Welcome to the first episode of Azinae, my new reader-interactive episodic fantasy story. So how does this work? Let me show you.
Bear in mind that, because each episode will be written less than a week before posting, the writing may not be of the same caliber as, say, one of my novels or novelettes, which receives much more editing before other eyes see it. But the story should still be fun, fascinating, and fantastic in its own way. (Note my totally unfounded authorly confidence!) So join me in the adventure of Azinae!
The summary of Azinae
When Connie and four others are transported suddenly and mysteriously to the world of Azinae, he discovers that none of his companions are who he believes them to be. And neither, for that matter, is he himself. As the five seek for answers to their questions, it becomes evident that they are not simply becoming something more--they are facing an immense danger, a danger from within their own company.
This Episode's Bonus
I really like making my own covers. Probably it's because I'm a control-freak over my own product. Also because I genuinely enjoy graphic design.
So here is the short video that shows you exactly how I made the cover for Azinae.
The moment Dirk used the old nickname, I regretted my appearance at the high school reunion.
Constantinople sounded idiotic, full of all the egg-head pretentiousness that tweaks the jocks and tickles the nerds. Stan, the preferred moniker by which my fellow engineers knew me, sounded masculine. Strong. Decisive.
And Connie? Connie sounded like a benevolent knitting grandmother from the 1950s. Or like the jeers of four bullies in the boys' locker room. I still remembered the sneer on Ulysses' face as he held my head over the toilet, egged on by the other eighth-grade boys.
"Yeah! Dunk his face in it!"
Speak of the devil. Ulysses sat diagonally from Dirk, exactly across from the vacant seat toward which Dirk so gleefully waved me.
Darn Melinda Hayes and her grand idea of a warm and fuzzy reunion of old friends. If it weren't for Dirk and his cursed persistence, I would be home finishing that report on that project.
Right now I wanted to strangle Dirk, but that would take some doing, because he was built like a marine. Of course, he probably would not put up any resistance and would grin as he went down. Dirk was one of those types who believed everyone was his friend and did not realize that he was more their friend than they were his friends. Dirk and I had never been close, but we had kept in touch after high school. Actually, he had kept in touch with me. His genuine interest in my life and his belief that everything I did must be awesome had formed a strange reluctant friendship on my part. He was the one person in my life that I did not have to impress.
I still wanted to strangle him.
I squeezed my way between the round tables in the banquet hall, waving reluctantly to adults who recognized me and uplifted hands in greeting.
“Yo, Connie, where ya been?”
“Hey, Connie. Look at you—all grown up.”
One woman bounced up with a short cry: “My word, Connie! I had forgotten all about you! I haven’t seen you in ages!”
Forgotten all about me. Classic.
Welcome to my life.
I continued to squeeze my way past them, offering tight smiles.
"Connie, I've saved a seat for you!" Dirk waved me toward the chair again and I feigned confidence as I settled into the seat. "You remember Ulysses, don't you?"
"I do," I replied, reaching out to shake the hand of the young man opposite me.
He had that Mafia look about him--black hair, olive skin, obsidian eyes that glittered from deep sockets. He moved with the old familiar indolence that pretended laziness but which actually concealed a serpentine calculating mind. The handshake was firm, but not crushing, and for a moment he met my eyes, a half-grin on his lips. He remembered me, I was certain.
"Ulysses married Astrid," Dirk pointed to the blond woman who sat next to my nemesis.
"No way!" I burst out, then stammered to hide my surprise, "You two were always--so different."
Astrid laughed, the dimples in her cheeks adding to the mirth in her green eyes. "You mean we hated each other on sight? Yes. We were very different."
"I'm not certain about that," Ulysses said in that slow, careless way that used to give me chills, his arm extending over the back of his wife's chair and his legs crossing at the knees. "Even in high school, both of us had scintillating intellects and sinfully good looks."
"And my brother Merlin," Dirk interrupted. "You remember Merlin?"
