Every artisan has a favorite creation, something that digs just a little deeper than any other work that they’ve ever done, and the GUARDIAN OF THE VALE trilogy is that for me. MARK OF FOUR was my first attempt at any sort of fantasy, and as a result, the world that unfolded before my wondering eyes perhaps dips beneath the surface into my story-loving soul more than any of my other books.
Other book releases have sparked excitement in me. I’ve ridden the heady wave of adrenaline for months after each new book hits the market. But this release sends me into a plane somewhere beyond excitement. And I couldn’t begin to explain why.
But since I’m dancing in unexplainable glee, below for your reading pleasure is an excerpt from MARK OF FOUR—the entire first chapter. Celebrate with me today, won’t you? The e-book is for sale on Amazon at $3.99 (less than a Starbucks tall caramel macchiato, and while I know how hard a decision it is to choose between coffee and a good book, may I suggest that MARK OF FOUR might have a slight edge over Starbucks coffee grounds?), and print copies for $12.99.
MARK OF FOUR t-shirts are also still available for just a few more days. Orders close on December 4th. If you haven’t yet picked up one of these, please consider it. The proceeds go to support the budding artist who designed it, and if there’s anything I love, it’s encouraging people to increase their abilities and follow their dreams.
Purchase link: MARK OF FOUR
The deadliest Shadow-Caster in recent history, Simeon Malachi, escaped just after Alayne decided she wanted an apple, and her appetite died a dismal death. The news report trampled Alayne’s lungs with the force of a stampede of elephants.
Alayne slipped her hand around her mother’s cold one. A sheen of perspiration dotted Wynn Worth’s forehead, and her face turned the same pale shade as cold oatmeal. Unease twisted Alayne’s stomach as she shifted her gaze from her mother to her father, and then to the holographic image of Kathy Frontenleid, news reporter for Continental Media.
The furniture hazed beneath the light from the media imaging unit, or MIU, and the projected High Court steps behind Kathy Frontenleid striped the blue living room carpet as she spoke into her microphone. A crowded square roiled behind her, and muted shouts and screams filtered between her words.
“Tuesday morning, riots broke out in the High Court in response to the breaking news that the Shadow-Casters, headed by the notorious Simeon Malachi, have escaped and a High Court Justice has been killed. A pall of fear has spread over the city, fear that we have not seen since the Shadow-Caster rebellion four years ago, when Malachi and his followers were originally apprehended. I repeat, Simeon Malachi and his Casters are now at large. Only moments ago, Leader Blankenship received a message from the Shadow-Casters, stating that their intention is to recover the legendary Vale and seize power in the Capital.”
Wynn’s grip squeezed the blood from Alayne’s fingers. Even though the reporter continued to speak, heavy silence smothered the three occupants of the room. Alayne’s unease contorted into a sharp, palpable stitch in her side—something that always happened when she was frightened.
“Mom, are you all right?” Alayne had seen snow with more color.
Wynn fastened her gaze on her husband. “The Vale.” Wynn licked her bloodless lips. “Bryan, did you—”
“I did.” Alayne’s father clasped his hands in front of him, rubbing calloused thumbs together.
“The—Vale?” Alayne had heard the term before in loose conversation at Basic School. “Isn’t that the thing that’s supposed to control all four elements? Not just one?”
Neither of her parents answered. Their attention was back on the MIU that now showed blurry security footage of a black-robed Justice escaping the thick, white pillars of the High Court and hurtling down the marble stairs. On the top tier beside a column, the unfocused image of another man appeared, dark hair and beard nearly obscuring his face. He stopped as the Justice tripped, every last ounce of moisture sucked from his body.
“Is that Malachi on the top step?” Alayne asked. She freed her hand from her mother’s and stepped toward the image, straining to see the man’s face clearly.
“I’m sure it was.” Bryan’s voice was thick. His gaze hadn’t moved from Wynn.
“Surely, there would have been—”
“Shh, I want to hear,” Wynn snapped.
Alayne swallowed the rest of her sentence and returned to the couch. Kathy Frontenleid leveled her gaze at the camera. “In that brief clip of security footage, you saw Simeon Malachi, leader of the Shadow-Casters, Cast and kill Justice Aaron Henley on the steps of the High Court. Continental Media has confirmed that no Justices are Shadow-Casted at this time, though the fear remains that the Casters will return. I’m Kathy Frontenleid for Continental Media. Back to you, Stan.”
A hologram of Stanwick Jones sitting at his desk appeared in front of the living room recliner. “Thank you, Kathy. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say stay safe out there.” He swiped information through the air in front of him. “The Continental Guard asks that if you have any information regarding an escaped Shadow-Caster, or any information concerning the object of the Caster’s search, the Vale, that you contact them at the tipline below.” Numbers scrolled across the worn carpet.
Alayne shot a glance at her mother. Wynn looked physically sick. At a nod from Bryan, Alayne switched off the MIU. The quiet held an explosive quality that Alayne neither liked nor understood.
Alayne licked her lips, her gaze edging from her father to her mother and back. “Tell me again what the Vale is? And where is it?”
