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Susan Forest

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Bursts of Fire

Bursts of Fire

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also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : epic
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Excerpt

Prologue

The door, crafted of Arcan valley oak and inlaid with exotic woods imported from warmer lands—some from as far away as Aadi-of-the-Valley—gleamed in the light of Talanda Falkyn’s candle. Though the hour was late, the door was unguarded. After all, these were days of peace and prosperity in the seven realms of Shangril.

Talanda knocked.

A page admitted her into a dimly lit room. She was expected. Taking her candle, the boy departed and closed the door.

Dwyn Gramaret, King of Gramarye, stood at a generous, glass-paned window. The high tower looked out over his castle's courtyard and walls, over the dark streets of his city to the peaks and vales of his country, and beyond, to the Gods' star-spattered heavens.

The king turned and smiled a greeting as she entered. He was a tall man, powerfully built, and he wore a plain robe of fine, Gramarye yak wool. The prayer stone of the Chrysocolla, if he wore it, was not visible.

Yolen Barcley, the only other occupant of the room, rose from his seat before the fireplace. Like Talanda, he wore the simple, unbleached robes of a magiel, and his skin shimmered, a blur of time shifts identifying him as a magic weilder. A scarf was wrapped about his neck, for though it was summer, the high mountains were cold at night and the wind poked chill fingers through chinks in the stone.

"Magiel Falkyn," Barcley acknowledged her. "Please. Come sit by the fire." He gestured to a deep chair padded with fleece cushions. "King Dwyn and I are most curious to learn more about what brings you all the way from Orumon."

"Sieur." She bowed her head in respect and took the seat he'd indicated. Good beeswax candles and crackling spruce firewood scented the air.

"It is not often two magiels of the Great Houses meet face-to-face." Barcley poured each of them a glass of wine. An old red, likely from Arcan. "At dinner, you mentioned your retinue has been on an extensive journey."

King Dwyn took up his goblet. "How can we be of help? I gather you do not merely while away the long summer days?"

Barcley set the wine bottle on the table where it caught the glint of the fire's glow.

"I have a puzzle," Talanda said. "My king sent me to resolve it. It…may be nothing."

"Not nothing," King Dwyn reassured her. "Not if it sent you on such a long pilgrimage."

"I've seen an event in my future that disturbs me." She let the fingers of her left hand slip up to her throat, to touch the death token hidden in her neck band. "I've visited all the kingdoms of Shangril, from Teshe to Pagoras. No magiel of any of the Great Houses has seen what I have seen. Though…I haven't told King Ormond's magiel yet."

King Dwyn peered at her with sharp eyes.

Barcley cradled his goblet in his lap. "Describe what you saw."

"First, I must tell you what I haven't seen." She rubbed at the fabric on the arm of the chair. "I have seen no future beyond…I'm guessing, a year, maybe two, from this summer."

The king shot Barcley a troubled look.

The magiel's eyes narrowed. "You suspect your untimely death?"

The words, so plainly spoken, sent a wave of agitation through her stomach. "What I have seen is King Ormond's troops outside Castle Archwood's walls. In siege."

King Dwyn set his wine glass down. "How many times have you seen this?"

"Once."

His lips tensed to one side. "The kingdoms of Shangril have been at peace for five hundred years. We are prosperous. There is no reason for King Ormond to attack Archwood."

"I cannot explain it."

"You're certain?" Barcley asked. "Glimpses of the future are fleeting, and by their nature difficult to interpret."

She knew he did not mean to insult her. "There's no mistake. The future is the future. I stood on Archwood's battlements watching archers in the king's colors shoot flaming brands at our walls, as my king ordered our own soldiers to return fire. By my estimation, this event will take place soon."

"You cannot tell how long into the future your travels take you," Barcley pointed out.

But in this case, Talanda could. "My king's daughter was present. She was not more than eight years old."

"And how do the other magiels of the Great Houses interpret what you have seen?" the king asked.

