Category Archives: Bordermarches

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.


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?


“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.

Diffraction Chapter Eight: Together

Reveal the Strength of Aulis’ call, make those once-blinded know.

 Though the setting sun only grazed the horizon, revelers already packed the main room of the Friar’s Folly. The boisterous crowd spilled out into the central street of Northridge. Farmers and shepherds out front surrounded a merchant wagon labeled Falsted’s Finery. A hawker showed off wares from Aulivar and made bargains, seeking coin but willing to barter. Inside the tavern, music from three instruments filled the air, each playing a different tune in separate parts of the hall. The cacophony of song resounded in Josephine’s ears.

 She pushed her way through the crowd blocking her exit. When she glanced back, an elderly man with an immaculate goatee and fine robes raised his mug to say farewell. Joram Falsted, whose business stretched between Aulivar and distant Aelwyn in the east, along with all the towns in between.

 He winked and smiled before one of his associates demanded his attention.

 Josephine blinked in the sunlight once she reached the street. How does Master Falsted stand that racket? He acted like this is tame. What must the Market Square in Aulivar be like?

 Imaginations of the City-State filled Josephine with hope. Maybe I’ll find out for myself. She pictured gleaming white stonework buildings towering into the sky and merchants in the latest fashions crying out to wealthy nobles dressed in finery. Horses clopped down cobblestone streets in her mind. Most of all, the air would smell fresh and sweet, like baked goods.

 Josephine skirted around a steaming pile in the dirt road and turned toward her father’s home. I bet there’s no dung laying about in Aulivar, that’s for sure.

 She considered Joram’s offer and tingled. Is that excitement, or fear? I’m not sure.

 Townsfolk raised their right hands in greeting, palms turned inward, whether they had a Gracemark or not. Josephine Marked to a couple Elders who turned aside as if distracted. More than a few busy folk with cold glares in the last three months.

 Josephine brushed off the snub, and her thoughts returned to the last question Joram asked. Am I truly ready for this? Father doesn’t think so, or I would have gone to Glacierift with the Arcanist. Camden Delumiere’s decision to forbid his daughter’s selection did not sit well with the town’s Elders. Many sent sons into the Militia, and the sight of a Gracemarked Soulforged like Josephine in the town raised questions.

 But for Josephine, the memory stoked fires of rage ever since.

 There is nothing left for him to teach me. He said so himself. Her fists clenched and her footfalls turned to stomping. So why can I not do my part? What if they encounter Fractured in the north?

 The twisted creatures came in many forms, but regardless which shape they took, a Fractured always looked like an animal made of liquid shadow. The strength of men faltered when facing one. Swords and shields tripled in weight. Armor became an overwhelming burden, making it impossible to move. Even an Arcanist’s Refocusing magic acted strange around Fractured.

 A verse of Tsadek’s oaths echoed in Josephine’s mind. Soulforged blessed with Just One’s might, called to stand against the Night. Only the holy warriors of Tsadek the Aspect of Justice could stand unencumbered by a Fractured’s power. Soulforged were forever sought after, and every settlement housed at least one. Until four years ago, Camden was Northridge’s sole protector against the Night.

 Josephine frowned as she approached the gates of her father’s home. You’re not the only one, now, Dad. Deal with it. Give me an opportunity.

 Soft whimpering from the side of the house broke Josephine out of her thoughts. Her right hand reached by instinct for a hammer at her hip that was not there. She jogged around the corner and gasped.

 A dirty brown figure racked by sobbing slumped against the house. Lyllithe! Josephine froze, taking in the scene. “Light, girl, did you roll in the mud with the pigs?”

 Lines of pale skin shone in the sunlight where tears carved through the caked mud on Lyllithe’s face. Her shirt hung too loose over her slender frame, exposing more flesh. The gentle glow of Lyllithe’s double Gracemark barely shone through the dirt on her hand. She looked up at Josephine and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.

 Was this one of those blasted Devoted from Lyllithe’s class? Some practical joke gone too far? Everyone knew the Ghostskin was the butt of half the pranks in Northridge.

 Josephine knelt down, furious. “What happened to you? What God-scarred son of a Kem did this?”

 Something smelled wrong. Metallic. Pungent.

 Josephine looked at her palm.

 This isn’t dirt.

 She fell backwards and grunted when she hit the ground. Her voice croaked. “Lyl… what… whose blood…”

 Horn blasts erupted from the Woodwall around the town. One cut short. Then another.

 We’re under attack? The bandits never assault the Wall.

 Josephine scrambled to her feet. “Stay here, Lyl. I need to fetch my hammer.” She spoke an oath to Tsadek. “Give me strength to stand. There’s killing to be done.”

 Behind her, Lyllithe groaned.

      * * * * *

 A war of emotion raged in Lyllithe’s mind.

 Just tell her. You have to warn her, warn all of them of what you did, what Jek said.

 If they find out, I’m finished as a Devoted.

 You already are.

 I never asked for this.

 Really? Then why play with magic? Why didn’t you simply burn Davon’s book?

 Lyllithe had no answer, at least none that would drive away the crushing burden of guilt. She hunched over on her knees, her abdomen tight from strained breaths and weeping. Her hands shook and she placed them on the ground for stability. In the distance, the horns ceased. Shouts echoed, but Lyllithe couldn’t make out words.

 I knew better, but I wanted this so badly. What have I done?

 Knowledge has a limit. Dominating one’s nature is superior. The inscription on Davon’s book. Her eyes opened, and she saw the soft blue glow of her Gracemark shining through the cracked dry blood on her hand.

 I have not been forsaken. I am not abandoned or Scarred. I can and will control myself.

 Lyllithe sucked in a deep breath and focused on the Strength side of her Mark. Light send me strength, because I’m going to fix this.

 She rose to her feet and looked for energy in the air. Wavy lines of aera intertwined and turned on each breeze. Lyllithe Bound some and twisted it into aqua. A small cloudless shower poured down on her as she walked toward the Square and the town’s gates. The blood and grime streamed down her arms and legs, revealing shining white skin once more.

