Short Story: Nereyda and the Ravager

I’m setting a new goal of writing one short story each month. Most of them will be in the same universe as Storm Raven, as that world lends itself well to stories that take place outside of the novels I plan to write. This first short story, Nereyda and the Ravager, is intended to be a quick, fun read. I hope you enjoy it.

Nereyda perched on the edge of the dock, her legs dangling so that her bare feet rested in the water, with her boots sitting on her left side. As the refreshing night air breezed through through the black hair that trailed over her shoulders, she gazed at the silver moon on the horizon with her violet eyes. Her ship, the Storm Raven, rested behind her in the harbor water. Most of the crew had gone into town to spend the loot that they had taken on the last voyage. Only a handful of crew members remained on the ship, including Nereyda’s first mate, Brynja.
A cry broke the peaceful atmosphere. Looking up, Nereyda saw two men dragging a young woman along the dock leading to the Ravager, the ship of Nereyda’s rival, Captain Flint.
Nereyda looked over her shoulder. “Brynja, round up the crew and get the ship ready.”
“Now? We’re not supposed to leave until tomorrow morning.”
Nereyda gave a quick nod. “Now.”
“All right, Captain.” Brynja ran off.
Turning back to the commotion on the other dock, Nereyda saw that the pirates had nearly dragged the woman to their ship. Despite her struggling, she had not managed to get free of her captors.
After clipping her boots to her belt, Nereyda slipped into the water and began to swim across the harbor. She swam toward the aft of the Ravager, away from the shore. Distracted with taking their hostage aboard, the men didn’t notice her approaching their ship.
As she reached the hull of the ship, Nereyda heard the girl crying from the deck above.
The ship towered over her, with three rows of guns bristling from her side. She began to pull herself up the side of the Ravager, using the crossbeams and gun ports as hand and footholds. As she climbed, she overheard the pirates talking.
“Look what we found,” said one man.
“Oh yes, she’ll keep us entertained on the trip to the Mucever Strait,” said another.
“Please,” said the girl, “just let me go back home.”
“We’ll bring you home,” said the first man, “along with all of the loot we take.”
Footsteps pounded on the deck, then halted.
“Where do you think you’re trying to go?” said the second man.
“Let me go.”
“No, I don’t think I will. It’s time to see how good you’re going to be.”
Nereyda reached the railing and peered over. One of the pirates shoved the girl against the central mast. His left hand rested on the mast as he used his arm and body to prevent her from escaping. He ran his right hand along her cheek. She tried to turn away, but it was a useless move. The other man watched with a crooked smile.
Creeping over the railing, Nereyda slipped her boots onto her feet and drew her knife from her belt. In her dark leather armor, she remained invisible in the shadows. She stood and, with a flick of her wrist, sent the blade sailing through the air.
It plunged into the pirate’s hand, pinning it to the mast.
“Argh!” he shouted. His hand shot away from the girl and clutched at the knife. Blood ran out of the wound.
The other pirate looked over at her with wide eyes and a gaping mouth of blackened teeth.
Nereyda looked the girl straight in the eyes. “ What are you waiting for? Get the hell out of here.”
The girl slid out from between the pirate and the mast, then ran down the gangway to flee.
“What are you doing here?” said Black Teeth.
“I heard that you wanted some fun and thought I could help you out.” Nereyda smiled.
The pirate by the mast sucked in his breath with a hiss as he pulled the knife from his hand. He dropped the blade to the deck and clutched his wounded hand. “What about this seems fun to you?”
She sauntered out of the shadows and into the moonlight. “To me? Well, now that you aren’t about to hurt someone, all of it.”
The door from the cabin at the aft of the ship groaned open. A tall, lanky man walked out onto the deck, flanked by two other men. “What’s going on here?” said the tall man. Nereyda recognized him as Berk, the first mate of the Ravager.
“We caught a girl for some fun, but this wench let her go.”
Berk looked over at her. “Aren’t you Captain Nereyda?”
“I am. If you have a pen, I’ll even give you my autograph.”
He laughed in her face. “Aren’t you supposed to be some hotshot new captain? You’re just a little girl.”
At nineteen years old, Nereyda was well aware that she was one of the youngest pirate captains. “What does that say about you? A little girl sneaks onto your ship, and you think you need five men to get rid of her.”
He sneered at her. “You know it’s a great crime in Freyport to trespass on another captain’s ship.”
“Maybe,” she shrugged, “but so is kidnapping. By the way, nobody in my crew has to capture someone just to get laid.”
He looked around at his men. “Get her off this ship, one way or another.”
The group of pirates surrounded Nereyda as she backed against the railing and rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. “Before we get started,” she said, “what’s this I hear about Mucever Strait tomorrow?”
Berk rounded on the man with black teeth and the one with the bloody hand. “Which of you told her about the gems?”
“Actually, you just did.” She winked.
“Enough of this.” Berk charged at her and drew his sword.
Nereyda drew hers just as he slashed down at her. She raised her blade to deflect his. The impact of the blow pressed her back into the railing.
She swung her sword from her left shoulder to his right side.
Berk brought his blade across to sweep hers away.
As he did this, he opened up his stance, and she stepped inside his reach. An elbow strike to his nose made him stagger back. Nereyda spun past him to face the rest of the pirates.
Her opponents pressed in from all sides.
Dodge left.
Parry right.
Block high.
Nereyda moved in a flurry to defend herself.
A gap opened between them, and she rolled out of the melee.
After breaking through the line of pirates, Nereyda dashed up the stairs to the helm. As she sprinted past the wheel, she bent down and slashed the line that connected it to the rudder. With the ship disabled, she jumped onto the aft railing. Spinning around on the balls of her feet, she bowed to the pursuing pirates and bowed. “Thanks for the tip about the gems. Maybe I’ll bring you one as a souvenir.” She turned back around and dove into the water below.
As swam through the chilly water, gunshots sounded from the deck of the Ravager, though the bullets all splashed into the water around Nereyda without hitting her. When she reached the dock where the Storm Raven sat, she climbed out of the water and ran onto the deck of her ship. Brynja stood waiting next to the helm.
“Is the whole crew here?”
“They are.”
“Good.” Nereyda took her place at the wheel. “Let’s set a course to the Mucever Strait.”

