Thursday, August 3, 2017

I Sold Another Book!

I'm thrilled to announce that I sold another book!

From Publishers Weekly: Alison Deering at Capstone has acquired Krista Van Dolzer’s middle grade novel Earth to Dad. The story follows an 11-year-old boy who spends his days waiting for transmissions from his Mars-colonizing dad until the daughter of a dead astronaut moves in across the street and he risks missing a transmission for a shot at real friendship, embarking on a journey exploring life, death, and wonder. Publication is planned for fall 2018; Brent Taylor at the TriadaUS Literary Agency sold world English rights.

I can tell I've been delinquent in my blogging of late because I don't think I've even mentioned this manuscript. Suffice it to say that the idea came to me during the excitement of NASA's Pluto flyby. Like the rest of the world, I was mesmerized by the images and the general thrill of space; this book was the result.

This was the first book I've ever tried to sell on proposal, which is to say we pitched roughly the first sixty pages and a detailed synopsis. But literary-minded science fiction isn't the easiest to sell, so when a couple of editors expressed interest in the full, I was more than happy to oblige. After jouncing over a few more bumps and divots, I learned that Ali loved the manuscript as much as Brent and I did, and I couldn't have been happier. Now I get to work with the brilliant team at Capstone, and the book's release is only a little more than a year away!

A huge thank-you to Brent for believing in this project as much as he believed in Clyde the Second, and a huge thank-you to YOU for sharing this journey with me. Once I've got revisions for these two under control, I plan to get more rounds of "An Agent's Inbox" scheduled!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Winners, Winners, Chicken Dinners!

Without any ado, Ms. Piraino's winners:

Third place:

#1 CURSE OF THE NINE-TAILED FOX
#7 ALL IS DARK
#9 HARBINGER

These three entries win requests for the first 25 pages!

Second place: #15 BEYOND THE NORTH STAR

This entry wins a request for the first 50 pages!

First place: #3 GOLDEN CROWNS, CRIMSON THORNS

This entry wins a request for the full manuscript!

Congratulations, winners! Please e-mail me at kvandolzer(at)gmail(dot)com for details on how to submit your materials to Ms. Piraino.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ms. Piraino, for your most excellent feedback. And thank you, thank you, thank you, all of you, for taking a chance and putting yourselves out there. I hope you found the feedback helpful and the overall experience not too terrible:)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Here We Go Again!

Check out the entries below, then leave some feedback in the comments if you feel so inclined. (ENTRANTS, PLEASE REMEMBER TO CRITIQUE AT LEAST THREE OTHER ENTRIES!) And I'm sure this goes without saying, but please keep your comments constructive (i.e., not rude or mean-spirited). If you want to think like The Agent, you might consider the question, "How much of the entry did you read, and if you didn't read it all, why did you stop (and if you did read it all, what impression did it leave)?"

I'll announce Ms. Piraino's winners and prizes at the beginning of next week, but until then, have at it!

(For your information, I take out profanity when I'm formatting the entries, so if you notice any asterisks, they're my asterisks, not the entrants'. Entrants, if you find a Krista-generated error in your post, feel free to shoot me an e-mail, and I'll correct it straightaway. ALSO, PLEASE REFRAIN FROM POSTING REVISIONS OF ANY KIND IN THE COMMENTS. It's gotten to be enough of a problem that I plan to delete them if I spot them.)

An Agent's Inbox #15

Dear Ms. Gabrielle Piraino:

BEYOND THE NORTH STAR is a YA science fiction retelling of J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan meets Treasure Planet. Complete at 85,000 words and told in a dual narrative between Captain Tethys and Pan. May appeal to readers of Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles and R.C. Lewis' Stitching Snow. 

Tethys of planet Merus can cut a beast in half with her hooked swords, navigate the black waves of space, and break a man's pinky before he can finish his indecent remark. She craves nothing more than to captain her own vessel for the Resistance, seek justice for her family's murderer, and chart her own course amongst the stars. But when Tethys' uncle goes missing, and his ship burned to the ground, all signs point back to the Resistance she put her faith in, and she has no choice but to search for answers.

While in a neighboring planet, she comes across a crashed ship, holding the exiled Nevean prince, Pan, and a lead in her investigation. She discovers her uncle has been setting up a small rescue team, aiding the refugees the Resistance has long forgotten in their greed for land-robbing. With the conqueror of Pan's planet being the same person who killed Tethys' family and with her uncle's apparent involvement, Tethys finds herself sucked into the quest to regain Nevea--a planet just beyond the north star.

With Tethys' ancient ship able to traverse the galaxy undetected, the Captain and her new rag-tag crew land secretly in Nevea. They'll need to escape the notice of Wendowlyn Darling, the malicious Nevean conqueror, and arrive in the deadly Dark Isle where magic and danger thrive. There lies the salvation of Pan's people, an ancient rite that can either prove to be myth or a chance for Pan to gain the power to take back his planet. They'll need to battle murderous mermaids, a tribe of furry mercenaries, and the island's soil which breathes with its own mischief. But Tethys and her crew aren’t the only ones scouring The Dark Isle for its power, and soon the quest to take back Nevea becomes a fight to stay alive. 

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

V.V.


BEYOND THE NORTH STAR

Tethys: The Final Trial

It’s difficult to tell what I feel the loudest. I’ve reached the end, and it’s as if I’ve captured a breath after staying underwater too long. Yet more consuming than relief is the uncertainty of what waits for me on the surface.

The gravporter halts on the final level with a hiss of air.

This is it. Whether I’m ready for it or not, after today, everything I’ve worked for will be mine: the title of captain, the finest ship in the galaxy, but mostly the freedom of open space. 

My uncle’s voice seeps into my head. Is there freedom in the promise of war, Tethys? Will you attain it with your heart or demand it with the point of a sword?

No. I clench my eyes, shutting out the thought. I can’t allow myself to go there. If ever I needed confidence in the Acquisition, it’s today. Focus on the final trial, on your last test, and prove you’re the woman Uncle believes you to be. The door spirals open and I step forward, yanking at the sleeves of my armored bodysuit. My boots glide soundlessly over the training hall’s sleek, metal floor. 

From ground up, the domed, reflective glass panels ripple like a snake’s glossy skin to reveal the Guta Moon and the sun peeking just over its shoulder. I inhale the familiar stringent scent of a recent sterilized room. And in the hazy glow of early morning, the cavernous room atop the Acquisition Starship wraps me in the chill and quietness of deep space.

Yet nothing can still the wild thrumming of my heart.

I shift my gaze down to one of the station’s sealed, outdoor bridges. There, my ship hovers in the sea of stars--an art form of reinforced wood and metal docked in the space harbor along with the other warring vessels. She stands as the regal old queen amidst the sharks, a decommissioned ship until I came and fought for her. The sun-gold metal of the captain’s cabin crowns her stern with wide, rounded windows. And from the rigid masts, a pearly mane of solar canvas swells as if captured clouds held the vessel aloft. 

I press my palm against the cool, curved glass of the training room, and imagine I'm at the helm of my ship with nothing but silver-speckled darkness. 

“Soon,” I whisper. Soon.

With a chime, the haloscreen flashes across the window. I step back as digital numbers scroll by, announcing it’s past first call, and still this place is empty. The other trainees would rather rest before their final. Fools. Whatever the admirals have planned for us, we'll need our bodies fired and prepped--not brain-hazed and clumsy. Going by the howling madness outside my pod last night, some of them took the festivities a bit too far and I’m sure they’re paying for it now. Crashing against the walls, the clatter of dropped things outside my door, and the obnoxious, off-key singing of cross-eyed drunks. Even if they would’ve invited me, I never would have joined the brutes.

I fill my chest with a heavy dose of fortifying breath and cross over to the mats, stretching as I go. Curving along the left wall, vertical swim chambers gurgle in a fit of bubbles. Against the back wall, the runner’s platform hums, a screen of various landscapes dimmed until one is selected. Neither what I came for. 

I warm up my wrists, wickedly sore from yesterday's practice. Then I take a few moments to jump in place, firing up my blood. I suppose after today my workouts will have to be kept up during travel.

It’s a warming thought. Finally, outside of these metal walls, with its metal-hearted soldiers, and its stagnant routine of train, eat, train, fight, train, sleep, dream. Only to wake up and do it all over again. 

I place my palms on the ground and swing into a handstand, feeling the rush of blood settle over the crown of my head. It’s an effort to keep myself from quivering, breathing to keep absolutely still and in control even as my joints scream. I look for a distraction--a point of focus and shift my gaze to the window. 

It’s the same view no matter the angle I stand, not when there’s no up or down in space; there’s only mass. The moon the station’s tethered with is a sleek, silver marble rolling across the rings of its planet. From the very top of the space station and at this particular time, the entire planet comes into view from under the moon’s shadow. A giant mass of swirling blue and violet gasses sweep against each other in a spectacular dance. And every morning I have it all to myself. It reminds me what all the training is for, not just this metal sphere filled with fighters and refugees but for everything and everyone out there, for the worlds still untouched by greed. For the spark of hope. My breath shudders, from strain, from uncertainty. Maybe a few years back I would’ve believed all that, that anywhere in existence could be unsullied by greed. 

But my time here has taught me more than just lethal combat. It’s made me grow up, see things in their true light without the tricks of softness and…love. And if there’s anything to be thankful about this place, it’s that. 

Sweat stings my eyes as it rolls down the center of my chest, tumbles across my neck, over my jaw, and to my face. I keep still, and only when I hear the creak of bones do I release the handstand. My mouth twitches--half from a smile, half from a grimace--as my uncle’s sweeter words settle over my thoughts as gently as he would speak them. 

It only seems too easy because you’re not concentrating, little moon. The practice of Okinwa is all about finding the harmony between balance and endurance, as a means of fully controlling the mind and body.

After all the times I rolled my eyes at his teachings, Okinwa became my favorite aspect of training. The few precious moments of my day where it’s only myself and the reminder of Uncle’s voice. 

