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.”

 

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.

Mirror Image: Chapter One: The Interview

 

“Hannah! Move your ass we’re going to be late!” I called down the hallway, then turned back to the bathroom mirror.

My heart pounded in my chest as I leaned in close to my reflection, trying to keep my hand steady as I swept light brown eyeshadow over one closed lid.

Perfect. Everything has to be perfect today. I started on the other lid.

“Holly, have you seen my black leather jacket?” came a jarring voice directly behind my ear. Startled, the makeup brush jolted upwards, painting a swatch of eyeshadow over my brow and up to my forehead.

“Dammit, Hannah,” I said with a sigh, reaching for a tissue. “Your leather jacket is in the front closet. Where I hung it last night after you threw it on the ground.”

My hands shook as I wiped off the errant makeup.

“Thanks, sis. You’re a dream,” Hannah said, coming up next to me and giving me a swift kiss on the cheek. I rolled my eyes and picked the makeup brush off the counter.

For a moment, I looked back at my own reflection, and its mirror image standing beside me. Hannah’s waist-length blonde hair was the same honey-gold shade of my own. She had the same blue-green eyes, the same slender physique.

We were carbon copies of one another, down to the identical spray of freckles across our noses, though Hannah’s were harder to spot under her deep brown tan. She’d recently returned from a semester studying abroad in Australia and, in addition to the tan, now sported a steel bar through the upper cartilage of her left ear.

Hannah’s numerous piercings, as well as the red-and-gold tattoo of a phoenix that spread across her shoulder blades, were the only way that people could really tell us apart.

My twin’s reflection in the mirror met my own. Hannah’s eyes traveled down my outfit, her brow raised in disapproval.

“You cannot wear that,” she said.

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I cried in dismay. I looked down at my watch. We needed to be out the door in seven minutes if I was going to drop my sister off at her audition.

“You look like you’re going to an interview at a Catholic school, not one of the top advertising firms in Chicago.” Hannah said, her pink-stained lips pulled sideways into a smirk.

“It’s not…that bad,” I said, but my heart plummeted as I looked down at the brown tweed skirt and the loose jacket I was wearing over a collared white shirt.

Okay so it was a little conservative, but I needed to be taken seriously today. I needed to look like someone who was ready to be a junior copywriter at Fleischmann and Carter.

Hannah laughed. I took in her outfit, torn mesh leggings over a neon yellow skirt and a black t-shirt with a rainbow zebra on the front. Her eyes were rimmed with thick black eyeliner, and several hoops dangled from each of her ears.

“So you think I should dress like you, Ms. David Bowie?” I said.

Hannah was already crossing to her bedroom, so I was spared her sarcastic mumblings. I used the brief moment of peace to finish adding the final touches to my makeup.

I met my eyes in the mirror. You can do this, Holly.

You’ve already been there for four months. You’ve earned this.

I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself.

I’d spent the summer after graduating from the University of Illinois doing an unpaid internship at Fleischmann and Carter. For four months—sometimes for more than twelve hours a day—I’d run in heels through the corridors, fetching coffee, organizing files, and generally being the office gopher along with nine other recent college grads.

Now that the summer was over, the board of directors was prepared to offer full-time positions to only two of us. And I was determined that one of them would be me.

Hannah came stomping back into the bedroom, holding a creamy blush-rose dress over one arm and a black Neiman Marcus blazer in the other.

“Put these on,” she said, thrusting the clothes into my arms and crossing her own impatiently.

“Where did you even get these?” I said, taking a look at the designer labels on the clothes. “Dad said no more credit cards after that debacle in Sydney.”

“Yes—well—I bought these before that,” Hannah said, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

Hannah had what our father wearily referred to as “champagne taste on a beer budget”.

Thankfully, she also had excellent taste in fashion, and I yanked off my jacket and skirt right there in the bathroom and pulled the dress over my head.

The slippery satin hugged my curves like a second skin. It had a deep, cowled neckline that hinted at cleavage without actually revealing any. I tugged on the blazer and fastened the middle button, noticing as I did how well it fit.

It helped to have a roommate with my exact dimensions.

Hannah ran off to locate her leather jacket, and I took one last appraising glance in the mirror. She was right, this dress looked classy and sophisticated. Like a woman ready to take on the world, not a nervous twenty-one year old woman with all her hopes on the line.