You can find more information about the upcoming novel Storm Raven here.

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Interview with Brenda Donelan, Author of the University Mystery Series

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Today, I present an interview with Brenda Donelan, the author of the University Mystery Series.

1. First, tell me a bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?

I’ve always lived in South Dakota, but I love to travel. I’ve been to several countries and intend to keep traveling as long as I can. Travel is one of the best ways to learn about other cultures and yourself. Of course, one of the best things about travel is coming back home. I also love cats and have a 15-year-old Persian named Taffy. Besides reading, I love attending rock concerts, especially outdoor events with music from the 80s and early 90s.

2. Can you tell me about your current project?

I’m writing the fifth book in The University Mystery Series. The book, although nearly completed, doesn’t have a title yet. I’ve been referring to it as #5. This book was started in October with the bulk of it written in November during National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). The series is set in the fictional town of Elmwood, South Dakota on the campus of Midwestern State University. Marlee McCabe, my protagonist, is a professor of Criminology who is either pushed, pulled, or shoved into solving mysteries that happen on her campus and in her town. My books are considered cozy mysteries, meaning that they don’t contain much sex or graphic violence. I try to bring in the flavor of South Dakota when describing the people, the customs, the food, and the surrounding towns.

#5 (I really need to decide on a title) is a flashback book in that Marlee McCabe is now a college student in 1987. We get to see her, no longer as the professor with high ideals and little tolerance for slacker students, but as a student ready to cut corners and justify less than stellar academic behavior. The book will take readers on a walk down memory lane with references to 80s fashion, slang, and technology. Marlee and her friends seek to find out more about a fellow student who was found dead at a college party. This death leads to another mystery and back to present time.

3. Your University Mystery series is based on a real event, correct? Can you tell me a bit about that event and how it inspired you to write this series?

My first book, Day of the Dead, was inspired by real events. I was a college professor in 2004 and a fellow professor was found dead on campus. The resulting investigation left many of us on campus with more questions than answers about the victim and the cause of death. Day of the Dead is a work of fiction, but I used the premise of the body of a dead professor found outside his campus office.

4. How did you develop the character of Marlee McCabe?

If you were to ask my mom, she would say I am Marlee McCabe. Certainly, there are tons of similarities, but I am not the protagonist in my books. Rather, Marlee is who I would like to be. She’s much more outgoing and brave than I am.

5. How did you discover your love of writing?

I’ve loved to tell stories and write stories as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I read Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and other books with strong female protagonists. I remember fantasizing about being a detective, and as I got older, I was able to do investigative work in a number of my careers. I worked as a social worker, a probation officer, and a federal investigator for a total of 9 years before I started teaching at the university level. By then, I was over the idea of being a detective anymore, but I found that I still liked writing mysteries. After teaching sociology and criminal justice for 11 years, I decided to work full time as a writer. Now I’ve been writing for 3 ½ years and have self-published four books with the fifth to be released this spring.

6. What is your favorite part of being a writer?

I love being my own boss. I decide when and how I want to write, what the cover of my book will look like, and how I will advertise and promote my books. If I had a traditional publisher, many of these decisions would be taken out of my hands. Being self-published allows me complete control over my books from start to finish. Writing for a traditional publisher would take the fun out of writing and turn it into work.

7. What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

To stick to writing one book at a time. As soon as I begin a book I immediately begin thinking of ideas for other books. I know myself well enough to realize I can only work on one project at a time. Keeping a notebook of ideas for upcoming books helps me remember my ideas and then put them away so I can get back to work on my current book.

8. How do you find inspiration and motivation to write when you feel stuck?

Stuck seems to be a state of mind for me. If I can’t write it’s usually because I’m being lazy or working on another project. I can only work on one thing at a time, so sometimes my writing gets put on hold while I finish beta reading another author’s manuscript or devise a new marketing campaign. If I get truly stuck, then I write short stories. It usually helps the creative juices start flowing again.

9. What’s your favorite way to take a break from writing?

If the weather is nice, I like to go for a walk to clear my head and think of new twists and turns for my novel. Otherwise, I go on Facebook and mindlessly sift through photos people post. I even like looking at pictures of people I don’t know and trying to imagine a backstory for them.

10. What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring or new authors?

Just keep writing. Even if you only write a little bit every day or a few times a week, it will add up. Also, I’d suggest not spending too much time reading what others have to say about writing. Certainly you should take some advice, but I think it’s easy to become bogged down and overwhelmed if you spend too much time reading the “do” and “do not” suggestions that everyone seems to have. In my opinion, you can either be a writer or you can be someone who spends all their time reading about being a writer. Many a writing career has never gotten off the ground because too much focus was placed on what others had to say.

To learn more about Brenda and her work, you can check out her website and Facebook page.

Stay tuned for more author interviews, including an upcoming conversation with K.T. Webb, author of The New Era Saga series.

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Reading Recommendation – The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Two months ago, I sat in an airport, waiting for a flight to Florida and looking through my Kindle for something new to read. I stumbled across Shadow and Bone, the first in the Grisha Trilogy, and was soon transported into the world that Leigh Bardugo has crafted. The three books, Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising, are an excellent read in the YA fantasy genre.

Here is the synopsis for Shadow and Bone from the author’s website:

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha…and the secrets of her heart.

