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Dindi is kidnapped to be the bride of a shark... To escape she must untangle a terrible curse caused by a love and magic gone wrong.
This stand-alone novella is set in Faearth, the world of The Unfinished Song. Available here ONLY.
The Unfinished Song - This Young Adult Epic Fantasy series has sold over 70,000 copies and has 1,072 Five Star Ratings on Goodreads.
WRITING CRAFT: CAPTIVITY SCENES by Rayne Hall
If you’re writing a novel, is there a scene where the heroine is imprisoned or locked up against her will?
Here are some techniques to make this scene powerful.
The fetters/handcuffs/bonds chafing at the wrists/ankles
Perhaps you can involve the sense of taste as well. However, this may not be appropriate for all captivity scenes.
If the villain has gagged her, you can describe how that gag tastes. If she’s in a dungeon or prison, describe the flavour of the food. The food quality is probably appalling, but if she’s hungry, it won’t taste too bad.
If you’re planning or revising a captivity scene for your novel and have questions, leave a comment. I’ll be around for a week and will reply. I love answering questions.
About a third of the work on a novel takes place before a single chapter is written. Another third happens after the draft is complete. At any one time, I usually have more than one novel (and more than one series) in progress at the same time, but in different stages of development.
I have a Checklist I use to keep track of the progress of each novel and series. Not all projects are “live” at the same time. Many are on the “back burner” for long periods of time. My main series, The Unfinished Song, is a front burner series, but I may toy with other projects for a while, and then either pursue them or push them aside again.
Right now, I have two “live” series projects. The Unfinished Song–of course–and my new Urban Fantasy series, The Daughters of Little Red Riding Hood. Within each series, I also work on more than one book at a time. Here’s my Checklist to show how each one is coming along:
The shaded books are complete, so you can see I’m half-way through the 12 Books of The Unfinished Song. It’s probably also clear that the draft of Maze is complete, but there are several layers of revision yet to be done. Less obvious, perhaps, is how much work has already been done on the other five books remaining. Mirror and Maze, in particular, are already complete up to the Scene by Scene Outline. Now, it’s true, many changes might still occur during the Writing itself. Sometimes what worked, even up to a Scene Summary Outline, turns out to be too tangled or vague in the final execution. In the worst case scenario, I might finish an entire written draft and decide during revisions that I have to go back to the drawing board. That did slow down the writing of Mask. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often!
Hood & Wolf, the first full novel of the Roxy Hood series, is also in pretty good shape. I have a solid Chapter Outline, but still need to work out the details of each scene. When I run into Writer’s Block on Unfinished Song, I spend a day working on Hood & Wolf, add a bit more here and there, and then usually feel creatively refreshed enough to go back to writing.
That, by the way, is the only real way I’ve ever found to overcome Writer’s Block. Don’t force it, but don’t stop working either. Turn to a different genre of novel and a different stage of writing. Your subconscious works out the tangle that tripped you up in the background, and BAM! suddenly you see the way forward.
After I finished Blood, Book 6 of The Unfinished Song, I realized I’d hit the half-way point of the series. Not coincidentally, I began obsessing about how to write solid “middles.” First I looked at three problems that commonly sag or even sink a series in the middle books.
I wrote: “My goal is to make every book in the series shine. Each one is a critical piece of Dindi and Kavio’s story, none is filler. So I will be outlining the next six books exhaustively before I even begin the revisions on my trunk draft of Mask (Book 7). I know this will frustrate some readers in the short run, and maybe I’ll even lose the impatient ones, but in the long run, the series will be stronger, better, and longer-lasting for it.”
I’m not through the gauntlet yet. I still have a huge amount of work ahead of me. But I thought it would be interesting to show how I have tried to handle the potential problems with “the muddle in the middle.” I’ll note my original thoughts in purple.
[Possibly some spoilers below for the series up to Book 6 of The Unfinished Song.]
As I said I would, I did spend months substantially outlining the last six books of the series. Then, when I thought I had things worked out, I finished a full draft of Mask (Book 7)… only to decide that the entire draft still lacked spirit. It depressed me that I hadn’t been able to spot the weaknesses in my outline. It’s sad but true: even a solid outline sometimes doesn’t stop you from wasting time writing a draft that doesn’t shine.
The problem, I believe is that the story was…adequate. So it looked fine in summary. But when it came to the execution, there were too many “moving the plot along” scenes and not enough “I want to re-read that over and over” scenes. It bored me. And if it bored me, how would my readers feel?
I tore the whole thing to bits and started over. This time I wanted to make sure I included all the juicy scenes, the ones I couldn’t wait to write.
I wrote those. And also more “moving the plot along” scenes, because I had to, or thought I did, to connect the juicy scenes together in a logical way. By the time I reached the end of Chapter 2 of the new draft, I’d already hit 50,000 words. My goal for the entire book was 100,000, and there are 7 chapters. Even my math-challenged brain sensed this wasn’t going to work.
Back to Outlining.
Let’s face it, in terms of story arc, it might have seemed as though the series should have ended with the climax of Blood Book 6. Big Battle against the Big Bad Guy, Big Secret Revealed…. So why didn’t the series end there? The reason (I have to tread carefully to avoid spoilers) is that the ending of Blood was really a classic Mid Point, an incomplete victory. Truly, the Heroine and Hero didn’t deal with the main issue and the main antagonist… Death. Dindi made a pledge to the Aelfae in Book 3, but in Book 6, she didn’t redeem that pledge yet. She only proved to the Aelfae that she was worthy to try.