I fought the urge to fidget with my hair, which was smoothed back into a glossy high ponytail.

Okay Holly. Now or never.


“Are you sure it’s okay if you skip class today?” I said to Hannah as I turned down headed east towards Lake Michigan. The September sun felt more like mid-July; the city was practically baking with heat even early in the morning.

“I told you, I already cleared it with my professors. I only have two classes on Friday anyway. Stop worrying,” Hannah said, her nose buried in her phone.

“Someone has to worry about your future, it’s not like you’re going to,” I replied, prickling with irritation. The only reason my sister had two classes on Friday was because she had dropped all of the others when they threatened to interfere with her “auditions”

“I’m singing at Lymelyght!” she cried, finally looking up from her phone. “It’s one of the hottest nightclubs in the city and they want me to audition! Don’t tell me I’m not thinking about my future.”

I bit my tongue and said nothing. I was in no mood to provoke Hurricane Hannah this morning. “If it’s a nightclub, why is the audition so early in the morning?” I asked instead, searching for neutral ground.

“Because I’m auditioning for the opening act, at seven o’clock at night. I’m not important enough to get to sleep in,” she said dryly, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

I smiled at the familiar gesture. I fidgeted the same way when I was nervous, it was one of the reasons I’d pulled my hair back into a ponytail for my interview.

Benedict Carter couldn’t stand useless fidgeting–he’d told me once when I’d delivered his mail.

I turned off LaSalle and headed north. The streets were so jam-packed with other cars, bicycles, and hapless tourists that my Jeep Wrangler could only move forward a few inches at a time.

I checked my watch again. 9:15. I still had forty-five minutes until my interview.

“Are you okay to get back on the train?” I asked Hannah. “I probably won’t be back at the apartment until later tonight.” Normally we used the complex network of trains and buses to get downtown, but today I had made an exception, fearful of any public transit delay outside of my control.

“Yes, Mom,” Hannah replied, once again focused on her phone.

I pulled up in front of Lymelyght, fighting the urge not to roll my eyes at the deliberate misspelling.

“Text me the second it’s over. Break a leg, Banana,” I said, using my childhood nickname for her.

“You too, Jolly. Knock ’em dead,” Hannah said, leaning over the center console to give me a fierce hug.

A truck honked its horn loudly behind us. “Gotta go, sis!” she said, giving me one more hard squeeze before swinging open the door of the Jeep.

Words of caution rose to my lips, but I bit them back. Hannah wouldn’t appreciate my mother-henning. She never had.

I watched her walk towards the darkened nightclub, tall and confident in knee-high combat boots. She looked utterly fearless, which of course she was.

I was the twin with the pile of anxiety.

I met my own gaze in the rearview mirror.

I can’t worry about Hannah now. I’ve got my own date with destiny.

***

Two of my fellow interns were already waiting outside the boardroom of Fleischmann and Carter when I arrived. James had his dark brown hands clasped fervently together as if in prayer. Vivian eyed me with cool disdain, already mentally dismissing me as a rival.

I fought the urge to chew on my bottom lip and took a seat in one of the plush leather chairs next to James. “Who’s in there now?” I asked quietly.

“Tommy,” he grunted, not looking up.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Tommy Hawthorne was a lazy little bastard who thought his Daddy’s name could get him whatever he wanted in life. He’d spent the summer lounging in the break room, cracking jokes while the rest of us worked our asses off. If there was any justice in the world, he’d be in for an unpleasant surprise when he faced the board.

I leaned back in the comfortable leather chair and closed my eyes, mentally checking off the four people I would need to impress today.

David Fleischmann was the only remaining member of the original advertising team that had opened back in the 1960′s. Now nearing eighty-five, he was still as sharp-eyed and razor-tongued as ever. I’d managed to earn praise from him only once during my short time with the firm—for a piece of copywriting that had been chosen by one of their top clients—and desperately hoped he’d remember me.

Janet Choo would be tough, but she probably knew me best. The head marketing director, she had a no-nonsense personality and I knew she loathed privileged little toads like Tommy Hawthorne. I had worked directly under her for months, and I knew she saw how hard I worked by the way she didn’t dog my heels the way she did some of the other interns.

