CASTING SHADOWS

2016-194-Casting-Shadowst--Book-II-of-Seluna-Final

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Once upon a time, a mer fell in love with the moon. But just because something is meant to be doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In a nineteenth-century otherworld called Hartlandia, Seluna managed to defeat the evil director of an insane asylum called Silver Hill, transforming it into a safe haven. But even with her newfound knowledge and powers as the moon goddess, the shadow of death looms large over the asylum. Someone is out to destroy it—or those within.

To find out who and why, Seluna must venture forth with her brother and sister on a dangerous journey. As the Protectors of Light, a triumvirate chosen by the gods, it’s up to them to keep humanity from darkness. That means leaving behind Endymion, the mer boy destined to be her consort. But abandoning him could have deadly consequences—not just for the two lovers, but for all of Hartlandia.

(Set in the nineteenth century of an alternate world called Hartlandia, Casting Shadows is a YA gothic, paranormal fantasy).

Chapter 1

“Miss Seluna, it’s coming!”

“What’s coming?”

“I don’t know, but it’s big, unfriendly-looking, and headed straight for us!”

I stepped out of the wooden, double front doors of Silver Hill Asylum and glanced up. Eliza hadn’t lied. Sure enough, there was a large, round object careening through the sky. It seemed to grow bigger and bigger as it got closer, making an arc over the miles of thick forest and above the moors. If it continued its trajectory, it would land smack dab in the center of the asylum—via the roof.

I rubbed my eyes, then narrowed them at the object. It was early in the day; never my best time. This was when I felt most sluggish and ill-equipped to deal with surprises. Too bad it wasn’t a few hours ago, in the middle of the night. That was when I was at my sharpest. I would’ve recognized the object sooner then. I would have reacted faster.

My eyes bulged as I realized what was about to happen. It wasn’t my imagination: the thing was getting larger. Too large. It had to be over ten feet in diameter. It made a whistling noise as it sailed through the air, its shadow looming over us—and spreading fast.

“A boulder!” I screamed, grabbing Eliza by her high collar and yanking her back inside. “Everyone, quick—take cover!”

“What’s going on?” My sister, Aurora, stepped out from behind one of the dozen Corinthian columns that supported the second-story balcony. She looked at me quizzically. “Take cover from what?”

“Covers? You want us to go back to bed now?” Laura’s voice was despairing. “But we’re about to have tea.” About twenty other girls stood in the center of the main hall, nodding and frowning at each other.

“No time to explain!” I shouted. “Just duck!”

The sound of the boulder coming down was like thunder. My brother, Helios, was next to Laura. He grabbed her arm and pulled her away. Aurora pushed me to one side, then fell on top of me. The other girls shrieked and ran, or flung themselves out of the boulder’s path. It crashed in the center of the room, bringing along shingles, wooden beams, bricks, and mortar. When it fell, the vibration was so strong, it knocked whoever remained standing off their feet. Then, it lay still, except for thin, brief paths of light that crackled over it, smoke rising from the surface. It landed right where Laura had been only moments ago.

Laura lay on her back where she fell, with Helios right beside, leaning over her. Their eyes met briefly as they struggled to catch their breath. Helios coughed and tugged at his starched collar. Then, he jumped to his feet, turning his head this way and that. “Is everyone all right?” He looked back down at Laura.

She reached into the pocket of her dress and took out the small wooden horse she always kept on her for luck. She held it up. “Yes, everyone’s all right,” she called. Helios’s face went blank as he offered her his arm, which she accepted. She rose to her feet.

Aurora quickly got up as well, taking my hand and pulling me with her. “We’re fine,” she said breathlessly. Around the room, girls were groaning and stumbling. Many of their dresses were torn and smudged and their hair mussed, with several pairs of spectacles broken or askew. My siblings and I were in a similar state. I figured there were probably quite a few bruises and sprains to go around, but other than that, the girls appeared unharmed.

We all looked towards the boulder in the center of the room. It had made an enormous dent when it landed, breaking most of the marble floor around it. It had also taken the chandelier out. Now, the floor was littered with broken glass. I made my way carefully towards the boulder.

“Everyone, watch where you step,” I said.