Wynn and Bryan’s answer was a deafening silence. A scream of frustration boiled below Alayne’s surface as Wynn threw a significant glance at Bryan. Did they think she’d wilt beneath the news like a plant too long without water? “I’m right here, guys,” she spat after a moment. “It’s not like I didn’t just watch the same newscast you did. I saw the Justice’s death; we all did.”
Bryan’s gaze fastened to the carpet. Wynn clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “What are we going to do?” she finally asked.
“About what?” Bryan’s voice was tight, like a band stretched too far.
“About Alayne’s Elemental assessment tomorrow.”
A pit opened in the bottom of Alayne’s stomach and sucked her throat through it. Surely they wouldn’t cancel her assessment. “What about it?” she broke in. “My appointment’s been scheduled for the last year. We can’t break it.” She stared at her mother’s stone face before turning to her father. “Dad?”
Bryan sighed. “No, we can’t.” His fingers slid into his shoulder-length blond hair, gripping the roots. “Honey, it’s for the best.”
“What do you mean, it’s for the best?” Wynn’s voice turned strident, echoing off the close walls of the Worths’ house. “Simeon Malachi is loose. He’s back, Bryan, don’t you understand the significance of that?”
“I understand. You and I probably understand that better than anyone else.”
A cryptic conversation tangled beneath their words. Alayne glanced back and forth between them. “What significance? Why does any of this affect my school assessment?”
Bryan inhaled a deep breath. “Alayne, the Casters are a threat to our entire Continent, even to all of CommonEarth. Before Malachi was captured, he killed hundreds, nearly succeeding in staging a destructive coup—and now he’s demanding the Vale—”
Wynn launched herself off the couch with a frantic moan, pacing the carpet threads, running her fingers through her silver-streaked dark hair. Bryan stepped in front of his wife, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Wynn, calm down, honey. There’s very little chance of any kind of attack here in Skyden, it’s so far from the Capital. Layne can still do her assessment.”
“Mom, you’re hyperventilating,” Alayne added.
“There’s no need for her to do an assessment if she can’t go to school! How can she attend Clayborne or Andova if there are Shadow-Casters at large? I won’t allow it.” Wynn’s gray eyes filled with tears.
“Come on, Wynn, you know that Clayborne and Andova students will be under the protection of the most skilled Elementals from all over CommonEarth. They can keep her safer than we could here.”
“Can they?” Wynn snapped.
“Mom, you can’t—you can’t—keep me buried here,” Alayne pleaded. “Dad’s right, I’ll be as safe, if not safer, at school. Can’t you see that?”
Wynn’s wide eyes held Alayne’s for a long, silent moment. Worry still creased her forehead, but at last her shoulders sagged. “You’re right, of course. But Alayne, please be careful. Don’t trust anyone, don’t talk to any strangers, ever, and—”
“Mom!” Alayne’s mouth tightened. “It’ll be okay.”
Alayne swung her hand toward the window. “Do you see any Shadow-Casters outside?”
“You can’t always see them, Alayne. They can look just as normal as the next person—”
“Mom, I’m just one of millions of young Elementals preparing to take my assessment. I’m not a target. I’m not a government official.” Alayne rolled her eyes. Her mother’s irrational fears were toxic. “I’m sure no one else is canceling assessments because of this. You’re overreacting.” As usual.
Alayne turned for her bedroom and the worn running shoes she knew would bring release from the fear that circled in her stomach, no matter how much she denied it. “I’m going for a run.”
“You’re going for a—young lady, you’re doing no such thing.”
“I’ll be careful, Mom! I’m seventeen, not a newborn baby!” Alayne’s frustration had reached its breaking point.
“That’s not the issue. It’s not safe. We just watched Simeon Malachi kill a High Court Justice, and—”
“That was the Capital, Mom, not Skyden! Hours from here!”
“The Shadow-Casters could be anywhere! If they can get close to you, they can take control of your body and mind without you even knowing it. Once you’re Casted, you’re completely under their power! And Malachi, of all the Casters, has the most skill; there’s a reason he’s their leader.”
“Wynn,” Bryan’s quiet voice cut off Wynn’s protest, “the Casters only broke out of High Court prison this morning. It’s highly unlikely they would be anywhere near—”
“Are you taking her side, Bryan?”
“I’m not taking anyone’s side; I’m just saying that Alayne going for a run is not a huge issue at this point. You need to calm down.”
“I need to calm down?”
Alayne yanked on her running shoes, determined to shut out her parents’ argument. She tied the bows in double knots and angled through the living room to the side door. “I’ll be back in time for a late supper, and I’ll stop by the market for the groceries you have on the list,” she added as a peace offering to absolve her guilt. Hurt shuttered Wynn’s face.
Before her parents could say anything further, she jumped off the porch stoop, letting the door swing shut behind her. “Alayne Catherine Worth!” Wynne’s thin voice threaded the outside air.
She ignored it and jogged down the wet sidewalk. It had poured that morning and the late afternoon smelled fresh with rain-washed scent. Instead of dodging the few puddles, she stepped out of her stride on purpose to hit each one. She loved the splash that accompanied a two-footed landing, the feeling of the cool wetness of her shins, the buoyant freedom of letting loose.
