Paralian: Chapter One

The authors of Phoenix Fiction are telling a story together, and you can be part of the fun! Here’s how it works: each month a different author will write a chapter of the story. We will give you a week to guess who wrote it, by sounding off in the comments! Those who guess correctly will be entered into a pool to win their choice of any e-book from a PFW author! Have fun and good luck!

CHAPTER ONE

“I want to go home!” Cassandra Tarren stomped her feet, causing the bells on her delicate ankle bracelet to jingle merrily. She would have smiled in any other situation. But it was impossible to smile, even at the merry tinkle of an ankle bracelet, when a boy was completely ruining your life.

“For the last time, Cass. That wasn’t your home.” The boy, clearly well on his way to manhood, let out a disgruntled sigh.

They were walking across a dusty landscape, dotted with the irregular shapes of buttes and mesas. It was late morning now and the rising heat was beginning to warp the air.

“I suppose you’re taking me some place better?” Cassandra spat angrily at the back of her companion. “Oh, wait. You can’t get much better than a palace.” She screamed the last word forcefully, her fists clenched stubbornly at her sides.

To her satisfaction, the boy turned around.

“Treated you well there, did they?” he asked condescendingly.

“As a matter of fact, they did,” she crossed her arms and tilted her fine nose in the air.

“And why do you think that is, Cass? You’re not of royal blood.”

“Blood only counts for so much. My heir would be of royal blood, and that is all that matters.”

“Did you think he was going to marry you?”

“Of course.”

“The prince will make a political marriage. He would never align himself to the daughter of a slave.”

“How dare you! You take that back. The palace guards would never allow me to be spoken to in such a way!”

Titus rolled his eyes and turned away, “No wonder Mom told me to be gentle with you.”

Cassandra’s face became suddenly pale. “You’ve seen Mom?”

“Do you think it was my idea to rescue you after how you treated me in the market last month?”

“I didn’t know who you were,” she said defensively.

“Cass, I’m your brother. It’s only been five years. How could you forget me?”

Her dark eyes flickered in uncertainty for a moment. “You’re trying to trick me! I don’t have a brother. My parents were killed in the war. I’m going back to the palace, and you can’t stop me!”

She turned a hundred and eighty degrees and set off walking.

“That’s not the way to the palace. There is a lovely den of cobras in that direction, though.”

She halted abruptly, changed direction, and set off to her left.

“Say hello to the burrowing tarantulas. One bite’ll cause you to lose a limb.”

Cassandra breathed in aggressively, trying to maintain her composure, and then turned and headed north.

Titus spoke again. “Do you see those blackened hills in the distance? That wasn’t caused by a wildfire. They say the creatures who live there breathe fire.”

Cassandra crossed her arms again, “You’re just trying to scare me.”

“I’m just trying to point out to you that your best chance is to stay with me and Festus.”

“Where is that nasty little cat?” Cassandra looked about her suddenly. “Do you think perhaps the heat got to him?” She asked hopefully.

A distinct hiss sounded at her ankles and she started with a little yelp. A small, nimble figure dodged her flying feet and came to rest in Titus’ shadow with a self-satisfied look on its face. It was about the size of a cat, with a limber body, four paws, and an agile tail all covered in short, golden fur. But the resemblance stopped there. Two large wings sprouted from its shoulders, but remained close to its torso when not in use. There was a tuft at the end of its tail. Tufts of hair also protruded from its cat-like ears and the hint of a golden mane hung about its shoulders. But its face was perhaps the most remarkable. The mouth and keen eyes appeared to be feline, and yet at moments, seemed remarkably human. Perhaps it was the clear expression of emotion that made it so.

Titus knelt and pet the creature affectionately, then glared at Cassandra. “He’s not a cat, he’s a sphinx.”

“That cannot possibly be a sphinx,” Cassandra laughed.

Festus hissed at her again.

“And why not?” Titus asked defensively.

“Because the sphinx are huge creatures, the size of dragons, who will devour you as soon as look at you.”

“Is that what the palace tutor taught you?”

“It’s common knowledge.”

“The sphinx were the keepers of wisdom—a great race until the empire enslaved them,” Titus pushed the fur back around Festus’ left paw to reveal a manacle.

Cassandra’s face grew subdued. “Can’t he speak? I thought sphinxes could speak.”