"None has seen evidence of war."

"Perhaps your king in Orumon will anger King Ormond."

"My king has no cause to provoke Ormond. Doubly none, now. In fact, he would make great concessions to avoid trouble." Talanda leaned forward, resting her wine glass on the table. "I have reason to think the conflict I witnessed is not confined to Orumon."

"What proof?" the magiel asked.

"The other magiels I spoke with as I toured Shangril this summer," she said. "Like me, they witness no future beyond a few short seasons." Kraae, her lover, father of her three daughters, had remarked as far back as fifteen years ago, that he'd never seen his old age. He'd dismissed the observation at the time, and so had she. Moments of a life lived out of sequence were meaningless...until over long life patterns began to emerge. But when Kraae gave her the seed of her second child, his remark came back to her, and as precaution, she'd altered her second daughter's heredity. She'd used her magical ability to chose certain bits of her unborn daughter's makeup; made her less magiel in appearance. Why? She could not have said. A boding. Five hundred years of peace, but...talentless worldlings filled Shangril now, in greater numbers.

Magiel Barcley's face grew somber in the candlelight.

"Many magiels of the Great Houses are advanced in age," the king pointed out.

"So…" Talanda shook her head in disbelief. "All the magiels of the prayer stones will die? Through natural causes? Within the next year?" She held him in her gaze. "Sire, I'm not yet forty years old."

"These are times of peace," the king protested. "What event could be heated enough to throw Shangril into the chaos of war?"

"King Ormond Delarcan called upon my services, not four weeks past. Did he not make the same request of each magiel of the Great Houses?"

The two exchanged glances. "No magiel acceded—fully—to his demand."

"But could his unsavory ambition be related to my riddle?" Ambition. Power. Fear of the strength of magiels.

Talanda had pondered her impetuous choice again, long and hard, when Kraae gave her the germ of her third child. This time...she removed all hint of the wavering skin that would mark her youngest, a magiel. And the babe had emerged, to the gasp and consternation of all her midwives, fully worldling. By appearance.

Talanda turned to Magiel Barcley. "Sieur. You have lived no longer than I. Your health is good. What futures have you seen, beyond this year?"

The magiel licked his lips, his nostrils wide as he drew breath, and the tendons stood out on the side of his neck above the collar that held his death token.

The fire snapped.

"None."

Chapter 1

 

Meg Falkyn never wore silk again.

Never.

She stewed, half-hidden behind a marble pillar, because she'd worn her maroon brocade robe to court twice already. Now Janat, her younger sister, twirled among the glittering dancers on the polished parquet floor in a froth of golden silk, in the fitted and belled style they'd seen in Arcan. Silk, brought by a trader all the way from Aadi-of-the-Valley, a gift from Mama for her fifteenth birthday.

The dance was boring.

The king and queen were deep in conversation with a wealthy merchant and his wife, and old Nanna, their stout, soft nurse, gossiped with a gaggle of servants. Rennika played dolls on the floor with the king's daughter. Embarrassing. She was eleven. But at least she was well to one side of the dancing.

Meg was sending a silent prayer to Kyaju, Goddess of the Devout, for the tedium to be over, when across the room she saw her mother's face tighten.

A disheveled courier in mud-splattered wool and leather stood by her, white-faced. A letter trembled in Mama's hand.

Mama's ivory robes and shifting complexion stood shock-stark against the splintered swirl of dancers. An instant of comprehension—and implication—was etched on her face.

Color and dark. Movement and stillness. Festivity and terror.

The musicians played a flourish and the dancers applauded.

Mama's gaze leapt over the dance floor, searching. Janat was there, clapping delightedly.

Meg took a half-step forward, pulse ticking, afraid to move through the crowd lest she miss unfolding ramifications.

Muted by the din of the rekindled music, Mama spoke insistently to the courier. He shook his head. She questioned him again, sharply, and again the answer was in the negative. She folded the letter and signaled Nanna.