Evelyn Fleischmann, David’s daughter and sole heir, didn’t scare me too much. She had little interest in the day-to-day running of the business, preferring to spend her father’s millions jet-setting around the globe. When I’d learned she would be among the interviewers, I was secretly surprised she deigned to notice us lowly interns at all, let alone that she would care which of us was chosen to work there permanently.

It was more likely that she was in town because she had her eyes on Benedict Carter, the fourth member of the board and the one I was most worried about impressing. Mostly because every time I was in the same room as him, I had a strange tendency to drop whatever I was holding at the time.

The first time I met him was my second day at Fleischmann and Carter. I’d been shown a bulky metal pushcart bursting over with undelivered mail and told to discreetly place it in the inboxes of the various cubicles and executive offices. The cart had a broken caster, and kept veering to the left no matter how hard I tried to correct it. I bumped my way down the carpeted hall, too new and frightened to make eye contact with anyone.

When I got to the frosted glass door marked “Carter”, I paused nervously. My hair was in a long braid over my shoulder, and I found myself nervously fidgeting with the blonde tail of it, running the smooth strands between my fingers again and again as I tried to summon the courage to enter the Vice-President’s office.

I stayed there so long my eyes must have taken on a glazed, unfocused look when the door opened outward, banging into the corner of my pushcart. A scowling head popped over the door, glaring in my direction.

“Do you mind?” a cool voice asked. It belonged to the most gorgeous face I’d ever laid eyes on.

Benedict Carter had thick, wavy brown hair and a chiseled square jaw covered by a day-old’s growth of beard. His nose was straight and fine, framed by hazel eyes flecked with green. Right now, they were narrowed at me in annoyance.

“I seem to be trapped in my office,” he said with a raised brow. His voice contained a hint of a laugh.

My cheeks flamed scarlet. I tried to move the pushcart but the broken caster caught on the edge of a rug and wouldn’t budge. “I—sorry sir, I—”

With one powerful motion he slammed the door open, sending the pushcart flying backwards. I gaped at him, taking in the tailored charcoal suit that didn’t quite hide his powerful muscles.

Mr. Carter looked at me, his eyes trailing over my nondescript black pants and blue blouse.

I was mortified. “Sorry, sir. I was just about to—” I stammered, still nervously running my fingers through the loose end of my braid.

“Stop fidgeting,” he snapped. I froze, my hands falling from my hair. The vice-president of Fleischmann and Carter had the power to fire me at whim. My career in advertising could be over the moment it began if he decided I wasn’t worth keeping around.

Terrified, I flicked my eyes up to meet his. His face softened as he took in my rigid posture, my inflamed cheeks. He leaned forward, bending his tall form to whisper in my ear. “It betrays you, Never let them see your fear.”

Mr. Carter had straightened and walked off without another word. That was my only day delivering mail before I was assigned to Janet Choo’s copywriting team, and I barely saw him in the following weeks. When I did, he didn’t acknowledge me or show any sign that he recognized me at all. Not that I blamed him. I was just another grunt, entirely beneath his notice.

But that didn’t stop my eyes from drinking him in every time I saw him in the halls. Over the months I learned that he favored dark gray suits and had a tie in every color of the rainbow, though he seemed to favor red.

I also heard some scandalizing rumors about him from some of the other interns.

Apparently our vice-president was a total playboy, only interested in chasing the next piece of tail across Chicago. And once he’d claimed his prize, he was off in search of different prey.

Not that I cared. I only needed to get through this one interview without getting tripped up and tongue-tied every time I looked at his hazel-green eyes and full mouth.

Without imagining that mouth kissing the skin of my neck, his large hands trailing down my arms to caress my breasts before traveling south to my—

“Miss Mason? Are we disturbing your beauty sleep?”

My eyes snapped open. I’d been resting my hand against the back of the chair for so long it probably did look as though I’d fallen asleep.

Benedict Carter was standing in the doorway of the boardroom, looking down at me with a half-amused, half-annoyed expression on his face.

My jaw dropped open, and I shut it with an audible click. “No, not at all—I was just preparing—”

He knew my name.

My heart kicked up twelve notches in one second, leaving me slightly dizzy.

“I’m sure you were,” Mr. Carter said, one side of his mouth pulling upward into a smirk. “And while I’d hate to deprive you of your rest, it’s time for your interview.”