Since I’m writing about the whole trilogy and don’t want to give away spoilers, I won’t discuss much about the story. However, I do want to dive into aspects of the characters, setting, and themes that I enjoyed.

Characters

Alina is believable as someone who is used to being unnoticed and unremarkable before having a rare and powerful ability thrust upon her, along with the pressure and attention that follows such power. I like that she is constantly torn between wanting to set aside her power to return to her old and familiar life and the desire to obtain more and more power. As the series progresses, it sets up a choice between love and duty, and I did not know which she would choose until the very end.

Many other characters are also memorable. The antagonist is also richly developed as someone who is mostly monstrous but has enough of a human side to evoke some sympathy. Alina’s best friend is also an important character and their relationship is one of the most dynamic and fascinating in the series. Finally, the supporting cast is full of diverse personalities that lead to a wealth of fun, interesting, and conflicting interactions.

Setting

From the moment I entered the world Bardugo has created, the setting felt like a breath of fresh air. The Grisha Trilogy is not set in the stereotypical Medieval Europe-like setting that is, in my opinion, overused in the fantasy genre. Instead, the story is set in an era just before the Industrial Revolution and the land of Ravka is heavily influenced by the Russian Empire. From the naming conventions to a general sense of cold, dreary oppression that pervades Ravkan society, I felt like I had been transported to a fantastical version of historical Russia. There is even a creepy priest that is reminiscent of Rasputin.

Theme

Especially for a book that explores a literal conflict between light and dark, Bardugo successfully avoids a black and white struggle between absolute good and total evil. As stated above, Alina is always tempted by the pursuit of increasing of her own power. She and her allies are forced to make physical, emotional, and moral sacrifices. Some of the antagonist’s goals are actually laudable, even if the methods he uses are horrifying. At times, I wondered if the antagonist could be redeemed or if Alina would become the villain of her own story.

I found it especially inspiring to read this series at a time when I’m working on my own fantasy novel, Storm Raven. In some ways, Bardugo’s Alina and my Nereyda are similar. They both start off as characters without magic who stumble into it and struggle to figure out what their new abilities mean for them. However, they are also vastly different characters. Alina starts her story as a quiet and humble rank-and-file soldier, while Nereyda is a cocky pirate captain. Still, I found myself coming up with a number of ideas for my own story as I read through these books.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading the Grisha Trilogy and highly recommend it. You can learn more about Leigh Bardugoa and her work here.

If you want to check out my own upcoming work with Storm Raven, you can visit this page.

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Interview with J.A. Jance

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Today, I’m happy to present an interview with New York Times Bestselling Author J.A. Jance. This is the first in a series where I will interview a different author each week.

1. First, please tell me a bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?

J.A. – I’ve been writing murder mysteries for more than thirty years—long enough that some of the early Beaumonts probably qualify as “historical fiction.” But writing is what I always wanted to do, and although that dream was put on hold for a while, it’s still a job I love.

2. In the About Me section on your website, you mention facing some initial discouragement about pursuing your writing career. How has that experience affected your growth as a writer?

J.A. – I was not allowed to enroll in a university level Creative Writing class in 1964 on account of being a “girl.” I married a man who was allowed in the class that was closed to me.  He never published anything and told me in 1968 that there would only be “one writer in our family.”  I didn’t sit down to write my first mystery until two years after I divorced him.  As for not being allowed in the class?  It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.  They would have tried to stuff me into a literary fiction box.  Trust me, it wouldn’t have been a good fit!

3. Can you tell me about your current project?

J.A. – Two days ago I finished the final editing of Man Overboard the upcoming Ali Reynolds book, and I’ll be going back to work on J.P. Beaumont # 22 later today.

4. Where do you get the inspiration that sparks your story ideas?

J.A. – I’m a sponge, forever gathering ideas.  Yesterday my grandson asked me if I ever put random people I meet into my books.  The answer is yes. Sometimes I don’t even have to meet them.  Years ago, in a restaurant while my husband conducted a business meeting, I observed an older gentleman arrive with a young trophy wife on his arm.  They were there to meet with a real estate agent.  The trophy wife wanted to buy a new house—preferably the best one on the block.  The man knew how much he made, how much he owed in alimony and child support, and how much the new house would cost.  His misery was so apparent that I went straight home and wrote him into the book I was writing at the time. I never even knew his name.

5. How did you develop the characters of J. P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady, and Ali Reynolds?

J.A. – Those characters have developed over time.  I’ve gotten to know them along the way.  I did not outline them years in advance of writing the stories. I know that J.K. Rowling outlined all the Harry Potter books before she ever wrote a word of the stories.  I am NOT J.K. Rowling. I met outlining in my 6th grade geography class.  I hated it then and nothing in the intervening decades has changed my mind on that score.

6. How did you discover your love of writing?

J.A. – I discovered my love of writing by loving reading.  I read the Wizard of Oz in second grade.  From the moment I realized that someone had put the words on those pages, that’s what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be—a writer.

7. What is your favorite part of being a writer?

J.A. – Learning how my stories have touched someone else.  Just this week, I heard from a gentleman who saw himself in J.P. Beaumont’s struggles with sobriety and got himself into treatment.

8. What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

J.A. – Maintaining the pacing.

9. How do you find inspiration and motivation to write when you feel stuck?

J.A. – Knowing I have a looming deadline is a real motivator for me. Writers who don’t have deadlines imposed from the outside need to give themselves their own deadlines and then meet them.

10. What’s your favorite way to take a break from writing?

J.A. – For the last two years, I’ve been walking 10,000 steps a day.  I’ve also lost 70 pounds.  So when I get stuck, it’s time to get up and walk for a few laps.

