train, insisting “women had more important duties than fighting.” But he only changed his mind after a nasty tongue lashing from the girls' mothers and pleading from his son, who didn't appreciate his outdated thinking.
But since this going away party was for one of the most skilled rutha masters in their tribe, Mika and Lewa convinced their leader to let them perform. It only took the promise of collecting and distributing the water buckets for the next month.
Mika faced her friend, crouching slightly, and look her up and down. Like her, Lewa was seventeen years old, standing about five feet, three inches tall. She had the same plump lips and dark amber colored skin. Both girls had the most common trait of members of their tribe: bright green hair and eyes, the color of malachite. Mika’s hand-painted headband did little to prevent the sweat from dripping down her forehead, and her tunic clung to her shoulders. Stains covered Lewa’s own tunic. Fortunately, Mika talked her friend into braiding her tightly, coiled hair for the night. Who knows what the humidity and dancing would have done to it.
The two girls rocked back and forth, putting one foot behind the other. Tiny goosebumps formed on Mika’s neck. All eyes were on them. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone also included a mysterious someone or someones in the woods. She resisted the urge to look in that direction again. Lewa picked up on Mika’s uncertainty.
What’s wrong? Lewa mouthed to her.
Talk later, Mika mouthed back. Lewa pursed her lips in an exaggerated fashion; her signature move whenever Mika hesitated to tell her something. Mika responded with an eye roll and shook her head.
"Amijo!" Malani shouted. Lewa made the first move with a spinning kick aimed for Mika’s right shoulder and chest. Her friend’s leg brushed her hair as she ducked and retaliated with her own spinning kick targeting the shoulder. The series of kicks between the girls continued. That was the choreographed part of their routine, simply for the crowd. Once Lewa backflipped away from Mika, they would have to rely on their ability to read one another's moves.
A few people in the crowd jumped to their feet, shouting, and chanting the girls’ names. Mika and Lewa fought furiously, grunting, and yelping with each hit. One-handed cartwheels and flips targeted the upper body, and sweeping legs aimed for ankles and shins. Mika regretted putting the beads in her hair as they smacked her in the face, blinding her temporarily. Lewa took advantage of the moment and struck her right side with a knee.
Only five minutes into the fight, the girls slowed down as their bodies grew fatigued. Mika wasn’t going to last too much longer; they hadn’t fought this long before. Lewa struggled to keep up. Her kicks and elbows lost their ferocity.
Time for the take down.
Mika dove feet first, opening her legs just enough to envelope Lewa’s left leg. With the slight twist of her body, she used her weight to pull her friend down to the ground. Lewa groaned as she fell face forward in the dirt.
"Mika bota!" Malani declared Mika the winner. She extended a hand to Lewa, who glared at her for a second. Mika smirked. One of them had to lose, obviously it had to be her friend. But Lewa’s glare didn’t last long as a smile soon spread on her face.
The cheers spread through the group as Mika and her friend put their arms around each other and limped away. A voice rang louder than the others, and Mika's face flushed. She couldn't resist a smile as she looked in the direction of the voice. He stood to the far right of the group, covered in the shadows from the trees. But there was just enough light to see the look of pride on his face as he'd just watched his two best trainees perform their first rutha game in front of everyone. Mika missed him the first time she looked around as she was more concerned with the movements she had seen moments before their performance.
The thought of the ghostly figures in the woods wiped the smile from her face. The goosebumps returned.
Mika and Lewa made their way over to a blanket near the food table, where Mika's mother sat. A small, overturned box with a large ceramic pot of ootuga paste, gauze, and flat string were set up. She had the foresight to prepare the area while the girls performed. Next to the first aid items sat a wide, intricately designed gold bracelet, a gift from Mika's late father. Mika had taken it off just before their dance routine, fearing it would slip off.
"You two looked great out there," said Mika's mother, Alaya, in a hushed voice. Her eyes sparkled as she removed the lid from the jar. Many people outside their tribe assumed Alaya was Mika’s sister. They were the same height, but her mother’s green eyes turned slightly upward on her youthful face.
“You were amazing,” Alaya gushed. “You know I call you keta oluma for a reason. You proved to everyone tonight you’re a standout.”
Mika narrowed her eyes at Lewa, who snickered. Her mother started calling her keta oluma—"little leader”—when the girls first started their training. “You really shine out there,” Alaya had told her one day. “You know, I have yet to see a female oluma, Mika. You can be the first. You’re my keta oluma for now.” Mika usually just shrugged at her mother’s declaration that she would break barriers to become the first female leader of a Sanga tribe. But that was the first time her mother used the nickname in front someone else. Lewa definitely wouldn’t let this one go.
“Ahama,” Mika addressed her mother, “Did you see—”
Alaya shushed her daughter as tribe leader Haki moved to the front of the crowd. Mika opened her mouth again, but the warning glance from Alaya changed her mind. Wait until after, her mother’s eyes said.
Mika pointed to the pained areas of her body while her mother carefully spread a thin layer of ootuga paste on them. She flinched when the cold, ivory colored concoction hit her arm. The pains from her fight slightly dulled as the thin layer took effect. Mika slipped her bracelet on after her mother finished and moved on to Lewa.
Alaya didn’t seem bothered as she beamed at the speaking Haki. Neither did anyone else in the group. Maybe what Mika had seen was just a weird breeze through a group of thin tree branches. And not a figure looking at them.
"...for our younger generations," Haki was saying, "Malani, Lewa, Mika, thank you all for that performance. You all are the pride of the Sanga. We are looking at you young ones to keep our traditions alive. Thank you for showing us such passion and dedication tonight." A few people looked in their direction as they received another smattering of applause.
"And now," Haki continued, "Datani, will you come here please?"
Mika perked up as Datani joined the older man. Datani was Mika’s rutha trainer. He was twenty-two years old, and over six feet tall. His well-toned body was achieved through years of rutha training and construction jobs around various kingdoms. He had at least an inch of hair on his head though he preferred a close-cropped style. Even though some of their interactions were of him yelling at her bad form and wild kicks during training, that didn’t stop her from the prolonged looks she gave his body and handsome face.
"Tonight, is Datani’s last night with us," Haki began, "He’s decided to move on from the group and explore on his own for a while. He’s like a son to me, and brother to Malani. My wife and I have taken care of him since the passing of his parents. I’ve watched him grow into a bright, strong young man." He turned to Datani to conclude his speech. "Datani, you are Sanga. You will always be Sanga. And we will always support you. We'll always welcome you with open arms." He then pulled Datani into a group hug with his surrogate family. Tears and cheers spread through the crowd.
Datani announced his plans to leave the group nearly a month ago. This was a rather normal practice for members of the Sanga tribe, one of the nomadic groups that originated from the southern regions of the Khalavan continent. They travelled throughout the countries as no one place was home. Mika and her mother had been a part of this tribe for the past five years, spending the past year just outside the northern kingdom of Eladon. People would come and go, and families would grow and shrink. Undoubtedly, Datani’s departure hurt more than anyone else, but Mika hoped he would return one day soon.
The music started up again. Dinner and the performances were over; time for dancing and drinking. People jumped up, pulling the blankets off the ground, and tossing them into a pile to make room for dancing. A few ran over to Datani to offer good luck and hugs. Some others let the upbeat music take over their bodies, despite the sticky night air. The light from the firestone lanterns and bonfire bounced off the sea of bright green hair and clothes painted with blues, reds, and whites.
Mika's mother got up from the blanket. “You two sit here for a moment and rest up,” she said. She left the two girls alone. Mika reached up for the food table. Most of the meats and fruits had been devoured before their dance performance, but there were a few pieces of bread left in an asymmetrical ceramic bowl, and plenty of wine. The girls received an occasional compliment and congratulations from people that picked at the last of the items on the food table. The more Mika watched people laughing and dancing, the more she felt at ease.
“You know I let you win,” said Lewa. “I know you wanted that bony man to pay attention to you.”
