After the Arena

This scene comes from Chapter 4 and shows the fallout from the attacks in chapter 2 from the villain’s subplots. Keenan is a unique side character who bridges the gap between the Atilan court and the ordinary Debilan that make up most of the city and poses a foil to Luca when they meet later in the book. This scene is his introduction! If you aren’t familiar with the story, you should first check out the WIP page. I hope you enjoy reading!


The guards stumbled on the battlefield as their targets vanished from behind their spears and attackers disappeared mid-blow. Keenan tripped over another guard and hit the ground with a grunt. On instinct, he pulled his shield over his head, but when no attack came, he cautiously lowered it again. The fallen soldier beside him groaned and pulled himself to his feet before extending an arm to his squad leader.

“Where’d they go?”

Keenan searched the area. The anarchists left glassy patches on the sandy floor of the arena where they stood. Scorch marks from their spells. What magic let them vanish without burning alive? No matter. They left. The fight ended. Now he had bigger problems to face. Spectators trampled each other to escape and piled against the locked gates. Dead bodies littered the two sections where the Atilan sat.

“It doesn’t matter! Get those doors open!”

The soldier armoed and ran. How many soldiers did he have left? Two unlocked the gates. The others recovered from the shock and made their way to him. At first glance, four fallen. Among the carnage stood Atala Lyss—one of the council and the highest-ranking lady among the Atilan and the city. Blood splashed her white dress, but whether it was hers or someone else’s, Keenan couldn’t tell.

“Captain!”

He spun to face her and made an armoe. “Are you injured?!”

“The others are. Remove the council to the palace infirmary. Where are the anarchists?”

“They’re not in the arena anymore. We don’t know how they escaped. A flash of magic and then-“

“Send someone for the investages so they can figure out what this means. What about the rogue fighter?”

“The one with wild magic? A Debilan boy, I think.”

“Where did he go?”

“I didn’t see. I was across the arena in spear formation with my squad. He probably escaped with the crowd after the anarchists disappeared and we opened the gates. I apologize, I thought it was for the best if- “

“No matter, you chose right. We will find him. Bring the injured Atilan to the temple for healing. They will receive treatment after the council. Later, we will send officials to identify the murdered Debilan.”

“Velis.” Keenan made his acknowledgment of her requests with another armoe and hurried to direct his squad.

Medics came with stretchers soon after, and he moved with them into the temple, where enormous statues of Daza and Nymbi glared down upon their worshipers.

What is this? Their eyes asked. A new sacrifice? We want more.

Continue reading

Sparring and Scheming

This scene comes from the 2nd draft of my epic fantasy book, Storge. This is a villain POV chapter from the middle of the book, when the anarchists are planning their next strike against the Atilan government. I thought it would be interesting to explore a dynamic in which an antagonist wasn’t just a lofty individual manipulating others, but truly believed in a twisted ideology with a group of trusted friends. As an introduction: Esil is one of two main villains and the ringleader of the group. Amika is their tank, Samoth is the logistics guy, and Divad is the spy. They’re best friends who commit arson and terrorism! If you aren’t familiar with the story, you should first check out the WIP page. I wanted to share a different fight this month, but realized I already posted it, so if you want to read The Arena, you can also find that here! I hope you enjoy the scene!


Two days after their greatest victory and greatest defeat, the new Master of the Anarchists fought for his life. At least, that’s how it always felt when he sparred with Amika. Esil ducked under a crescent kick, dodged the spinning backfist strike, and danced away from hook punch just before it collided with his temple. Shifting his footing, he countered with a strike to her ribs, and she flinched back as his palm made impact. He retreated to reassess. There was his opening.

Master, I wish you would focus.” Samoth’s exasperated admonishment dripped with sarcasm. If Esil wasn’t so focused on making this shot, he’d have rolled his eyes. He cocked his leg up and-

Crashed to the ground as pain cracked through his shin. Across from him, Amika hopped on one leg, rubbing her own shin where it clashed against his.