11. What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring or new authors?

J.A. – When I bought my first computer, the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so that, whenever I booted up in the morning, these are the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written today. Those words were a real gift to me when I was an unpublished writer, and they still are.

If you would like to learn more about J.A. Jance and her work, you can find her blog here: http://www.jajance.com/jajance.com/blog.html

The next author I feature will be Brenda Donelan, author of the University Mystery series.

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More Than Just Her Gender: Writing Female Protagonists

At this point, I am nowhere near an expert on writing. I’m working on launching my first novel and am about to begin revising my second. However, something that they both have in common is that they feature women in the lead roles. As I wrap up my first year of getting into writing fiction, I wanted to look back on what I’ve learned about writing female protagonists, especially since I am a male author.

The biggest trick when it comes to writing female leads is that there is no trick at all. Women are whole people with personalities, dreams, goals, and past experiences. The process for creating a well-rounded character is the same whether that character is a man, woman, black, white, etc. Characters need a whole list of personality traits, goals, family members, hobbies, and anything else that paints a full picture. For each female protagonist that I create, being a woman is a part of who she is, however, she is more than just her gender. As examples, we can look at the protagonists of my first two books.

Kayla Falk, from The Azrael Initiative, starts her story as an engineering student. She is intelligent, but like many her age, unsure of where she wants to go in life. Her personality is a bit on the reserved side, but she does enjoy hanging out with her best friend, Olivia. Together, the two of them have sparring matches several times a week. Kayla also has a much younger brother, whom she loves deeply. Her peaceful life is upturned after a couple of terrorist attacks, and she evolves into someone who is capable, physically, mentally, and emotionally, of taking the fight to ISIS.

Nereyda, from Storm Raven, is a pirate captain. After the previous captain died, she was elected to be his successor due to her skills at piloting a ship. She is a confident and capable fighter who carries herself with swagger. While she cares very much about her crew, she is apathetic toward politics and what’s happening outside of the bubble of her ship. Nereyda’s character story is fundamentally about how she handles losing the control she is used to having over her life, along with how she reacts when she’s forced to care about what’s happening in the world around her.

In both of these characters, I’ve strived to create deep, fleshed-out characters who experience personal growth in their stories. Their gender, however, still does have an impact on their stories. Kayla goes undercover in ISIS-controlled territory, which presents challenges and threats due being a woman. Nereyda is well-respected by her crew, but other captains and crews tend to underestimate and look down on her. That said, they are still not defined by being women. There are many interesting aspects of their character, and being female is only one part.

In writing your characters, their gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. should not define who they are. Remember to give them depth through their personalities, dreams, and backgrounds. Even in stories that deal with issues of identity, your characters will feel more realistic and relatable if they have more to them. It can also be helpful to read stories that are written in a voice similar to what you are attempting to achieve. For instance, I’ve learned a lot about writing in a female voice by reading books by Sarah Maas and Leigh Bardugo, who feature female protagonists in their fantasy books.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look into my creative process and that you can take something away for your own writing.

Also, if you want to see my characters in action, you can read the first three chapters of The Azrael Initiative to get to know a bit more about Kayla and an excerpt from Storm Raven for an introduction to Nereyda.

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My First Year of Writing

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One year ago, as I sat looking ahead toward what 2016 would bring, my plans did not include writing a novel. I certainly didn’t even think of starting a second. Nonetheless, here I am at the end of the year, a couple of months away from releasing my first novel and getting ready to revise and finish my second.

For a long time, I’ve had story ideas floating around in my head. However, those ideas were actually for video games that I’d like to make some day. The desire to tell those stories, and to make the games that captured them, is what led me to study programming. Unfortunately, to create the games that I had in mind, I would need to hire people with skills that I do not possess and that would require money that I do not have. Last January, though, I realized that I could at least tell my stories by myself by turning them into books. Thus, my journey in novel writing began.

“How do I start?” I thought. “How do I turn these story ideas into complete plots, fleshed out characters, and vivid settings?”

I don’t have a background in writing. In college, I studied Mechanical Engineering, then went on to get my Master of Business Administration degree. I’ve never taken a creative writing class, and the only college English class I took was a technical writing course.

Utterly unprepared to write the stories that I wanted to tell, I found books on novel writing, plot structure, character development, and anything else that I thought I might need. I sprinted through these books in a matter of weeks. As I read, I also took notes about the characters, plot points, and settings.

In early February, I was ready. I dove into writing my first novel, The Azrael Initiative. I began by writing 1,000 words per day, then 1,500, and, by the end, I was pouring 2,000 words onto the page every day. Within two months, I had a rough (very rough) manuscript. I then spent the next several months editing, having people read my book, and tweaking it until I felt happy with it.

Once I had my edited manuscript, I tried to go the traditional publishing route for a while. Eventually, though, I got tired of waiting two months for a response that may or may not come. So, I decided to give self-publishing a try. The idea of doing my own marketing actually excites me, since I can use some of what I learned while studying business.

This brings me to where I am now, working on launching my first novel.

2016 has also brought a number of other great, new experiences. In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where I wrote over 50,000 words in one month. That helped me get through most of my second book, Storm Raven, which I will soon begin revising. NaNoWriMo also helped me connect with other local writers through South Dakota Writes. It’s been a wonderful experience, both personally and professionally, to meet so many talented authors who live nearby.

Overall, it’s hard to believe how much I’ve learned and grown as a writer over the last year. Going into 2017, I look forward to learning even more, finishing my next book, and working on making every book I write better than the last. If I can learn and do as much as I did in 2016, it is sure to be a fantastic year.

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Introducing Regular Updates and Newsletter

Hello friends,

Starting on January 1st, 2017, I will begin to add more regular updates to my website on a variety of topics. In addition to updates on my projects, I want to write about some other things. I will share the thoughts and experiences I have along my writing journey. As I read books in my free time, I will share recommendations. I also want to share tips for your own writing that I’ve learned as I work to improve my own skills.Along with those more regular updates, I will send out a newsletter will feature highlights from my posts and news about what I am working on.