I go through my series of flips and cartwheels, pushing myself until I'm hovering over the floor like a forgotten spun coin. I stop in the center of the room, swirling my loosened gold hair into another tight bun. The ground and roof magnets activate as the armor at my shoulders, chest, and thighs respond to the pull and lift me. I hover. My stomach tumbles for an exhilarating second as I turn weightless, swaying in mid-air. 

"STES, activate sword sequence with weighted sensory," I say to the room.

"Trainee Tethys, good rising. Activating sword sequence with weighted sensory. Would you prefer the qualaron hooks or the matchu blades?" The training simulator's smooth voice fills the room.

"Do you really have to ask?" I always train with the same swords. Always.

"Pulling previous records--qualaron hooks preference. Activating the qualaron hooks sequence. Fruitful training, Tethys."

"Thank you, STES. Oh, and play Killer's Dream by the Lost Boys," I command. 

"Music activated." 

Breath squeezes from my lungs. My insides are liquid fire with anticipation, fluid as my limbs slice through air. The long curving beauty of twin, hooked swords flicker to life in my outstretched palms. Like the sliver of a moon. My fingers curl around a thin hilt with a daggered pommel, and my knuckles hide behind a crescent blade, the perfect length to trap someone by the throat.

An Agent's Inbox #14

Dear Ms. Piraino, 

I read on your bio that you are an avid baker/cook and hoped I could offer you some baked goods (home made from scratch of course) as well as a good story! I am seeking a home for my YA urban fantasy BONE CONJURER.

Wake is a new drug that allows users to connect subconsciously in the Nexus in the best role-playing-game ever made, but no one knows it’s been engineered by witches to harvest souls.

Alice Dahlin is drawn into the Nexus by a foster boy, Dar, who uses the drug. She inadvertently learns, when Dar is shot, that she can raise the dead. There are several problems with having this power but of the utmost importance is that she’s not powerful enough to bring back the person’s soul with their body. Dar is dying and Alice needs to find out what she is--a witch or a necromancer or both--to save him.

In order to control her power, Alice must face her birth mother and a coven of witches. To save Dar and her adopted family, she will have to walk the veil between life and death in the Nexus. Along the way she’ll have to face a sensual warlock from her past and the reason why she was given up for adoption. She may be the key to preventing a coven war that’s been brewing for centuries.

BONE CONJURER is complete at 78,000 words and will appeal to fans of A.G. Howard’s SPLINTERED and Rin Chupeco’s THE BONE WITCH. I have been published previously with BLUE MOON (2012) by Crimson Romance and THE CATALYST (2013) by SilverTree publishing. As an adopted Korean American it's a topic close to me but, of course, I can't resurrect the dead.

Sincerely,
E.F.


BONE CONJURER

Alice

I’ve brought my murdered mother back from the dead for about thirty seconds and yet I freeze at the sight of students gathered at the exit of the school. There are only about two dozen hostiles between me and freedom. Senior year and I still haven't mastered the anxiety that creeps in my stomach at the possibility of making small talk or worse hearing the whispers.

I wait for a sarcastic quip about my spinelessness from the young man’s voice in my head that I’ve heard for six years--ever since the night Mom died. Why his voice started to speak to me I still don't know but I've come to rely on him sometimes. Mom didn’t remain alive, thankfully, because really how would I explain that whatever came back wasn’t her? But, the voice doesn’t say anything. I haven’t heard his voice in two whole days.

Friday any week of the month is a reprieve, drinks all around, fling your messenger bag anywhere kind of affair. The spring winds are hinting at summer in late April. It’s my senior year at J.A.S. High (colloquially pronounced Jazz by all the students) and the sun bakes on my dark head of hair while sweat beads on my forehead. My Dad’s black Ford Explorer sits by the curb, engine idling and he’s searching for me in the crowd. It’s the day. The night my Mom died and I know that’s why he’s here to pick me up.

Williamsburg is a small town so everyone who doesn’t know I’m adopted gets the picture as soon as they see James Dahlin. He has seal brown hair, sometimes tanned skin and tall build. My almond eyes, ebony hair and distinctly shorter frame are clearly not Caucasian. It’s funny that my Mom died six years ago but the town they still talk about my adoption like it’s a plague they can catch. 

I hike my bag on one shoulder and march straight through kids and parents. I don’t care if I knock someone’s pack, step on shoes or whack someone with my long braid of hair.

“Hey, Alice.” Trina’s voice stops me mid-step and I glance back.

“Hey,” I say cautiously, as I rack my brain thinking of a reason she’d want to talk to me. It’s certainly not for my fashion advice. I mentally go over my outfit of choice: black leggings, striped skirt, tank top, leather jacket and tall boots.

Trina made the Varsity Cheer team this year but not the captain’s position. Only seniors have that honor of taking the stressed out, jumpy skinny girls to state meets. I’m a senior and the only achievement I’ve made is not killing the perky girls who get in my way.

“Is that your Dad?” Trina eyes my Dad, who’s walking purposefully towards us.

Dad’s hair, flecked with gray, is so unlike my own black. His tall build towers above most of the students and he holds a bouquet of flowers.

Without waiting to answer, I shove past but it’s not fast enough. Dad hands me the flowers, “Happy start of break, doodle bug.” The nickname for my constant drawing has stuck to this day. He doesn’t give any indication of his emotions; just that pleasant smile and easy manner.

“Thanks.” I inhale the sweet aroma of the blue and yellow flowers. Most girls might be embarrassed their Dad is picking them up but I don’t care.

“Mr. Dahlin?” Trina asks. Her brows rise in an innocent, pretty way.

“Yes.” Dad smiles and spreads his hands apologetically. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring flowers for all the almost-graduates.”

Trina giggles as if it were a very high compliment.

“It’s nice to meet you, I don’t see you around much, I’m Trina Sullen,” Trina says and looks at me.

I shrug, wondering why she even cares.

“My Mom wanted me to ask if you’d want to sign the campaign we’re starting for cheer this fall at the junior level. I think juniors should be able to be elected as captains. And we’d require mandatory drug testing--this whole Wake rage is getting out of control.”

I roll my eyes. If my Dad thinks this is worth his time, then I’ve got to find a new father. Although she has one point. Wake usage has been running rampant in Williamsburg and the cops are up to their teeth in paperwork over it. The big towns with big guns tend to over look us and the local police force like it that way. They won’t admit they can’t handle this new drug that causes people to see “heaven” or whatever their version of heaven is.

“Tell your Mom thanks for thinking of me. Send over the papers to our house if you’d like and I’ll be happy to read up on it.” Dad gives her his polite smile but moves me towards the car. Thank God.

“I never made the connection before since Alice doesn’t frequent the gym hall much. Your wife’s picture is still up there,” Trina continues, oblivious. Or overly confident, either one is getting me annoyed. Now I understand why she wanted to talk to my Dad--to get in her jab about my dead mother. I keep my eyes down.

Dad’s jaw tenses and he moves slightly to block me from Trina.

“If Alice hasn’t spoken any further about that, that’s her choice. Have a good day,” Dad replies firmly. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I scuttle towards the car. Whispers trail us like smoke.

The car door shuts and seals me off from h*** for at least the next two and a half days. I slump in the seat but I can’t bring myself to be upset with him. He didn’t do anything wrong. This day has got to be hard on him too. The car glides from the curb towards our house, on the other side of town.

“It’s a small town, honey. People like what they can hypothesize about. There are five other adoptive families in our neighborhood and more are fostering kids every day,” Dad says. 

“Then ,an become Wasters too,” I mutter.

“What?” He gives me a sharp frown.

“Wasters--people who pick up other people’s trash like foster kids, adopted kids. Kids no one wants.”

“Oh, Alice, you put too much credence into names. We are not “wasters.” We do not take in discarded children. We wanted you…and Maddie and Dar.”

I don’t doubt my adopted parents wanted me but it doesn’t dispel the unease of gossip; gossip about Dar the young man who shouldn’t still be a foster and Maddie, the girl who killed Mom. I can’t stand her name.

That night lives forever in the dark corners of my mind. And so does the face of Madeline Horton, the girl responsible. That night Mom drew the door shut with a rattle of the padlock but no click. That night Maddie came out with a pair of scissors. That night she told me to let go. I never should have let go.

A horn honking blasts me back to the present. Maddie’s been in White Bend psychiatric facility for years now but I never visit her. Her insanity plea still stands but for a child of eight to have stabbed a grown adult there is something deeply disturbing.

Dad still has foster parental rights to her but the social workers mandate what happens to her at the Moment. He’s had his share of hardships being around Maddie but I know he thinks Mom wouldn’t have given up on her.

An Agent's Inbox #13

Dear Gabrielle Piraino, 

Seventeen-year-old Sasame will do anything to get rid of the undead mutants that threaten her city. She kidnaps those immune to the virus for her agency, who claims they're creating a stronger antidote.

For two years, she carried out her missions believing every word her boss told her. All that is ruined the day she meets Konan at the summer festival. At first, she avoids him. Her boss has strict rules against relationships. Yet Konan's determination intrigues her.

Sasame pretends this new friend of hers isn't a big deal, but her boss isn't happy with the rumors he hears about his precious hunter. He forces her to watch the slaughter of another hunter's girlfriend.

Leaving the agency isn't as easy as putting in a two-week notice. She'll become a target if she disobeys. Or she can kill her biggest distraction--Konan--to prove her loyalty.

IMMUNITY HUNTER, a YA Dark Fantasy novel of 85,000 words with series potential, shows the struggle of teens surviving in a post-apocalyptic city as seen from six points of view. As a film student, I understand the importance of characters in a story. From a small cast of friends to a large world, a story cannot live without the characters breathing life. Though IMMUNITY HUNTER has the ensemble cast close to that of the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, it tells a story that will appeal to fans of THE WHITE RABBIT CHRONICLES by Gena Showalter and AN ENEMY series by Charlie Higson.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely, 
E.M.S.