Mika smacked her lips. “Nobody wins a rutha game,” she shot back, chomping on the bread. “And he’s not bony!” But she did giggle at Lewa’s needless insistence on calling Datani’s lean frame “bony.”
“Fine, he’s not bony, he’s just too skinny.”
“You keep saying that, but you would stare at him in training too!”
“So? He can be cute and bony. He was harsh sometimes, but I’ll miss him. What are we going to do now? It’s just a bunch of old men left to train us and half of them didn’t even want girls to learn rutha.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what’s going to happen now. Haki gave us that compliment, But I bet the second Datani is gone, he'll make us care for the clothes all day." Mika reached up to the table to grab another piece of bread.
This time it was definitely there. Moving.
Mika jumped up from the blanket, startling Lewa. “What’re you doing!?” Her friend exclaimed.
“I see something,” Mika said. She ignored Lewa's questions as she darted into the woods, leaving the light and music behind her.
Mika moved through the woods, ducking under a few low hanging branches. Months of living in the area made her familiar with the woods. She knew where branches had fallen and where the mud puddles were the worst after a heavy rain. The upbeat tunes and laughter faded the further she went into the woods. She slowed as a small wave of fear washed over her. What was she really going after? Lewa was the only one to see her run out there. Whoever it was could be attack her at any moment. She squinted as the woods grew darker.
The sounds and figures heading away from the woods were in front of her. She sucked in her breath. Even with just moonlight guiding her now, the flash of silver quite recognizable.
The uniform of Eladon's kingdom guards.
Large, sweaty hands wrapped around her arm and mouth before should could let out a scream. “Don’t go after them.” The familiar voice kept her from thrashing to get away.
“Datani,” said Mika as she turned towards him. The pounding in her chest only slightly decreased. The moonlight caught his face, realizing a scowl. “Were those Eladon’s guards?”
Datani yanked her arm again, pulling her back in the direction of the party. “We don’t need to deal with this tonight,” he said. Datani was someone Mika had a strong attraction to and greatly admired. But that didn’t stop her from wanting answers.
She dug her heels into the ground, snatching her arm away from Datani. “Those were guards,” she stated. “Why were they at our party?” She moved out of Datani’s reach, a bush scratching her arm. She twisted her body slightly in the direction the guards had gone, daring Datani to come after her.
After a few seconds of silence, Datani gave in. “Don’t tell anyone else this,” he said. “Yes, they were there. I’ve seen them before. So, has Haki and a few others. They spy on us. They want to see if we’re causing trouble.”
“What trouble would we cause? We’re just having a party.”
“It’s not about the party, Mika. You know this isn’t our land. King Vance hasn’t ordered them to do anything. As long as we keep our heads down and mind our business, they won’t do anything to us. We didn't let anyone know because we don't want any paranoia and confrontations. They could remove us if we do anything they don't agree with. But they’ve never been this close to our camp before, they usually stay farther out.”
Mika tried to wrap her head around what Datani told her. How long had the guards been spying on them? The group have lived just at the edge of the kingdom for quite some time. Did the guards watch them sleep? Did they watch Mika and Lewa bathe in the nearby river? As her anger grew over the situation, Datani made use of the opportunity to grab her arm again.
“Stay away from them,” he warned as he leaned in. “Don’t talk to them or look at them. In fact, you don’t even interact with them in Eladon unless absolutely necessary. Don’t ever associate with them.” He added a slight pressure to his grip, indicating he wanted a clear answer from the teen.
“Fine,” Mika promised. “I won’t have anything to do with the guards.” The pressure lifted as Datani led her back to the camp. A small shiver ran through Mika as her mind flashed to just how dark her crush looked and sounded only moments ago.
“Let’s get back to the party,” A happy tone spread through Datani’s voice. “It’s my last night with you all, and I want to have fun!” They returned to the joyous event. Her friends wildly danced with each other, arms and legs flailing around. Mika's mother laughed with a group of women while shaking her hips. Mika and Datani's short disappearance went completely unnoticed.
“I need to talk to Haki for a moment,” Datani said as he let go of Mika’s arm. “When I get back, we've got to have a dance!” Mika couldn’t help but laugh as Datani shimmed away from her. He was a skill rutha master, but a terrible dancer. He headed over to Haki, who was with three elders of the camp. Datani’s demeanor changed once their conversation started. She kept her eyes on him, watching his lips and hands moving at a rapid pace. Seeing the guards in the woods had completely rattled him.
And as much as Mika wanted to enjoy the rest of her night, knowing that guards spent time watching them had rattled her, too.
Empress Addie is exiled for having a seizure. She discovers tech degrades her magic blood and she must go home before it kills her #PitProm
Adelaide DusBeco is the heiress to Pangea, a medieval empire which sends its sick, disabled, and criminal citizens to the remote Isle of Exile to die. After Adelaide beats her brother in physical contests to win the throne, she’s struck by a seizure on her coronation day.
Now banished to the Isle of Exile by her own father, Adelaide reclaims some of her health thanks to an elderly man named Luca. Luca explains Adelaide may have magic, but since her magic is rooted in growth, she must find true happiness to wield it.
Adelaide travels to modern-day Nor, but their technology degrades magic and the health of those with magic blood. Nor does not allow Adelaide to leave, and she must commit crimes in order to escape, making her wanted in both areas of the world. Adelaide must choose a life of exile, hiding, and dodging assassination attempts or fight to the death to reclaim her throne.
THE ISLE OF EXILE is a 98,000-word young adult fantasy novel that will appeal to fans of Red Queen and Graceling. The novel does have series potential. Adelaide’s illness was inspired by my battle with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
Thank you for your time and consideration,
First Ten Pages:
I would do anything to keep my younger brother off the throne. Which was why I hurtled toward the finish line of the Bulee even though every muscle in my body burned.
“I’m…winning…today!” Frank grunted next to me. Thankfully, he sounded like he was struggling.
By the last water station, black dots invaded my vision. Discouraged, I drank water until it sloshed around in my stomach. It did not help. With each breath, I inhaled air so warm and humid it could’ve been soup. Pushing against the pain, my heart soared when Frank fell a few paces behind as we turned the final corner of the race.
Normally I could finish an hour before him. What is wrong with me? What would my father do if something was wrong with me?
Nola, the capital of Pangea, whispered of my under-performance all week. I still won the hand-to-hand combat and fencing but barely. I excelled at the budget balancing and history tests, but that did not please the people. Thank the Great Dog this was the last event.
I ran, propelled by the gaunt faces that lined the streets. My brother would continue to starve them just like my father. I pushed harder and inched in front of Frank. The last ten minutes were normally my favorite because of the stands of spectators chanted “A-de-laide!” But today, “Franc-o!” mixed with my name, fueling my exhausted body farther in front of my wheezing brother.
I ripped the ribbon as Cleaver bellowed, “Adelaide! Adelaide DusBeco clenches the crown!”
Someone shoved a glass of ale into my hand. People I didn’t know shook my hand, thanking me for being strong for the realm. Instead of black spots, my vision began to fade completely black.
“Water,” I mumbled, unsure if anyone could hear me. I pushed through the crowd of people to the shade of a tree and promptly laid down. Whispers began, but I didn’t care, even though my father would beat me for showing signs of weakness.
A tongue ran from my chin to my eyes. My orange and white hound, Beca, stood over me. She tugged softly at my hand, and I sat up. My older brother, Greggory, stood with a bucket and a wooden cup. Greggory failed to complete his Bulee when he turned eighteen, so he was not eligible for the throne.
“As you requested, your majesty.” He handed me a glass of water but did not wear the smile I expected him to have after my victory. I downed the water gratefully.
“She should be drinking ale and celebrating with her people,” Pevely’s nasally voice said. Pevely Moor, Prince of Dakota, had been a constant presence in my life since birth. He was also my mother’s first choice for my husband, but that did not mean I liked him. “Not hiding behind a tree.”