She ran to the end of the street and turned right, heading up the steep hill and down the other side where openness and lush greenery waited. Every day, this was what she anticipated—the run out of her city streets into her sanctuary. The creek ran beside the path, rushing and gurgling, speaking her language in familiar words without a tongue.
Alayne cleared a fallen log, dodging well-known roots and stones, her frustrations slowly leaking out with the sweat that beaded her forehead. Thoughts of the news and the terror it elicited from her parents, even her own hidden fears, faded in the adrenaline of exercise. Tomorrow, her parents would take her to the City Centre for her Elemental assessment, the privilege of a seventeen-year-old Elemental. Provided, of course, that her mother didn’t balk. She pictured once again the Justice’s terrifying death on the steps of the High Court, and she could almost see her mother’s rigid strictness stifling the life out of her as a result. She dreaded returning home to their strictures.
She huffed through her nose and out of her mouth as she ran up the steep mountain trail until the creek was a silver ribbon far below. Ahead, the waterfall roared over the rocks. As she rounded the last bend, shoving past the mountain laurels, all six hundred feet of the falls plunged past her in tumbling furor.
Alayne climbed a rock that hung out over the edge of the cliff and let her feet swing above the roaring water. She lowered her left hand into the dancing liquid, shivering at the shock that always ran up her arm when she burrowed her skin in water. She felt like a bird arriving at her nest after a long journey. She dangled her fingers in the swirling eddies, spritzing shapes into the air. She sent a watery kitten prancing to the far side, and then with another splash,, she dispatched a dog after it.
Her mother would have killed her had she seen Alayne manipulating the water elements with such skill and abandon. “Stop showing off,” Wynn had said when she’d caught Alayne making a water harp with the dishwater several months ago. “You aren’t supposed to have that kind of skill with the elements until you’ve had training.” She’d glanced at the open window. “Someone might notice.” She’d yanked the shade closed.
To placate her mother’s paranoia, Alayne had learned to play with the water elements only here at the waterfall, her secret place.
Alayne eyed the city skyline from her perch beside the falls. She could see the tiny neighborhood in the valley where her house stood. Its roof glinted in the early evening sunlight. Her mother would be preparing supper, slamming pots onto the element-powered stove, checking the window, fearful, always fearful, of what might hide outside.
Her dad was better, though Alayne still caught worry clouding his blue eyes sometimes if she glanced up quickly enough. Alayne’s frustrations grew with the restraint and boundaries her parents tried to impose on her. Sure, she understood the fear of Shadow-Casters. Anyone who could control another person’s mind should be feared, but how could her parents even consider not letting her go to Clayborne or Andova? Every Elemental needed training.
Not for the first time, Alayne wished one of her parents shared her talent, but they were both Naturals, and they had no power over any element at all. They just didn’t understand. She had to go to school; she needed to learn what to do with this irresistible draw she felt toward water. She flicked her hand angrily in the river, and two water ballerinas cartwheeled over the top of the falls, dispersing gracefully in the sun as they tumbled downward.
Alayne seethed inside. If the Shadow-Casters hadn’t escaped, hadn’t proclaimed far and wide that they meant to find the Vale and take over CommonEarth, she would be happily preparing for her assessment instead of worrying whether her mother would ever let her leave the house again.
“Great evil and great power always go hand in hand,” she muttered as she pulled water from the riverbed and began fashioning a face, feathering watery bangs across a clear forehead, and concentrating on the almond shape of the eyes. She allowed the water to splash back into the stream when she couldn’t get their expression to please her.
Alayne had thought about little beyond the assessment for the last several months. She worried about whether she would be assigned to Clayborne or Andova. Both of the schools were far from her home. Andova had been labeled by most of her peers at Basic School as “Snob Knob.” The vast majority of Andova students were either the children of Justices or those in the higher corners of government. Clayborne appealed more to Alayne; there she would fade into the background because she would be just like everyone else. Her stomach tangled in dread as she thought about the new ground she would have to break, the friends she would need to make. At the same time, butterflies fluttered inside her when she thought of how much more she could learn about Water-Wielding.
“If they label you a Water-Wielder,” her dad had cautioned two days ago. “I don’t think there’s much doubt that they’ll put you in that group, but don’t get your expectations up too much, Bug.”
Most of the post-rain moisture had disappeared, and the heat of the evening sun roasted her face and legs as the hour grew later. Alayne shook out her limbs, loosening them for the journey down the mountain.
The sun was already setting; purple dusk tinged the sky. Her mother would be pacing by now. But she had told them she’d go by the market. It’s not like they would expect her back so soon anyway. Still, guilt stirred inside Alayne. She hit the sidewalk, which was dry now, though the moisture in the air still slid into her lungs. She inhaled a few more deep breaths as she dropped to a walk, lengthening her strides as she passed the blocks to the busy market.
All around her, people pressed and pushed and seethed and roiled, all of them presumably innocent of the crime of Shadow-Casting, but how would she know? The prickle of fear that had seized hold of Alayne’s spine during the newscast refused to let go.
Blend in, she told herself. The wolves never go for the sheep in the middle of the herd.
With gaze downcast, she entered the market square, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone.