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Diffraction Chapter Six: An Unexpected Gift

Generosity the seed from which new life may grow.

 Lyllithe stood frozen as the assembly dispersed. The Arcanist is staring at me, coming my way. What does he want with me? What does he know?

 Townsfolk moved in all directions about her like a stream flowing around a stone. Chatter erupted on all sides, but she could not focus on any particular voices. The night swallowed up most of Northridge except for the town square with its blazing bonfire at the center. Even that light seemed to dim while Lyllithe locked eyes with Master Davon Hachi.

 Her initial curiosity about magic turned to panic at the Arcanist’s approach. I need to go. It’s almost time for the Night Watch in the Abbey. I need to light the candles… need to be anywhere but here.

 She strained to move, but her body did not respond. What is going on? Her legs felt sluggish and heavy. She stumbled forward, and felt an unseen weight dragging behind her.

 The Arcanist strode up to Lyllithe, hands clasped behind his back, lips curved in a slight smile. “Good even, Devoted,” he said, reaching up to remove his monocle.

 “And to you, Master,” Lyllithe replied. Tell him you must go, she told herself. Nyalesee is waiting. The bell will toll soon. Go, now.

 Her body still refused her pleas.

 Davon glanced around at the villagers making their way home. “There’s one in every crowd,” he said as if to himself.

 “One what, Master?”

 His gaze turned back to Lyllithe and he smiled. “A dedicated pupil. A true student of the arcane arts. Not like the struggling sort we get at the Hall, the spoiled brats sent by nobles or men of power, only concerned with titles and accolades.”

 His eyes twinkled, and he rocked on his feet. “No, I mean someone who cares, who burns for knowledge.”

 Lyllithe cocked her head. What is he after? He knows I am a Devoted. She dipped her head in respect. “You praise me, thank you. But I am not interested in applying to the Hall, Master.”

 “Really? Don’t lie, dear.” Davon wagged a finger in jest. “I saw your wide eyes with each Refocusing I loosed on the crowd. I daresay you were enthralled.”

 Lyllithe paused, mouth open awaiting a response her mind did not provide.

 Master Hachi raised an eyebrow as if to declare victory.

 “What I mean is that I cannot apply,” Lyllithe said. She lifted her right hand. “I am not merely a Devoted, but also Gracemarked.”

 The Arcanist whistled softly. His eyes fixated on the Mark. Lyllithe noticed the unseen weight was gone.

 “What is this, dear? A double Gracemark?” He extended his fingers and brushed the glowing blue symbol. Lyllithe flinched. “It has been ages since anyone has seen one. I wonder why it wasn’t documented.”

 “Master, you mean this has happened before?” Lyllithe quelled the urgency building in her voice. “Can you tell me what it means?”

 Davon’s attention remained fully on the soft glow. “Some claim this is what happens when Aspects vie for an individual’s devotion. No one can say for certain, for who knows the mind of the Divine? Men study a lifetime to grasp the teachings of just one of the Fourteen.”

 He looked around at the dispersing crowd and raised an eyebrow. “They didn’t tell you? This is of profound interest and import to the Academy, to the Abbey, to the Conclave of Aulivar. Do they not realize the unique treasure they have been granted?”

 “I heard some of the men talk about it,” Lyllithe said. “Just like a Ghostskin, they said. Can’t even get Marked right.”

 Davon patted Lyllithe’s Gracemarked hand. “Don’t let small minds determine your importance, dear.”

 Lyllithe noted an etched silvery brand like an eye on Davon’s hand, the symbol of Knowledge. Is he a scholar of sorts, who works in the Hall instead of the Academy? She took a chance. “Do you have a theory of how one receives a double Gracemark, Master?”

 He smiled and took a deep breath. “Yes, I do, in fact. I believe it is a sign of one who is conflicted between two ideals. Mind you, this is not like some young teen unwilling to live in service to others, filled with selfish desires. No, that child simply fails their Testing.”

 Lyllithe’s head drooped. “I failed five times,” she said. “Is it because I was selfish?”

 Davon brushed a hand on Lyllithe’s shoulder. “No, child, it was not,” he said. “It is because you were torn between thoughts of equal importance: first, to be pure.” He tapped the Light side of her Gracemark, then tapped the Strength side and continued, “yet something tugs at you to be strong enough. Strong enough for what, I wonder?”

 “I wanted to save my mother,” Lyllithe said. “I watched her die.”

 Davon pursed his lips. “Yes, I’d heard some of that from your father. But is that truly where your conflict began?”

 Lyllithe looked about the square. A dozen stragglers carried on quiet conversations or moved about on personal errands. No ears to hear what I’m about to say.

 She turned back to Davon. “No, I suppose it is not. Master Hachi, I have seen the wounded carried swiftly through the woods, their loved ones desperate, hoping for a miracle in the Abbey. And then there are the dead, those brought too late. And I think of the power I feel in the Light. Power I am not permitted to use. And I ask, is there not another way?”

 Davon nodded. “You speak of the Abbey’s strictures of purity, forbidding violence.”

 “Yes,” Lyllithe said. Her voice rose. “If the Light is so scarring powerful, then why not use it to fight?”

 She clamped a hand over her mouth and mumbled an apology. I just swore at an Arcanist. Brilliant.

 Davon patted her shoulder. “I understand more than you know. I once sat in the Abbey of Haven, puzzling over these same thoughts. When the Abbey was destroyed in the sacking of the town, I left my robe to burn in the embers.”

 “And you joined the Hall?”

 He shook his head. “Not at first. They could not accept me, because I could not accept what I had to become.” Davon stretched out his arms, showing the gilt embroidery on the crimson sleeves and the band of gold embedded in his wrist. “A man of violence and war.”

 Lyllithe searched for words to avoid what felt like blasphemy. “Was it—did the teachings of Aulis hold you back?”