“Good roundhouse,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Same to you.”

In an instant, he regained his footing. She moved into a fighting stance, ready to fire off another round of attacks, and grinning like a wild thing. He couldn’t see her teeth behind the mask, but he recognized the wicked glint in her eye and angle of her head. Inviting. Take another swing. I dare you.

“Carry on.” Esil called to Samoth, before diving at her with another combination.

That eye roll was audible.

Block. Counter. “We lost thirteen soldiers in the attack on the arena and of the ten others injured, all are making speedy recoveries,” Samoth droned.

“Very good!” Dodge a strike. Triple punch. Retreat.

“Divad led an intelligence mission today to collect data on the Atilan response. He’ll be arriving back with the news soon. I hope.”

Esil nodded, distracted by the report. Long enough for Amika to catch her breath. She responded with a rush of strikes and punches. He stumbled back, attempting to block, but blinding pain stung his nose as one elbow hit. Eyes blurred with automatic tears, blood dripped onto the drill floor, and Esil raised a hand for a cease.

Amika saluted to him, pulling off her mask to show the self-sure smile, and handed him a towel. Samoth glanced up for a second and raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pause for a breath as he continued, “It would be most advantageous to continue sowing dissent and fear amongst the people of the city to undermine what remains of the Council’s power. Already we’ve received news of a curfew, and funerary preparations for those we killed in the arena. It would be difficult to attack the temple itself, but undermining the religious efforts would be ideal. If the queen is a figurehead, striking to the heart of the Atilan bureaucracy would destabilize the whole construct.”

Esil gave Samoth a tired look past his watery eyes. “I can assure you; the queen is not a figurehead.”

“Regardless, my point stands,” Samoth said. He flipped a page, but before he could rattle off the next batch of notes, the door banged open and Divad appeared, beaming like a performer on the night of their opening show.

“Esil, tell me I’m your favorite!” he sang, before stopping dead in his tracks, “Oh sick Sotha, what happened to your face?!”

“I happened,” Amika said with a self-satisfied grin, “And Samoth, if you count his excellent decoy.”

“That was hardly intentional!” Sam protested from the sidelines.

Esil ignored both of them, “Divad, you’re my favorite if only because you haven’t caused me physical harm yet today. Please tell me the mission went well.”

“It. Was. Brilliant. I squirmed may way into the banquet hall itself,” Divad said with the smugness of a griffin stealing food. He sat next to Samoth and laid back against the bleachers to regale them with the story.

Why did you stay all night? Samoth asked. “I was worried they captured you, too. So soon after Mechat… they must be on high alert.”

“They had the most wonderful wines, I had to enjoy myself a little,” He protested. “But I appreciate your concern. If I left too quickly, they might have caught onto my ruse. I didn’t sneak in as a servant. They were all far too frightened to give me the pass. Instead, I gained entry to the banquet by impersonating a merchant—either high class Debilan or the insignificant cousin of a minor Atilan house. They’re crawling all over the palace like an infestation of roaches. It’s rather pathetic.”

“You got close to Lyss?” Esil asked. “I thought she knew everyone.”

“She was distracted,” Divad assured him. “I didn’t risk speaking with her, but I could overhear some plans, including- “ He leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially, always the actor. “-the time she will be most vulnerable to an attack.”

Amika lit up and gave him a friendly smack on the back. “You sneaky bastard, well done.”


Magic Practice

This scene is from Storge’s second draft, in chapter 9. The Laine family is hiding after Luca and Grace revealed their powers during The Arena Attack, which you can read here. 1100 words, no content warnings. I hope you enjoy this look into my magic system!


“Luca, what in all of Laoche’s Lands do you think you’re doing?” Grace asked, flinging open the door of the apartment. Luca jumped, dropping a metal knot with a clatter.