Blood rushed to my face. I glanced at James, whose jaw was clenched tightly. Then to Vivian, who looked like she wanted to dig my eyes out of my skull.

“They—they were waiting here first,” I stammered, desperately hoping for twenty minutes with which to compose my thoughts.

He quirked a dark brow. “I won’t ask again, Miss Mason,” he said, then turned and went back inside the boardroom.

I bolted out of my seat, cast a guilty—yet somewhat triumphant—look at James and Vivian, and followed Benedict Carter into the interview.

***

Fifteen minutes later, I exited the boardroom from the back door, casting a silent thank-you to the heavens that I was spared facing my fellow interns as tears welled in my eyes.

I brushed them away with one hand, straightening my shoulders as I made my way down the main hallway of Fleischmann and Carter towards the bathroom.

Never let them see your fear.

I held it together until I had locked the stall door behind me.

Only then did I allow the tears to fall.

The interview had been a disaster. I’d been flustered from the start, unable to organize my thoughts into a coherent thought pattern. When David Fleischmann asked me about where I saw myself in five years, I’d blinked dumbly at him before mumbling something about “higher positions” and blushing furiously.

Hannah never blushed. From our earliest years she was the twin who could lie with a straight face, who could put on that smooth stage mask and hide her true feelings from the world.

Right now, I hated her for it. Wished that my every emotion wasn’t broadcast across my forehead like a Las Vegas billboard.

Benedict Carter had asked only one question during the interview. It was in between Janet Choo’s praising of my dedicated work–for which I definitely owed her a box of her favorite macarons—and Evelyn Fleischmann’s off-hand compliment about my dress—for which I definitely owed my twin a box of her favorite truffled chocolates.

Mr. Carter had leaned forward from his place on the other side of the wide conference table. There was a predatory gleam in his eye. “Miss—Mason,” he’d said, pausing to look at my resume as if he needed help remembering my last name, “Most of the products you’ve worked on during your time here focus on products that cater towards women ages nineteen to twenty-five, correct?”

“Yes, I particularly enjoyed working with Ms. Choo on the Perkins soap campaign–” I stopped when he held up a hand.

“I see that. My question is in regards to your–adaptability. How would you change your marketing strategy to cater to say–men ages thirty to forty-five?”

My mind went completely, utterly blank. All I could think about was that he was about that age, maybe around thirty-five or so. My restless hands traveled towards my neck, but I clasped them firmly in my lap.

No fidgeting. It betrays you.

“I—I would try to—” I stammered uselessly. “I guess I would try to give them whatever they desired.”

The moment the words left my mouth I felt my cheeks grow hot. I hadn’t mentioned SEO, hadn’t given my rehearsed blurb about not being daunted by new challenges..

And Benedict Carter’s gaze was still piercing into me. I felt his eyes on the neckline of my dress and thanked Hannah that she had chosen something relatively modest.

I opened my mouth to continue, but a harsh cough from Evelyn Fleischmann cut me off. I couldn’t make out her exact expression through the Botox in her face, but her eyes were flinty. “Thank you, Miss Mason. We will make our decision by the end of next week and let you know.”

I saw the accusation in her eyes. I’d stared too long at the vice-president, when she’d already marked him for herself. Even though she had to be at least fifteen years older than him.

But there was nothing I could do except shake hands with the board and exit through the back door. Now I sat on the cool porcelain lid of the toilet, trying to rein in my tears.

My phone buzzed in my purse, and I fished it out.

HANNAH: How’d it go?

HANNAH: Are you a big time exec yet?

I chucked the phone back into my bag, resisting the urge to fling it across the bathroom floor. How could I face my sister after ruining my first real chance at getting my dream job?

My phone buzzed again but I ignored it, too deep in my misery to want to see Hannah’s encouraging texts. But when it buzzed again a split second later, I couldn’t resist digging my phone back out. Then I gawped, open-mouthed, at the screen.

I had two new texts, but they weren’t from Hannah.

They were from Janet Choo.

My fingers trembled as I unlocked the screen.

JANET: Unconfirmed, so don’t shout about it online just yet…but you’re in.

JANET: The board was very impressed by your work.

My heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe as I typed back a reply.

HOLLY: ARE YOU SERIOUS??

HOLLY: Janet, I can’t even begin to thank you.

HOLLY: You stuck up for me in there.

JANET: Perhaps too much, it seems.

