Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Soul Fire Press
Date of Publication: March 26, 2015
Number of pages: 246
Word Count: 62,900
Cover Artist: Neil Noah
Anyone around the snug village of Bizi-Herri might pass it by upon first glance. However, this quaint hometown of Olivia and Alazné Zubiondo is far from ordinary, and one day, they find out why first-hand.
When a curse afflicts Alazné, Olivia must find a way to stop it. As she searches for answers, more problems surface and she finds herself uncovering secrets kept hidden away from the world—secrets meant to come out by nature but were concealed by man. Now, Olivia must figure out how to save her sister, her people and the dimensions intertwined with her fate.
HE BREEZE TASTED LIKE WARM APPLES. The season was at that mesmerizing stage where the crisp chill of early autumn trickled into the toasted air of summer’s end. Visible through the cinnamon-scented zephyr and scrambling leaves was a quaint village tucked between the distant cities of Jubilan and Gainazaleko. Bizi-Herri was where the Angelnots lived; a small parish with an appearance of insignificance. It was the birthplace of history and was founded on great miracles, but it was not shy of curiosity and welcomed danger like an old friend.
“I can’t get my Opari to work! I can never get it to work!” Alazné shouted to her sister while banging two fists together in a blast of frustration. Slick sweat bathed across her face in tiny droplets, like badges exhibiting her hard work. Fatigue blushed her face like rouge, and her breath was sharp and quick. She’d lost track of how many hours she and her sister had been training in the maze of golden, shedding trees.
After a few more tries, thumping her hands and wrists together, Alazné’s face fell a little. She muttered under her breath, “Sometimes I wonder if I even have Opari…”
“Oh just deal with it later—we have work to do!” Olivia’s voice bounced between the blackening trunks of the carroty trees.
Alazné didn’t have the patience to deal with her Opari right now (or her sister’s lack of attention for that matter). Olivia’s talents had always come so easily to her; she never had any problem honing her Opari and using them to her advantage, but the talents Alazné was given at birth, or Opari, left much to be desired.
Even Olivia’s outward appearance gave her a mystical presence that Alazné always envied. With locks of a mutated gene passed down through generations, Olivia’s bouncing hair resembled the deep color of winter-frosted plums, which was especially striking against her iridescent, emerald eyes. And although she looked like a true sorceress any girl in Bizi-Herri would be jealous of, she never seemed to pay any mind to it. She wore her hair in a messy mop twisted into a bun on the top of her head, and the only ounce of unnatural color she added to her face was the opaque, murky liquid she dipped her eyelashes into every morning.
Alazné, on the other hand, was one of the village’s most intellectual Angelnots. She possessed a mind much keener than even that of her sister’s, who was also known to have an acute mind and her nose always stuck within a book. Unlike Olivia, however, Alazné’s beauty was a little more subtle. From a distance, she looked plain—average, most would say—but her beauty magnified immensely the closer you studied her uniquely sculpted features and listened to her insightful mind.
Her eyes were tinted a hue of green between the shades of evergreen and mint, and mixed within the celadon spirals were flakes of chocolate, curled madly inside. Her hair was a mess of many bad hair days, but radiated in an unidentifiable dusty mixture somewhere where blonde and brown came together.
Both girls were lean but, had bodies built with solid arms and sturdy legs—most likely from working hard in the forest and village their entire lives—and stood a little taller than average.
Being only ten months apart, the two naturally got along in perfect malfunction and complete disarray.
“Really, Liv?” Her fury made it even harder to concentrate on getting her Opari just right. She waved her hands together, attempting to spark them up one last time. It was to no avail, though; Alazné couldn’t muster the energy to do just about anything anymore. So, she just slapped her fists together in feverishness instead.
The air was beginning to smell of dusky sunset; Alazné knew her time was slipping away, at least for today. She couldn’t bear the thought of another day gone and wasted without so little as a spark of talent radiating from her like everyone else had by the time they were her age.
With her head still filled with blood and fury, Alazné threw her arms down and jolted towards Olivia.
