D. Hale Rambo

Excerpt – Between the Lines

Book 1 – The Planar Pages

Chapter One

Fiona Thorne always heard curiosity would be the death of her. It was curiosity that made her poke her nose into her neighbor’s garden when she was young after hearing shouts of anger. This led to her first case: carrot theft. A case she was determined to solve and did moments later, although she let the rabbit get away with it.

Curiosity drove her to meddle in an ongoing investigation over the mysterious disappearance of cacao pods on the farm she and her family had worked. She was promptly accused of the theft and had to clear her name. Catching the real culprit, one she didn’t let off the hook this time, pushed her inquisitiveness even further.

And so, of course, curiosity got her, after many years of listening to the little niggle at the back of her head, to say yes without hesitation to a job she knew little about based on a name alone. And that, she reasoned with herself as brisk wind twisted through the leaves and dark curls of her hair, was why she was clinging to the branches at the top of a tall tree, knowing at any moment she would fall to her death. Curiosity was Fiona’s first love, and she reckoned if the wind got its way, it might be her last.

A soft, chilly rain permeated the canopy of the mossy trees in the forest and landed lightly on her uncovered face. Piercing wind ripped through the branches, whistling and catching Fiona’s many-pocketed scarf. The tug of the wind almost unbalanced her thin body. She grasped the branch tighter, vowing next time to just stay on the ground and hide. You’re an absolute blotter, Fi.

How could she possibly hope to make an impact in the world if she couldn’t even do a proper stakeout? Working her way toward the type of notoriety where she could do more good than not started with the basics. Like being blasted competent. She should’ve said no to notoriety, no to going out of her depth before she was ready, and definitely no to herself when she thought, The bushes are too far away. I know. I’ll climb that spindly tree for a better view.

The air shimmered briefly in the clearing, and Fiona stopped chiding herself and focused her attention. The ground and the trees bent inward to the ripple, creating a small fold in the scenery. As the world folded in on itself, another world, dark as a raven’s wing with flares of crimson, showed on the other side. It looked exactly like the turning of a page in a book where, for a moment, both worlds showed at the same time.

People with more time to mull over these sorts of things (and for whom book printing had just become vogue) called it “turning the page” when the ability to do so first manifested. Traveling from one world to another put you in the exact same spot in each one, and the worlds stacked on one another like pages in a book. From there the metaphor raged on, pushed forward by the fashionable. Give or take two hundred years later, what was the height of fashion had moved on, but the metaphor lingered. Fiona, a lover of books, enjoyed the comparison immensely.

A short human man with pale peach skin stepped out of the reddish page and into the cold, rainy forest. An acrid scent and a tendril of smoke came with him. As if a reader decided to go back to the previous page, the world unfolded on itself. The shimmer disappeared, and the view of the forest solidified behind him. It all took but a moment in time.

Page turners—people gifted with the ability to move themselves and others from one world to another—traveled this way all the time, and as Fiona was one herself, the unfolding scene didn’t faze her. The gift was an ability that manifested the same in all who were given it, but not all page turners were alike. Fiona focused on where he had come from. The darkness with the crimson glow could only mean one thing: the fire page.

The man fanned away the smoke that clung to him. Scraping a hand through his hair, he glanced around. He pulled out a torch, lit it, and searched the area. The small bushes surrounding the clearing cast shadows under its firelight. Apparently confident he was alone, he divested himself of a black cloak and gloves. He wiped a hand across his forehead, then pulled a small round glass and iron jar from within a pocket of the cloak.

A wisp of flame, no bigger than her hand, flitted from one side to the other inside the small cage.

Fiona let out a small gasp but covered her mouth to stifle it. The patter of the rain on leaves and wood would hopefully drown out her lapse in judgment. She hadn’t expected him to kidnap yet another creature. I’ll free you soon, little one.