“Um.” He fumbled for the puzzle and tried to hide it behind his back, but she snatched the still-glowing object before he could pull it from her reach. It buzzed with the magic, warm to the touch, and she clamped her hands around it as if silencing a bell. The feeling transferred into her fingertips and arms, pins and needles that danced along her skin, a surge of life. Then it dissipated, and the metal cooled again.

“Enne noticed your practice,” she said, handing it back to him.

“Only Enne can hear the magic,” Luca protested.

“We don’t know that. Besides, Acheran feels magic with his wings. What’s stopping others from noticing too?”

Luca sighed. “There’s nothing else I can help with, and mom and dad won’t let me come find work with them. I’m bored out of my mind and I just thought…” He trailed off. He let his fingers idly dance over the puzzle’s edges, but didn’t release his power. “It was a stupid thought. I’m sorry. That could have put us in danger. I’ve worried Enne, haven’t I.”

“Annoyed, yes, worried, maybe. I don’t see any guards banging on the front door, do you?” Luca gave her a half-smile at that, and she sat cross-legged next to him. “What were you trying to do?”

Continue reading

Jack of Fables

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jack…

Wait, do not walk away!
Don’t wander off to play!
You think you’ve heard this tale before?
You think this rhyme will be a bore?
Please give me but a fighting chance.
I bet two cents you’ll be entranced.

This poem tells the story of one eccentric fellow who lived a rather eventful life (and afterlife)! Jack of Fables is the name I’ve given to the character behind the stories of Jack in the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, Jack be Nimble, Stingy Jack, Jack and Jill went up a hill, Jack O’Lantern, and Jack Frost. His story has been sitting in my phone notes since 2015, and I’ve been itching for a chance to tell it ever since. It made the perfect candidate for a newsletter launch giveaway as a short story, but when I put pen to paper, I found that poetry fit better, and had a ton of fun writing this new rhyming version. A special thanks to my good friend Siarven for beta reading this!

I did this illustration as a “cover” and a teaser for the story! Can you find the symbols from each of the fables I mentioned in the last paragraph? If you haven’t signed up for my mailing list yet, here is the link to do so. Once you sign up and confirm subscription, the first email should be sent right away. I hope you enjoy reading!

The Test: A Runaways Excerpt

Runaways is my middle-grade portal fantasy novel, currently in the drafting stage. If you’re unfamiliar with its plot and characters, you can find an introduction to the story and read its first lines on the WIP Page. This scene comes from near the middle of the story, once Hannah has finally reached the faerie realm in search of her younger sister. 1447 Words, CW for glamour/illusions. I hope you enjoy reading!


The guards led Hannah from the cavern through a dark tunnel that twisted one way, then another. She tentatively reached one hand out to follow along the wall, and they didn’t stop her. It didn’t help her sense of direction. The walls of the tunnel occasionally caved out into branching pathways, and they turned so many times, Hannah was sure they must have retraced their path twice or thrice. Seashells in the woods wouldn’t help her find her way home. A spool of golden string did Theseus no good sitting back at home. She doubted there were seashells aplenty or string long enough to find the way through this maze.

Something roared. Distant growling grew louder as her captors forced her ever forward. Hannah didn’t dare slow her steps, even as dread knotted in her stomach. But her fears were unfounded as finally, the earth took a sharp slant upwards, and they emerged out of a cave behind a waterfall. The thunder of water echoed off the rocks, and she let out a sigh of relief as she realized it wasn’t a monster. The mist sprayed in her face as they rounded the barrier and emerged into a forest of blazing red. Autumn leaves graced the branches of trees that towered unbelievably high. She craned her neck, but couldn’t see the end.

A million twinkling stars hung in the dark sky. A galaxy of fireflies lit the clearing with dancing lights. The stone path continued before them, lined by wildflowers that grew as high as her waist. Garlands that held golden lanterns lined the path as well and drew the attention of diaphanous gossamer moths. They flitted about the party, and one even landed on her hair. Hannah couldn’t stifle a laugh of delight as it perched on her head. She caught the lead guard grinning at her out of the corner of her eye, clearly pleased that she enjoyed the spectacle.

In the distance, the sights and sounds of a gathering solidified into the form and sounds of a palace. The guards marched her up the front steps, through the towering columns, and through the throng of gawking fae. Hannah could scarcely watch before they spun away in a mad dance. It felt like Masquerade. Each played the phantom, and she the unwitting attendant. The music soared and twisted, a lively melody that wound around her and pulled her into the intoxicating revelry. She resisted the urge to twirl in time with the tune. If she began, she could not stop, and for the first time, she was thankful for her guards pulling her on ever forward to her destination. She clapped her hands over her ears. What if the piper was here? As part of the band, with his mask of a face, and colorful clothes, he’d fit right into the motley crowd.

As she entered the throne room, she thought maybe she shouldn’t be thankful they brought her to yet another trial. Two thrones stood atop a raised dais in a semi-circular room. Servants hurried to bring trays of food to their monarchs. The queen sat distinguished in a silvery celestial gown and enjoying delicacies, dropping no fruit on her dress. She had a wild look in her large golden eyes, indigo skin that marbled with violet, and black hair that spilled over her shoulders like clouds of ink. Her wings were like Luna moth’s, huge and pale green, and she held a glass of chocolate wine just in danger of tipping over.

If the queen embodied night, the king personified day. He sprawled across her lap, leaning casually sideways in the throne they shared. Dark freckles stood out like sunspots on pale yellow skin. A tousle of golden curls framed his face, crowned with a wreath of ivy. He wore a plum colored robe and sandals that now dangled from his feet. One hand held a glass of sparkling champaign, and the other held a leg of meat. He laughed with an attendant, and his dark eyes flashed with enjoyment.

“Now what do we have here?” Hummed the queen.

The guard that had been leading Hannah stepped up to speak with a sharp salute, lifting the beetle wings high and proud. “We found this one at the northern gate. Fell through fighting one of the Piper’s agents. Said she wasn’t a spy. Looking for a changeling. Told her we’d let you decide.”

“Well done, soldier!” said the king. “What fun, what excitement! A wonderful opportunity!”

Hannah shuddered to wonder what that meant. She took a step back, abruptly sober and wary.

“May we have your name, little one?” The queen crooned. Hannah set her jaw. She prepared for this.

“You may not have my name, but you may call me Maria,” She answered. There were millions of Marias in the world and they bore a good name – a safe, powerful, beautiful one, but not hers.

“Let us offer you these sweet cakes then, Maria,” The king said. A platter materialized out of the air, filled with luscious tarts.

“I humbly decline, for I had my meal at home.”

They grinned, an identical, sharp-toothed grin. “What do you seek from the Seelie Court of Autumn?” The queen asked.

“My sister.”

“Which do you want?” the king asked, “For there are many.”

“Mine.”

“My dear,” the queen purred, “You’ll have to be more specific than that.”

Yes, she would need to be exacting in her request, lest they pull a horrid trick on her for their amusement. Lest they endanger Cec- her sister. Best to avoid even thinking her name in their presence. Who knew what they could do?

“I believe your people took my sister last night during the thunderstorm, between the hours of midnight and four today. She spoke of the Piper, and his flutes on the wind. I couldn’t hear his music, because he didn’t come for me. She vanished the next morning. I wish for her freedom to return to our home and our parents.”

“You wish, hmmmmmm?” The king mused. “We do not owe you a wish, but yours is a noble plea.”

Her heart leap with hope. Would they consider?

“Why?” the queen asked.

Why? A million reasons, but should she reveal her heart now? Hannah ventured for a safe answer. “Because our mother and father will be cross with us if we return late for dinner,”

“Why?” Insisted the king.

Hannah’s stomach turned as they pressed into her with that driving tone. The facade of indulgent amusement dropped like taking off a mask, leaving behind hard, angry eyes. Why did they toy with her? Was her request so unreasonable?