“She ran for five hours!” Greggory faced Pevely, blocking him from my view.
“She should be strong. The emperor—”
“I do agree with Prince Moor. Adelaide knows better.” My father’s voice caused my feet to catapult my body upright. Black spots sprouted in my vision, and I leaned against the tree for support.
“The blame is not hers. I insisted she rest.” Greggory stayed between my father and me.
“Adelaide, my final exile is in less than an hour. After you address your people and show how strong you are.” He walked away, cradling his black wolf pup under his arm. Two guards followed him in clanking armor.
“Thank you,” I said to Greggory before heading to the podium.
Thankfully, Beca stayed right by my side, and she was the perfect height to lean against. I felt so woozy; I could hardly walk straight. The spots in my vision seemed better when moving. I needed to figure out how to stand on the podium.
I was so concerned about how sick I was feeling that I did not see Daron, the captain of the estate guards, flanking me until I reached the podium.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Your father was displeased you went to the Bulee without a guard. He has asked me to stay with you until you return to the estate.” I rolled my eyes. A family of warriors surrounded by guards. As I climbed the platform, my heart threatened to pound out of my chest, and I almost doubled over by the time I reached the top. What in the Great Dog’s name was wrong with me today?
I sat down out of instinct, placed my hands behind me, and leaned back. I acted as if I was enjoying the tiny bit of sun peeking through the clouds. The act of someone being on the royal podium caused the square to soften from a rolling boil of conversation to a whisper.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to celebrate the Bulee this year. It was marvelous yes?” The crowd cheered, but my chest was starting to tighten. I had to finish this.
“My father’s last act as emperor will take place at the docks in one hour,” I shouted. More cheers. The thunder of the crowd stamping their feet. “My first trial as Empress will follow in the Hall of Justice.”
The crowd jumped up and down, looking like a brown wave of commoners spotted with the gray of nobles. As I started to climb down the podium, the crowd converged, some faces wore smiles, but others wore scowls.
“Beca, home.” I grabbed the dog’s neck and let her pull me through the crowd.
“Brothel-snocker!” someone yelled.
“Sticky legs!” another joined. This one elicited laughs from the crowd.
A hand grabbed my right shoulder and spun me to one side of the crowd. Beca snarled and lunged at the man, her teeth snapping. The man retreated, and Beca’s abdomen pressed against my thigh. My lack of walking caused the spots to return in front of my eyes.
“Citizens, the empress has urgent business with the emperor father. Clear a path!” Daron spoke with the same authority as my father, and the crowd settled down.
I kept walking, but when I got to the hill, I ended up putting half my weight on Beca. She slowed and occasionally turned to lick my arm.
“Do you need me to carry you, your majesty?” Daron matched pace on the other side of me.
“No.” I was more out of breath now than I had been in the middle of the Bulee. He saved me from one public disaster, and I didn’t want to create another one by being carried to my chambers.
My father waved his hands in the air to quiet the two marble grandstands packed with commoners that sat on each side of the dock.
"I, Emperor Franco the Third,” my father boomed, “sentence you to banishment on the Isle of Exile for the following crimes: having a shaking disease and breeding with a disease. For the punishment of breeding, you will take your daughter with you."
I stood at my father’s right hand clad in the navy pants and shirt of a royal. I fanned my golden cape to try and cool myself. A forge burned inside me that I could not snuff out, and the wooziness from earlier had still not disappeared.
As the guards marched the blacksmith toward the schooner, the grandstands erupted, and the nobles stomped along. But not all the nobles. Pevely and the entire Moor family stomped and whistled of course. The Dolos and the dark-skinned McGlones stood stoically with their hands behind their backs.
When the guards and the blacksmith came near us, the baby's wail cut through the noise as if she understood exile. The blacksmith stopped so suddenly the guards behind him ran into him. This man wasn’t a blacksmith from an outlying kingdom. He was from here in Nola, and Moloki made my own armor. He taught me to spar and shoot when I was only a child. My stomach twisted. I had been watching these exiles as long as I had been alive, and when I knew the person, it was always ten times worse.
Moloki’s hands spasmed around his daughter. Moloki’s eyes focused only on me. “You can do better than this, Addie.” My heart pounded in my throat, and my right hand found Beca’s fur for comfort.
Thankfully, the crowd was too loud for anyone other than my family to hear. “Your shaking disease prevents you from completing your duties as a blacksmith, and you are therefore a burden upon Pangea.” My father stalked up to Moloki, making every word sting.
Moloki spat toward my father. The last act of rebellion of a dead man. My father sidestepped. The guards dragged Moloki away and onto the boat.
“I have now completed my last act as Emperor.” The crowd stomped slowly as a sign of respect. “Empress Adelaide’s position will be official in one hour with her first trial in the Hall of Justice.”
My father turned and left with my mother on his arm. The crowd stared at me, expectant. “Board and sail, good men. May the Great Dog protect you on your journey. The next trial is in one hour,” I said to the crowd, “Please enjoy the festivities in Jerden Square in the meantime.” I spun around causing the embroidered hound and wolf heads on my cape to billow.
The royal assistant and herald, Cleaver, shouted to the crowd. “All hail Empress Adelaide! May she be forever strong!”
“May she be forever strong!” the crowd chanted back.
I hated that line. If rulers were forever strong, we wouldn’t need a Bulee to choose the next member of the royal family to rule.
Beca hopped into the carriage after me, followed by a small, brown terrier. I sighed in relief as Greggory climbed in after his dog and shut the door.
I sank into the red velvet cushions of the carriage bench. I hadn’t had a single day of rest from physical exertion this week, and every muscle in my body pounded.
“Why did it have to be Moloki today?” I asked.
Greggory shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We do it for a good reason: to—”
“Keep the pain and suffering out of Pangea. I know.” I said.
“You’ve got to get better at hiding what you are thinking. You looked like you were in pain out there.”
“Did you hear what Moloki said?”
“Yes, Addie. But focus.” Greggory scratched the back of the terrier who sat next to him on the bench. “You have to be a beloved ruler to make big changes. Right now, you barely won the Bulee, and many would still prefer Frank.”
He was right. Without his training, I would never have won the mental contests. I put my head in my hands, and Beca put her nose between my arms and licked my face. I scratched behind her ears and stared out the small window. The driver took us through the capital homes of the nobles, three-story structures placed back to back, creating a maze of narrow cobblestone roads and black-iron balconies.
Navy and gold banners hung from them for the Bulee, all the contests I won over the past week to prove the crown should be on my head and not my younger brother’s.
“What can I do to fix it?” I asked.
Greggory looked at his chubby hands instead of at me. “Start by creating a relationship with one of the suitors.”
I glared at my brother. “You promised. You promised you would have a child I could name heir, so I wouldn’t have to.”
“And you know I keep my promises. But alliances make or destroy empires. If an entire kingdom wants the crown specifically on your head, it will make it harder for Frank to rise to power.”
I scowled. “You know I don’t look the way men want.”
“Oh, forget what mum says. You have more muscle, not fat. You wouldn’t be able to finish the running or hand-to-hand combat or any other part of the Bulee without it.”
I kept stony and silent. I hated being social and felt much more comfortable studying than entertaining suitors.
“If you were seen pursuing a suitor, the commoners might stop calling you names,” Greggory said.
“I’m Empress. What the commoners say shouldn’t matter. And I’m the one trying to help their ungrateful asses. My first act as Grand Duchess was to send the Bulee entry fees from the nobles to the poor houses instead of the crown vault.”’ My father whipped me for announcing that publicly without asking him. The scars on my back had faded, but the indentations remained.
“You know why they want Frank on the throne. He already has a bastard.”
“He’s thirteen! He lost every fight, every contest—”
“Just act, Addie!” Greggory said, throwing his hands in the air. “It’s okay not to be truthful all the time. Once the people settle down, you can marry me off and name my child your successor.”