Now Titus’ hand pushed aside the fur mane that spilled onto Festus’ chest, revealing a device of some kind implanted in his chest and vocal cords, with a red jewel in the middle, and strange markings and symbols all around it. “I’m pretty sure this thing has something to do with it.”

Cassandra frowned and knelt beside Titus, her fingers brushing the red stone. Titus tried to push her fingers away, but she slapped his hand. Her fingers moved deftly, pressing the various symbols in a very specific order.

“What are you doing?”

The red jewel suddenly turned blue. Titus blinked in surprise. Festus drew back and shook himself rigorously.

“How did you know how to do that?” Titus asked.

“It’s a basic activation sequence. They have them throughout the palace. Honestly, I don’t know how you kidnapped me without knowing it.”

“I guess she’s not entirely useless, Titus,” a deep, velvety voice boomed.

Titus and Cassandra both leaned back in surprise.

“What? What’s wrong?” Festus asked.

“Nothing. I just didn’t expect…It’s just good to hear your voice.”

“That’s very kind of you, I’m sure…But you’ll change your mind soon enough,” Festus said gloomily. “Everyone does.”

“Well that’s awfully self-effacing of you,” Cassandra frowned.

“It’s true. When you’ve lived as long as I have, you begin to accept the things that just won’t change.”

“Okay,” Titus appeared puzzled. “And why is it exactly that we’re going to get sick of you?”

“No, no, no, don’t do that—” Festus dropped to the ground unexpectedly, his paws stretched out in front of him, his head held high. When he spoke, his voice was the same, only more forced and more dramatic. “He who makes it, has no need of it. He who buys it, has no use for it. He who uses it can neither see nor feel it.”

“What’s happening, Titus?” Cassandra asked.

“Oh, you actually remember my name,” Titus said sarcastically.

Cassandra glared at him. “Your flying cat is glitching.”

“He who makes it, has no need of it. He who buys it, has no use for it. He who uses it can neither see nor feel it.” Festus repeated mechanically.

“It’s a riddle,” Titus said.

Cassandra stood up impatiently. “Okay, so we’ve established the fact that you have this strange obsession for dragging me through the desert and that I couldn’t find my home if I wanted to. But please tell me that we’re actually going somewhere that can sustain life!”

“You’re right,” Titus rose. “We should keep going. Festus.” He nodded his head for the sphinx to fall into step, but the small creature didn’t move.

“He who makes it, has no need of it. He who buys it, has no use for it. He who uses it can neither see nor feel it.” Festus repeated mechanically.

Titus put a hand to his forehead.

“What is he doing?” Cassandra whined. “Is he trying to kill us? Is he trying to motivate us to kill him?”

“Maybe we should just answer the riddle.”

“Answer the riddle? Is this a garden party?” Her voice suddenly changed tone. “Oh, the prince used to throw the most lovely garden parties under the summer stars. With fountains and dancers and chocolate. Have you ever tasted chocolate, Titus? No, of course you haven’t. And then I would stand on the walls and look out at the graceful dunes of the Western Desert. I thought it looked so peaceful. And how the wind would sweep sand off the tallest dunes and scatter it like golden fairy dust. If only I had known what a stinking, blistering, wretched place this is! Oh, I’m gonna die,” her voice had returned to a whine. “I’m gonna die out here with this delusional boy and his freakish pet. The prince will never know what happened to me!”

“Death,” Titus exclaimed. “Neither see nor feel it. Hey, that’s it. Death! But you don’t make or buy death. What do you make or buy that has to do with death? Oh, a coffin!”

Festus shook himself suddenly. “Thank the Great Sphinx, I chose the right one. I figured this droopy little flower would start talking about death sooner rather than later.”

“Droopy little flower?” Cassandra put her hands on her hips. “Hey, that’s almost sweet.” The corner of her mouth turned up for a moment.

Titus waved a hand at her dismissively and tilted his head towards Festus in a silent question.

Festus lay prone on the ground and rolled over on his back dramatically, “She has activated the password protocol. Now, every time someone asks me a question, I’ll give them a riddle to answer, first.”

“I don’t even remember what I asked,” Titus admitted.

“You asked why you’d get sick of me, and this little episode, I’m afraid, has made the answer painfully clear,” Festus droned piteously.