 A voice inside her mind whispered, Guilt doesn’t wash away so easily.

      * * * * *

 Josephine hustled up the steps to the guards’ platform halfway up the Woodwall. Camden stood there with three Elders, their voices low. Josephine ignored a bloody, lifeless hand hanging off the wooden ledge above, where the townsfolk on duty patrolled. Another body lay in the dirt below, with an arrow through his neck. Tolam, the baker’s brother.

 Grieve later. First we avenge this. She drew her hammer from its belt loop and adjusted the straps on her shield.

 Raucous voices hollered and sang beyond the Wall. Josephine could only make out snippets of the lyrics.

 …What’ll I do once me purse is full?

Break her legs and crush her skull! 

 An’ when an Arcanist looks me way

 To set me bones on fire,

 I know right what Kal would say,

 In a fight so dire:

 I’ll cut ‘is gut in night or day

 An’ send ‘is corpse to the Friar!

 Cheers and whoops punctuated each stanza, and the bandits began another. In this verse, the victim was a Dunnestani merchant out of Aelwyn. Josephine blushed at the indignities the bandits promised, and turned to listen to her father.

 “Most of the bandits stand on the other side of the gate,” Camden told the Elders. “Obviously they have archers in positions in the trees or on high terrain. Our men on the other side of the Wall took arrows as well, though they lived to find cover.”

 Josephine considered the Elders. First, there was Master Varonaulis, the leader of the Council. The pudgy man’s eyes darted all about, and his breath came out in nervous gasps. His puffy hands gripped the railing of the guard platform. He’ll bend like a first-year sapling if it saves his hide. Next, Gammin, whose son now ran the Folly. Scrappy and strong-willed. He won’t stand for this. And Marten, the Eldest from the Abbey. Lyl’s dad. With everything he’s lost to these bandits of Kal’s, surely he won’t give in.

 Even if he can’t fight to save his own life.

 The townsfolk clustered together near the platform, most eyes fixed on Master Varonaulis. Whispers and murmurs reached Josephine’s ears, and she looked at the councilman. Sweat beaded on his brow, though he often dabbed it with a handkerchief. Josephine imagined she heard his heart pounding like a war drum beneath his rich coat.

 At least I hope I’m imagining that.

 Camden lay a reassuring hand on the councilman’s shoulder, who jolted at the touch. “Balfour, what would you have us do?”

 “I—well, I think we must, ahh…” He patted his brow again, and his eyes darted to Marten. “I think we must give them what they demand, and hope they are satisfied with that.”

 Making demands of the village? Josephine frowned. That’s new. What do we have to offer that they couldn’t take from travelers and merchants on the road?

 Marten moved to speak, but Camden raised a hand. “I cannot abandon one of our own to torture and death, Councilman.”

 Varonaulis looked down. “She’s not really one of our own, though, is she?”

 Marten and Camden both erupted into shouts, and Varonaulis raised his hands as if expecting a physical attack.

 A booming voice rang out from the other side of the Wall. “You had time to think it over. Bring out your Arcanist and we go away.”

 What? Northridge doesn’t have an Arcanist.

 Varonaulis whispered, “We can’t stand against so many. It’s for the best.”

 “You got enough trouble to worry you, putting out fires,” the bandit yelled. “Open up the gates. Give us that Ghostskin, an’ we’ll give you peace.”


 A flash of white caught Josephine’s eye. Wet and clean, Lyllithe strode into the Square and made her way toward the crowd as if summoned.

 Many hard faces with narrowed eyes turned toward her.

 But not Gammin’s. “Fires?” He turned to Camden. “What fires?”

 Flaming arrows whooshed overhead, landing in thatched roofs and wooden walls. Three struck the whitewashed wood of the Abbey.

 Camden dashed down the stairs and yelled to the townsfolk. “Women to the well, with buckets. Swiftly! Keep the fires at bay. Once they’re out, seek shelter. Any who will stand and fight, come to me.” Then he turned to Lyllithe’s father. “Get your Devoted ready to tend the wounded. And Gammin, send some lads for weapons.”

 Varonaulis sputtered, opening and closing his mouth and raising a finger seeking attention no one paid him. Finally he spit out a question. “Delumiere, what are you going to do?”

 Camden smiled as he strapped on his shield. “Just what you suggested, Councilman.”

 His hand closed around the haft of his warhammer, and it shone with sudden light like it held the sun within. “We’ll give them what they demand.”

 A second wave of fiery arrows pelted the town.

 Camden turned and shouted for the bandits to hear. “Prepare to open up the gates!”


      * * * * *

 Lyllithe twisted more aera into water to put out flames. The light of fires and the setting sun cast orange and red hues over all of Northridge. In between plumes of smoke, stars began to twinkle in the twilight. Near the gates, the men of Northridge gathered their weapons and prepared for a fight. A few women joined their ranks. There’s Jo, right at the front.

 Doubts filled Lyllithe’s mind. You should be in the Abbey. They will need healers.

 I don’t even know if I can still heal. And I’m in no rush to find out.

 How devoted you are.

 She Refocused more air into water. Fires sputtered and went out. I can do more here.

 Haven’t you already done enough?

 Another volley of flaming arrows struck the town. One woman with an arrow in her side screamed and fell thrashing as her dress caught on fire. Anetta. Stam’s niece.

 This is your fault.

 I know.

 Lyllithe turned away from a burning building and loosed aqua on the woman. The flames went out. Lyllithe jogged over, extending a hand, ignoring the stench of burnt hair.

 Anetta scrambled backwards like a crab, wincing in pain before rising to her feet.

 I saved you. Why are you so afraid of me?

 The doubts broke in again. How many will die tonight as the cost of your dreams?

 Not that one, Lyllithe answered. But she watched as Anetta ran away.

 Lyllithe turned back to Loose more aqua onto the new set of fires sprouting up. And she told herself it was the smoke that made her eyes water.

      * * * * *


 Josephine shifted from one foot to the other, ready to sprint into battle as soon as the gates swung wide.