IMMUNITY HUNTER

A cool wind blows between the tall buildings of downtown swirling my hair around my face. There's not a car, person, or stray cat in sight. The dark-haired boy with his eyes glued to the small screen of his phone almost trips over the curb. Walking these dark streets alone this late looking down at a phone is just dumb. Forget sneaking. Short of yelling his name, he's not going to notice me. This will be an easy hunt.

I walk up behind him and jab the spikes of my brass-knuckle-shaped stun gun into his ribs, the power up as high as it'll go. His phone drops to the ground as his body stiffens. Now he knows I'm here.

Maybe his brain will fry before his eyes bulge out. On second thought, The Organization wouldn't appreciate me tampering with their new "blood donor".

A swift kick into the jagged-brick wall and he's knocked out cold leaving a small blood stain behind. Hopefully, the impact of his head slamming into the concrete doesn't kill him. He's still breathing--for now.

"Idiot. Pay attention to where you're going."

The distant rumble of a truck engine gets closer and a few blocks in front of me headlights turn onto the street. Using both hands and every ounce of my strength, I grab him by the foot and drag his limp body into the alley next to us before we can be spotted. I sit on the dirt-covered concrete beside him, stun gun at the ready in case he wakes up.

Right on schedule, the extraction team shows up in an ambulance to collect the victim. Two men, dressed as paramedics, climb out of the front seat and rush over to me and the unconscious boy. Within seconds, they're gone. Another name crossed out of my notebook. The Organization is now one step closer to finding a stronger antidote to the Konadai virus. They better be happy. I've been with them for two years now and they always seem to need more donors. It's starting to wear me down, but I can't stop now. It doesn't matter; the immune are put to better use this way.

"You did well, Sasame."

I spin around to see an Insider, dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, standing behind me.

"I know, thank you," I say.

There's no need for her to watch me tonight. I did my job. I remove my backpack, unzipping it to put my stun gun inside. She vanishes before I look up. Freaking snitch.

Insiders watch all of the Hunters, but I seem to be their favorite.

I sling the backpack over my shoulder and walk out of the alley. Tonight's mission has gone even easier than I expected.

* * *

It's only another mission, I tell myself as I try to sleep. I stare at the ceiling fan spinning on low. There really isn't a need for the fan as the air is cool, but normally its sound comforts me. Tonight is different. The blades of the fan turn to knives. Blood rains down on my face and the screams of my victims pierce my ears. My eyes shut and then open them again. No blood or sharp blades, only the whirl of the fan. Tomorrow will just be another "mission".

The sound of Lynn talking to her husband, Brock--my substitute parents--reaches me through the wall from the hallway bathroom.

"I pulled some strings and got the perfect mission for Sasame," Lynn says over the sound of water running in the sink. "She's going to Summer Fest to meet teenagers her age for some much-needed interaction."

Lynn's squeaky, high-pitched voice is like nails on a chalkboard. It sounds like she has had the same cold for years.

"Your mission sounds more like a scheme," Brock says. He's right, this is a scheme to get me to act "normal" around other people. I'm seventeen, not twelve. I don't need to make friends. Besides, the people in this city don't need to know who I am. My job works better when I spy on a smaller group instead of trying to mingle with serval thousand. If they want me to go to that festival then I'll go, but there won't be any mingling.

Since I doubt I'll get to sleep anytime soon, I toss the purple, diamond-patterned comforter to the other side of my bed and walk to my laptop on the desk. The bright screen burns my eyes but I power through it. I have no idea what I'm searching for, maybe a way to avoid this so-called assignment to go to the festival. The Organization won't appreciate that if they have anything to do with Lynn's plan.

Ever since my parents disappeared, The Organization that I devote my loyalty to was kind enough to give me replacements. Not that I need them, I can take care of myself. Nothing comes up in my mindless internet surfing. I slam my laptop shut, climb into bed, and throw the covers over my head.

The walls are so thin in this townhouse, I'm surprised they've never heard me scream into my pillow at night. Tonight, I put the pillow over my face to block out the sound of them talking.

* * *

From human to Okamikiin, everyone is laughing and stuffing their faces with fried food. The bright sun makes the early evening warmer than usual. I had spent most of the day trying to decide if I want to go to the festival or pass on this ridiculous ploy. After a little persuasion from Lynn, I end up caught in the middle of a crowd of happy people.

Everywhere I turn, the faces of strangers bombard my vision. As I try to push my way through, they all become a blur. They are random people who couldn't care less about me being here. Soon my head starts to spin like I'm trapped. All I can see is a kaleidoscope of colorful clothing. The thick smell of greasy food clouds my nostrils. My breakfast starts to reappear in my throat. I've never been good with large crowds. They make me nervous. Lynn knows that. The Organization knows that. It's in my profile, for crying out loud.

My aching head isn't making this any better. Searching for a place of peace, the restroom sign glows like a beacon of hope. I make my way inside and move straight to the sinks. In the handprint-smeared mirror, I stare at the girl I've become, wearing makeup for the first time in days and her lips pulled tight in response to the squeaky laughter of children and their mothers’ catty gossip echoing against the concrete walls. Why are they so happy? These people act as if our lives aren't in danger. Maybe we are alright and I'm the one freaking out over nothing. But the growls echoing over the wall late at night are a constant reminder.

I dip my hands into the cool running water, splashing some on my face in my attempt to wash away my daunting secrets. I'm not ashamed of who I am, but I'll be shunned from society if anyone finds out. The water runs down my round cheeks dripping from the end of my chin.

I can't stay in here forever. Then again it's not like anyone is missing me outside. I head toward the doors, my red high-heeled boots clicking on the linoleum floor.

An Agent's Inbox #12

Dear Ms. Piraino:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to present this query and the first 1,250 words of my completed fantasy manuscript THE FORGE OF HEROES. I was very excited to hear that DeFiore & Company were open to new author submissions and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

In FORGE OF HEROES, Upinde always thought he would train and serve as an Askari warrior to protect the Sa’mor kingdom, from any aggression. But when he’s ordered to flee from unknown invaders and seek aid from traditional enemies, everything he’s believed will be called into question. He travels across the border with two companions to a land where they could all be killed out of hand. Even if they find shelter, treachery will still strike at them and events will conspire against them. Without courage, conviction and quick wits, Upinde and his friends will die, leaving Sa’mor to burn under the invaders destructive slaughter.

With so many lives on the line, Upinde has no choice. Taking up the challenge will cost him dearly as he puts his life, his duty and his very honor on the line. Will he turn into the thing he hates to save the land he loves?

Similar in scope and scale to Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord and Saxon stories, FORGE OF HEROES is written within a realistic world with fantastic elements over a series of installments.

Following, please find the first 1,250 words of the 106,000 word manuscript. I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on its potential for publication.

R.M.


THE FORGE OF HEROES

Upinde strained his eyes but couldn’t see any bodies. Across the valley, perhaps a mile from where they hid, dark smoke streamed through the open main gates of the Askari Caverns. The gray and black tendrils were the only obvious sign something was wrong. The lack of guards or people in and out of the gates wasn’t unusual, but the smoke was as good as a horn’s warning. 

For a fire in the Caverns to create so much smoke unchecked, hundreds would have to be dead.

“It’s burning? Our home?” Pinna Mar asked. “Was it an attack? Why didn’t Mani Haldor know about this?”

Upinde shot him a withering look. They were hidden in a copse of bushwillow trees and thorned scrub across the valley from the entrance and the nearest likely threat, but that didn’t make them safe. Even though Pinna was only an aspirant, he should know better than to start talking until they were certain they couldn’t be seen or heard. Under Upinde’s harsh gaze, he closed his mouth. After a moment more Pinna lowered his eyes. Upinde motioned his five companions back down the hill and into cover. The six sa’mori slid back from the grassy crestline, staying belly to the ground, to not give away their position.

Upinde ignored the others for the moment. He moved to check the leads and hobbles on the two pack wildebai they’d stashed in the small copse. The animals chewed the tall, yellow grasses and snorted, but otherwise made no fuss. They’d left another ten of the pack animals, the goal of their journey, penned at an unmanned farm near the entrance to the valley where they had first seen the smoke. The farm doubled as an outpost that shouldn’t have been abandoned--another sign things were not as they should be.

Upinde pulled the leather thongs on one of the tightly bound packages, and dropped it to the ground with a rattle of wood and metal.

“Where were the patrols?” Pinna whined as the other sa’mori gathered in a loose circle together. “Where was the defense? Why weren’t the gates shut? Where are the Askari?” His voice rose in a panicked, whispered stream. His eyes cast desperately about to each of his five sa’mori brethren in turn.

Upinde bit down an angry retort. He patted wildebai's rough main of black hair, careful of its short horns.

Pinna asked the right questions, but at the wrong time. The young sa’mori caught Upinde’s gaze and peered down at him, searching for an answer. His broad shoulders twitched nervously under thick, corded muscle. For all his size and strength, Pinna was the youngest aspirant warrior in the group. It would be a year or more until he trained and matured into a proper adept like Upinde. It would be several more years before Pinna could even be considered for an Askari warrior. Under other circumstances, Upinde would have sympathized. He could sense the same pangs of chaos and fear at the edge of his mind that Pinna was now giving voice.

Pinna wasn’t wrong, but this wasn’t the place to ask what couldn’t be answered.

“Be still,” Felis Kit told Pinna, cutting through Upinde’s thoughts. “We can only deal in the now. Upinde has the command. He’s an adept.”

Upinde turned around slowly from the two packages on the ground. He was trained, but not experienced--not for this. To buy time, he looked at each of his five companions, reading the emotions on their faces. Upinde finished by looking at his second, Ramuh Pam. Her cold, calculating gaze caught his and stopped him. She was also an adept, older than Upinde and with more experience. She’d actually stood a watch with an Askari patrol. She could easily take the command.