My task in the next three books is a challenging one. In Mask, Mirror and Maze, Dindi may have proved herself to the Aelfae, but she has yet to prove herself to her own kind, the humans. And honestly, she has a lot of growing up to do yet before she’s ready to be a Leader as well as a Hero. The opposite of filler is growth. In filler scenes, the character essentially marks time. In scenes that force the Main Character to grow, real change takes place, and it’s that change that enables the MC to believably defeat villains as powerful as those Dindi must face, including Death herself.
This growth is so crucial that I am writing Mask, Mirror and Maze as one over-arching story. Of course, the whole 12 book series is one long over-arching story, but within that, the story has for Acts, each divided into a trilogy.
The technical challenges of that are that a book like Mask, which follows right after a “peak” book, like Blood, is going to be a tad less high-intensity than the book before it. Part of the work Dindi has to do takes time… Including, of course, learning the new, even more complex dances of the Rainbow Labyrinth tribehold. My job as a writer is to portray realistic, incremental growth that takes long stretches of time for the character without boring the reader.
Which brings us back to those dull “moving the plot along” scenes. In my second bout of feverish outlining, I restructured Mask yet again, this time looking for ways to combine three or four “necessary but too long” scenes into shorter, snappier scenes. To my delight, I found I didn’t have to sacrifice any of the juicy scenes after all. I could reduce worecount and even increase conflict between my major characters by stacking all the necessary bits into super-packed scenes.
Mask is still not going to be as adrenaline-rushed as Blood, but I believe that Mask now does what is should. Turn up the new tensions between Dindi and Kavio and the other major players that have resulted from the aftermath of the battle, tensions that are only going to increase and worsen in Mirror (Book 8), until everything explodes again in Maze (Book 9).
Lost memories are one of the recurring themes of the series, of course. Our memories make us who we are–don’t they? As for Kavio, he’s lost his memory, and he needs it back. Isn’t it nice that his good friend Finnadro is there to help out?
There’s another echo of the first trilogy that shows up as a new character. In the first trilogy, Rthan was haunted, so to speak, by a shining blue child who appeared to be his dead daughter…though she was really the Lady of the Merfae. In this trilogy, we’ll meet another, quite different, little girl. She’s one of those minor characters that originally had only a minor role to play in the first Outline. In the next several revisions, I cut her role out completely, because although she was cute and all, I needed the storyline to be more focused. Then I suddenly realized exactly what diabolical use a villain might have for her, and suddenly, she became critical to the whole book.
Oh, how I have struggled with this! On the one hand, I want my characters to grow and change. On the other hand, as they mature and the darkness closes in, and Dindi, in particular, has to become a much more ruthless person than she ever imagined possible, I want to keep some of the innocence and mischief of the first books. The pixies, for instance… in the first draft, I realized, the pixies disappeared. In this draft, they are still not as prominent as before, but they’re around, and even help out in an important scene.
Then there’s the romantic front, Dindi is finally reunited with Kavio. The easy way out would be to have Dindi and Kavio realize they both love each other and work together against their common enemies. Except, I hate when a Fantasy series starts out with a super hot romance between the Heroine and Hero but all the romantic tension is resolved by the end of the first book. Even if the rest of the series involves a good quest, without that element of “Will they or won’t they?” the series loses some of its zing.
I know what my One Thing is. Every storyline in the series ultimately flows into answering that single question, the riddle that Dindi learns in the very first book: Choose the Windwheel or the Maze.
Working on a long epic can be draining exactly because you have to write in the same spirit over a long period of time. One reason I do work on other stories in between major milestones of The Unfinished Song is to flex my brain muscles on other genres and characters. But because I know what my One Thing is, I always come back, re-energized to work on this series.
The answer used to be easy: blog. I used to blog fairly regularly about my writing process and progress.
Of course, that was before I had any readers.
And that’s the problem. Once I became conscious—or rather, self-conscious—about pleasing my readers, I felt shy about sharing my struggles to write. As long as I was an aspiring writer, I could moan on my blog, “I goofed off today. Instead of writing, I ate ice cream while watching a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon on Netflix instead of writing.”
But now, were I to confess that in public, I imagine angry fans shouting at their computers, “What? You lazy wench! Why aren’t you working on the sequel!”
So I fell silent.
I still feel shy, but I’ve decided to try blogging again, even if it means showing my hair in curlers before the ball. Even if it means that my readers will realize there are some days when I stare all day at my computer, unable to write, or that I might be re-writing the same damn scene for the thirteenth time in a month because I just can’t seem to get it right.
I’m also going to try reviewing books… in public. On my blog. The fact is, I read about twenty novels a month, and I keep a Book Log with my own private reviews. I’ve never shared them, because I don’t like giving a book less than four stars publically. Maybe that’s a silly attitude. I’ve decided to compromise, and at least share the 4 and 5 star books that I’ve enjoyed.
I realized that it might be helpful to other writers to see what at least one full time (sometimes part time) writer does with her time. All writers are different, so it doesn’t say anything about what a full time writer should be doing with her time.
You see, my philosophy is that a writer needs to do more than write. Other things are absolutely as critical to developing a strong writing career. Here are a few of the things I might discuss on my blog—t hings I do regularly because they improve my writing.
This is all on the “Writing” side of the business. All of these activities are directly related to (a) learning to master my craft, (b) keeping abreast of developments in the genre, and (c) creating new works.
Since a writer is an entrepreneur, there’s also the Management & Marketing side of the business. But that’s a huge area in and of itself, and therefore the topic of another day’s post. Just keep in mind that everything I’ve listed above is half my job.