Mama beckoned Rennika, and the little girl ran to her mother's side. Meg shouldered her way through the shifting patterns of dancers, touched Janat on the elbow and caught her eye. Puzzled, Janat followed.

Mama was bent over, stroking Rennika's hair and holding her close when Meg came to her side. "Rennikala, you must listen to me." Mama kissed her daughter's forehead. "I need you to be very calm."

"No, Mama! You have to come, too."

The panic in Meg's stomach bloomed, prickling her skin from the inside.

"I have duties here. Nanna will be with you." She looked up at Meg and Janat. "And your sisters."

This was it. The thing—the unknown. Mama had told her. But Mama had known so little for sure.

Rennika fastened her hands around Mama's neck, but Mama disengaged her fingers and held them. "You must not make a sound. You must not let anyone know you are going." The fear in Mama's eyes stilled the girl's outburst.

Mama kissed her and thrust her to Meg's side, then gave Meg and Janat a kiss on the forehead and a quick embrace. "Nanna."

Nanna nodded and led the way toward the side of the ballroom. Meg guided Rennika, following Nanna through knots of fine ladies and gentlemen gossiping and watching the dance. Behind, she saw Mama speak to the courier. The courier insisted, and Mama, dread and concern in every line of her face, turned and melted into the crowd.

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Shades Within Us
Excerpt

Porque el Girasol Se Llama El Girasol (Rich Larson)

Girasol watches as her mother shakes the entanglers out onto the hotel bed. They are small and spiny. They remind her of the purple sea urchins she was hunting in the netgame she can’t play anymore, because they had to take the chips out of their phones and crush them with a metal rolling pin before they left Las Cruces.

She is not sure she will be able to swallow one. It makes her nervous.

Her mother plucks the first entangler off the bedspread and peers at it. Her mouth is all tight, how it was when they checked in and the clerk passed her the little plastic bag.

“Peanut butter or grape jelly?” she asks, because she took a fistful of condiment packets from the breakfast room.

“Jelly.”

Her mother peels the packet open and rolls the entangler inside, globbing it in pale purple. Girasol takes it in her hand, getting her fingers sticky, and stares down at it. Ten points, she thinks. She puts it in her mouth.

She gags it back up. It pokes in her throat and she thinks she can feel it squirming a little, like it is alive. Her eyes start to water.

“Squeeze your thumb in your fist when you do it,” her mother says. “Squeeze hard.”

It takes three tries, and when it finally stays down Girasol is gasping and trying not to sob. Her throat is scraped raw. Her mother rubs between her shoulder blades, then takes the second entangler and swallows it. Her face twitches just once. Then she goes back to rubbing Girasol’s back.

“My brave girl,” she coos. “Brave girl, sunflower. Do you feel it?”

“I don’t know. Yes.”

For a few moments, Girasol feels only nausea. Then the entangler starts to prickle in her gut. Warmer, warmer.

“You should feel it.”

“I do. I feel it.”

“It should feel like a little magnet inside your belly.”

“I feel it.”

Her mother’s voice is stretched out like it might snap. “Okay.”

***

They test the entanglers outside, on the cracked and bubbled tarmac of the parking lot. Emptiness on all sides. Their motel is last in a ragged row of gas stations and stopovers, after which there is only the highway churning away to horizon. In the far far distance, they can see the Wall: a slouching beast of concrete and quickcrete latticed with swaying scaffold. Workers climb up and down it like ants; drones swarm overtop of it like flies.

Girasol has never seen the Wall in real life before. It makes her feel giddy. Her teacher only showed them photos of the Wall in class, and had them draw a picture of it on their smeary-screened school tablets.

While Girasol drew, the teacher stopped over her to ask, in a cheery voice, what her parents thought of the Wall. She gave the answer her mother told her always to give: their country was so good that bad people always wanted to come in and wreck it, because they were jealous, and the Wall was good because it kept them out. Then the teacher asked Fatima, and then Maria, but nobody else.