HOLLY: …

HOLLY: What do you mean?

JANET: Carter is pulling you off my projects.

HOLLY: He wants you on his personal team.

Help Me Choose a Title!

Anyone who is awake at 2:30 am: what’s a good title for a romance story about twins that doesn’t immediately suggest incest?
Everything that I can think of (Twin Desire, etc) hints at either creepy threesomes or worse.
I need something sexy yet innocuous. Winner gets their title on my latest story 😉

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodie Lynn Anderson

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Review 2.29

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair…

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell. [Source]

The world of YA fantasy is largely dominated by romances that are painfully trite. Too often the relationships in these books can be boiled down to a collection of tropes. We have the obligatory love triangle, the dangerous stranger with a secret softness, and my personal favorite, “the heroine predictably falls in love with the first man who is described in any detail whatsoever”. Even my some of my favorite authors of the genre, like Sarah J. Maas, fall entirely into this pitfall.

For a book that is marketed towards the under 16 crowd, Tiger Lily, the short novel by Jodie Lynn Anderson tells a very mature story. Not in the sexual sense, but in the way it approaches its characters. Tiger Lily is a fierce, competent warrior who knows the risks and the threat inherit in her choices and makes them with calm certainty. For all her ferocity, Anderson captures the vulnerability of Tiger Lily with all the insecurities and passions of youth.

Peter Pan has been portrayed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages for nearly one hundred years. J. M. Barrie’s original source material left so much of Peter’s true motivations up to interpretation, which in my opinion is part of the enduring magic of the story. Here Anderson has made him a complex and romantic boy on the very cusp of manhood; older than in most iterations, Peter is meant to be around seventeen. And while there are no overtly explicit scenes, Peter Pan has always carried sexual undertones and Anderson does not shy away from the sensuality of the story and its characters.

If I had to describe Tiger Lily in one word, it would be enchanting. Every once in awhile there comes a novel that so truly encapsulates the feeling of first love and first heartbreak that it sweeps its reader away on a river of shared experience. The emotional power of Tiger Lily took me completely by surprise, before I even knew what was happening I was lost in Neverland.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Tiger Lily here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Note: By far, the best film adaptation of Peter Pan is the 2003 version, starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. It is the only one to adequately capture the magic in a similar way to this novel.

 

Book Review: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo (2019)

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Review. 2.21

Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; two hundred years after it’s publication and I doubt there are many grade school children who are not at least passingly familiar with the story of Ichabod Crane and his ill-fated midnight ride. The tale has been told and retold in so many different iterations that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that nowhere in Irving’s original source material was the ghost of the Headless Horseman actually witnessed. The reason for the sudden disappearance of the luckless schoolmaster is left open to interpretation. Did he slink away in shame after his proposal for the hand of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel was denied by her father? Was he only after her wealth the entire time, venturing to the next village in search of a more hapless heiress? Or, as the townspeople whisper to themselves, was he taken to the depths of hell by the Headless Horseman, who is said to haunt the woods around Sleepy Hollow?

All of these questions and more are answered in this historical romance novel by Alyssa Palombo. Set in the very early days of the American republic, just a few years after the defeat of the British soldiers, Palombo does a wonderful job of setting her scene. She captures the revolutionary attitude of New England with her heroine, Katrina Van Tassel. No longer the mostly nonverbal plot device of Irving’s story, here Katrina holds the same optimistic attitude and hopeful fervor that would have defined the young nation under Washington’s presidency. Palombo paints a romantic but realistic view of New England life. The community of Sleepy Hollow represents a community that is extraordinarily close-knit, and for a good reason. Any group of people that did not come together during the long New England winters would not have lasted long.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel has the setting. And it has the characters, with its outspoken and forward-thinking heroine. Palombo also takes a bit of narrative license with Ichabod Crane, making him less of a painfully awkward but still capturing his shy, gentle spirit and nerdy appearance. When the current TV series Sleepy Hollow depicts him as dreamy beardy eye candy:

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it’s a nice message to send that a man can be attractive due to a generosity of spirit, or a creative imagination rather than just a chiseled jawline.

Anyway, Palombo gets all of these really great characters together in this really great setting and then…

She doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

For nearly two hundred of it’s three hundred and fifty page running length, we are treated to chapter after chapter of Katrina pining after Ichabod. She yearns. She craves. She longs from afar. Sometimes there are snatched moments of joy and pleasure with her beloved, but these moments are fleeting and then it’s quickly back to pining.

