Song of the Siren: Chapter Five

If you haven’t checked out the first four chapters, be sure to click here first!

 

CHAPTER FIVE: THE ASCENT

What on Earth am I still doing out here? Malcolm thought to himself, staring out at the vast expanse of glittering stars.

He heaved a sigh, casting a glance around once more for Claude, or anyone else who might take an issue with his being on deck. As if star-gazing was a crime. Seeing no one, Malcolm nestled back down on the long bench he’d found on the starboard side of the ship. 

I should go inside. It’s got to be past midnight by now. And those lab samples will be done at six am sharp.

And he was going to have to face Molly Parker tomorrow. They were partners in the saltwater lab for this trip. Malcolm groaned, thinking of their uncomfortable encounter a few hours ago. Molly was older than him by a year or two, and Malcolm had assumed she was like the other two female grad students in thinking that he was “just a kid”.

But that assumption had quickly been proved false. He’d been sitting on one of the rec room’s battered sofas, watching Jaws with his fellow grad students. Lindsey and Sameera had been on one couch, he and Molly on the other. It was a large sofa, and there was plenty of room for both of them, so he had been mostly unaware of her presence.

Until the scene in the film when the crew of the Orca sees the killer shark for the first time. Malcolm had been prepared for the sight of the robotic great white, but utterly unprepared for the soft weight of Molly’s head on his shoulder. Or the feeling of her fingers coming to rest, butterfly soft, on his thigh.

Startled, Malcolm had jolted as if he’d been electrified, upending a bowl of popcorn over both of them in the process. Then, mortified, he’d stumbled off the couch, his long legs moving in a jerky, puppet-like fashion. 

From the other sofa, Lindsey and Sameera had collapsed in fits of giggles at his slapstick performance. Molly’s eyes were filled with reproach. She’d hurriedly brushed the popcorn off her jeans and left the rec room.

“Way to go, Romeo,” Lindsey scoffed, still fighting back laughter.

“Hey! Be nice,” Sameera said, trying to soothe any potential conflict. She turned to Malcolm. “Really, we’re sorry for laughing. But you looked like you sat on a cactus!” 

Malcolm’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. He stammered something about getting some air, and headed towards the upper deck, the opposite way as Molly. While he trudged step after step, the echoing voices of Lindsey and Sameera followed him.

“Shit. I feel terrible. We shouldn’t have laughed.”

“Whatever. It’s not our fault that Ginger can’t figure out when a girl has a crush on him. What does Molly even see in that kid?”

“Aww…I think he’s sweet,” Sameera replied. Somehow, her defending him almost hurt worse than Lindsey’s deliberately spiteful words.

***

But there was no getting around it. He would have to face Molly Parker in just a few short hours. With a groan at how much work he had to get done tomorrow, Malcolm sat up on the bench. Then he paused, looking once more towards at the glittering spectacle of the heavens above him. 

Just a little longer. How could he go inside? It was like the heavens themselves had split open and revealed themselves to him. The brilliant white and pink band of the Milky Way stretched like a lazy tendril across the sky. Next to it, all other stars paled in significance, but Malcolm could still make out the bold bright arc of the Southern Cross.

Completely different stars than at home. But for Malcolm, this wasn’t entirely unusual. Some of his earliest memories had been of stacked cardboard cartons, and dusty moving vans that arrived at regular intervals to cart their belongings from one Navy base to another. By the time he was twelve, Malcolm had attended more than seven schools. By the time he graduated high school, he’d become an expert at not letting himself get close to anyone except his younger sister, Jo. 

It was just easier that way. Easier to not bother making friends that he would have to leave again in six or eight or twelve months. To not lie and make false promises about keeping in touch, when both parties knew that there was no point. Instead, Malcolm focused his attention on his books. On his schoolwork. And on the water.

One major perk of his mother being a Commander in the U.S. Navy was that Malcolm’s family was almost always stationed near the coast. From his earliest days, the ocean had fascinated him. Its ever-changing moods. The secrets hidden away beneath its depths. The way it could lap at the shore like a playful puppy one hour, only to crash into the rocks with brutal force the next. While other boys had spent their hours playing football or sneaking cigarettes, Malcolm more often found himself splashing around in tidepools, examining the various forms of life.

Vibrant blue starfish. Wickedly barbed purple sea urchins. He’d even found an octopus once, shyly tucked into the hollow of a large conch shell. It spat black ink at him and dashed off for a safer place to hide. Something about those tiny ecosystems–whole worlds that existed for only a few short hours in between the tides–fascinated him. 

Unlike the majority of his classmates, who were obsessed with surfing and sport-fishing, Malcolm felt no need to conquer the sea. And unlike his mother–and later Jo when she enlisted at eighteen–he didn’t see the ocean as a military tool to be wielded against one’s enemies.

No, for Malcolm, the sea represented one of the only constants in his life. He’d watched the sun sink into the horizon over the waters of Belize. He’d seen it break across the sky while standing on the pink-tinged sands of the Caribbean. 

Even now, aboard the cramped and uncomfortable Surveyor, Malcolm couldn’t think of a single place he’d rather be. On the wooden bench, Malcolm folded his hands behind his hand and took a deep, calming breath.

Clad only in a thin T-shirt and board shorts, the night air felt blessedly cool on his skin. The constant rocking of the ship was less pronounced up here, and Malcolm felt his earlier headache subsiding. His eyes fluttered shut, but the blazing path of stars still winked beneath his closed lids.

Like a waterfall of diamonds, he thought before he fell asleep.

 

***

 

As the highest-ranking and most seasoned warrior, Syra usually swam at the head of her warriors, her keen black eyes on the lookout for any danger. But not tonight. Tonight her sisters-in-arms swam around her in a protective phalanx, their krakanas poised and ready. Ceremonial tradition dictated that they escort her to the Barrier.

Normally, the Sereen never ventured this high, except for the unlucky scouts who were sent at intervals to scan the waters for offerings. So many of these females perished–eaten by sharks, or attacked by schools of ravenous tuna–that the expeditions had been limited to only three of four times a year.

A miracle, really, that this offering had been found in time to appease the restless gods. Syra took the human male’s timely arrival as a sign, a message that her time had come to take her place in the ancient ritual. And to avenge her mother.

Surrounded by her warriors, Syra swam upwards. The others rotated their bioluminescent flashes, creating a symphony of flickering light that sent a clear signal to any other forms of life who might be swimming in the vicinity.

These are our waters tonight. Do not trespass.

At some unknowable sign, some intangible change in the biological chemistry of the water, the warriors came to a halt. This was the Barrier. They could all sense it. The border between the silent darkness of their world, and the sunlit dangers of the Realm Above. From here, Syra must venture alone.

“May the gods send strength to you, my leader,” Mara said, pressing a hand to her forehead.

Regally, Syra nodded her head, then extended the arm that clutched her shark’s-jaw krakana. “In case I do not return. May it always strike true.”

This too was part of the tradition. Even though Syra’s second-in-command was not of her bloodline, she would be responsible for leading the hunters, should Syra fail to return. 

Should she be caught, and butchered by the humans. Just like her mother. 

Mara bowed deeply, and accepted the krakana on outstretched limbs. “I will watch over it, until your safe return.”

The sacred vows exchanged, Syra swam away from her comrades, up towards the surface. There were no tearful goodbyes, no pleading for her to stay. Everyone knew their duty. Syra most of all. 

The magic required to undergo the transformation was as old as the Sereen themselves. Ancient legends told of groups of females as many as twenty strong–all capable of changing form to lure young men down beneath the waves as offerings to the ever-hungry gods. But now, there was only Syra.

In a season or two, she would reach full maturity, and be ready to begin reproducing. Appropriate males were already being selected based on their virility. Her mother had died so young, after only one breeding season. It was of the utmost importance that her bloodline continue. 

But first, Syra must pass this test. She must lure the human down into the waters. And drown him.

For only the second time in her life, Syra felt the immense, crushing pressures of the deep ocean loosen their grip on her body. For many of the creatures that lived in her environment, an ascent to the surface would be a death sentence. But the Sereen were well equipped to withstand a variety of conditions, and Syra’s lungs expanded slowly to compensate for the difference in pressure. 

Her skin underwent a change as well, losing its scaly silver lustre and becoming smooth and golden-tan. This was the first part of the transformation, and Syra eyed her changed limbs in curiosity and revulsion. The fingers were shorter, with rounded nails instead of the pointed claws that Syra used to snatch up smaller prey.

Useless. However do the humans manage to survive? She felt the  straight, smooth ridges that had replaced her usual needle-sharp fangs. They have no teeth to speak of, either. Without these weapons, and absent her krakana–which was as much a part of her as her own tail fins–Syra felt naked.

The steadily brightening waters only added to her unease. For most of its residents, the ocean would appear as black as ever, but Syra’s enormous eyes, built for piercing through total darkness, were already beginning to ache from the light of the moon.

But then the next step of her transition began, and Syra’s eyes shrank back into her face, their solid black color gradually replaced by irises of vivid purple, rimmed with white. For the first time since beginning her long journey, Syra paused her upward swimming–alarmed as her keen night vision faded, leaving her nearly blind in the churning ocean waves.

She was near the surface now. She just needed to go a little farther. 