“Yes.” Laura followed me a little ways, peering at the floor and wrinkling her nose. “Don’t get any on your shoes.”

“Don’t come any closer, Laura.” Helios started towards the boulder as well, putting his hand up to stop her. He narrowed his eyes at the strange streams of yellow light running back and forth over it. “There’s something very odd about this . . . whatever it is.”

Aurora and I circled the boulder with Helios; the other girls watched from a safe distance. They whispered to each other, while Laura tilted her head and stared curiously with big, round eyes. I frowned at the circular cracks in the floor that spread beyond the boulder. We’d just finished repairing the hole that was there from when I’d used a moon spell to kill Dr. Catron DeKay last year. But making that hole had been necessary, since he’d been trying to kill me.

“And I just put that new chandelier up, too, dammit,” I muttered.

“Seluna!” Aurora stopped examining the boulder and looked at me sharply. “Language.”

I put one hand on my hip. “So sorry, big sister. Next time a gigantic boulder nearly destroys my home, I’ll be sure to bite my tongue.”

“Speaking of which, how do we know there aren’t more on the way?” Helios started for the front doors, but Eliza was way ahead of him.

“I don’t see any more, sir,” she said, head tilted back. She and Helios scanned the skyline, but after several long moments, it didn’t look like any further arrivals were imminent.

“Well, that’s good,” Helios said. He and Eliza came back inside. Helios put one large palm on each door and pushed them closed. “At least we’re not under attack. And you don’t have to call me sir. I’m only twenty-five, not an old man.”

“Attack?” echoed one of the other girls fearfully. “Why would we be under attack? Maybe it flew in here by accident.”

“I don’t think so, dear.” Aurora stepped towards the boulder, which was still crackling and hissing, with smoke rising off it. She reached out her hand.

“Don’t—it’s too hot!” Helios said. He pulled her back by the shoulder.

“Calm yourself.” Aurora shrugged him off, and the air in front of her started to go wavy as she bent the light there. “I’m just trying to get a better look at it.” Suddenly, there was a sharp buzzing sound that ended with a snap. A large spark burst from the rock, missing Aurora’s face by inches. Several of the girls shrieked.

“I said, ‘Don’t,’ Rory. Please.” Helios gripped her shoulder more firmly and tried to pull her back again.

Aurora gritted her teeth. “Helios, you do that one more time, and I swear, I’ll throw you off the roof of this place.”

“That’s one oath I’ll hold you to. Just to see you try.” My brother’s blue eyes flashed at her. He took his hand away. Circling the boulder, he stepped into a ray of sunlight, making his hair look like burnished gold.

“I wasn’t going to touch it, you fool,” Aurora said. I could tell she wasn’t really angry; more likely concerned over the mystifying object in the middle of the hall. Sparks continued to fly off it, followed by more shrieks and gasps from the girls.

“Helios has a point, Ror.” I joined them as we warily circled the boulder, trying to size it up. “You don’t have to touch it for it to hurt you.”

It seemed the rock agreed with me. Its trails of pulsing light began to glow brighter, making more sparks. Bigger ones. Their snaps and sizzles got louder as they leaped towards the floor. One landed on part of a wooden beam that had come down from the roof. The beam caught fire, which Helios madly stamped out with his large boot.

It was a good thing I’d taken to wearing tight black trousers under cutaway skirts and bodices. It made maneuvering around the boulder much easier. Aurora already had to jump back several times for fear of flames reaching her dress. The sparks were nearly the same color as her hair, a dark, reddish orange. But at least she wore hers up in a high, wavy bun, protecting it from sparks. My own black hair was always down and untied, too thick and coarse to be tamed. If I got any closer to the boulder, I ran the risk of setting my head on fire.

“We have to put this thing out before it spreads to the rest of Silver Hill,” I said urgently. “It’s a miracle that didn’t happen when it hit the roof.”

“Quick, girls,” said Eliza. “Run and get buckets of water.”

“No, don’t.” A spark the size of my fist almost hit me, and I sprang back. “Can’t you see it’s wired all over? It would be suicide to throw water on that.”

“Helios, do something.” Aurora’s voice rose with panic. “It’s going to set the whole asylum ablaze.”