 “Precisely. I couldn’t bring myself to wield power against another man.” Davon held up a hand and continued, “But with help, I made a breakthrough. If light has power to give life and protect, then what about the absence of light?”

 He waved at the shadows that engulfed the town. “What if you strip your foe of the light, and turn darkness against him?”

 Lyllithe’s mind raced over possibilities and assumptions. “Is that even possible?”

 “Of course, child. As a Devoted you manipulate the Light of the Divine. As an Arcanist, I handle the flowing energies around us, and what is light if not energy?”

 Davon made dramatic sweeps with his arms as if standing before a crowd. “I twist aqua and terros, aera and flagros… Why not lux?”

 Lyllithe considered it for a moment and shrugged. “I cannot see why not, I suppose.”

 “I admit,” Davon explained, “the magelight we manipulate through Refocusing is more illusory than your source of Divine power. Plants cannot grow by magelight, and it offers no healing properties, no matter how devoted you may be. But it has uses.”

 Davon produced his monocle and held it out toward Lyllithe. “And if I, a mere human, am dependent on these trinkets to see the streams of power available…”

 He thrust a finger at her. “How much more are you capable of, with elemental blood?”

 Lyllithe absently stroked her hair to hide the points of her ears. “I have always viewed my mixed heritage as a curse. I never considered a benefit.” She shook her head. “It would not be right. I cannot—”

 “Why not you?” Davon clasped her right hand. “Your very Gracemark speaks to the strength of the Light. Why not use that strength, use your power over light to prevent harm instead of cure it?”

 Lyllithe stared into Davon’s eyes. “I would like that very much.”

 The Arcanist stepped back with a proud smile. “Yes,” he said. “I saw that hunger. So show me.” He gestured toward the bonfire. “Reach out and take hold of its light.”

 She turned toward the flame and shrugged. “How?”

 “We have a precept among some in the Hall,” Davon said. “‘Knowledge has a limit. Dominating one’s nature is superior.’ Refocusing is more about strength of will and disciplined practice than any sort of arcane secrets one can learn. Yes, I understand how to change aera into flagros. There’s little more to it. But like a swordsman practicing forms, I must learn to do it with ease and precision.”

  “And so must you, if you’d like to understand and take hold of this part of your nature. Stretch out your will. Make the flame do what you desire.”

 Lyllithe watched the fire. Undulating strands of orange waved back and forth, unseen by any of those nearby, she knew. Any save Davon with his Ocular monocle.

 The slow motions enthralled her, and her head rocked gently back and forth. “And what do I desire?”

 “Think about the Light,” Davon said. “You are accustomed to its embrace. This time, push it away. Dim the radiance of the flame.”

 Lyllithe studied the glowing orange strands. She imagined twisting them together into knots. The glow faded to half its original strength.

 “Impressive,” Davon declared.

 Lyllithe gasped. “Is that—am I manipulating darkness?”

 “Tenebrae? No,” Davon said. “Remember this: Magelight and shadowcraft—lux and tenebrae—are not primary elements. They are more complex, the result of other elemental reactions. Light exists to some degree, a Refocused energy over which you can exert control. What you call darkness is a term for the absence of light, the effect of its removal.”

 Lyllithe turned to the Arcanist. “Then what did you mean earlier, about controlling darkness to fight your foes?”

 “No, dear. I said you could control light,” Davon said. “By removing it, dampening it, taking away the strength it gives those who oppose you. Arcanists do not manipulate ‘darkness’ as common folk might understand it. You cannot have shadow without light.”

 His eyes flashed away to the side. “You can’t control what doesn’t exist, of course.”

 Just like when Aramina pretends to compliment me during our lessons. Or when the townsfolk treat me kindly while I stand beside Father. He knows more than he’s letting on.

 Lyllithe nodded and replied, “Of course, Master Hachi.”

 Davon looked up at the stars. “Ah, it’s getting late,” he said. “I’m sure you have duties to attend to. As I recall, you have a place keeping the candles lit in the Abbey.”

 Lyllithe bowed her head. “Yes, thank you.”

 The Arcanist reached into the satchel at his side. “Let me leave you with this gift, child. Something to read by candlelight perhaps when the Light is not yet dawned.” He placed a leatherbound book into her hands.

 Her eyes lit up. “What— what is this?”

 “A tome on the very subject we’ve been speaking about. You’ll find it enlightening, I’m sure. Pardon the jest.”

 Lyllithe flipped the book over and checked the spine. No seal from the Academy? What sort of secret does this contain? The first page bore the message Davon had quoted, each word aligned with the binding.

 She read aloud, “Knowledge has a limit. Dominating one’s nature is superior.”

 “Khaldonis,” Davon whispered, “the name of that particular school of thought.”

 Lyllithe shuddered with a sudden guilt, but shook off the sensation. She pushed the book toward Davon. “I cannot accept. What if my father or some other elder sees a forbidden—”

 Davon chuckled. “Child, the Hall prints what it wishes for those who serve it.”

 “Without Academy review and approval?”

 The Arcanist shrugged. “We have an arrangement. They see enough pages from our scholars to know that our scientific pursuits are safe, proper, and logical. This book is no more forbidden than a hymnal of the Abbey.”

 The peal of a bell rang out. Lyllithe gasped. “Oh! I’m late again. Nyalesee will tan my hide if I don’t hurry.”

 “Run along, then, Devoted.”

 Lyllithe started running toward the Abbey in the distance, then stopped and turned. “You said the Hall prints books for those who serve it. But I am no Arcanist.”

 Davon grinned. “Not yet, child. Not yet.”

Diffraction Chapter Five: Obligations

Compassion toward the one in need, lift up the one brought low.
A spray of blue flame exploded over the heads of the gathered crowd. Six jets of fire flew out across the night, and fat snowflakes fluttered through the air in their wake. Lyllithe watched in wonder, her attention split between analyzing the spell as it happened and watching the Arcanist for the next display.