A few struggling moments later, Syra’s head broke through the waves. Her sensory tendrils were gone, replaced by flowing hair of the darkest black–the color of the waters of the Abyss. Her tail was intact, for the most part, though its dull purple undertones had brightened to the same bright purple as her eyes. But at least these eyes were designed to see above water, and she looked around at the surface, blinking in the light of the moon.

The light. Syra held one hand over her brow to block out the glow. Besides the half-moon, the sky was alight with stars. It was more light than Syra had ever seen in her life. It would take a hundred thousand teora to compete with this radiant brilliance. For a minute, she bobbed with her head above the water, transfixed by the beauty of the Realm Above.

Her body felt different, heavier in places than it had before. Where before there had only been sleek, well-trained muscle, now her upper body was curved and supple. At least my gills and tail fins are unchanged. As long as I remain mostly submerged, I will be able to swim to safety. But if she were to leave the water entirely–no, that must not be allowed to happen.

Syra lifted an arm, watching the way the drops of seawater sparkled under the stars. Then, she realized that hunting on the surface presented her with a significant disadvantage. With all this light, her prey would be able to see her coming before she got close enough to strike a killing blow.

Not that it mattered. Her most deadly weapon didn’t require close contact. But losing the ability of surprise only intensified the feeling of dread that had been building in Syra for hours. There is a touch of destiny on the seas tonight. Premonition tingled up her spine, and she flashed blue streaks up her bioluminescent ridges.

Except–nothing actually happened. Reaching around with one hand, Syra felt along her base of her spine, running carefully up and down. Her bioluminescent ridges were gone. They must have disappeared in the transformation. 

Syra clamped down on the panic that threatened to rise in her veins. Fear was unacceptable. She had known the risks when she accepted the honor of venturing to the Realm Above. She turned in the water, peering out with her surface-adapted eyes.

Still, she spotted the vessel easily. A long, hulking shadow, silhouetted against the bright sky. Her prey lay within. Syra dove beneath the waters, carefully not to make a splash as she kicked her tail powerfully, headed towards the ship.

An offering. It could mean the difference between survival and destruction for her people. The last time the Sereen had failed to deliver a sacrifice in time to appease the rage of the gods, the results had nearly meant their extinction. 

Syra’s head felt strangely heavy as she broke the surface once more, weighted down by the strange black hair that swirled around her. 

Finally, she was near enough to the vessel to begin summoning her prey.

The Sereen mainly communicated through clicks, flickers, and silent hand signals. But Syra’s transformation had shifted the arrangement of her vocal cords, allowing her to make more complex sounds.

Looking out towards the silently floating boat, Syra’s violet eyes narrowed with purpose.

She began to sing.

Song of the Siren: Chapter Four

If you are interested in reading a free fantasy romance novel, be sure to check out chapters one, two, and three!

SONG OF THE SIREN

CHAPTER FOUR: The High Priestess

The endless chasm of the abyss appeared out of the darkness, like a great yawning mouth waiting to snap up unsuspecting prey.

Which, of course, it was. Syra’s people were not the only predators lurking in these depths. 

They weren’t even the largest–compared to the sluggish six-gilled sharks that roamed the ocean floor, or the terrifyingly clever sperm whales that dove down from the Realm Above, Syra’s people were positively tiny.

But they had two advantages over their fellow deep-sea hunters. The first was that the  Sereen–for that was the formal name given to the People of the Abyss–worked together in coordinated packs to take down their prey. The second was that they had nimble fingers, with thumbs capable of grasping and manipulating objects. In a world of fins and flukes, the Sereen alone were able to fashion tools.

Syra’s own weapon, her hard-won krakana, was clutched tightly in her hand, the shark’s teeth catching flickers of her bioluminescent flashes as she neared the edge of the abyss and dove inside.

Sheer walls of stone plunged endlessly down, their outlines impossible to discern against the overall darkness. Her bioluminescent flickers went black as she descended, aiming for a spot on the western edge of the canyon.

Only the specialized sensory tendrils in Syra’s hair, combined with years of memory, allowed her to find the narrow crevice in the side of the trench. Even for her thin-boned frame, it was a tight squeeze, and there was a familiar, heady moment of breathlessness as her gills became temporarily obstructed by the unyielding rock.

She emerged into a cavernous space of light and beauty. The city of Tessai was lit from above, where its domed ceiling twinkled from the lights of millions upon millions of incandescent glow worms. Below, the rough-hewn houses of her people beckoned. As always, Syra’s heart lifted at the sight of her home. 

The bioluminescent worms, known as teora, were the lifeblood of the Sereen. Not only did they provide illumination, which allowed them to develop culture and religion far beyond that of their fellow deep-sea dwellers, but they also provided seasilk. This sturdy, weavable fiber was harvested from the worms and woven to create rope, nets, baskets, and garments.

The teora were worshipped as the divine light of the Gods. They that reigned from the kingdom of eternal darkness had provided the Sereen with the single source of light in the abyss. And the Gods guarded it jealously. 

Despite the efforts of Tessai’s best cultivators, the worms refused to grow in any other environment but this one. In the one experiment that had been allowed, the transplanted teora shriveled and died within days, which led to the priestesses declaring that they had provoked the displeasure of the Gods. The experiments had quickly been discarded, and the scientists punished. 

Privately, Syra wondered if the attempts to farm the teora in foreign environments had been disbanded too quickly. After the first batch died, her grandmother had intervened. The High Priestess claimed that a sacrifice was needed instead to appease the wrath of the Gods. It had taken a long time to find a suitable offering, and even now the worms had not fully recovered.

But if she had doubts, Syra kept them to herself. The priestesses did not abide dissension. Even from the one who would eventually become their leader. Syra’s grandmother, the High Priestess Furae, held reign over the spiritual lives of the Sereen, as she had for more than two hundred years. And when she eventually passed and her body was given to the Abyss, it was expected that Syra would take up the honored position. From the moment of her birth, she had been destined to be the High Priestess.

At only nineteen seasons, she was incredibly young for the role, but it couldn’t be helped.

Syra’s mother had been caught by a fisherman when Syra was but a few months old. Though she’d managed to escape the fisherman’s net, she had been mortally wounded by the barbed spear through her lungs.

Syra could still remember the coppery scent of blood when her mother had finally been retrieved from the Realm Above. The way the beautiful purple scales of her tail fins had faded to a pale white. Her mother had died from the pointed hooks of the monstrous humans who dwelt on the surface.

Even now, the memory was enough to fill Syra with rage as she swam towards the Temple. It was a towering structure, encrusted with shells and barnacles, and given heat by the very breath of the Gods themselves. It was from here that the life of Tessai flowed, bestowing energy and heat to the glow worms, to the city itself. It was because of the Temple that the city continued to grow and thrive, unlike so many neighboring clans which had succumbed in recent years to plague and famine.

The guards at the Temple entrance stood up their arms as they saw her approach. Both women were loyal servants, who had known Syra for most of her life. Her grandmother was waiting in the sacrificial chamber. 

When Syra first saw the High Priestess, she had to stop herself from flickering blue in surprise. I was in the city only a few months ago. When did grandmother grow so old?

Furae had ruled over the temple for generations; she was as much as part of the city as the glowing teora, or the stone roof of the cavern itself. Syra herself had been raised at her grandmother’s tail fins, had learned the ancient traditions of the Sereen, the necessary prayers to the Gods Below. It was because of the High Priestess’ teaching that she had grown to respect her duties, her responsibilities as the heir to the Temple of the Abyss.

But now Furae’s sensory tendrils were fading, losing their luster and becoming limp and gray. The same with the lustrous purple scales on her tails, which were now nearly translucent. It was no surprise–at more than two hundred seasons the High Priestess Furae had lived longer than any Sereen could remember. She had born hundreds if not thousands of young through various male breeders over the years, and of those, nearly sixty had survived into adulthood. An astounding feat, in these dangerous waters.

The weight of her position settled around her shoulders, and Syra raised her chin as she swam forward and bowed low. “You sent for me, grandmother?”

“You have been gone a long time, my child,” Furae said. Syra’s heart gave a surge of relief to hear her grandmother sounding tired, but strong. “The Gods are growing restless.”

Syra nodded. “Not to worry. My warriors are already on their way with a mighty gift for the Abyss. The eyes of a giant squid. And the meat will feed our people for many months.”

“The offering will not be enough. Two hundred eggs have died in the past month alone.” Furae’s bioluminescent flickers went dark as she conveyed the news.

Syra clutched a fist to her forehead in grief. Her gills fluttered as she tried to comprehend this devastating truth. “Have the acolytes come any closer to determining the cause of this plague?”

“The ancient prophecies say nothing of this wave of death,” Furae said, her pale face a grim scowl. “The usual sacrifices are no use here. I fear for the survival of the Sereen, if we have no youth to carry on our bloodlines. We must beseech the Gods. Grant them a sacrifice of old. If we are lucky, this will appease them.”

“But grandmother, is it worth the risk?” Syra cried. “Think of what happened the last time the Gods demanded a sacrifice from the Realm Above!”

The last time a Sereen attempted to lure an offering from the surface had been the night Syra’s mother died.

“You are strong, child. You can face this task. But you must face it alone,” her grandmother said. “Only then will you be ready to inherit the role of High Priestess.”