Olivia’s eyebrows flickered; she looked back to see her sister speeding towards her. A mischievous smile crept along her lips as she crossed her arms to match, which made her look like a taunting cat awaiting the presence of its prey.
After a few seconds, Alazné met Olivia, but not in the way that Olivia had anticipated. She had her eyes squinted shut when she felt a sudden jerk against her throat. An arm reeking with the pungent smell of sweat and grass coiled its way around her neck like a python tightening its grip, while her feet somehow managed to jumble in a tangled heap. Panic struck her lungs and made it difficult for her to manage even the slightest gasp.
“Not so high-and-mighty now, are ya, sis?” Alazné said with a hiss. Her sister’s face began to match the color of the crimson setting sky. A flailing hand slapped against the forearm Alazné had looped about Olivia’s neck. She loosened her grip and let Olivia fall to the shaggy forest floor. “Tapped out earlier today—maybe you’re the one that needs the training,” Alazné said, laughing a hearty guffaw to herself.
“Oh, shut up!” Olivia said back with a snap, inhaling much-needed air, “I got you the other day, but I had the decency to let you go before your face changed colors and your eyes began to bulge!” She puffed and crossed her arms; her eyes sharpened.
“Get over it! Sheesh, do you even know how to fight?” Alazné packed a punch of animosity behind those words and watched as Olivia’s eyes flamed with a threatening glare of death in its true form. The moment that followed was just an array of blurred body parts flogging towards Alazné.
“I can’t see! What are you doing?” Alazné asked, raising her voice as if doing so would shield herself from another smack in the face. The two girls tumbled over one another onto jagged gravel and splintering shoots before Alazné managed to get up. With a dash of adrenaline, she suggested, “How about we race this out? Winner gets to stay home tomorrow; the loser has to do the winner’s training on top of her own!”
“You’re on!” The two girls zipped away into an abyss of autumn colors merging into dark whispers of the woodland’s best-kept secrets. Streaks of brown and yellows surrounded the two, while their bodies bumped against trees and stumbled over logs. Hidden eyes peered in at the girls, decorating the spotted leaves with their unsettling presence.
Exhaustion caught up to Alazné before a minute had ticked away, but she did her best to continue on, even when the discouraging sight of Olivia passing with her tongue slithered out scurried across her field of vision.
Her vision blurred, her stomach yearned for something to eat, and her throat gasped for water, but what choice did she have at this point? Then she saw it: the end of the wood. It was so close within her grasp that she couldn’t give up now. Sparking up every last ounce of energy within her being, she managed to summon the remains of her body’s strength. She shoved Olivia aside as she passed, keeping her eye on the gleaming beacon that doubled as both a motivator and an exit.
The sky above was a blanket of stars when Olivia and Alazné rushed out of the thicket—they were almost home, and the competition was more heated than ever. Alazné could see the tiny place they called home and could smell the homemade bread baking in the cottage just a few strides away. Just about eight more strides…she thought to herself, focusing on her new finish line.
She caught up to Olivia, passed her and managed to stay in the lead for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a couple seconds in actuality. Alazné’s mouth was watering now—her mother’s fluffy bread invaded her concentration. She imagined the soft loaf, breaking apart into two perfect, steaming slices in her hand. Just about three more strides…two more…one…
With a jump that startled Alazné back into reality, Olivia pounced on her from behind. They both skidded to the exit, tumbling over each other at the base of the door, clods of dirt packing into their mouths in large clumps.
“Are you kidding me, Liv?” Alazné barked, spitting out half a mouthful of earth that had caked its way behind her teeth.
“Hey, it’s the way you play the game,” Olivia replied with a smirk. Alazné sneered back, to which Olivia rolled her eyes, “You are sooo mature Alazné. Let’s go inside.” She wiped the dirt off of her faded, olive-tinted dress and took it out of the knot she had tied it into in order to be more comfortable while she trained.
Alazné choked back pride and followed her sister into the cottage.