Along with those more regular updates, I will send out a newsletter will feature highlights from my posts and news about what I am working on. If you want to subscribe to my newsletter, please enter your email address in the field below.

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First Three Chapters of The Azrael Initiative

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I would like to present the first three chapters of The Azrael Initiative. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Chapter 1

Dodging to her right, Kayla sidestepped the fist aimed at her head as it passed close enough to feel the air move. Her auburn ponytail swinging as she danced around her opponent, Kayla watched with bright green eyes and waited for any opening, any weakness to exploit. She did not waste her energy on extra movements or attacks, preferring to let her adversary tire herself and present an opportunity.

Her opponent had a fierce look in her blue eyes as she came at Kayla with a strike of her left hand. Kayla stopped the blow. The hand latched onto her shoulder and dug into the flesh above her collarbone. Kayla staggered back at the pain. The hand released, then both combatants regained their balance.

As another blow came toward Kayla, she sensed that her foe had placed too much weight on her front foot. With a swift movement, Kayla slid to the side, grabbed the incoming arm, and sent her attacker tumbling to the blue padded floor.

“Enough!” said Olivia, with her arms up and palms facing Kayla.

“Next time, don’t let yourself get caught off balance,” said Kayla, as she extended her hand to help Olivia to her feet.

“Off balance? Naw, I just hadn’t done a somersault in forever,” grinned Olivia, her sapphire eyes twinkling. “Besides, I felt like taking a nap on this comfy mat.”

“Maybe next time I’ll give you that nap.” Kayla joked.

“Just make sure you tuck me in first,” responded Olivia as she brushed herself off.

“I believe that I’m two out of three this week. Hope you’re not losing your edge,” teased Kayla.

“Of course not. After kicking your ass all of last week, I thought you could use a couple of wins,” Olivia smirked.

Catching her breath, Kayla glanced around the gym where they held their morning training sessions. She saw other pairs finishing their own bouts and heading to the locker room. Training here required hard work, but Kayla always left feeling reinvigorated and confident about facing the challenges of being an engineering student. Besides, she always enjoyed throwing Olivia around a bit.

As the two of them walked toward the locker room, Kayla wiped the sweat from her forehead and Olivia shook her long blonde hair free of her headband.

“I’d better get ready so that I can head to the workshop to work on my senior design project,” Kayla said.

“Yeah, I need to head out, too. Class is in half an hour. See you for dinner?”

“Sure, we’ll just meet at the Union around 5:30, if that works.”

“Sounds good to me!” smiled Olivia.

As Kayla undressed and stepped into the shower stall to rinse off the sweat from her workout, she ran through a mental checklist of everything that she needed to do that day. Despite not having class on Thursdays, she had a lab report to finish and at least two hours of engineering homework to do. She also needed to spend a significant amount of time in the workshop working on her senior design project, a new design for a small, efficient wind turbine. She would certainly have a long day, but another day closer to graduation in just two months.

As she stepped out of the shower, Kayla dried her hair, pulled it back into a neat ponytail, and put on her jeans, a modest purple tank top, and black cardigan. She stuffed her workout clothes into her duffel bag and hauled it to her shoulder as she hurried out of the locker room.

As she left the Wellness Center and stepped out into the spring air of the South Dakota State University campus, Kayla Falk lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the crimson sun rising on the horizon, before she turned west toward the rest of campus. The closest building was the Student Union, a large building that was in a constant state of expansion. After countless meals and endless hours of studying within those walls over the course of nearly four years, it had become practically another home for her.

Kayla took a deep breath of the spring air. The grassy smell and cool atmosphere were refreshing changes from the heat and sweaty odor of the gym. In the distance, the bells of the campanile rang through the atmosphere. While she looked forward to seeing what the next chapter of her life brought, she would always treasure lovely mornings walking across campus.

As she strode toward the workshop on the other side of the SDSU campus, she slipped one of her backpack straps off of her right shoulder and pulled the bag around to her front to access its contents. Unzipping the small pouch, she pulled out an energy bar and an apple for her post-workout breakfast. The sight of the food made her stomach growl and her mouth watered as she bit into the peanut flavored bar.

While she chewed, she thought about how it was basically a candy bar for breakfast. It did, however, contain some protein, so it didn’t entirely lack nutritional value. At least she also had her apple for something a bit healthier.

As she approached the shop, she tossed her wrapper and apple core in the trash bin just outside. Opening the door, the sound of power tools greeted her, as other engineering students worked on their own projects. The oily smell in the air always reminded her of the time she had spent helping her father, a mechanic, in his garage. When she had been younger, he had her do simple tasks like changing oil or putting new tires on a car. By the time she had become a senior in high school, she could dismantle and reassemble an engine almost as well as her dad.

She walked over to the work area that her team had reserved for their project and set her bag under the workbench. Today, she had set the goal to assemble the system of gears that transferred energy from the turbine blades to the generator. Having worked with automobile differentials in her father’s shop, she had volunteered to design and assemble this piece of the project while other members of her group handled other aspects.

Kayla opened her project binder and flipped through the pages until she arrived at the diagram depicting her design. For several minutes, she reviewed the schematic and contemplated the steps she needed to take to assemble the collection of parts correctly. Her design was a planetary gearing system. She would attach the generator shaft to a sun gear, at the center of the arrangement, with blades attached to interlocking gears flanking it. By using such a system of gears, the generator shaft would rotate in the correct range of speeds when the blades rotated.