“I’m much better at heating things up than cooling them off,” he said. “And I’ve never handled anything with wires before.”

“No time like the present, brother,” I said, breathing faster. I was just about to tell the other girls to ring Silver Hill’s alarm and make a run for it. Then, the biggest spark yet flew out and almost hit Laura. She gave a loud cry, and Helios jumped in front of her. Still facing the boulder, he splayed both palms in front of it, his entire face creased in concentration.

I could see heat energy surging from the boulder, but it wouldn’t come off easily. Red and angry, it vibrated around the rock as Helios tried to pull it away. He gnashed his teeth and grunted, face turning pink and sweat pouring down his cheeks. Everyone held their breath as the boulder’s vibrations grew stronger, the rumbling louder. More of the marble tiles underneath it cracked, and debris fell from the ceiling. Small fires were coming off in earnest now, and the whole thing looked like it was about to explode. Helios gave a long growl that ended in a shout, and the heat rushed off the boulder, into his hands, and through his body.

The force of it shot him back several feet. A few of the girls screamed, and Aurora gripped my upper arm hard, her eyes locked on the boulder and Helios. The sparks and hissing sounds died down until they finally stopped. The boulder ceased to glow red, and the last tendrils of smoke drifted upwards. Streams of light continued to flicker over the surface, until they, too, sputtered out and went dark. Helios leaned on one of the columns underneath the balcony, gasping for breath.

“Helios!” Aurora cried. She and I dashed over to him. His palms were scorched a dark, angry pink. He winced when we tried to touch them, then pulled away, shaking his head.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he insisted, still panting. “Happens all the time. Be right as rain soon.” The other girls rushed to his side.

“Are you all right, Helios?”

“You poor dear!”

“Here, let me look at it.”

“Eliza, if you would be so kind as to fetch that bucket of water now,” Aurora said briskly. “Make it cold, too.” Eliza picked up her skirts and ran down the hall towards the kitchen.

“And a clean cloth,” I called after her. Aurora took out a handkerchief and tore it in half. She tried to bind Helios’s wounds, but he wouldn’t let her. Laura stepped over, removed a bow from her hair, and offered it to him.

“I’ll give that to him later, thanks.” I took the bow from Laura. I’d learned long ago to take these little moments of hers in stride. She’d come a long way since recovering from Catron’s torture: the electrocution that destroyed parts of her brain. She was taller now at fifteen, and wore more of her hair up than before. It was still long and wispy, pale, like her blue eyes and even paler complexion. Her voice wasn’t the strongest either. She seemed like someone who was fading away. But I wouldn’t let her.

She’d been at Silver Hill before I arrived, but was returned to her horrid home when Catron realized he had what he wanted: me. When I first brought her back to the asylum, she’d been like a wild, frightened animal. She mumbled instead of spoke, screamed when anyone got near her, and didn’t even recognize me at first. But eventually, she came around, and I returned her wooden horse that I’d found while sweeping Silver Hill. It was a gift from her little brother. A gift she thought she’d lost forever.

“Really, Helios.” I put the bow Laura had given me in my pocket. “You didn’t have to do it all at once like that.”

“Since when is it good to put out a fire slowly?” His usual grin returned as he used Aurora’s handkerchief to mop his brow. He smiled and nodded to several of the girls who were asking if he was all right. “Though I’m as surprised as anybody that it worked so fast.”

“Well, heat’s attracted to you, and it’s a form of energy that moves rapidly anyway.” Aurora looked Helios up and down, satisfied when she found no further injuries.

“So, he can move heat around the same way Miss Aurora can with light?” one of the girls asked. I recognized her as Hattie, a recent arrival from the Northernlands.

“That’s right.” Helios tried to give Aurora back her handkerchief, but she shook her head. He put the handkerchief in his pocket. “Though, as I said, I’m better at warming things up than cooling them down.”

“I’ll wager you are,” said a tall girl standing behind a few others. They tittered and gave each other knowing looks. I silenced them with a sharp glare.