“Mom, we’re back!” Olivia said, closing the door behind her. The melodic chime of her voice echoed through all three rooms in the humble home of the Zubiondo family.
“Oh good, I’ve got supper on the stove,” their mother, Laurie, replied. Her spindly body rounded the corner from the bathroom—she was drying her hands on the apron wrapped in sloppy disarray around her waist.
“How was training?” she asked with a smile. Her face showed lines of many years filled with laughs and worries, but even though her physical features most resembled Alazné, her emotional features mirrored that of her daughter Olivia’s.
“It was all right,” Alazné said, sliding off her coat and heading for the hallway, “I’m going to wash up.”
Creeping away from the conversation, she walked the couple of steps to the board that separated the bathroom from the rest of the house. Stepping inside the tiny chamber, Alazné allowed her mind to clear and fly to a world all her own, gently closing the door behind her.
Alazné loved these moments when she entered her own personal haven—her mind and memories. Mud-smothered fingers she hardly recognized as her own caressed the crack beside the gaping hole where the doorknob used to be. She closed her eyes and thought back to the time when her father had wedged the shiny bronze knob perfectly into the hole he had carved into the wood. Her delight in helping him was so pure—she loved working with her hands.
“You’re a natural carpenter, m’dear,” he would say to her, “You have special hands.” She remembered one time in particular when he told her those words. She’d carved a horse for his birthday out of extra shards of wood she’d found next to the woodpile outside. When she handed the smooth, finished project to him, he smiled the smile she’d inherited from his side of the family—the sly, slanted one with dimples meeting both ends.
He picked her up and spun her around. She wrapped her arms around him.
“I love you, Daddy,” she said. He made her feel special, wanted and safe. He believed in her when no one else would—when no one else knew she needed believing in. No one ever knew but him.
“Hurry up in there! Your soup will get cold!” Laurie’s voice called out.
Alazné found herself clutching the hole where the knob had once been, digging it deep into her palm, piercing the crease between her fingers a bit. She blinked to clear her vision and to wash away the tears that had apparently stained the wood a darker, shadow-like brown. Just for a moment.
She grunted. This is ridiculous.
She hated crying—ever since her father died—she cried so much that at one point she swore she had no tears left. She was convinced that she had leaked out her soul and was left lethargic, emotionless. Empty. Every time she cried, it reminded her of that day when her father died.
Eventually, things got better and her cheer slowly bubbled back into her system. It was never the same, though, but she didn’t expect it to be. She was just grateful it came back at all. Everything had changed so drastically since then.
Alazné and Olivia had never gotten along or tried to work together, but now they needed to.
They worked together to get the family food, but there was still never any extra money. The only money they had were the few coins their mother made by selling knitted hats and mittens. Even the doorknobs had been sold for extra money. Luckily, the season was cooling, so people had been purchasing her items more frequently. Still, one woman could only make so much.
Alazné let her fingers drop from the hole, the thoughts of her father falling away along with them. She turned towards the sink and jiggled the rusting faucet, anticipating its spouting fits of water to spurt a bit before running normally.
Once they ceased and the tanned water began to clear, she scrubbed her hands and face, not paying any mind to whether she was rubbing too hard or being too rough. She just needed her mind to click back to the present—she needed the pain in her chest to weaken and disappear again. At least until next time.
As she washed, Alazné took deep breaths, combing out the rugged, strained emotions that made up her sanity. She felt them pulling and tugging inside of her. As the soothing rush of icy water, calmed her own waters, Alazné began to compose herself again. The splinter in her heart was gone and she was back to the present. Muffled sounds of laughter emanated from the other side of the doorknob-less hole. Alazné turned off the faucet.
Olivia was having a conversation with their mother about meeting some silly writer in the marketplace that morning or afternoon. Olivia always took “breaks” at their family shop in the mornings before coming back and doing hardly any work anyway—Alazné often wondered if Olivia was allergic to doing any sort of labor that wasn’t intellectually stimulating.