“Then what suitor would make the best ally? What country would stand up to father?”
“Other than Coosa…” Greggory excluded them, as they had only a princess rising to power. “Caribe.”
“And how do I find Prince McGlone?”
“Leave that to me. Promise me you will try?”
My brother tried so hard to help with everything. Since the day he knew he would never be physically strong enough to rule, he made sure to pass his knowledge to me. He was my greatest ally and best friend.
“I’ll try. And thanks, Greggory.” I gave him a small smile.
The carriage crested the hill and meandered through the oak trees and Spanish moss. We came to a halt in the brick cul-de-sac outside of the royal estate. Daron opened the door and offered me his hand.
“Quit that gallant nonsense,” my father ordered from outside the carriage behind us. Daron dropped his hand. “The Empress does not need help climbing out of a carriage.”
My father marched off into the white-pillared mansion while stroking the black retriever by his side. My maid, Quilla, passed him and scurried out to me.
“Wait here,” Greggory said, “and I’ll bring you McGlone.”
“Is there anything I can get you?” Quilla asked as Greggory strode away.
“Put my hair up.” I felt stifled by the humid air ever since I crossed the finish line of the last race this morning. I took off my cape and copper tiara, which left me in the plain navy pants and shirt that indicated a member of the royal family. I sat on the steps of the mansion where Quilla started twisting my hair to keep it out of my face and off my neck. My younger brother, mother, and servants entered the mansion. Stable hands came to attend to the horses and carriages.
“Are you excited for your first trial as Empress?” Quilla asked.
“I am a mouthpiece, nothing more,” I replied.
“But you are—”
“Announcing the decisions. The council of elders has more power than I do,” I explained. Hopefully, Quilla will spread that to the other commoners. Then, maybe they won’t hate me so much when I start exiling my own people. But after the way the crowd taunted me this morning, I wasn’t keeping my hopes up.
I leaned up against the white marble, closed my eyes, and tried to use crawfish gumbo to motivate myself to get through this. Another trial, likely to result in another exile. Moloki’s eyes floated in my mind.
“You tired, Adelaide,” a sneer caused my eyes to shoot open. “Not as strong as everyone thinks.” Frank, my younger brother, looked incredibly like my father as he mocked me. He had a pointed face, much like the greyhound that followed him. It also looked like it had been slammed in a door one too many times.
More disturbing was the girl Frank was pulling by the hair. He had a fistful from the top of her head which caused her to walk forward bent at a painful angle. She looked closer to my age than Frank’s.
“Let her go this instant,” I said.
“No. I am going to walk in front of the nobles with her at the next trial. Send a message.” Frank’s smile sickened me.
Quilla knew me so well; she tucked the strand of hair she was twisting behind a finished braid. I stood up and slammed the blade of my hand into Frank’s elbow, causing him to release the girl’s hair, but the girl did not stand up as I expected. Frank reached back, but I hit his forearm this time. Frank’s greyhound growled, but Beca stepped between me and it.
“Stand up,” I said. The girl lifted her head, but not the rest of her body. Her eyes were worse than scared. They were blank, vacant. What had Frank done to her this time?
“Back down,” Frank growled. The girl obeyed.
“Girl, you will leave the estate before any noble sees you. If you were smart, you’d leave Nola and find work elsewhere.”
“No! You will—”
Most magi bond with a familiar, but others have a familiar thrust upon them. Rae Fairclough’s is a demon, and she wants a refund. #PitProm
After twelve years of estrangement from her abusive father, August, teen witch Rae Fairclough is lured back to her childhood home under the pretense of inheriting her father’s grimoire. Instead of gaining the tome, Rae finds herself thrust into a bad fairytale as she finds herself on the receiving end of a generations-old demon deal. As the Fairclough firstborn, Rae is set to inherit August’s demon familiar upon his death. The demon Belfnir, brings with it immeasurable magical power, all for the low cost of her immortal soul.
Racing against the threat of damnation as August’s life slips away, Rae turns to unexpected allies for help in succeeding where every other Fairclough has failed. Among them is the sly sorcerer Cassius Vale, whose crooked smile and cabal of spirit-calling mages attempt to help Rae break the curse once and for all. As cracks start to appear in her friends’ façades she isn’t sure who exactly she can trust, though the demon isn’t shaping up to be such a bad choice.
THE GRIMOIRE’S HEIR is complete at 80,000 words and falls in the young adult contemporary fantasy genre. It will appeal to fans of THE HAZEL WOOD, TV’s Supernatural, and readers who love to place themselves in houses and factions and teams. At its heart, THE GRIMOIRE’S HEIR is a story about how mental illness and addiction affect families and those afflicted, viewed through the lens of the fantastical. It’s a novel about the ties that bind us to others, and how trust affects relationships.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
~ C. Ashwinne
First Ten Pages:
To my heir,
As my time of death draws closer the discussion of inheritance and the Fairclough grimoire becomes a necessity. I’m certain you can understand the implicit approval of the Council given their delivery of this letter. Above all else, their sanctions preserve my line of succession. I hope the past decade has beaten enough intelligence into you to realize this is mandatory…
Rae Fairclough crumpled her father’s letter and tossed it to the floor of her car, hands quivering as she watched it fall with the smallest tap. It had been twelve years since the last time that she spoke with her father, and yet just the thought made her stomach churn.
She opened the car door and stepped out, her black boots landing on a combination of dead leaves and ancient fast-food wrappers. The autumn wind whipped her black hair into her face and chilled her straight to the bone.
Her father’s house had been the backdrop for her childhood trauma, the place where she had earned the spiderwebbed scars on her back, where the trajectory of her life had been changed permanently.
Rae trudged her way through the yard, knee deep in damp leaves probably swimming with ticks, and paused in front of the porch. The wood was sagging and green in places, but she couldn’t turn back. After all, despite her father’s jeers, she was intelligent enough to know that this confrontation had been planned since childhood.
She put one foot on the step to test its weight and immediately the wood buckled beneath her weight. Rae stepped back on the grass and held her hand out over the stairs, a frown playing at her lips.
“Umbris fortifico.” Rae mumbled. Deep purple light enveloped her hand, a miasma of spiritual smoke which spread to the set of steps. She tested the step once more, then walked up to the front door.
Rae jammed the doorbell several times, half-expecting it to be as broken as the rest of the house. Her heart was racing near out of her chest, adrenaline pooling in her veins as old memories threatened to bubble forth, but she had been waiting years to spit on his legacy, to show him that she wasn’t someone he could push around.
“Hey old man!” she screamed as she punched the button some more. After a moment she turned to leave, but jumped straight out of her skin when the front door slammed against the side of the house.
“Is that any way to greet your father?” August Fairclough asked, a scowl on his face. The years had not been kind to her father, as he managed to look near-geriatric as opposed to his actual forty-nine. Greying hair, sagging skin, a glaze over his ice blue eyes.
“You didn’t answer.” Rae shrugged.
“There are other matters that pull my attention, Raven. Not everything is about you.” August sneered. She felt like she was a child again, helpless, vulnerable, unable to escape his clutches.
A loud yowl broke the silence as a lanky black cat stepped out of the shadows. It sat at its master’s feet and licked at its paw. Despite the fact that it was a cat, an ugly one at that, she felt like it was staring straight through her.
“You were the one that called me here.”
“The Council called you here,” August corrected, “anyway, there’s no use in dawdling. You came here for a reason.”
Rae nodded and followed her father into the house. She kept her eyes on her boots, watching her step as she navigated the narrow path through piles upon piles of garbage. She slipped her hand into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around a mana store, a cut of tanzanite that buzzed with residual magical energy.
“Custodiam animarum invoco.” Rae whispered. She felt a buzz in her hand, the feeling of pure magic slipping through her veins. Purple smoke oozed through her fingers and slipped out of her pocket, but before it could coalesce into a solid form her father’s voice broke through the air.