For a silent moment Upinde wished she would.

Instead, Ramuh nodded at him to continue. Upinde felt his heart sink and his mind steel. It was his job. He had been tasked to succeed or fail. If he fell, she would take over, and not before.

This is only supposed to be a supply run, Upinde thought. A little small group command training. We’re not supposed to fight.

He drew a deep breath and held it for a moment.

For any obstacle, start at the beginning, Upinde told himself. The words echoed in the voice of Calin Eer, one of the Caverns’ Askari masters.

Upinde took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

“I’ll give you my thoughts,” he said. “Then we’ll make a decision--together.”

Pinna stared at him, waiting for more. The young man wanted something that would make logic from this chaos. The other four sa’mori nodded their heads in agreement, as if Upinde had given them an order. Ramuh watched him from where she leaned against a bushwillow tree.

“We assume the worst,” Upinde told them. “One of the border nations has invaded and attacked the Askari Caverns--our home. Either the Ruska or the Vik. It doesn’t matter which. A large force would be needed to overcome the...the defenders, and they’ve done that.”

Friends, teachers and brethren, you mean, Upinde translated in his head. Don’t think of them now. There’s nothing you can do for the dead.

He swallowed and went on.

“Those who survived the attack are now prisoners, here or on their way to be sold as slaves.”

“What good does that do us?” Pinna interrupted. “We’re not Askari! We should run...retreat.” He looked to the others for support. “We should find an Askari patrol and report this--let them handle it.”

Pinna’s eyes were wide, the whites showed all around his deep brown in near panic.

He’s not a coward, Upinde reminded himself. He’s young and he’s scared. Stick to the problem. That’s where we’ll find the solution.

“A rearguard may have been left to hold the Caverns,” Upinde told them.

“Two adepts and four aspirants against an army?” Pinna asked.

“Not an army,” Felis corrected.

“Upinde just said--” Pinna began.

“A large force would have patrols,” Upinde cut him off to explain, “and a guard outside the Caverns’ entrance. We’ve watched for an hour and there are neither.”

“So, there’s no one?” Pinna asked. A note of hope crept into his voice. “They’ve come and gone?”

“As Upinde said,” Argona Vis spoke up for the first time. He rolled his own shoulders to loosen them and emphasize his point. “We assume the worst.”

“What’s that?” Pinna asked.

“This is the first stage of a war of conquest,” Upinde said. “If they hold the Caverns, they mean to use them for an attack on Mani Haldor.”

Upinde stared at Pinna Mar and let the implication sink through his panic. If they took Mani Haldor, the entire kingdom would fall.

Pinna Mar slowed his breathing. He blinked his eyes as if he was waking up from a dream. His big shoulders lifted and sagged in a silent sigh. The panic that had been on Pinna’s face melted away into resignation. 

Upinde was satisfied. Pinna had remembered who he was and remembered his duty. Even aspirants were expected to take up spear and shield if the call came.

“We’re the only ones who know this attack has happened,” Upinde told them. “We’ll need more than kukri knives.”

An Agent's Inbox #11

Query Letter for the Novel: Custodians of the Cosmos
Author: A.D., 60K Comedic Science Fiction: 

Dear Ms. Piraino:

Imagine a starship from the viewpoint of its custodians, those who boldly go, and clean up after those that boldly just went.

This is the story of those that wear the lime green jumpsuit and wield the reinforced rubber squeegee. The oddball collection of characters who divide their time between coddling arrogant officers, battling hostile aliens, and mopping up afterward. This light-hearted novel satirizes some of the well-known tropes of science fiction in a fun, fast-paced novel.

Kale Butterly’s dream of being a starship officer seems dead when he fails the entry exam for the academy. So he devises a fool-proof backup plan--get a custodian job on a starship, meet lots of officers, then impress and amaze them. He only needs one recommendation, but Kale underestimated the exceptional fools his fool-proof plan is up against.

Kale’s first clean-up job ends in a fight for his life, armed with only a vacuum cleaner. He survives that nightmare and earns the captain’s respect, and then immediately jeopardizes it. Things take a deadly turn when a ‘pirated’ Pirates of Penzance holovid infects the ship’s robots, causing the cyborg first officer to believe that he is The Pirate King, and it is a glorious thing. Glorious, until he conceives a method to weaponize the genre of musical theatre. Now, Kale and the custodians must save an audience from the first officer’s lethal overacting. When a fellow custodian is kidnaped by a spacefaring race of amazons whose feeble men cannot handle the rigors of space travel. Kale rescues him by posing as a despotic space tyrant. Now the dictator of the Dome Nebula has put a price on his head. Will Kale’s dream of the academy come true?

Background: Aside from working as a hotel night janitor as a student and spending time as a volunteer in Brooklyn, NY, I have spent decades as an electronics field engineer for a fortune 500 telecommunications & aerospace company. Over the last four years, I’ve published my first science fiction series of novels with three successful Kickstarter campaigns, on Amazon book one reached top ten in its subgenre. This spring I won a 42-word flash fiction contest with a Douglas Adams theme. I have an extensive public speaking background and enjoy being in front of an audience.

Thank You,
A.D.


CUSTODIANS OF THE COSMOS

A searing bolt of plasma struck the bulkhead ruining its postmodern contemporary finish. It left yet another smoking pockmark--one of dozens in the ship’s tastefully-decorated passageways. Most of the other blast holes smoldered and dripped, the plastic veneer still burning. Tendrils of acrid smoke drifted upward staining the wall with sooty smudges. A fine powder of pulverized chalk sprinkled the decks, shrouding each of the battle’s casualties in a thin sheet of silvery dust. The lifeless bodies of the battle’s victims lay waiting for its end. Each oozed assorted fluids, fluids that soak and stain. A human body can leak almost any of its thirty-four various fluids after being shot, fourteen of which were real nightmares to get out of carpeting. Especially with the current trend toward light colors and natural fibers.

It had been a terrific battle, as long as you consider “terrific” to imply both terrifying and horrific.

The aliens fired another barrage and slithered closer. The handful of surviving humans waited, hidden around a corner in the corridor. They couldn’t see the squidmen approaching, but the sound and smell of them were unmistakable. The deadly tentacles made ominous popping sounds. Hundreds of moist suction cups slapping walls and gripping ceilings.

The battle had been disastrous for the humans, and this section of the ship was almost overrun. A young red-haired ensign risked a peek around the corner and fired his blaster. His shot struck one creature, knocking it to the deck and rupturing a dark purple sac; it spewed ink in every direction.

A squidman’s body contains sixteen fluids all of which not only stain but stink, including a smelly outer coating of slime that dribbles on every surface they touch. In fact, the corridor behind them was now a jumble of slimy purple tentacle prints. Thousands of circular stains covered every surface.

The human defenders could wait no longer, they abandoned their cover, dashed out, exchanged fire, and retreated further down the passage. Standard Coalition training for repelling hostile boarding parties had not been revised for the unique challenge the squidmen posed. The old tactic of taking and holding cover, and pinning down the attackers with blaster fire would’ve been suicidal. Their feeder arms can extend to a length of twenty feet, probing around corners and behind barricades. The paddles on the ends of the feeder arms are covered with hooks. Anyone foolish enough to hold cover is easily found and pulled into the creature’s beaklike maw for a quick skull-crushing bite.

The air sizzled with myriad lethal colors as the humans made a desperate last stand in defense of their ship. Arcs of intense light surged between the contingents. They had fallen back as far as they dared. They must turn the tide now or face defeat.

Human first officer, Commander Horatio Frakes, foolheartedly stood in the open and took careful aim at the creature he’d identified as their leader. He had a perfect shot and pulled his trigger. However, at that moment, a small dome-top maintenance robot entered the passage from a side door, directly into Frakes’s line of fire. The plasma bolt struck the side of the little robot and exploded. The five-foot tall robot made a loud screeching noise, spun in a tight circle for a moment, and toppled over spewing sparks, oil, and smoke. Laying on its side, still spinning, it gained momentum, propelled by the jet of a ruptured coolant tank. A blue-green fog of refrigerant swirled into a tornado-shaped cloud. This went on for a full minute until the droid’s scream faded followed by a loud “Pop!” The battle paused as the combatants on both sides watched the droid’s entertaining demise. Steam, fog, and smoke now filled the hallway, blocking the view of the passage.

With the enemy distracted, the remaining humans regrouped and secured their section bulkhead. A handful of them were all that stood between the slathering aliens and the ship’s family living quarters. Then, as if on cue, somewhere in the rooms behind them a baby cried, followed by the mother’s frantic attempts to sooth it. Concern lined the foreheads of these brave men as they stared into the grim face of slithering death and inhaled the gagging stench of murderous seafood.

One man, a quick-thinking young engineer, pulled out a handheld device and aimed it at the nexus of the bulkhead control emitters. He tapped out a code, and a temporary force field snapped into existence, securing the hallway. It isolated them from the invaders, at least for the moment. Energy from the aliens’ weapons struck the glimmering field and sizzled away in bursts of orange and violet. His concentration focused, the engineer entered a second complex code into the device, but nothing seemed to happen. He gave the others a worried look, but a moment later, with a whoosh and a splat, the area opposite them depressurized. The soft-tissued alien boarding party, now exposed to zero pressure, exploded—splattering chunks of tentacles, body fluids, and organs in every direction. A gruesome coat of alien tissue covered the formerly beige walls, fawn ceiling, and cappuccino brown floor.

“Good show! Nicely done, lieutenant,” the first officer said, commending the man for his quick actions. He took a moment to scrape a glob of squid mucus off his shoes on to the red shirt of a nearby crewman.

“Commander, did you see how my shot nailed the big one with the purple tissue sac?” the red-haired ensign asked. He reeked of insecurity and was worried they’d missed his contribution to the battle. “Did you guys see it? I got a kill,” he repeated, trying to get confirmation from the other crewmen.