 On the other side, the bandits hollered and taunted the townsfolk. “You’re outta time,” one yelled into the darkening dusk. “We’re coming in if you don’t turn her over now.”

 Camden stood beside Josephine, calm and immovable, the Light-Shield of the stories Davon and others told. “Patience, Jo. Be steadfast. The river’s strength breaks on the rocks. Stones don’t charge into the nearest stream.”

 Josephine sniffed. “Water wears the stones down until nothing is left.”

 “Perhaps. But only over a long time. And this ends tonight.” Camden shrugged and grinned. “We’ve got no place to go. Nowhere to be but here.”

 Josephine returned the grin. “Soulforged blessed with Just One’s might,” she recited.

 “Together we’ll outlast the night,” Camden said.

 Dad, you can’t change the oaths whenever you please. But that word together brought a smile. I am ready for this. He knows it. A more important realization came. He trusts me.

 Camden raised his hammer to the men at the Woodwall. “Steel your hearts for battle, and open the gates!”

 They shoved at cranks that turned gears and pushed the tall doors open. The defenders formed up, spears and swords at the ready along with pitchforks and staves.

 Warcries erupted from the other side. Something roared in the twilight.

 “Open only one quarter.” Camden said. “Create a chokepoint against a charge.”

 The men around him shifted and stared—at him, at each other, at the night beyond the widening gap between the gates. Josephine saw hesitation and confusion on several faces.

 “Farmhands and herdsmen, Dad,” she said. “This isn’t a star of Lightsworn soldiers defending the City’s walls.”

 Camden nodded and turned to the men of Northridge. “They’ll be forced to enter one or two at a time. Guard each other, and you’ll get through this night with stories to tell your children. I will not say ‘Do not fear.’ Fear if you must, but do so for your women and children huddled in your homes. And let that fear drive you to seize greatness, as many noble men have done before you.”

 The Light-Shield spun and pointed at the gap in the gate. “Let them come!”

 A massive hand punched between the widening doors, and they shuddered. What was that? Black claws dug into the tree trunks which made up the left gate, and wood splintered. Another hand grasped the top of the left gate. That’s the height of two men.

 The townsfolk murmured and stirred. Ranks drifted apart and men shuffled back.

 Something bellowed, and the left gate flew up into the air to crash in the distant forest. A mountain of muscle in a vaguely humanoid form stomped into the town on cloven hooves, orange flames reflecting in the huge curved black horns sprouting from its head. Glowing yellow eyes in the creature’s skull-like visage scanned the defenses and settled on Camden. Bandits rushed in on either side and attacked the stunned defenders.

 “Dad, what is that?”

 Camden frowned. “A Kem’neth, a Cursebearer—a Scarred man empowered and corrupted by one of the Daemons into a champion of war.”

 The creature’s lofty gaze took in the meager opposition. Obsidian claws gleamed as it flexed its fingers. It snorted and made some rumbling sounds like coughing.

 Josephine stood frozen in place. “And what is it doing?”

 “Laughing at us.”

Diffraction Chapter Seven: Playing with Fire

In preparation for publishing, I’ve been posting chapters from my fantasy novel, Diffraction. They’re also available on WattPad here


Peace extended unto all, no matter friend or foe.

    A soft breeze plucked the scent from hillside wildflowers and wafted down the gentle slope into the trees. At the edge of a clearing, leaves rustled and long grass waved around Lyllithe’s shins. Today she wore plain brown linen pants and a thin cotton shirt that left her arms exposed under a worn leather vest emblazoned front and back with the Sun emblem of Aulis, the Divine Aspect of Light. 
    You never know when you might be called upon as a Devoted, Marten often taught. Your powers are a gift. It would be shameful and selfish to hide them.
    Lyllithe frowned at the mental lecture. Yes, Father, like how we cower in the Abbey’s safety instead of facing evil in the real world.
    Once again, she surveyed her surroundings, reveling in the beauty. Her father loved to warn against entering the forest and mountains beyond the Woodwall. Plagued by bandits, they say. But there are worse creatures than greedy Scarred men. Lyllithe could hear him scoff in her mind. You might find a pack of Shade-wrought to devour your soul in darkness. Or even some of the Kem, granted power through the curse of the Daemons.
    Lyllithe glanced about the clearing. Butterflies flitted around a cluster of Elith-Eyes in bloom. That speech worked when I was five summers old. 
    No one had seen any Kem around Northridge in her lifetime. And although rumors from other parts of the Bordermarches spoke of increased Shade sightings, even old Stam admitted he’d never heard of one in the area.
    No, Father, it’s the Scarred men I worry about. Men who could have been noble, who bore Gracemarks once, but forsook their Aspects and the teachings of their faith. A Shade was a twisted creature, but that was its nature. A man with a Scar was corrupted by choice.
    She glanced down at the glowing symbol on her right hand. Three months dabbling in the Arcane, and I still fear I might wake up Scarred one day. Surely it would have happened by now, if magic truly meant abandoning the Light.
    The cool wind struck her pale glistening skin and tempered the strength of noon’s sun. She took a deep breath, then sighed. This isn’t why you’re out here, fool girl. 
    The stump of a fallen tree stuck out of the ground a dozen paces away. She stared at it as if expecting it to spring to life. 
    “Do not see by the light,” she recited, picturing the pages of the book Davon gave her three months ago. “See Light itself.”
    The air seemed to shimmer. Lyllithe saw rainbow strands pulsating, stretching down like an intricate web from the sky. She exerted her will on several near the stump, drawing the energy into herself. That side of the clearing dimmed for a moment. Refocus the energy. Take it, twist it, turn it, throw it.
    Power coursed through Lyllithe’s nerves. Her body trembled at first, then shook. Like fingers held too close to a flame, the initial comforting warmth shifted into pain which soon became unbearable.
    She chose flagros—fire—and squinted at the stump. A jet of flame appeared in the air before her. It streaked across the path of her vision and struck the wood with a thunderclap, shattering the stump into splinters. The brightness returned, revealing a jagged crater of wood. Smoking fragments rained down around the clearing.
    Lyllithe grinned and rocked on her heels. I can Bind an element, change it to another, and Loose it. She practiced thinking in proper terms the Arcanists used. 
She watched the strands of fire vanish. Nice to get something good out of my elemental heritage for a change. Pureblood humans like Davon could not Bind without the use of an Ocular, but Lyllithe needed no aid to see the elemental energies available all around her. 