I crave him. I need him. I love him. And that is the reason we will all die…
Emmy Baxter wishes for a more interesting, exciting life. Until her world is turned upside down with danger, drama and thrown into a world she never thought existed with angels and demons. To help the Guardians save the world, she must stay away from the guy she loves. Can they fight fate, beat time and change their destiny, or sacrifice everything for love?
Sitting there in the car, a part of me bitterly resented what she was doing to me. I knew it wasn’t her fault. But does she have to be so… alluring? I need to focus on something else besides the spot between her earlobe and neck. It looked so soft. Her lips were slightly parted as she looked out the window. I wanted to part them further with mine. I put both my hands on the steering wheel. I could not allow myself to let go until she was out of the car. Suddenly she leaned in and kissed me. It was far better than I could even begin to explain to you. I’ve fought and died a slow and painful death on earth. And nothing, NOTHING can compare to how hard it was for me to pull away from her lips. I don’t think any angel could to do it twice in a lifetime…
Lola StVil is a Haitian born writer and actress. She lives in Hollywood, CA., and welcomes online interaction with readers. Lola was seven when she first came to this country from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She attended Columbia College in Chicago, where her main focus was creative writing. In addition to plays, she also writes screenplays and short stories.
She has been commissioned to write for ABC, CBS and Princeton University. She won the NAACP award for her play “The Bones of Lesser Men”. In addition to being nominated for LA Weekly awards. Her work has also received positive reviews from The LA Times, Variety and LA Weekly. This is her first novel.
For more than a decade, Ivy Oliver has lived in a dark, crumbling orphanage where she was sent after her parents’ death. Her only hope for a life of simplicity and happiness is the trial, a test that frees her second form from where it’s been buried since her birth. That hope is dashed, however, when she transforms into a creature that rips her away from the only friends she’s ever had and ensures that her enemies are numerous. She is dragged unwillingly to a school that will discipline her in the ways of survival and defense. There, she makes both friend and foe. She discovers things she never knew about her past and her future. This tiny, insignificant girl is faced with a crushing destiny that might be too staggering for her to bear. She will have to abandon her shy, quiet demeanor and take on a fearless spirit if she wants to survive.
I awoke to darkness and silence, the cold biting at my nose and numbing my cheeks. I trembled under the thin blanket, the only thing I had to protect me from the bitter frost. I pulled it tighter against my small frame, but it was no use. If I wanted my body to warm up, I would have get out of bed.
Without stirring, I looked around the room. The eight other girls that shared it with me were sound asleep in their bunks. In the moon’s dim light, I could see the fog escaping from their mouths, like ghosts lingering in the air before disappearing into the coldness. To avoid making sound, I sat up slowly and slid my feet to the ground. I ignored the icy feel of the floor as I hurried to strike a match and set it against a candlewick for light.
The girl sleeping next to me shook in the cold. I tip-toed over to her, and laid my blanket across her body. Most of the girls were younger than me or new. I barely knew any of them, but the girl that I had laid the blanket over was the newest and the scrawniest. She would need the extra warmth more than any of the others.
I silently slipped to the chest at the end of my bed. It complained loudly as I lifted the rusted lid. I winced, afraid someone would wake up, but when no one stirred, I continued to pull out my warm winter clothes. I put on a long-sleeved, button up shirt, some worn out light brown trousers, a dark green jacket that had a few mysterious stains, two thick, leather boots, a pair of red gloves with several holes in the fingertips, and a woolen hat. I was grateful for the little bit of warmth that started to seep through my body, but I was still shivering with cold.
There was only one place in the orphanage that was warm enough to cut the sting on my cheeks, eyes, and the tip of my nose, and that was the kitchen.
Candle in hand, I crept to the door, shutting it softly behind me, and walked into a small, shabby sitting room. It was silent except for the haunting winds outside the shattered window. The only thing that let me know it was morning was the low coo of the winter dove, barely audible over the winds of a rising storm. I set a clipped pace toward the kitchens. Not surprisingly, it already had most of its staff up and working. I stood by one of the lit stoves. Just as I was starting to warm up, the head cook, Elna, stepped beside me, nearly scaring me to death. Her frazzled, gray hair stuck out in all directions.
“Good morning, Ivy!” she chirped, a wide smile spread across her face. Elna must have been in her late fifties, but she acted a lot younger than her years. It was one of the characteristics that made me love her so much. “I didn’t know you’d be up so soon, or I’d already have the hot chocolate made up for your birthday. As it is, it won’t be ready for a few more minutes.”
Hot chocolate was rare at the orphanage, but Elna had insisted on giving it to me every year after we met, which was almost four years ago. It had become a tradition, in a way.
“It’s really not necessary—” I started, but she cut me off by signaling to one of the kitchen maids and ordering her to bring the treat when it was ready. Then, not even acknowledging my protests, she turned back to me and asked quietly, “Are you nervous about your trial?”
I decided to abandon my argument. It was useless against Elna’s giving—but stubborn—heart. “Not yet,” I answered after a short moment.
She smiled at me as she lifted a lid off of a pot that sat on the stove. “When I had my trial, I was terrified. There were two other boys there that day… Unfortunately, I was the only one that managed to survive.”
I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to give that much away. It was forbidden for anyone under the age of seventeen to know anything about the trial, and both the talker and the listener could be imprisoned for such an offense.
Elna looked down at her creation and frowned. “Oh, I’ve burnt the porridge again.” The lid clattered onto the stove as she hurriedly stirred the goopy concoction, filling the air with a terrible smell.
I tried not to feel disappointed. The porridge was always burnt. Burnt or undercooked. I loved Elna, but her food was horrible. The other workers in our kitchens weren’t much better than her, but none of them knew what to prepare for when they were younger.