“Retexo.” he snapped. The sound reverberated through the room, despite the mountains of trash that should have muffled the sound, and the smoke that she had conjured dissipated into the air.
“A protection spell? Are you insinuating that I would harm you in my own home? During a Council-sanctioned meeting?” he said, voice dripping with mock hurt.
“Precedent states that you’re not above torturing me in your own home.” Rae spat. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets and kicked at a mound of trash, which let out a disconcerting yelp.
“Is that what your mother told you?” August asked, an eyebrow quirked at such an odd angle that it looked like it could just fall off.
“Mom didn’t tell me anything. I remember it all. I still have the scars you gave me!” Rae shouted, her voice cracking even though she tried her hardest to keep herself from breaking.
“Are you sure? Your mother is an Exterus mage. Memory alteration is child’s play to a caster of her skills. Consider the factor of your young, plastic mind and even a novice would have succeeded.” August said, his voice a flat monotone.
“M–mom wouldn’t do that.”
“Believe what you want, Raven. There are more important matters to discuss. Come.” he said as he waved her down the hall.
Her head started to pound, and her vision faded at the edges as she followed him down the tunnel-like hallway. The misery of the house, the old memories bubbling to the surface, it felt like her entire body had been sapped of energy. She couldn’t decide if it was a spell, or just the familiar feeling of being helpless.
Despite her years of magical studies, Rae could never understand what her father had done to her, the intent of the scars his spells carved into her flesh. As she grew and learned, she searched in her studies for reasons, explanations for what he had done and came up blank every time.
Rae studied under the school of Anima, just as her father had. Souls, spirits, the spooky stuff that lurked just beyond the veil all called to her in a way she couldn’t describe. She was largely self-taught; her brief stint with a tutor hadn’t stuck, but despite her natural talents, the gaps in her knowledge made it harder for her to pin down exactly what August’s angle was.
Her current theory was that he was just a sick bastard that got off on hurting her. It made enough sense, considering he’d have succeeded in whatever else he might have tried. August didn’t do half-assed. Particularly when it came to torturing his own daughter.
The house felt as if it was trying collapse on top of her, choking the air out of her lungs as she wandered deeper inside. The whole place smelled like the inside of a whiskey-drenched ashtray. It was the smell of her childhood, the smell of the years that she spent trying to escape from her father’s twisted clutches.
August’s footsteps echoed on the rotting wood floors as the cat darted in and around his legs as he walked; ugly, grotesque partners prowling down the hall. She felt like the house was breathing — rising and falling with some sort of invisible heartbeat. All the shadows shifted as she walked past hoping and telling herself that their uncanny shapes were distorted by the garbage littering the inside of the house.
Her knees were still shaking, her eyes darting to and from the basement door as they passed. He didn’t acknowledge it as they walked by, but her palms were starting to sweat, the sick nauseous feeling in her stomach back at full force. It was such an eerie thing to her, and yet it was barely a footnote in her father’s eyes.
He led her into the kitchen, a dank cave of a room. Piles of dishes toppled out of the sink, and Rae swore that she could see some sort of rodent dipping in and out of the stack. The cat let out a meow more like a deflating bicycle horn, then hopped up onto the counter next to where her father stood, its exaggerated purr vibrating in her ears.
“I’m here. Are you going to hand me the grimoire so I can get out?” Rae asked. She peered around the mess in the kitchen, her breath held to avoid having to breathe in the air’s stench. Everything in the house seemed to have some sort of pulse to it, like the whole thing was alive.
She was trying to make a point to keep from touching too much, partly because of how filthy everything was and partly because she was worried that the whole house was booby trapped.
August cleared his throat and glanced at the cat. Rae’s eyes were drawn to it as well. The poor animal looked wrong. The cat’s face looked like a goblin’s with thin amber eyes and the largest ears she had ever seen on an animal. The cat arched its back, and then hissed at her, as if it knew what she was thinking.
“Not yet, Raven,” August said, “I’m dying, not dead. Have some respect.” Rae could feel his gaze on her, but her eyes were glued to the greying linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor.
“Respect? You don’t deserve it. And, if you’re not giving me the grimoire now why call me here? Send the check and the book in the mail and I’ll see you next time when I spit on your grave.” Rae turned around to leave, but he reached out and grabbed her wrist.
His touch stopped her in her tracks, her entire body froze over, her stomach threatened to force its way out of her throat and leave her choking on the floor again. Even though he wasn’t using any magic on her, she still felt like the world was falling out from beneath her feet.
“I wasn’t finished, Raven Anne,” he said. Behind him a shadow grew, rising like thick black smoke until it solidified into a material being.
The thing that stood behind August was twisted and broken and wrong. Its body was black and lanky, the elbows and knees bent the wrong way, and its head tilted at a peculiar angle. Its face was composed of a stark white horse skull, the empty eye sockets stared out in opposite directions. Despite the being’s lack of eyes, its gaze still felt oppressive.
“What the hell?” Rae stepped back, breaking her own rule, and crashing against the rotting drywall. It stuck to her, keeping her trapped in place. A few more gemstones tumbled from her pockets, plinking against the ground one by one as scenes began to flash in front of her eyes — old memories that she had tried to keep pressed deep inside.
“Come here, Raven...”
“I’m just trying to help...”
“You’ll thank me one day...”
Rae opened her eyes just a crack, not realizing just how tightly they had been screwed shut. She could feel her scars prickle with phantom pain, a ghost of everything she had endured as a child.
“W–what is that thing?” Rae asked, closing her eyes again. The wall slowly relinquished its grip, letting her slump to the grime-covered linoleum.
“I don’t appreciate being called a thing, you know,” the creature said, its voice carrying an inky, slimy quality that made her skin crawl. It was unlike anything Rae had ever heard. The creature had an unplaceable accent. It was foreign but didn’t belong to any one country or region.
Mind your manners, Raven,” August said. She looked between her father and the figure from her spot on the ground. Even though the creature wasn’t moving, she could sense it was grinning. The entire scene sent shivers down her spine.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was hurting that abomination’s feelings. I’ll try to be more considerate in the future!” Rae shouted. The creature laughed, and the sound seemingly came from everywhere around her, like a warped echo.
“Frankly, I’m offended,” it said, dissolving back into shifting shadows. They eventually coalesced into the form of a man with dark hair and creamy tan skin. He was wearing a black business suit, hair slicked back with old Hollywood, Marlon Brando flair.
“I can be quite handsome if the situation calls for it.” He dissolved and reformed again, this time into the form of a dark-haired woman with sharp white teeth, lips painted blood red. “Or is this more your speed? I can’t tell. Maybe you should make up your mind.”
Rae’s face turned red as she turned away from the creature. She didn’t like being taunted or toyed with, especially in front of her father’s prying eyes. He didn’t need to know about her preferences. That was her business alone. Despite turning away, she felt the air thicken again as the creature reverted to the shadow-and-skull form.
“N–neat party trick,” she spat, even though she could feel her heart racing in her chest. She was born and raised in the world of magic, and yet she’d never seen nor heard of anything like this.
I like her, even if she called me an abomination,” the creature said, turning slightly to August. “She’ll do nicely.”
Rae swallowed the lump in her throat, and her lips curled into a snarl. She opened her mouth to shoot back another smart reply, but the words wouldn’t come out. She’ll do nicely?
So, what are you? Some kind of ghoul or wayward spirit? A genie dad found at the bottom of a bottle?” Her words were weak, a childish stammer as the creature leaned forward. The air around it seemed heavier, and she struggled to breathe. It almost felt like the smoke sublimating from it was choking her from the inside out.
Part of her knew that she should know. She studied to become a magus of Anima, the school of spirits and shadows and things that go bump in the night, and here she was face to face with said something going bump in the night and yet she was at a loss.
“My name is Belfnir,” the creature said, “and I’m a demon.”