Girasol is still staring off at the Wall when her mother’s charcoal coloured scarf drops over her eyes. She feels her mother’s strong fingers knot it behind her head.

Excerpted from Shades Within Us, copyright © 2018

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Strangers Among Us
Excerpt

The Cullng by Kelley Armstrong

We grew up with stories of how the Cullings saved us. Stories of the famines and the aftermath, a world that once grew grain and corn in abundance, the forests overrun with rabbits and deer, lakes and streams brimming with trout and salmon. How all that had come to an end, the water drying up and everything dying with the drought—the grain and the corn and the rabbits and the deer and the trout and the salmon. And us. Most of all, us.

Left with so few resources, it was not enough to simply ration food and water. Not enough to reduce birth rates. Not enough to refuse any measures to prevent death. We needed more. We needed the Cullings.

The Cullings removed surplus population by systematically rooting out “weakness.” At first, they targeted the old and infirm. When that was no longer enough, any physical disability could see one culled. Even something that did not impair one’s ability to work—like a disfiguring birthmark—was said to be enough, on the reasoning that there was a taint in the bloodline that might eventually lead to a more debilitating condition.

The population dropped, but so did the water supply, and with it, the food supply, and eventually more stringent measures were required. That’s when they began targeting anyone who was different, in body or in mind. If you kept too much to yourself, rejecting the companionship of others; if you were easily upset or made anxious or sad; if you occasionally saw or heard things that weren’t there . . . all were reasons to be culled. But the thing is, sometimes those conditions are easier to hide than a bad leg or a mark on your face. It just takes a little ingenuity and a family unwilling to let you go.

 

***

“Who are you talking to, Marisol?” my mother says as she hurries into my room.

I motion to my open window, and to Enya, who had stopped to chat on her way to market. She says a quick hello to my mother and then a goodbye to me before carrying on down the village lane.

I murmur to my mother, “A real, living friend. You can see her, too, right?”

“I was just—”

“Checking, I know.” I put my arm around her shoulders. Having just passed my sixteenth birthday, I’m already an inch taller and making the most of it. “I have not had imaginary friends in many years, Momma.”

“I know. It’s just . . . I’ve heard you talking recently. When you’re alone.”

“I argue with myself. You know how I am—always spoiling for a fight. If no one’s around to give me one, I must make do.” I smack a kiss on her cheek. “I don’t hear voices, Momma. I’m not your sister. I have a little of what she did, but only a little, and I know how to hide it. I don’t talk about my imaginary friends, even if they’re long gone. I don’t let anyone see my wild pictures. I don’t tell anyone my even wilder stories. I am absolutely, incredibly, boringly normal.”

She makes a face at me.

“What?” I say. “It is boring. But I will fake it, for you and Papa.”

“For you, Mari. Our worries are for you, and yours should be, too.”

“But I don’t need to be worried, because I am very careful.”

“The Culling is coming.”

“As you have reminded me every day for the past month. I will be fine. I’ll even stop arguing with myself, though that means you’ll need to break up more fights between Dieter and me.”

“Your brother will happily argue with you if it keeps you safe.”

“It will.” I give her a one-armed hug. “I’ll be fine, Momma.”

Excerpted from Strangers Among Us Copyright © 2016

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The Sum of Us
Excerpt

The Dunschemin Retirement Home for Repentant Supervillains by Ian Creasey

Here we go again. Mornings in the Home always began the same way. No matter what time Stafford reached Anarcho’s room, Anarcho was invariably awake, waiting for Stafford to open the chintz curtains. But he never reprimanded Stafford for being late or wasting time. In the old days, Anarcho had been as impatient as all supervillains, ever eager to pursue some cunning scheme. Now there was no rushing and shouting and clanking; no messy experiments left bubbling overnight; no lairs to build or dungeons to dust.