In all of the five kingdoms—Leviatha, Ginsey, Onwin, Pira, and Kislow—everybody is required to go to their region’s arena the week of their seventeenth birthday. By law, they are banned to enter the doors until then. For me, there are only two friends that are legitimate to watch my trial. Elna and Ayon.
Ayon is like my big brother. While he wasn’t an orphan, his mother was Madam Grant who was the main director of the orphan girls. Because of that, he was the only boy that was occasionally allowed to enter the girls’ side of the orphanage.
When it was Ayon’s turn to go into the arena, I had been devastated. I thought I would lose my best friend either to death or to an occupation that would take him away from Forlander. As it turned out, he changed into a horse and was therefore placed in the stables that his mother looked after.
It was hard to believe that I was the one going to the arena this time, the one that would discover what my second form was. My second form will determine what my occupation, and ultimately my life, will be like. If I had been a noblewoman, it would not matter as much. It doesn’t matter what nobles turn into because, in the end, they will always be a noble.
Long ago, the five kingdoms were ruled by a single young king, King Jaris, whose foolish decisions made him feared by his people. His second form was a dragon, and because he was a mighty beast, he thought that all other creatures were lesser than he. To make his power known, he changed the entire system of the government and replaced it with his own ideas, locking his people in a caste system that has stuck with them for as long as they can remember—that we can remember. Near the end of his life, King Jaris was overthrown, but his law is still inscribed on every courthouse, on every town sign, and on every school wall. Commoners must obey it, unless they have the favor of a nobleman.
Horses are always stable workers or carriage drivers and birds are tailors and seamstresses. Certain rodents, like Elna—a white mouse—are given the occupation of cooks and other kinds of servants. Furthermore, foxes and fierce birds are spies, canines and felines are soldiers, fish and other water creatures are sailors, and the list goes on. The poor can’t help but hate the system, and if we tried anything, the noblemen would have us arrested and probably flogged within an inch of our lives.
I can’t say that my life has been interesting thus far, but I can say that I am a good, law abiding citizen. Even though I don’t like the system, I will live with it. I have no choice but to live with it. Knowing this about myself, I can only hope that God will have mercy on me and grant me with a second form that will plow the path before me, like the men who spend every winter day shoveling snow off our roads.
The kitchen maid—the same one that Elna had given orders to earlier—interrupted my thoughts when she held a steaming mug of hot chocolate under my nose. “There you go, miss,” she said. No sooner than I had taken it from her hands, she hurried off to perform some other task that I had kept her from. A twinge of guilt settled in my stomach.
Elna had been thoroughly focused on spooning burnt bits of porridge out of her dish. She was mumbling to herself, but the words were too quiet for me to understand.
Since I didn’t want to disturb her, I snuck out of the kitchen through the door that led to the frozen world outside. I sheltered the drink from the sheets of snow and hastened to the stables where Ayon would be working. I entered and found him chipping the mud out of a horse’s hoof. He looked up and smiled. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”
“Morning,” I replied. I knew that he had already been up for an hour or more. “I brought you something.” I held out the hot chocolate for him to take.
He set down the horse’s hoof and walked over to me. “What’s this?” he asked, grasping the hot mug in his cold fingers.
“Hot chocolate. Elna gave it to me, but I thought that you could use warming up more than I could.”
He cupped his hands around it to warm them and took a small sip, handing it back to me. “Thank you.”
“How’s your morning been so far?” I asked, taking my first sip of the drink. It’s wonderful flavor rolled over my tongue and warmed me from the inside out.
He waved his hand around, gesturing to the run-down, drafty state of the barn. “As good as ever.”
I smiled pityingly at him, and sat on a stray chair that was placed next to a rickety table, taking another sip from the steaming mug. I had a few minutes to spare before I had to get back.
Ayon started working again. I watched silently as he finished with the mare’s hooves and moved on to brushing her coat. Dust flew off her back in clouds and she nickered happily.
As he brushed, he said, “You know, I haven’t forgotten your birthday. I’m just waiting for the celebration after your trial to give you the gift.”
Assuming that I live through the trial, I thought to myself. I hated that my birthday was on the trial day itself, which always fell on a Monday. Had it only waited one more day, I’d have another week before my time was up.
“You don’t have to give me anything,” I said, knowing how poor we all were. Gifts were rare in the orphanage, just about as much as hot chocolate.
“I know,” he told me. “But I wanted to.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but was silenced by the bell ringing in the distance. Time had flown by faster than I would have liked.
I looked at the big gray building, barely visible in the pale light and through the snow. “I’d better go,” I said. “My trial won’t be long after breakfast.”
He nodded to me. “Go ahead. I’ll be there, watching.” He continued to work on the mare as I left.
I tried to run in the knee-deep snow, but couldn’t manage to accelerate beyond a walking pace. Once I got to the stairs, I carefully climbed them. They were small and steep and the compacted snow didn’t help much. The covered porch finally offered my shoes a grip on the cement. I hastily opened the door to the main entrance and walked in, cold air billowing inside the small amount of time the door was ajar.
I heard a great deal of chatter coming from the girls’ dining room. That meant that I was late. Madam Grant would be harsh with me.
I peeked into the room and saw that Madam Grant was currently scolding a girl next to her, probably for her table manners. I tried to sneak to my seat at the end of the table. Unfortunately, Madam Grant noticed. “Ivy?! Where have you been?”
I grimaced. “At the stables, Ma’am,” I answered honestly.
The other girls averted their eyes, even the girl that I had laid the blanket over earlier.