Cassandra gasped suddenly, “You guard the emperor’s most prized possessions and information!”

“How do you know that, Cass?” Titus asked.

“Because the guards have to memorize these riddles to get past the highest levels of security. Really, I thought it was the strangest thing, but it kind of makes sense, now.”

“You spoke truly my young friend,” Festus said dolefully from where he still lay on his back in the sand. “When you said the sphinx were the keepers of wisdom. The emperor has turned us into circus animals.”

“But that must mean you know a great deal of valuable information. That was a statement,” Titus added suddenly, “Not a question.”

“You think I don’t know the difference? I’m a sphinx for crying out loud! Yes, I do know a lot of information, but I can’t give it to you unless you ask the proper questions and answer the proper riddles.”

Titus thought carefully, “You said you chose the last riddle.”

“The emperor doesn’t have time to program a riddle for every dumb question. So yes, I get the endless pleasure of choosing obnoxious riddles for the most insipid questions. It’s a delightful existence.”

Cassandra turned to Titus. “How did you get your hands on one of the emperor’s security devices?”

Festus sat upright suddenly, “Is that what you’re calling me? Can we not call me that? I think the name Titus chose for me is much more dignified.”

Titus ignored the sphinx and answered Cassandra. “That’s a long story. And we really should keep moving.”

“Oh, but I’m tired,” Cassandra said suddenly. “Can’t we sit down and take a break?”

“You wanna sit here? In the sun? Let’s find some shade before we rest. We’ve been standing still long enough.”

“Just a few minutes. Please!”

Festus sniffed the air suddenly, “We’re no longer alone.”

Titus’ sharp eyes picked up a faint plume of dust in the east. Cassandra must have seen it first. He grabbed her wrist.

“No! Stop it! Let me go. I won’t go any farther with you.”

“The prince doesn’t care about you, Cassandra.”

“Yes, he does! He’s coming for me right now!”

She struggled to get free, but he held her fast.

“The only thing coming for you is a quick execution. You said it yourself: Festus may hold valuable information. What do you think your precious prince will do to you when he finds you with an escaped slave and a security asset? Think clearly.”

Her eyes flickered with doubt.

“Do you think the royal guards are going to stop to ask questions? We need to get out of this desert and somewhere safe before we figure out what’s next. Now, I will throw you over my shoulder if I need to, but that doesn’t sound very pleasant for either of us.”

He took her uncertainty as surrender, grabbed her arm, and broke into a sprint. They were both pouring sweat within seconds, the oppressive heat nearly suffocating them with each breath. But in a few minutes, the sound of galloping horses filled them with a new sort of determination. But how were they supposed to outrun horses? And where were they supposed to hide?

“If only,” Cassandra panted, “your stupid cat were a full-sized sphinx…we could fly out of this mess!”

“Save your breath!” Titus yelled at her.

Festus, who had proven faster than both of them on his four legs, was almost fifty feet in front of them when he turned suddenly, collapsed to the ground, and assumed his dignified, sphinx position.

“What is he doing?”

Titus slowed to a walk just in front of his friend and tried to think. “He wants us to ask him a question. He must know something important, that will help us out of this situation!”

“Why doesn’t he just tell us?!”

“Security protocols,” Titus guessed. “We have to ask the right question and answer the right riddle.”

Cassandra was throwing another fit, “This is the worst kidnapping of my entire life!”

Titus ignored her and thought carefully. “Okay, buddy. How do we escape the cavalry?”

Whatever came out of the little sphinx’s mouth, they wouldn’t have long to figure it out.

Playing with Words: 6 Ways to Liven Your Writing

Do you rock at Scattergories?  Do your friends refuse to play Scrabble with you?  Does your family groan as you slip yet another pun into a conversation?

You’re probably a writer, which means words are your playthings.  Most of us love the rhetorical devices we were taught.  We love them so much that we use and reuse them–sometimes to the point of ridiculousness.

Take similes, for instance.  There’s nothing wrong, and sometimes a good deal right, with a comparison that makes us think differently about the world.  But, when your similes are as frequent as your verbs, when your readers trip over strange comparisons as if they were blindly wandering through a rock quarry, similes become a bit problematic–like too much sugar poured into tea, making it more candy than drink.

You get the point.