 He stood on the wooden platform in the town square of Northridge, in front of the gathered officials of the town. His copper monocle glimmered in the light of torches and the bonfire nearby. Flecks of grey streaked the Arcanist’s short black hair at the temples and made a stripe in his pointed goatee. His arms moved in sweeping graceful gestures, draped in crimson robes that signified some rank in the Hall. Light from his magic glinted off something like a bracelet of gold on his left wrist .

 Lyllithe saw Josephine’s father and her own among the leaders of the town. This Arcanist looks no older than my dad. So it cannot take too long to learn Refocusing magic.

 The Arcanist’s voice echoed in the night, smooth but firm. “Our allies in the north are locked in battle, caught in the bitter grasp of the Freostane.” He waved an arm, and a chill wind cut through the crowd, scattering the flurries of snow in the air. People shivered and cringed. Lyllithe stared wide-eyed.

 She looked back at the Arcanist and startled at finding his eyes locked with hers.

 “The men of Glacierift have fought bravely, but they are so few against so many. How long can one stand against the very land itself?” The Arcanist’s hands twisted and turned as he spoke, and snow piled up to his right on the platform in the town square. Features came into focus, massive arms with clawed hands, a face with dim sockets like eyes. The makeshift Freostanni loomed over the gathered townsfolk, threatening fingers outstretched.

 Children wailed. Women and even some men blanched at the sight. The Arcanist’s lip turned up in a hint of a smile. “Do you recall the ashen pillar that rose in the north last autumn? ‘Twas the fall of Stalhanske you saw then, an eruption of lava and smoke from the ground beneath the capital. Devastation caused by the Freostane.”

 “And so Lord Mayor Tenegar is sending aid,” he continued, “to bring order to the chaos, peace in the midst of such destruction. Together we shall crush the frozen foes, and restore Glacierift to its rightful place.”

 He stabbed his hand at the mock ice elemental, and an orb of fire blossomed in its chest. Caught up in the moment, the crowd cheered at the steaming hole and applauded the snow creature’s collapse.

 One voice called out above the din, and all else fell silent. “By ‘together’ you mean our young folk marching into Tenegar’s battle, ’cause there sure aren’t enough of you from Aulivar to do a lick of good.”

 An old man stood at the edge of the crowd, arms crossed. His weathered face and bushy brow locked eyes with the Arcanist. Stam, Lyllithe thought. Dad always comes home frustrated from meetings with the elders, and Stam’s name has come up more than once.

 “Those you brought look younger than my missing boy,” Stam called out, “or older than myself. So you’ll steal our youth away for your pointless war? You may wow my kinfolk here with your magic eyeglass and your tale. But I’m not impressed, unless you’re here to do something about the marauders that plague our lands beyond the Woodwall.”

 The Arcanist glared for a moment, then forced a smile. “Good man, your plight is not forgotten. But how many of these bandits once marched beneath Glacierivan banners? Our work in the north may secure peace around Northridge. The militia is merely—”

 “You sound like the Ministry lackeys,” Stam said, “with all their excuses and empty promises. There are three A’s in Aulivar, or so the saying goes. But none of them are out to help the people they claim to rule. Your Arcanists aren’t here to aid us, just to take whatever the Lord Mayor needs. The Academy won’t do a thing except tell us what we can’t know, burning illegal books while these rebels burn down our farms. And the Abbey can’t do nothing about any of this except perform burials for our kin.” Stam glanced toward Lyllithe’s father and added, “No offense meant of course. I know it’s the rules of your Order, meant to keep you pure from violence.”

 Marten stepped forward and spoke. “Stam, trust that I understand your concern.”

 Several heads turned and voices whispered. Stam took a deep breath and answered in a quiet tone. “You suffered loss, Eldest. Maybe more than most.”

 Marten said nothing, but others nodded agreement.

 Mother, Lyllithe realized. He’s using Mother’s murder to win their sympathy. Her fists clenched and shook. Her cheeks burned as her teeth ground together. A smoldering fire of rage sparked back to life after being stamped out.

  “What say you, Eldest?” Stam asked. “I’ll hear you out.”

 Marten put a hand on the Arcanist’s shoulder. “We must remember Master Hachi comes as a representative not only of the Arcanist’s Hall, but of the Lord Mayor and the militia. We cannot refuse this request.”

 Stam pointed a wagging finger at Master Hachi. “Why should our children go fight a war in the north when we have war enough right outside our gates?”

 Many voices murmured agreement. Some yelled out, “What about us?”

 Next to Lyllithe, a shepherd named Tarran had a hand on his son Dannal’s shoulder. “I need my boy to work the farm.”

 The Arcanist raised his hands and silence fell. His gaze wandered over the crowd. Did he pause when he looked at me? Did I imagine that?

 No one moved. Firewood crackled and a baby cried on the other side of the gathering. Lyllithe fought the urge to hold her breath.

 “This is a matter of honor,” Master Hachi said. “Of selflessness and the sacrifice upon which your homes are founded.”

He beckoned to a soldier of Aulivar, who produced a lute from under his cloak. His smooth face and puffy cheeks made Lyllithe think him too young to be a warrior. He’s probably my age or older, she realized. But still a mere youth.

 The Arcanist asked, “Footman Homfrey—Jae, isn’t it? Do you know Bride’s Elegy? I would sing to that melody, please.” The young man nodded and began to pluck a mournful tune in a minor key. Master Hachi turned to the crowd.

 “I understand your concern for your children,” he said. “But I wonder if after five decades you have forgotten the debt we owe our friends in the north.”

 He opened his mouth to sing, and Lyllithe noticed slight gestures from his hands. More aqua, released in a slow trickle. Snowflakes appeared overhead and fell on a gentle breeze.

  When chill first fell upon the trees and fields of Aulivar,

  The fires of war-camps lit the night and swept away the stars.

  For who among the heavenlies could watch the City’s fall?