“Yes, Ensign. We saw, it’s confirmed,” Frakes said.

“Good shooting everyone,” Lieutenant Commander Nord said. “It was a noble battle bravely won. Our fallen comrades will feast in the Great Hall of Heroes tonight!”

Nord is a member of the species known as the Warfians. Warfians are strong and large with craggy blue skin. The Warfian people are a warrior race that believes dying in battle is the highest honor a mortal can achieve. This was unlike the more clever race of people known as the Tinters. The Tinters believe dyeing during a battle can save your life, particularly if you dye your uniform the same color as the enemy.

“Yes, sir, Commander Nord, Great Hall of Heroes. Yes, indeed,” the engineer said. He lived by the rule: Always agree with a Warfian. Which was a good rule to follow if you enjoyed keeping your head in its current location.

“Can anyone explain why a blasted maintenance robot was dancing around in the middle of battle?” Commander Frakes asked. “It cut in front of my shot, just as I was about to kill their leader. I was robbed of that kill.”

“Yes, sir. I saw that,” Ensign redhead said. “I think you should count it as a kill regardless,”

Everyone knew Frakes would count the kill, anyway. No one, it seemed, could shoot that poorly even if he tried. How he gained rank as commander was a mystery. Because, despite his cheating, Frakes still had the worst kill ratio on the ship. Yet, none of his underlings ever disputed his claims.

“I say we all have a drink to honor our dead,” Lieutenant Commander Nord said.

“Attention everyone! Nord is buying.” Frakes laughed.

The Warfian commander wasn’t amused. He made a snarling noise under his breath and dug the clawlike nails of his right hand into his thigh as he fought the urge to relocate Frakes’s head.

An Agent's Inbox #10

Dear Gabbie,

Thanks so much for doing this, I hope you find some great prospects. And I look forward to your feedback, whatever it may be!

When Mike Temple hears the voices of the dying in his head after eight years of silence, he fears this time his secret will destroy all he holds dear.

Everything is fine until his student, Aiden Stoute, stops showing up for high school. Always eager to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong, Mike bypasses protocol and visits Mrs. Stoute at home to demand why she isn’t concerned with her son’s education. Upon arriving Mike finds Mrs. Stoute dying from cancer. Aiden suspects her hospice nurse, Elizabeth Black, is 
speeding up the process. Having recently lost his own father to cancer, Mike believes Aiden is just grieving--until he hears Mrs. Stoute’s dying voice in his mind confirming Nurse Black’s murderous intentions.

A devastated Aiden is h***-bent on revenge against the shifty nurse. Meanwhile Mike suspects Black is connected to the return of his supernatural condition, because the only voices he hears now are her
patients. And they tell him she’s killing them too. Now Mike and Aiden must join forces to stop this secretive woman’s murderous spree before the voices drive Mike insane once again.


THE LAST DOOR ON THE LEFT is a 75,000-word thriller/suspense novel in the vein of Ruth Ware’s IN A DARK, DARK WOOD with a paranormal twist. I am the son of a Hospice nurse, and I used my family’s familiarity with the subject to craft the story details. Last year I attended both DFWCon and Writers Digest Annual Conference in NYC and plan on attending both again this year.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
E.W.



THE LAST DOOR ON THE LEFT

There was nothing strange about the day, other than it was, for lack of a better word, strange. Mike Temple had been more than patient with his students, and yet Aiden, who's behavior was always impeccable, seemed to have taken advantage of his good graces. His phone was out yet again.

“Aiden, bring it to me.”

The boy grumbled something incoherent before laying the device on the desk in front of him, face up.

Mike held his gaze a moment. He didn’t want a confrontation, and trying to confiscate it might lead to a screaming match with a student. The kid was 
edgy enough as it was, beads of sweat glistened off his head from across the room.

Ignoring the slight, but making a mental note, Mike turned and addressed the class. “I know you are all anxious because we’re one day closer to the day the state sees fit to--God help us all--release you into the world. But I just wanted to quickly go over something. It doesn’t really have much to do with civics, though I wish I had known this when I was your age.”

“You are our age!”

The class prickled with laughter.

Mike grimaced. Next year he was coming in with a full beard; cover up some of his boyish features. More than once some of the faculty had mistaken him for a student. Could he help it if he looked young for twenty-seven? Though, he couldn’t let Mackay get away with it. He hated this part.

“Dylan, maybe if you learned when it was appropriate to speak and when it was appropriate to listen you’d have a prom date by now.”

A loud round of “Ohhhh’s” rose from the class as Mike glanced at a couple of the girls, smirking to each other. He didn’t like embarrassing the students, but sometimes it was a necessary evil of the job. It was like they said in grad school, if you don’t drop the hammer at least once in a while, they’ll walk all over you.

Dylan, his face beet red, slunk into his seat. Mike turned away, embarrassed himself, his gaze landing on Aiden again. He was eyeing his phone like a piece of candy. The screen was lit, but Mike couldn’t see the notification. And Aiden hadn’t picked it up. Yet. Mike pushed down the urge to snatch it from his desk and pour through every text.

“Look, you guys are graduating in four months. I know it seems like forever but it is really very little time. By a show of hands how many of you have applied to college?”

Almost all of the twenty-five hands shot up.

“Okay. Now how many of you think you’re prepared? That you’re ready for whatever is thrown at you?”

Almost all the hands went up again.

“Are you about to tell us college is a waste of time?” Kevin asked.

“G** no. You’re going to face things you’ve never dreamed of in college, and you need to prepare yourselves.” He glanced at the clock. Only a few minutes left. He could fit this in, it was important enough. Movement on the left side of the room caught his attention: Aiden typing another furious message on his phone. Mike sighed. Why couldn’t he have been a teacher in the seventies?

“I don’t expect you to answer so I’m not even going to ask. Let’s just assume all or most of you have sampled alcohol at some point before today.”

A collective round of groans passed through the students.

“I know, I know. But listen, I don’t care you’ve taken a drink or two or ten. I don’t care you’ve gone to your parent’s liquor cabinet, popped the back off with a screwdriver, stolen a bottle, then replaced it with colored water and tapped the nails back down with a rubber mallet so no one will hear you at two-thirty in the morning.”

The class regarded him.

“Okay so maybe that last one was just me.”

A few laughs bubbled up.

“As Dylan pointed out, it wasn’t so long ago I was in your position. But what I never considered was the level of access I’d have in college. The funny thing about high school is most of the time you really have to work for your booze. Really work for it. At least I did. I had to be meticulous, finding out all my parents’ secrets, coming up with creative ways to find sources. The point is, in a way I earned it. Maybe it’s been like that for you too. College is completely different. There it flows like water.”

“Sounds like you were a straight-up alcoholic, Mr. Temple,” Cole said, leaning back in his chair. “Ever bring a little drinky-drinky to work?”

Mike wanted to wipe the indignant grin right off his face but ignored him instead. “Temptation can be a powerful motivator. When there are no consequences, when everything is easy. Be. Careful.”

“The only thing I’ll be careful about is not to fall off when I’m doing my keg stand!” Cole yelled to a couple of cheers from his classmates.

Cole’s parents ran a successful travel agency--which, in the short time he’d been in Hawksburg, Mike had learned was a prominent staple of their town. They were probably one of the most respected families around. Did he expect Cole to be anything other than an entitled a**? Mike glanced at the room.

The students had stopped interrupting; only because they were hoping for some sort of scuffle worth recording. Half of them had their phones in-hand, watching Mike intently. But not Aiden, his device was back on his desk.

“I’ll be honest with you. I let temptation get the better of me. I thought I could handle it, and it turns out, I couldn’t.”

Some of the students shot glances at each other.

“What happened?” Lavarius asked, leaning forward.

“I’m not going to go into detail, but it wasn’t pretty. Things got bad for a while. It was a dark time.” Mike stared into the distance, images gathering at the edges of his memory. If he didn’t reel it in he’d say something he’d regret.

“Did you hurt someone? My grandpa had a problem with alcohol, he took it out on my nana. She ended up getting a restraining order,” Hannah said.

Mike watched the young lady in the back row for a moment, his heart going out to her. How much damage had witnessing those events done? “Nothing like that,” he said, gathering himself. “The only person I hurt was myself. By not paying attention to how bad things were getting. It was only by some miracle I figured it all out. I just don’t want all of you to go through the same turmoil.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m never taking a drink,” Hannah replied.

“If he thinks we’re not drinking in college--” Gabriella whispered to Marie a little too loudly.

“I didn’t say that.” Mike sighed as Gabriella snapped to attention. “Look, what you do when you’re out there is your business. Most of you are already eighteen, you can do what you want. Go nuts.”

“Thank you,” Cole said, taking the opportunity to stand up in front of the class as if he were about to make an oration. “You heard the man, do what you want!” he announced. He turned back to Mike. “Hey Mr. Temple, got a pick-me-up?” He winked.

The class snickered.

“Sit. Down, Cole.”

An Agent's Inbox #9

Dear Ms. Piraino,

Kyra Mavros was thirteen years old when she “lost her foot,” which is a polite way of saying that a dragon ripped it off and swallowed it whole. 

Two years later, she’s sick and tired of the pitying glances. Determined to regain her mobility and protect others from a similar fate, Kyra sets her sights on joining the Huntresses: deadly warriors equipped with solar-powered wings and a taste for dragon blood. After all, you don’t need both feet to fly...or hunt. 

When another dragon devastates her hometown of Pythila, Kyra ignores the safety brochures that insist humans without wings should avoid them at all costs. She leaps into the fight and, with her quick wit and a little luck, sends the beast packing. Impressed, the Huntresses whisk her to the floating city of Harbinger, where young nestlings must survive a grueling year of boot camp to earn their wings. But not everyone thinks Kyra deserves to be there, and they aren’t above sabotage to get her expelled. Eventually, even Kyra begins to question whether or not she could repeat the victory in her hometown. 