“Not a very good one if I haven’t heard of you,” Rae said. She looked away from Belfnir, attempting to focus on her breathing to keep from choking on the demonic smoke. As she spoke, she could feel the smoke getting thicker. Her father tutted her and took another step closer as she tried to back away.
There was no way that she’d find any of her gem stores amidst the heaps of bottles and trash in the kitchen. Instead, she dug her left hand into the collar of her shirt and fished out a pendant. The stone was a smooth tablet of natural amethyst, hung on a long silver chain.
“Te expello!” Rae shouted as she grasped the stone in her hand. Even with her eyes screwed shut again, she could still see the light from the spell sear through her eyelids.
Three days’ worth of mana stored in that stone, all gone in a flash and a bang. Rae cracked one eye open as she waited for the ringing in her ears to cease. Most of the garbage had been scattered, violently thrown away from the epicenter of her spell. August and Belfnir remained where they had been, stuck in the same poses from before the spell. Her father shifted his gaze from the demon to his daughter, expression flat and unchanged.
“You’re a bigger idiot than your mother if you think that a banishing spell would work on a demon,” August scoffed as he looked down at his daughter, “I would have taught you better than that.”
“Would have. But, you didn’t teach me anything.” Rae said. If you had, maybe the spell would have worked. She slowly began to try to rise to her feet, but her legs were shaky—too much emotion, too much demonic energy, too much expenditure of mana. Her head was starting to pound, and she was starting to get that nauseated feeling from running out of magical energy.
“You’re right. If I had taught you, you wouldn’t have attempted such a foolish feat,” he said, “look at you. Spent and it’s barely even suppertime.”
“Now now, August,” Belfnir said, stepping forward on its backwards legs, “be nice to the girl. You’ve left out the most important part.”
Rae could feel the sinister smile once more, even though the skull didn’t move.
She’ll do nicely…
“Did you invite me here just so that you could sell me to a demon?” Rae shouted.
“No one’s selling anyone today,” August said. He then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket and put one into his mouth. “There’s no exchange of goods or services here.”
“Thanks,” Rae said as she pulled herself up to her feet, “I’m being gifted to a demon? Happy birthday to me.”
“Stop being melodramatic,” August said, “your birthday isn’t for another month.”
“How touching,” Rae snapped, “you remembered.”
Now that she was standing, albeit shakily, Rae finally made eye contact with her father. Her spell might not have worked on the demon, but it did something to him.
She could see that he wasn’t wholly a person anymore. His eyes were white and clouded, his skin was sallow and sagging. He looked more like a walking corpse than a living man, parts of his tissue wearing away. He even walked like a corpse, stiff as if he were locked by rigor mortis. Is this what would happen to her? Rae turned on her heels and tried to run, but Belfnir blocked her path.
“Sorry little Sage,” Belfnir said, “but you’re not getting out of this that easily. Or at all.”
The demon’s body pulled and twisted until the skull was in her face, and she could feel its hot and rotten breath on her skin. Why was this happening to her? She thought she had escaped all of this, but she was stupid enough to come crawling back. A grimoire wasn’t worth this.
“See, your pop’s time is running out, after that your soul belongs to me,” Belfnir reached a long, shadowy finger out and poked Rae in the center of the forehead.
“I never consented to this!” Rae shouted, and both her father and the demon laughed.
“Demons don’t barter in consent, Raven. You’ve been promised to him since before you were born,” August said. Belfnir just laughed.
“I love firstborns. Their souls are so pure, full of unadulterated mana,” Belfnir’s hand pulled away, but Rae was left with a pounding headache.
“Don’t look so glum, chum. You’re a powerful magus. Being pals with me would only make you stronger.”
“Don’t flatter me,” she spat, even though she knew he was right. She did have several generations’ worth of magic in her veins, and who knows what kind of magic she could achieve with a demon’s backing… but she’d end up like her father. Sad, cruel, and falling apart from the inside out. Damned. He said it himself. He was dying.
“Flattery will get you everywhere. If you inflate someone’s ego enough, they’ll do anything for you,” Belfnir said.
“No. No! I’m not doing anything for you. You won’t have me!” Rae shouted, before stepping back from the two again. This time, neither tried to stop her.
“The stupid girl will learn soon enough,” August said as Rae ran off through the door, “as if generations before her hadn’t attempted the same feat.” The floor creaked and moaned and groaned behind her, and Belfnir’s laugh echoed behind her as she escaped.
Rae’s body felt ten times lighter once she made it past the threshold of the front door. No longer weighed down with demonic smoke, with memories and pain of the past, she could breathe a little easier. Still, nothing was sitting right now that she knew that her soul had been promised to a demon.
he slammed her car door as she slid inside, cranking the heat and the music while she tried to contemplate everything that had happened. Had her mother known about Belfnir? She had married August, if only for a short amount of time. Rae had been around him longer and had no clue — hadn’t even an inkling that the creature had been lurking in the shadows during her childhood. Choosing to believe that her mother had been ignorant was the easy choice, the one that absolved her parent of guilt, but she had no way of knowing if it was the truth.
Rae rested her head against her steering wheel for a moment. Why this? Why her? There must be a way to change her fate—to escape this dark cloud hanging over her. She gripped the wheel so hard that her hands shook, her head clouding over with thought upon thought.
She assumed that generations before her have tried to break free from Belfnir’s bond and failed, but, this couldn’t be the end. Rae sat up and pulled her hands off the wheel, taking a deep breath to try to center herself. This was it. Do or die. She owed it to herself to fight, to overcome what her father had only dreamed of, to escape the Hellfire that loomed in the distance.
“This can’t be real,” Rae mumbled to herself as she twiddled with one of the rings in her ear. She swiped at her nose, careful to avoid the stud in her left nostril, and put her head in her hands.
She wasn’t fated to become her father, another horrible blight to society, a cancer to everyone around her. That had always been her worst fear, turning into him, and now it was closer than ever. Maybe there was a way she could change it, to shatter the contract and change her fate.
Maybe she could be more than what they wanted her to be.
Knock, knock, knock.
Rae lifted her head from her desk. She must have fallen asleep while reading again.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Rae? Still in there?” Her mother’s voice called from outside of the door. Rae peeled her face off the desk and shook her head a few times. Definitely fell asleep in the study again.
“Yeah, Mom,” she said as she got to her feet. There were still a few books on the desk, but most had fallen to the floor. She must have been dead asleep if she hadn’t noticed them crash to the ground.
“There are some muffins in the kitchen,” Mom said, “I could throw a pot of coffee on if you’d like?”
“Please,” she said, head starting to pound. There was already a massive crick forming in her neck from falling asleep on the stacks. She leaned down to start to pick up the books and heard the slow creak of the door opening behind her. Her mother stepped into the room, her silver bracelets clinking together as she moved.
“Are you okay, Rae?” she asked, walking over to her daughter. Alvena wrapped her arms around the girl’s shoulders and pressed a small kiss to the top of her head. Her gray-streaked black hair fell in Rae’s face, which tickled her nose. She held back a sneeze and shrugged her mother off her.
“I’m fine,” Rae said as she placed the books back on the desk, all volumes she got from the local library’s basement. Things that she thought would help her get out of being some demon’s puppet.
Demonology, A Complex Guide to Banishing, The Encyclopedia of Souls… Alvena could see the titles, and immediately she shook her head.
You’re researching some dark stuff, Rae,” she said, “I’m worried.”
“Yeah, well,” Rae put the books down and sat back down in the desk chair, “it’s not exactly by choice. How else am I supposed to break this?”
Alvena opened her mouth, then closed it once more. Instead of speaking, she placed a hand on Rae’s shoulder and sighed. Alvena’s warm tan skin was a stark contrast to her daughter’s cool-toned beige, one of the few traits she had gotten from her father.
Nice girls don’t steal magic. Nice girls don’t consort with crime bosses. If Eilanya wants to fly again, she can’t be nice anymore. #PitProm
Sixteen-year-old coffee heiress Eilanya Landon wants her magic back.