  Besieged by foe, buried in snow, death reigned within the walls.

  Skirmishes and arrows took a third of able men,

  Then famine and disease cut down another third again.

  With nothing left to feed upon, the desperate looked within,

  Gnashing, gnawing teeth on bones that once were fallen kin.

 Lyllithe shuddered. Next to her, Dannal gagged. Some in the crowd expressed disgust. If the Arcanist noticed, he gave no reaction as he sang.

When Lady Mara took a chill, the Lord Mayor’s heart did fail,

  Then his eldest son fell ill, and hope could not prevail.

  At news of men who dined on flesh, an anguish cry broke loose

  From maid servants who found the Mayor hanging from a noose.

 A sharp odor filled the air. Lyllithe watched more flakes settling onto the crowd, grey and black instead of soft white. “Flecks of ash,” she muttered as she caught one in her hand.

Through long winter the City lingers,

  Death and plague stretch forth their fingers.

  Mourn aloud, heads hang bowed

  As ashen rain falls like a shroud.

  Did Calmentalendandalnie stretch forth their fabled power?

  Would Aeramentals ride to save us in our darkest hour?

 At mention of Calmen, several faces turned toward Lyllithe. Her pale skin and pointed ears betrayed her heritage as part aeramental, and they ruled the woodland city mentioned in the song. She tugged at her hood, wishing to disappear.

 While Master Hachi sang, the soldiers from Aulivar rose throughout the crowd. When the question rang out, the soldiers shook fists in the air and shouted, “No!” Their voices echoed in the night and startled many in the crowd.

  Did Kalvorkhordûn’s dauntless king remember ties of old?

  Would Dunestanni stand with men to break the stranglehold?

Another “No” rang out from the chorus.

Did Aelwyn, Mirelenai, or Lanaloth give aid

  Fulfilling oaths and promises their ancestors once made? No!

  And so when teeming hordes formed ranks beyond the gleaming wall,

  The weary men of Aulivar foresaw their City’s fall.

  Through long winter the City lingers.

  War and hate stretch forth their fingers.

  Allies run, not a one

  Defends the City of the Sun.

 Master Hachi flicked his wrist, and a warm ball of flame appeared in the air. The snow and ash flakes vanished.

  With Spring’s first thaw the City heard a trumpet blast sound forth,

  As cavalry from Glacierift rode down from frozen north.

  They broke through the besiegers and loosed a bloody tide,

  While stalwart men of Aulivar poured out from gates thrown wide.

 

  Led out by the Light-Shield with blazing pow’r divine

  Aulivar and Glacierift smashed through the enemy line.

  Between hammer and anvil, besieging foes took flight,

  Struck down across the fields, pursued into the night.

 At the mention of his nickname, Josephine’s father flushed. Some nodded his way, and one man Marked in salute. They all appeared old enough to have seen the Siege of Aulivar.

 Master Hachi continued unfazed.

  Through long winter the City lingers,

  Death and war with broken fingers,

  Leave undone the work begun

  Against the City of the Sun.

 The night’s stillness swallowed the last note, and Master Hachi surveyed the quiet audience. “Thank you, Jae,” he said with a nod to the soldier.

 “This,” he said to the crowd, “this is the debt we repay to our neighbors and allies. This tie of loyalty, this bond that bought all our lives fifty years ago,” he gestured to encompass the crowd. “It demands that we aid in time of need. How could we do less?”

 Stam looked down at his feet, as did others. No more challenges rose from the people of Northridge.

 The Arcanist beckoned to Belfour Varonaulis, the current Chief of the town council. He licked his lips and ran his fingers through disheveled white hair before stepping into center stage. From his jacket he produced a crumpled list.

 “K-kinsmen and—and f-fellows of Northridge,” he said, stammering, “I hold here the list of names ch-chosen to accompany the Militia and Master Hachi into the north.”

 Lyllithe looked over at Stam and remembered his son, Stevram, conscripted into the Militia several years earlier. They’re here for more sword-arms to fill their ranks. And fighting men need healers.

 A flood of hope and terror crashed through her. She looked down at the strange double Gracemark on her right hand. I’m ready. I’m certain to be taken. This confirms it.

 “Fennis Alenwick,” Belfour said. Lyllithe looked over to her former classmate, a young Devoted Marked in his second year. He nodded with solemn pride as his mother clung to him.

 Aulistane would be next, Lyllithe guessed.

 “Dabry Aversham.”

Some of the soldiers scoffed. One asked, “Can we trade that one back?”

 “Ebrandin Baliere.” One of the smartest youths in town. He’d excelled in all the academics required of a Devoted in training to become a Friar. Lyllithe guessed his skill with a sword could not measure up to his intellect. If anything, he should be planning tactics, not marching to a front line.

 Yet he’d been chosen, and none could reject that call.

“Helinda Banniman,” the Chief continued. “Jaclan Danforth.” One mother started to weep, and a young man’s voice asked, “Do I have to go?”

 But Lyllithe’s mind raced over the listed names, searching for understanding. Are they going by given names? By family names? Would Josephine be next, then me?

 “Nat Childers.”

 Lyllithe glared at her adopted father. Marten studied the bonfire, avoiding his daughter’s eyes. Still not ready, Father, or so you deem. Gracemarked, and yet to you and to this town I remain useless.

 Beside her, Josephine bristled, and Lyllithe snapped out of her own anger.

 No one called Jo’s name? If anyone is ready for combat, it’s her.

 Several names echoed out in the night, but Lyllithe paid them no heed. “Jo,” she whispered, “we’ll talk to them, we’ll get this sorted out.”

 Josephine’s fists clenched until her arms shook. “Oh, there will be words, don’t doubt it.”

 Belfour put away his list, and Master Hachi stepped forward. “You may go to make preparations, but understand that we depart at dawn two days hence.”