Another fifty or so pages is dedicated to Katrina attempting to use “witchcraft” as she seeks out answers to the mystery behind Ichabod’s disappearance. I put witchcraft in quotes because she mostly consults tarot cards, or stares into fires after drinking some herbal tea. The reveal of the eponymous “spellbook” was such a disappointment that I actually groaned aloud.

On an unrelated note, the tagline for this book is nonsense. Love is a thing even death won’t erase? What does that even mean? No shit Sherlock. We don’t just stop loving someone the moment they die. But that is an issue for the publishers of this novel, not the novel itself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Thrift Store Finds! 05/03/19

I FOUND IT.

I thought this book was some kind of weird Canadian urban legend, but last Friday there it was, a dusty paperback sitting innocuously in a stack of equally dusty paperbacks.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present:

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Bear.

The 1976 classic Canadian novel of a woman who develops sexual feelings for a wild grizzly.

Bear

Seriously.

Okay, now I don’t normally get this excited when I find random erotic novels in thrift shops. If that were the case I’d be in a constant state of over-stimulation.

Bear is special.

I first heard about Bear many years ago on a blog called 11points, which sadly is no longer active so I can’t find the original link. The article was entitled “Eleven of the Weirdest Romantic Novel Sub-Genres” or something like that; and nestled somewhere in between werewolf romances and Abe Lincoln erotica was a little novel called Bear.

Fast forward to 2016; I was scrolling the Overdrive website for the Toronto Public Library and there it was again.

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Listed under “Proud to be Canadian”

Bear.

It even has a wait list!

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Allow me if you will to give you a brief excerpt from this great novel. Warning: NSFW

“She cradled his big, furry, asymmetrical balls in her hands, she played with them, slipping them gently inside their cases as he licked. His prick did not come out of its long cartilaginous sheath. Never mind, she thought, I’m not asking for anything. I’m not obliged to anybody. I don’t care if I can’t turn you on, I just love you.” (Engel, 130)

Pardon me for a moment, I’m going to go scrub my hands for typing that.

As undeniably weird and wrong as it is, only in Canada would you see something like this on a list of public library recommendations. Because instead of responding to things like Bear with righteous fury or moral indignation, Canada leans into its weirdness.

It embraces books like Bear and announces to the world, “Yup, we’re the country with that grizzly-fucker novel. What about it?” Canada accepts its own wackiness, and that’s one of the things I love about living here.

So here’s to you Bear. Let your freak flag fly.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

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Review #87

Carrie McClelland comes to the tiny Scottish village to write about Slains, the local castle that played an important role in the Jacobite uprising of 1708. Carrie hopes to use the crumbling ruins in a historical fiction novel she is writing, but ends up writing a completely different kind of book when she finds herself overwhelmed by someone else’s memories.

Nineteen-year old Sophia Paterson comes to Slains castle after her parents die on a sailing voyage. She finds safety and comfort with her aunt, the Countess, who is playing an active role in bringing the exiled King of Scotland back from France. Sophia finds herself embroiled in a plot that is doomed to fail.

This is my first novel by acclaimed author Susanna Kearsley, and I can see why she is so popular. Her writing style is comfortable and familiar, and she incorporates complicated historical elements in a way that is easy to understand. It is obvious that she has done a great deal of research on the Jacobite uprising and the castle of Slains. I can certainly say that I now know a lot more about the deposed King James II and those who sought to restore him to the throne than I did before reading this novel.

Generally, when an author splits the plot of the book between two characters in different time periods, one of them is going to be more well-developed than the other. That ends up being the case here, as the novel-within-a-novel that is Sophia’s story is far more interesting than Carrie’s plotline. I think Kearsley even began to understand that, since after The Winter Sea hits the halfway mark less and less time is devoted to Carrie’s narrative.

The descriptions of the harshly beautiful Scottish coastline poked my inner travel bug pretty hard. Might have to start looking into a trip to Northern Scotland. Perhaps I’ll stop by Slains castle while I’m there.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Winter Sea here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Note: This novel was later released under the title Sophia’s Secret. No idea why as The Winter Sea is a much better name.

Happy reading everyone!