But her sister Calette—illusion prodigy, belle of every ball, and dirty lying magic-thief—has the audacity to die without telling Eilanya how she stole it. The only clue is a forbidden manual on magicianry discovered in a wall, leaving Eilanya determined to investigate where it came from, and find out how, exactly, one steals magic. Because if Calette did it, so can she.
Of course, it won’t be hers: her own magic died with Calette. But that’s just a technicality, right?
Off she larks to hunt down her sister’s secrets, when her poking around Cherryport—and her uncanny resemblance to Calette—draws the knife-edged attentions of the city’s grim underworld. To survive amongst flyer-assassins and smuggler-kings, she strikes a deal with a crime boss: masquerade as her sister the dread magician, in exchange for magic.
But playing Calette comes with the realization that the two of them are more similar than Eilanya wants to believe—they both turn deadly fast when something’s in their way. Eilanya has to decide if being able to fly again is really worth ripping away someone else’s magic, just like Calette did to her. And worse, if it’s worth wearing Calette’s face to do it—and even further blurring the line between them.
THE DEATH OF CALETTE LANDON is a 99,000-word dark YA fantasy set in a magical Gilded Age—think THE BEAUTIFUL ONES stumbling into SIX OF CROWS in a shady alley.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Ten Pages:
CHAPTER 1: IF YOU DON’T HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO SAY, DON’T SAY IT AT ALL
Eilanya stood at the church’s lectern and felt exactly nothing at all. The sun coming through the stained-glass windows painted her in shades of bright orange and aquamarine. The black-draped mourners hunched in the pews, like carrion birds waiting for another death.
“My name is Eilanya Landon,” she said.
They all knew that.
“Calette was my older sister.”
They all knew that too. She took a deep breath and went on:
“Besides being an accomplished illusorist, and a dutiful daughter to our dear mother and father, Calette was also my dearest friend. She touched the heart of everyone she knew, with her charm, grace, and warmth. My heart will be forevermore empty without her.”
Someone coughed, as if to say she wasn’t quite convincing enough.
“In one word, Calette was—“
Was that an error, peeking up at her from her hastily-scribbled speech? She almost laughed. She couldn’t have written--
The word tasted faintly of poison, but her mother, in the front row, looked pleased.
“Her virtues were countless,” Eilanya said, but ran out of virtues after only a minute or so. Hopefully nobody would notice that she’d only managed four for Calette: honesty (when it suited her), charm (because it suited her), caring (mostly for herself), and sincerity (with a delicate emphasis on the sin).
She could chatter on for days, if pressed, about how wonderful her sister had been, and none of it would ever come close to the truth. She filled the air with pretty words: joy, affection, prodigious. Hollow sentiments: she was taken too soon, she will find peace in Heaven. Invented anecdotes: she encouraged me to be a better person. It was the worst speech she’d ever given.
Calette would have scoffed through the whole thing. She was probably smirking, in the closed coffin up on the dais, beneath her white wreaths and cascading ribbons. She’d say, You liar, Lanya Landon.
Eilanya couldn’t go on. For Calette’s sake, she had to say something that was actually true.
She crumpled up her speech in a fist.
“And to conclude,” she said, “I would like to tell one story that I believe exemplifies my sister’s spirit. It is a memory that will stay with me until my own dying day.”
This wasn’t part of the approved speech, but her mother was still smiling.
“Last summer,” Eilanya said, “the cat had six kittens. Gray stripey things, mostly. Adorable, all of them, of course. But there was one white one, which my sister and I both wanted.”
Her mother was no longer smiling.
“Due to my sister’s generous spirit—which, erm, I’m sure we all remember so fondly—she allowed me to keep the kitten with little fuss. Now, this was highly unusual. You all may not have known this about Calette, but she was always planning how to get her way. And if she couldn’t have something she wanted, nobody else could have it either.”
Murmurs rose from the back pews. Her mother’s eyes had gone black with an involuntary illusion, and her brothers looked queasy. But nobody was stopping her yet.
“One day, she suggested we give my kitten a bath. We went out into the east garden, where there was a—“
“Stop,” her mother said.
The entire church looked at her sideways.
“You’ve finished,” she said.
Eilanya held her mother’s gaze for just a second. Still beetle-black. Not good. But the deep, willful part of herself that had started the story fully intended to finish it.
“There was a metal tub,” she said, “which we filled with water. My sister said—“
At once her mother rose from the pew, straight and dark in her mourning-gown. “I’m afraid you’ve run out of time, Eilanya.” Her voice was sweet, but her illusion-black eyes glinted with suppressed fury. “Do sit down.”
“I haven’t said what I wanted to say,” Eilanya said, though her voice was beginning to shake.
“You’ve said quite enough.”
“I haven’t finished!”
Her mother had hurled the name from her mouth as though it were something profane. It hung ugly in the air between them. The mourners, behind, froze in fascination.
“Sit down this instant,” Mrs. Landon said, voice tempered and reasonable once more. But when Eilanya didn’t move, she swept up the steps, seized her arm, and wrenched her down the steps. Eilanya tripped on the last one and nearly gasped as her mother jerked her up again.
“Let us all thank Miss Landon for her touching words,” the priest said, eyes flicking only briefly toward the front pew.
Voices rose in some invocation Eilanya didn’t hear. Her mother pried the balled-up speech from her hand and held it over the candle at the end of the pew. The paper caught fire and shriveled into nothing.
As they filed out through the solid darkwood doors of the church, Eilanya was all too aware of a buzzing in her ears. It filled her hearing, deafening, furious, like a swarm of huge flies. Someone said something to her, solemnly, and she could only nod in reply.
Eyes darted her way. Gloved hands lifted to mouths to hide whispers. Black lace parasols unfurled against the relentless Capprean sunshine.
The tide of mourners surged toward the open grave and left Eilanya behind.
She stood sweltering in the shade of the church, blinking back hot tears from her eyes. Not grief—rage.
Calette dead, and she was magicless still. She’d watched herself closely for two days and still there was nothing. The only thing she could feel flowing through herself was her own blood, in lethargic pulses at her temples and wrists.
There was something else at her wrist now too—her mother’s nails, digging in so sharply they might have pierced through her cuff and drawn blood.
The fans had come out amongst the mourners now, fluttering in front of faces, hiding the curious glances toward the delayed pair back by the doors.
So quietly Eilanya barely heard it, Mrs. Landon said, “Eilanya, are you feeling all right?”
Her mouth tasted like acid. She nodded.
“Then join the rest of us, please,” her mother said. “Or you may wait in the car.”
The coffin waited on the opposite side of the grave, shining, expectant. At any moment Calette could bound out of it, declare herself alive, and dig her sharp nails into Eilanya’s other hand. The world gave a sickening twist at the thought. It took some effort, but she managed to whisper, “I’ll wait in the car.”
Finally her mother released her hand. Without even a glance back, she took up her skirts and picked her way back across the grass, toward the waiting crowd. Eilanya shut herself in the car parked furthest from the cemetery, cranked the window down, and fanned her rising nausea away.
It was a full hour before the gathering scattered toward the cars, having sent Calette safely underground with prayers and chants and well-wishes. To Eilanya’s great relief, it was her brother Hartham who slid in next to her, followed by their brother Ailiam. Their parents had gone with the youngest, Rosbaigh; their sister Ennabel was back at home, still in the grip of a vidrosa delirium.
As the car lurched away into the sticky afternoon, Hartham leaned over to Eilanya. “Why’d you have to talk about the kitten?”
The rumble of the engine nearly masked his words, but they were crammed too close together for her to pretend she hadn’t heard him. She pretended anyway, turning her head pointedly to the jungle rolling past outside.
He elbowed her, quite hard. “Lanya, why do you have to keep bringing up that kitten? Couldn’t you have shut up about it for one day?”
He didn’t really want an answer; he was just trying to make her feel bad. But even though he was only a year younger than her, she never could take him seriously.