To make matters worse, the dragon from Pythila has nursed its wounds and is back for revenge. When the beast kidnaps one of her only friends, Kyra must rise above her classmates’ prejudice--and her own self-doubts--to rescue him...even if it means sacrificing her wings in the process.

HARBINGER is a young adult fantasy complete at 78,000 words, and has series potential. Based on your love of imaginative fantasy with strong world building, I am pleased to present it for your consideration. 

I am an associate member of SCBWI. I have also participated in National Novel Writing Month for nine consecutive years. 

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Sincerely,
R.F.


HARBINGER

It took two words to destroy Kyra Mavros’s life. 

She’d bartered passage to Cartha, the capital of the Meridian Isles, hiked to the acropolis that proudly housed the huntress’s base, ignored stares and whispers as she crutched to the central tower...all for the infamous entrance exam. 

The most important day of her life. And then Admiral Phebe ruined it: 

“Absolutely not.”

The twenty-six other teenagers taking the exam stopped on higher steps of the tower’s spiral staircase and stared. Although only the people nearby could have heard, it seemed like the whole building had gone silent. 

Kyra couldn’t breathe. She tried to project her mother’s confidence, to recall her brother’s advice to stand tall, be proud. 

It didn’t work. Her voice still cracked when she said, “I’m--I’m sorry?”

Admiral Phebe crossed her arms and looked down her long, thin nose at Kyra. “I said, absolutely not. I will not allow an amputee to test.” The word must have tasted awfully sour for her lips to pucker that way. 

“Told you,” that awful boy, the one who’d teased her outside, muttered, shooting Kyra a smug look from five steps up. 

Kyra’s face grew warm. Her palms were slippery on the wooden grips of her crutches, but she forced herself to meet the admiral’s haughty gaze. This woman held Kyra’s dream in her hands. And the window of opportunity was closing fast. 

She mounted a defense. 

“I--I am not my disability,” Kyra managed, feeling like she’d swallowed cotton. She’d never been more aware of her crutches than that moment, except maybe the day she’d gotten them. “I’ve been practicing. I can do anything they can.”

The admiral raised an eyebrow. “Really. Anything? On crutches, you can cross the bridge strung between our towers? You can run laps as fast as the other hopefuls? You can fight a beast without weapons?”

Yes. Maybe not as fast as the normal teenagers, but Kyra knew she could. She was her mother’s daughter, after all. 

Nevertheless, the admiral would ignore whatever she said--that much was obvious. Kyra would have to prove it during the actual exam. If she was allowed to participate, she’d amaze everyone. 

“Please, ma’am. You have to let me try.” 

Wrong choice of words. Admiral Phebe’s eyes narrowed, and she said, “I don’t have to do anything, Ms. Mavros.” 

Now their discussion was definitely attracting attention. The central tower of Cartha’s huntress base was incredibly tall, but even people twenty stories up the spiral staircase leaned over the railing to watch the exchange. During initiation week, groups of hopeful fifteen-year-olds were a common sight, but surely, none of them stopped to argue with the admiral. 

A few people even leapt off the staircase to swoop lower, as if they might hear better from five stories than twenty. In that moment, Kyra wished huntresses were normal people, not winged warriors. Eavesdropping was so much easier for someone who could fly. 

Admiral Phebe turned to the other potentials and snapped her fingers. “Eyes on me,” she said, as if they weren’t already staring. “Who can tell me what a huntress’s purpose in the Realm is? Anyone?”

A thin, mousy girl raised her hand. “Huntresses protect humanity from the dragons.”

“Correct,” the admiral’s voice was curt. “And why can’t the normal citizens protect themselves?”

Now that terrible boy from earlier replied, “Because no long-distance weapon can pierce a dragon’s scales. To kill one, you have to get close.” He was still smirking at Kyra, a cruel glint in his eyes.

“Exactly.” With a swoosh, Admiral Phebe snapped open her wings. The teenagers on the staircase gasped, and one girl squeaked in excitement. 

Like the others, Kyra couldn’t help admiring them. Her father had luminoid wings too, although his elliptical wingspan had been shorter and rounder, created for sharp turns and quick takeoffs. 

Still, hers were exquisite, thousands of lavender feathers spread into a wingspan easily five meters in width. The luminoid material glowed softly in the sunlight that streamed through the tower’s open windows. A glint of the titanium that laced her feathers together was visible when the admiral shifted. 

Admiral Phebe seemed impervious to the glamour of it all. “The Realm’s armies can fight the stupider beasts, but only huntresses can tackle the dragons on an aerial level.” 

She gestured towards the mural near the tower’s main entrance. 

It was titled The Battle of Cartha. On the far left, huntresses mobilized to tackle the biggest dragon onslaught in a hundred years. At the base, the dragons’ army of beasts--griffins and mermaids and werewolves and kraken--swarmed the streets and the harbor, eyes red with bloodlust, massacring humans and sinking ships attempting to flee. And towards the top of the painting was the dragons’ ruler, locked in an aerial battle against a female huntress with black wings. 

Damara Mavros. 

As Kyra stared at the battle that killed her parents, Admiral Phebe continued, “This war will only be won when the dragons are destroyed. That is a huntress’s calling.”

Kyra tore her eyes from the painting. Her voice sounded very small. “I know.” 

“Do you? Nestlings must endure a year of physical and mental training before they earn their wings. How do you expect to pass that year with one leg?”

A few teenagers snickered, mostly the new friends that boy had made. 

“The woman at the gates said I could test,” Kyra said, trying her hardest to stand tall. She could imagine her brother Astraeus offering an encouraging smile, telling her to beat the odds. But Astraeus hadn’t seen her in two years, not since before the attack. 

Would he say the same now? Or would he stare at her stump and her crutches and agree with Admiral Phebe? 

“The woman outside humored you because of your heritage, but I don’t believe in legacy admittance. You can’t expect to survive based on who your mother was.” The admiral folded her wings, the feathers interlocking until they compacted against her back. 

“I’m not--” Emotion surged in Kyra’s throat, cutting off her words. She hadn’t mentioned her mother to Admiral Phebe. To anyone. 

But the admiral pointed at her neck, and Kyra realized a grave mistake. Her necklace, a manufactured feather hanging from a piece of twine, had fallen from under her shirt. It dangled in plain view of everyone, and the teenagers stared with renewed interest. 

“A black luminoid feather from our late Champion’s wings,” Admiral Phebe said, narrowing her dark eyes. “Clever strategy.”

She thought Kyra was trying to invoke sympathy by showing off the feather. That offended Kyra more than the admiral’s earlier words about legacy admittance, and she quickly shoved the feather back under her shirt. 

Unfortunately, the damage was done. Admiral Phebe held her gaze, unwavering. “Huntresses rely on their squads for support in battle, and I’m simply not confident in your ability to perform. This is life or death. I will not allow other nestlings to suffer due to your shortcomings. Go home, Ms. Mavros.”

Before Kyra could stop it, one fat tear slipped down her cheek. 

“But--”

“The rest of you, up the stairs. There are other potentials to test today, and we’ve wasted too much time,” Admiral Phebe snapped her fingers. It was as if she snapped everything back into motion. The kids began climbing again, and above them, huntresses leaned away from the railing or surged upwards to their intended destination. 

Kyra stayed at the base of the staircase, shifting her grip on her crutches.

“You don’t need both feet to fly,” she whispered, choking back tears. 

But the reply was too little, too late. The group was already two stories above her.

An Agent's Inbox #8

Dear Ms Piraino,

A half-dragon girl, a king who will stop at nothing to stamp out magic--and a war that could change everything.

Aseireld Night is just thirteen when she is forced to attend her first execution. As the blood of an innocent sorcerer flows before her, she swears vengeance against the magic-loathing king who ordered him killed. But her half-dragon blood puts her in more danger than any human sorcerer, and her adoptive family of fae are hiding from an even greater threat than the king.

Three years later, the king makes a mistake that sparks a war, and the Night family are forced to choose a side: stand with their king to save themselves, or fight for their freedom and risk death. But in the midst of war, Aseireld finds that falling for the wrong guy could just be the most dangerous thing of all...

NIGHT OF FIRE is a young adult fantasy novel and is complete at 90,000 words. It will appeal to fans of Sarah J Maas’s “Throne of Glass” and Victoria Aveyard’s “Red Queen”. It is the first novel in a planned trilogy. I am in my early twenties, live in the Oxfordshire countryside with my boyfriend and pets, and work in human resources for a charity.

I would like to thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

Yours faithfully,
B.W.


NIGHT OF FIRE

Rotheguard, three years ago

I am thirteen years old when I watch my first execution. The drum beats, the sweat of the crowd, the knowledge that it could be me next... it crawls under my skin.

“Aseireld? Are you okay?”

I can feel the eyes of Loden and his brother, Temlin, on me, overprotective as ever. They’ve stationed themselves on either side of me like sentries, while their youngest brother and his wife are on Temlin’s left, equally as watchful.

I stare straight ahead. “No.”

We’re sat on long wooden benches, shaded from the glare of the setting sun by the huge form of the castle behind us. As the king’s newest favourites, we have some of what are supposedly the best seats in the house: front-row, blood-splatter seats. We’re close enough to the castle that I can hear the screaming coming from inside it; a sound drowned out to the crowd’s human ears by the din of their own chatter.

I risk a glance at the royal stand. King Eylris Rotheguard, cold-eyed, his blonde hair greying, surveys the crowd with a self-satisfied look. Trystan, the younger of his two sons, glances at me and gives me a single nod. If I hadn’t just been partnered with him in history lessons, I’d ignore him, whatever his title. As it is, I force myself to give him a curt nod.

The prince and I--along with all the other young, scared faces in the crowd--are here by order of the king. According to him, thirteen is old enough to start witnessing his version of justice. Even so, a few mothers and fathers cling to their children as if ready to shield their eyes when the axe falls. Loden Night--my father’s friend, and the only person who can protect me from what my half-dragon powers are already starting to bring--won’t need to bother covering my eyes. I already know what magic-haters do to people with the least hint of magic in this world.