Furae’s sash of pearl-encrusted seasilk glimmered on her chest, illuminated by the glow of the teora. “Are you prepared to do what is expected of you?” she asked, more out of formality than as an actual question.

Syra had no real choice but to answer, “Of course, High Priestess. I will carry out my duty. I will bring the offering down to the Gods of the Abyss.”

Furae’s satisfied chuckle vibrated through the water. “See that you do.”

 

***

 

“Are you sure we can’t accompany you?” Mara asked, twitching her fins in irritation.

“You know you cannot. It is my sacred duty and mine alone,” Syra replied, sorting through the supplies she might need for her journey.

It would have to be quick. Suitable offerings weren’t often found. 

Young human males were required. But only those old enough to be considered as worthy offerings–that is, those having lived to at least eighteen years of age.

But the Gods preferred the ones who had a certain–innocence about them. 

Difficult enough to find among the sailors and tourists who cruised these waters. Harder still to find one that stayed in the vicinity more than a day or two. Long enough for the Sereen to learn of the potential offering, and gather the magic needed to draw him in.

“Have you ever been to the surface?” Mara questioned, so filled with questions that she lost her usual respect for Syra’s high-ranking position. Not that Syra minded. It was nice, actually, to have a distraction as she braced for the long journey upwards.

“Only once. When my mother died,” she answered.

Immediately, Mara flashed blue lights of submission. “I’m so sorry, my leader. I had forgotten…please forgive me.”

Syra placed a thin-fingered hand on her Beta’s shoulder. “There is nothing to forgive, my friend. All of Tessai knows the story of my mother’s death.”

“Do you look forward to luring the human to its death? To finally avenging the death of your mother, Princess Syrnae?

 

Tonight it would be her duty. Her opportunity. Her life’s dream. To swim the perilous miles up through the night-dark waters to the surface. To undergo the change that only the females of her bloodlines were capable of. And to sing the young male down to his death in the black water of the Abyss.

His kind, the ~humans~ were the ones who were responsible for the death of her mother. She would enjoy watching this sacrifice die. Kyla slung a long, whale-bone dagger into the seasilk belt at her waist. 

“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for years.”

Click here to continue reading!

 

Song of the Siren: Chapter Three

Be sure to check out chapters One and Two!

 

CHAPTER THREE: Betty and Veronica

 

Doctor Lydia Wu was a tiny woman in her mid-fifties. Her jet black hair was shot through with gray, but her eyes were lively as she addressed the group of four graduate students standing on Surveyor’s foredeck. All of them were sweating profusely under the tropical summer sun.

“Welcome everyone, to the Tonga trench. Over the next three days, we will be collecting saltwater samples from different depths using these two manually controlled ROV submersibles.”

She gestured towards two machines that resembled overly-engineered pool cleaners. One was a shiny daffodil yellow, the other a gleaming ebony. Both were mounted with a framework of powerful LED bulbs and equipped with a row of glass vials for collecting samples.

“By now you’ve all completed a virtual demonstration on how we control these remotely operated vehicles, but you’ll soon find that the real thing is much different. For example, Betty–” she laid an affectionate hand on the fiberglass hull of the yellow submersible, “Betty’s left arm sticks a little when retracting, and you’ll have to be careful negotiating any tight spaces, or it could become bent out of shape.”

Doctor Wu turned and ran her other hand along the black frame of the second machine, “Now Veronica, she’s a spitfire. She responds to the slightest change in the controls, and if you’re too heavy-handed she’ll rocket straight into the bedrock. 

“Both of my girls can take a few bumps and keep going, but have a care. It would be a shame if anything happened to either of these machines because they cost me five years of begging for grant money. Most of the modifications, I’ve done myself. Basically–I like both of them far more than I like any of you,” 

Her words were stern but the professor grinned as she continued outlining the technical aspects of the ROVs. 

Both Betty and Veronica had been specially designed to navigate the crushing pressure and pitch dark of the deep ocean. Their fiberglass hulls were nine inches thick, and metal rods around the bottom formed a kind of roll cage around the inner workings of the battery-powered motor. 

Both submersibles had arms that could be extended and used to remotely manipulate objects. Three cameras, enclosed in titanium pressure casings, were spaced at various intervals along the side of the machines, facing downward, outward, and back in toward the submersible itself. 

They were operated by a combination of computer navigation and manual controls that resembled two old Nintendo joysticks. A portable electronics bay had been assembled on Surveyor’s deck, complete with three HD display screens, a sonar system, and an infrared sensor. Every available bit of data would be recorded and sent to the backup drive in the main science laboratory. Whatever the ROVs saw, the control team would view instantly.

With a sweep of her arm, Doctor Wu stepped aside so that her class could have a full view of the machinery. “Who wants to take one of my lovely girls for a spin? Mr. MacGregor?”

Malcolm blushed scarlet red as all eyes suddenly turned towards him.

Doctor Wu either didn’t notice his discomfort or didn’t care. She waved him forward. “As the sole gentleman among us, would you care to ask Betty for a dance?”

The three female students in his research group tittered as Malcolm hesitantly left the safety of the group and joined his professor next to the yellow submersible. It was about the size of a Labrador, and something about the positioning of the lights suggested curious, friendly eyes. For a robot, Betty was really quite cute.

Now he just had to make sure she stayed that way.

A thick cable extended from the back of the submersible, which was currently attached to a metal winch. Doctor Wu moved to a large control panel, which was lit up with green and red buttons. Malcolm fumbled with the joysticks, trying to get a feel for the buttons that controlled the ROVs arm movements. 

The metal davit which held Betty began to swing in a slow arc. The little robot was lifted into the air, swaying gently as the mechanical arm swung across Surveyor’s deck until Betty was poised expectantly over the side of the ship. 

With a creak of metal, the winch was released and she dropped into the aquamarine waters of the Pacific. The monitors flickered to life as Betty’s motion-activated cameras turned on.

 “We’re at your leisure, Mr. MacGregor,” the professor said dryly. 

Malcolm stared at the controllers in his hands, struggling to remember the hours he had spent with the simulator back at university lab in San Diego.

Forward. He cautiously pushed the joystick forward a millimeter.

Nothing happened. The eyes of the rest of the class burned into his back, and Malcolm felt his cheeks flood again with heat. Competition among graduate students was fierce, and while Malcolm was on friendly terms with his fellow research assistants, he knew they would secretly love to watch him fail.

He applied more pressure on the controls, and there was a whirring sound from beneath the deck as Betty’s battery-operated generator came to life. The group peered over the sides of the ship as the little yellow robot came to life.

Malcolm watched on the monitors as the submersible pushed quietly through the crystalline waters. He waited until the ROV was a safe distance from the belly of Surveyor, then began exploring the underwater world that teemed beneath their feet.

It was a riot of color and movement. Schools of fish were swarmed under deep belly of the research vessel, drawn by the promise of cool shade and shelter. 

Malcolm smiled and felt himself relax when he turned Betty’s in the water just in time to catch an enormous swordfish, at least ten feet long, shoot past and out of sight.

As Betty ventured further away from Surveyor, the metal davit extended over the deck continued to feed out a thick black cord. This cord ran from a port on Betty’s back, onto the deck and down into a large storeroom in the main hold of the ship. 

This cord was nearly two miles long. Veronica’s was even longer, at three miles. These cords could be attached to create one single length that would extend nearly five miles down into the Tonga Trench.

This was why they had come. The goal was to land a submersible on the bottom of the abyss. 

Malcolm shifted forward, and Betty began descending. The darting schools of fish were left behind as the waters began to grow darker. Colder. He flipped a switch on the central control panel near the monitors, and the ROVs powerful LED flashlights clicked on, their bright beams shining in all directions but focused on the area directly ahead and beneath the submersible.

Everyone gathered behind him, watching the monitors as Betty’s lights cut a path through the increasingly dark waters. Malcolm ignored them, completely absorbed in the silent, eerie world displayed in the view of Betty’s cameras. A pinging came from the navigation system, indicating that they’d reached their target. A wide grin spread across his face.

This was it.

Far below Betty’s gleaming yellow body, like a fatal wound carved into the surface of the Earth, was the trench. 

“That’s far enough for today, Mr. MacGregor,” Doctor Wu said from over his shoulder. Malcolm had no idea when she had appeared at his side. Reluctantly, he passed the controls over to one of his classmates and moved to the back of the group.

“Well done, Malcolm. You were a natural,” the professor said approvingly before turning back to the monitors. She began outlining their various duties over the next three days.

 

****

 

Later that evening, Malcolm climbed exhaustedly into his tiny cabin. He yanked off his sweat-soaked t-shirt and threw it in the corner. He followed this with his pants and shoes then collapsed onto the narrow bed, groaning with frustration that his window didn’t open. 

He had just spent the last eight hours in the confines of the main scientific laboratory on the main deck of Surveyor. His task was to run various saltwater samples that were collected by Betty and Veronica as he and the other graduate assistants took turns learning how to operate the ROVs in preparation for tomorrow’s long descent into the trench.

The process was long and tedious, but he normally loved the quiet repetition of lab work. Malcolm tended to stammer through any conversation not strictly on the topic of marine biology, he reveled in the relative silence of sample analysis.

The problem was that the science lab, like everywhere else on the ship, was unbearably stuffy. The rooms were temperature controlled, and since the samples they were currently studying had been taken from warm, tropical waters, the graduate students sweltered in rooms that were kept at a constant 82*F.