 The crowd erupted in voices, a mixture of urgency, pride, and resignation. Josephine stomped off toward her father. But Lyllithe did not move, her eyes fixed on the Arcanist standing upon the wooden stage.

 For Master Hachi’s gaze locked on Lyllithe, and when their eyes met, he grinned.

Diffraction Chapter Two: The Light of Life

In darkness when the night surrounds, I bear the Light in me. 
“Quick,” Nyalesee shouted. “Lay her on a bench.”

Camden raced across the room and lowered Eledra’s body to the wood.

Nyalesee rushed to his side. Light sprang out of her palms and formed small, radiant spheres. Shadows danced on the edges of the sanctuary as Nyalesee moved..

Harra stood frozen, eyes wide, mouth agape. “Her light’s so dim…”

“Camden, what happened?” Nyalesee asked, her gaze fixed on the injured woman. “What sort of wounds are we dealing with?”

“Bandits on the road from Aulivar, Devoted.”

Lyllithe ran to Camden and grabbed his arm. “Where is my father? Is he—“

“Marten is coming,” Camden replied. He laid his hand over hers. “Wounded, but he will recover. They struck him hard, knocked him out. We drove them off, killed two. I left Josephine with Marten when we were in sight of the Woodwall. She will help him get here.”

At least Father is safe. Jo can handle herself.

The thought gave little comfort while Lyllithe looked down at her mother’s body.

Nyalesee examined Eledra’s wounds. The Devoted grimaced, and she glanced up at Lyllithe. “Harra, go see to Marten,” Nyalesee said over her shoulder.

The order jarred Harra into motion, but she moved instead to Nyalesee’s side. “Perhaps you need my help to heal Eledra’s—”

“I need you to obey,” Nyalesee cut in. “See to the Eldest. This woman is beyond our aid.”

Harra opened her mouth to speak, then snapped it shut at a withering glare from the senior Devoted. Her head dipped slightly. “As you wish.”

Camden hung back, hands folded, eyes cast down. Lyllithe thought she heard him praying. What can a Soulforged do in times like this, she wondered.

Nyalesee grabbed Lyllithe’s arm and pulled her close. “Child, I cannot heal her unassisted.”

Lyllithe choked. Hope and confusion swirled in her chest. “But you just sent Harra to—”

“She and I together could not treat these wounds,” Nyalesee said. “Not with the noonday sun shining down on us.”

“Then why do you need me? I’m not even Marked, I’m hardly—”

“Forget all that.” Nyalesee’s grip tightened on Lyllithe’s sleeve. “Forget the Test, the script—forget the rules. You are able. You’ve healed wounds before.”

Lyllithe shook her head, and Nyalesee continued. “Maybe it’s your elemental heritage, or maybe just the grace of Aulis. But you are stronger than any of the Devoted here, stronger I deem than any two combined.” Nyalesee’s eyes held Lyllithe’s gaze. “When properly moved.”

Lyllithe fumbled for words, but none seemed right.

The Devoted reached out. “Take my hand. Perhaps I can spark your ability to minister.”

Nyalesee guided Lyllithe’s hand toward Eledra. Her palm rested on her mother’s chest. The fabric felt damp and cold like mud in winter. So much blood. She’s not breathing.

“Close your eyes,” Nyalesee said.

Lyllithe obeyed. There’s no heartbeat.

“The Light is life, and your light is pure,” the Devoted whispered. “There is strength in purity. There is brilliance. See it, draw it in and release it. Like breathing.”

Part of Lyllithe’s mind followed the calming instructions. But her fears conjured up an image of the dim sanctuary during the Test, and Harra’s smug sneer. Lyllithe saw her father’s downcast face last year when she failed. She heard the laughter of younger girls who were Marked on their first attempt.

“There’s a faint ember left,” Nyalesee said. Lyllithe opened her eyes.

“Do you feel that, child? I can breathe on it, and keep Eledra alive. But I haven’t the strength to restore her.”

A soft orange light appeared underneath Eledra’s skin. It flickered and waned.

“Now, girl! Heal her.”

Her mind fought doubts and despair. But Lyllithe grasped for the Light and took hold. Her hands glowed white on Eledra’s robes. Breathe. Live. Be healed.

Nyalesee gasped. “That’s it, dear,” she said, then whispered, “so much power.”

 Unreliable potential is useless, the doubting voice insisted.

Lyllithe gritted her teeth with the effort. More of the Light. Mother, you have to live.

The doors of the sanctuary opened. A slender blonde woman in armor slipped in with Marten, his arm draped over her shoulder. She helped him to a bench, then stood beside her father Camden.

 Father is well, Lyllithe thought. Josephine, my friend, I owe you once again.

Harra entered last and stormed toward the healers. Her voice bellowed in the dim chamber. “What is the meaning of this, Nyalesee?”

Lyllithe ignored the stares between the two Devoted. Eledra lay still. No pulse. No movement. No breathing. Nyalesee’s words repeated in Lyllithe’s mind: She is beyond our aid.

The Devoted’s hand squeezed Lyllithe’s arm once more. “Do not doubt. Light shines brightest in darkest night.”

At that, Lyllithe cast down fear and focused her complete attention on healing.

 Mother, you have to breathe. She strained as she pulled on more Light. I’ll help you breathe. Lyllithe pushed air into Eledra’s lungs with the Light’s power. She drew the air out through the mouth, then forced fresh air back in.

Marten cried out, “She’s breathing!”

 The heart has to beat. Lyllithe redirected some of her power and reached with it into Eledra’s chest. The energy wrapped around Eledra’s heart and squeezed every few seconds. Lyllithe sensed blood flow throughout the body. You’re going to have to take over from me here, Mother. Live.

Nyalesee said something, but Lyllithe paid no heed. Open your eyes, get up, be whole once more. Eledra remained still, though her chest rose and fell as Lyllithe pushed in breaths.

 Open your eyes, Mother. Lyllithe directed two wisps of power toward Eledra’s eyelids. They snapped open, but the eyes stared blank at the ceiling.