Maybe being a half-blood Ghostskin isn’t entirely bad.

    She analyzed her attempt, and remembered the pain. “What is Bound must be Loosed,” Davon’s book stated. Binding could only be held for short periods before the user had to release it. You can only hold one Binding at a time, and that not for long. Seems rather limiting.
    Lyllithe paced around the smoking stump, assessing the damage. Davon seemed to think Binding light would be easy for me. Now what can I create when I Loose it? 
    The breeze picked up, and Lyllithe blinked to clear her vision from the strands of light. She looked for air next, and faint swirls of aera like unwound yarn appeared around her, shifting gently. She reached out with her mind, imagining plunging her fingers into the jumble. Her mental grasp closed around a handful of the transparent yarn, and she tugged. 
    Take it, twist it. A pleasant sensation filled her for a few seconds before growing more violent. She shuddered from phantom pinpricks all over her skin. Then it seemed her veins pumped acid that would burst out if not released. Turn it. Refocus it into lux. You can do this.
    Every Arcanist had an affinity for one element above all others. Drawing on the energy of that element was considered the easiest task, ideal for beginners. The book stated that converting other elements into one’s affinity is for those with greater skill and experience. 
    I do love a challenge. 
    She gritted her teeth and struggled to create light, pushing with all her will. But it felt like trying to jam mismatched puzzle pieces together.
    The strain overwhelmed her, and she lost control. A brief spray of water burst over the clearing, centered above Lyllithe’s head. She gasped at the sudden chill. The aera shifted into aqua, its natural complementary element. Droplets sizzled when they hit the smoking ruin of the tree stump.
    I can get this to work. 
    She grabbed more of the invisible yarn of air, twisting gently at first, then building up in force. Wind seemed to rush into the space in front of her, ruffling her clothes and hair. She wrung the strands together with one final effort. A ball of light appeared in her hands.
    Lyllithe laughed despite the growing pain of Bound energy. Throw it!
    She thrust her hands up into the sky. An almost invisible sphere flew into the air. Trees and clouds shimmered as it passed. When it reached its peak, the light around the ball rushed into the center, creating a glimmer in the middle of a translucent globe of shade. In a heartbeat, the compressed light exploded. A wave of force rippled out from the blast. 
    Like a star, bursting in the night sky.
    Lyllithe repeated the process three more times, sending starbursts up into the air, each one bigger than the last. On the fourth attempt, she reached out for more aera, and— 
     What is that?
    Somewhere, what she could only describe as in the distance in her mind, there was a sensation of something other. A deep power, vast and unmoving. All elements flow in some way, but this is stationary. Stagnant. 
    She tried to focus her mind on it, but a wave of nausea struck her and the feeling dissipated. When she turned her attention back to the aera, the sensation of unknown power returned. Like seeing something out the corner of my eye. 
    Her first instinct was to call it darkness. But Davon clearly stated that darkness didn’t actually exist; it was merely absence of light.
    This exists. This is a thing. 
    And yet it felt like a void, a great heavy mass of emptiness. So much power there.
    She reached out to take hold, careful to avoid direct focus on the mysterious source. Her mind brushed the surface—
    Lyllithe screamed and thrashed on the ground. Her body ached, like claws scratched within her chest out into every extremity, tearing flesh along the way. She rolled over and vomited into the grass. 
    Oh, Light, what… what was that?
    Her weak, shaking muscles pushed against the dirt. She struggled to an upright position, supported by one knee. There are clearly some things for which I need guidance. 
    A branch snapped near the edge of the treeline, and Lyllithe froze. Distant voices carried on the breeze met her ears. 
    “Over this way, I’m sure of it.” A man’s voice, gruff, yet eager. 
    “You’re wasting time, Jek.” Another male, with an air of authority.
    “I tell you true, ’twas a woman that yelled,” Jek said. 
    More branches rustled. They’re getting closer. Lyllithe looked about for cover. I’m in the middle of a clearing. Where am I supposed to hide?
    The second man laughed. “You been in the woods too long, Jek. Go pay a visit to the hired girls in the Outskirts—maybe you’ll think clearer.” 
    “You saw it, Maz,” Jek said. “Heard it too. Those balls of shadow blowin’ up in the air.”
    Lyllithe scrambled away from the ruined stump. She reached the edge of the clearing opposite from the voices and dove into the thick grass near the trees.
    “If your woman-voice made those,” Maz said, “maybe we don’t want to meet her.”
    Jek laughed. “But killin’ an Arcanist is so much fun.”
    Between swaying blades of grass, Lyllithe watched two men step into the light. Jek, the laughing man, looked short but stocky, with arms and legs thick and hard like the trees he appeared from. His unkempt shock of brown hair extended into a coarse beard that hung halfway down his chest. Jek’s chainmail vest clinked with each step, and his right hand wrapped tight around the haft of a spiked hammer. 
    Maz had a slender frame draped in a cloak of furs. Black hair hung down to his eyebrows, and the stubble on his face was peppered with grey. Chainmail peeked out from beneath a leather jerkin, and two sheathed long knives hung off his belt.
    He put a boot onto the remains of the stump. “Lookit that.”
    Jek glanced at Maz, and his smile faded. His eyes darted around the clearing. “Why’s everything wet?”
    Maz shrugged and grabbed one of his knives. Sunlight revealed a rough scar like an inverted parasol on the back on his hand.
    Lyllithe choked down fear. He was a Soulforged once.
    Maz snapped a finger to get Jek’s attention and pointed at the ground.
    Jek nodded and drew close.
    Lyllithe made out the whisper. Footprints.
    The men took slow, quiet steps, approaching the treeline where Lyllithe hid.
    Panic struck. She watched their movements, desperate. I can’t use Refocusing on them. The Abbey forbids violence. I’ll become impure. Her eyes fixated on Maz’s scar. I could lose my Gracemark, just like him.
    Adrenaline coursed through her. No choice but to run before they get close. She took a slow breath, tensed up, and whispered a prayer. Light save me from my own stupidity.
    A birdcall nearby distracted the men. 
    Lyllithe took her chance. She sprang from the ground and started running, hoping to use the trees for cover.
    Jek shouted and gave chase.
    A whooshing sound made Lyllithe stop short, and one of Maz’s knives pinned her open vest to a tree with a thunk. She strained to get free of the vest, but the angle made it awkward.
    Jek closed the distance within seconds, whooping and waving the hammer at Lyllithe. “Where ya goin’, Ghostskin?” 
    Maz strode through the grass and produced another knife. 
    Lyllithe stopped struggling and glared at the men. “I am the daughter of the Eldest of Northridge, who will not permit—”
    Maz backhanded Lyllithe, a grim sneer on his face. 
    Lights exploded in her head.
    He held his scar before her face. “You see this? Don’t presume to tell me what’s permitted.”
    Light. I need the Light. Lyllithe reached for Divine power through her Gracemark, then stopped. What am I going to do, heal them?
    Jek grinned and grabbed Lyllithe’s throat. “Skin’s so soft, so white.” He set down the hammer and ran his finger across the emblazoned sun on her vest. “Never been with a Devoted.”
    His hot breath stank, and Lyllithe gagged.
    Maz shoved Jek aside. “I’m the Second, Jek. I get first pick of any spoils.”
    Lyllithe gasped for air. Air… aera… maybe I can Refocus. She sought the jumble of invisible yarn she’d seen before, ready to risk impurity to defend herself.
    Her concentration broke when Maz groped her. No… please… 
    Maz laughed and tugged at her shirt. Seams popped. Fabric rent. Tears fell.
    Lyllithe thrashed and clawed at the men, raking at them with her fingernails. Unfazed by her effort, Jek wrenched her arms behind her back and pressed her into the tree with his muscular body. 