“Mamma’s going to be furious with you this evening,” he said, when Eilanya had ignored him long enough. “See if she isn’t.”
“I never said what actually happened,” she said. “Nobody can be angry with me.”
“That’s worse! Now they won’t know what to think. She could have beheaded it, she could have vivisected it, she could have gotten the foreman’s daughter to tie it into a tree so it would mewl and starve and you could only save it by flying up and untying—“
He yelped as Eilanya slammed an elbow into his side.
“You shouldn’t say such things about your own sister, Hart!”
Hartham shifted away from her. “You’re one to talk!”
She merely glared at him, and he turned the other way, toward Ailiam, who was staring out his window and hadn’t seemed to notice anything. Eilanya tried to stop the little tremors running through her body by sitting perfectly still. The coffee fields flashed past on the long drive up to the house.
Refreshments were an affair of hushed discomfort. Mrs. Landon circled the parlor, rearranging scores of overflowing vases and popping into conversations wherever they lagged. Eilanya, newly the oldest, had the dubious honor of fending off Riony Hallex, who seemed to have been assigned to pry about the kitten story. She prodded and poked at Eilanya, obviously thinking, being three years older and already engaged, that she was entitled to every bit of gossip.
“But why’d your mother stop you?” Riony said, for the fifth time. “It sounds like a wonderfully touching story. I do so love kittens.”
“I was taking too long,” Eilanya said, for the third time. “There was another service right after and we had to finish up.”
The doorbell clanged. She glanced toward the foyer but saw nobody.
“I don’t think it would have taken too long for you to finish it,” Riony said. “Have you still got the kitten? You have, haven’t you?”
Eilanya shook her head. “We gave them all away in the end. There were too many.”
Luckily, then, the Hallex matriarch materialized to pull Riony away. Riony said, “Oh, and Lanya, come over ours soon? Patricia’s just started flying and could use some help.”
The thought of having to watch somebody else fly put such a strong taste of jealousy in Eilanya’s mouth that she had difficulty replying politely, but she managed something bland as Riony whirled off.
Hartham sidled up to her. “That was the quickest I’ve ever seen anyone get rid of Riony Hallex,” he said. “Good work.”
“She’s implacable,” Eilanya said, fanning herself. “Hasn’t anyone answered the door?” The hush was curious. She followed Hartham’s gaze and found the entire party staring at the man in the archway.
Threads dangled from the cuffs of his shirt, in almost as much disarray as his hair, which looked as though he had tried to slick it forward rather than back. It drooped over purple-ringed eyes, nearly brushing his sharp, ruddy nose. His suit had gone out of fashion before Eilanya was born.
The girl at his side was as neat as her father was not, with her black hair done up perfectly, if a bit severely for her age, and skin the color of spoiled milk. Her eyebrows hovered high on her forehead, giving her an air of perpetual surprise. She was wearing yellow organdy and looked like a canary in a room full of vultures.
Mrs. Landon broke the tense tableau with a cheerful, “Ah, Parriam!” and drew them both into the room. Parriam Fasth kissed her on both cheeks and shouldered his way toward the coffee. His daughter Amajane spent a long, apologetic time with Mrs. Landon. Finally, little by little, everyone else in the room settled back into their previous conversations.
Eilanya and Hartham talked in circles around their mutual dislike of their uncle Parriam until Amajane sat down in the shell-pink armchair across from them.
“I am so sorry about your sister,” she said. Her gaze traveled to Eilanya’s hands and lingered. “Can I borrow your fan?”
Rude, Eilanya thought, but handed it over. Amajane fluttered it through the air faster than was polite.
“I must also give our apologies for missing the services,” she said. “We got the notice only yesterday as we’re staying in the city all summer and we did try to manage it but it’s such a long way and the train runs at such strange hours and I would have just come as soon as I heard and stayed the night with you but my father didn’t want me flying so far.”
“You weren’t much missed,” Hartham said. Eilanya gave him a disapproving look, but Amajane merely smiled, as though he’d said something polite.
“I’m still in shock,” she said. “I saw her not two weeks ago, at the end of school. She was perfectly—healthy.”
“Yes,” Hartham said, examining his fingernails.
“I’m sorry,” Amajane said. “I know how hard it is to lose a sibling, especially one you look up to. She was—so inspiring. She helped me more than she will ever know. It’s still difficult, of course, but at least she got me started and now things are better than they were.” She was staring at the parlor ceiling as though she’d never seen it before. Escaped wisps of hair fluttered with the movement of the fan.
“What are you talking about?” Eilanya said. “She helped you? With your schoolwork, do you mean?”
Amajane’s piercing laugh turned half the heads in the room, but she didn’t seem to notice. “No, not that,” she said. “It’s nothing. Nothing.”
“How’s your father?” Hartham said.
Parriam Fasth was hunched alone by the window, sipping his coffee with the determination of the chronically hungover.
“He’s fine,” Amajane said, as though asked about a distant cousin she hadn’t spoken to in years. “How’s yours?”
Hartham raised his eyebrows in imitation of hers. “He’s never been better.”
“Really? Where is he? I don’t see him.”
“Behind you talking to Little Lord Hallex,” Eilanya said.
Amajane craned her neck to determine that Mr. Landon was indeed crouched and speaking attentively to a small boy. She settled back into the armchair. “Well, isn’t he sad?”
“Excuse me?” Eilanya said.
“I should hope so,” Hartham said.
Amajane laughed again. “I only meant that he looks normal, that he doesn’t seem despondent or weepy. It’s refreshing. So often at funerals people can’t contain themselves.”
“You’ve been to more than we have, I suppose,” Hartham said.
Eilanya had a headache. It could have been caused by the mingled odors of so many different flowers, but more likely by the color of Amajane’s dress. She held out her hand. “My fan, please.”
“But I’m so sweaty—“
After a tense moment it settled back into her fingers, warm and slippery from Amajane’s grip. She laid it on the side table where Amajane couldn’t reach it. “If you’re going to be rude, Jane, you have no business being here.”
“I’m so very sorry,” Amajane said, horrified. “I didn’t mean—I just remember that at my mother’s funeral, everyone was so dour and unkind. It’s nice that people seem to be more cheerful here.”
“Yes, well, there’s a difference,” Eilanya said. “Calette died of vidrosa. Your mother shot herself.”
In a stroke of terrible luck, she spoke during a lull in the noise of the room. The silence stretched itself out; heads turned. She stayed sitting straight up with her chin held high, trying to pretend someone else had said it. Somewhere in the crowd, Riony Hallex murmured, “Oh no.”
Footsteps crunched over broken china; gasps rippled through the room. Parriam Fasth lurched across the floor toward her. A black coffee stain spread across his trouser leg. Skirts twitched away from him as he passed, but nobody moved to intervene—and he was on course to barrel straight into Eilanya. She half-rose, about to duck behind the sofa, or else about to open her mouth and protest that it hadn’t been her who’d said it, or she hadn’t meant anything by it, but he was still coming straight for her and she couldn’t move--
And then her father was there between them, holding up a hand. “Parriam,” he said, “why don’t we—”
Parriam struck him.
The party descended into chaos. Somehow three people roused themselves into action and wrestled Parriam out of the room, while somebody’s infant began to scream. Circles of guests tightened again to dissect the incident in loud whispers.
“I had no idea Joysa had—”
“But why would anyone say such a thing—”
“He’s a danger to society!”
“No manners, that girl, none—”
Eilanya sank back down onto the sofa, heart hammering. Hartham put a hand on her arm; she shrugged it off.
Amajane had not moved from her chair. Her face was even paler than normal.
“I’m sorry,” Eilanya said. “I thought you knew.”
“You’re a liar,” Amajane said, “and now you’ve upset my father. We came all the way up here to pay our respects to your sister, but if you’re going to spread horrible rumors, I think we’ll have to take our leave.”
Welcome to the final round of pitches!
Agents and Publishers,