Today’s tasks were more homely. Stafford pulled back the duvet to reveal Anarcho’s shrunken frame, tinged green from over-exposure to tachyons. First came the bathroom routine: toilet, sponge wipe, shave, and so forth. Then the mechanical maintenance: eye lube, claw sharpen and polish, exobrain defrag and reboot. These prosthetics were all obsolete. Anarcho was the Home’s oldest resident, his life convoluted by time travel.

“Attention all residents,” the intercom blared. “Please report for roll call in the lounge. This is not a drill; the perimeter alarm has sounded. Urgent roll call!”

“Sounds like mischief,” Stafford said. “I presume it’s not yours.”

He didn’t expect an answer. For form’s sake, he checked the control panel on Anarcho’s wheelchair but saw nothing. It had been years since Anarcho’s last caper.

Stafford couldn’t decide whether he missed the old days. Back then, life had felt too frenetic, with a never-ending list of chores; every new plot always needed its own elaborate control room, destruct mechanism, and escape tunnel. Yet he’d enjoyed the craftsmanship of building vast laboratories and sinister machines. Now the chores were mundane: the new enemy was incontinence. Had all those intrigues been for naught?

“Let’s get you down there,” he said.

He settled Anarcho into the motorized wheelchair and draped a tartan blanket over his knees. The blanket lacked even the most basic hidden enhancements: no blast-proof shielding, no explosive tassels, not even a hypnotic fractal pattern on the reverse. It was merely 100% wool, soft and warm.

The Home bustled with activity as the residents and their carers converged on the lounge. Stafford ducked aside as Madame Mayhem and Miss Rule zoomed past on their hoverchairs, racing each other along the corridors. Proceeding more sedately, Stafford and Anarcho were the last to arrive.

“Hurry up!” roared Betty Beast. “I’m missing breakfast for this.”

“Oh, I’ll get us some breakfast,” said Doctor Havoc. With a well-practiced dramatic gesture, he conjured puffs of blue smoke from his hand. The clouds of nanites drifted through the kitchen doorway, returning with toast and mushrooms. One blue globule collided with a hoverchair and tried to drag it back, to Madame Mayhem’s furious protests. She retaliated by stealing slices of toast before the smoke took them to Doctor Havoc. In the tussle, stray mushrooms fell to the floor, where three of Legion’s tiny scuttling avatars scooped them up.

“Hush!” cried Matron. “Stop playing with your food.”

A tall, spindly woman dressed in an old-style black-and-white nurse’s uniform, Matron seemed to glare at everyone simultaneously. “Please answer the roll call, and I’d better not hear any cackling. Phipps will physically check that everyone’s here. No decoy holograms!”

Stafford said, “What do you reckon, Anarcho—is it an escape or a kidnap?” Some supervillains couldn’t bear retirement and returned to the metropolis like grizzled rock stars craving one last comeback.

Matron called out, “Narinder Atwal.” “Here,” said Doctor Havoc. “And hungry!”

Phipps, Matron’s diminutive assistant, touched Doctor Havoc’s shoulder to verify his existence. Coincidentally—or not—a blue puff of smoke swirled into Phipps’ face and made him sneeze.

“Sophie Béranger.” Matron only ever used civilian names; she insisted that every retired supervillain must abandon their alias along with their antics. While no-one openly defied her, many surreptitiously clung onto their monikers and misbehaviour.

“Here,” replied Madame Mayhem, her fingers idly stroking a memorial necklace of fangs from Fidosaurus, her deceased pet dinosaur.

The roll call continued until it reached, “Russell Fletcher.” Stafford waited a few seconds, then pinged Anarcho’s exobrain.

“I’m here, wherever this is,” Anarcho said, his voice low and hoarse. “It ain’t heaven, that’s for sure,” said Doctor Havoc.

“Come sit on my hoverchair, and I’ll show you heaven,” Madame Mayhem purred.

The supervillains dissolved into giggles until Matron raised her voice to resume the roll call, which ended with no absentees—or none detected.

