Category Archives: Bordermarches

My Life’s Work – a #BlogBattle short story

Here’s my Blog Battle entry for this week, in the genre of fantasy, with the theme word of “selfie.”
I especially enjoyed writing something placed in my own fantasy setting from my novel Diffraction. 


Update: My Life’s Work tied for the winning story this week. Thank you for the votes! The other winning story is World Views by Carl Bystrom. Check his piece out, along with all the other BlogBattlers participating each week.

– – – 
I hear their voices long before I see them. Footfalls echo in the halls. Laughter and commentary resounds off the palace’s high ceiling and polished marble floors.

“Look at this piece,” the man says. “Astounding… like what a falcon in flight must see from on high over the City’s towers.” He sounds refined, educated, a man of wealth and relative ease. Probably one of the City’s many so-called Ministers–men and women whose title implies service, something of which they are invariably found only on the receiving end.

“So real,” his companion replies, her soft voice hushed in awe. “I
feel almost faint, as if I might fall through and plummet to my
death.” Too chipper for my taste, too airy. I imagine she’s the upper
class equivalent of dancing girls in the Outskirts–there for show,
not insight. Her voice calls to mind a songbird displayed in a cage,
able to delight for short durations, but insufferable if permitted to
make constant noise.

“Still better to you than the portraits?”

“Much,” she says. “I don’t like the faces. The landscapes at least are
magnificent.”

“Reminiscent of Serathil’s work,” the man says. “I know that’s what
they all say of Marwen’s paintings, but I had no idea the similarities
would be so striking.”

“Perhaps Marwen learned some of the same techniques… or more likely stole them.”

Or perhaps I fought for years to master my craft, you coddled child. What do you have that wasn’t given to you for no other reason than the fortune of your birth or the depth of your bosom?

And then I remember the Visitor years ago–his unhinged personality, inhuman predatory eyes, and alluring offer.

Why did I ever agree?

“Do you believe the stories about Serathil? How she captured such
lifelike scenes on canvas?”

The man shrugs. “The Abbey’s Devoted declare it was a gift of the
Divine, some blessing of Aulis that allowed Light to shine through her brush. But the Arcanists claim she used some form of Refocusing
technique, blending the elements into her portraits and landscapes.”

I’ve heard plenty of similar answers. I wish it were something so
simple, so pure.

This month, the Lord Mayor put my life’s work on display–a welcome opportunity for a better perspective. The Academy and Arcanists’ Hall each presented a few well-known examples, and Lord Peledor graciously brought forth several obscure pieces from his private collection. For the benefit of the commonfolk of Aulivar, they all said. But precious few commoners dare walk these halls. All I’ve seen so far are stiff-necked nobles and haughty elites of the upper class.

All of them say what I already know. Her work is so like Serathil, but not quite. Colorful, but less so. Vivid, almost as if the canvas
moves… but not as much as her masterpieces. Forever a step behind.

They don’t know the decades I spent trying to catch up. Days of
fasting, hours of fervent prayer, begging–pleading with the Divine to
grant me a touch of the same favor. I studied with failed Arcanists
and any Elemental willing to explain the secrets of magic. I spent
vast sums to learn what little they deigned to share–all for naught.

And would they even care? Does anyone recognize the effort that goes into an art form? Do they admire the discipline, the growth, the long transition from unskilled pieces no better than blotches of color to amateurish, misshapen portraits, then finally to lifelike scenery and recognizable faces? Perhaps I never reached Serathil’s perfection, but I’m confident no artist worked harder or did more than me with the raw ability granted her by the Divine.

One woman is born with an effortless gift that leads to inevitable
greatness and recognition. Another comes to the art without noticeable skill, but through constant effort and relentless discipline rises and improves to grasp at the master’s heels. Is that journey worth nothing? Must one surpass all others to be praised, or is it enough to improve beyond one’s present limitations?

I already know the answer to this.

Despite all my effort, my skill proved insufficient to garner public
awareness. But with the Visitor’s gift–the brush, its wood stained
and charred black like a log from the hearth.

For a moment, I feel my fists clench, the old fury building and
burning like bile in my chest. Every so often it strikes me that I can
still feel anything at all.

I try to avoid the eyes of the portraits around the room–the ones
that face me, at least. My best work, indeed, but also my worst. I
dare not dwell on it, but every time I behold one of those faces, the
rush of grief and guilt threatens to consume what’s left of my heart.

“Serathil’s methods are inscrutable,” the Visitor hissed so many years ago, his hand extending his dark gift. “Even to the best of your kind. But there are other ways to capture a… life-like, soul-full
quality.”