    “You’re gonna like this,” Maz whispered as he stroked the point of her left ear.
    Straining against the men’s touch, Lyllithe’s body shook with wasted effort. She closed her eyes. At the edge of her consciousness, she felt the stagnant power from before. I can’t do anything with that. 
    Fingers grasped at her waistline, and fear burned in her chest. 
    Her awareness melted like wax before an inferno.
    A long silence passed.
    Birds started chirping. A gentle breeze blew through the grass. 
    A stench of blood and waste filled the air.
    Lyllithe opened her eyes. She lay on the ground looking up into the sky. The sun had moved almost a full hour.
    Something stirred. A man’s voice spoke, slurring like he’d just woke up. “Mark me,” he whispered in abject fear. “Oh, scarring Mark me. What did you do?” 
Lyllithe sat up and turned toward the sound. Jek, the laughing man.
Blood matted his hair and beard. Pink meaty chunks of flesh splattered and stuck in his chainmail. A severed scarred hand lay nearby. Jek wasn’t laughing anymore. 
    Lyllithe looked down. She remained fully clothed, but soaked with blood. One of Maz’s boots sat at her feet, his calf peeking out from the leather. No sign of his knee or anything above it. She quivered and stared, unblinking.
    “Th-th-the trees,” Jek sputtered. 
    For several paces, every tree bent or fell in a circle toward the bloody center where Maz was scattered in the grass.
    Jek struggled to his feet, pointing his thick shaking finger at Lyllithe. “You killed Maz. You killed Kal’s Second.” He looked around, jaw agape. “What—what kind of Cora-spawn are you, Ghostskin?”
    Teardrops cut lines through the blood on Lyllithe’s face. She looked up at Jek, his visage nearly as white as her own, and managed a whisper. “I don’t know.”
    Jek screamed and bolted, stumbling over broken trees and snapped branches. “Scar me, Kal’s gonna hear about this,” he shouted as he ran.
    Lyllithe remained frozen in place. I’ve killed. Somehow, I’ve murdered a man. The symbol of Aulis on her vest caught her eye. I’ll never be accepted as Devoted.
    Her father’s stern face appeared in her mind. What will he say? There’s no forgiving this. 
    Jek’s voice echoed through the trees. “You’re gonna suffer, Ghostskin.”
    Lyllithe stared down at the blood on her hands. I already am.

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 3: Things that Matter

First Purity above all else, unwavering moral will.


 Wood practice swords cracked and shouts echoed from the training field of Northridge. A contingent of fighters and Arcanists arrived earlier in the week on their way to Glacierift. Though the faces in each group seemed either older or younger than they ought to be, the townsfolk seized a rare opportunity. Young men who often trained in the arts of combat with their fathers, uncles, or older brothers now stood against true soldiers of Aulivar. Several women practiced alongside the men.

 Sweat beaded on foreheads and glistened under the noonday sun. Gentle breezes swept away the odor of exertion. Three teens wearing the banner of Aulivar took turns swatting a portly youth with the thick wood shafts. Their laugher carried to the other side of the field, where a father and daughter squared off in mock combat, decked in padded armor.

 “Been a few months since your friend lost her mother,” Camden said. He swung with his quarterstaff. It made a sharp clack as it bounced off Josephine’s upraised shield.

 “Quit trying to distract me,” Josephine said. “And Lyllithe’s not my friend.” She sprung into the air over the sweeping arc of Camden’s staff. Then she came down into a spin, wooden hammer extended.

 “She ought to be.” He jabbed at her wrist. She pulled back and he advanced with a series of quick thrusts. “She needs a friend more than most.” A smirk cracked his firm demeanor. “You aren’t giving as much ground as before.”

 Josephine dodged left. “She’s got a Mark, she’s one of the Devoted. What does she need me for?” Then she lunged with an overhead strike.