Thousands of miles out on the open ocean, Surveyor had different priorities than air-conditioning. She was only two hundred feet long from port to stern, and ran with a crew of ten, plus Doctor Wu and her research assistants.

Any available space that wasn’t strictly necessary to keep the ship afloat was given over to science labs. Surveyor had four temperature-controlled wetlabs for keeping live specimens. There were also three dry labs that were used to analyze the saltwater samples taken each day. There was a tiny room with a salinometer, which was used to track changes in the salt levels of the various ocean depths. There was a separate lab which could be used to study those deep-sea organisms that would die away from the crushing pressure of the abyssal region.

The ship was teeming with research equipment that Malcolm had been itching for to use in a practical environment for more than four years. Being chosen for this internship had been a huge achievement, and competition had been fierce. Sometimes Malcolm could still hardly believe he had been chosen, especially since at twenty-two, he was the youngest member of the team by three years.

That said, Surveyor had been built with a mind towards its fishy inhabitants, not its human ones.. He rolled over on the thin mattress, staring at the rivets and steel beams that crisscrossed the ceiling. 

The gentle rocking of the ship, combined with the intense heat, was beginning to give him a splitting headache. Malcolm pressed a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, brow furrowed.

This trip was the culmination of seven year’s worth of work and sweat and determination and dreams.

And here he was, fighting down a wave of seasickness. 

“Get a grip,” he said to himself sternly.

But there was nothing to be done. The tiny walls of the cabin were closing in.

He thought about taking a shower, but the communal bathroom was even more claustrophobic than his bunk, and was shared between all five of the graduate assistants. Just yesterday he had been washing in one of the three stalls when Molly Parker walked in nonchalantly and took the stall next to him. The walls of each stall were almost floor-to-ceiling, and made of thick, white plastic, but that had not stopped Malcolm from nearly having a panic attack at her proximity.

He was not very comfortable around women. Even women who had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever outside of a professional capacity.

It had been this way for years.

Sighing, Malcolm decided instead to go head back up to Surveyor’s top deck. Doctor Wu had given her research team the evening off, and there were plans for everyone to meet in the ship’s rec room to watch Jaws.

Because what else would you want to watch when thousands of feet of water sat between you and solid ground?

Coming up next, Syra meets with the High Priestess. Click here for Chapter Four!

Song of the Siren: Chapter Two

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Chapter One!

 

SYRA: THE HUNT

Thirty miles to the east and more than two miles down, a group of hunters approached their unsuspecting prey.

Five armed warriors crept through the blackness, moving silently in a world where silence was absolute. They swam in a loose formation; the leader flanked by her most trusted fighters who were in turn flanked by junior hunters. Their powerful fishtails were tense and coiled, barely flickering in the water as the group proceeded inch by cautious inch towards the hulking monster that lurked in the darkness. 

Enormous solid-black eyes dominated their faces; they stared unblinkingly ahead, attuned to the smallest particle of light. Around each hunter’s head floated a halo of thick black hairs. 

These sensory tendrils perceived even the tiniest vibration, the smallest change in the water pressure. Right now each one was sending a wealth of information to the figures as they communicated silently with one another, devising a plan of attack.

Each of their long, thin hands were clutched around their krakana, sturdy bone spears. Each was tipped with a variety of sharpened bone and teeth. The leader’s weapon was wickedly curved, hewn from the lower jaw of a great white shark.

At her signal, all five of the creatures stopped and surveyed their prey.

The giant squid stretched forty feet from its upper fins to the tips of the powerful, dangling tentacles that it used to push through the water with tremendous force. There were ten arms in total, eight short ones and two long. Each covered with rubbery, biting suction cups running along their length. These arms ended at the squid’s bone-crushing beak, and hungry mouth. 

Its eyes were gigantic, almost a foot in diameter, and they pierced through the darkness in search of small fish and other prey. 

As the hunters gathered around the beast, it located an angler fish. Faster than seemed possible, a tentacle shot out and wrapped around the struggling animal. In another heartbeat the fish had been swallowed by the hungry squid, leaving behind only a faint dusting of scales that drifted idly to the ocean floor.

The dark eyes of the hunters were now fixed solely on their leader. She made a series of quick, abbreviated hand gestures, trying to disturb the water as little as possible. Her warriors dispersed, spreading out in a slow fan. They moved into position, each fighter at a distance that would keep her just out of reach of the squid’s gripping tentacles.

The leader swam up a few feet until she was almost directly above her prey. It’s constantly shifting eyes roamed over her and she froze, not a single sensory tendril wafting in the water. The squid didn’t see her in the blackness, and she slowly raised one arm to the side of her head, then jerked it down suddenly.

Now!

Flashes of bioluminescent light erupted from all angles. Its massive eyes unprepared for the sudden onslaught, the animal was struck momentarily blind.

The leader lit up a red stripe of light along her spine, signalling the second stage of the attack.  Her hunters took their places at the base of the largest tentacles, krakanas poised and ready. 

Raising her shark-jaw spear, she slashed down violently into the soft skin of the squid’s mantle.

The wounded beast twisted violently in the water, stretching it’s murderous tentacles blindly in search of its attacker. One of her hunters was knocked sideways by the power of the squid’s movements. She sank heavily into the soft floor of the seabed, kicking up a billowing cloud of sand.

Now the world was a blur of sand and blood and black, inky water as the squid turned and thrashed in the water. Another warrior flashed a bright white glow next to the animal’s sensitive eyes and it shrank back from the sudden light, allowing her sister to get close enough to begin slashing at the squid’s powerful arms. 

 The animal drew its arms protectively into its body, leaving only the two longest tentacles to continue sweeping for the source of its pain. 

Red light began flashing wildly as one of the tentacles wrapped itself blindly around the leg of a hunter and began drawing her towards its snapping jaws. Her powerful tail beat the already cloudy water until all that could be seen was the rapidly flickering red light moving closer to the squid’s mouth.

The leader raced to her trapped hunter, slashing again and again with the serrated blade of her spear. But the squid’s arms were thick and muscular. Her blade scratched the surface but couldn’t penetrate deeply enough to break the squid’s grip. 

The other three hunters began flashing in rapid succession, confusing the large predator. It twisted and doubled back. 

Suddenly the leader of the warriors was face to face with the animal’s enormous rolling eye.

 It was larger than her head, and rimmed in white. It looked directly at her with a terrible intelligence.

It saw her.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she withdrew a sharpened bone dagger from a sheath on her hip and buried it into the squid’s eye, piercing it’s brain.

Dead, the animal sank slowly to the ocean floor below.

 

***

 

The hunters now fell to the task of gutting and butchering the massive squid. They worked mostly in complete darkness, only occasionally flashing a bioluminescent signal to one another. They moved as a well-trained unit; each one falling to their usual tasks with little need for communication.

First, they sawed off each of the long arms, twisting and knotting them together to form a bulky but manageable bundle. The heavy mantle contained the majority of the meat, and they sliced it into long, thing strips. They keep all the edible organs intact, discarding only the black line of intestine that ran along its body.

The squid’s enormous eyes were wrapped in carefully in a square of seasilk and set aside. A gift for the Gods.

Some of them took trophies from the kill. As the one who had delivered the killing blow, the leader claimed the animal’s strong beak as her prize. Another hunter cut away a piece of toothed sucker and affixed it to a bone necklace, where it joined the suckers of eleven previous hunts.

When they were finished, the lingering traces of blood in the water were the only evidence of the recent violence. Already though, scavengers were arriving upon the scene, drawn by the lingering scent of the squid’s entrails. A finless hagfish swam lazily a few inches above the ocean floor, seeking out any scraps of meat that may have fallen to the silty ground.

Dead, the giant squid weighed more than four hundred pounds, and there was enough to spare that the hunters did not begrudge the hungry fish a few mouthfuls. From behind a nearby rock they retrieved several wide, flat pieces of bone, scavenged from the skull of a fallen whale. 

Using thin, flexible lengths of seasilk, four of the hunters bound the enormous sections of squid to the bone, then wound the shimmering white fabric around their shoulders. Harnessed to these makeshift sleds, the warriors kicked strongly, their powerful scarlet-red tails stirring up the silty sediment of the seabed.

Underwater, the hunters were able to carry loads many times their own body weight. They had also been trained in strength and stamina since birth, and their muscular bodies strained at the sturdy seasilk until the heavy loads began shifting slowly, and then with greater speed. The captain of the warriors took her place at the center of the pack, unencumbered except by her sharkbone spear. 

The band of hunters began the slow, four-hour journey back to their city, the heads of the four bent as they dragged the heavy whalebone sleds. The leaders eyes were huge in her face, on a constant swivel as they cut through the infinite darkness of the abyssal plain. 

An auspicious hunt. No one injured except Mara, and even that was only a sucker-bite. 

The leader took a moment to peer back at her Beta, her right-hand fighter. Mara and their fellow pack-sister Tyre were the veterans of nearly a dozen hunts, and the violent bouts against the squid had left all three of them pocked with circular scars left by the animal’s toothed tentacles. Even her two junior warriors, Jada and Aeleon, bore signs of their encounters with the giant squid.