Satisfied that she had refreshed the design in her head, Kayla hauled the crate of parts to the top of the workbench. She pulled out each gear and piece needed for the assembly and arranged them in the order in which she needed them. For the next several hours, she fixed each gear in its proper place.

When she finished, she checked her phone and saw that it was already one o’clock. As the task at hand required all of her focus, she didn’t realize until then just how much she craved lunch. Kayla’s stomach growled as she gave the gear assembly a test spin. Satisfied that it operated smoothly, she set it in the crate before putting away all of her tools and equipment. After stashing her design binder in her backpack, she threw it over her shoulders and walked out of the workshop to find something to eat.

Reaching the Union, she went to Weary Wil’s Sports Grill to grab a burger to go. When it was ready, she put it into her backpack so she could head to the engineering building and find a quiet corner to grind through some homework. After she reached the building, she walked into the mostly empty study area, which was surrounded by rows of windows.

On a sunny afternoon such as this, it made for a cheerful and energizing work environment. Settling into a comfortable seat, she pulled out her lunch and munched on it as she started working through her Turbomachinery homework. Her work kept her busy until the time arrived to meet Olivia for supper.

At a quarter after five, Kayla packed up her notebooks, calculator, and pencils so that she could meet her friend. After sitting down for three and a half hours, she groaned as she stood up, her muscles stiff and sore after the morning’s workout. Gathering her bag, she left the engineering building to head back to the Union. As she approached her destination, she spotted Olivia Bellamy walking on another sidewalk.

“Hey Liv,” Kayla called.

Olivia jumped a bit as the shout startled her. She looked around for a second before spotting Kayla. “Oh, hi! Good timing.”

“Have a good day?”

“Yeah, classes weren’t too bad today and clinicals at the hospital were pretty interesting. You?”

“Definitely. Got a lot done on our project and made some good progress on my homework for the night. For now, I’m ready to grab some food and relax, at least for a bit.”

“Same here. Let’s head in and get a bite to eat.”

 

 

Chapter 2

Kayla walked next to Olivia as they entered Union and looked around for a place to sit. On the left, they passed one of the dining areas, with several fast food alternatives. In front of them stretched “Main Street,” which was lined with offices and the bookstore on the left side and the large open Market area on the right, filled with tables and chairs for dining or studying. A large staircase extended up to the second floor of the Union, where students sat at tables overlooking the Market. Kayla spotted an open table next to a fireplace on the far end of the Market, next to Main Street.

“How does that look?” she said as she pointed in that direction.

“Ooh, that looks like a nice, comfy spot to chill for the evening!” piped up Olivia.

Kayla led them toward the open seats. “Let’s set our bags down, then we can take turns getting food. If you want to go first, I’ll watch our stuff.”

After they set their backpacks down, Kayla settled into a chair with the fireplace to her left. As Olivia walked into the Market to pick up her supper, Kayla looked around the expansive space of the room. She saw the usual bustle of students eating, studying, and wasting time on their laptops and phones. Kayla’s own phone buzzed in her pocket. As she pulled it out, she saw that she had received a text from Logan, her nine-year-old brother.

It read, “Hey Kayla! I just got an early birthday present from mom and dad. They got me a Wii! I can’t wait to play it with you the next time you come home.”

Kayla texted back, “That’s exciting, Logan! I look forward to it. I’ll see you when I come home for your birthday. Love you!”

As she slid her phone back into her pocket, Olivia returned with a plate covered in a quesadilla, a small salad, and some fruit. “Alrighty, it’s your turn. Don’t take too long, or I might start selling your stuff.”

Kayla laughed as she stood up and strode over to pick out her dinner. After the kind of mental workout she had just had, pasta sounded delicious. When she got to the front of the line, she ordered a bowl of penne noodles and chicken covered in alfredo sauce, with some basil pesto and garlic. For good measure, she had the cook throw some veggies into the mix. After Kayla got her bowl of pasta, she returned to find Olivia halfway through her own dinner.

Kayla sat down and took a bite, savoring the flavor in her mouth. As always, it proved the perfect meal for recovering from an already long day of work, as well as preparing for yet another late evening of homework.

“So,” Olivia glanced up at Kayla and asked, “are you still thinking you’ll work for my dad after we graduate?”

Keeping her eyes on her food, Kayla hesitated, “I think so.”

“Don’t sound so excited about it.”

Kayla looked up to meet her friend’s gaze. “It’s just that after all of these years and working on my senior design project, I’m not sure if engineering is the right fit for me anymore.”

“Of course it’s the right fit,” Olivia encouraged, leaning forward. “Thanks to your dad, you know your way around a shop like it’s the back of your hand. And you’ve always killed it in school. Plus, you know my dad loves you. The kind of work that they do there is right up your alley. From what my dad says, they’re really making advances in renewable energy. If you show him what you’re working on for your senior design project, I know he’ll completely nerd out.”

“I know that, and of course I don’t have anything against your dad. I think I just expected to be on a more exciting path.” Kayla shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. I’m sure it’s just pre-graduation jitters. You’re lucky that you’ve known for years that you wanted to be a nurse.”

“Well, ever since my mom died ten years ago, so I’m not sure how lucky that is,” Olivia frowned as she looked down for a second. She looked back up and continued, “I remember how kind the nurses were and how hard they tried to help her. I want to be that light for someone.”

Kayla shifted in her seat. “Sorry, lucky was the wrong word.”

Olivia gave a grim smile. “I know what you meant.”

“I just wish I had a definite calling, to know what I’m supposed to do.”

“If I were you, I’d just give it a shot with my dad’s company. You only have to show up to the interview to get the job. If you don’t like it, fine, you can always figure something else out.”

Kayla nodded as she finished her pasta. “I’m going to head to the restroom. Once I get back, we can start our little homework party.”

“Alrighty.”