In the gallery, I watch the man lead his companion across the hall to
my most famous piece–Dawn Kisses the Snowtips. The ivory walls of Aulivar gleam and the City’s towers cast long shadows that seem to move with the viewer. Sunlight flares off white peaks on the horizon, and clouds shift in hue from crimson to amber to gold based on where one stands.

The woman gives a satisfied sigh. “Marked improvement, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” her noble replies. “Consider the light shown here, the way it
sparkles off the windows of the City. Aulivar at the height of the
Alliance, centuries before this land fell from greatness.”

The woman looks around the gallery and shivers. “I like these faces
much less, though.”

“Why is that?”

“The resemblances are far better, yes. But… there’s a sadness when I look at them. They’re all wrong. See that despair in the eyes? Or
perhaps it’s anger. Most unnerving.”

“Not surprising, given the tragic stories behind some of these. That
one,” he says, pointing, “is the youngest daughter of an Aelwyner High Lord, painted when she received the sigil of Strength on Markday. She took ill not long after, and withered away before the year’s end.”

“Poor thing.”

“And this fine elder gentlemen? Grand Sage of the Academy. He
succumbed to dementia in the months that followed. Probably well on his way when this was commissioned.”

He strides toward the one I hate most. “The wedding of House Hallaben and House Veray, nobles who lived in Alathon during the time of the Magistrate. The city fell soon after, and their entire bloodlines spilled on the streets in the overthrow.”

They all stare out from the celebratory scene, not with the joy and
mirth I remember from that day, but eyes full of hatred. Eyes that
look straight at me, knowing, accusing, condemning.

I took pieces of their souls. I dealt them fatal wounds, my
brushstroke more deadly than the rebel swords that eventually finished what my painting began.

The woman shudders and turns my way. “What about this one?”

“Marwen herself,” he says, examining me. “Her final portrait–an
unclaimed commission at that. Typical arrogance, devoting her finest
work to her own image. They found her dead in her studio, with the
paint still wet.”

“Do you think the tears are for what she never achieved, always
sitting in Serathil’s shadow?”

He strokes his chin. “Or perhaps for all she might have done, given
more time to capture the beauty of the subjects who came before her.”

—-

If you didn’t know, I have recently transitioned off my free WordPress site to this one – http://davidmwilliamson.net

If you enjoy the stories and updates I post here, please take the time to subscribe to this new site. Thanks for reading and for your support!

– Dave

Diffraction Free to Read on WattPad

It’s the Winter Solstice, the shortest period of daylight during the year. For various reasons, my mind ties that dichotomy of darkness and light to Lyllithe, the protagonist of my fantasy novel, Diffraction. 


I completed the revisions and final copy on the Solstice last year, then published it on CreateSpace and Kindle Direct. It’s been available for purchase for the last year, and I have deep appreciation for those who bought a paperback or e-book copy. That option is still out there (and the e-book is reduced to the minimum price I can choose based on the royalty plan).

I’ve also made the book free on Kindle from December 22nd through Christmas Day, so if you know someone who might like a free fantasy novel, point them that way.

However, the real point of this post is to call attention to the full book available to read on WattPad. Though I appreciate every purchase, what I need more than a buck from an e-book sale is a body of readers–and maybe some love on social media. Reblogging this post or sharing the WattPad link among your circle of friends might put Diffraction in the hands of interested readers.

Winter isn’t coming… It’s here. What better way to start it than curling up under a warm blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and an invasion of bloodthirsty zealots?

Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season.

I Like to Make Drawrings

So I got the first part of Chapter 1 of DIffusion critiqued in my writers’ group. And while I am pleased with the feedback, the magic confused one reader who hasn’t read book 1. (Diffraction, available here, shameless plug!) 

The primary magic is Refocusing, where the four Aristotlean elements (earth, water, air, fire) are transformed from one into another. Some elemental shifts are complementary – air turns into fire pretty smoothly, with minimal loss of energy. Others are contradictory – fire to water and vice versa, for example. These conversions waste significant energy, so the amount of the end result is the amount you start with, cut in half or more.

Additionally there are two secondary elements produced by combining two primaries: magelight (fire and air), and shadow (earth and water). 

The impression my crit group member got was that I had written something like Avatar, where one learns to bend a particular element only. I obviously have some clarification to do in the writing so that the idea of transforming one element into another comes through clearly.

But I thought there might be other ways to convey this information.

I love books that include art or “scholarly perspectives” on aspects of the story. Sanderson has been doing this with his Stormlight Archives, and it’s awesome. To me, that level of detail helps reinforce the idea that this is a coherent world.

One of my favorite hobbies is drawing to pass the time. So I took a couple hours and whipped up an artist’s rendition of sorts for the elemental continuum in my fantasy series.