The meat from this kill will feed the people of Lai’lore for at least three months. A sure sign after so many failed hunts. Relief washed over her, though she was careful to keep her face expressionless. Perhaps the Gods have finally been appeased.

The sensory hairs on her head picked up a vibration coming from ahead of the group and she swam aggressively ahead, flashing her B. spinal ridges in warning. A flash of blue lights flickered back, signalling to the group of heavily armed warriors.

No Threat.

Spear still poised at the ready, the leader closed her eyes and focused, summoning her energy. A soft glow began under her ribcage and spread slowly until her entire body was illuminated in a glowing yellow light from the top of her head to the very tips of her tail flukes.

Where a moment ago there had been eternal blackness there was now a shining halo around the leader of the hunters. Her hair flowed wildly, the sensory tendrils swaying in the otherwise still water. Behind her, her fellow warriors bowed low, still dragging the heavy sleds.

It was a display of great and dreadful magic, known and feared by all the denizens of the deep waters. Immediately, the approaching creature froze and began showing red flickers.

A sign of subservience. One of their own. Clearly visible now in the yellow light emanating from her body, the leader beckoned the newcomer forward.

She was thin, with a long silver torso ending in a bright cerulean-blue tail. Across her chest was a gleaming sash of white seasilk bearing a distinctive stylized spiral.

A messenger. From the Temple of the High Priestess. She hovered at the edge of the light shining from the leader of the hunters and, wide black eyes downcast, that she had a message for the leader. She was still visibly trembling in the presence of the leader’s shining yellow aura. 

Poor thing. Why in the Abyss was she sent out here without protection? She loosened the tension in her abdomen, and the glowing light quickly faded, leaving them surrounded once more in safe, comfortable darkness.

“What could possibly be so important that my grandmother would send you all the way out here alone, young one?” the leader asked. She communicated in a combination of high-pitched whistles and clicks, bioluminescent flickers, and broad hand motions which created traveling vibrations in the water. 

“Pardon me, Lady Syra,” the young woman answered with a deep bow, her voice still quaking with fear from the leader’s earlier show of aggression. “The High Priestess commands that you come to the Temple at once.”

The lead warrior, Syra, scoffed and gestured to the heavily laden females behind her,  “My warriors are already returning after a successful hunt. We are tired and thirsty. Tonight we will give our offerings to the Gods. Can my grandmother not wait until then?”

The young messenger bowed again, but was already shaking her head, “She says you are to leave the others behind and come at once. An offering has been found.”

“We have an offering wrapped up in the sleds behind me!” Syra gestured impatiently.

“No, my Lady–”

“Don’t call me my Lady. Syra will do,” she interrupted.

Yes my L– Syra,” the messenger stumbled on her words, misery painted clearly on her features. “But your grandmother said that an offering had been found, and that you were to come back immediately. She said something about it being a “sacrificial” off–”

“That’s enough.” Syra cut the girl off again, and she fell silent. “You will stay here with my warriors. They will see that you return safely to Tessai.”

Now she spoke directly to her first hunter, “Mara, divide your load between the others and take lead. See them back safely, sister”

Mara gave her a fierce, proud look and said nothing. There was no need. The two had been raised together since infancy, they knew each other’s minds as well as their own. 

Still clutching her long spear, Syra left her fellow hunters behind and began swimming in the direction of the City as fast as she could. Almost instantly the dark closed around her and she was swimming alone through the silent blackness. She swam mindlessly, lost in her thoughts.

A sacrifice had been found.

How many years it had been? Before Syra’s time, so at least twenty years ago. In that time, the Gods had grown angry and restless. So many eggs failed to hatch, and too many of the surviving hatchlings were sickly and weak. Most did not survive to see their second year.

The people of the Abyss were growing restless as well, and fearful of what further devastation the Gods might unleash if they were denied their rightful gifts. Already there were rumors from neighboring communities of violent shakings within the Abyss, and plumes of black smoke that spewed up from the chasm.

A sacrifice was desperately needed, and Syra sent a silent prayer down to the Gods that they were able to send along an appropriate offering in time.

Still, her heart hammered as she thought of what surely awaited at the Temple of the Abyss.

A pure offering to the Gods Below could only come from the Realm Above.

One of them would have to undergo the perilous journey to the surface, lure the sacrifice into the water, and drag it down to the Abyss as a gift to the Gods.

Let it be me. Syra clutched her krakana tight, and swam faster through the darkness.The silty sea floor was midnight black beneath her tailfins as she raced to obey her grandmother’s summons.

The High Priestess did not like to be kept waiting.

Click here for Chapter Three!

Song of the Siren: Chapter One

MALCOLM: AWAKE AT MIDNIGHT

Malcolm MacGregor awoke with a start in the middle of the night, and for a long moment he had no idea where he was. 

The room was pitch black; the only illumination coming from a pale strip of light under the door. 

He fumbled blindly in the dark until his seeking fingers found the switch to a bedside lamp and clicked it on. 

The melody of a dream still rang in his ears. Malcolm shook his head, trying to shake away the last echoes. He looked around, blinking rapidly in the sudden harsh light.

The room was tiny–designed to maximize efficiency. The bed was narrow and far too short to comfortably fit his lanky frame. A small wooden desk was bolted to one wall. A small, circular window stared out onto an inky darkness. 

The entire room seemed to be gently rocking. Malcolm’s disorientation lifted as he realized that he was in his quarters on board the scientific research vessel Surveyor, which was currently anchored ninety off the coast of Samoa. The view from outside his window was black because, as a lowly grad student, his bunk was in the lowest deck of cabins. 

The only reason he had a private room in the first place was because he was the only male grad student chosen for this internship. The three female graduate students shared a larger room on one of the upper decks.

Not that he minded. He preferred his privacy, and he had an amazing view of the colorful schools of fish outside his porthole window. 

Sleep faded from his mind, but Malcolm’s heart still hammered in his chest. What had woken him? The past three nights of the expedition he’d slept like a rock, lulled away by the faint hum of the ship’s engines and the peaceful rocking as it moved with the calmly lapping water.

Malcolm sleepily pulled on his glasses and checked the time on his phone.

3:45. Ugh. No point in going back to sleep; he had to be up and dressed in barely more than an hour to begin prepping the day’s saltwater samples. The sun would be up soon anyway; the summertime days in the Pacific began early.

Malcolm crept out of his cabin and down the silent hallway before making his way up the metal stairs at the end of the corridor and up to Surveyor’s top deck. It was eerily still and silent up here; no one else was stirring at this early hour and Malcolm felt like he had the ship to himself. 

Finally away from the low ceilings and cramped belowdecks of the research vessel, Malcolm stretched to his full height and uttered a quiet sigh of contentment. Then he raised his arms above his hand, continuing the stretch and raising his head towards the night sky.

His breath caught in his throat as he beheld the blanket of twinkling stars that stretched from horizon to horizon. Hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the stars shone in their hundreds of millions. The constellations were new and strange to Malcolm’s eyes.

Of course. They’re completely different stars than San Diego.  

 

A tiny splash from the starboard deck snapped Malcolm out of his stargazing, and he peered over bulging walls of Surveyor.

If possible, the water was even blacker than the sky. 

The ship was anchored just off the northern tip of the Tonga trench, a fifteen hundred mile-long gash that ran from New Zealand all the way up to Samoa. Beneath his feet, the ocean floor descended more than thirty-five thousand feet into an abyss.

As always, when Malcolm pictured the six miles of crushing pressure between him and solid ground, an involuntary shiver of apprehension ran down his spine. 

Thirty thousand feet of blackness.

Feeling suddenly unbalanced, he backed from the metal railing. 

Splash.

There it was again.

Probably just a sea turtle. They adored the shade provided by Surveyor’s broad belly, and were constantly bumping into the research equipment.

Malcolm stared out into the expanse, willing his night vision to be sharper than it was. Hovering at the edge of his vision, he thought he could see a shadow. A shape bobbing–almost indistinguishable against the darkness–low in the waters to the west.

CRASH!

Malcolm jerked in surprise, as one of the metal doors leading downstairs was thrown open and a bright light temporarily blinded him. 

“What the hell!” he shouted angrily as the intruder clomped up the stairs in heavy boots. He looked back at the water quickly but the dark shape–if it had been there at all–was gone. 

With a sigh, Malcolm turned back to see who had interrupted his peaceful pre-dawn quiet. 

It was Claude, one of the ship’s navigational crew. A burly man with thick, meaty biceps covered in tattoos, he gave Malcolm a long, measured glance when he saw him.

Fishing a lighter out of his pocket, Claude crossed to the deck railing and lit a cigarette, drawing deep and blowing the smoke out of his nostrils. 

“The fuck are ya doing up here, kid? Top decks supposed to be off limits to students after dark.” He spat the word as if it were a vulgarity.

Malcolm flushed under the man’s accusatory gaze. “Sorry, sir. I had no idea. I woke up early and thought I’d get some fresh air.” He immediately began backing towards the still-open door.

“You kids need to be careful. Maybe you especially,” Claude said, turning his back to Malcolm and leaning heavily on the railing.

“Why me especially?” Malcolm asked in confusion. He was getting fed up with being referred to as “kid”.

Claude shrugged his broad shoulders. “Just keep to your bunk, kid. And we won’t have a problem, now will we?” 

Now Claude did turn his head to give Malcolm a conspiratorial wink.