As Kayla washed her hands, she reflected on the conversation she had just had with Olivia. Her friend was right. Working with Olivia’s dad would at least provide a secure job, and he would certainly be a pleasant boss. Once she had established herself there, she could volunteer for some more exciting projects and take charge of her career.

Kayla jolted from her thoughts as she heard the crack of gunshots from outside the restroom.

 

 

Chapter 3

Kayla froze in place. Screams tore through the air. What the hell is happening out there? Leaving her bag behind, she crept to the door of the bathroom. She peeked out and surveyed the violent, surreal scene playing out in the Union.

At the opposite end of the Union, to Kayla’s right, a man in a ski mask pointed an AK-47 toward the ceiling and shouted, “Everyone get down and stay still! If you do as we say, you’ll all leave here alive.”

Across from the restroom and near where Kayla and Olivia had sat, another assailant pointed his gun at a group of students, two of whom lay on the ground, a boy bleeding from a wound on his side and a girl from a gunshot to her leg. The boy turned pale from blood loss and shock. Other students cowered on the ground, behind tables, counters, or any other cover available. All except for Olivia, who kept her head down as she moved toward the wounded students with her bag.

“Stay where you are!” commanded the nearest terrorist.

“Please,” begged Olivia, “let me take care of them. Nobody else will bother you, I just need to stop their bleeding.”

“Fine. You can waste your time keeping him alive until we kill all of you. If you try to go anywhere else, you won’t get another warning.”

Kayla watched as her friend opened her bag of nursing supplies and pulled out some gauze for the wounded students. As she watched Olivia get to work, she caught movement on the second floor of the Union. A third terrorist stood up there and peered over the railing to keep an eye on the proceedings from above.

Shit. I can’t just sit here. I have to do something.

Sliding back into the bathroom to think about how to help her friend and the other students, Kayla took off her cardigan and stuffed it into her backpack. As she scanned the room, she spotted a closet on the far wall. Hoping that it contained something helpful, she tried the handle but found it locked. She knelt on the ground and pulled a bobby pin from her hair, letting the strands fall to her shoulders.

Years of helping her father in his shop had taught Kayla many skills, including how to pick a lock. She wiggled the hair pin into the lock, feeling for the key pins. One by one, she felt them click into place. It felt like it was taking forever, as she thought about the students in danger just outside the bathroom door. The shouting and screaming from outside the restroom distracted her. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, causing her hands to shake as she manipulated the pin.

Finally, she popped the last pin into place and tried the handle once again. It gave way and revealed a closet full of cleaning supplies, likely locked to prevent troublesome students from stealing Windex.

Her searching green eyes looked over the shelves, looking for anything that she could use as a distraction or a weapon. At first glance, Kayla grabbed a mop and unscrewed the handle to use as a staff. Behind the mop, she saw shelves stocked with bleach, vinegar, and baking soda. Looking through the trash, she found several pop bottles. She used these to divide the chemicals into smaller portions.

Placing the rest of the soda bottles of cleaning supplies into her backpack, Kayla grabbed one small bottle of vinegar and poured some baking soda into it. As the mixture started bubbling, she sealed the container with a twist and tossed it into the restroom’s entrance corridor. Dashing across the room, she pressed herself against the wall so that she remained out of sight to anyone entering the restroom.

Kayla grasped the mop handle as she waited for the chemical reaction to take effect and burst the bottle. She felt her heart pounding in her chest with anticipation and fear of the fight to come. Sparring with Olivia had taught her the moves she needed, but fighting an enemy who wanted to kill her would be very different from a contest with her best friend. She closed her eyes and covered her ears as she waited.

Bang!

The vinegar and baking soda bomb harmed nothing, but made a terrible racket, sure to catch the attention of the gunmen occupying the building.

The attackers began shouting.

“Go see what made that noise!” ordered the voice of whoever must be in charge.

Kayla heard footsteps dashing toward the restroom. She held her breath as the sound reached the entrance. From her position hiding around the corner from the corridor, she remained out of sight and relied completely on her sense of hearing. As the sound of running feet reached her corner, Kayla stuck the mop handle across the bottom of the doorway. The staff caught the terrorist’s legs and sent him crashing to the floor. His rifle skittered across the room.

Kayla rushed toward him to keep the initiative in her favor. However, he recovered quickly as he hopped onto his feet and pulled out a long combat knife from his belt.

He stabbed at her with a quick thrust, and Kayla knocked his hand aside with a sweep of her staff.

As he twisted to slash at her, she jumped to the side. However, her foot slipped on a puddle on the tile floor. She managed to keep her balance, but the terrorist used this disruption to catch her off guard. He kicked her with a strong blow to the abdomen.

With the wind knocked out of her, Kayla fell to her knees and dropped the staff. Her attacker fell on her with the knife, sending them both to the ground. Kayla, with her back pressed against the hard floor, barely managed to catch his wrist before the knife could plunge into her chest.

There was a brief stalemate as the two combatants strained against each other, neither gaining an advantage. As the terrorist shifted on top of Kayla, she saw a brief opening and seized it, kicking him hard in the groin. He grunted in pain and the distraction caused him to loosen his grip ever so slightly.

In the blink of an eye, Kayla turned the knife away from herself. Before she realized it, she had plunged it deep into the terrorist’s eye socket. He shrieked in agony, then collapsed on top of her and stayed still.

Kayla shoved the now lifeless body off of her. As she took in the scene of the corpse and the rapidly expanding pool of blood beneath it, a wave of nausea swept over her. She rushed into the closest stall and vomited into the toilet.

Despite the life and death nature of the struggle, Kayla could not believe she had just killed another human being. She had never considered that she might need to do something like this. Still feeling queasy, she jolted from her thoughts at the crackle of a radio. Another terrorist was checking in with the one she had just killed.