"Of course I do," I replied. "Hello, Merlin."
Merlin momentarily uncrossed his eyes and his gaping, twisted-toothed mouth opened a little wider in what I suspected might be a grin. One of the thin, crippled hands on the arm of his wheelchair twitched as though in an instinct to wave or to shake hands.
"I had a heck of a time talking Connie into coming tonight," Dirk explained to Ulysses and Astrid. "He had this project that he was working on..."
"What kind of project, Connie?" Astrid asked. Somehow she imbued the nickname with masculinity which was not inherent in its connotation. She had always managed to make me feel less like a loser and I felt that familiar flash of gratitude.
"A boring report," I replied.
Dirk laughed. “Well, if it’s boring, you had every reason to be here instead!”
“Not…” I stopped, collected myself, and tried again. “Not that kind of boring. Road boring.”
Astrid’s grin widened, an invitation to explain. So I explained.
"We're checking the stability of a riverside road with a standard penetration test. Blow counts and that sort of thing."
"Blow counts?" Astrid leaned forward.
"Basically, we pound a sample tube with a slide hammer into the ground, and count the number of blows it takes to penetrate each increment of six inches into the ground. That gives me an indication of the density of the soil."
"Old Connie," Dirk grinned. "The brains of the bunch."
"I'm not sure about that," Ulysses said in that same infuriatingly languid tone. "Merlin holds that honor above anyone I know."
Merlin made a short, choking sound and said in his hoarse voice, "Maaaw!" He rolled his eyes awkwardly, but could not focus on Ulysses.
It was bad enough that Ulysses had once picked on me and even on Dirk. Picking on Merlin was low and I hoped that my rigid silence and the color creeping around my collar announced my indignation.
But Ulysses had picked up his menu and was perusing it. "Fish, darling?"
"No," Astrid said with a slight grin. "You know I need something...juicier."
Dirk laughed outright. "Feeling carnivorous tonight?"
Astrid tossed her honey-colored hair over her shoulder and skewered my friend with a flash of her green eyes. "Dirk, shut up and pick your dish."
Dirk laughed again.
"So what do you all do?" I asked, eager to relinquish the limelight. Of course Ulysses answered first.
"Master electrician on a naval base. Not glamorous, but quite dangerous. High voltage, which is why we have another OSHA training next week."
"Medical billing and coding," Astrid replied.
"Boring!" Dirk interjected. “But not your kind of boring, Con.”
"I like the job, Master Dirk," Astrid replied. "Though it does not compare with spinning..."
She paused, flickered her gaze toward me, and lifted her water glass to her lips.
"And you, Dirk?" I asked. "Same old same old?"
"I'm up to my eyeballs in the latest commission," Dirk said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "It's funny how all the music begins to sound the same once you've worked on the soundtrack for four weeks straight. It is not easy to be creative in a competitive field."
"I think you're doing very well," Astrid said kindly. "I liked the sound clips you sent last week. They made one think of... Oh, sunset over the mountains and waterfalls in the forest. Old places."
The waiter appeared just then to take our orders. The momentary reprieve gave me a few minutes to consider something that had been tickling my mind since the beginning of the conversation. When had Dirk become such good friends with Ulysses and Astrid? Dirk had not been quite as targeted as I, but surely he had not forgotten the hazing behind the bleachers and the other works of Ulysses and his fellow thugs. Then again, Dirk had always been more forgiving than I, a trait that I did not know whether to categorize as a virtue or a vice.
But Astrid? She had no excuse. The girl was graced with all the appropriate dignity to have married a British prince, if she had so desired. Why pick a jerk like Ulysses?
More than that, all four of them--even Merlin--seemed intimately acquainted with one another. There was a settledness in their company and I tasted that distinct flavor of being an outsider. It made no sense. Intuition contended with logic.
We gave our orders to the waiter. Then, as I lifted my glass to my lips, I asked casually, "So how did you two get to know each other better?"