“I–guess not,” Malcolm replied uncertainly. He headed back down the narrow metal stairs to his room. He swore he heard Claude give a soft chuckle behind him.

 

***

 

One hundred feet from the gleaming red hull of the ship, two dark pairs of eyes watched from the water as the young man was replaced by another, this one larger and uglier than the first. 

The figures turned in the water, and with a few powerful thrusts of their muscular tails, they descended into the sea.

The nighttime blackness of the shallow coral seas quickly gave way to the true, infinite darkness of the ocean depths. As the two strange creatures swam down and down, the raised ridges along their spines began flickering bioluminescent reds and greens, sending a very clear message to the hungry ocean life that shared their world.

Danger. Stay away.

The flashing lights allowed the figures to see one another in short bursts. Long, thin fingers began moving rapidly, combined with a series of high-pitched clicks and whistles. A message was being communicated between the creatures.

Alert the High Priestess. An offering has been found.

***

The hunt is on in Chapter Two! Click here to continue reading Song of the Siren.

The Faerie’s Princess: Chapter Two: The Fated Princess

Click here for Chapter One

Lush green fields raced by in a blur as the dappled gray mare pounded down the path. Thick purple clouds, pregnant with rain, blanketed the sky, stretching beyond the verdant farmland all the way to the sea and its endless horizon. Thunder growled low in the distance. 

The gray mare veered around a bend in the muddy country road, flinging clods of wet earth behind her. Her sides heaved with exertion, and her flanks were flecked with white lather. Seated on the mare’s bare back was a figure in a blue woolen cloak.

Ahead of the horse and cloaked rider, the lane ended in a stone wall nearly five feet high. The rider pressed soft leather boots into the mare’s sides, urging the animal on to greater speeds. The horse responded eagerly, surging into a full gallop as they barreled towards the border wall at the edge of Dunnhawke Castle.

A flock of sparrows took flight in agitation as the mare pounded towards the fence. Her rider leaned forward, digging thin fingers into the animal’s silvery-dark mane. A breathless gasp was lost to the wind and all her muscles clenched in unison as the horse gathered powerful muscles and launched over the wall. 

She came down easily on the other side, barely breaking stride. The rider in the blue cloak came to a seated position, and the horse gradually slowed to a stop. For a moment, all was still except for the pair’s heavy breathing. Then a fierce cry of victory pierced the stillness of the countryside. 

The hood of the blue cloak was thrown back to reveal a young woman with a wild mop of curly auburn hair. Her blue-gray eyes were alight with excitement and triumph.

Princess Gwendolyn Setterwind of Dunnhawke leaned forward, patting the mare’s sweaty neck. “We did it, Aoife! You were incredible!” Beads of perspiration gathered on her brow, and the woman wiped them away with a careless hand.

She sat straighter on the horse’s back, taking in the rich, loamy smell of rain and freshly turned earth. Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and the wind swirled her hair about her waist and shoulders. Triumph still glittered in moss-green eyes as she looked back at the crumbling stone wall they had cleared.

Let’s see Ronan take that jump, she thought with a smile. 

A brilliant streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the swollen purple thunderheads that were rapidly gathering in the distance. The crash of thunder was immediate, booming overhead with a force that reverberated through her skull.

The horse shied, whinnying with fright. Tremors of fear rippled under the dark gray skin, and the woman leaned forward to lay a calming hand on her neck. “Shhh Aoife. You’re right. Let’s get home. This storm is coming in fast.”

With another gentle nudge of her knees, the horse started off at an uneasy trot that soon melted into a smooth canter. Raindrops began to fall, darkening Gwen’s bright red hair until it lay soaked and almost black against her head. Within minutes, the pair rode through the open gates of Dunnhawke Castle and into the stables.

A tall, broad-shouldered youth of about sixteen was standing near the entrance, his arms crossed and one leg propped against a thick wooden pillar. He looked up and gave the woman a devilish grin when she trotted in.

“Ha! Gwen, there you are! Mother thinks you are at your music lessons but I saw you sneak away,” the boy said, his brown eyes twinkling with mischief. 

The woman dismounted, handing her reins to a nearby stableboy. “I jumped the fence at the border of the Varne’s farm.” she replied, her grin a mirror of his.

“You did not! Not in this mud,” he challenged, looking past her to the pouring rain.

“Truly Ronan, I did. Aoife is as light-footed as a deer, no matter the weather.” Gwen patted the mare’s sleek neck approving, and the horse shook her head as if in affirmation.

The boy looked skeptical, but he cast an approving glance at Aoife. Only a year Gwen’s  junior, her brother was quickly growing into a fierce warrior and there was a never-ending competition between them to see who could best the other.

“I still don’t see why Father gave her to you. I am the eldest son,” Ronan said with a mock sigh.

Gwen shook her head, casting droplets of water over both Aoife and Ronan. “But I am the eldest child. So for now, I get the first choice of the yearly foals.”

Her smile turned wry. “Who knows, perhaps the king will give Aoife to you once I am gone. I doubt that horses are welcome in the lands of the Fae.”

Her brother’s face twisted. He ran a hand through his cropped brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Gwen sighed. “I know, Ronan. I’m sorry. It’s just all this waiting has me unnerved.” She saw a groom hurrying with a hot bran mash for Aoife and nodded in satisfaction. Certain that the horse was well attended, she turned and began heading towards the castle itself.

“How are preparations coming for the party?” Ronan said, his long limbs easily catching up with her. 

Gwen rolled her eyes. “What party? It’s more like a wake.”

They passed through the heavy oaken doors that stood nearly twenty feet tall at the main entrance to the central keep. As always, Gwen’s eyes went to the many chips and splinters that had been gouged into the wood.

My father’s war to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke left many scars upon the land, even so many years later. 

I would know better than most.

 

***

 

Gwen remembered clearly the day her father, King Cormac, had come into the nursery with a grave face. It had been a week before her fifth birthday. She was playing with her baby sister, Kaleigh, then only a few months old.

“Gwendolyn, come and talk with me for a moment,” her father said, extending a roughened hand towards her.

Her red curls bouncing, four-year old Gwen ran to her father and placed her tiny palm in his. His presence was a rare occasion in the nursery and she drank in every ounce of his weathered face. 

Despite his relatively young age, King Cormac’s gingery beard was streaked with gray, and there were deep shadows under his eyes. His nose was hooked, making a silhouette not unlike the hawk that flew on the flags above the castle. But his blue eyes were kindly, and if today they were tinged with sadness Gwen was too young to see.

She had never been alone with her father, and a shiver of apprehension went down her spine as he led her by the hand. They went into one of the many small courtyards that were spaced evenly inside the castle keep. 

The afternoon sun streamed through the open space, and wildflowers blossomed in the sunnier patches, filling her nose with their sweet fragrance.

King Cormac led Gwen to a low stone bench. For a moment they sat there in silence, watching the colorful blooms of late spring bursting to life around them.

“Your mother does not wish for me to share the tale I am about to tell you,” he began.

“Is it a scary story, Papa?” Even then, Gwen had been fascinated rather than frightened by the grisly legends that the nursemaids often told to scare the children into staying in their beds. 

Her father had grimaced. “Yes, daughter. I’m afraid it is quite a scary story.”

With that King Cormac had told his young daughter the events that had transpired on the night of her birth. 

How he had saved her mother, secured the realm, and brought peace and prosperity to the people. 

But at a terrible price.

How one day, a member of the Fae court would arrive to take her to their realm beyond the winds. What awaited her there, no one knew. None who had ventured into their lands had ever returned.

When Gwen first heard her fate she’d crumpled inwards, tears of fear and childish woe welling into her eyes, but her father gave her a sharp look and she immediately straightened her back, blinking away her tears.

From the time she could walk and talk, Gwendolyn was taught the proper decorum for a Princess of Dunnhawke. Even at the tender age of four she had learned to master her emotions.

She swallowed back the sob, her small hands pressed into the cold stone of the bench. “When will they come?” she finally managed to ask.

He sighed deeply, and she felt a strong arm hug her around the shoulders and pull her close. Despite her efforts, a tear slid down Gwen’s nose and onto her dress.

She did not dare to glance at her father as he began to speak.

“We do not know. This is why I have defied your mother’s wishes by telling you of the Fae and what they intend. So that you will know what is coming, and can look it in the eye.”

“Why?” her voice quavered as she spoke. 

“So that you might survive.” had come his quiet response.

“And so that you might forgive me.”

 

***

 

Ten years later, Gwen had learned to view everything from a practical standpoint.

Her days had been numbered from the moment she was born. There was nothing anyone could do to change this. Everyone knew that they would die someday, but her fate lie down a far different path.

She might as well accept life as it was.

In the early years, her nurses had kept a constant vigil in the nursery, fearing that at any unguarded moment the Fae might whisk away their infant charge and replace her with a changeling, a vile doppelganger from the fairy realm.

But no emissary from the Fae had come to claim her as a child.

By the time Gwen grew older and learned what fate had in store for her, the story of King Cormac’s bargain had already spread beyond the walls of the castle and into the village of Dunnhawke. Whispers began circulating of the cursed princess and the king who bargained his firstborn daughter for the sake of his realm.

The villagers were initially been outraged at the idea of their king sacrificing his own flesh and blood, but as the rains fell and the crops grew rich and prosperous in their fields, any cries for justice died to a low murmur.