Acting before someone else came to investigate, she removed the bloody mask of the terrorist, hoping that the dark material hid the gory stains, and paused to look at the face of the man she had just killed. Laying on the bathroom floor, he looked eerily peaceful, his one remaining blue eye gazing up at the ceiling. Around his neck, he wore a pendant featuring a five-pointed star with arcs extending clockwise from each point.

Fighting against another wave of nausea, she grabbed the man’s mask, along with the rest of his clothing, and disguised herself as one of them. Kayla stood taller than average, and she thought the guise might just fool them long enough to get into a position to handle them. Grabbing the terrorist’s gun and the bag of chemicals, she walked out of the bathroom and gave the lead terrorist a wave to signal that everything was fine. He seemed satisfied and turned away.

Kayla next needed to deal with the attacker on the second floor. Unless she took him out, he would see any attack against the one on the ground level. Making her way over to the nearest stairwell, Kayla passed Olivia as she kept helping the wounded students.

Glancing to make sure that none of the terrorists looked in her direction, she knelt and whispered into Olivia’s ear, “Liv, it’s me. I’m going to see what I can do.”

Olivia turned her head to look at Kayla, her eyes widened in terror. “No, keep your head down. They’ll kill you,” she gasped.

“I have to take my chances. Keep up the good work here.”

Climbing the stairs to the next level, she overheard the other two terrorists talking on the radio.

“Looks like the police are starting to surround the building,” said the first voice.

“Good,” replied the second. “Keep an eye out for the news trucks. Once there are enough cameras, we start killing these students.”

“These windows will give them a great view of the action.”

Kayla slinked her way around the second floor of the Union, looking for a good angle on the terrorist perched up there. She found a nook between a coffee table and a plush green armchair where she had a view of him, as well as the remaining attacker on the ground floor. Since they could both see and hear each other, she needed to distract them both and occupy the one on the main level long enough to deal with the enemy on the second floor.

Looking into her backpack, she found a small bottle that contained vinegar and another that held bleach. Pouring the vinegar into the container with the bleach, she twisted the top until it felt just tight enough to stay affixed. Taking aim near the terrorist on the ground, she chucked the bottle over the railing.

As expected, the bottle smacking the floor startled the assailant on the ground level. He kicked the foaming bottle and looked around for the source. Before he had a chance to spot Kayla, he began to choke on the invisible chlorine gas leaking from the bottle. Such a small amount would not kill him but would keep his eyes and lungs burning long enough to occupy him.

This diversion also attracted the attention of the gunman on the second floor. He looked increasingly concerned by his comrade’s coughing and wheezing. Kayla thought about shooting him but didn’t trust her own ability to hit him.

She seized the moment and sprinted toward him. Tackling him from behind, she heard his ribs crunch from the impact with the railing. Without allowing him time to react, she smashed the butt of her gun against the back of his head and shoved his shoulders over the ledge. His body tumbled down and crashed onto a table below, where he remained motionless.

Looking across the Union as she caught her breath, Kayla saw that the sound of the man falling to the floor had jolted the remaining terrorist on the ground out of his coughing fit. He glanced up and spotted Kayla. As she ducked behind the wall, he let off a burst of fire from his rifle. She heard footsteps as he dashed toward the stairwell. As she started to move to a better position to ambush the terrorist, the footsteps stopped abruptly with a pained grunt.

Peering back over the edge, she saw the gunman sprawled face down on the floor, while Olivia dashed toward him. Kayla concluded that she must have tripped the terrorist as he ran past her position where she had been helping the wounded students.

Olivia dove on top of him, landing with her weight on her left knee, driving it into his back. Gritting his teeth through the pain, the terrorist pushed himself up, throwing Olivia to the side.

She lay on her side as the terrorist stood up. With surgical precision, the nursing student drove her foot into his knee. The joint popped backward with the impact and the man collapsed to the ground. As he writhed on the ground, Olivia stood up, and with one swift kick to the head, knocked him unconscious.

With all of the terrorists neutralized, a strange stillness set over the Union. Kayla pulled off the ski mask she had taken from the first attacker. Olivia and Kayla looked into each other’s eyes from across the room and, at the same time, each saw a best friend and a stranger looking back.

Kayla made her way down the stairs and, without a word, embraced her friend. They stayed silent for a long moment. Despite the victory, they both felt like they had lost something.

Finally, Olivia broke the silence. “Let me look at your shoulder. A bullet or knife must have caught you.”

Kayla looked at her left shoulder and saw a two-inch gash bleeding into her confiscated jacket. She guessed that the cut had happened during her fight in the restroom. “Wow, I didn’t even feel it until you said something.”

Olivia reached into her bag and grabbed a bottle of antiseptic. “I don’t really believe what just happened, or what we did.”

“I know,” winced Kayla as the liquid stung her wound. “I…I killed one of them, in the bathroom. Now that this is over, that’s all that I can think about. Every time I close my eyes, I see his face in my mind. Oh shit, I feel like I’m going to vomit again.” She just managed to hold back the bile rising in her throat.

Olivia looked into her friend’s eyes, searching for comforting words. However, before she found any, the sound of smashing glass broke her concentration.

A SWAT team had forced entry to the building and dashed across the floor to secure the area. Two of the officers surprised Kayla when they rushed up and forced her to the ground. As they handcuffed her and stripped her of all of her weapons, she realized that she remained dressed like one of the terrorists.

“Wait, I’m not with them! I was just trying to help!” she pleaded.

“That’s not for me to decide. You’re coming with us,” one of the officers ordered in a gruff voice.

Her head spinning from the events of the evening, Kayla felt like she was floating as the officers forced her out of the Union and threw her into a van. She shuddered they slammed the doors shut. Then, overwhelmed with confusion and emotion, she began to weep.

 

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