Starting from the top left, Aqua, Aera, Flagros, Terros, with Tenebrae on the left side and Lux on the right (plus Lyllithe’s strange Void in the center)

I still have some annotations to add… maybe a couple arrows or connections showing which elements are contradictory… and I’ll have to fix the parts where the top sheet of paper sticks up from the bottom layer. (The perils of drawing with pen instead of pencil, I suppose. I finished the outer parts without any deal-breakers, then totally botched the magelight on the right side and had to start those parts over. 

Still, overall I’m happy with this and intend for it to be close to Chapter 1 in the eventual print version of Diffusion. 

Early May Diffusion Update

May is off to a good start on the ol’ word count tracker.

In January to April, I only had one other week where I reached >7K words.

Roughly a thousand words a day, on various projects, for the first half of May. I can live with this.

Additionally, I enjoyed some opportunities to hone my craft and improve my understanding of all things writing. I picked up Sol Stein’s much-lauded classic, Stein on Writing, and I attended a workshop on story structure led by an award winning sci-fi author who for various reasons retired and decided to teach on Okinawa, Japan.

Not only that, but my local writer friends and I finally held the first full-fledged, in-person critique group that we’ve been talking about off and on for over a year. Getting fresh eyes on a segment of Diffusion chapter 1 helped me identify what’s working well and what I should clarify.

Also I discovered–to my chagrin–as far as readers are concerned, I named a character “G-Mail.” One of the things I love to do in crit groups is read portions of everyone’s submissions out loud. Your ear catches things your eye glosses over when reading silently… like the fact that Gemail (pronounced in my head as guh-mail) turned into Gmail.com for everyone else.

This morning, I’ve been working on the overall outline. I’m a planner with sci-fi and fantasy… and pretty much everything I write, now that I think about it. Planning means I need to know Point A and Point Z, along with several landmarks and stops in between. There’s room for some creativity between these points, so characters can still surprise me as I write. But conflicts and character developments have to lead to certain key events–especially if I want the reader to get to the end and look back, thinking, “Oh, there it was all along, how did I miss that?”

I’m definitely not doing the “seat of the pants” method of “write whatever comes to you.”  My multiple Grant & Teagan posts for BlogBattle entries are the closest I can get to that, since it starts with a word prompt that gives me an idea for a scene.

So one of the unrealistic things about fantasy and YA fiction is how the main character just so happens to be the linchpin of the entire world, connected to and holding everything together. And there’s room for that in the genre–it’s kind of expected. 

Sure, you have stuff like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones), where riveting, beloved characters are killed with extreme prejudice. And as a result, certain fans look down on books that don’t have a double-digit death count of potential fan-favorite characters. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Still, even if the hero/heroine is the center of that novel’s universe, there has to be a reason for all this attention. And in fantasy, one favorite way to get there is prophecy–partly because it fits the genre, partly because it ties current events to the past, and partly because the myriad ways characters misinterpret it can lead to wonderful conflicts (spoilers for my book 2 and beyond, haha).

Also you get to dabble in poetry, because as The Lego Movie taught us, “all this is true, because it rhymes.”


So, in first draft form, here’s a part of the “Daughters” prophecy that helps explain the motivations of and manipulations by characters in positions of power. It also plays a big part in the growing conflict between Lyllithe and Josephine:

In centuries yet far beyond I see four years of blight

When ev’ry soul is shaken and their hateful foes delight

As all the pow’r of Hell breaks forth with endless appetite

For blood and death and chaos plunging nations into night 

In centuries yet far beyond, behold the Naurchoth’s rise

Whose rifts shall tear asunder and darkness blot the skies

Whose wrath—though slowly kindled—shall break forth as a flood

Let mankind’s candle dwindle, drowned in a sea of blood
Daughter of Puremight, hold back no more

Daughter of Twilight, fulfill what you swore

For the Daughter of Midnight stands at the door

With an army of Shadewrought ready for war.

Daughter of Puremight to break and restore

Daughter of Twilight, to bind up the core

Of the Daughter of Midnight whom all abhor

As she shatters and scars Avatars we yearn for

Daughter of Puremight, do not stand alone

Daughter of Twilight, move past what you’ve known

Lest the Daughter of Midnight come into her own 

And annihilate all that remains of the Throne 

Book Signing Option

Yesterday a coworker surprised me by asking to buy a copy of my fantasy book, Diffraction. To be honest, those moments are always good encouragement to keep doing this writing thing and not get frustrated by the challenges and difficulties of essentially trying to work a second job.  So maybe I really needed it, or something, because when he jokingly asked for a creative or special signature, I went a touch overboard. 

 

“I will be both Light and Strength!”
 