 Camden spun out of the way, quarterstaff flying toward Josephine’s back.

She let her momentum carry her into a tuck-and-roll underneath his strikes.

“She has a double Gracemark,” Camden said, “not the typical Gracebrands the Abbey gives.” He paused, staff at the ready. “They don’t treat her like one of their own. Haven’t you noticed?”

 Maybe I’ve got him distracted. Josephine lowered her hammer and planned her next strike. Keep him talking. “I don’t pay much attention to how the Abbey does their business.”

 Camden tipped his staff up. “It’s not about the Abbey, Jo. A Soulforged needs to pay attention to the weak, the downtrodden, the outcasts.” He pointed a finger. “You’re to be strong, yes. Not for yourself, but for them.”

 She sprang into motion. Her hammer cut low under the point of Camden’s staff. He shifted back to dodge as she hoped. She swung her left arm, shield edge out. He brought his staff up to counter the attack. The edge of the shield smashed into the staff, and it shuddered in Camden’s hand.

 His grip held firm. He swept the staff behind Josephine’s leg. Wood thudded against padding, threatening to take Josephine down. She stumbled and jumped back to regain footing, only to find his staff point thrusting into her chest. Camden’s strike glanced off her armor, but it tipped her off-balance. She hit the earth hard and lay there gasping.

 Camden stood over her, his staff pointed down at her face. “Do you yield?”


 “Good.” He laughed and extended a hand, helping her to her feet. “Then you’re acting like a Soulforged. Five years Marked, you should know something by now.”

 Josephine unbuckled her shield and turned toward the weapon racks. I am one of the Soulforged, father. Sealed with a Gracebrand of Justice on my thirteenth Markday. She glanced at the silvery metal etched on the back of her right hand as if for proof. A single vertical line with two downward arms extended, the symbol sparkled in the sun. I am Justice reaching out to bring Order to the world.

 “You tried some new tactics there,” Camden said.

 “Not sure I can call them tactics.” Josephine sighed. “More like mistakes.”

 Camden nodded with a smile. “Some of those were new too.” He placed his staff on the weapons rack. “What were you trying to accomplish swinging your shield like a blade?”

 “You taught me to use every resource available,” Josephine said. “I thought perhaps it might surprise you if I struck with my shield.”

 “Certainly. But remember, any moment not spent using your shield to defend, you leave yourself open.”

 Always a critique, Josephine thought even as she bowed her head in deference. Will you ever tell me when I do something right?

 “You’ve improved,” Camden said, hand clasped on her shoulder. “But you have much to learn yet.”

 He paused at the laughter from the teenage soldiers tormenting the chubby Northridge youth, a Markless boy named Dabry. Despite the odds, Dabry swung his sword in a weak defense. One teen knocked it aside while another rapped him on the rump. The third leaned on his own wood weapon and chuckled.

 “I meant what I said about Lyllithe,” Camden said, eyes on the boys. “She could use a friend right now.”

 Josephine set her shield on a stack, then ran her fingertips over her Gracebrand and looked at the teens. She took her shield up again and put her arm through the straps, buckling them tight. “She’s not the only one.”

 She jogged over to the teens. The first two were distracted by their sport. The third, a ruddy, hairy lump of muscle, turned narrow eyes her way. “You want no part of this.”

 Dabry looked up with a quivering lip but said nothing.

 “Maybe you boys want to see what Northridge folk are made of,” Josephine called out. Now all three faced her.

 “Then run and fetch one of the men, girl,” the third replied. “Not this bleating sheep.”

 “They’re attending to things that matter.” Josephine slipped her practice hammer from its belt loop. “I’ll handle this.”

 All three roared with laughter. “Brazen girls and blubbering boys,” the first said. “No wonder the Lord Mayor sent us up this way. I do like them feisty. They’re the sort that will slip behind a barn and—”

 A hammer thrown from ten paces smashed into his mouth. Teeth and blood flew, and he crumpled. Josephine rushed the other two, their eyes fixed on their injured friend. The Devoted can heal that. I hope they won’t.

 The muscular one looked back to Josephine in time to see a balled fist. It connected with a sickening crunch. Blood spurted from his nose. He flailed and lost his balance. The practice sword clattered to the ground.

 The second teen swung his sword at Josephine’s head. She let the momentum of her punch carry her into a counterclockwise spin, thrusting her shield out. The unexpected charge overpowered the teen’s attack. Josephine’s shield connected with his chest and cheek, knocking him back.

 To his credit, he kept his sword and flowed into a new form. Thrusts and jabs tested Josephine’s defenses, but she dodged or blocked each one.

 The mountain of meat is up. Behind her, the burly teen roared and lunged.

 Josephine ducked right to avoid another thrust, then spun again. Her shield slammed into the second teen’s back, sending him into the larger teen’s charge. They collided and fell in a heap.

 “Pardon me, Dabry,” Josephine said, plucking the shaft from his hand. He stared, slack-jawed, but managed to nod assent. A crowd of onlookers laughed and cheered.

 The big teen rose on shaky legs, hate in his eyes, blood running down his face. Josephine walked up and shoulder-checked him with her shield, laying him out on the packed dirt.

 She planted a foot on his chest and pointed the sword at his throat. “Do you yield?”

 He threw a weak fist into the air and cursed. “Scar you, wench, and your whole scarrin’ town! Shade-wrought take the lot of you!”

 Josephine clucked her tongue. “Manners, boy.” She rapped him in the groin with the weapon then returned the rounded point to his neck.

Wide wet eyes looked up at her as he wheezed.

 “I’ll take that as a yes,” she said and walked away. Applause erupted from the folk of Northridge, and from many of Aulivar’s soldiers. Josephine headed toward the weapon rack to return her gear.

Her father stood, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised. Wonder what he thinks I did wrong this time?

 At that moment, Josephine realized she didn’t care.

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.


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!”

Back Where I Started

On a deployment six and a half years ago, to a “secret” undisclosed location in Southwest Asia (that everyone knew all about), I picked up some D&D rulebooks to keep boredom at bay.