It was hard to be indignant when your children’s bellies were full after months of starvation. 

When Gwen’s brother Ronan was born only eleven months after herself, the people had rejoiced at the healthy heir to the throne of Dunnhawke. Barely a year later, Queen Bronnagh gave birth to twin sons, Seamus and Sean, thus providing plenty of sons to provide a secure lineage. 

Season after season, the rains arrived on time and lasted well into summer. The autumns were mild and dry, perfect for the farmers who reaped bountiful harvests of grain and wheat, more than enough to sustain the kingdom through the winter months. Under King Cormac’s rule, the village grew and thrived.

The royal nursery grew as well. Queen Bronnagh proved as fertile as the Fae had predicted, and Gwen’s brothers and sisters tumbled from every corner of the castle, forever followed by their despairing nursemaids.

By the time Gwen was ten, any whispers against the King’s bargain had died down, and instead the villagers eyes merely followed her whenever she rode her horse down the dusty road. The people of this land were a pragmatic folk, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to one doomed girl in return for the safety and security of their families.

But that is not to say that they felt grateful, or even comfortable around Gwen. Quite the opposite, her presence reminded them up the price they were willing to pay for prosperity. Over time, this evolved into a kind of superstition against the young princess. As a girl, whenever she had tried to play with the farmer’s children they had run from her, many of them hissing, or clutching their thumbs between their first two fingers in the age-old ward against magic.

They all feared to get to close, lest her doomed fate infect them all.

At around twelve-years old, when her figure had begun to ripen, there had been a sudden burst of activity around the court. Rumours pervaded that the Fae intended to claim her on the night of her first bleeding, and the court of Dunnhawke held its breath for Princess Gwendolyn to flower into womanhood. Her chambermaids would hold their breath when they changed the sheets each morning, finally annoying Gwen so much that she had asked the castle’s cook for some duck’s blood and sprinkled it on the white linens to shock them.

Her mother had not enjoyed the joke. But when Gwen began her monthly courses two weeks later, no emissary from the Fae had come to take her away. Life had gone on as before.

 

***

 

Indeed, by that time, Gwen had decided that she simply didn’t care when the Fae would come for her. She couldn’t care, or it would consume her entire life. From her earliest memories she had been known as the fated princess, the doomed princess, the one whose destiny lay in a land that none had ever witnessed and spoke of only in whispers.

Fighting against it would do no good, nor would consulting the various fortune-tellers and soothsayers that occasionally traveled through the kingdom.

Her mother had tried that once, inviting a woman renowned for seeing the future to the castle. The wizened old hag took her coin and—after slaughtering a chicken and studying its entrails—gave the date of Gwen’s fourteenth birthday. The three months that followed were a nightmarish haze of anxiety, anticipation, fear, and excitement. Gwen had stopped eating, stopped playing with her siblings, stopped sleeping as she restlessly paced the echoing stone halls of the castle. 

The eve of her fourteenth birthday arrived, and Gwen spent the entire day vomiting her panic into a chamberpot. That evening in the common room with her family, her mother clutched her hand so tightly Gwen thought her bones might crack beneath the heavy rings. Queen Bronnagh had been heavily pregnant at the time with her third set of twins, and Gwen feared that her departure for the land of the Fae might cause her mother to go into early labor.

The late summer evening was still and hot, the air lying thick and heavy around them. Dusk came early at that time of year, and watching the sun finally sink beneath the horizon of the cobalt sea seemed to take an eternity.

The evening passed in tense silence, her younger siblings escorted to bed by their nurses until it was just Gwen, her parents, and Prince Ronan, who at thirteen years of age was deemed old enough to keep vigil with them. Gwen drew comfort from her brother’s presence; they had been close since their earliest days and Ronan was the closest thing she had to a confidante.

The minutes and hours passed by endlessly, one bleeding into the other until the moon was bright against the velvety black sky. King Cormac spent the evening grinding his teeth, barely able to look at his teenage daughter. Ronan sat quietly on the floor by Gwen’s feet, staring into space.

Gwen had spent her time gazing into the fireplace, her gaze unfocused. She watched for so long that the flickering flames turned into dancing hearth sprites that whirled and twirled around one another in an endless waltz.

Eventually, dawn had broken across the land. The fortune-teller had been wrong. Fortunately for her sake, no trace of the woman was ever found. And fortunately for Gwen’s peace of mind, this was her mother’s last foray into the unsteady world of prophecy and predictions.

In the three years between that day and this, Gwen had been left very much to her own devices. The strict rules of formality that guarded the words and actions of her royal sisters simply did not apply to her, it was not as if she were being prepared for marriage to a foreign prince, or a high-born duke.

From that moment the sun had crested the horizon on her fourteenth birthday, Gwen had an opportunity to do something that few women in the kingdom of Dunnhawke experienced.

She was allowed to become her own person. While her sisters were bound to their dancing classes and music lessons, Gwen rode wild across the springtime meadows, thick with heather and honeysuckle.

She began showing up to the daily lessons between Prince Ronan and Lorcan, the king’s master swordsman.

Lorcan Wolfsbane had gotten his nickname at the age of twelve, when he had been attacked by a pack of four starving wolves in the forests outside his native Andorral. He had slaughtered them all with only a small dagger and dragged their pelts back into his village.

Perhaps it is because he knew what it meant to face great odds, but Lorcan did not object to Gwen’s desire to fight. Knowing that King Cormac’s guilt-riddled leniency might not extend to the sight of his eldest daughter sparring with grown knights twice her size, Lorcan arranged for she and Ronan to practice outside of the castle grounds, in a wide meadow surrounded by a thick copse of trees.

Here they could wail on one another until they were both drenched with sweat, Ronan’s natural competitiveness quickly winning out over his reluctance to strike a girl. They would battle for hours, at first with clunky wooden swords and later, once Gwen had improved, with blunt-edged practice swords.

 

***

 

As Gwen grew older, her curves blossomed and bloomed into those of a woman while her muscles grew lean and toned behind the skirts she was still forced to wear. Her untameable red curls had lengthened until they reached her waist. But her blue-gray eyes took on a flinty, unapproachable look.

Last year, as Gwen neared her seventeenth birthday, a new rumor had come to her ears. She had been bringing Aoife—then just a yearling—into the stables when she passed by a group of three washerwomen who were so involved in their scrubbing and their gossip that they didn’t notice their hooded princess holding the reins of the dappled mare.

Gwen always strained her ears when she heard the castle staff speaking. 

More often than not, it was the grooms and the gardeners who knew the true secrets of the realm. 

Her instincts pricked when she heard her own name.

“Princess Gwen is out riding again. I swear that girl must be completely wild at this point, like a feral cat.” said one of the laundresses under her breath.

“Till the Fae come to claim what’s theirs.” said a second, a plump woman with a rosy face.

“Shhh Dara. They’ll have your head for whispering such things.” the first responded.

Gwen’s heart pounded. It was rare to overhear anyone discussing her at all, let alone in the same breath as the Fae. The first woman was entirely correct, King Cormac’s wrath would be truly fearsome if he found out that members of his staff were chattering openly about his daughter.

“All I’m saying is that the girl should enjoy the pleasures of the world before she is taken.” the plump woman replied, chafed knuckles submerged in a basin of soapy water.

“I do wonder how much pleasure of the world she has enjoyed, if you take my meaning.” the third woman, this one tall and thin as a broom handle, chimed in.

Gwen’s face heated. She twined her fingers into Aoife’s pewter-gray mane. At sixteen, she had some idea of what the washerwoman was referring to. Enough to know that her father would have all three of these women whipped if he learned they had dared question her chastity.

“If she has any sense at all, the princess will keep her virtue until the end of her days. Everyone knows the Fae cannot harm a virgin.”

At the old woman’s words, Gwen dug her fingers so hard into Aoife’s mane that the skittish young horse had stamped a foot, throwing up her head in objection.

All three of the laundresses looked up at the sound. In unison, the blood drained from their faces. They bounded to their feet, though only one still had enough presence of mind to curtsy.

A dark, bitter corner of Gwen’s mind told her to summon the castle guards and have them all thrown into a dungeon for a few days.

But she had no quarrel with these women. It wasn’t their fault that they lived in a castle with an accursed princess. Plus they had unwittingly given her a valuable piece of information.

The Fae could not harm a virgin. At least, that was the rumor.

She merely nodded politely at the washerwomen, and led her horse away. They collapsed, pale and stricken, back onto their low stools.

She handed Aoife over to Andlan, one of the castle grooms. As he took the reins, Gwen looked Andlan over from head to toe. He was perhaps a year or two older than her, with straw-blonde hair and a spray of freckles across his nose.

The Fae could not harm a virgin. Were they waiting to come for her until after she had surrendered her virtue? If she remained a virgin forever, might they never come? 

That night, Gwen had tossed and turned, burning with her newfound knowledge. The tower room in the southern corner of the castle was tiny, but it was her own. She had been given it as a gift after the Fae neglected to show up on her fourteenth birthday. Another symbol of King Cormac’s guilty conscience. 