Madam Grant’s sharp eyes pierced into me. “And would you mind telling me why you were at the stables? You most certainly don’t need a horse to get to the Arena of Trials.”
“I was, um…visiting a friend,” I said nervously.
She took in a deep breath, her mouth barely opening past a stern line. I knew the scolding was about to come. “Friendship is discouraged here, Ivy, especially with young men. You’ve known that since you could talk. We don’t even know if you’ll live through your trial yet.”
I lowered my head, my face feeling hot. Although I wanted to make it clear that Ayon and I were just friends, I knew not to argue with her. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered, hoping that she would move on.
She gave a curt nod. “Seeing as this is your last day here, I will let this slide. But mark my words; tardiness is not acceptable in the real world.”
I sat down, still tense, and began to force down my food. This was not only my last day, but my last meal before I had to get to the arena.
The custom for orphans and wards who are due for their trial is for them to pack up all their belongings, just in case they die. Then, their caretakers won’t have to bother with it. As for me, all my things were already in the trunk at the end of my bed. We orphan girls kept it that way, hoping, longing for the day that someone will take us in. Regrettably, no one in Forlander really had enough food to feed another mouth. Except for the noblewoman in the castle farther down the mountain…but we never saw or heard much from her. She already had a son and a daughter, and was too old to think about adopting anyway.
The breakfast porridge was bland and had the expected taste of ash. Some of the younger, newer girls had already turned their noses up to it and pushed their bowls away, but I had to keep my strength up. I forced it down.
Elna was perfect proof of how the kingdoms’ system didn’t work.
Once I had scavenged through the burnt bits to find any other edible morsels, Madam Grant noticed I was done and excused me by saying, “Go ahead and get ready for your trial. You should be at the arena in an hour to register.”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” I said for the third time.
I left the table, but I was already ready for the trial. I didn’t have anything that I had to bring. Perhaps Madam Grant was taking pity on me, if she had any pity in the first place. Maybe she thought that I wouldn’t survive. It was true that I was small and thin, but did I really seem that weak?
Because I had nothing to do but think, I decided to go to my favorite place to do it. It was all the way at the top of the stairs in the clock tower, where no one ever thinks to go anymore…except for me. I’m probably the only person who has ever thought of it as a place of comfort.
I started the long climb up the stairs, finding the exercise mildly enjoyable. I liked to feel my legs burning, because in the climate of our northernmost island, they never got warm. In the summer, the temperature only gets up to seventy degrees, and that’s just for three months. Then the temperature gradually drops back down until it’s below zero again.
The long stairway was very steep. The ugly peach colored paint was molding and peeling off the walls, littering the slightly damp wooden stairs with tiny light-colored specks and drywall.
Before the stairs ended, I was out of breath. There the clock was, same as always, rust eating through the devices and gears. The clock hasn’t been working for as long as I can remember. I found it quite ironic that the clock was stopped, because just like the clock, our village is stuck in a way of living until someone finally decides to fix it. The short hand was frozen between the eleven and the twelve, and the long hand was right above the nine. Eleven forty-six.
The only light came through a circular window at the other side of the room. I sat down on the ground and rested my back against the wall, watching out the window as heavy snowflakes fell.
Ever since I was a little girl—and whenever Madam Grant allowed any of us off the orphanage grounds—I’ve heard the village boys bragging to each other. They say things like, “I’m not afraid of my trial!” or “Monsters don’t scare me!”
Whoever the monsters are, nobody under seventeen knows. We may not even be fighting. At least, I hope not. From all the deaths, however, it’s probable.
Unlike those boys, I have had a hard time looking forward to the trial, and now here it is. It looms over me like a starving predator, and I’m forced to accept the fact that this could be the day I die.
I drew my knees up to my chest, staying that way for about fifteen minutes before I decided that it was time to leave. I wished that I could procrastinate, but I would get punished for being late. I walked all the way down the stairs—which was much easier than going up—and made my way out of the orphanage and into the blustery day. I could hardly see where I was going.
The harsh wind was merciless. The snow pelted my face in sheets. I shivered and draped my scarf over the bridge of my nose, but my eyes were defenseless against the frigid temperatures. They stung. Luckily for me, I knew the way to the arena by heart.
The arena, where people go in and may never come back out. It had happened to two girls at the orphanage last year. I count myself lucky that I hadn’t known them very well. I tended to keep to myself most of the time, and it rewarded me with the lack of tears.
But today, the tables were turned. I could be one of those girls, and how many would cry over me?
I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or anxious when I finally spotted the barely visible dome that surrounded the entire arena, protecting it from the weather. Nevertheless, I stepped across the magic threshold and instantly, the snow stopped blinding my vision. There was a large crowd already gathered around the entrances. As I walked toward them, I noticed that there were five participants. Me, two other girls, and two boys. I pushed through the crowd to get behind them. All the adults were gradually forming a different line—one that led into the stands.
The girl in front of me looked back, and sneered in disgust. She looked like she was born into a wealthy family. I was the opposite of that, and I hadn’t had the luxury of a bath for days. The other girl in line and one of the boys both looked like middle-class. The last boy, who stood in the front, appeared to be as poor as I was. When I peered closer, he looked kind of familiar. Then, I knew. He was one of the boys from the orphanage. I had seen him playing outside my window one day. That was as close as Madam Grant allowed us to be with each other, and even that was stretching the rules.
I kept glancing behind me to see if anyone else was coming, but apparently, I was the last one. It wasn’t unusual to have five participants. One week, there weren’t any participants. The most that was ever documented in Forlander was twelve, but only because it’s the only arena on the island.