“Alazné, I’m going to eat your soup!” Olivia called out with a laugh.
Alazné made a face to herself. Olivia, she thought, shaking her head. Their mother found everything that Olivia did pure magic—too literally. Her Opari came early and was always of use to Mother, while Alazné spent time outside with their father. still not quite getting a grip on her Opari. An Angelnot was only as good as his or her Opari.
Each Angelnot was given the gift of Opari as a sort of blessing at birth, along with fortunes as to what his or her life will hold— what types of things will bring that certain Angelnot joy and what he or she needs to avoid.
The current Wizard of The Land was appointed to carry out this important duty to everyone in the surrounding areas. At least, that’s what everyone always said. Alazné had never seen him for herself.
Still, there was no arguing with the fact that everyone had these special gifts, and each one was different. Olivia could make things grow just by looking at them and concentrating—if it wasn’t for that, they would have probably never had enough vegetables to eat properly or survive during the times when crops were scarce and not easily obtained.
“I’m coming!” Alazné called back blandly, splashing water against her face one last time.
A tattered cloth hung from a claw-shaped hook next to the chipped, cream-colored sink. Alazné snatched it up, dried her face and hands and set it carelessly on the small stone plateau that passed as the bathroom counter.
Her fingers curled in slow, fond movements into that same nook where the doorknob used to be. The oak smelled nostalgic—cathartic even—so close to her skin. The mind will find every chance imaginable to drift off into one’s own world of escape and gratification, and Alazné had gotten used to taking up the offer more than a handful of times a day.
Somewhere in her focus, she lost track of time. She didn’t notice this until there came a few booming thunks against the front door of the cottage.
“Ah, Drezla! How nice to see you!” she heard her mother say in a cheery ring.
Drezla. There was a reason why her name sounded like a drooling pile of slime. Alazné never could stand that woman; she always said that Drezla’s appearance alone gave her the creeps. She looked like a lizard that someone had squeezed until its eyes were popping out of their sockets, and her personality was twice as hideous.
It was obvious why Drezla had no friends, but Alazné often wondered why her mother took this woman as her friend. Then again, there were slim pickings in this town. Plus, Alazné’s family never really seemed to fit in due to their hereditary inclination to behave more like hermit crabs rather than social butterflies.
Alazné braced herself as she opened the bathroom door and peered through the living room’s narrow entrance. Her eyelids were clenched tight, not wanting to face the horrific woman in the house. But, as her mother taught her growing up, it was rude not to greet guests with the rest of the family. Not like Alazné really cared about that, but it was a good excuse to go into the kitchen and get some food. By this point, Alazné’s stomach was growling in ravenous grunts.
She walked into the entryway and passed the living room to see Drezla, Olivia, and her mother all sitting at the dinner table, staring skeptically at her, as if they doubted that she wouldn’t throw a dangerous tantrum at any moment. She walked over to the table pretending that she didn’t notice their expressions.
Alazné took a seat across from Drezla.
“Where’s Jezza?” she asked, picking up her spoon and dunking it into her stew.
Drezla pursed her swollen-looking lips against her high cheekbones, which were so sharply defined that they looked like blades trying to dart away from Drezla’s face.
“Town,” Drezla said in a tone as dry as her bulging eyes.
Alazné gagged on the broth she’d just swallowed. Drezla’s eyes stared away from Alazné’s gaze as if Alazné was an unworthy candidate to look directly at.
“She is working for the mayor, you know. It is an honorable and quite prestigious position.” Her eyes slunk their way back to Alazné’s face, accompanied by a sneering grin that slanted perfectly into an eerie crescent shape from years of practice.
Alazné was drawn back to her childhood days with Jezza. Against Drezla’s horrid personality, Jezza was a peach dressed up like a garnished fruitcake.
Before the schools closed down, Alazné and Olivia spent the better part of their weeks learning at the local schoolhouse, absorbing any information they could. While most of the students that trickled in every school session wore earthy tones that reflected the quaint frugality of Bizi-Herri’s citizens, Jezza would bounce in with brightly hued ribbons knotted in her tastefully braided hair and dark purple dresses that probably cost more than the entire town’s grocery budget for a year.