“Because she left without a word, and I am worried for her.”

“Why?” Hissed the queen.

“Because I miss her. Because I love her.”

They gave her those same, sharp-toothed grins again. Hannah wanted to slap those smiles right off their silly little faces. She held her breath as they waited for an agonizingly long moment before the king spoke.

“How do you know her, when you cannot call her by name?”

Around her appeared a dozen figures–girls that all looked exactly like Hannah’s sister. They all gazed at her with wild, desperate expressions. She shrunk back, but more popped up behind her. Hannah scowled at the ring of possible imposters as she realized the trick. One would be the truth, trapped in the game. The others would be illusions. She had to choose.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady herself.

“I know her by her footsteps when she creeps into my room at night to watch the thunderstorms.” They took a step towards her, menacing. Those three, those were wrong. Hannah snapped open her eyes and banished several of the imposters. With a wave of her hand, they vanished into a puff of smoke.

“I know my sister by her laugh when I tell her a terrible pun,” Hannah said. The girls all laughed, seemingly on command. She couldn’t tell apart individual voices, but there was a silence from one side as one didn’t laugh. She had said nothing funny. Banished. Vanished. Smoke.

“I know her by her kindness when she sneaks our cats extra treats. I know her by her competitiveness when she jumps off the top of a maple tree to beat me in a race.” One flinched at the idea of breaking bones, but her sister never hesitated with heights. Banished. Vanished. Smoke.

One remained. Hannah locked eyes with it through the smoke and her eyes stung with tears. “I know my sister,” she repeated. “And she knows me.”


The Arena Attack

This month brings you a scene from the second draft of Storge, specifically the inciting incident in chapter 2. It is a fight scene, so content warnings for blood and two “on screen” minor character deaths. It’s 1470 words, so nothing tooo long. I’m super excited to share this with you since it’s one of my favorites and I’ve only ever shared isolated lines before, so please let me know what you think!


Every butcher, baker, farmer, tailor, merchant, laborer and beggar packed themselves into the cramped arena stands to experience the spectacle. Seldom did they see bloodshed beside their own, and they would not waste the opportunity for entertainment. Stuck as they were, Grace strained to see over the crowd. They held their breath against the stench of body odor and fish that baked into the air under the hot evening sun. Luca fought the urge to take off his long-sleeved shirt to cool off, but the sight of the Atilan viewing boxes made him think twice. He tugged the edges down over his wrists instead.

Venders hawked their wares to the crowd, hoping to make some extra money off the event by selling the oily, salty snacks of dried meat. The advertising cries drowned when the crowd rose in a sea of shouting as guards dragged the rebel Master onto the sand. He didn’t take arrest easily. Blood and sweat shone on his bald head and dripped down his bare, lash-scarred back. They chained his hands behind his back, but it didn’t stop him from straining against his bonds. It took three soldiers to force him to move. Jeers sounded as the people of the city unleashed their pent-up frustrations and anger.

The High Atil strode onto the raised dais that stood in the exact center of the arena and raised his hands for silence. Gradually, the crowd hushed and anticipation replaced the fervor. He sneered at the rebel leader and slowly stretched out his arm, pointing his index finger towards the ground.

Kneel.

Continue reading

Runaways: A WIP Intro

Summary:

Cecilia disappeared. She didn’t wander off following fireflies again. She isn’t hiding in the library, and she couldn’t go out into the storm last night. No, Hannah is sure that faeries stole her sister, and she’s taking the search into her own hands. Armed with their father’s green coat, a steel pocket knife, and a red string tied round her ankle, she stomps into the first mushroom ring she finds to demand her best friend back. Soon she finds herself on a dangerous and extraordinary adventure, navigating between the Seelie and Unseelie courts and trying to find her way back home before dinner.

Main Characters:

Hannah: 13 years old, totally mundane human, and the oldest in her family. Clever, unconditionally loving, and protective. She’s got Pure Underdog Fairy Tale Protagonist energy with a heaping side of Too Curious For Her Own Good.