Muscles strained in Lyllithe’s neck and arms. In her eyes, a web of rainbow strands connected her outstretched hands to Eledra’s body. Lyllithe drew even more on the source of power. Get up. You can’t die. With the Light at her disposal, she tugged at muscles and tendons in Eledra’s arms and legs, commanding motion.

Eledra’s body jerked. Rough movements brought her upright. No light shone in her eyes. The orange glow behind her skin vanished.

Marten stood and collapsed. Lyllithe heard him weeping.

Nyalesee yelled for Lyllithe to stop.

 This is not the end, Aulis grant me grace. Blinding light burst from her hands. Purple spots filled her vision. There’s more power out there. I can almost reach it.

 Child, let me go.

Not Nyalesee’s voice. Not Lyllithe’s own thought.

 Mother?

The faint voice answered. You cannot heal an empty shell. Let me pass.

Lyllithe looked again at the body before her. Eledra’s corpse shook and shuddered. Air hissed in and out of cold lungs, forced by Lyllithe’s efforts. Eledra’s disheveled brown hair hung limp, matted with blood that oozed from wounds whenever Lyllithe squeezed the heart with her power. The body turned so that the faded green eyes faced her.

 Oh Light, I’m going to be sick. What have I done?

The brilliance Lyllithe summoned vanished, and darkness conquered the sanctuary in a snap. Lyllithe fell to the ground and retched beside the body of her mother.

Marten sobbed in the shadows.

Nyalesee knelt and put a hand on Lyllithe’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, child, so very sorry. I hoped, I dared to believe that maybe—”

She snatched the loose sleeve of Lyllithe’s robe and yanked her right arm from the ground. A soft blue light pierced the shadows around the dais.

Lyllithe looked at the back of her hand. A symbol shone like a rune etched in the skin: a sunrise above a vertical line with two branches holding up the horizon. The churning sea of shock and turmoil in her mind threatened to drown her. A Gracemark? Now? With both Light and Strength?

Lyllithe’s hands grasped Nyalesee’s shoulders in desperation.

Nyalesee only stared at the Mark.

Harra watched, brow furrowed.

“What is this,” Lyllithe demanded. “What does this mean?”

Diffraction Chapter One: Markday

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting the first ten chapters of my fantasy novel, Diffraction, here on WordPress and on WattPad. The goal is to have the book available on Amazon and CreateSpace by Christmas.

 

Bright enough light will bend around what it cannot shine through.
 
—————-

From daybreak ‘til the sun goes down, Devoted shall I be.

Celebration filled the central street of Northridge. A bonfire sprang to life, and cheers rang out under clouds streaked orange and red in the setting sun. The sweet aroma of smoked meats and sugary cakes filled the air. Men and women danced barefoot in circles on the packed earth to the trilling of a flute. Many sang. All smiled.

 All but one.

 A slim figure darted between clusters and pockets of revelers. Her gold-trimmed white hood concealed most of her features, though wisps of black hair slipped out with each hurried step. She dodged offers to join a dance and ducked under extended pints of ale.

 Someone recognized her robe and called out with a grin, “Are you new-Marked this day, Devoted?” Two men beside him raised hands ready to praise her.

 She glared at them, revealing a face white as her garment. The men blanched, and she continued on her way. Lyllithe, the Ghostskin. The Eldest’s so-called daughter. She could not make out their whispers, but she knew the words they spoke. Lyllithe had heard them all her life.

 Laughter from the crowd echoed. Only the Markday festival, she reasoned. But a doubtful voice spoke in her mind. They laugh because they saw your face. 

Past conversations replayed in her memory unbidden:

 “Still no Mark on her? What a shame for the Eldest. His own daughter cannot pass the Test. Is this her fourth year trying?”

 “Well she’s not really his daughter. She’s got elemental blood in her. So…”

 “Of course, yes, that probably has something to do with it. Who knows what the Divine thinks about ghostskins and duns and such…”

 “I know what I think of them.”

 Lyllithe reached the end of the street, and she pushed away her fears. The Abbey tower rose high over her head. The tallest building in Northridge looked peach in the setting sun. The smaller moon twinkled and the larger shone full in the twilight sky.

She rushed up the steps and flung open the door. Two Devoted in white stood when Lyllithe entered.

 “Am I too late?” she asked, half hoping the Testing had ended.

 Mistress Nyalesee, the older of the two, smiled wide and beckoned. “No, dear, of course not. Light yet shines, so it is still Markday.” Cheeks brushed by auburn curls, she pulled back her hood, then gestured for Lyllithe to follow into the sanctuary.

 Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor as they walked between simple benches to the dais at the center of the circular room. The last touches of sunlight peeked through the windows near the ceiling. A serving girl started lighting rows of candles for the Night Watch. Fragrant incense filled Lyllithe’s nose.

 Lyllithe pulled back her hood and ran fingers through her hair. The collar-length black strands covered the pointed tips of her ears to hide the physical proof of her mixed blood. She caught herself hiding her features and stopped. It doesn’t matter. Everyone here knows what I am already.

 Nyalesee took one of the two stools and turned to her companion, a stately woman with a perpetual scowl. “Harra, do you require Lyllithe to complete the interview, or will her demonstration suffice?”

 Harra pursed her lips. “She does it correctly or she doesn’t Test at all.”

 Nyalesee rolled her eyes. “We have the past four results on record. Exceptional marks, every year.”

 “And yet she struggles to manifest the Light each time,” Harra replied. She cocked her head and smiled. “Complete failure, every year.”

 “Sister, we waste time. Outside of Testing, she has potential we’ve not seen in decades.”

 Harra shrugged. “Unreliable potential is useless in a crisis. Do you think the Eldest would have us show favoritism toward his adopted daughter or treat her any different than the normal supplicants? I think not.”