Finally, when the stars were bright against the night sky and the rest of the castle was asleep, she crept out of bed and down the castle stairs. Long ago, she had borrowed a simple muslin gown from one of the chambermaids. She’d actually stolen the garment–but left behind a purse of silver heavy enough that she felt assured the maid would not weep overlong. She donned the scratchy gown and padded on silent feet into the stables.

Years of useless waiting, of neverending anticipation, made her impulsive, heedless of risk. 

If the Fae would not take her as a virgin, perhaps she could speed fate along through her own devices.

Andlan had been dozing in a bed of hay when she pressed a finger to his lips. With her vibrant red hair tucked under a linen cap and her maid’s disguise, he did not recognize her as a princess of the realm. He’d never asked, too surprised and thrilled of his brilliant good luck to do more than whisper his affirmation to her insistent urgings.

A few kisses, a few pumps of the boy’s hips, and a stab of pain was all it took to make Gwen a woman. 

Afterwards, she’d taken the scraps of bloody muslin from the stolen dress and thrown them into the fire.

“Well!” she’d screamed into the flames, watching the scarlet-stained fabric curl into cinders. “What are you waiting for!”

She fell to her knees in front of the carved fireplace. There was a deep, tearing ache within her center. Tears finally came to her eyes.

“I am a virgin no longer. You are free to do as you will. What are you waiting for!” she hissed to the fire, knowing that there was no one listening.

No one had come that night. Or the nights that followed. It had all been for nought.

If Andlan ever realized that he had actually bedded a princess, he gave no sign of it. Perhaps he understood the necessity of silence on the matter.

Castle life went on around her. She rode her horse. She sparred with her brother. Every day that passed, she felt a little less, became a little less involved in the world around her. 

Eventually, the rumors began circulating that they would come for her on the eighteenth birthday. Like clockwork, the court had sprung into action, and a flurry of whispering preceded her every entrance and followed every exit.

Now, three days before that date, Gwen bid farewell to her brother and climbed the narrow stairs to her tower room.

A celebration had been ordered, not a quiet, fear-filled evening like that of four years ago, but a true party that included the entire court. 

Surely, this would be it.

Surely they would come.

And her life could begin. Or be snuffed out, if the immortal Fae chose. 

At least the waiting would finally be at an end.

Gwen strode up the stairs to her tower room and looked out over the kingdom of Dunnhawke. She both loved and loathed every inch of those fertile green fields.

For her entire life, Gwen’s fate had been out of her hands. As she looked out on the crops of wheat and barley for which she had been traded, she laid another brick around the wall she had slowly built around her heart.

 

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden (2019)

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Review 2.11

 

Note: I highly recommend reading The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower before reading this review.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. [Source]

The Winter of the Witch has all of the ingredients necessarily for a dark, mature fairy tale. There is a twisted villain, a mysterious king, an enchanted forest. There are swordfights, helpful sprites, and magic horses. Front and center of it all is the courageous heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasya is a marvel, at once vulnerable and indomitable. Her journey from a scared girl in the snow to a crusading warrior-witch has made the Winternight trilogy one of my favorite finds in recent years.

Of course, all these elements would amount to nothing without the beautiful and poetic writing of Katherine Arden. She has constructed a world that feels simultaneously ancient and immediate. The best fairy tales exist in a world of misty morals, and The Winter of the Witch is no exception. No one, no matter how seemingly good or evil, is ever quite what they seem. This comes as a natural development rather than a sudden cheat, and I never felt as though Arden had sacrificed her characters for the sake of a easy ending.

After the climatic events of The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has just risked everything to save Moscow from the flames. Her secrets are now exposed, and the obsessed priest Konstantin has her cornered. After suffering a devastating loss, she flees into the realm of Midnight, a land of eternal darkness. Weakened and grieving, Vasya must search the midnight lands for Morozko, the king of winter.

I won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. I am definitely looking forward to buying the entire Winternight trilogy on hardcover once it’s released. These books swept me away.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Winter of the Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)

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Review 2.10

 

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries. [Source]

If you’ve ever seen AMC’s The Walking Dead,  you’ll have noticed that episodes of the show tend to follow a very predictable pattern. Something really interesting and surprising happens in the first ten minutes, which grabs your interest and makes you excited to keep watching. This is followed by roughly thirty minutes of aimless wandering, idle chatter, and speeches about the unfairness of life, during which time you zone out and mostly stare at your phone. Then, in the last three minutes there is another interesting and surprising event which leaves you hungrily awaiting the next episode.

The Fifth Season is the high fantasy novel equivalent of an episode of The Walking Dead.

The set-up is narrated in the second-person and introduces you to the main cast of characters. A woman is mourning the death of her son at the hands of her husband. A mysterious figure in a shining city causes untold destruction. An ambitious acolyte takes on an undesired task. It is written in a way that reminded me of death’s narration in The Book Thief, distant but personal at the same time. Things were off to a good start.

The problem comes when Author N. K. Jemisin continues to employ that second-person narrative style in every chapter focused on Essun, the main female protagonist. Rather than adding an extra layer to the story, switching back and forth from the second to the third voice was incredibly jarring. It pulled me out of the story time and time again.

After its promising beginning, The Fifth Season spends the bulk of it’s 350+ pages moving various characters from one place to another. This offers multiple opportunities to explore the land and peoples inhabited in this world, but also becomes increasingly tedious as time goes on. At some point my curiosity dwindled, and I no longer cared very much about the fate of the broken Earth or its residents.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Fifth Season here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Kingdom of Ash (ToG #7) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

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Review #103

The long-awaited conclusion to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series, Kingdom of Ash sees Aelin and her friends risking everything they have to fight against the dark armies of Morath and the vicious Queen Maeve. Effort was made to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but some key plot points may be revealed.

Aelin has risked everything to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. Aware that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, though her resolve begins to unravel with each passing day.

For her final installment, bestselling fantasy author Sarah J. Maas wants to make sure that she harnesses every available drop of tension and substance from the world she has worked so long to build. I commented in an earlier post that the first installment of ToG felt rather flat and one-dimensional, with the heroine boasting about her prowess a hell of a lot more than demonstrating it. In the six books following Throne of Glass, the world of Erilea has taken on sharp definition and an emotional weight that builds satisfyingly to a final conclusion.

As always, Maas gets major props for having a diverse cast of kick-ass female heroines at the forefront of her novel. Aelin’s journey comes full circle here, and the readers have been with her for so long as she struggled towards her destiny that to see her reaching her potential was a wonderful moment. Maas has a tendency to use very dramatic writing when narrating Aelin’s point of view. It gives the proceedings a very operatic feeling, but occasionally goes too far to where it begins to feel like self-parody. The character arcs of other important female figures such as Elide and Manon Blackbeak are also brought to a satisfying conclusion.

As strong as all these characters are, Maas certainly does make sure that they are all happily settled in their committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationships by the end of the novel. I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the very traditional “happily ever afters”, but I definitely did notice that the plot would not allow for such-and-such characters to end up apart from one another. It ended up giving the final climactic scenes a predictable feel, since I knew that any of these matched-up characters would not be permitted to die.

At nearly one thousand pages, the rising action of this novel encompasses nearly two-thirds of the book’s length. There are periods when Kingdom of Ash spins its wheels a bit, and feels the need to check it with various characters even when there is no new information to report. It takes nearly seven hundred pages for all of the main characters to finally get together, which gives the middle section a bloated feel, like some of the slower episodes of Game of Thrones.

Overall, I have fully enjoyed my time in Erilea. These novels aren’t perfect but they’re a lot of fun and creative addition to the YA fantasy genre. I continue looking forward to reading more from Sarah J. Maas.

Full disclosure: I skipped Tower of Dawn, the sixth installment in the ToG series. I didn’t want to spent six hundred pages with Chaol, who I always thought was completely boring. I did not regret my decision, and was able to follow the plot of Kingdom of Ash without difficulty.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Kingdom of Ash as well as the rest of the Throne of Glass novels here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Off to be the Wizard by Scott Meyer (2014)

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Review #83

Martin Banks is just a normal, everyday guy who enjoys digging into the depths of the internet in his spare time. On one of these nighttime expeditions, he stumbles across a discovery that will change his life forever. The world as we know it is nothing more than a computer program; a computer program that Martin is able to change at will. He vows that he will use this newfound power sparingly and with great care. This vow lasts for approximately forty-eight hours before Martin finds himself fleeing back in time to medieval England. He decides to pose as a wizard and make a life for himself in the tiny village of Leadchurch.

Author Scott Meyer makes the smart decision early in this novel not to waste time on how any of the plot elements work. The computer program controls everything about the world because it does, and Martin is able to use this to alter his appearance, his bank account, and his location by teleporting. There is very little time given over to trying to apply logic to an inherently illogical premise, and Meyer avoids getting bogged down in the details.

Instead, he offers up a wildly silly story of a man who tries to fool a village of 11th century English villagers that he is a wizard. Martin downloads the computer code into his phone, and uses it to make himself hover, emit sparks, and speak in a booming voice. Don’t bother asking how his phone continues to work in the past, it just does. This process is laid out in a highly enjoyable montage that reminded me of The Matrix, if Neo were learning break-dancing instead of kungfu.

Overall, Off to Be the Wizard was smart, irreverent, and short enough that it ended before the situational comedy began to wear thin. It never made me laugh out loud, but instead caused a kind of perpetual smirk from beginning to end.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Off to Be the Wizard here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.