Cecilia: Supposedly 10 years old, runs away into the forest one Halloween to find the Seelie court and protect her family from a horrible fate. She’s mischievous and quick witted, but likes nothing more than climbing into bed with her older sister to read stories long after the lights are supposed to be out.

The Taken: A mysterious girl with no name who attacks Hannah when she enters the faerie woods. She looks human, but wields vicious magic and answers to an entity called The Piper.

The Piper: A boogeyman, one of the unseelie court. One of those creatures parents invoke to convince young children to behave.

Setting:

This takes place in a vaguely modern-day Earth. Hannah and Cecilia live in the countryside in an old farmhouse with their parents. They have a big garden, and woods in the backyard that are also home to a tiny hidden faerie realm. The Seelie and Unseelie courts are (broadly speaking) the benevolent but still dangerous, and actively malicious faeries respectively. They have an uneasy truce, but in the times when they did war with each other for power, the immortals didn’t want to die for the conflict. Instead, they steal changelings to do their dirty work, since it’s so much easier to let the mortals do that sort of unpleasant fighting. The faeries they leave in the child’s place act as spies and keep the humans from getting involved. The practice has fallen out of use for some time, but bold unseelie still steal children occasionally for their own uses. Even though this great cosmic sort of battle is taking place in the backdrop, the story just focuses on the sisters.

Faeries have all the magic powers and wish granting abilities as the old legends and stories. Sometimes they’ll bestow magic unto a particularly exemplary human that finds them, but always beware of a hidden “catch.” These people are known as “powers.” This story takes place at Halloween and so there are cameos from different minor nature spirits and the aesthetic has a lot to do with the weather changing and fog on the fields and red leaves fringed with frost. Some of these background characters include folk heroes, various trickster spirits, and “Jack,” one guy from the the mid 1100s that was clever and unlucky enough to star as protagonist in no less than six faerie tales.

Basic Informaton:

Genre: Portal Fantasy novella, middle grade/YA

Themes: Family, sisterly love and bonds, escaping evil

POV: Third person deep/limited, mostly from Hannah’s POV

Status: Outlined, using a combination of the Hero’s Story and a 3-act-structure

Goal: 35K words, 12 chapters. Hopefully I’ll be finished with drafting by the end of the year! My plan is to try to self-publish this story first, so I can make all my rookie mistakes on a different WIP from Storge. I know there’s a lot to learn about the process and I’d like to grow my author’s platform with a smaller standalone debut novel before releasing The Laoche Chronicles. For comparison, Storge has 7 POVs, 4 suplots, and is 110K+ words long. I now have three original projects going at the same time: drafting this story, editing Storge, and outlining the Laoche Chronicles, so I’m going to do my best to divide my free time between them so that I can get done on time. Wish me luck!

Storge’s First Scene

It was far too lovely a day for a riot, but not even the cool breeze flapping the fabric of the trader’s multicolored tents could prevent Luca from taking advantage the fact that there was, in fact, a riot. No one was quite sure who noticed the Atilan erasing and inscribing the new tax decree onto the massive slab of sandstone that served as the city’s news board. No one was really sure who started shouting obscenities first. No one was entirely sure when the Atilan threw magic into the gathering crowd. No one was completely sure how many Debilan they had injured. 

It mattered little now. The body of the Atilan messenger lay motionless in the street.

Luca ducked and dodged through the throng. Red-faced shop keeps chanted curses against their rulers for this new grievance. He fixed his eyes on the ground, searching for valuables dropped in the scuffle. A dull gleam of polished stone caught his eye. He snatched the prize and stuffed it into his satchel without stopping to check what he had found. 