The gates clang shut, the sound slamming against my heart.

“Bring out the prisoner!” the captain of the Royal Guard booms.

The king stands. A long purple robe trimmed with silver fur drags behind him as he takes two steps forward, his eyes on the castle behind us. Everyone follows his gaze as two guards pull a man from around the side of the building. His hands are manacled, and attached to the centre of the manacles is a chain that one of the guards is using to pull him along like a wild dog. The man struggles, digging his heels into the ground, pulling his hands back so hard that blood has pooled around the handcuffs.

“No!” he screams, his voice hoarse with dehydration. He looks at the gathered crowd as if seeing other human beings for the first time. “Please! No!”

Eylris ignores his screams. Behind him, Queen Tessa ignores everything, her eyes blank as she stares into the middle distance. Crown Prince Calix wears an expression of disgust that deepens as the prisoner draws closer, the man’s matted hair and thick coating of filth more obvious with every step.

The guards haul him up the steps and onto the flat of the platform, seemingly oblivious to his screams and violent tugging on the chain.

An elderly man, his back so hunched he is almost bent double, shuffles forward from his seat on the royal stand. He hands a scroll to Eylris, a look of reverence on his wrinkled face, and then returns to his cushioned chair.

Eylris clutches the scroll so tightly that his knuckles turn white, but he does not yet unravel it. “Since the reign of my great-great-great grandmother, Queen Exilas--” he stops as the crowd chants as one: may she rest in peace--“all forms of magic and sorcery have been outlawed in this kingdom, punishable by lifelong imprisonment. When I took my place on the throne of Rotheguard, I knew that more could be done to secure the safety of my people. Therefore, since the first day of my reign, the sentence for all those convicted of acts of sorcery has become the death penalty.”

His voice rises, building with fanaticism. “Today marks the first day of our kingdom’s future! Today marks the first day when sorcerers shall see that I will not tolerate their acts of terror upon my people!” He pauses again, looking around with narrowed eyes until someone, somewhere in the crowd, begins to applaud. People glance at one another, joining in uncertainly. Loden nudges me gently with his elbow until I too clap my hands. For show. It’s all for show--but, still, my arms move unwillingly.

Only when the applause has risen to deafening levels does Eylris look satisfied, raising his hand for silence. The crowd falls still, and he unrolls the parchment. “Kingsley Unverell, you stand convicted of committing an act of sorcery, contravening the law of this land. Having been found guilty at a trial--”

“I’m not!” the man shouts, his voice desperate, pleading. “I didn’t--”

One look from Eylris and a guard delivers a hard blow to the prisoner’s stomach with his beefy fist. The man screams in agony as he drops down onto his knees.

“No! Stop!”

Heads turn to find the source of the voice. It doesn’t take long; pushing her way to the front, moving clumsily as she tries to see through her tears, is a woman in a brown dress almost as ragged as the prisoner’s threadbare clothing. Someone tries to hold her back, but it’s no use: she pushes them aside and makes it onto the platform, her hand reaching out towards the prisoner...

“Arrest her!” Eylris shouts, his face purple with fury. “No one is to touch the prisoner!”

“Please!” she screams. “He didn’t hurt anyone!”

Two guards grip her, their holds so tight that you can see how thin her arms are beneath the fabric of her dress. My stomach knots up inside me: I want to scream that she’s right. He used his magic to fell a tree for firewood, not to hurt anyone.

“Loden,” I plead, turning my eyes on him even though I know it’s useless: acting now would only get us killed too.

He’s looking over my head at Temlin, who has one hand on the bench as if ready to leave his seat. I glance between them as they silently stare at each other, having one of those wordless conversations that are the exclusive privilege of magical creatures. Infuriatingly, it isn’t a trait I’ve inherited from my father.

After what seems like an age, Temlin nods, his mouth set in a thin line. I know what it means: not here, not now. Not when using their magic so publicly would reveal their location to enemies even more dangerous than the king.

“Don’t look, Azi," Loden says to me, though his eyes linger on his brother. On Temlin’s other side, Asmene clutches Candron’s hand so tightly her knuckles are white.

I fix my eyes on my feet, my hands balled into fists. The woman’s screams slowly die away as she is taken to the castle.

The king’s voice is flat with barely-suppressed fury as he speaks: “The law of this land dictates only one punishment. Executioner.”

Keeping my eyes down, I listen to the slow, thudding footsteps as someone else takes to the platform. The drum beats louder, the sound hollow in the deafening silence.

An Agent's Inbox #7

Dear Ms. Piraino,

Reincarnation can be a b****, especially when a mad goddess keeps killing you. 

Seventeen-year-old Saekina hasn’t had a place to call home in years. Every family member or friend who has stood at her side has abandoned her or died. Alone in the massive city of Dennin, she relies on her blades and a strange, ethereal energy to survive the demonic assassins that have hunted her since childhood. 

Then she stumbles across others hunted by the same creatures and wielding the same energy: a shapeshifter, a priestess, and a brawler. Along with eighteen-year-old Idani, a mischievous thief, the five of them band together to fight their hunters. For the first time in years, Saekina has friends and a girl she sort of likes, and she isn’t about to let anyone hurt them.

But the goddess who wants Saekina dead is willing to murder all her friends too, no matter how many times they reincarnate. And this time she's hell-bent on killing them for good. Saekina’s blades are ready, but first she must find a way to defeat a goddess. If she can't, more than just her life is at stake. Her friends could be picked off one by one, leaving her utterly alone once again.

ALL IS DARK is a 90,000 word LGBT young adult fantasy with series potential. I am entering An Agent’s Inbox due to your interest in strong world building. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
L.A.


ALL IS DARK

Saekina had nothing but shadows for company. The only light came from the moon orbs lining the cracked, cobbled streets. She turned into the alley, passing dumpsters overflowing with reeking food and, discarded magical trinkets. 

Eagerness fluttered in her chest. Information on slavers never failed to earn at least one gold coin.

She pulled open the hotel's dented door. The owner looked up from his bottle of ale. He'd be passed out within the hour. "You again." 

He'd invested a lot in making his shitty little hotel safe for less-than-legal operations. Plenty of back entrances and large vents hidden by glamours. She’d have to ditch this place before people realized he'd been playing both sides. She slipped him the usual payment. "We good?" 

"As long as the money keeps coming." He counted the coins before adding them to his purse. "Room seven. You have half an hour until they arrive."

Saekina forced her lips into a tight smile. Smiling is good for business, she reminded herself. "Nice working with you." 

Allies would be nice. Not friends though. Never friends. 

All Saekina had was herself.

She wrinkled her nose as she climbed the stairs. The hotel--and she used that term loosely--reeked of mold.

Room seven’s door stuck on the carpeting, and she had to kick it open. It looked like the rest of the place: s*****. 

The problems were the charmed utilities. The moon orb, well, she’d be fine in the dark. No one bothered to think of ungifted people when building. People less magically gifted could, at the least, turn on an object already pre-charmed as long as they had the incantation. It was just as well; she’d had years of experience with finding ways around her lack of ability. 

She reached up, removed the grating on the air vent and climbed inside, the covering clanking back into place. She’d paid the owner well to show her each glamoured vent, otherwise she’d never have known they were there.

The cover clanged against the metal as Saekina angled it back into place. Her hot breaths in such a small area dried her mouth out. This part tanked. If she filled up on water beforehand, her bladder would torment her. If she abstained, dehydration set in, but she could deal. 

The slavers trickled into the room fifteen minutes or so after she’d tucked herself away--the owner never got the time right. The moon orb flicked on with a snap of one woman's fingers. Lucky bastards.

“Did you do a sweep?” asked the oldest of the group judging by her graying hair and wrinkles.

“Stopped by earlier. We’re good.”

Saekina smirked. Thank the gods for built in glamours. To them, her cozy little vent didn’t look large enough to squeeze a hound into, let alone a person.

“How much stock do we have this time?” asked a man.

Saekina leaned forward, ignoring the hard metal pressing against her elbows. “Twelve. Five of them skipped out on their indentured servitude,” the woman said. “No one will come looking. The rest are lower than sewer rats. We’re bringing two of them in from across the sea. One nagwaal from Ralanth. We caught the mongrel thieving. Oh, and a mundy, poor ungifted bastard.”

Some of what they discussed was what she’d expected to hear: where they'd captured the slaves, where they were being held and where they would be taken. 

Worlds, these guys like to talk. The desire to do anything but listen to these scumbags drone on grew with each passing second. But she needed the reward money and she’d been lucky enough to find them first. 

Why did scum like them get to sleep safe in their beddings at night? Why did they get the normality she’d been denied?

Whether the authorities or a bounty hunter arrested them, the slavers would end up rotting in a jail cell. Indentured servitude wasn’t unusual, but slaves, that was forbidden. 

The vent shook. Saekina snapped to attention. The hairs on her arms rose. No. Not now. Please. A low growl spread through the room. Where is it? Her eyes darted around, settling on the wall across from the vent. 

The slavers muttered amongst themselves, trying to figure the noise out, readying swords and spells.

A massive fist burst through the room’s wall and peeled the stone apart like paper. The demon or UpperSpawn, or whatever it was, peered through, a vicious smile plastered on its bulbous, veiny head. Its ribcage heaved against ashen flesh with each breath it took, lumbering towards them on triple-jointed limbs. 

Jaundiced eyes locked on Saekina. A rancid, decaying scent invaded her nose. The creature grinned, the muscle tendons stretching by its mouth. 

The slavers screamed. With a cry, a woman led the charge. Saekina wanted to shout at them to run. She didn’t. Some part of her hoped it would forget about her if she remained silent. It was there for her. It wanted her dead.

The woman’s head exploded in the demon’s claws. A second smaller set of arms uncurled from its back, and grabbed another slaver, lifting him into the air for before throwing him across the room. He hit the wall with a sickening crunch. He slid to the floor, not moving.