I read through the rules of the game, and noted some of the authors’ suggestions for ideas players could use for their characters–or Dungeon Masters could use to write stories those characters could star in, like a Choose Your Own Adventure.

And it struck me that no matter how well I planned a story, real live people would make decisions I didn’t anticipate, causing the Adventure to go in any of several exciting ways–but not the way I first envisioned.

So why not write the story the way I wanted to?

I sat under the Memorial Plaza’s massive double-tent (affectionately referred to by most as “the bra” for how it appears from a distance) or at the Coffee Beanery shop across the street, and I began to write.

I’ve written things before, of course. But during my two trips here several years ago, I decided to take writing seriously. Within a couple years of studying novel writing and elements of style, over the course of six plus months deployed (and time writing at home), I’d typed out over 100,000 words of a massive fantasy tale.

But the material borrowed too heavily from genre tropes. It sounded too much like World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons in novel form. It had no unique element to separate it from the rest of the books on any fantasy shelf, along with too many elements I discovered had been done before and better than anything I’d write.

I decided to shelve the thing until I could devise some fixes to all the problems I saw. And I worked on other projects until I found the solutions to those glaring issues.

I regret that decision. It took me six and a half years to develop the discipline to finish a full novel manuscript–not of this fantasy project, just a novel–because I’d learned to give up part way whenever I felt a project had too many flaws.

So here I sit, where I began years ago, halfway through the almost-completely-rewritten manuscript of my long-planned fantasy novel. A lot has changed. Almost everything about the world, the magic systems, and the long-term plan for the story is different than when I first envisioned it. Also, I’m allowed to sit here in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt instead of wearing Air Force PT gear.


Most important, I’ve proven to myself through NaNoWriMo that I can finish what I start, flawed or not.

So this time, I will have a completed draft before I depart for home. I may find my way out here again in the next few years, but I don’t want this novel to come with me for a fourth trip.


This marks 300 posts on this blog, so here’s a bit of a celebration:

Last night after work, I spent my entire evening working on an art project.

Like many writers, I have a world in my head, full of people that seem (to me) to take on a life of their own. Voices that want to be heard, dreams that want to be fulfilled, destinies awaiting their moment to shape history. It only happens when fingers go to keyboard and words become sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters.

And so many other distractions vie for those moments I want to spend tapping keys, documenting the history of other worlds and their people.

It’s easy to get off focus.

My teenage daughter never seems to have that problem with what she loves. “Can I watch Merlin? What about watching Merlin, can I do that now? How about we watch an episode of Merlin together? Here’s this picture of Morgana I drew. She’s in Merlin. You should watch it.”

She has become the dreaded Rabid Fangirl, who speaks in Meme and consumes all things Hiddleston, Sherlock, Divergent, Potter, Fault in Our Stars, Cumberbatch, and Capaldi.

(ok, maybe not ALL things Capaldi – the “definitive Malcolm Tucker” on YouTube is a 14-minute art exhibition of what my Scottish friend called being “sweary.”)

I looked at some of what the fans produce, the stories they tell that go beyond the bounds of the “canon” the authors actually write. Characters take on an enduring quality in the hearts of these fans, who come up with some quite touching and poignant wordplay and imagery to capture the power of relationships between fictitious people.

Elsa reaching over to touch her fingers to the sleeping Anna’s wrist, only content once she feels a pulse proving a heart is still beating.
George Weasley, who lost his twin Fred at Hogwarts, coloring his hair in some outlandish manner, then whispering, “It’s because every time I looked in the mirror, I kept seeing him…”
Scenes from Freeman and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, with grieving John being given medicine to help his nightmares since Sherlock’s demise. And he answers that the reason he won’t take the medicine is because the nightmares are the only time he can see the face of his friend.

It struck me that I should “fangirl” as much about my own characters as my daughter does about these others. If I don’t care about my characters so much that they take on a life of their own, why should a reader? If I don’t believe it is worth reading, why should anyone else?

I decided to do some “fanboy” art of my own, focused on the central relationship of the novel I’m writing.

Lyllithe is the adopted daughter of the Eldest in the Abbey, the friar who runs the village church. Lyllithe is being groomed to fill a role as a servant of the Light, but the lure of a shadowy form of magic has drawn her away from her father’s intended path. And Josephine is a Soulforged, a warrior imbued with divine power, capable of searching out evil, delivering swift justice, and defeating creatures of darkness.

Lyllithe is darkness; Josephine is light. In many ways, through a number of growing conflicts, they’ll clash and debate. But the bond of loyalty and love may prove stronger than their differences.

Here’s the as-yet-uncolored “Sisters” image.

Every shadow comes from light; every star shines most at night.
Every shadow comes from light; every star shines most at night.

Happy 300th post, me.

But thanks go to you, my readers. Thanks for the views along the way, and for sharing this blogging journey with me.


This post is already longer than I intended. But I’ve included an excerpt of Chapter 10 that captures a bit of Josephine and Lyllithe’s relationship:

Lyllithe sat in her favorite tree perch near the Woodwall but far from the gate. Fresh air blew through the tree, rustling leaves and rocking her branch. Wet soot covered her pale arms and stained her shirt. I stink of smoke and sweat. And I don’t even care.

Even obscured by the ash, her Gracemark glowed enough to cast a hue over her. She studied its shape, tracing it with a finger.

            So do I lose you now? Does it hurt to become Scarred?

Words resounded in her mind like punches in the stomach. Light-veiled. Once-devoted. Cut off. She felt like crying but ran out of tears an hour ago.

Lyllithe of Northridge. Who did that name belong to? What sort of woman had no family name, no ties, no bonds, no Order?

The Gracemark’s glow tugged at her attention. And why do I still have this thing? Can I be Marked and declared Light-veiled at the same time?

An old question from her studies came to mind. “How far must one turn away from their Aspect in order to become Scarred?” Seems like the answer depended on whichever Devoted was teaching at the time.

I still believe. More than ever, I believe in the Light. Lyllithe looked up to the stars, half praying, half persuading herself. I believe it has the power to change the world. And I believe we can’t keep that to ourselves.