As the Atilan guards flocked to the scene, Luca glanced up at the brief distraction, and so did the wealthy-looking merchant standing to his side. The shouts rose to a roar as workers charged onto the platform. The smells of blood, sweat, and anger hung in the air as the bodies pressed together. Someone stumbled into the merchant. Coins tumbled from the purse that sat in his open hand. Luca stooped to pick them up before the man could stop him and mumbled an apology. Shoving the newfound loot into his knapsack, he flipped the cover shut, escaped the crowd, and hurried along a twisting side road. Luca ducked under the outside staircase of an old tenement building, searching for any onlookers. Satisfied that everyone else was off protesting, he sprinted up the stairs and onto the flat roof.

A girl waited for him in the shade of a makeshift canopy, focused on the brouhaha below them. She was young, with ruddy brown and freckled skin and curly dark brown hair in a braid that reached her waist. Her simple dress had long lost its creamy white color, and it was torn from an old fight. When she heard Luca mount the stairs, she tore her attention from the seething crowd to look up at her brother.

“They attacked the Atilan!” she hissed. “Did you see that!?”

“Kills the mood, huh?” Luca beckoned his sister towards him, away from the edge of the roof. “I thought I told you to stay out of sight.”

“If riots are distracting enough that you’re safe to go stealing, then I’m sure I’m safe aaalllll the way up here, watching your back.” She glanced down at the street before moving closer to him. “Find anything good?”

Luca nodded and flopped down next to her as he dumped out the bag, pushing back his hair as it fell into his face. They pocketed the coins first, before sorting through the rest of the oddities. Grace occasionally looked to the street. With mages conjuring a wall of magic, the guards pushed the rioters out of the plaza. A couple lingered to watch them collect the messenger who stumbled to his feet, disoriented but not wounded. The watchers scattered when the largest of the three guards pulled his seax knife from its sheath. 

Grace frowned and turned her attention back to their work. “Most of this stuff is junk. Enne would probably like this button. Pretty pattern, and you can feel the texture. Does it match the ones on the frock she’s making?” She held the button up to the early morning light, and the shiny metal glinted in the sun. 

Luca shrugged in reply before handing her the stone he had picked up, eyes gleaming with hope. “What about this?”

As Grace took the pebble, her eyes widened in surprise. Her fingers shocked with magic, and she dropped the thing back into Luca’s hands like a hot coal. “A charm! Not a powerful one, so don’t let me have it. Where did you find that?!”

“A few paces from the shops. My guess is that one of the Atilan dropped it in the scuffle.”

“Do you think they’ll come looking for it? If we’re caught-“

“No. Look, it’s so small. They won’t miss it.”

Grace nodded in agreement, when a sudden loud voice interrupted from behind them. “I don’t suppose you were planning to return that?”

The two kids jumped, spinning around to face the newcomer. Perched on the edge of the roof was an Avian. They were bird-like people who lived in the canyon cliffs along the river, and this one was taller than most, standing at seven feet tall. Four huge wings folded behind his torso – two at the shoulders and two at the waist. The reddish-brown plumage that covered nearly his entire body, save the palms of his hands and face, mirrored the color of the clay dirt of the desert. He wore a vest and loose breeches with several pockets that seemed stuffed with all sorts of strange things. Belted around his waist hung a stained artisan’s frock. Another harness strung over his shoulder, between his wings, and around his hip so that it could hold a large assortment of chisels, hammers, and knives. He wore no shoes; his taloned feet curled over the ledge of the roof to keep him balanced as he hunched over the two kids with his hand extended for the charm. Solid bronze eyes with sharp black pupils set deep in a human-like face, squinted in anger. The feather tufts at his ears pressed back against his head.

Luca clasped the charm to his chest as dread and panic mounted. He shifted his weight onto his feet and braced himself against the stairs, ready to run. He pulled Grace to his side, not for her own protection, but for restraint. She snapped into a fighting stance, and had her hands balled into fists, though they stayed by her sides. Neither answered the question.

The avian seemed to notice their discomfort. He forced a smile and lowered his wings, as if trying to appear nonthreatening. Luca, still threatened, forced himself to smile back. The avian repeated his question. “Are you going to return that?”