I feel a little bad about the folks who bought a book and got my signature squiggle along with some well-meant but bland “thanks for your support, hope you enjoy the read” standard line. While they got what they paid for, who knows… Someone may have wanted a Lyllithe picture more.

Maybe I should make this an additional purchasing option. Signed books are $15 to people in the States (five bucks covers the shipping and handling). Given the time and effort it took, I feel I could fairly tack on an additional $20 charge for a hand-drawn version.

In any event, it was a fun exercise and a thank-you to someone willing to brighten my day a bit with an unexpected purchase.

Problem As Solution

In my experience, there are some questions a fantasy writer is told to ask themselves right from the start. And one of the most important is: What is different or unique about my setting?

What is it that sets the world I’ve created apart from any or every other fantasy work? 

In other words, “Give me a reason to pick up this book.”

So much has been done before that it’s hard to come up with an idea that feels original. When you say, “elemental magic,” people say, “Like Avatar?” When you talk about rampaging hordes of savages, people say, “Like the Reavers in Serenity?” Bring up corrupted, shadowy creatures, and D&D players ask about displacer beasts or doppelgangers. And that’s without the standard sword-and-sorcery tropes that conjure images of Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and countless other fantasy settings.

How does a writer set their world apart? How do you highlight what’s different?

I knew I had a few differences I really liked: a religious system of Gracemarks that bestow divine power, a system of elemental magic fused with a material or technological component, and a problem of a broken world where rifts of chaotic energy twist creatures into corrupted, destructive versions of themselves.

  
In the process of revising and tightening my first fantasy novel Diffraction, it hit me that what I liked most in fantasy settings wasn’t the sort of book that called all kinds of attention to “Look how strange and fantastic this is.”

Much love to Narnia, but I didn’t want a ‘magic wardrobe’ book or some “fish out of water” contrivance like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

What hooks me in worldbuilding done by authors like Sanderson is how the unique quality of the setting is adapted and utilized as a part of the world.

Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives is a great example. The world is ravaged by frequent powerful storms, and almost every living thing has adapted in some way to this rather negative quality. At the same time, gemstones gather energy from these highstorms, creating sources of magic power as well as a monetary system (the larger and better quality of gem, the more stormlight it holds, thus the more valuable it is). And this stormlight fuels both magic and the limited technology of the world. 

In other words, it’s all connected. The unique “problem” in the setting also serves an important purpose and acts as a solution of sorts to other questions. It’s a testament to human determination, survival instinct, and ingenuity.

As I thought about the various unique qualities I liked for Diffraction, I realized something very similar from a worldbuilding perspective would work in this setting. 

The rifts of energy that cause trouble by corrupting animals into powerful forces of destruction are also the source of magically-enhanced conductive metals necessary for the religious orders and Arcanists’ Hall to function. What’s a problem from one perspective is a solution from another. It feels more natural, since things in our day-to-day lives are rarely entirely good or bad. More often, the critical factor is how we react to the circumstances around us.

This to me feels like a natural way to look at a fantastic setting. It’s less about “what kind of quirk can I put into the world to make it special” and more about making a world that feels real… despite the quirks that set it apart from the worlds of other novels, and from our own.

Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback from Amazon. You can find it (and my other books) on my author page.

Reverse Engineered Magic

Last year, I made it my goal to get my forever-in-progress fantasy novel out the door as a finished book. Diffraction is the result of all that effort (most of it at the beginning of the year, when I set out to finish it, and at the end when I felt under the crunch to make good on the promise).

A while back, I spent just over two hours walking on the treadmill and digging through alpha reader feedback to figure out how to approach what seemed like a daunting task: Revision and Editing.

The good news? It wasn’t as daunting as I expected.

Even more fun, I engaged in further world-building to sort out some of the relationships and conflicts going on in the story.

To my critical eye, it felt like too much jammed into one setting–too many separate and unrelated elements all vying for a reader’s attention. 

Like many fantasy worlds, Diffraction is set in the ruins of a once-great Empire, whose scientists incorporated elemental magic with a form of technology in order to reach its heights. It’s also a world that experiences limited yet direct interaction with the Divine, whose seven Aspects bestow symbols of power upon their most worthy adherents.

As I sat back to imagine a world where gods prove their existence to men and where magic-users apply some level of scientific thought and experimentation into the use of their powers, I realized these can be complimentary elements of the setting rather than competitors. 

My religious orders gain divine power through Gracemarks: a radiant, metallic symbol on an individual’s right hand that represents which ideal or Aspect they identify with. Gracemarks often appear spontaneously, bestowed by the Divine. But the orders can also apply a Gracemark made of a blessed metal, which confers similar powers upon the marked person. 