 Lyllithe bristled and fought to maintain a serene expression. Do I think you phrased that just to comment on my heritage? Yes.

 Nyalesee grimaced. “Marten would have us exercise sound judgment.”

 “Marten’s not here to ask,” Harra countered. “So I say we do things right.”

 Nyalesee gave in, and began reciting questions in a monotone voice.

 “To what are you Devoted, supplicant?”

 Lyllithe replied in the same bored tone. “To purity in the Light, which gives me the grace to heal. To the path of peace with all men, which keeps me pure. To the truth, which guards my steps on the path of peace.”

 Harra fumed at the seeming irreverence, but said nothing.

 I don’t know what you expected, Sister. I’ve had this memorized since the first year, with three extra chances to practice it since.

 “And will you remain faithful to that truth?”

 “Until my light fades or the Final Dawn breaks.”

 “Tell me, supplicant, of Aulis and His light.”

 While questions and answers flowed without error, part of Lyllithe’s mind focused on the demonstration to follow. Her stomach fluttered and she felt queasy. The steps are clear, and I understand the doctrine. But every time I stand to be Tested, I fail to produce the Light of Life.

 Memories of past attempts filled her with dread. What’s the point? This year will be like the rest. If I don’t pass, I can’t be a Devoted, can’t get my Gracemark.

 She pictured her father and mother on the road returning from Aulivar. Couldn’t even stay here to support me, could you, Father? I’m such an embarrassment that you ran to the city on a “sudden errand” rather than see me fail again?

 “The Gracemark is the visible reminder of the presence of a particular Aspect of the Divine,” Lyllithe recited. “It is a sign of power bestowed upon the believer.”

 Nyalesee nodded and said, “By what two methods can one receive their Mark?”

 “Most adherents receive from their order what is properly called a Gracebrand, after passing the Test. But an Aspect may also bless the faithful with a spontaneous Gracemark instead.”

 And now we come to it. Lyllithe’s heart thumped in her chest like a hammer. Four attempts already. Four failures. Why should today be different?

 “Correct,” Nyalesee said. She rose to her feet. “Now are you prepared to demonstrate your faith, and receive the Gracebrand of Aulis, the Aspect of Light?”

 “As ready as ever,” Lyllithe muttered.

Harra raised an eyebrow.

 Nyalesee rose, and her demeanor softened. She took Lyllithe’s hand and squeezed. “Five is the number of Grace, dear. This should give you hope.”

 Harra chuckled and stood. “Show us, supplicant. Invoke the Light of life.”

 Lyllithe closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Breath is life. Life, fill me. She raised her hands to chest height, palms out. Light reveals truth. Truth guards my steps. My path and past are pure. Light shines on the pure.

 She exhaled and pictured orbs of light cupped in her palms. Life and Light are in me. Let them flow forth. Her hands came together, combining the twin suns in her mind into one bright sphere.

 Harra snickered.

 Lyllithe’s eyes opened. Her empty fingers clasped together before her in the dim sanctuary. There was no Light.

Nyalesee’s hands covered her mouth and her brow furrowed, like a mother whose toddler falls while trying to walk.

 In the silence, Lyllithe could hear the commotion of the Markday festival. Muffled trumpet blasts and soft shouts disturbed the calm of the Abbey. Each one jabbed Lyllithe with pangs of defeat.

 Harra’s lips turned up at the edges. “Would you like to try again, child?” She chuckled. “There’s still time before sundown—if you’re certain it’s worth the attempt.”

 Lyllithe’s shoulders sagged. She raised the hood over her face to conceal the tears forming. “No, Devoted,” she whispered. “I’ll waste no more of your time.” She turned toward the entrance of the sanctuary. Her feet weighed a hundred stone as she took the first steps.

Nyalesee breathed out a sympathetic sigh. The clamor outside grew more obvious, impossible to ignore.

 How many Marks were given this day? Lyllithe’s emotions churned with the increasing noise. Scar the Markday and Gracemarks anyway!

 She felt a wave of guilt at once, and whispered a repentant prayer.

The door to the sanctuary burst open. “Help! Aid, now!” A man in armor filled the doorframe, a bloody cloaked mass cradled in his hands. Camden, the town’s lone Soulforged protector eased his burden into the sanctuary.

 He’s carrying a wounded woman. Lyllithe recognized the pattern and colors of the fabric. She sprinted to the door as Camden carried the body in. It can’t be.

 The man rushed past Lyllithe to the two Devoted at the dais. Metal clinked with each step.

 The emblem of Aulis woven into the cloak—now stained red—and the bloody brown hair could have belonged to several residents of Northridge.

 But the Gracemarked hand that Lyllithe had clung to for years as a child could belong to no one else.

 Lyllithe fell to her knees with a scream. “Mother!”

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

It seems inevitable. You work on something for days, weeks, even months. You reach the point where you’re satisfied that this is a good, finished product. You click “Publish” or “Submit” or some equivalent…

…and immediately you notice mistakes. 

 

“Oh no… how did I miss that?!”
 
I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year and completed a manuscript of a novel inspired by current events. Then I deployed to the Mid-East for almost four months, with grand intentions of re-reading and revising the draft (as well as finishing my fantasy novel, and starting a futuristic military novel). 

You know what they say about the best laid plans, and this was no exception.

In late May or early June I got the email from the nanowrimo account warning me that I would lose my reward of two free hard copies from CreateSpace if I didn’t use them by the end of June. I refocused my attention on the manuscript and got it ready for public release. I sent the materials into CreateSpace and started working on reformatting the document for the Kindle edition. 

Then I found the issues I wish I noticed sooner: two supporting characters whose plot threads could have been expanded and better resolved. Later feedback revealed an erroneous technical detail about hospital equipment that a little more research might have resolved. And while I got good in-person reviews from a couple first readers, I also learned they had a hard time connecting to the main characters–feeling what the characters felt, sensing their reactions to the various crises in the plot. 