The man strode out of the woods onto the fresh dirt path that would lead him back into the city. This area of the forest must’ve become a pagemark for smugglers. Page turners used pagemarks to travel from page to page. Official ones were typically in safe areas, tested by various turners to make sure travel was consistent, and well guarded from issues or blocked access 

An unofficial pagemark could lead to a variety of ills if the page turners using it were of a mind to commit theft or murder. Fiona was divided on the policing of who went in and out of a pagemark. People should be able to do as they please unless it hurt others, but she wasn’t a fool. Not everyone thought the way she did or acted with others in mind.

Once the torchlight was a speck in the distance but still visible, Fiona began climbing down. A tie from the sleeve of her buttoned velvet doublet caught on a branch, making her fear that her curiosity would kill her all too soon. She took a deep breath and untangled it, then finished her descent. She followed him, keeping close to the trees. Her chest burned, not at the effort, but at the thought of losing him. Her entire investigation hinged on her pursuit. If she lost him, she’d have to go with her backup plan, which meant she wouldn’t figure out where he was keeping the other creatures. It wasn’t enough to capture him. She needed to free them all.

After a short while, the dirt path gave way to cobblestone streets illuminated by oil lamps hanging outside various homes. She rubbed her face to wick away the rain. The scent of olives was light and familiar after coming out of the muddy odor of the forest. She kept tight to the brick and wood buildings on the outskirts of her home district in the city. The shadows of the night swallowed her lithe body and deep-brown skin.

The district’s architecture shifted, more reflective of the citizens who lived there than any one style. She made her way around a large felt yurt, its round shape allowing her to squeeze between it and an A-frame timber building, as she tried to assess where the man was going. If he was taking the creature through this district, it meant he had kept his stolen creatures right under all their noses.

He turned down a quiet street and strode up to a tall wooden home, its size somewhat dwarfing the cottage next to it. He walked inside, the flicking light from the creature he was holding revealing his path through the windows. The light disappeared into the recesses of the house where it became stationary. Another glow, this one more typical of an oil lamp, flared up and illuminated his path back to the front. He must store the creatures in the back.

Pulling out a tiny egg-shaped clock hung around her neck as a pendant, Fiona flipped it open and squinted at its hands. It was always trouble to read these newfangled things, but under flickering oil light it was an unneeded headache. She sighed inwardly, stowing it away. In an hour she was supposed to meet this ripper she had been following as a prospective client. Her backup plan. She really hoped it wouldn’t get that far. She glanced up and down the street looking for the signs of her preferred plan—a spotted cheetah who would hopefully have the good grace to look ashamed for being late. Her friend Dodger.

His real name was Marcius Festinius Cervidus, but no one who liked him ever called him that. And Fiona liked him well enough for being an authority figure in the Travel Guild.

The Travel Guild regulated all the comings and goings of page turners in the Book. The Book was an easy (or certainly trendy two hundred years ago) way of grouping all the known pages in the universe that could be traveled or “turned” to. Regulating, administrating, and supporting page turners and the Book was the entire point of the Travel Guild. Or so they wrote.

Fiona shifted her weight anxiously as her eyes continued searching the street for Dodger. She couldn’t make a move herself. Her target would probably attack her on sight at his home, and that would leave her in no position to help anyone. Did Dodger even get her urgent summons? Leaving it with his workmates wasn’t her first choice, but she’d been pressed for time after convincing the suspect that she was a wealthy prospective client who desperately needed an adorable new pet. She’d leaned on all the flattery she could muster and quite a few pricey drinks, but it had paid off. And now all she had to do was be patient, wait for Dodger to show up, and they could apprehend the man.

“I’ll just nip around for a peek,” she muttered to herself.

Sneaking around the side of his home, she pressed herself to the damp wall and listened for movement. She crept silently toward a window at the back of the house. There was no glass, which was usual for a human home. Still behind the times of other cultures as always. She raised up to the high ledge awkwardly to look inside. Cages and crates were stacked up against the walls, and the small fire creature burned in the glass jar on a shelf. A few more flame sprites were scattered throughout the room.