 

A double Gracemark of Light (the horizontal line and above) and Strength (the horizontal line and below–a rudimentary figure lifting a burden overhead)
 
A world with obvious divine interaction would reflect that in the culture. If many people wear a symbol that implies something significant about their individual values, then displaying the back of the right hand like a wave would reasonably become a common form of greeting. 

If you show me a symbol of Justice and Order, I expect you to treat people fairly and uphold the law. Showing me a blank hand might not give me a stereotypical box to fit you in, but neither does it mean I assume you’re untrustworthy. Showing a hand with a scar in the shape of a Gracemark — that tells me to be on guard, because here’s an individual who once had a specific, public moral allegiance and forsook it.

On the other hand, I always meant for magic to have a technological component. Humans need a special lens to see the arcane energies they use for any magical ability. But that only allows one to see and draw on magic. So (based on some thoughtful alpha reader feedback) I added an output device to match the input of the lens – a metal etching that guides or focuses the energy the magic user sends forth.

Given human propensity to take what exists and use it in new ways, it hit me that these Arcanists would study Gracemarks used by the religious orders, then create a similar method or means to use their own abilities. Using conductive metals, touched and transformed by the magical nature of the world, Arcanists would have etchings that grant them fine control of magic power. 

Like any good reverse-engineered technology, improvements can adapt the tech to the new user’s needs. Picture a golden tattoo, placed anywhere on the body. Unlike a Gracemark that is always on the right hand, always exposed, the Arcanist’s etching can be hidden if desired. This fits their character more as well. If you want to be brazen and show off your etching, you certainly can. But if you’d rather keep your abilities hidden, a simple pair of spectacles and a covered etching prevents anyone from guessing you’re about to tap into elemental energies and unleash devastating magic.

Thus the effort to clarify how divine power and magic work in this setting becomes a means of character development and description. 

I picture a rough-and-tumble tough guy whose Ocular is a monocle secured by a leather band around his shaved head. His riftgold etching is affixed to his face in a sunburst around his eyepiece. He’s an Arcanist thug, and he doesn’t care if you know it.  That’s a very different character from the rich noble who wears the Ocular equivalent of a contact lens, practically invisible, and whose etching is hidden from view on his right shoulderblade. 

The best part is that this system of Gracemarks and Arcanist etchings is something a reader can see themselves in, much like “which house would I join in Hogwarts?” or “which faction would I belong to in Divergent?”  One of my co-workers who is also a fan gave me some feedback, and one of the first things she said was she enjoyed trying to decide which Gracemark she’d choose. 

I’m chalking it up as a successful concept.

Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback on Amazon. You can find it (and all my books) at my author page.

Chairacters

So I started writing chapter 4 of Diffusion, the sequel to my fantasy book. And this is the first scene readers get with Josephine Delumiere, the Soulforged character from the first book. (Picture a “paladin” from Dungeons & Dragons, or some sort of holy warrior whose order alone is empowered to stand against the Fractured creatures of darkness that spawn throughout the world.)
In the first book, and in all four books that I have planned in my head, Josephine always had long blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun. Maybe that started with my wife’s World of Warcraft character, who once upon a time (before they put in a Barber Shop) was a blonde with long hair. 

But as I wrote the scene, suddenly Jo showed up with a haircut–short, unkempt, easy to care for, nothing for an enemy to grab hold of… the sort of “do” that you can run your fingers through and call it good to go. Enough hair to wave in the winds as Josephine dashes with divinely empowered speed, but nowhere near the length that for literally eight years up until half an hour ago I had always envisioned on this character.

Something like this sketch I whipped up in about twenty seconds for my wife…

   
I’m no fan of what I’ve heard described as “character development by haircut.” Tris Prior getting a short, pixie chop-job in Insurgent is the most recent example I can think of. So I’m not trying to tie a new hairstyle to some “new” Josephine.

But this is one of those rare instances where a character comes along, surprises me, and says, “Hey, I know you had such-and-such planned. I did this instead. Deal with it.”

Weird.

And awesome.

I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m having a blast.

New Year's Freeve

To celebrate the new year, I set up a promotion to make my fantasy book Diffraction free of charge for Kindle edition.

So if you read some chapters and thought, “That’s nice and all, but five bucks? Really?”

Well now that’s not a problem! But it only lasts two days (New Year’s Eve & Day)… roughly midnight to midnight Pacific time.

Enjoy, and happy New Year!

And if you’re feeling really festive, pay it forward and pass this on!

 

Diffraction Chapter Nine: Soulforged

From Markday until Final Dawn and every day between,

 

Indignation burned within Josephine, hotter than all the fires spreading throughout Northridge. She spun low under a bandit’s sword and smashed her hammer into his calf. Bone crunched. He fell screaming, and Josephine let a rush of satisfaction wash over her.