So while I chalk this up as a win, I also have to recognize where I could have done better. 

1. Critique is essential. Bad on me for skipping it, since I wrote a book about this. Other readers see the weaknesses and mistakes I cannot. If I wasn’t going to pay the money for a professional editor, I should have taken the time to solicit some alpha readers’ input. 

2. There are five senses. It’s basic advice but a great reminder. A lot of the description in the novel provided sufficient detail for sight and somewhat for sound. But there are missed moments where taste, touch, and smell could have shined.

3. Plot like a roller coaster. Let the drama rise and fall to create pauses and build tension between rushes of excitement. Perhaps in the interest of trying to create good hooks, my characters go through a never-ending rush of drama, from one crisis to the next. I’m not saying everything should be happy go-lucky, but I could’ve included a few beats of humor or serenity in the midst of the chaos.

4. Good writing outshines wordplay trickery. I went with two characters with the same name as a way of driving home the point that we’re all pretty similar. In retrospect, the confusion that causes for readers doesn’t seem to be worth any supposed payoff. (Critique would have caught this… to her credit, my wife told me this was a problem and I foolishly went along with my grand plan instead.)

5. There’s no rush if you’re self-publishing. I let myself be fooled by the “deadline” of the nanowrimo reward. But that reward only saved me maybe five dollars. On the one hand, it spurred me to finish the project and get it out into the open, which I might not have otherwise done. On the other hand, it created a false sense of urgency that blinded me to some of the areas where I could have written a much better novel. Better to get it right than to regret missed opportunities. Like many things in life, victory in the battle to become a writer goes sometimes not to the swift

Lessons (hopefully) learned. I will do better next time. 

Finding Myself on Amazon

So I searched for my name on Amazon and to my delight, I see my two books available.

Elements of Critique (Kindle) is a 30-chapter guide to performing constructive critique and giving thorough feedback for writers and critique groups. It’s a revised compilation of the A-Z blog series I did last year. The topics cover a range of aspects to look for when reviewing a piece of writing, whether someone else’s or your own. Three chapters at the end lay out how to set up a potential critique group if a healthy one isn’t already available to you. A paperback version is available here.
Not to the Swift (Kindle) is my NaNoWriMo novel, born from my response to the dominant news story at the time: the tensions and protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown. I spent a couple months researching and reading about experiences outside my norm, because I couldn’t get the story I envisioned out of my head. A paperback version is available here.
 

Naturally there are several David Williamsons, so if you’re looking for ME, use the links in the text above.
 
Seeing these online is a surreal experience. I don’t know why it should feel strange; publishing–even self-publishing–is usually the point. Otherwise, why am I wasting my time? 

Yet it feels awkward to have my “babies” available to purchase at a click.

Needless to say, this is a small step by a fledgling writer. Anyone can self-publish anything and get it on Amazon, so I understand how much this does and doesn’t really mean.

But to me, it’s the end result of several months of effort and a milestone towards what I hope to accomplish in the future. With my fantasy novel in the hands of alpha readers, a couple Chicken Soup for the Soul of Military Families submissions in the works, and a sci-fi project currently a few chapters into the first draft, I’m excited about what lies ahead.

Thanks for encouraging and supporting me on the journey, wherever it leads. 

Best Indentions

I should be posting a link to a published novel on CreateSpace right now…

Instead, I’m uploading a revised copy of the manuscript, after which I’ll have to wait (again) for the review process to complete.

Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons...
Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons…

Being this close to putting a novel on the market is exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Like a cold pool on a hot summer day, I just want to dive in and get the initial discomfort over with.

But the very first lesson in my Elements of Critique e-book is about proper format and appearance.

And when I saw a missing paragraph indent on the very first page of the novel, despite a couple thorough reviews, I knew I needed to take another look for more issues.

I fixed three: the original offending indent, a quotation mark all by its lonesome, and an overlooked * * * * * I often use between scenes in my manuscripts.

None of those would have been the end of the world. But I know how easily I become critical of self-published but poorly edited works. I know how distracting a missing punctuation mark or misspelled word can be.

If you’re going to do something, they say, take the time to do it right. No one will care that I had the best intentions to release a proper draft. All they’ll see is the result of my effort. So I need to make sure that the final product is correct.

Plus, when I pause to consider how different this process would be a decade or two ago, I have no reason to complain. Within a day, I’ll have a corrected proof copy ready for me to approve, and the book will be available. I don’t have to wait weeks for a letter from a publishing house, then wait a few more to send back the updated draft, then wait still more for a rough copy…

Yep, I have nothing to complain about.

The book is titled “Not to the Swift,” from a verse in Ecclesiastes that reminds us the victory in a race is not always to the fastest, nor is triumph in battle always to the strongest.

The “race” to publish quality work takes time too, which is frustrating.

But I’ll be happier with the end result, and more importantly, so will the readers.

So… deep breath, sip of coffee, back into the cover selection process…

Contributor if not Author

There’s a saying, “Writers write, authors publish.” I’m not sure if it’s meant to chastise those of us who claim the “author” title improperly (by whose standard?) or to encourage us to move past a never-finished manuscript and into the final scary stages of publication.

Maybe contributors to published works fall in the middle somewhere. And despite the growing acceptance of self-publishing, I can’t help but imagine there’s a diminutive attached to that method of publishing… an unsaid and insincere “well, isn’t that cute.”

Despite all that, I’m proud to announce my work has been included in a compilation of stories about God’s leading and guidance in our lives today. The book of about 40 different stories includes five of my short personal accounts for where I believe God worked in my life to give me some direction at key times. Think Chicken Soup for the Soul but amped up in overtly Christian content.

IMG_1770
I mentioned this once on Facebook when I found out about it (around the time I deployed at the end of last year). In looking over blog posts, it seems I never actually posted about this, however.

Here’s the link to the book on Amazon: God Still Leads and Guides