The small thing looked like the flickering wick of a candle but about the size of a fist. Its color went from rust to crimson and back to rust again as it thrust itself against the glass trying to get out. Fiona waved to get its attention, then motioned for them to wait. Although she had studied how to speak in the language of flame, hand waving as communication was a bit of a stretch between a human and a fire elemental.

The creatures all stopped moving and floated where they were. They were all wisps of fire that burned without any discernible features. Content that they at the very least wouldn’t topple their jars and set fire to the wooden floor, Fiona glanced down the quiet alley to see if she was still alone. Hearing nothing but the whistling of the wind and bits of conversation in the far distance, she slid her hand into her scarf, feeling for a rough, heavily stitched pocket.

She found nothing at first, but as she thought about what she wanted, a leather pouch appeared beneath her fingers and she pulled out her lock picking tools. Unraveling them, she gave an appreciative grin at the silver instruments. They had cost her a lot of paper, but they were worth their weight every time she got a chance to use them. Which was more than most in her line of work.

She shook her head, focusing on the task at hand. She slid to the front door of the house and inserted the lock pick, leaning in as she concentrated. It only took a few moments before she popped the cold metal lock. If Dodger didn’t show up and she had to do things herself, she needed an exit plan.

Moving to the side of the door, she held her breath to see if anyone would come her way at the muffled sound. There were no footsteps. Fiona slunk down away from the building and ambled quietly back toward the street.

She had been tracking the suspect for the last week. He was slippery at first, but Fiona had caught up with him when he let down his guard. People often did when they thought they were off the hook. It just took a couple of whiskeys and the right proposition. She knew he’d have to go back to where he stored the elementals in order to meet up with her later. She hadn’t expected him to go to the fire page in between though.

She tugged at her scarf, ignoring her burning chest. She should’ve stopped him then. She knew the damage rippers could do. But she had needed to know where the others were stored. She’d release them soon.

A hiss whistled through the air like a cat trying to get her attention, so light she wouldn’t have heard it if she wasn’t trained to hear such things. She saw Dodger scamper around the corner and make his way toward her. His tawny-furred cheetah body was barely covered by the official-looking tan cloak and hose worn by those who worked for the Travel Guild. Other jackets—officers of the Guild who regulated the Book from page to page—were specks of shadow surrounding the area. Fiona barely noticed them as Dodger slid up next to her. Sometimes she disliked how good they were.

Although Dodger was shorter than her, he never seemed meek when looking up at her. He was lightly built with muscles under thin fur. His long legs were matched by his long tail, which he kept curled around his body, not letting it brush the ground. He looked like a typical smilodon, the catlike people from another page. But his demeanor was a bit softer than those he left behind. Being a page turner had that kind of impact on some people. Heavy was the responsibility.

“Thorne,” he said shortly, nodding but looking forward at the house.

“Dodger,” she greeted him back in kind but added a wink, more relaxed now that he was here. “Took you long enough.”

Though he kept a straight lookout, Fiona noticed his spotted tail sweeping side to side. “I was waylaid by Gilded Evenhell. She wanted an update before we could help out. Apologies.”

Fiona shrugged and moved on, not wanting to beleaguer the point when he was already annoyed and other things were more important. “I lost him for a couple of hours. He turned the page to Blaze. Came back in the western forest with a tiny flame creature, and I tracked him here. We’re not supposed to meet for another hour or so. He should be surprised.”

Dodger bared his teeth at the mention of the forest. “I keep telling the Binder we should patrol the woods more.”

Fiona raised an eyebrow at his outburst (or what counted as an outburst for Dodger) and mention of the leader of the Travel Guild. The Binder was never seen, but nothing went on within the Travel Guild without his knowledge, it was rumored. One of the first recorded page turners, he started the Travel Guild. But with power came responsibility, which Fiona felt he wasn’t owning near enough.