After a little while, it was my turn to sign the form. I grabbed the feather with my right hand, dipped it into the inkwell, and signed my name. It was the color of blood.
The woman who sat there, bundled up in a dull woolen sweater and scarf, explained to me where to go and what to do. She didn’t even look at me as she spoke. She was too busy writing down something on a piece of parchment. “Your cell is number fourteen. It’s on the right. When it’s your turn, two guards will escort you to the center of the arena. Then, you may attempt your trial.”
I winced when she said ‘attempt’, but took a deep breath and continued to go where she had told me. The rooms were walled with stone, but the doors were made out of iron bars. A man stood outside of door number fourteen, and opened it when he saw me. The keys clanked against the metal.
I shivered. It felt like I was being put in jail. I stepped in reluctantly, and waited. I couldn’t hear anything that was happening in the arena. There was only the heavy breathing of the guard.
At about noontime, my stomach growled. I looked out at the guard who hadn’t even glanced at me for the duration of my stay.
“Do we get meals here?” I questioned hopefully.
“No,” he said, and continued being silent.
I sighed heavily, and rested my head back against the cold stone wall.
An hour after that, they came for me. “Ivy Oliver?” one of the guards, a woman, asked.
The man finally turned around and reached for the keys at his belt. They rattled against the metal again as the lock was disabled with a barely distinguishable click. I stepped out into the hallway and we advanced.
We weaved through dozens of rooms just like my own, further and further into the monstrous building. I looked over at the female guard. Her eyes were fierce and her jaw was set. She noticed me watching her, and she frowned further. She was only a little older than me. The trial was probably fresh in her memory. The older guard, a man, just looked bored.
I focused once again on the path ahead of me when we turned a corner and a blinding light shone at the end of the hallway. My eyes adjusted to it slowly.
A metal gate clattered as it opened upward, and the sound of my boots went from the click-clack of tile to the silence of perfectly trimmed, arena grass.
Once a member of the Sorcerer Council-now an outcast, Blaise has spent the last year of his life working on a magical object to allow anyone to do magic, not just the sorcerer elite. The outcome of his quest is unlike anything he could’ve ever imagined-instead of an object, he creates Gala, and she is anything but inanimate. Born in the Spell Realm, she is beautiful and highly intelligent-nobody knows what she’s capable of. She will do anything to experience the world . . . even leave the man she is falling for.
Augusta, a sorceress and Blaise’s former fiancée, sees Blaise’s deed as the ultimate hubris and Gala as an abomination that must be destroyed. In her quest, Augusta will forge new alliances, becoming tangled in a web of intrigue that stretches further than anyone suspects. She may even have to turn to her new lover Barson, a warrior who might have an agenda of his own . . .
There was a naked woman on the floor of Blaise’s study.
A beautiful naked woman.
Stunned, Blaise stared at the gorgeous creature who just appeared out of thin air. She was looking around with a bewildered expression on her face, apparently as shocked to be there as he was to be seeing her. Her wavy blond hair streamed down her back, partially covering a body that appeared to be perfection itself. Blaise tried not to think about that body and to focus on the situation instead.
A woman. A She, not an It. Blaise could hardly believe it. Could it be? Could this girl be the object?
She was sitting with her legs folded underneath her, propping herself up with one slim arm. There was something awkward about that pose, as though she didn’t know what to do with her own limbs. In general, despite the curves that marked her a fully grown woman, there was a child-like innocence in the way she sat there, completely unselfconscious and totally unaware of her own appeal.
Clearing his throat, Blaise tried to think of what to say. In his wildest dreams, he couldn’t have imagined this kind of outcome to the project that had consumed his entire life for the past several months.
Hearing the sound, she turned her head to look at him, and Blaise found himself staring into a pair of unusually clear blue eyes.
She blinked, then cocked her head to the side, studying him with visible curiosity. Blaise wondered what she was seeing. He hadn’t seen the light of day in weeks, and he wouldn’t be surprised if he looked like a mad sorcerer at this point. There was probably a week’s worth of stubble covering his face, and he knew his dark hair was unbrushed and sticking out in every direction. If he’d known he would be facing a beautiful woman today, he would’ve done a grooming spell in the morning.
“Who am I?” she asked, startling Blaise. Her voice was soft and feminine, as alluring as the rest of her. “What is this place?”
“You don’t know?” Blaise was glad he finally managed to string together a semi-coherent sentence. “You don’t know who you are or where you are?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Blaise swallowed. “I see.”
“What am I?” she asked again, staring at him with those incredible eyes.
“Well,” Blaise said slowly, “if you’re not some cruel prankster or a figment of my imagination, then it’s somewhat difficult to explain . . .”
She was watching his mouth as he spoke, and when he stopped, she looked up again, meeting his gaze. “It’s strange,” she said, “hearing words this way. These are the first real words I’ve heard.”
Blaise felt a chill go down his spine. Getting up from his chair, he began to pace, trying to keep his eyes off her nude body. He had been expecting something to appear. A magical object, a thing. He just hadn’t known what form that thing would take. A mirror, perhaps, or a lamp. Maybe even something as unusual as the Life Capture Sphere that sat on his desk like a large round diamond.
But a person? A female person at that?
To be fair, he had been trying to make the object intelligent, to ensure it would have the ability to comprehend human language and convert it into the code. Maybe he shouldn’t be so surprised that the intelligence he invoked took on a human shape.
A beautiful, feminine, sensual shape.
Focus, Blaise, focus.
“Why are you walking like that?” She slowly got to her feet, her movements uncertain and strangely clumsy. “Should I be walking too? Is that how people talk to each other?”