There is good news, though: There are dozens of ways to play with words!  I’d like to share with you some of my favorite rhetorical devices today.   Continue reading “Playing with Words: 6 Ways to Liven Your Writing”

Hannah Heath Reviews “Gathering Blue”

 

Speculative fiction. According to Google, it’s “a genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements.”

Which seems like an over simplification to me. Speculative fiction is much more than that to me. It’s fantastic, futuristic, wildly imaginative, unknown. But it’s also real, grounded, truthful. It takes realities from this world and helps me see them in new ways. Interesting ways. And, when done well, helpful ways.

Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue was not the first speculative fiction book I read that made an impact on me. But it was the first one that tackled realities from my own small world and put it onto paper: Chronic pain. Disability.

Those aren’t topics that most speculative fiction novels like to touch on. After all, writing main characters with physical disabilities may make writing action sequences difficult. And speculative fiction novels are crammed full of action sequences, soooo….I guess that means it’s not possible to write disabled main characters in that genre? Right?

Pffft. Please. Lois Lowry’s not standing for any of that nonsense.

Kira lives in pain. Pain from her crippled leg. Pain from her mother’s death. Pain from existing as an outcast in a world that prizes the strong and shuns the weak. Her future is bleak and uncertain until she is given an opportunity by the Council of Guardians. A gifted weaver, she is tasked with a special job that others in her community are not talented enough to perform. 

This new job keeps her safe and alive, but Kira finds that pain is found even here, under the protection of the Council of Guardians. Something strange is going on around her. Something not quite right. Kira, the talented girl with the crooked leg, refuses to let others suffer if she can help it. Even if it means putting herself in danger. 

The second book in the Giver quartet, Gathering Blue is one of the only speculative fiction books I’ve read that contains a physically disabled main character. In fact, it’s possibly the only one I’ve read. Unless we’re including comic book characters like Daredevil, but they all get special super powers, so I’m not sure that they count (Sorry, characters. It’s nothing personal).

Her inability to function normally is highlighted throughout the book: She has difficulty walking, her leg hurts constantly, and her need for a walking stick inhibits her ability to sneak quietly or run quickly when the need arises. All of these points are true to form when it comes to the lives of disabled people. But Lowry, thankfully, chose to go deeper than that.

Kira is, according to her society, useless because of her crippled leg. But, according to her mother, she is stronger because of it. Kira’s character showed the strengths that arise from physical weakness: Compassion, ingenuity, the opportunity to see yourself and those around you as souls rather than bodies.

Kira, though crippled, is whole. She’s the type of character that makes you smile and cheer and think, “If she can do ____, then I can do ____.” Which is exactly the type of character we need more of. The ones that inspire us to action and encourage us to keep pushing forward.

That being said, the beautiful and heartfelt main character is not the only unique thing about this book. Lois Lowry was never the type of author to settle with shattering only one writing precept. Nope. In this book, she also chose to tackle series writing in a new way.

Gathering Blue takes place in an entirely different society from the one shown in The Giver. It has all new characters and pretty much no connection to Book 1 aside from themes. Themes of valuing human lives, of freedom, of love.

As odd as this seems, it works. Why? I like to think that it works because she went all in. She chose to craft the series around a theme, not a plot, something that most writers nowadays would frown at. She wanted to take a look at the importance of individuality, of free will, of compassion and life and friendship. So she did. She used these themes to breathe life into worlds and characters, creating something entirely unique in the process.

I’ve always loved Lois Lowry because of this: Her ability to break out of the usual way of writing. She chose to write on her own terms. Put a physically disabled main character in a speculative fiction novel? It’s not done. But she did it anyway because she knew it was important to her story and to her readers. Craft an entire series centered around themes above plot? A huge no-no. Yet she still did it because she had messages and ideas she wanted to explore.

Lowry’s stories always remind me: Is there something out there that’s important? Go after it. Even if it’s not what’s done at the moment.

And that is the long and short of why I love Gathering Blue and think it’s worth checking out. Have you read this book…or any of the others from the Giver Quartet? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please leave a comment below. And don’t forget to tell me about your favorite Lois Lowry novel!

Phoenix Fiction: A Marketing Collective of Indie Authors

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by! We’re just a bunch of indie authors who write speculative fiction, support each other’s work, and wanted to do both of those things more efficiently!

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