Before the majority of Angelnots in Bizi-Herri were struck with great misfortune within their farms, fields, and even some mines by the famous storm that hit around a decade before, the night that Alazné could never forget—nor could her mother and sister, an actual schoolhouse was in use.
Alazné and Olivia used to look forward to trotting down the hills every other day to go to the schoolhouse and be taught by the local teenagers and young adults. However, since the town’s laborers made up around 98% of Bizi-Herri, once the storm nearly destroyed all of the food and resources that the townsfolk depended on, nearly everyone over the age of five had to start working to make ends meet for the entire town.
After the schools closed down all around the proximity of Bizi-Herri, the former students that had enjoyed learning picked up reading, while the others chose to play or rest with the majority of their free time. Both Olivia and Alazné enjoyed reading, but there was something about their fitness time in the woods that they especially enjoyed.
Their father had made it a family rule when the schools closed down because he wanted them to continue getting physical exercise, other than the hours they spent tending to the crops and knitting until their fingers cramped.
Real exercise was what he called it—they needed real exercise—for multiple reasons, but the one he always focused on was that they needed it just in case they ever needed to be ready for combat. Alazné had a feeling that her father knew more about the world and the future than he let on, but before she got old enough to ask with enough confidence and maturity to receive a straight answer, it was too late.
Alazné’s mind roamed off for a bit as she thought back on her schooldays with Jezza, but as soon as her eyes received a flicker of Drezla’s face in the present moment, her blood began to boil once again.
Alazné rolled her eyes and said, “Oh yes, she comes from quite the honorable family. How much did you spend buying her way into that position anyhow? Five hundred jebs? A thousand? Well, however much it was, I’m sure it cost more than a decade’s worth of food for the entire town. Oh, and do tell me what the mayor is up to these days? I haven’t seen him for so long that I’m beginning to think we have no legal or political system at all.”
“That is quite enough, Alazné,” Laurie’s voice quavered in compressed fury. Alazné’s resentment sparked through her piercing green eyes—the brown flecks within them looked even more winding than usual.
With a scoff, Alazné turned her head to peer out the murky window that never seemed to get cleaned despite her mother’s frequent, vigorous attempts.
The mayor, she thought to herself, straining her brain for memories of any sort of engaging public figure. After that storm had struck the town barren, whatever mayor had been there before fled to the hills (or was murdered, or faked his death—there were mills upon mills of rumors speculating what really happened to him), and ever since then, their town just chose to plead ignorant against whoever was making the laws and protocols for everyone.
Everyone seemed to pretend that everything would be okay and that whatever was going on in the capital was fine and dandy. It was easier than the alternative than choosing to go against everyone else and starve to death, or be banished. That’s what they thought anyway.
If Bizi-Herri ever did get into any sort of trouble, though, the Angelnots would be a messy mass of chaos.
Alazné looked back at her mother; her face was wrinkled and worn, and Alazné could tell by the way she was scowling that if she continued talking to Drezla, she would be deeply sorry—sorry in the sense that she would have kitchen duty and go without food for a meal or two; after all, that was the only punishment their mother could afford.
Alazné accepted defeat. She looked back down at the frothy soup her mother had prepared for her. She poked her spoon around at the bobbing carrots and potato wedges. She drowned out the conversation taking place around her. She had more important things to think about—she was pretty sure that anyone would have more important things to think about than whatever Drezla would bring up.
Alazné thought about her Opari and how she could hone her skills a little more, which was difficult because she wasn’t even sure what her Opari skills were yet. If only her father were here, he would know what to do.
Author Elise Pehrson is an award-winning writer, editor, publisher and journalist. She has interviewed stars from popular television shows and movies, such as The Walking Dead, Arrow, and Napoleon Dynamite. She enjoys reading, writing and spending time with her family.