Blaise stopped in front of her, doing his best to keep his eyes above her neck. “I’m sorry. I’m not accustomed to naked women in my study.”
She ran her hands down her body, as though trying to feel it for the first time. Whatever her intent, Blaise found the gesture extremely erotic.
“Is something wrong with the way I look?” she asked. It was such a typical feminine concern that Blaise had to stifle a smile.
“Quite the opposite,” he assured her. “You look unimaginably good.” So good, in fact, that he was having trouble concentrating on anything but her delicate curves. She was of medium height, and so perfectly proportioned that she could’ve been used as a sculptor’s template.
“Why do I look this way?” A small frown creased her smooth forehead. “What am I?” That last part seemed to be puzzling her the most.
Blaise took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing pulse. “I think I can try to venture a guess, but before I do, I want to give you some clothing. Please wait here—I’ll be right back.”
And without waiting for her answer, he hurried out of the room.
Chained to a rock and tossed off a cliff by her boyfriend, Aranya is executed for high treason against the Sylakian Empire. Falling a league into the deadly Cloudlands is not a fate she ever envisaged. But what if she did not die? What if she could spread her wings and fly?
Long ago, Dragons ruled the Island-World above the Cloudlands. But their Human slaves cast off the chains of Dragonish tyranny. Humans spread across the Islands in their flying Dragonships, colonising, building and warring. Now, the all-conquering Sylakians have defeated the last bastion of freedom–the Island-Kingdom of Immadia.
Evil has a new enemy. Aranya, Princess of Immadia. Dragon Shapeshifter.
When Aranya’s eyes cracked open, it was to light upon the stars nestled between Jade’s crescent arms. A night bird flew by overhead. She saw that she wore the remains of her dress, and a mountain of chains.
For the first time in her life, she felt cold.
Torchlight flickered nearby. Drawn by the light, she turned her head on the cold stone. A grim throng rolled into view. Mostly Sylakians, they wore heavy red robes against the pre-dawn cold. She realised where she lay.
The Last Walk.
“We await the hour of judgement.”
Her eyes flicked to Yolathion. He stood ramrod-straight nearby; it was he who had spoken, but his voice had never sounded so devoid of life, Aranya thought. She could not speak. Her mouth was stuffed full of cloth. A rope tied it in place, pulling her lips back cruelly. They would not care for the comfort of a proven enchantress.
All she could do was watch and wait.
She would fly.
Now there was an irony.
Slowly, a perversely exquisite dawn fired the eastern sky. The stars became indistinct. The crowd stirred slightly to allow Beri, Zuziana and Nelthion through to the front. Aranya could not bear what she saw in their faces. She closed her eyes.
Her thoughts were choked with regrets. The dawn, her last dawn, had never seemed so evocative. She feared to watch it.
But when boots tapped the flagstones, approaching her, Aranya opened her eyes. From a distance of twenty feet or more, the Supreme Commander glared at her. It was a cold comfort that he kept such a distance for his safety. Aranya could not have summoned so much as a puff of smoke. Her inner fires were mute.
“My son lives,” he announced.
The crowd murmured. Aranya let out a breath she had not known she was holding.
The Sylakian spat, “But you burned him, Immadian enchantress. You cast the fires of your magic into his face and burned his sight from him. You killed four Sylakian Hammers.” The Supreme Commander addressed the crowd. “The penalty for an enchantress is death. The penalty for burning my son is death. Accordingly, I sentence you, Aranya, Princess of Immadia, to walk the Last Walk until your body is seen to fall into the Cloudlands. May there be nothing left for the vultures to pick over.”
Silently, Yolathion limped to her side. Aranya wondered how badly he was hurt. She had tried to protect him; trying to direct the fire outward while shielding him with her own person. Yolathion untied the rope and pulled the wadding of cloth out of her mouth. He helped her stand up. But he immediately put his dagger to her throat.
Yolathion proclaimed, “Let the last words of the condemned be heard.”
What could she say?
Aranya’s mouth was terribly dry. She rasped, “I regret not killing the Butcher of Jeradia as he so richly deserves.” Well, that certainly captured their attention. “Beri, you were a mother to me when I had none. Zip, a beautiful friend, when I had none. Take care of each other. Please tell my family–” she choked up. What could she tell them? “Tell them how much I love them, and how much I wished I could fly.”
She turned to face the Last Walk.
Yolathion put his hand on her shoulder. At the end of the walkway, Aranya saw a block of stone with a chain attached to it. They really wanted to be sure she’d drop straight into the Cloudlands, she thought. The old stories still held weight. No graceful dive off the edge for her. No enchantress transforming herself into a bird and flying away.
It should have been called the longest walk.
Ten Crimson Hammers processed with her and Yolathion. Perhaps they thought she’d make a break for the rajal pit. Her feet brought her alongside the block of stone. Her body and her mind seemed to belong on different Islands.
Yolathion knelt, clearly in some discomfort, to fit the manacle depending from the stone about her ankles, locking them together. “I’m sorry, Aranya,” he said, unexpectedly.
“Me too. I think I could have loved you, Yolathion. But your loyalty and your heart lie with Sylakia. I could never love that.”
Her words hurt him; she read it in his eyes. Just another regret she would shortly leave behind.
Yolathion lifted her in his arms. Two of his fellows hefted the block.
“On the count of three,” he said. “One … two … three.”
He tossed Aranya over the edge.
WHEN A GAME…
Feyland is the most immersive computer game ever designed, and Jennet Carter is the first to play the prototype. But she doesn’t suspect the virtual world is close enough to touch — or that she’ll be battling for her life against the Dark Queen of the faeries.