She looked back at the town. Lanterns in homes lit windows with an inviting glow. Yes, the Light can draw those in darkness to itself. But we also bring lanterns with us to shine in places where no light reaches.

She contemplated her arguments with Marten about the Order over the years. Or at least we should.

Another gust stung Lyllithe’s nose with her own odor. She considered heading home, and paused.

Do I still have a home?

            Lyllithe glanced about, using her innate connection to the elements. With each rush of wind, poofy tangles of aera fluttered past. She Bound a large mass and twisted it into aqua, Loosing it before any discomfort.

Refocused water pattered on the tree leaves like fresh rain. The drops swept away the soot, ash and sweat. Though the water had no scent, Lyllithe breathed deep and sighed with contentment.

            At least I have this.

Master Hachi’s words from the night of the Calling echoed in Lyllithe’s mind. I said I am not an Arcanist, and he answered ‘not yet.’

Perhaps the Hall is my best option now.

She sat in silence and watched puffs of aera float on the winds. In that distant corner of her awareness, she felt the other-ness once again.

Lyllithe explored the sensation. I can’t focus on it directly, or I lose ‘sight’ of it. But I can look at where it’s not, to guess at where it is.

Elements flowed and swirled all around her–terros in the ground and even the tree, aera on the breeze, aqua dripping off leaves and soaking the earth below where Lyllithe Refocused earlier. Even weak glimmers of lux streamed through the moonlit night.

No flagros around, but after the fires in town, I’m alright with that.

Lyllithe sat in awe of the sensation. I’m connected to everything. Energy everywhere, stirring and shifting in rhythms and patterns, a tapestry of life.

The picture of fabric hanging beyond sight over the visible world sparked an idea. Lyllithe reached out figurative fingers and drew the curtain of reality wide.

There you are.

Her grip on the visible world lurched and her insides churned as if an Arcanist tried to twist her lunch into acid.

I won’t come too close, she told the stagnant mass, backing away in her mind. I just want to watch you for a while.

Despite all that happened earlier, Lyllithe found a place of peace near the unknown power. She leaned back against the tree trunk and clasped her hands in her lap.

And she smiled.


* * * * *


“Should’ve known,” Josephine muttered. She started across the field, heading for Lyllithe’s tree.

What do I say to her? A smart fighter knew both her strengths and weaknesses. Compassion’s not really my thing.

A Glimpse of sorts came unbidden. Josephine shivered, but dismissed the thought. Of course something feels wrong. She just got kicked out of her family and her Order.

Josephine grinned. Maybe I’m not as bad at empathy as I thought.

“Lyl? Want to talk?”

No response.

Josephine took out her hammer and rapped the tree twice. “You awake?”

Up in the branches, hidden in the darkness, someone gasped like waking from slumber.


“Yeah, it’s me. Come down, let’s chat.”

Josephine talked while Lyllithe picked her way through the branches. “I’m leaving Northridge tomorrow. Yesterday, before the bandits attacked, I spoke with Master Falsted. He wants to hire on a Soulforged for his caravans. Too many lost to Deviols lately,” she said, then added, “and other dangers out beyond the Wall.”

Lyllithe dropped to the ground. “So this is goodbye?”

“Actually quite the opposite.” Josephine smiled. “There’s a job he wants done first.”

Lyllithe shrugged. “And?”

“And I thought you could be really useful.” Josephine sat down in the damp grass, and Lyllithe followed suit. “I saw what you did in town, Lyl.”

“I had to do something,” Lyllithe said. She bowed her head and the white points of her ears poked up through her drooping black hair. “It was all my fault.”


Lyllithe shot Josephine a glare. “Thanks.”

Whoops. Compassion.

“You can’t change that. But you were awesome back there, putting out fires, putting down bandits. It was like we really had an Arcanist in our town.”

Lyllithe sniffed.

“So,” Josephine said, “come with me.”

Lyllithe looked away.

“What do you have here? I heard what your dad said, Lyl. Everyone heard. There’s nothing left for you in Northridge, a life of isolation as ‘the Ghostskin.’ Come with me.”

Lyllithe turned red eyes back to face Josephine. “And what will I be then?”

Josephine clasped a hand on Lyllithe’s shoulder. “My friend.” She pulled Lyllithe into a tight embrace. “My sister.”

They sat in silence until a streak of orange kissed the horizon.

Lyllithe giggled. “When do we leave, little sister?”

“What?” Josephine sputtered. “I’m clearly the big sister here.”

“No way.”

“I’ve been Marked for years! You only got yours last Markday.”

Lyllithe shook her head. “Nuh-uh, that doesn’t matter.” She held up her hand. “I win, ’cause I’ve got two.”

Josephine shifted to a crouch. “I win ’cause I can pound you!” She pounced, tackling Lyllithe, who screamed in delighted terror.

After a few minutes of wrestling with no clear victor, they lay in the long grass panting, staring up at the sky.

“It’s decided, then.” Josephine chuckled. “We’re twins.”

Lyllithe cackled. “That’s scarring ridiculous!”

“Yup.” Josephine gave her a solemn nod. “So it’s perfect.”

Lyllithe let out a long breath and gazed at the sunrise.

Josephine watched and smiled. Good to see you laugh, my friend. She rose to her feet and extended Lyllithe a hand.

“Joram’s associates should be arriving before noon. We’re to set out tonight, so we should head back and get ready.”

“You still haven’t told me what this job we’re on is about.”

“You’ll like it,” Josephine said. They started back toward the village, which seemed far too peaceful given the night’s events. “Kal is running a huge organization across the Bordermarches. Those men who attacked us are connected to other bandits and highwaymen who steal Joram’s goods and take hostages of his workers. They took a few last week, on the road to Aulivar.”

“So we’re to rescue his men from Kal’s bandits?”

“Well, yes, as a start. But that’s not the job.”

“Then what is?”

Josephine turned back to grin at Lyllithe.

“We’re going to take down Kal.”