Ulysses and Astrid glanced at one another, as though silently deciding how much to say.
At last Astrid said with a smile, "There were some circumstances around the graduation ceremony that threw us together unexpectedly. We both changed and..." She glanced at her husband with a blush that my astonished mind recognized as girlish pride in her lover. "We realized that we were meant for each other."
I did not remember much of the graduation ceremony except that Dirk disappeared for much of it--which was not unusual, since Dirk usually disappeared, or simply did not appear at all--and that I stepped on someone's discarded gum just before I walked onstage, which contributed to a few very embarrassing moments on the steps. You could say that my graduation was an appropriate and accurate summation of my high school years.
At that moment, Merlin lifted a wavering finger, pointing randomly first at one table of alumni, then at the dim chandelier. "Ggggaaaah!"
Ulysses and Astrid at once twisted in their seats to look in the direction of his finger. Then both laid down their forks, their faces pale.
"That's impossible," Ulysses said. "We're nowhere near a rift. Are we?"
He stared hard at Dirk, who glanced from Merlin back to Ulysses.
"Dirk," Ulysses' voice was hard. "Dirk, tell me we're not near a rift."
Dirk fumbled for words, gesturing aimlessly. "I... I don't know. Not unless the lines have changed. I... Stop freaking me out, Seez. I... What was that?"
"What was what?" Astrid asked, half-starting to her feet.
"Sit down," Ulysses said hoarsely and pulled her down.
"What is going on?" I asked, adding indignation to my tone to hide my growing trepidation.
"If it is happening, we cannot stop it," Ulysses said to Dirk, the calmness returning to his voice, though there was an edge of steel to it. Then: "Connie? Do you see something?"
I sat transfixed in my seat, mouth agape. What in the...?
"I… No, it’s nothing." I had to leave. Now. I groped for the edge of the table to lever myself up from my chair, but Ulysses grasped my wrist and anchored me to my seat.
"Connie," he said with familiar cold authority. "What do you see?"
"You let go of me!" I jerked my hand away.
"Connie," Astrid laid her hand on mine softly. "Please, what do you see?"
I stared down at her, then forced a laugh that I hoped to follow with a breezy comment that would dispel the rising tension among us. But when I blinked, the apparition still remained, frozen in the center of the room, as though it bled through like film that had been double exposed.
"I can see it now!" Dirk said, excitedly. "I thought I saw it before. It's the Half-Tree!"
"Dirk, do not announce it to the world." If I did not know Ulysses better, I would say he sounded nearly sick, like a man at sea. He shut his eyes and breathed out deeply. "If we must come, we should do so quietly. You never know what might be about.”
Dirk's term for the apparition--the Half-Tree--was surprisingly accurate. The powerful black locust tree thrust through the top of the banquet hall, right up from the center of a circular table, its branches spreading over the banqueters. But no one seemed to notice, even though part of the body of an alumni was trapped within the trunk, and a branch protruded bizarrely from his neck. What would have been a veritable king of trees was split down the center, one half shorn away, the exposed flesh of the tree scarred deeply with burns from some ancient catastrophe.
I glanced down at my feet, and saw a thick carpet of discarded locust leaves beneath them.
When I glanced up again, the hall was utterly gone and I sat upon a moss-covered bench of stone, the Half-Tree filling my vision. A wind swirled around my shoulders, smelling of earth and wood and damp, growing things.
At that moment, I felt a sharp tug on my sleeve.
"Quick, Connie!" Dirk gasped, jerking me from the bench. "There isn't much time!"
"Wh...what?" I stammered and, glancing back toward the tree, I saw a shadow flicker amongst the branches. As we turned to go, Ulysses barred our way.
"Hold," he said, dark eyes flashing. "We should wait."
What do you choose? Should Connie follow Dirk and run from the unknown threat? Or should he listen to Ulysses' advice and wait?