Tam Linn is the perfect hero — in-game. Too bad the rest of his life is seriously flawed. The last thing he needs is rich-girl Jennet prying into his secrets, insisting he’s the only one who can help her.
WINNING IS EVERYTHING…
Together, Jennet and Tam enter the Dark Realm of Feyland, only to discover that the entire human world is in danger. Pushed to the limit of their abilities, they must defeat the Dark Queen… before it’s too late.
Jennet faced the Dark Queen, her mage staff at the ready. Excitement fizzed through her blood like it was carbonated. This was it. She’d completed the quests, mastered each level of the game, and made it here. The final boss fight.
“Fair Jennet.” The queen’s voice was laced with stars and shadow. “You think to best me in battle?” A faint smile crossed her pitiless, beautiful face. Her dress swirled around her like tatters of midnight mist.
“I plan on it,” Jennet said. She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear, then shook off the sudden anxiety that settled on her shoulders, cold as snow.
She had no idea what this particular fight held. Feyland was the hardest sim she’d ever played, full of weird twists and turns. She thought about it all the time. The game filtered into her dreams, shaded the edge of her days. Sometimes the computer-generated world felt more real than her ordinary life.
“Very well,” the queen said. “I accept your challenge.”
Jennet couldn’t see any weapons on her opponent, and that dress was no substitute for armor. Safe bet that this was going to be a magical duel, spell-caster against spell-caster. Jennet flexed her fingers around the smooth wood of her staff. Anticipation spiked through her, tightening her breath.
Fantastical creatures watched from the edges of the clearing: feral-faced women with gossamer wings, dark riders with red-eyed hounds at their heels. The sound of drums and pipes wove through the shadows. Overhead, a sliver of moon tangled in the black branches of the trees. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, silence fell.
A dark figure stepped forward, forbidding in midnight armor and a wicked helm, and Jennet’s stomach clenched. The Black Knight. She’d barely beaten him in an earlier quest. If he got involved in this fight, she was in severe trouble.
He held his gauntleted fist high and grated out a single word. “Begin.”
It echoed eerily through the glade, and the fey-folk let out a rough cheer. There was no one to cheer for Jennet.
Meghan Elam has been strange her entire life: her eyes have this odd habit of changing color and she sees and hears things no one else does. When the visions and voices in her head start to get worse, she is convinced that her parents will want to drag her off to another psychiatrist. That is, until the mysterious Cade MacRoich shows up out of nowhere with an explanation of his own.
Cade brings her news of another realm where goblins and gnomes are the norm, a place where whispering spirits exist in the very earth, and a world where Meghan just might find the answers she has always sought.
I looked back up at the tall stranger, and feeling one of us needed to say something, I took a breath and said, “Thank you for helping me, and I am very grateful, but who exactly are you?”
He smiled, forcing the corners of his eyes to crinkle. I had to look away. Why couldn’t the boys at school be this attractive? It might make their taunts more bearable.
“You were right in guessing who I was earlier,” he said, standing up once again.
I had to crane my neck to keep an eye on his face. Even though he had the charm of a well-versed movie star, there was no way I was going to trust him. To wake up from a dream and find myself in the middle of the forest, surrounded by the living corpses of dogs, then to have him appear out of nowhere and chase them off with superhuman speed? Yeah, that was normal. Right.
He took a deep breath then ran both hands through his thick hair. I watched him carefully, not sure what his next move would be.
“Meghan, I’m afraid we’ve met under unsavory circumstances.”
He glanced down at me with those dark eyes. “Our first meeting wasn’t supposed to go this way. Those hounds,” he paused and grimaced, “let’s just say it was my job to take care of them earlier, and they slipped past me.”
I blinked, feeling myself return to my previous stupor. What was he talking about? He knew about those horrible dogs? It was his job to take care of them? What did that mean? And most importantly, how did he know my name?
I felt ill, as if I were going to throw up. I tried to stand, letting the trench coat slip off of me. All of a sudden it felt like a net meant to trap me like a bird.
“Meghan,” he said, reaching out.
But I cringed away from him, and offered him his coat with a shaky hand.
“Thank you again, but I really should get back home.”
“Not on your own Meghan, not with those hounds still lurking around these trees somewhere.”
His voice had deepened and that only made my stomach churn more.
“Please,” I whispered, feeling the first prickle of tears at the corners of my eyes, “please, I just want to get home.”
Suddenly he stiffened and his gaze intensified. “You are afraid of me.”
It was a statement, not a question. I knew I was doomed then. Wasn’t it true that if a victim revealed to her attacker just how terrified she was, then she had already lost the game? Sure, he had chased off those dogs, but maybe only to keep me whole so he could take me off to some bomb shelter somewhere to torture me slowly. I shivered both from the return of the autumn cold and from the knowledge that I was completely at his mercy at this point.
The man merely sighed deeply and said, “I fouled this up completely, but I’ll make it up to you somehow. Right now, however, I think it is best if you forget most of this.”
He held up his right arm, palm out, as if he was planning to hit me with some kung fu move.
“What are you doing?” The panic in my voice matched the racing of my heart.
“Tomorrow, this will seem like a dream, but in a week’s time I will send Fergus to you. Follow him, and I will introduce myself properly, at a more reasonable time of day. Then I’ll explain everything.”
I stared at his hand as he moved closer, wondering if I should try and fight him off if he reached for me. My mind seemed to grow fuzzy, my vision blurred.
Just before I passed out, I managed a barely audible, “Who are you?”
“You can call me Cade, but you won’t remember this, so it doesn’t matter.”
And then I was swallowed by darkness.