“This is the third ripper this season smuggling elemental creatures. The pages will retaliate if it’s not stopped. I think none of us want another Court of Copper situation,” she said. The Court of Copper, a page from which many illustrious fashion and scientific advancements stemmed, refused to allow in turners without a native guide. They banned the Travel Guild altogether. She admired the latter part. “It would behoove your Binder to pay attention to the actual Book around him instead of the one he’s decided it should be.”

“Fi, you know the Guild takes care of many matters. It’s not all or nothing,” he said quietly, turning away.

She looked at Dodger for a long moment, then let out a small sigh, dropping the subject. How she had ended up friends with a jacket, she never could quite figure out. They’d been in turner training together, sure, but that training had dozens of other people. Only Dodger still commanded her friendship over the years. She assumed it was because their focus was the same: to do some good, mostly.

“Well, either way, once we capture this ripper it should shut down the pagemark for a while. Others will think twice before using it again to get to Blaze.” Official ones were typically helmed by the Travel Guild.

Dodger nodded. “Once we break down the door, we’ll rush in and grab him.”

“The door may already be open,” she said casually.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Dodger said with a slight smile. He conveyed his orders to the nearest jacket, then trotted silently to the house without a backward glance.

Always the professional. Though Dodger could be a pain in the rear, he was very dependable. He was likely the second-best thing that had come out of her turner training. The first had been learning how not to get stranded somewhere in the Book where you could get yourself killed.

Fiona made her way to the back window, preparing for her signal. She barely heard the front door open. A quick shout as the jackets piled into the house surrounding the ripper was all there was of his capture.

Fiona climbed in through to the room of creatures. The floorboards creaked under her weight and puffs of damp wood clung to the air from the earlier rain. The lights flickered, throwing shadows across the room, but it was enough to see there were more glasses than crates. “So a likening to fire elementals then? I’m sorry it’s easier to get at you all now.” She sighed, moving over to the flame sprite’s jar. They pressed themself against the glass toward her. Grabbing a jar, its cool texture beneath her fingers, she almost dropped it as a crash sounded from the front room. He must be putting up a fight.

She put the jar close to her face, eyes half-closed shielding from the bright light. In stuttering Claire, language of the flame, the words difficult to whistle out with her tongue in the way, she said, “I’ll get you home, little one. But be careful. You could set everything on fire in this dusty wooden house.”

“Worry about yourself, girl,” a hoarse voice said from behind her as thick, rough hands grabbed her shoulders and covered her mouth.

Fiona dropped the jar trying to wrench herself from his grasp. Pain blossomed in her shoulder, and she cursed at herself for not surveying the room better. She jabbed her bony elbow back into his chest. He grunted, loosening his hold. She ducked and whirled around to face him.

He was human, with long black hair in a loose braid that swung over his shoulder. The light of all the flame creatures reddened his pale peach skin. He reached out to her, but Fiona dropped to the floor away from his hands. She knew her strength was lacking, so she tried to get to the pocket of her scarf containing her whip, but he grabbed her wrists, jolting her.

She forced herself to still and look directly into his eyes. Now wasn’t the time to lose a contest of strength. She needed him to be uncertain. “Honestly,” Fiona started with a smirk, “you should think for a moment if this is how you’d really like to die.”

“Don’t be silly, girl,” he whispered, shaking her wrists. “What are you going to do?”

“If you want to think that, it’s your folly.” She smiled casually, tilting her head as if it was little concern to her. “But consider this. Would I, a slip of a thing, really walk into a room completely alone and unarmed? Would I be so stupid?”

The man hesitated, and Fiona took that moment to shout toward the closed door behind him, “Now!”

He turned to guard against this newly imagined threat. Fiona jumped up and swung her whole body into him, throwing him off balance and into the wall with a thud and shattering glass. Fiona took no time to consider what had happened. She ran to the window and vaulted out as the man screamed, tearing through the hushed silence and still night air.

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