“That’s reassuring,” said Matron, addressing the group. “But what set off the alarm? I’ve checked the video, and most of the outside cameras are obscured. It’s remarkable how fast the ivy grows in our grounds. Quite remarkable indeed.” She stared at the motley reprobates. “If anyone knows anything, please enlighten us.”

“I know why galaxies collide,” said AlphaMega, his bass voice augmented with infrasonic rumble.

“Yeah, your huge ego turned into a black hole and sucked them in,” retorted Madame Mayhem.

“If you can’t be helpful, be quiet,” Matron said. “I’ve warned the authorities about the perimeter breach. If anything happens outside and it’s traced back here, there’ll be consequences.”

Excerpted from The Sum of Us, copyright © 2017

The Gatekeeper by Juliet Marillier

He stalks up the long hall, each step a small poem of feline grace. An early morning hush lies over Autumn Gardens. Outside, the first birds are calling. Inside, there’s a distant rattle of crockery. He passes the doors, many doors, each slightly ajar. The residents lie still under their quilts, wrapped in memories that will vanish when they wake.

Ah! Feet in slippers, here by the wall. A woman makes a shuffling progress, clutching the rail. He slips away, shadow-quick. Her ending will come soon enough; it is not for him to trip those faltering feet. His task is not to deliver death. Only to witness. Only to guide.

Good smells ahead. The kitchen is at the far end of this hall—he is not allowed to enter. But he eats well. His man feeds him in their safe place, every morning after they wake, every night before they sleep.

There was a time before: starving, snatching, devouring whatever scrap might come his way. Beetles, worms, smears of stuff in sharp discarded cans. It was a time of fear, of fighting, of running, always running. A big tom tore his ear. A hurled stone bruised him. But he got away. Over and over he got away.

A baying dog chased him. He caught his foot in a fence, hauled himself free, ripped flesh from his leg. There was blood. He hid under bushes. Licked and licked, but could not make it better.
A man came with cheese and meat and a trap, and he was caught. He fought the box that shut him in. He bit the hands that touched him; terror made him strong. But they were gentle hands, lifting him out, tending to his wound. He knew, for the first time, the feeling of a full belly.

That was then. This is now. The man—his man—brought him here, made him his own safe place. A warm bed, sweet water, good food. He has a friend now, and a home. He has a solemn calling.

 

***

 

Autumn Gardens Eldercare Staff Meeting: March 2, 2010
Agenda

1. Action items from last meeting
2. April visit by Minister for Seniors: planning
3. Staffing issues
4. Therapy cat for Dementia Ward – protocols
5. Any other business

 

***

The morning rounds bring him to the sunny room where the residents of Ward D now sit in their chairs. Some stare at the television, a flickering parade of images, a buzz of sounds. Some nod in half-sleep. It is nearly time for the wheeled trolley to bring tea and biscuits. He knows who will feed him crumbs and who will look through him, not seeing.

“There you are, Piff.” Kind hands, these, reaching down to stroke him gently behind the ears. The touch contents him. He has many names at Autumn Gardens: Stripey, Honey, Thistle, and Orlando. To his man, he is Hamza. Those names are unimportant. He is Cat, servant of Bast.

Here is the old woman who smells of flowers. He remembers a garden where he hid once, a place all tangled foliage and deep hollows; the same smell was there. He stations himself by the woman’s feet, waiting. The trolley creaks in; there’s a tinkle of crockery up above.

“I’m going home this afternoon,” the flower woman says. “Kalgoorlie. My son’s coming to pick me up.”

“That’s nice, dear.” The trolley moves on.

A generous supply of crumbs descends. They are the kind he likes best. Rattle of cups on saucers; muted voices. More crumbs here and there. He wanders, grazing.

The trolley creaks out again. He settles, comfortably full, to drowse the morning away on a sunny window seat. His senses tell him there will be no further work until night falls and it is time to warm his man’s feet. But soon, very soon, the call will come.

Excerpted from The Sum of Us, copyright © 2017

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