“Be that as it may, we have more pressing matters than my brother’s special powers at hand.” I went with Helios back to the boulder. The scent of smoke and scorched earth rose off it. “We have to figure out what the devil this thing is, and why it hit smack dab in the center of the asylum.” It was one of the strangest things I’d seen in all my eighteen years.

“Could it be from a volcano?” Aurora stared at the boulder curiously.

“There aren’t any in the area.” I gave it a tap with the pointy tip of my boot, but nothing unusual happened. “And it can’t be from an avalanche, because we’re not near any mountains. It was also burning hot when it arrived, not covered in snow, which is how avalanches usually send their rocks.”

“Not to mention covered in wires, which avalanches don’t do either.” Helios crouched down to get a look at the underside of the boulder.

“So, this wasn’t an accident, or a natural phenomenon. Someone was—is—definitely targeting us.” I joined Helios while the other girls whispered nervously, except Laura. “We’re the only outpost in the Westernlands for miles, on a hill, surrounded by moors, which are surrounded by forests. The odds of this thing landing here by chance are practically nil.”

“But how did it land here?” Aurora asked as Helios and I stood up. From what we could see, there was no difference between the boulder’s underside and its top. “By way of an enormous catapult?”

“It can’t be. I mean, flinging big rocks at your enemy’s fortress?” Helios stroked his chin. “Rather medieval. After all, it is the nineteenth century.”

Aurora jutted her chin at the boulder. “Tell that to whoever sent this.” She put her palms up the same Helios had when he cooled it down. But instead of heat surging from the boulder, the air in front of it made waves, the same way it had when she first approached the boulder. Her brow furrowed in concentration. The girls murmured to one another as the outline of a square appeared on the boulder’s surface. Inside the square, colors shifted and changed, until they became more transparent. Aurora’s entire face was creased now as she stared intently into the square, hands shaking.

“So . . . dense.” She gritted her teeth. “Hard . . . to see . . . inside.”

“Isn’t it just more rock?” Helios asked.

“No.” Aurora shook her head. I could see she was right. Shapes were becoming visible within the boulder, but I couldn’t quite make them out. “Something . . . more . . . than . . . rock.” Aurora gave a few small grunts, each one longer than the last. Finally, she stopped, and the transparent square vanished. She gasped for breath, shoulders slumped.

“Aurora—” I started.

“Don’t worry.” She waved me away. “I just have to catch my breath, then I’ll give it another go.” She glanced up at Helios. “Though I don’t approve of your showing me up like this. Putting out a fire, whilst I can barely look inside a rock.”

“Stop being ridiculous.” Helios stood next to Aurora so she could lean on him.

“I’m only a few years younger than you, Helios,” she panted. “I should be your equal in every way.”

“You are. Of course you are.” Helios put one arm around her. “It’s as you said: rocks are hard to move light through. And this one is enormous. I’m sure I couldn’t do it.”

“Did you manage to see anything?” I asked Aurora.

“A bit,” she said, her voice stronger. “And I know this will sound mad, but I think it’s a ship.”

“A ship?” Helios and I said in unison. His arm fell away from Aurora.

She nodded. “It explains how it landed here with such accuracy.”

“You mean like an alien spaceship?” Hattie asked. The girls murmured excitedly.

I shook my head. “It can’t be. It came in an arc, a circle. That means it had to originate on Earth.”

“I saw the outline of a seat, and rows of colored, blinking lights,” Aurora said. “Like a cockpit.” She took a deep breath. “I think I’m ready to try again.”

I turned my head sharply to one side. “Wait. Does anyone else hear that?”

“Hear what?” Helios asked. Laura stuck her head forward and sniffed the air.

“Nothing,” she said.

“No.” I shook my head. “I distinctly heard a noise. There it is again.” I gave the boulder a quick tap. It seemed cool enough now. The surface felt like an ordinary rock, except that I could feel faint vibrations coming from within. I pressed one ear against it, and the noise became clearer. “It’s like a clicking or ticking noise.”

“That’s bizarre,” Helios said. “Rocks don’t tick. Nor do planes. At least, none that I know.”

“And you did say you saw blinking lights inside, Aurora . . .” My jaw dropped as my brain made the connection.

“Ye gods,” I gasped. “It’s not just a boulder, or a plane. It’s a bomb!”

***

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