Saekina wriggled in the tight space, hoping to grasp one of her daggers from its sheathe on her boots. She couldn’t. She tried to push herself deeper into the vent, desperate for a way out that didn't bring her into contact with the demon. She needed a weapon.

No. No way am I going to die here. Not like this, helpless and unable to fight. I’m not starting my next life with that baggage.

The demon rose onto its hind legs to reach its full height. Its head bent awkwardly on the ceiling, and strode toward her.

She inched backwards again, in the vain hope she’d get out of its reach.

It tossed another woman away. Saekina’s chest tightened so much she thought she’d die.

She snaked her arm lower and her fingertips somehow--miraculously--found the handle. She pulled a dagger free.

Meaty fingers curled around the vents’ grating. The pressure spread up into Saekina’s throat. Snot and tears dribbled down her chin. The iron groaned before bending to the beast’s will. An arm filled the small space and wrapped around her forearm. The metal scraped against her limbs as it dragged her out.

Saekina burrowed her dagger into its eye. The demon shrieked and wrenched its hands to its face, dropping her. The second she hit the ground, she rolled to the side and pulled her other blade free. Before she’d made it to her feet, a fist was already heading toward her. She barely had enough time to cross the daggers in front of her to brace for impact. The attack hit, the force of it sliding her against the ground. 

Someone whimpered from beside her. One of the slavers. Tears, snot, and blood ran down his face. He may be a horrible person, but he doesn’t deserve to die. Not because of me. 

A fist clobbered Saekina’s face, and white spots danced in her vision. She pushed back her nausea.

The demon threw a hunk of stone at them. She jumped in front of the man, shielding him from the attack. Her grip on her blade tightened. Her knuckles heated, a tingling sensation growing. This must be what using magic feels like.

Saekina drove it toward the demon’s head. The world dissolved in a flash of blue.

An Agent's Inbox #6

Dear Gabrielle,

Seventeen-year-old Ian Hill, the first male in a long line of witches, is a dud. His sixteenth birthday came and went, along with his hopes for a power. Any power. He would’ve settled for levitating pencils.

Used to being a disappointment, Ian resigns himself to a boring suburban existence, running errands and taking out the garbage at his mom’s pagan supply store. Until he meets Violet. The talented witch not only saves Ian’s life, but mysteriously awakens his weird powers, and some normal teenage hormones, too. Welcome to the world of telepathic trees, killer shadows, and ghost pet cats.

Ian’s new tree whispering Gift isn’t just unique; it’s practically extinct. But having loyal leafy allies with unmatched wisdom, protection, and healing abilities isn’t enough for Ian. To impress Violet, Ian “borrows” her treasured book of spells and tries a shortcut to master more magic. His attempt ends in a wildfire, and Violet, betrayed and hurt, disappears from his life.

While nursing a broken heart and gnawing guilt, Ian learns he is a target of the Dark Soul Stealers. Feared by the whole witch community, these powerful occultists seek to unleash denizens of demonic realms onto the world. Ian’s powers may be the missing ingredient they need to succeed. Without Violet’s training, Ian fails to prevent the destruction of his hometown and his mom falling gravely ill. As he races to save his mom and to find Violet, his adversaries present him with an impossible deal: his mother’s and Violet’s lives in exchange for his soul.

MOLFAR is a 92K YA Contemporary Fantasy that will appeal to readers of BEAUTIFUL CREATURES and THE RAVEN BOYS.

I grew up in Western Ukraine with stories about mystical individuals who lived in the Carpathian Mountains. They could call up storms and cure even the gravest of illnesses with medicinal plants and the power of their word--Molfars. Inspired by the tales from my childhood, I created MOLFAR, where Ukrainian folklore and Slavic mythology are incorporated into the modern world to give it international appeal.

The first 1,250 words of my manuscript are pasted below as per submission guidelines.

Sincerely,
L.K.


MOLFAR

When your mom is a walking lie detector, you master the art of withholding the truth.

Sitting under a shady oak, I grab the closest sack full of herbs and tie it tightly with a twine. A little too tightly. Applying unnecessary force feels cathartic. Mom’s got to stop canceling my plans every time a high holiday rolls around. There are eight of them! My social life won’t survive it. Midsummer--Litha, as witches call it--may be in a few days, but Rick’s graduation party is tonight. Mom knew I’d be missing it when she sent me on a three-day plant harvesting trip to Gram’s cabin in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Poconos.

That’s why tonight I’ll drive back to Chornohora and attend Rick’s party against her wishes.

Binding the sacks together, I hoist them onto my right shoulder, two in the front and two in the back for a perfect balance. My phone vibrates in my jeans pocket. I fish it out with my free hand and read the text message from my buddy Tommy: Rick’s confirmed it. Sam will be there tonight. I grin and reply with a smiley face.

Samantha Lawrence is the reason I’m breaking the rules today. As far as I’m concerned, she’s worth the risk. Day one of senior year’s French class, when Sam waltzed over and sat in the chair next to mine, I knew I was a goner. She threw her long, honey-blond hair over her shoulder and said, “Bonjour.” I’m pretty sure time stopped for a while. She’s been on my mind ever since.

Paul’s coming too. You better not be late, man, Tommy’s second text says.

My jaw tightens. Paul Carter, that filthy-rich, self-absorbed, gym-dwelling, and hair-gelling moron. He’s got muscles to make Schwarzenegger jealous, a wallet full of cards with six digit limits, and zero brain cells. Naturally, girls fall at his feet. When Sam didn’t, he got interested.

I haven’t seen Sam since graduation, with my crazy work schedule and all. Rumor has it Paul’s been making progress in my absence. But tonight, I’ll change his luck. And if I incur Mom’s wrath in the process, so be it.

Tucking my phone into my backpack, I head out of the oak grove. White clouds drift across clear skies, and warm summer wind hisses between the rocks. It’s a beautiful day that promises a perfect night for a party.

The two-hour, one-way drive means no evening plant harvesting, but I’ll have two more nights to catch up. Sleep can wait, and Mom won’t know a thing. And in the unlikely event she does find out, the worst she can do is make me work overtime at her pagan supply store. I practically live there already, so what’s a few more hours?

In the first clearing, the wind snatches my baseball cap and hurls it into the thorny brush. Crap. With a grunt, I place the sacks on the ground and climb into the prickly bushes to get my stupid hat. Then I freeze. Swaying in the breeze beside my worn blue baseball cap are tiny scarlet flowers with fuzzy purple leaves that resemble the wings of a Phoenix.

I’ve only ever seen drawings of this flower, but the distinct shape of its leaves can never be confused for any other--it’s one of a kind. All those botany lessons Gram forced on me no longer seem like a waste. If only she were here to see this.

My hands shake as I position my fingers an inch above the ground level and snap the precious stem. The worth of one little flower can sponsor my entire college education. And there are a few dozen more here.

I’m going to be rich. I won’t ever have to work at The Moon Goddess store again. My college tuition won’t be a problem. Richy Rich Paul Carter will have nothing on me.

Giddy laughter erupts from my throat. I’ve never been lucky; haven’t even won a dollar playing the scratch-off lottery. I can’t believe I’m holding it--the mythical, powerful plant rumored to be extinct for centuries--the Phoenix Flame. This is every witch’s dream, and I’m the one who gets to live it. Me. The guy who was skipped by his family witch gene.

I place the scarlet flowers in my baseball cap and roll it up. Then I hide it inside my shirt. There’s no way I’m parting with it, not even for a second. If Gram’s lore isn’t bogus, this plant can unlock the body’s ability to heal itself, even if one is an inch from death.

Hoisting the sacks over my shoulder, I hurry out of the woods, grinning. My steps and spirits are light until I reach the meadow.

A powerful gust of wind makes me take a few steps back and then lean forward to keep my balance. Dark, massive clouds swarm the skies, blocking out the sun. Angry lightning bolts slice through them and echo with ear-splitting thunder. Where did this storm come from?

I scan the meadow for a shelter and spot a protected area between the rocks. But then I remember the party. If I get stuck on this mountain for hours, I’ll miss it. Images of Paul Carter kissing Sam invade my mind, and all of a sudden getting to the party becomes more important than dodging lightning bolts.

Ignoring all self-preservation instincts, I press my treasure-filled baseball hat tighter to my chest and dash for the path that snakes down the mountain.

The heavens open, releasing a torrential downpour. I slip and slide on quickly-forming mud. When I pass a boulder that resembles a turtle, I know the ledge is dangerously close. Swearing loudly, I latch on to a young oak and come to a halt. But the ground under my feet breaks off, like a piece of soft chocolate cake, and slides down the mountain, taking me with it.

My heart drops into my stomach. Frantically grabbing at plants and roots, I struggle to slow my fall. Sharp rocks cut into my skin, and dull waves of pain rush through my ribs and knees. The next bump knocks the wind out of me and sends me airborne. Gasping for air, I hover for a second in a state of weightlessness and then land on a large stone. A dull thud from my head smashing against something hard echoes in my ears and then everything goes black.

#

I awake to pain tearing through my body. When I open my eyes, everything swims in a gray haze. Slowly, the shapes come into focus. Dancing flames on wax-dripping candles cast shadows on dark mud walls. Plants hang suspended from the ceiling in bunches. Nothing about this place is familiar. My heart starts pounding. Where the h*** am I?

I lift my dead-weight head, and a sharp pain shoots down my back. Moaning, I let my head fall back onto the rickety cot.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” a soft voice says. A pair of eyes, which belongs to a girl about my age, locks with mine. “You aren’t healed yet.”

Staring at the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen on a human being, I swallow my growing panic. I clear my throat and croak, “What happened?”

The girl tilts her head, regarding me with curiosity. Her long hair spills over her shoulder like a waterfall. “You fell.” She presses a mug of bitter-smelling concoction to my lips and tilts it. “Drink.”