His blade claimed Alain’s life. He deserves worse. Why should I not be pleased when Justice is served?

There was no time for delight. Another pair of bandits pushed back the town’s defenders near the Folly, where many of the women and children sought refuge. Protect the innocent, Jo. Her father’s command echoed in her mind. He’d hammered at the Kem before dashing out the gate, to draw its attention away from the town.

Not sure how long he can keep up with that beast. Josephine stared into the darkness of the woods, listening for any sign of Camden. I need to go find him and help. But I can’t abandon the weak. She turned back to the fight, facing Kal’s men.

One of Northridge’s wounded defenders crawled away, clutching a bloody leg.

A bandit jammed a spear through his chest and pinned him to the ground. The man cried out and struggled to free himself, and the bandit laughed.

Josephine stepped back to avoid a sweeping blade. She lashed out with her shield and heard a grunt as it crashed into another enemy’s face. She swung her hammer through an overhead arc and battered the helmet on the other side of her shield.

Two of the bandits moved in a paired formation, disabling defenders with swift and fatal strikes. Several men and a woman writhed and groaned in their wake, bleeding out into the dirt on the street.

Josephine felt a tingle from her Gracebrand and invoked the soul of Justice with a thought—Show me what should be.

A vision snapped into focus. These men once wore the crisp uniform of the Militia, standing post on the walls of Aulivar… marching north with a Contingent headed for Glacierift…

She gasped. Glimpses never lied, though they could be misinterpreted. There’s no mistaking the meaning of this one. These men are military-trained. They know better.

Josephine called out to them, “What of your vows, soldiers?” She picked her way around bodies and approached. “A true Lightsworn of Aulivar would rather die than desert his brethren or betray his oaths.” Though they hardly deserve that title anymore.

The one on the left had a nose like a pig snout. He sneered at Josephine and beckoned her with his sword.

The bandit on the right turned toward her. Flames on nearby homes revealed a long scar down the man’s cheek, obscured by his disheveled black hair. “I seen enough do just that, little Soulforged,” he said. His eyes showed no pleasure.

Josephine raised her shield and closed into melee range. A mental image of a narrow mountain path formed in Josephine’s mind, the trigger she’d learned to invoke the mindset of Justice. With that, her Gracebrand could show her the inclination of both men toward right or wrong. No need to Peer in this case. It’s pretty obvious.

She noted the one she called Scar stood calm facing an oncoming Soulforged. No, I won’t give him credit, even for that.

“The lads I marched with,” Scar said, “their eyes all alight with hope of glory? They died in frozen wastes, for nothing but a vow.” He shrugged. “Thought it best not to join them.”

“Oh, you won’t,” Josephine said. “Deserters and traitors never reach His Rest. That’s reserved for those with honor intact.”

Pigsnout laughed and spat, sword and dagger readied.

Scar remained still, thin longsword hanging down like he lost the will to fight.

His muscles tensed. “I hope you enjoy it there.”

Scar lunged, his blade a blur of thrusts testing Josephine’s defense. Most bounced off her shield, but twice she felt a sword prick through her thin leather leggings.

Down the street near the Woodwall, Camden flew past the gate and slid backwards through the dirt, kicking up a cloud of dust. The hulking crimson form of the Kem stomped past the destroyed gate. It grabbed the wall, tore off a log to use as a club, and swung with both hands at the battered Soulforged. Camden rolled to the side and dodged its crushing strike.

Dad needs me. Josephine snapped her focus back to the bandits before her, blocking a sword-thrust aimed for her head. I have to finish this quick.

Pigsnout moved around to flank her, stabbing with the dagger to distract before thrusting or slashing with the sword.

Josephine backed away and kept her shield moving, absorbing most of the hits. Her chainmail clinked whenever the swords struck, but the armor held.

Scar’s blade snagged in one of the metal rings, and he thrust forward attempting to break through to skin.

Josephine spun away, the momentum tugging the chain free. I can’t take these two down by my own might.

She invoked strength, and focused on the furnace of rage burning against injustice within her. The Gracebrand on her hand shone bright as she Strained. Divine power coursed through her muscles with a steady stream of energy that filled her like an overflowing cup. The cuts and slashes on her arms and legs closed together as if sewn shut.

Pigsnout stabbed at Josephine’s left side with both blades.

With the power of the Divine multiplying her strength, she thrust her shield up to deflect the attack. Bones snapped in Pigsnout’s forearms, and the blades flew. Josephine slammed her shield-arm out like a backhand punch and followed up with a skull-crushing hammer blow.

Before Scar could react, Josephine flung her hammer and struck him in the throat. He fell to his knees, gasping for air. His sword rang on the packed dirt.

“Mercy,” he pleaded in a hoarse whisper.

Josephine paused, and turned her gaze to the wounded and dying. “No.”

She closed her eyes and swung her hammer in a sideways arc, ignoring the sickening squish when it struck.

A swift death. Better than the agony my people suffer. Better than you deserve.

With a deep breath and a quick shake of her hammer, Josephine charged the Kem.

* * *

 

The Abbey is burning. Father is in there.

Lyllithe dashed toward the whitewashed building, Binding air and Loosing water on burning homes along the way. The process of Refocusing, once foreign, now felt like part of her nature. She chided herself at the thought. It is your nature. You’ve got Aeramental’s blood.

For all the good it’s doing.

Fires still burned, spreading from house to house. After the first few volleys, a line of women and children passed buckets from the well. But once the bandits broke through the defenders, Elder Gammin led the defenseless to take refuge in the Friar’s Folly. Since then, the flames claimed several buildings.

They will not have our Abbey.

Lyllithe stopped a few paces from the lawns around the place of worship. Wherever the arrows struck, flames licked at the walls, leaving streaks of black.

A thought broke through the mix of panic and determination, and Lyllithe smiled.

Why not Refocus the fire away?

She looked up at the fires and saw waves of elemental energy radiating out from each one. When she Bound some of the energy, the flames withered to half their strength. The power filled her, a discomfort that built up into agony. She struggled against resistance and exerted her will, forcing the elements to Refocus.

Water burst into the air around the flames. They sputtered, but still burned weakly.

So that’s why the Arcanists speak of complementary elements. Flagros does not easily Refocus into aqua, but it can be done.

Screams nearby drew Lyllithe’s attention.

A woman cradling an infant darted out the door of one of the unharmed houses, two bandits on her heels. Dalara, Haber’s wife.

The sight of Haber’s body near one of the burned out buildings flashed in Lyllithe’s mind.

Are you going to tell her why this happened, when it’s all over?

Dalara dashed across the street and ran crying for help to one of the armed men defending the town.

He turned and levelled a spear at the bandits.

Elder Gammin? I didn’t expect him to be in the fighting.

“Get to the Folly with the others, woman,” he yelled as he intercepted her pursuers. “And you scarrin’ murderers, you Light-veiled sons of Kurnn his-self, you come after me first.”

They laughed and squared off with the Elder.

Do something. You have to help him.

What do I do? What about the fires? The Abbey is still burning, along with half the town.

A sudden realization struck Lyllithe. Refocusing isn’t just turning one element into another. It’s also for diverting the flow of one element to somewhere else.

I can use the fires…

Lyllithe had only enough time to bind more flagros before Gammin fell bleeding.

The bandits stepped over his corpse, looking toward the tavern with hungry grins.

The energy bottled up within mixed with Lyllithe’s anger and guilt, churning like a volcano until a shout exploded from her throat.

“No!”

She stood quivering before the Abbey, arms spread with fingers extended like claws. No more. Her Gracemark shone in the dim light, though she had not attuned to any Passion. Not while I can do something to stop it.

The bandits turned, and their eyes went wide at the sight of her. “You! The Ghostskin that killed Maz.” One of them pointed and laughed. “Look, Battin, she’s a scarrin’ Devoted. She can’t even defend herself.” They stepped toward her.

She loosed the elemental energy. Arms stretched forward, mouth wide in a roar, Lyllithe poured out wrath. Streams of fire cut through the air, illuminating the street. Two charred bodies hit the ground, seared flesh crackling and flaking into ash.

Lyllithe stood heaving at each breath, gritted teeth and clenched fists.

And still the doubting voice whispered in her mind.

Too little, too late.

Gammin lay dead, along with a score of Northridge townsfolk. The remaining bandits prowled in and out of homes and shops, looking for victims.

They’re headed toward the Folly. They’ll kill everyone. Where’s Jo?

Lyllithe turned back toward the Abbey. Flames still burned. Part of the roof over the sanctuary collapsed. Several Devoted evacuated the building, aiding limping townsfolk or dragging out those too wounded to walk.

Finally, Marten appeared, directing his flock to safety. His eyes met Lyllithe’s, and his face twisted in confusion. Marten surveyed the scene, lingering on the charred bodies of the bandits. Then he looked back to Lyllithe, and his shoulders sagged as he sighed.

He knows. Lyllithe’s heart tore in two. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

She turned and dashed toward the tavern.

 

 

Josephine watched the Kem stalk her father. She scrambled up the stairs to the guard platform on the Woodwall. Dad needs more strength than his Gracemark alone can give.

She remembered her father’s words—be strong for others—and invoked the Divine. Her Gracebrand flashed gold with each heartbeat, Pulsing endurance to sustain Camden in the fight.

Camden’s hammer spun in his hand, and he danced around the howling Kem’s massive crimson body, dodging punches and kicks in between attacks. Radiance flared from the warhammer with each strike, as if a lightning storm hung directly over the town gate.

Josephine caught herself staring. In all our sparring on the training grounds, I’ve never seen him move like this. She reached the ledge at the top of the wall and ran toward the gate.

The Kem stood below, teeth bared, arms flailing in rage. It hunched over to fight Camden, but even so it had the height of two men. Black blood leaked from several bruises, yet it showed no sign of fatigue.

Camden ducked and weaved, but the beast’s thick hand knocked him off his feet. He slammed into the wall and fell face down in the dirt.

The ground shook with the Kem’s steps. It stood over Camden and raised a cloven hoof to crush the fallen Soulforged.

Josephine watched as she ran, still Pulsing out strength for her father with her Gracemark. Her fingers tightened around the haft of her hammer. Tsadek, guide my strike.

She sprang from the ledge of the Woodwall, arms thrown back for an overhead swing.

The Kem spun around, its yellow eyes wide.

Josephine’s hammer shuddered in her hand when it connected with the Kem’s left horn. The black bone the size of a forearm splintered and broke off, hitting the ground with a thump.

The beast roared so loud Josephine felt vibrations in her chest. One of its hands clutched the stump of the horn. The other grabbed at her, and she batted it away with her shield.

Josephine swung at the Kem’s arm, but missed. The momentum sent her off-balance, and she stumbled forward.

There was an explosion in her head like an Arcanist’s display, and everything went dark for an instant. She felt air rush past her like a gust of wind, then something hit her from behind.

Her eyes opened to see the Kem by the gate, a dozen paces away. The beast roared with glee. I’m on the ground. It kicked me across the street. Her ribs and muscles ached. She coughed up blood. I think it broke bones.

The beast turned to face Camden.

Get up, and bring this thing down.

She shifted from heart to strength, and the Pulses ceased. The Gracemark flared as she Strained for power, and energy coursed through her body to carry her through the fight. The throbbing pain in her chest became a hazy fog at the back of her mind, and she ignored the sound of fractured bones grinding with each step. I don’t think I can take another beating like that.

Camden called to her while side-stepping the Kem’s attacks. “Winds in the Valley, Jo.”

She hustled back to the gate, keeping the Kem between her and Camden. Winds… winds… which technique is that?

Spinning.

“Now,” Camden said. He ducked under a punch and twisted to slam the hammer into the back of the Kem’s left leg. He whirled about behind the Kem, shifting to its right side.

Josephine’s hammer dug into the back of the creature’s right knee, then spun around to face the Kem.

It took a staggering step, howling in pain.

The two Soulforged completed their arcs, keeping the Kem between them. Josephine bashed the point of her warhammer into the Kem’s left kneecap, and smiled at the sound of bone cracking. At the Kem’s right flank, Camden swung his hammer’s point into its right knee.

The right leg bent in the wrong direction, and the Kem fell backward screaming.

Josephine tried to tune out the howl, but dropped her hammer and clamped her hands over her ears.

She watched in awe as Camden somehow ignored the piercing cries. He seemed to glow from within as he picked up the Kem’s broken horn. Her father placed the point of the horn over the Kem’s chest and raised his hammer.

“Cursebearer, your burden is lifted,” Camden declared. “But your guilt remains.”

The hammer rang as it drove the horn into the Kem’s heart. A web of cracks exuding light spread from the horn, until the entire crimson body glowed. Flames rose from the light, but produced no odor or smoke. In a few seconds, the Kem vanished, leaving only ash.

Camden ignored the spectacle and surveyed the town.

Josephine followed his gaze. The fighting in the street had ceased. A few fires still lit the night, but the refugees in the Folly had reformed a bucket brigade. Thick smoke created a haze that hung over the town. Several dead bandits lay outside the tavern’s doors, their bodies charred. Devoted rushed about, tending the wounded wherever they lay.

Two figures stood unmoving before the Friar’s Folly, obscured by the haze.

Josephine squinted until she made out their faces.

Oh, Light, have mercy.

Lyllithe and Marten faced each other, locked in a silent mutual glare.

———-

I hope you’ve enjoyed these first nine chapters of Diffraction.

If you want to see where Lyllithe and Josephine go from this point forward, you can order a paperback copy from CreateSpace here, or get the Kindle edition (or paperback) from Amazon here.